Anitra felt tangled in briars of conflicting loyalties. They clawed at her, tearing her flesh. She shook her head, as if that would shake her free.
“Peter has been a father to me. It’s so hard to make it fit with all the things people are now telling me about him.”
Nilsson leaned back again in her seat, assuming a suitable pose for reminiscence. “Ah, yes. But throughout it all he has been utterly consistent. His great weakness has always been to strive to become what the women in his life want him to be. Women who show him any sort of regard. First it was Shval Meteor — and her influence was totally malign. Then Gabrielle Starr – and that wasn’t malign, though not altogether for the good.”
“How do you make that out?”
“Because it shielded him from justice for eighteen years. The span of your lifetime. Now you are the only woman left in the universe for him to love. Your influence with him is overwhelming, did you but know it.”
Anitra plunged her face back into the palms of her hands. “I’ve just told him to go away — and leave me alone to get on with my life.”
Nilsson continued as if she hadn’t heard. “Did you know he signed a full confession in order to bargain with me for your safety? He felt you were a sitting duck on the Moon and wanted you sped on your way to Mars. He had no faith in my ability to protect you.”
“Well you didn’t, did you?” Anitra’s voice showed an edge of resentment. “Or else Dolpou and I wouldn’t be here on Oberon.”
“It was Peter Zwillinge that had you both hijacked from the convoy I’d arranged for you. Peter, plus his fine new friends, Red Eric and his stooges. There aren’t many who could have done that — least of all HR, who are just a bunch of college kids, when all is said and done.”
“If HR is so harmless, why do we all find ourselves in this position?”
“I didn’t say they were harmless. On Mars, they are anything but harmless. Dr Galax has his finger in every pie. But on the Moon those college kids were operating outside their territory. Here on Oberon likewise. On Selene I knew what they were up to. I was watching them at every moment of the circadian.”
Her next words were ominous. “I still am.”
Anitra looked up with a start. “You’re certain they are here… and – and who they are?”
“They are here, of course, among the PUG students. I wasn’t sure exactly which two students they were, but it’s obvious in hindsight that young Arne was one of them.”
“Why is it obvious?”
“Because of how he died.”
“They say he died naturally. A brain haemorrhage…”
“Yes, that’s what Mr Sullivan’s been putting about. But he knows better. So do I.”
“Show me your charm bracelet.” Nilsson took out the silver wand like a propelling-pencil which Anitra had seen her use in the hospital to hunt her down. She pointed it. “It’s that one there: the one that looks like an ice-cream cornet. Grasp it by the thin end, dear. No don’t point it at me — though I don’t imagine it’ll do me any harm, unless I’ve got a plutonium pellet up my nose. Now give it a squeeze… just a short one. There won’t be a lot of juice left in it.”
She inspected her wand. “Just as I thought. It emits a narrow powerful beam of microwave radiation.”
“What does that do?”
“I must answer your question in a roundabout way. When Peter sent you in a taxi to Dolpou in Durham, you didn’t go straight there, did you?”
“No… I asked the taxi to take me home first.”
“But you didn’t go into the house.”
“No. I got all scared. After that I just wanted to find Dolpou.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t go indoors. Because the men who murdered your brothers were waiting for you inside. Peter, realising you had placed yourself in danger by disobeying orders, went to the house himself to rescue you – and was set upon by them.”
Anitra gasped, knuckles to her mouth. Why had nobody bothered to tell her?
“They tortured him to discover whatever they could about you. When I arrived with my Moonforce squad, they fled. Peter was in pretty bad shape, but he later reported to Sullivan that he’d managed to lodge plutonium pellets up their nostrils.”
Anitra was staring at her, eyes wide with pain. No doubt Nilsson reckoned it was vital she knew the story. So, painful or not, she’d have to hear it.
Nilsson continued. “Now a Pu pellet kills in one of two ways: either by radiotoxicity in the middle of the head — a slow and agonising way to die — or it can be made to explode by a burst of microwave radiation, of the sort emitted by that ‘lucky charm’ of yours. The pellet is microscopic, so the explosion is a tiny one: not enough to burst the skull.”
She snorted in disgust. “But scarcely to be mistaken for a cerebral haemorrhage.”
“Because it makes an omelette of the brain.”
“Of course,” said Nilsson, warming to her favourite topic: forensic science, “you have to be Peter Zwillinge to know how to engineer a chain-reaction in a subcritical mass. Total internal reflection of neutrons at the crystal surface, I’m told, but I don’t know all the details.”
“Are you suggesting that I killed that boy?”
Nilsson laughed. “I cannot imagine you doing such a thing. But Peter is bound to have a similar device himself, is he not?”
“Well… yes, I suppose he is.”
“Then here’s what must have happened. Peter spotted Arne in passing and recognised him as one of his assailants. Whether he was sure of it or not, there was an easy way to find out. And it was something he was compelled to do: not just out of revenge for being tortured, but because of the threat which Arne presented to you.”
Nilsson shifted in her seat, as if she’d only just grown aware of the discomfort she was in. “Of all the thousands of people Peter Zwillinge has killed in his career, that is one victim I don’t begrudge him. All the same, because Arne was a Selenean denizen, I shall have to add it to the charge-sheet.”
“So Peter isn’t lying when he says he’s not working for HR?”
“Whatever made you think he was?”
“Dolpou is convinced that he and Eric are conspiring to have me imprisoned here on Oberon. To hold me as some sort of hostage on HR’s behalf.”
Nilsson wrinkled her nose. “He certainly doesn’t want you to go down to Mars. He considers you will be going naked into the lion’s den — as indeed do I.”
