Hermes didn’t make a habit of brooding alone, but on this occasion that’s what he was doing. He climbed the Great Stair on foot, all 365 steps, barely aware of having done so. The glowering Shrine of Saturn cast its violet glow on the uppermost decks and he sat behind dimly-lit railings in a little-used servery, staring into the gigantic stairwell through eyes that felt as though they bled.
He had no intention of disobeying Dolpou. But his orders to his own body not to rebel had taken their time to reach his feet, because he had drifted into the place with the glowing popcorn, the very boudoir which Anitra often chose when she wished to be alone, but not alone in the total solitude of her cabin. It was something he knew because his ever-straying eyes would pick her out from afar.
If it were possible by sheer force of yearning to make someone appear, Anitra would presently be sitting in his lap.
But she didn’t come.
She had been busy writing him a letter…
We must never meet again, alone, as we almost did today. If we do meet in company it must be as strangers. Quite probably we shall never exchange another word, but I want to say I’m sorry.
It was wrong of me to lead you on. I don’t do that sort of thing as a rule. I’m not that kind of girl. But I’m new to the intensor and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Please try to think well of me. I shall of you. Forever.
A formal letter. Written on paper. That made it a legal instrument — that wasn’t what you did between friends. If Dolpou’s lashing had been hard to withstand, having a steward bring this letter to his cabin was like receiving a dagger in his chest.
“It’s so crisp and emotionless,” he complained to his friend Viktor.
“You fool. They’ve made her write it.”
“Ah, if-only. Anitra has a mind of her own. She’s the most independent girl I’ve ever met. She must be the only person in the four worlds who can stand up to Dolpou Zvezda. But she’s half groubian: she doesn’t have the capacity to play games, to tell lies. This letter has simply got to be saying how she feels towards me.”
Rising to his feet with a flinging motion, Hermes crushed the letter and left it on the table in a ball. Then he strolled to the gleaming railings and looked down into the void.
Watching his friend’s back, in case he turned and saw what he was doing, Viktor pocketed the ball of paper.
When he got back to his cabin he opened a box of instruments which only a biochemist might be expected to possess. It happened to be what he was training as. A biochemist — specialising in forensic science.
He straightened out the crumpled letter. A hardly noticeable stain beneath the signature drew his attention. Slicing through it with a scalpel, he used micro-tweezers to place a hairlike sliver on a protein-analyser chip, moistening it with water from a frosted bottle. Sterile Moon-water, absolutely pure H20, bottled at source: in Crater Flammarion, beneath the Adin Crucible.
The stain proved to be a teardrop.
“Bravo!” Peter applauded vigorously. “Beautiful!”
Anitra came over and sat down beside him, loosening her skates. “I didn’t know you were sitting there watching me.”
“I haven’t seen you perform like that since Gaby and I used to take you and the boys to the Durham City ice rink. You’re still quite good at it, aren’t you?”
“There’s been plenty of opportunity to practise. It’s the best thing there is to do on board, if you don’t want to sit around the whole time and drink OJ.”
“Take the chance of it while you can, I say. It won’t be long before we reach Mars. There are no skating rinks in Nix City, so far as I recall.”
Nadia and Sophia followed Anitra off the ice. They stood in front of Peter’s table but didn’t sit down. Of Hermes there was no sign. “We’re going to the bar for a lime juice. We’ll see you back on the ice.”
Anitra waved to them as they went skating off again. Then she turned to her Uncle Peter with a smile. “It seems like ages since we’ve spoken,” she said brightly.
A shade too brightly.
“I’m surprised you have the nerve to be seen talking to me,” said Peter, “after everything Dolpou must have told you.”
“I don’t keep running to Dolpou to tell me what I’m meant to do.”
“That’s my girl.” He laughed wickedly. “Never awfully good at doing what you were told.”
“I’m a big girl now.”
“In Dolpou’s eyes you’re still a child.” He sighed deeply, continuing in his mind: …and likely to remain one for the next hundred years or so. “That’s what I think, too,” he said aloud. “Even though I still think of you as my daughter.”
Anitra came round and hugged his arm. “And I still think of you as my father, in place of the father I never knew. You couldn’t possibly have made a better father to me. I really am proud of you, you know…” She nearly said “still proud”, but she lost the word down a crack in her mind.
