The moment the interceptors began streaming into the hub, Dolpou seized Anitra’s hand and dragged her out of the Speil up to Deck One, where the control room was. There they were just in time to encounter Nanoud almost treading on the Falcon sergeant’s heels as he led the way. Behind Nanoud a groubian column four-abreast broke away in waves, sweeping to left and right, to re-form along each side of the Great Stair.
The groubians held their gleaming plasma guns aloft, though whether this gesture was intended as ceremonial or threatening was ambiguous. The denizens of Oberon were inclined towards the latter view, shying away from the groubians standing on-guard along the Stair, or melting away from the railings on all floors into the recesses of Marsgrav.
But curiosity gradually brought them back.
Dolpou and Anitra came face-to-face with the arriving groubians. Eyes shining, Nanoud held out her arms and embraced them each in turn. To Anitra she said, “How are you, star-child? What a lot has happened since we parted on the Moon.”
Anitra, conscious of the staring crowd, managed no more than a smile in response.
In the control room, Nanoud’s reception by the captain was predictably tense. “General Tolchok, this is not a guard of honour — this is an invasion. It’s not what I agreed to receive on board.”
“Captain Mond, I must apologise. The reason for our ample strength will soon become clear. Since we spoke by laser-link I have been charged with an additional task. But one thing at a time.” Nanoud turned to smile at Anitra and Dolpou. “The people we’ve come to escort to the surface have presented themselves, so let us convey them to their destination without delay.”
Anitra fully expected to be taken by the hand like a child and led to the levitators and thence to the hub. But the groubians had something more ceremonial in mind. An elaborate structure, seemingly of crystal and mother-of-pearl, was passed from hand to hand along the corridor and set down at the entrance to the control room. It was only when Anitra was invited to step inside it that she realised what it was: a sedan chair, fit for a princess, upholstered in plush red padded silk.
Aware she was being greatly honoured, but instead feeling rather absurd, Anitra put one foot inside the conveyance. Immediately she was propelled inside by a dozen flexible groubian arms – and then, to her dismay, she was buckled in. Her guard of honour was in no mind to let her escape.
But the reason for the safety-belt soon became clear when the sedan chair was lifted off its legs by eight groubians, Dolpou actually taking the leading position on the right. Instead of the sedate procession she was anticipating, her bearers set off at the double, out on to the main deck and up the Great Stair, past groubians on-guard and denizens agog. Their primary purpose was not to impress the other passengers by a stately departure, but to speed their precious charge on her way, and in such a manner as to foil an ambush or trample an interception.
Anitra wondered where the danger was supposed to be coming from, or whether such a thing was merely standard ceremonial practice on Mars. Peering coyly through the crystal windows of her cabin, she saw gaping faces at the railings on all sides and at every level. It occurred to her that perhaps they were expecting a royal wave, which made her smile
As they swept through the arches in the seven monuments, she caught herself scanning the faces lining the balconies for a sight of Hermes. Whatever would he think of her now?
At the top of the Stair, above the Shrine of Saturn, one of the Echelon craft had succeeded in penetrating the thick ice shell, and now it reached down with four slender metal arms to lift the sedan chair into its bosom, the bearers riding on its handles and running-boards. Anitra was wondering how they were going to negotiate the levitators to the hub with a sedan chair, but the groubians had decided not to attempt it.
Once inside the spacecraft, Anitra expected to be let out of the palanquin, but she had to remain where she was, buckled in. This craft was too large to be a hopper. In fact it was a special transporter for awkward loads. With much creaking and groaning it eased itself through the ice of Oberon’s outer skin, sealing the passage behind it with water which rapidly froze. In that way it emerged into space without breaching the mighty vessel. Straightaway it set course for some chosen point on the surface, accompanied by approximately half of the still-circulating greenbottles, flying in a multiple-V formation.
The rest of the Groubian Echelon, whose hoppers were docked in the hub, remained behind. There was still work to do, of a somewhat less ceremonial nature. Satisfied the first part of her mission was underway successfully, Nanoud once again turned to Captain Mond.
“Now Captain, by your leave, we will arrest Peter Zwillinge.”
The captain bowed his head. With the Groubian Echelon in complete control of his vessel he could do nothing but give his assent. “Please try to minimise bloodshed.”
“Bloodshed there will likely be,” said Nanoud. “Which is why we’ve come in such force. But our troopers are highly-trained and will avoid civilian casualties if at all possible.”
Commissioner Nilsson now made her appearance in the control room, having thrust her way past the groubians guarding the doorway. Knowing perfectly well who she was, they parted ranks to let her by.
“No blood need be shed,” she broke in. “Not if I can talk to him.” She sniffed. “Otherwise casualties will be inevitable” – she shot Nanoud a piercing glance – “and substantial. It’s not as if he isn’t expecting you.”
Nanoud would have raised her eyebrows if she’d had any. “You actually know where he is, Commissioner? Are there other passengers in the vicinity?”
“He is alone. I would hazard a guess that he’s waiting for us.”
“Have you just come from him?” said the captain.
“No, not ‘from him’, if by that you mean ‘at his instigation’. But I know his exact location. As I have done at every moment of the last 206 circadians.”
