Hermes raced up the Stair five steps at a time, not a difficult thing in Mars gravity, until he reached the Shrine of Venus. Then he plunged off sideways into a grid of cabin corridors. The intensor told him precisely where the summoning signal had emanated from. He reached the door of Anitra’s cabin to find Dolpou Zvezda standing before it, arms folded. Signing him to turn about, she made him walk before her.
She herded him back onto the Stair and up to the gloomy bistro bathed in a mauve glow from the Shrine of Saturn, where they sat facing each other. Dolpou clipped down her visor and silvered it, indicating the need for formal privacy. Hermes, reluctantly following her lead, did the same.
What ensued for him was a plunge into the very core of hell, with the arch-demon grasping his ears and staring into his eyes. From Dolpou’s perspective it was no doubt the intensor equivalent of taking a young scallywag behind the clubhouse for a good horsewhipping.
The thrust of her admonition was that Anitra was far too good for him: she was of an order of being unattainable by anyone of his species. In ancient parlance, she was a goddess of the highest rank, he a mere mortal. When the time came, maybe centuries ahead, she would choose a husband — and doubtless it would be a gaian, indeed a succession of gaians, because her lifespan would far exceed the gaian one. But she had the whole of masculine humanity to choose from. He must not think he was going to remain for long at the top of her invol list. Just who did he think he was anyway? Dolpou answered her own question: the son of the Goubernator of Olympia, yes. Everyone knew that — and everyone knew his father. But that left open the question: who was he? The next few days would tell.
Hermes was fearless and spirited, but for all his inexperience he knew the state of the game — and it was no longer a game. Dolpou Zvezda was a colleague of his father’s on the Supreme Council. Hermes loved his father and sought his approval in most things, though not of course in everything: he was far too strong-willed ever to do that. So although he was a young man in the first flush of love, ready to defy the world, he was reduced to replying “yes ma’am, no ma’am”, knowing that he did not want Dolpou going to his father about it. Not because he feared the things his all-powerful father could do, but because he loved and admired the man, and would spend his life groping for a manifestation of reciprocal sentiment.
Groubians do not dissimulate. Dolpou, as Anitra’s guardian, ordered him to stay away from her for the remaining few days of the voyage. When at length she dismissed him, he did not know which hurt most: the savage maxgearing he’d received, leaving every organ in his body smarting with pain, or the likelihood that he would never see Anitra again, except from afar.
“I think it’s awful what you did to Hermes.” (Sofia had told her.)
Anitra was back in the stateroom, sitting on the Chesterfield, when Dolpou came in.
“I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been necessary.”
“Necessary? What’s necessary? Hermes and I love each other.”
“Hermes has a different set of loyalties. When it comes to the test…”
Anitra interrupted. “My mother and father loved each other too. Weren’t they put to the test?”
“Your father came at the end of your mother’s life, not at the beginning. Hermes Krov’ will die of old age — and your adult life will only just have begun.”
“If you take that line, I shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone for a good few hundred years. Least of all with a member of an extinct species with bucketloads of past but no future.”
It struck Anitra through her haze of bitterness that she’d said rather more than she’d meant to. She’d been hurtful too — which she hadn’t consciously intended. But she hadn’t said anything untrue, so she couldn’t take it back.
She and Dolpou sat in silence, staring each other out. Anitra didn’t try to say anything, but she knew they were conversing desperately in spatio-color, on a level she was barely conscious of.
Well, so what. Let Dolpou have a proper chat with her subconscious mind. Let her know what she really thought about it all, being plucked from her cosy little life to travel for months to a far-away planet, to petition for legal rights she didn’t know she lacked, or needed.
Dolpou must have taken delivery of all that, because presently she cast her eyes down and began speaking again. Slowly. Quietly.
“Look, Anitra — I’m not your gaoler. I have your best interests at heart, even if you choose to think otherwise. And another thing perhaps you don’t know. One of the aspects of growing up, if you are a groubian, is to recognise your heart’s desire and follow it. That doesn’t mean to let it go spinning off in pursuit of every passing zephyr. Just the opposite. It means to know yourself and what you’ve been brought into the world to achieve — what you’re really after in life. Because you are going to live that life for a very… long… time.”
“I know what I want. Love. Back on Earth I had it… and it was snatched away.”
“And if you went back to Earth, do you think you’d find it again?”
“I know I would. I’d have followed Hermes to Mars, no question about it. But if Mars won’t do for me, then I want to go back to Earth. There’s a boy I left behind there — and it nearly broke my heart to do so.”
With that she burst into hot tears. “And I want to place a flower on Gaby’s grave, and on each of my brothers’, if their bodies have been found. — and that’s the first thing I shall do. After that, nothing else matters very much…”
“They tell me,” murmured Dolpou, when at last her sobbing subsided, “that gaian parents are inclined to ride roughshod over their daughters’ wants. For them life is so short there isn’t a lot of time for mistakes.”
Dolpou appeared to be staring into the distance, but it was a mental distance, spanning millennia of pain. “It is different for groubians. So guardians are apt to accede to the wishes of their wards. On Titan, I recall, there was always time enough to change one’s mind.”
Anitra sniffed and blew her nose. “So you want to let me make my mistakes — sow my wild oats — and then come creeping back?” She put her hands on her hips. “What if my husband has to die of old age first?”
“If that had any chance of happening, I would take you straight back to Gaia, help you find your future husband and bestow my blessing on you both.”
