The terracotta sphere of Mars spread out before them as the Groubian Echelon descended past iridescent wispy clouds to the surface. The ragged gash of Valles Marineris gaped in front of them like a furrow. From resembling a canker on a damaged apple, it grew to a system of branching canyons of frightening proportions. Half of it was in darkness, extending into the terminator – and it was towards the dark half they were heading. They were aiming for a point on the rim of the dry gash: a featureless point with nothing to mark it out from the surrounding Stygian landscape.
Until you got up close.
Spitting mauve and yellow fire, a patch of upside-down crocuses, the Echelon set down in unison around a solitary building of no great size. There the interceptors sat in stillness, a herd of glowing green cats settling down to watch a mousehole.
The groubian entourage made shift to get the sedan chair out of the transporter with Anitra still inside it. She was carried towards what turned out to be a Norwegian-style log cabin, perched on the northern rim of the canyon. Lights came on inside, warm and inviting, a haven in the desert night.
Once inside, the bearers gently lowered the sedan chair to the floor and filed out of the cabin, leaving only Dolpou. She opened the door of the sedan chair and Anitra, unclipping her safety harness, swung her legs out and stood up with a wobble. Dolpou caught her arm to steady her.
The floor of gleaming pinewood onto which she’d stepped was scattered with rugs of dyed sheepskin. Coarse-woven fabrics in bright reds and oranges covered the sofas and chairs, and on the polished tops of side-tables made of pale timber, candles shone in glittering globes.
Under the window, on a long series of trestle tables draped in white, there was laid out a sumptuous smörgåsbord, with dishes of canapés and vols-au-vent, oysters perched on bowls of cracked ice, crayfish, shrimp and gravadlax garnished with dill and peppercorns. It sat there in mute appeal to be tasted: it could have fed forty hungry wedding guests. But apparently it was all for the benefit of Anitra and Dolpou.
They stood gazing at the spread. The presentation was as appetising as anything they’d seen on Oberon, but just then Anitra didn’t fancy a thing. Dolpou took nothing either. They turned and gazed at each other in silence, both wanting the other to say something; to do something.
Anitra sat down on one of the pinewood sofas and Dolpou came and sat down beside her. Anitra felt for her guardian’s hand, but Dolpou thrust an arm around her shoulders and hugged her tight. She was every bit as puzzled as Anitra, and seemingly just as anxious.
“I thought we were going to Nix City,” said Anitra, breaking the silence.
“So did I. We’d have been home by now, with me making you a hot chocolate before bed. But it seems the General has other plans for us. We’ll have to wait and see what she says for herself when she finally appears.”
“Where is she?”
“She said she had a job to do back on Oberon before she followed on after us.”
It was the first time Dolpou had conceded the initiative to Nanoud in Anitra’s hearing. On the Moon the latter had deferred to Dolpou in everything. But here on Mars, as it was beginning to appear, Nanoud was in total charge – and Dolpou was little more than an adjutant.
After all the excitement back on Oberon, the silence of the isolated log cabin was sinister. Time seemed to drag. But in reality no more than half-an-hour went by before Nanoud strolled through the door unaccompanied, as if she’d just returned from powdering her nose.
Dolpou challenged her straight out. “What have you done with him?”
“I’ve left him in the Selenean Legation, which as you know is near the Areopagus.”
“Is he alive? Is he in good health?”
“Oh yes.” Nanoud spoke as if it couldn’t be otherwise. She turned towards Anitra to include her in the conversation. “It’s your Uncle Peter we’re talking about. He is quite comfortable. They haven’t stuck him in a cell, or anything like that. I left him in the kitchen drinking coffee with Commissioner Nilsson. As well as they could manage it, both being shackled together.”
“So… apart from that,” said Dolpou, “he’d hardly know he was under arrest?
“Provided he doesn’t try going outside. There’s a substantial Vratch presence ringing the premises, each man bristling like a porcupine with weapons. But, luckily for him, he is in the honest hands of Seleneans. They may not be allowing him any privacy, let alone liberty, but at least they’ll treat him like a human being.”
