Anitra sat in her small single-bunk cabin, feeling bitter and rebellious. It was only the second time she’d been in it — the first time being when they’d only just come aboard. Since they’d been among the last passengers to arrive, the catering staff had been unable to reallocate it and it had lain empty. Anitra decided she wasn’t going to live in the stateroom anymore. It was getting all too much, her and Dolpou living on top of each other the whole time. She’d move her things in here.
Taking off her dust suit, she lay on her bed in her paper under-garment and closed the visor of her ostrich-shell helmet. On Mars, if she ever went outside, the helmet could be sealed to the dust suit at the neck and pressurised with breathable air, but she couldn’t see how that was done.
Just because she’d been forbidden to use the intensor didn’t stop her learning as much about it as she could. The helmet came with a simulator, plus a lot of virtual friends. Some were original, like characters in a computer game, which of course was what they were. But there were also characters from every novel she’d ever heard of, plus a lot she hadn’t. You could be the heroine in Pride and Prejudice — or Les Misérables — which was a lot less fun.
She could have wasted a lot of time exploring the virtual world of the simulator, but was surprised to learn from Nadia that folk didn’t do so all that much. Real people were far more interesting. Anitra had no answer to that.
But in all her eighteen years she’d never had occasion to admit it: she had been a socially deprived child.
“Serpent, what’s your real name?”
“Just call me Serpent, Anitra.”
“What shall we do today, Serpent?”
“How about exploring the real intensor?”
Anitra sniggered and switched off the simulator. She turned over and smuggled into her pillow, feeling deliciously warm and cosy. But desperately lonely. And her fear of being on her own was coming back.
What was Hermes doing right at this very moment? Probably sitting in the Speil, surrounded by a crowd of adoring young Martians, singing them snatches of song from HMS Pinafore. She could almost hear his glorious reedy baritone and the thought gave her a fluffy ticklish feeling. She felt annoyed that she was not one of his crowd, but being intensor-blind she wouldn’t be able to hold her own. She’d only make herself look small in the eyes of the one person she’d least like that to happen.
There were two lists — they were called “dimensions” — which she was particularly fond of. Even without switching into the intensor you could take a snapshot of them in the real world and browse them passively. The first list, called vol (for voluntary), was a list of all the people who had expressed a desire to get to know you better. If they sent you a text message (an old-fashioned thing to do — an embroidered kiss was better), their names would bubble up in the list. Nadia topped the list, with Sophia not far behind.
She’d searched in vain for an icon to click which would show you how you looked to other people. But that was something it was impossible to do. It was a strange thing in an otherwise open society, thought Anitra. Like banning mirrors. It was like being able to see everyone else’s face, but not your own.
But the architects of the intensor had considered it vital that you had no “mirror” to invite you to adjust your image in the eyes of others. If you wanted to know what other people thought of you, you had to ask them. If you wanted to elevate yourself in others’ eyes, you had to work at it. There was no facility to lie about your personality. There were so many checks and locks that this feature was deemed uncrackable. The intensor was all about frankness in relationships: it was, to be sure, the glue that held Martian society together.
In practice though a lot of subtlety was possible — and the helmet assisted you with that. You could invert the vol list with respect to a given person. Anitra had no clear idea what that signified, but she could guess. Inverting it with respect to Dolpou, she was tickled to see that the groubian came bottom of her list. Here was the one person whom she most of all wanted to have less to do with. This sort of usage was called “polling the intensor”, but it rang an alarm bell in her mind. Dolpou could use the intensor too — and how! Groubians had invented it. And Dolpou (now that her mother Tvoul was dead) was the most important of the groubians. There was no one on Mars who could employ the intensor to better effect. If she, Anitra, a rank beginner, could discover such things about her relationship with Dolpou, imagine what the groubian must be able to discover about her.
A much more appealing idea came to mind, giving her a warm thrill. How could she explore her relationship with Hermes? He wasn’t on her vol list — all their intensor-mediated communication had been via third-parties. Messages passed via Nadia or Sofia, invitations, shared jokes, things like that.
But there was another list called invol (for involuntary preference) — a far more interesting one. It was getting closer to the heart of the intensor: “heart” in every sense.
Mars was a funny place compared to Durham. It was more like living in the land of the Bedouin — you kept your face covered up. So here was this rich sensitive organ, evolved over millions of years to communicate with your fellow creatures — and the hostile dusty Martian environment dictated that you had to keep it covered up with a helmet the whole time. So in their wisdom the architects of the intensor had ordained it that the human face, an otherwise idle organ, was the prime vehicle of electronic interaction. It was quite literally your “inter-face”: your helmet registering its every twitch and grimace.