The auditorium was in near-darkness. Residual tongues of dim blue light crept up the walls like upside-down stains. Most of the usable light was coming from the flickering screen. With forty thousand seats stretching away into the shadows above, below and to either side of him, one solitary figure sat amid the emptiness. His trolley parked in the aisle, Peter Zwillinge had propped himself up in an end-seat.
A Charlie Chaplin film was playing, a silent film, made in the earliest days of motion pictures. It was one from Peter’s own collection. He had been to the projection box and mounted the cartridge himself.
A hotel foyer in old Manhattan — black marble walls, four-square tiled floors and chairs with latticed seats. Charlie the janitor was squaring-up for fisticuffs with the waiter, each having endured unspeakable and hilarious provocation from the other. Charlie took off his bowler hat and slapped it in the waiter’s hand. Then he took off his jacket and laid it carefully over the other man’s forearms. Then, with his adversary thus encumbered, he felled him with a single swing.
Peter Zwillinge roared with laughter, his voice shining like a lone star in a black void. It was his style of humour: grotesque, simple and direct. The mark of the despised little man, who gave as good as he got.
The appeal of the film to Martians was its alien nature, engendered by its cultural displacement in space and time. The contemporary mind was too far distant to properly appreciate the unpretentious little Jew, whom Adolf Hitler, consummate showman that he was, would carefully study and model his public image upon. The Apotheosis of the Little Man, who was about to give all those high-and-mighty folk their come-uppance. Few were aware of it, least of all Chaplin himself, who went on to make a film parodying the “Great Dictator”, exploiting in his turn what he imagined was a fortituous facial resemblance.
Peter had contemplated growing a toothbrush moustache himself, but his auburn hog-bristles didn’t lend themselves to cultivation, sticking out as they did from his putty skin at all angles.
Helmeted shadows started to appear along the bottom of the screen. All of a sudden the filmshow stopped and the lights went up.
“Peter Zwillinge,” a familiar voice boomed out. “You are under arrest — for crimes against humanity.”
Through every entrance, troopers of the Groubian Echelon streamed into the auditorium. Covered by several hundred plasma guns, each capable of slicing bacon at 200 metres, Commissioner Nilsson stepped down from the stage and leisurely made her way up the aisle towards him.
“I knew you were on board,” murmured Peter when she was close enough to hear him without intertalk.
“Then why didn’t you do something about it?”
“By yourself you couldn’t do me much harm. But you’ve found some friends to help you, I see.”
Nilsson sat down on the seat beside him, stretching out her legs in seemingly relaxed fashion. “You’re wanted on Mars too, you know. There’s a massive bounty on your head. That’s why my ‘friends’ are here. Now; are you coming along as my prisoner… or theirs?”
Peter’s face suddenly seemed to collapse into even greater formlessness. Sweat stood out in beads on the folds of his face, engulfing bristles and coalescing in rivulets. “You’re not going to hand me over to the Vratch, are you?”
Nilsson had seen Peter Zwillinge in just about every mood, she reflected, but never yet in such a state of terror. “It would serve you right if I did. For absconding from custody.”
“I didn’t ‘abscond’ — I was snatched. I had no choice in the matter.”
“And then you, in your turn, gave orders to ‘snatch’ a Supreme Councillor, if you will. Plus her ward, a Terrestrial denizen. Did you imagine you’d get away with it?”
“I am Anitra’s legal guardian,” Peter blustered. “Not Supreme Councillor Zvezda.”
“Not now, you aren’t. I’m taking you back into custody. But be assured of one thing: General Tolchok has promised us both safe-passage to the Selenean Legation in Nix City, pending your deportation to the Moon by the next fast-ferry. That is, provided you come quietly. No elstats or other infernal machines.”
“This is neutral territory! I demand to see a lawyer.”
“There’s no time to mess around like that. If you don’t agree to come quietly with me, Olvói won’t see the slightest reason not to slice you up like sauerkraut where you sit.”
“I am unarmed. Have I offered any resistance?”
“You’ve vowed publicly that Mars will never take you alive. That’s on record.”
“Nilsson — I’m your prisoner. You can’t turn me over to the Vratch!” Peter seemed close to tears. It was a different figure he was cutting now from the defiant wounded hero in the Galen Clinic.
The Commissioner fixed his eye and shook her head in tiny little shakes. “Turning you over to the Vratch, as you put it, is not on the agenda.” She laid her hand on his shoulder and patted it comfortingly. Then she took out her detector wand and probed him with it. “Elstat there — in the breast pocket.” A groubian trooper reached in and extracted it. “That seems to be everything.”
“I forgot about that one,” Peter mumbled.
“Take the trolley away,” said Nilsson, “and be sure to isolate it electromagnetically.” It was a superfluous thing to say — the groubians knew how to treat anything belonging to Peter Zwillinge.
A sedan chair was carried in, somewhat different in appearance from the one used to convey Anitra. This one was a lifeless grey and had no windows. Lifting Peter like a child from the theatre seat, which promptly flipped upright, Nilsson thrust him inside and got in herself. Another groubian, plasma gun at the ready, got in at the other side.
Soon the groubians plus their prisoner were on their way — and the denizens of Oberon collectively exhaled.
…to be continued.