Anitra wondered if Nanoud was only saying this for her benefit. Up to now, neither groubian had shown the slightest sign of caring whether Peter was treated humanely or not.
“Was Uncle Peter taken off the Oberon at the same time as us?”
“Yes,” said Nanoud. “It was part of the bargain.” She stepped back and leaned against one of the side-tables. “The Groubian Echelon is a fully-fledged combat unit within Olvoi — which you’ll recall is the defence force of Olympia – and de-facto the whole of Mars. We report directly to the Goubernator as our commander-in-chief. He would only agree to my mobilising the entire Echelon for your escort if I accepted an additional mission: to arrest Peter Zwillinge.”
Anitra put her knuckles to her mouth.
“Everyone assumed that casualties would be unavoidable,” said Nanoud. “And possibly substantial. Zwillinge doesn’t just kill ten or twenty at a time. But, as things turned out, he came quietly.”
“We have Commissioner Nilsson to thank for that,” said Dolpou. “I know it was a serious situation for you and your troops, Nanoud, but so far as I’m concerned Zwillinge is just a sideshow. Though he did provide you with the excuse to make an impressive show back there.”
Nanoud was offended, as Anitra could tell. “Are you saying I gave in to the Goubernator too easily?”
Dolpou, gazing out through the black rectangle of the nearest window, slowly shook her head. “No… Anyway, what’s done is done. But why are we sitting out here, on the rim of a canyon — and not in my comfy apartment in Nix City?”
“This is an Olvoi safe-house,” said Nanoud, going over and helping herself to a crab vol-au-vent. “The interceptors surrounding us are maintaining a total exclusion screen. Here inside this cabin we are sealed-off from the Nix intensor, indeed from all communication with the outside world.”
“I take it there is a reason?” said Dolpou. She still seemed just as puzzled as Anitra.
“You’ll understand why when you hear what I have to say.”
“If the matter is so sensitive, why are we involving Anitra here? Couldn’t you have told me in private?”
Nanoud didn’t reply to Dolpou. Instead she turned and smiled at Anitra, a reassuring smile which broke the tension for her, recalling some of the fun they’d enjoyed together on the Moon. Back then Nanoud had been an easy and engaging companion, not the stern commander of the deadliest all-female fighting force since the Scythian Amazons.
“Anitra is an adult now,” she said. “And what I’m going to say is as much for her ears as yours.”
“Well,” said Dolpou. “Get on with it.”
But Nanoud wouldn’t say another word about the mysterious business until they were all settled comfortably on the Chesterfield, with plates of food in their laps.
Sitting in the middle, she turned to face Anitra.
“I’m sorry to have to pain you like this, darling, but I must take you back in memory to your last day on Gaia. To the hospital, where Gaby and one of the boys were taken. Are you ready to come with me on such a painful journey?”
Anitra shuddered, but nodded. Refusal didn’t seem an option.
“Picture yourself in the Casualty Ward. When you were shown your brother’s body, which of the boys was it?”
Anitra was quiet for several seconds. “At the time I guessed it was Andrew.”
“Don’t guess. Calmly picture the scene in as much detail as you can. Then try to identify the body properly this time.”
“Nanoud!” screamed Dolpou. “Is this absolutely necessary?”
Eyes screwed up in the agony of recollection, Anitra shook her head. “I can’t recall it all. I was in a terrible state. Commissioner Nilsson was with me. She was brilliant.”
“I’ve asked Nilsson the same question.”
“When,” growled Dolpou, “did you get the chance to interrogate Commissioner Nilsson?”
“On the way to the Selenean Legation. She was handcuffed to Zwillinge, but I saw no reason not to say what I had to in front of him. Zwillinge himself then told me he’d heard — and seen — the whole business through a spy bug on Anitra’s charm bracelet. That one there…”
She pointed to the little Horus-eye. Anitra touched it in amazement. Had it been broadcasting everything that had happened to her ever since?
Nanoud read the patterns on her face. “Oh, don’t worry. The connection was broken when you dropped your ear-stud outside the family home in Esh Winning. Since then the eye has been inactive. Anyway, nothing’s getting past my screen.”