Peter, however, was not for letting her get away with that. “So you don’t believe all the things they’re telling you about me?”
Anitra stared at him. It would have been so easy to shake her head and smile, but that would have made her into a child again. A little girl, ready to believe everything the grown-ups told her. It struck her that this might be the last opportunity they’d ever get to talk. Perhaps the time had come to be truthful with each other.
She slipped her arms round the place where his neck ought to have been. “Peter…” she said. It was daring of her: she rarely left out the word “Uncle”. “I suppose the problem with children is that they imagine — we imagine — that our parents haven’t had a life before we came along. A life which… maybe… hasn’t been all sweetness and light.”
Peter patted her arm. “I suppose you could say that. In my case it’s true.”
“Then why can’t we just forget it all?”
Peter was silent. He was replying in his thoughts: they won’t let you forget it, my love. Not Nilsson — not Dolpou — not the Olympians. But he ended up saying none of that. “When we get to Mars, will you go down with Dolpou to Nix City?”
Anitra unclasped her arms and stood upright. “I suppose I’ll have to.”
He chuckled. “Where’s my big girl? My grown woman?”
Anitra grinned. “That’s the sort of thing Nilsson says.”
She checked herself. Had she just let out the secret that Nilsson was on board? But Peter merely wrinkled his cauliflower nose. “Well, that’s one thing the Commissioner and I are completely in agreement about. Be your own person.”
He put his pudgy hand on Anitra’s waist. “The groubians will eat you, my dear. They have their own agenda: a fifty-thousand-year-old one. It’s something you and I can’t possibly comprehend. Far less withstand.”
Anitra reflected on that. “If it wasn’t for Dolpou, I wouldn’t be here.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. But gratitude need only go so far. What she has in mind for you is sheer foolishness. As one ‘chimorg’ to another… no – I shouldn’t be saying that…!”
“Dolpou wants me to realise my destiny. To be accepted as a human being throughout System Sol. And for that I have to go to Nix City and make my petition before the Goubernator.”
Peter slapped the icy table. “Dolpou is living in cloud-cuckoo land. It won’t work, Anitra. Look what happened to me when I tried to do the same.” He sat back. “OK — so you’re prettier than I am. You may think you’re in with a chance. But there is so much jealousy on Mars. The cards are stacked against you.”
“What else can I do?”
“Stay here with me. Just tell Dolpou to get lost. I have some good friends here — we’ll look after you. We won’t let the groubians take you to Mars, if that’s not what you want. It’s Captain Mond who ultimately decides things on Oberon, not Dolpou Zvezda — not some Martian, no matter if she is a Supreme Councillor.”
Anitra thought about it. Unlike her, Peter couldn’t disembark when they reached Mars or he’d be arrested. If Oberon ever returned to the Moon — which, as things now stood, didn’t look very likely — he’d face arrest there too. Nilsson would see to that. Oberon might look like liberty to him, compared with what he faced elsewhere, but it was nothing but a gilded cage to her. In effect he was asking her to share his exile — his life of house-arrest, albeit in a floating palace of ice.
Anyway, she thought, what sort of “protection” could Peter and his fine friends — gangsters for want of a better word — offer her, if Dolpou were of a mind to compel her? And what protection could they offer her from HR, who according to Dolpou were planning an unspeakable fate for her? And was Dolpou right to wonder if the secret prison being prepared for her was right here, on the Oberon — that it might be the whole of Oberon itself?
No. To throw herself on Peter’s mercy would be to burn her bridges. She would forever be classed as a chimorg, like him. The only career open to her would be as an outlaw, lurking on the Oberon for as long as they’d let her stay. Whereas once the Goubernator granted her human rights, she could always come back. She could come and go as she pleased.
Gaby used to say that when faced with a hard choice, choose the one that kept the greatest number of options open. Was it so certain she’d never be granted human rights? Dolpou certainly thought it worth the try, and the groubians, few in numbers though they were, were not a force to be lightly dismissed. They were far more powerful, she knew, than Peter and his shady friends suspected — or could ever be themselves. Maybe right now they held the balance of history in their hands: the history of the galaxy.
That was the choice. It was, to put it cruelly, between fulfilling the destiny her parents had chosen for her when they’d given birth to her, with the groubians for allies — the terribly old, terribly wise, terribly strong groubians — or to go back to being the innocent young protegée of a notorious criminal.