Anitra was aware that the expression on her face must have been one of sheer terror. But Nilsson went on as if predicting a football score. “Even though Dolpou has, in effect, stolen you from him, he is still very protective of you. He believes you will never be safe until you are queen in your own castle, having put light-years between yourself and Mars.”
“Dolpou says I’ve got to go down to Mars. To petition for human rights.”
“I have no opinion about that. Dolpou is an expert on Olympian Law. I am not. I’m sure she is aware of the hazards and has laid her plans accordingly. The groubians hold her to be the oldest and wisest being in the universe. But some, like Peter, think she is somewhat out-of-touch with this day and age.” She shut her eyes and gave a little snort. “Still, she’s got Nanoud to disabuse her of any foolish notions. That’s whenever she cares to listen to her generalissimo.”
As Nilsson talked, Anitra stared at the Selenean, noticing how much her face seemed to have aged since they’d last met. What was the appropriate response to this terrible old woman? Resentment? Gratitude? Respect? Dread, even?
“Will you go on hunting down Uncle Peter forever?”
“Until the day I die, my dear. The great advantage in being retired is that it enables you to concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of all else. And so, perhaps, to achieve something worthwhile in your life.”
“Aren’t you afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you’re here?”
“That is of no consequence to me. If he kills me, someone else will step forward to take my place.” She sighed, letting out her breath as if in pain. “I have one aim in life now — and if I can’t fulfill it I have no desire to go on living to no purpose.”
“But Uncle Peter’s not really evil…” Anitra’s voice wavered as she said it.
Nilsson’s expression was cryonic. “You don’t atone for past crimes by opting to live a blameless life, when finally it suits you to do so. That is not justice. Unexpiated crimes cry out for punishment.” Leaning forward, her voice came out in a subdued snarl. “Selene will not be denied her lawful vengeance.”
On the 12 February 1995 UTC, the two-hundred-and-sixth circadian after its departure from Selene, Oberon inserted into Mars orbit. Now, in place of the former uninterrupted view of the starry sky, the ochre bulk of Mars slid gradually beneath the clear icy floor of the Speil, once every minute, looking like a gigantic badly-baked house-brick. Whenever the planet presented its sunlit side to the sky-city, no sign of life was visible on the surface. Here, as on the Moon, humanity was an underground phenomenon. But whenever Oberon crept over the terminator into the Martian night, glowing spots like crushed fireflies were to be seen dotting the surface. Nix Olympica, the caldera of Olympus Mons, in which lay Nix City, glowed as if its multiple floors were once more covered in molten lava. It was such an obvious sign of civilization as to make Anitra wonder out loud why earth-based astronomers had never noticed it.
“The orbit of Mars lies wholly outside the terrestrial one,” explained Dolpou. “So only its sunlit side is ever seen from Gaia.”
Anitra nodded, ashamed of having asked about something so obvious. Dolpou, ignoring her embarrassment, elaborated further.
“What’s more, after Lowell’s mistaken identification of canals on Mars, astronomers were disinclined to ascribe whatever they happened to see to the agency of civilized life. A groubian city, of course, looks to gaian eyes not at all like an artificial construction.”
“Did the groubians build cities, then?”
“Oh yes. We worked with the natural forms of the planet, never gouging the landscape in rectangles as if we were alien invaders. Back then we were far more numerous. Now there are scarcely enough of us to field a decent guard-of-honour for a visiting dignitary.” She was intently scanning the Martian horizon through groubian binoculars shaped like opalescent clamshells.
Anitra smirked. “I didn’t know you liked being made such a fuss of.”
“It’s you I mean,” retorted Dolpou. “Do you imagine I’m clearing you with Immigration at Voronka Cosmodrome? Not after what Nanoud told me would have happened had we gone by fast-ferry as originally planned.” She went back to scanning the horizon. “Dr Galax has had months to prepare for us. But fear not! – we will outwit him.”
She tightened her grip on the binoculars. “Ahh… here they are, at last.”
Anitra strained her eyes to see what it was that Dolpou had spotted. But soon there was no mistaking it. A phalanx of bright dots arose out of the thin blue sheen of the Martian atmosphere. Soon they were circling the Oberon like iridescent green flies investigating a carcass, flying this way and that with little apparent regard for each other, but of course never colliding.
“Space-hoppers!” exclaimed Anitra.
“Here on Mars they’re called interceptors,” said Dolpou. “Only the armed services fly them. What you see is the Groubian Echelon of Olvói, the Olympian defence force.” She strained to peer through the binoculars. “It looks to me as if the whole sisterhood has mustered for the occasion.”
A crowd had gathered to watch the aerial display. Many were conversing in agitation: such a naked show of force by groubians was unheard-of since the War. Was it a revolt? There had been no report from Mars of any such thing. But the intentions of the Echelon were not automatically to be construed as friendly. Here and there interceptors settled on the ice shell of Oberon and began melting their way in.
This must have persuaded Captain Mond to hesitate no longer in granting them leave to board in force. The swarm of green insectoids sprang away from Oberon’s shell – those that were not well into it – and formed up into four columns which then went streaming into the open mouth of the hub.
Groubians clad in pearly jointed armour, looking more crustacean than molluscan, emerged through the airlocks and formed-up at the head of the Marsgrav levitators. There they were confronted by a squad of Falcons brandishing carbines.
Over the intertalk the squad-sergeant challenged the new-arrivals. “Do you come in peace?”
General Nanoud Tolchok, at the head of the Echelon, tossed back her visor in a dismissive gesture. “If we didn’t, you wouldn’t be standing there.”
“We weren’t expecting you in such numbers…” The sergeant wasn’t exactly feeling equal to the situation.
In a languid voice Nanoud replied, “Take us to your Leader.”
…to be continued.