Thanks to its concentration of nerve-endings, the skin of the face is also the most sensitive in the body, exceeding that of the fingers. It is also the most mobile, exceeding that of the spine even, considering what its many muscles can do to change its shape. All of these parameters worked with the intensor like keys on a keyboard. If you frowned or smiled, that sent a strong signal, albeit an unsubtle one, to the person it was meant for. They’d feel that frown or smile upon their own face.
But involuntary gestures like blushing, blood flow, or galvanic skin response, had their own piano keys too. Spatio-color, as you’d guess, had its own special subspace in the intensor field, huge and complex, entirely the preserve of groubians. Much of Anitra’s practice with the simulator had involved learning to move about in that infinite-dimensional hyperspace. In the middle of it all, like a monstrous sheet of ice at the North Pole, sat the Book of Titan, hedged about with stern warnings of instant and agonising death for the benefit of gaians toying with spatio-color.
She perused the invol list from her most recent snapshot of the intensor. There was Hermes, right at the top.
What precisely did that signify? Of all the people dwelling on Oberon, Hermes had the strongest unexpressed desire for closer contact with her, insofar as his helmet channelled it. He had no power to mask that: you could only do so if you were someone like Dolpou: an intensor-mistress. And even then you could only embroider the signal it sent to the object of your desire, not cancel it.
Seeing Hermes’ name at the top of her invol list was for her like staring through a peephole into his cabin, watching him undress. Peeping right into his mind: the juiciest part of his mind, too. It gave her a powerful feeling she couldn’t quite analyse. It was like nothing she’d ever felt before, not even for Dorian.
A strong desire came over her to switch on the intensor, poll Hermes for real and send him one single bit of information. One content-free binary digit which would simply mean “I know what you are thinking”.
The spirit of the Serpent got into her and she dropped the menu and eyeballed the option: Intensor On. Everything was exactly as it had been before, except now she could sense the people moving in the corridor outside. Moreover she could sense things about them, just as a dolphin is reputed to sense by echo-location whether you are sick or not.
Now she was inspecting the invol list for real. She saw it sorting and re-sorting itself in real-time. Hermes was still there though, at the top, and his letters were glowing hotter than ever. She knew this meant the magnetism dragging him to the top of the list was growing stronger — he was thinking about her at that very moment. She posted one single bit of information — one fateful bit — and straightaway selected Intensor Off.
The simulator had served her well and she had been a good pupil. For a beginner her handling of the intensor had been technically accomplished. But her grasp of Olympian social conventions was naive in the extreme. These had been founded on the intensor for centuries: for millennia if you counted the groubian experience. What she had posted was in fact a compelling “come-on”, capable of one interpretation only: a summons from a loved one to come and enjoy unbridled intimacy.
She’d have been horrified if she’d known.
Even without the intensor, her helmet gave her remote control of the cabin. As you do when you’re young, and in love, she did something she hadn’t intended as anything more than the expression of a dark wish. She set the door-lock so that one and only one person could get in, then switched off the light.
Dolpou found Peter talking to Eric Rauthi at a table in the Speil.
“Just what’s your game, Eric? Do you imagine you’re going to get away with this?”
Eric shrugged and splayed his hands as if he had no idea what Dolpou was talking about. The latter continued her rant.
“First you have us press-ganged aboard, then you announce plans to take us to the outer reaches of System Sol. How much has Dr Galax paid you?”
“Believe me, Excellency, I’ve had no dealings with Dr Galax.”
“So you’re working on your own account?”
“You do me wrong, Excellency. I’m not working on anyone’s account. But I have been known to do favours for friends.”
“Forcing us to fly to Mars via Oberon, when we could have been there months ago by thermonuclear ferry — is that supposed to be a favour?”
“It is, when you think what awaited you at the other end.”
Dolpou paused to think about that. “How could you have known about that, without complicity in the plot?”
“Dolpou,” said Peter, “you’re addressing your questions to the wrong person.”
Eric rose to his feet. “I’d be more than happy to cover for you, Peter. But if you’re determined to try putting the Supreme Councillor’s mind at rest, I guess I ought to leave you to it. Otherwise this could turn out to be a difficult three-way conversation.”
“Thanks Eric, I can handle it. Dolpou and I are old friends.”
Dolpou Zvezda sat down in the ice chair which Eric had vacated. It was several seconds before she spoke.
“What did he mean by that? Favours for friends?”