She bent over to pick up her skates and sling them over her shoulder by their laces. “I’m sorry, Uncle Peter… the way ahead for me is perfectly clear.”
Her voice caught as she spoke, and tears sprang to her eyes. Unable to look her former guardian in the face, she turned her back and walked away. Away across the footpath snaking over the clear ice as if picking its way between the stars, past the glittering lights of the bar, up out of Forstandens Speil – the Mirror of Understanding – and onto the Great Stair.
She couldn’t have known it then, but that was the last time she’d ever see her Uncle Peter.
In the dimly-lit balcony above the Shrine of Saturn, which Anitra thought of as her private sanctuary, all the serveries were closed. As Oberon approached Mars it was noticeable how cafés and bars were beginning to put up their shutters. They were stocktaking, no doubt, in preparation for revictualling at the journey’s end.
She sat with her head in her hands at the table furthest from the Stair, feeling chilled and numb. It was like the sensation of a bruising blow when it no longer actually hurts. Her mind wouldn’t let her contemplate what she’d just done to her former guardian.
“I thought I’d find you here.” A familiar voice cut through the foulness of her misery, but Anitra didn’t look up. The voice persisted. “May I sit down?”
Anitra took her hands from her moist eyes and nodded silently. Then she resumed her former posture. Nilsson took a seat opposite her and sat staring silently.
“You did the right thing,” she said eventually. “If you were my daughter, I’d be proud of you.”
Anitra wondered, but didn’t ask, how Nilsson knew what had just taken place in the Speil. “Does Peter know you are on board?” — was all she said.
The Commissioner shrugged. “Am I not alive? Do you not see me here before you?”
“How can you risk showing yourself in public? Have you any idea of the sort of thing he can do?”
“Oh, without a doubt. But Peter Zwillinge is not the only electronics expert on board. So far I have been able to conceal my presence from him. And also from those who are in a position to tell him, were they of a mind to do so. Captain Mond; yourself; others maybe — have kept their counsel. I take it the Supreme Councillor knows I’m here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hasn’t she said anything?” Nilsson sounded surprised.
Nilsson smiled her thin smile. “You are stronger-minded than I gave you credit. Not even to confide in your legal guardian, not to say your constant companion.”
“We live our own lives,” muttered Anitra, at which Nilsson chuckled. “It must be like sharing a garden pond with a killer whale,” she said. “Particularly if the whale is not disposed to overlook your presence.”
Nilsson stretched back in the black bentwood chair and crossed her legs. “Oberon seems so vast and complex when you first come on board,” she said. “But in thirty weeks it does seem to shrink somewhat. That is the big advantage of the Speil: you can pretend you are floating free in infinite space, if only for an hour or so.”
Anitra mumbled “Thank you for the skates.”
Nilsson nodded and smiled. “When you straightaway went and had an accident with them, I did wonder if I’d done the right thing. But it made you some friends.”
Anitra had nothing to say to that. She didn’t want to talk about Hermes. It hurt just to think about him.
“But not even to tell Dolpou that I’m here…! That I do admire. Have you ever thought of earning your living as a secret agent?”
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“But to say nothing at all to her. Nothing! Particularly as you had every reason to think she would approve of Peter being hunted down in the name of justice. Or were you being protective of your Uncle Peter?”
“I didn’t want anything to happen to you, if you must know,” snapped Anitra. “I was afraid Dolpou might tell him.”
“Were you now?” The idea seemed to take Nilsson by surprise. “Why do you suppose they’d have the slightest reason to collude?”
“Peter and Dolpou have known each other long before I came on the scene.”
“You’re right there. They are old adversaries. Bitter ones. Peter can forgive people who condemn him as criminal and wicked: he rather likes to be thought of in that way. But he can’t abide being written-off as nothing but a troublesome lump of protoplasm. Who can?”
“So when I was trying to escape from you in Bishop Auckland Hospital, why did Peter tell me to go to Dolpou for protection?”
“You know your Uncle Peter. He’s ever ready to sacrifice his own best interests where your safety is concerned. You are his ‘best interests’. But it wasn’t me he was protecting you from — at least, not primarily. He imagined I didn’t appreciate the nature of what was menacing you.”
She took a deep breath. “Well – now I do.”
…to be continued.