Simoon City sleeps. The modest principal community of Sim-sim Simoon, a quiet world in the Middle Sectors of Hadd, basks in the hot afternoon sun. The public places are deserted. In the Plaza of Public Audiences, Mayor Laennec’s chair stands on its little square island, four dainty footbridges crossing the square moat around it to the body of the plaza. Not a zephyr stirs the water in the moat. The Hall of Private Audiences offers cool shade, but there is no one seeking it.
The stillness in the air is palpable. The dry, dusty heat is stifling. The silence fairly roars.
A faint, ragged rhythm becomes perceptible. Gradually, as it grows louder, it can be identified as the slap of sandals on the ancient flagstones. Running, faltering steps are heard, echoing off the walls of the public buildings and grandiose town houses. Past Anch Micholi, the purpose-built House of Hide-And-Seek, constructed by a past mayor with a peculiar sense of whimsy and a fondness for chasing young girls, and into the broad space of the Central Square comes the runner, a tubby young man with a red face for whom such exercise is clearly not habitual. He half stumbles along a diagonal course across the square before pausing, leaning on the wall of the Treasurer’s residence, panting noisily.
He looks up, and in the direction of his goal, the chaturanga court. Above the outer wall of the court, he sees floating a small metallic globe, unquestionably alien in origin: the narrowcaster. With the exception of the elite chosen few invited to the afternoon’s chaturanga game, the entire populace is watching at home. The thought spurs him on, and he begins running anew.
The globe doubles as a security guard, and at his approach, it turns slightly, scanning his body for anything which might serve as a weapon. It sees nothing, and dismisses him from its silicon mind.
He approaches the entrance to the court. He hears applause from within. As he nears the gate, two guards who have been taking advantage of deep shade emerge into the sunlight and confront him. In their hands are pulse weapons, and the young man hesitates. He has never seen a firearm before, much less been a potential target.
He establishes eye contact with the guards. Their gaze is at first steely, but then they crack smiles, unable to maintain the charade. They know who he is, and have been expecting him. Their demeanour says it all: he is harmless. Nevertheless, they gesture to a disc on the ground beside them, and he steps on to it. He is scanned again, and declared clean.
“Number?” says one of the guards.
The young man is still breathing heavily. He struggles to speak. “Nine two eight three seven zero two eight nine nine two six...”
The guards are laughing. In the empire governed by, and known as, the Dynasty of Hadd, one’s status is inversely proportional to one’s number. The higher the status, the lower the number. And vice versa. Anyone with a number of twelve digits, or more, is on the very lowest rungs of Dynastic society.
There is, moreover, another reason for their mirth. He knows it. The fact that he is overweight marks him out as a Naysayer. Throughout the Hadd Dynasty, nanotechnology is the norm. Assemblers, tiny machines a countable number of atoms small, lurk in every cell of every man, woman, child and domestic animal, patrolling, comparing actuality with cytological templates fed to them by nanocomputers, and repairing, constantly repairing, with the consequence that everyone has the physique of an anatomy text-plaque. No one gets sick, no one gets old, and no one dies.
Except the Naysayers, a tiny clique who see all this as unnatural. Nature, they argue, isn’t meant to be perfect. Sickness, decrepitude and death, they argue, are part of the natural order of things. Part of the plan, say those who believe there is a plan. The rest of civilisation chuckles at their eccentricity then goes about its business.
It became fairly inevitable that the Naysayers would band together for mutual support, and that in time certain worlds would become Naysayer ghettos. Sim-sim Simoon is such a world.
The young man reaches into his girdle pouch. He divides the credits it contains equally between the two guards, and advances nervously into the deep shadow in front of the gate. He has never bribed anyone or done anything like it in his life. His eyes do not adjust quickly enough, and he loses his footing on the steps, lurching heavily against the gatepost. Behind him, the guards can scarcely contain their hilarity.
Inside, he is directed to a side door. Groping his way down more steps, he finds himself in a narrow passage. There are more guards, peering through small windows set at eye level. They stand aside to give him room. He has to stand on tiptoe a little to see properly. His heart pounds with a still more frenetic rhythm as he takes in the view beyond the glass.
The game of chaturanga is played throughout the Dynastic Systems, a game about the acqisition of territory, routinely played as a tabletop game. The wealthy, however, sometimes delight in setting up a court as a chaturanga field, with live players instead of small inanimate pieces. This, however, is like no game of chaturanga that the young man has ever seen or heard of. But then, considering who it is that is playing...
The young man’s eyes dart in every direction at once. But inescapably, his gaze is drawn back to the occupants of the players’ seats. Mayor Laennec, of course, is one. The young man has met him once or twice at university functions.
But the other... The trim, haughty stranger with the flowing golden locks and the lavender sheenex suit of conservative cut, surrounded by a phalanx of guards, can it really be that the ruler of the Dynasty has - as they say - dropped in on this little backwater while on a hunting trip? If this is not some elaborate charade (and what would be the purpose of that, the young man muses ) then here is the master of all known worlds, here is the supreme leader, here is the man whose number is One, here is Hadd!
The young man feasts his eyes on the potentate for a while, then draws them away. His attention moves to the “pieces” on the board, and his heart drums against his ribs. For, at the behest of the dribbling lecher Hadd, Simoon City’s fairest flowers have been rounded up and made to appear wearing the most miniscule shreds of costume. It is an affront to all decency, and that it should be perpetrated by the man who is society’s focal point merely serves to confirm all suspicions regarding the decadence of the Inner Systems.
The young man wallows in his outrage. He hopes to keep at bay that other response to what he sees. He feels he is a peeping Tom, looking on women’s bodies as only a husband should look at his wife. There are long slender thighs, sweet curving buttocks, thinly veiled breasts, and the man is trembling, torn between moral indignation and basic lust.
And then Mayor Laennec declares a move, and the “piece” on the court changes position accordingly. Mayor Laennec is no mean chaturanga player, but today, inevitably, he is making bad moves. He has to. It is bad form, the worst possible form, to beat Hadd at chaturanga. This move is bad for Mayor Laennec, but worse for the young man, for as the “piece” moves aside, she reveals Martine, the young man’s betrothed, standing beyond her, rigid at her place on the court, her fists clenched against her sides, her head sunken in despair.
The young man stares, transfixed in horror. Martine, his own dear Martine, so shamefully, so publicly unclothed. It is beyond words. He covers his eyes, he wants to run from this place, but he is riveted. He drags his hands away, his fingernails clawing at his cheeks.
Grimly he watches the game’s progress. One by one, Mayor Laennec’s “pieces” are removed from the court. He is being careful not to make it too obvious that he is losing deliberately. But Hadd, undoubtedly, expects nothing less.
As part of a delicate manoeuvre, carefully designed to look like a last ditch attempt to save a hopeless situation, Mayor Laennec sacrifices Martine. With visible relief, she begins to walk off the court. Hadd clears his throat. She freezes, lifting her head for almost the first time, and looks with trepidation on the supreme ruler. He is beckoning to her. Slowly, with the steps of an automaton, she begins to walk towards him.
The young man bellows and smashes the window with his fist. The guards drag him away and eject him from the chaturanga court. Sprawling in the dust, blood streaming from his lacerated arm, he feels the rage welling in his throat, a burning, all-consuming hatred of Hadd.