“When Eric ‘press-ganged you aboard’, as you put it, he meant it as a favour to me. You do him wrong. There has been no contact between him and Galax.”
“But… aren’t you a prisoner here, the same as we are?”
Peter shook his head. “We are not prisoners, you and I. Nor is Anitra. We’ve been rescued from Moonforce.”
“You, maybe. But Anitra and I were on our way to Mars, with the blessing of Moonforce.”
“Under heavy escort.”
“Commissioner Nilsson was simply making sure we got there.”
“Do you trust Nilsson? I don’t. I offered her a deal, but I was in no position to enforce its terms. Nilsson honours her deals the way it suits her.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Nilsson deliberately sent us into danger?”
“Let us just say that she didn’t care whether you were going into danger or not. Having got what she wanted out of me, she simply wanted to get you off her hands. It was not until I reached Oberon that I was able to raise my contacts on Mars. I didn’t like what I heard.”
“What you really mean is, you intercepted a private call to me from Nanoud?”
Peter shrugged. “Don’t let me kid you it’s something I knew nothing about. But I have my own private contacts. Even after all these years.”
“So it’s you who’s working for Galax? I thought it was too much of a coincidence. First I hear that HR is preparing a secret fortress to imprison Anitra — for millennia, if necessary. And then along comes Red Eric with a wonderful plan to whisk us all away on board the Oberon into the Oort Cloud, two light-years from the Inner Planets. We may be on our way to Mars, but you and Eric haven’t the slightest intention of letting Anitra disembark, have you?”
At that, Peter lost his temper. “Dolpou — I don’t have to stand for that, even from you. On the Moon, Anitra was Nilsson’s hostage for my confession in court. Why shouldn’t I have had her plucked from the Moonforce convoy and brought here to safety? I do happen to be her legal guardian.”
Dolpou Zvezda leaned back in her chair and laughed fiercely. “I can’t think of a worse person in the Four Worlds to be the guardian of the Star-children. You? Arch-corrupter of the intensor? Intimate of Shval Meteor? Butcher of the Gaiascope?”
Peter might have laughed-off the first two insults, but he couldn’t laugh-off the third. He raised his chin in some semblance of dignity. “I’ve put all that behind me.”
“Have you, now. Well, let me tell you something else that you can put behind you. I happen to be Anitra’s legal guardian now, not you. It was something I made sure of while I was on the Moon.”
“She’s eighteen. She’s an adult.”
“Not on the Moon, she isn’t. She’s a minor till she’s twenty-one. Here on the Oberon also — and on Mars. And when we get to Mars, she’d better be at liberty to accompany me to the surface — or the Groubian Echelon will know the reason why.”
That startled Peter. “Have you arranged a hostile reception for us in Mars orbit?”
“If I have, it’s just what Oberon deserves: if only for seizing the person of a Supreme Councillor. Olvói, of which, let me remind you, the Groubian Echelon is nowadays an integral part, is charged with intercepting hostile craft.”
“So… you’d threaten Oberon with violence? All of its innocent passengers? And you call me a Butcher?”
“There will be no violence. Not if Anitra is allowed to continue her journey with me.”
Her skin flaring crimson behind her visor, she glared at the chimorg as he buried his face in his pudgy hands. “It’s no use, Peter. You’ve got to let her go.”
Dragging his fingers down past his eyelids to expose his bloodshot eyeballs, he focussed on the groubian sitting before him. “I have brought up that kid. I’ve brought up all the star-children. The fact that I’ve lost them wasn’t out of carelessness. It was due to the unrelenting malice of Mars. The very Mars you’re taking her to.”
Dolpou struck the ice table with her fist. “She is not your ‘kid’. She is the offspring of the groubian nation: the undying hope of fifty thousand years. Even were you not an out-of-control chimorg, helping her to realise her ancient destiny is something you’re utterly powerless to do.”
Peter nodded slowly. A bitter smile dragged at his scarcely-human features. “There is one way, though, in which I make a better guardian than you do.”
“Oh, and what is that, may I ask?”
“I happen to know where she is right now. And who is with her — or very soon will be.”
Dolpou’s eyes were like two thermic lances boring into Peter’s face as she probed for his meaning.
“You reckon, don’t you,” he continued, “that you’ve sealed her off from the intensor? But in the last thirty seconds she’s slipped one past you. One binary digit of content-free information. And can you guess the lucky recipient?”
As realisation hit her, Dolpou sprang to her feet, knocking over her chair of ice which exploded into slithering fragments. With one backward glance of concentrated venom she sped like a quicksilver dart into a vacant levitator.
…to be continued.