A young man appeared from round the building, three hundred metres off, and broke into a long loping run.
“Hello, Ari,” he said, dropping back into a walk as he approached.
“Hello Temmar,” Arianne replied brightly. Temmar had been her lover for a spell. They approached each other with a wariness tempered by aimiability, a desire to let old wounds heal, particularly since, like everyone else at the abbey, they expected to live out their lives in each other’s company.
Temmar had found himself a niche as stable boy, and dropped into the task of removing the tack from the hippocybe with ease and efficiency, but found himself staring at Tristan with unbridled curiosity.
Tristan smiled awkwardly. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” said Temmar.
“Temmar,” said Arianne, “this is Tristan. He will be our guest for a while.”
“I know,” said Temmar with a smile. “Sally told me straight after she talked to you last night. In fact she’s told everyone in the place. She’s just so excited.”
Arianne sighed. She turned to Tristan with an apologetic expression on her face. “Sorry, but you’re going to be a bit of a celebrity. We don’t get a lot of visitors.”
“It’s okay,” said Tristan with his best placating smile.
The first snowflakes brushed Arianne’s cheek. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go inside, where it’s warm.”
The honeycomb cell of the entrance formed a portico, within which were found the arched double doors of hammered iron. Arianne grasped the handle on one door and it swung inward. She ushered Tristan forward.
The entrance hall was surprisingly light, Tristan found, illuminated by a domed glass skylight some sixty or seventy metres above their heads, and then reflected off white walls and the mirrors lining four rows of balconies encircling the hall. At the centre of the hall was a large ornamental carp pond, from the middle of which rose a sculpture of a lectern bearing a large open book. Inscribed on the pages of the book were the words: “Do As You Wish.”
Tristan pointed. “Is that your philosophy?”
Arianne gave a wry smile. “In a sense. Though of course, freedom is never complete. It always comes with responsibility attached. And in any case, there is an argument that the human system can only tolerate small amounts of freedom. That’s why I worry about your nano-stuff. It gives people a freedom overdose, and they can’t cope.”
“We are educated from a very early age, shown the huge range of possibilities that are open to each and every one of us. And we are given immense resources to pursue study, to engage in every possible kind of creative activity, to travel, to take part in a vast range of sports. Would you rather have us go back to the bad old days when people had short lives filled with meaningless, repetitive work which they had to do just to get the wherewithal to eat and put a roof over their heads?”
“For many people,” Arianne replied, fixing him with a steely gaze, “work is fulfilling, and it is also defining. People define who they are in terms of the work they do. Here on Thelema, we know, because we are still living in what you term “the bad old days”. As for “Do As You Wish”, for my part, well, I consider it’s an ideal to strive towards, even if there is little hope of ever achieving it. You have to know what it is that you wish, to start with.”
Tristan said, “That’s true, but...”
Arianne lifted her hand. “We’re going to have to finish this later. My father is coming this way.”
Tristan looked round. The hall was a bustling place. Men and women of all ages and races, wearing a variety of different clothing - certainly nothing resembling a monkish habit - passed this way and that. The closer ones inclined their heads in an unspoken greeting to the stranger, and smiled benignly.
And then he saw a man approaching who was like no man he had ever seen before. He was of medium height, bearded and with grey hair. The only hint of monkishness about him was accidental, namely his tonsure-like balding pate. Voluminous ochre robes flowed around a frame that was carrying far, far too much bulk. The man was, in no uncertain terms, fat. It came as a jolt to Tristan’s sensibilities that, in an age when not only human beings but also animals had their metabolism minutely controlled to maintain optimum body weight, a person could allow his physique to go to seed in such a disastrous way. It was, Tristan reflected, a tremendous strain on the man’s heart, and, since the heart in question obviously had no self-repair mechanisms, potentially fatal. Tristan shuddered inwardly.
The inhabitants of the abbey - what, Tristan wondered, would one call them? - stepped aside deferentially at the big man’s approach. He homed in on the carp pond, where Tristan and Arianne stood expectantly. A large paw was extended, seized Tristan’s proffered hand in a vice-like grip and shook it like a dog shaking a rabbit.
“Welcome,” the man beamed. His face was ruddy, and he looked breathless, but Tristan considered that in all probability he always looked breathless. “My name is Alcofribas Nasier. It is my honour to be the director of this establishment.”
“Tristan Cray.” Tristan looked into the warm brown eyes of the older man. The welcome was genuine, but the expression on Alcofribas’ face was tinged with doubt, with questioning about what spanners this newcomer would introduce into his well-oiled world.
“I gather Arianne found you in the Sturlusons,” Alcofribas said, steering Tristan and his daughter in the direction of his quarters. “You were lucky. You could have frozen to death...” He stopped short. His hand came to his chin, quivering. “Silly. Of course. We’re a bit cut off here. We forget how things are for the rest of the Dynasty.”
He seemed embarrassed at his gaffe. “It’s all right,” Tristan reassured him. “It’s easy to forget what goes on in the systems outside.”
“Still, I gather Arianne has been taking care of you.” He looked from Tristan to his daughter, wondering what had passed between them in the last two days.
“I am very grateful to her,” said Tristan, glancing Arianne’s way. “If she hadn’t happened along when she did, I would still be wandering about out there, wondering what the heck I was going to do next.”