“But you don’t think it would last, do you? Not even for a year or two? And I’d be left abandoned, knowing my fate was up there in the sky — and I was stuck on the ground?”
“No, it’s more certain than that — the fate lying in wait for you on Gaia.”
Anitra went all cold. “What do you mean?”
“HR. They have a base on Gaia now. They will give you no peace.”
Anitra sighed. “You mean eventually they’ll hunt me down and kill me? Don’t you see how you’re just making my case for me? If life is going to be so short for me, then why shouldn’t I opt for Love instead of a sort of… icy immortality?”
“That’s not what’s on offer, star-child. If they were to kill you, that would be a mercy.”
“I don’t know what you mean. They’ve killed all my brothers.”
“Yes, but I hear that was a mistake. They only meant to waste the surplus, they meant to keep at least one of the boys alive. And they mean to keep you alive as well.”
“If they don’t want me dead… then what’s the problem?”
“But they don’t want you at liberty.”
Anitra stared at Dolpou, trying to make out what she meant. “What do they want to do with me then? Just make sure where I am all the time? I could give them that in writing.”
“No. They are preparing a hidden prison for you. They have constituted themselves as a secret society, capable of perpetuating itself down the ages, just to be your gaolers. It is a long-running experiment they are planning. They want to see if you really are going to live for thousands of years. And if you do, they want to learn your biological secret.”
“How do you know all this?”
“What do you think Nanoud has been doing on the Moon — and now on Mars? She’s been finding out what she can about HR’s plans: defeating them, heading them off. And when all else fails — bumping them off. But the plans of Dr Galax are no mystery to us. The GA has been watching him for years.”
Dolpou came and sat beside Anitra, seizing hold of one of her hands in both of hers.
“They have a fortress — that is something we do know. But where it is exactly, we don’t. It may be on Mars, or Gaia, or Selene. It may be on Callisto or Ganymede. It may even be on Titan, which is the scariest possibility of all, because no groubian would dare go there to rescue you. There they will keep you imprisoned for as long as you live. And don’t forget: no groubian has ever died except by violence… or procreation.
“If you co-operate, their demands on you will increase without limit. When sooner or later you dig-in your heels, they will not be kind to you. Above all they will aim to keep you alive, not keep you happy. They will certainly not let you escape them by doing away with yourself. They will degrade you — subdue you — reduce you to fawning submission.”
“Just let them try!”
“Don’t be absurd. Time is on their side, not yours. They will breed from you – with or without your consent. But you will have no joy of your offspring, even if you ever set eyes on them. Their purpose, when it’s not for their sheer amusement, will be to obtain clones and chimorgs they can stress and test to destruction.”
Anitra listened to all this with eyes wide and mouth open, unable to breathe. Dolpou let go her hand. It had been a harsh, cruel thing to say to Anitra, but one day she’d need to know. In a flat voice, without looking at her, Dolpou promised to take her back to Gaia by the next fast-ferry, the moment they made landfall at Nix-Voronka.
“Your life is your own, Anitra. We groubians will not come between you and your heart’s desire. But think carefully whether what you yearn for is likely to come to pass. We can hide you, give you a new identity, guard you until HR peters out and its members die of old age. Without you in their possession it will be hard for them to recruit afresh. But all the time there is the risk of what I have described. It will be a lot easier for us to give you the protection you need if the Strana of Olympia grants you full human rights. For such rights are retrospective. They are not so much granted as recognised… so you are deemed to have had them all along. Then we shall be able to try the whole gang — Dr Galax included — for murder: the murder of your brothers.”
She stood up and paced the stateroom. “The stakes are high. At present HR assumes it has the backing of the Strana plus the Law. Or at least its sufferance. It thinks its crusade to exterminate all chimorgs is right and just, and many support them in that. When that is no longer the case they will lose all that support. Once you are recognised as fully human — and your future offspring too — there is nothing keeping you on Mars. Indeed it is my hope that you will not stay, but go off and find your destiny, wherever that may be. Even if it’s back on Gaia.”
Tears were streaming down Anitra’s face as she said in a broken, terrified voice, “It seems I don’t have a choice…”
“Oh, but you do, Anitra, you do. A full and perfect choice. Whether or not you are deemed to be an adult on Mars, you came-of-age on Gaia. I recognise the fact and I respect it. To me your choice is sacred. It is the consequences of your choosing I want you to be sure about.”
Anitra felt her defiance evaporate. It was not fair to accuse Dolpou of abducting her from Earth. Hadn’t she rather rescued her when she was on the run from her brothers’ killers? Getting to her feet, she impulsively flung her arms around the groubian’s neck.
“Dolpou… I’m sorry. I’ll be good from now on, I promise.”
“You’ll be yourself — or nobody,” said Dolpou with a wry smile, gently disentwining Anitra’s arms. “But if you choose to come along with me, you’ll have to sit down and write Hermes a letter, which I shall dictate.”
She kissed Anitra gently on the forehead. “A letter of goodbye.”
Anitra sobbed and hid her face in her hands.
“You will be doing him a kindness,” said Dolpou, getting up and turning away. “There’s no future in it for him. When Hermes gets back to Nix City, his father will leave him in no doubt as to what he thinks of his son’s latest crush. And he won’t give Hermes the choice, like I’m giving you.” She cast Anitra a sad glance over her shoulder. “You don’t know Goubernator Krov’ like I do.”
…to be continued.