After a pause, she resumed her interrogation. Because that’s what it was, though conducted in the sweetest of tones. “So, Anitra darling… which of your brothers was it?”
“No purpose is being served by this!” Dolpou shouted.
“I disagree,” said Nanoud quietly. “And so will you in a minute.” Ignoring the other groubian, she gave her whole attention to Anitra. “I’m sure you were far too distressed to be conscious of that much detail. But Andrew was your favourite brother, or so your Uncle Peter assured me. If you had seen his body there, I’m sure it would have left an engram in your unconscious mind. Your groubian mind – which would have shown up just now on your face. Even though your gaian mind may have jumped to the wrong conclusion and stuck there, as alas they do.”
Anitra lowered her head, covering her face with her hands. “I… simply can’t remember…”
“None of this means a thing!” snapped Dolpou, but Nanoud raised her hands. “That’s because Andrew isn’t dead.”
Both Anitra and Dolpou sat up with a start.
“Peter Zwillinge was convinced it hadn’t been Andrew there, but Alex.”
“Nanoud!” howled Dolpou. “Have you the slightest evidence for what you’re saying?”
“While you two have been lazing away on board Oberon, I haven’t been sitting on my hands. After I’d been in touch with you via the link from Mars, I took the fast-ferry back to Gaia. Then over the course of several months I made inquiries, taking care not to reveal to anyone what I was looking for.”
She took a bite of the food on her plate and munched it as she spoke. “What I eventually found out was this. When the bus went through the viaduct’s parapet, the emergency services were not the first people on the scene. Two men were already waiting down there by the river, hiding under the bridge. They were seen to wade into the water and drag a figure from the wreckage, still alive it seemed. Then they placed him in what my informant called a sort of glittering casket – doubtless a cosmonautical hibernator. When things had quietened down, he would have been smuggled off the planet in that “casket”. First of all to the Moon, but after that… who can say?”
Anitra stuffed her hanky in her mouth. She felt she was about to scream, though whether out of joy for Andrew being still alive, or terror over his awful predicament, she couldn’t tell.
“This alters everything,” said Dolpou in a low voice. “If you’re right, Nanoud, then Anitra is not what we’ve all been imagining: the only living stellan in the universe.”
“But she’s still the groubians’ most precious asset,” said Nanoud, slipping one arm around Anitra’s neck and kissing her cheek. “Anitra dearest, take courage! Your brother Andrew is still alive. Right up until now I didn’t know for sure. But now I do.”
She let her hand fall back to grasp the rim of her plate. “But he is being held against his will by the HR conspirators. To put it bluntly, he is the prisoner of Dr Galax.”
Anitra’s voice was weak and quavering. “Where are they hiding him?”
“Somewhere on Mars, I’d guess,” said Nanoud. “But I don’t know yet.”
“Can’t they be made to let him go?” Anitra’s voice came out in a squeak.
“Unfortunately not,” said Dolpou, cutting-in. “What they’re doing is not illegal. Not yet, anyway. Andrew is still only a chimorg at-law… as indeed are you, my child. No better than a laboratory animal, in some people’s eyes. Unless – and until – you win human rights for the stellan species, they can do whatever they like to him without the slightest comeback.”
“But”, interrupted Nanoud, “once the court finds in Anitra’s favour, not even Galax will dare to hold him against his will.”
“They know this, of course,” said Dolpou. “So they won’t dare to do him any harm. Not yet awhile, anyway.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Nanoud. “What if they’ve already done so?”
Dolpou jerked backwards in realisation. “Then Galax and his gang will move heaven and earth to stop Anitra’s petition ever coming to court!”
“Now,” said Nanoud, “do you understand the reason for the massive security shield I’ve thrown up around us here?” She turned to face Dolpou squarely. “I couldn’t let you take Anitra back to your apartment in Nix City. It’s not fit for purpose. Not for the purpose as it now stands.”
She poked at a prawn on her plate, then absent-mindedly picked it up and brandished it before it went in her mouth. “The whole of the Echelon – the whole Groubian nation – will have to shield Anitra with their lives 25/7, right up to the very moment the Goubernator hands down his judgement.”
…to be continued.