“Well, we’ll go and sit in my audience chamber,” said Alcofribas, “where we can be comfortable and private, and then perhaps we can talk about what you are going to do next.”
Alcofribas conducted them out of the forum, along a dimly lit passage where glowing bricks on the floor delineated the path, and down a flight of broad steps to a door simply marked ‘Nasier’. There appeared to be no lock, for he opened the door without any preamble, and they went inside.
After the wintry chill outside, and the cool of the entrance hall, the first thing that struck Tristan in Alcofribas’ quarters was the warmth. He looked around. The audience chamber was lit from a window high in one wall, one of the ground-level cells, so the chamber was largely sunken. The walls were predominantly taken up by data chips, shelf upon shelf of them, and, Tristan noticed when he approached them more closely, two deep: he wondered how Alcofribas would know what was on the ones at the back, since it was impossible to read their spines, but he supposed that the man was sufficiently familiar with his own library to know what was there and how to put his hand on what he wanted when he wanted it.
The middle of the room was occupied by a large circle of capacious couches draped with throw rugs from a variety of ethnic origins and with thick relf pelts. In the middle of the circle was a low table on which stood an elegant and sensuous statue of a nude woman, kneeling and running her hands through her hair.
Tristan seated himself on the couch nearest the statue, and looked at it closely.
“You like it?” Alcofribas asked, presenting him with a glass of wine. The Naysayers, Tristan reflected, had no need of Bypass.
“It’s beautiful,” Tristan acknowledged.
“I think so too,” said Alcofribas, and sighed. “It was a wedding present from my wife.”
Tristan glanced across at Arianne, who had served herself with wine and made herself comfortable on the couch opposite him. She put her glass on the table and began removing her coat. “Arianne said she died in childbirth.”
“Ah, she told you.” Alcofribas settled himself in a position equidistant from Tristan and Arianne. He too looked furtively in Arianne’s direction.
Tristan sipped his wine and glanced as unobtrusively as he could from father to daughter and back again. They seemed to be so dissimilar, Arianne, her high collared shirt showing her to be lean and angular, with those steely blue eyes and chilly reserve, busying herself now with her boots, and Alcofribas, the rotund bon viveur with the sparkling brown eyes and the engaging warmth. Tristan concluded that Arianne must have drawn more from her mother, and looked around for the customary family holos, but there were none to be seen.
A silence had settled over the room, and Tristan became eager to break it. “I couldn’t help noticing how warm it is in here,” he declared, “but I can’t see any heat source.” That was good, he thought. It explained his anxious scanning of the room.
Alcofribas chuckled. Tristan had touched on one of his favourite subjects. “Ah, that’s one of Thelema’s little secrets, which you will learn more about if you remain here for any length of time.”
Tristan looked at him quizzically, flicking up an eyebrow.
“We have plentiful geothermal hot water in this region,” Alcofribas explained. “We simply pump it to the surface. It heats the whole abbey and the neighbouring buildings, and we even have it under the paths so they never freeze over. One thing you can be sure of here, Tristan,” he added with an impish grin. “You can spend all day in the shower and you’ll never run out of hot water.”
“Are you entirely self-sufficient then?” Tristan asked.
“For the essentials, yes,” said Alcofribas. Tristan was looking pensively at his glass. “We are even able to grow grapes in our geothermal hothouses.”
“So you don’t get anything from offworld?”
“Spare parts. Necessities like that. And a few luxuries.” Alcofribas smiled serenely.
“I haven’t seen any robots,” Tristan noted. “I would have thought they’d be essential for agriculture.”
“No,” Alcofribas replied. “For one thing, we can’t afford them, and for another, we believe in the positive value of human labour.”
“Arianne’s talked to you about our beliefs? Good.”
“Yes,” Tristan answered shortly, “I’ve heard all about it. In time I may be able to convince you otherwise.”
“Unlikely,” said Alcofribas, growing nervous at the prospect of having his beliefs challenged. It was something that threatened to undermine his whole being. He had lived so long among like-minded people that he no longer knew how to deal with someone with a different standpoint. “In time, maybe. But time is something you don’t have a lot of right now. Isn’t that so?”
“That’s true,” said Tristan, taking another swig of wine. “That’s why I was interested in your supply shipments.”
Alcofribas shook his head. “Not due again for months. I fear those coming after you will get here a lot sooner.” He was in two minds. On the one hand, Tristan was a threat to Alcofribas’ comfortable status quo, not only because he was a reminder to the Naysayers of Thelema of the potential of nanotechnology, but also because he was tall, dark and handsome, and would in all probability seduce Arianne if he hadn’t already done so. On that count, he couldn’t wait to see the back of Tristan. On the other hand, he was on the run from the Dynasty, and consequently represented an ally. The enemy of Alcofribas’ enemy was his friend.
Tristan became despondent. “I can’t fight them, I have nothing to fight with. But perhaps if I simply retreat to the wild, live off the land, at least it won’t reflect on you, and the Nasty will leave you alone.”
Alcofribas came and sat next to him, patting his hand in a fatherly gesture. “I fear the land would end up living off you,” he said. “You’ll stay here, and we’ll sort something out.”
“I don’t know what,” said Tristan gloomily.
“No,” said Alcofribas. “Right now, neither do I.”