Arianne was in the kitchen, cutting fruit for Tristan’s breakfast. Sally was at her elbow, ladling porridge into a bowl. Ewan was at the far end of the room, tending to the stove.
“Well?” Sally said excitedly, trying to keep her voice under control. “Are you going to keep it a secret from me for ever? What was it like? Is he perfect in every detail?”
Arianne continued cutting. “Who? What?”
Sally gave her a look of complete exasperation. “Who do you think? Did you do it al fresco on the way, or did you manage to hold on till last night? His place, I suppose, rather than yours. Wouldn’t want to be woken up by Alco blowing in your ear, would you?”
Arianne eyeballed her friend. “Tristan and I have not had sex, if that is what you are driving at.”
Sally goggled at her. “You’re kidding. The most scrumptious bloke you’ll ever see, and you’re playing hard to get?”
Arianne grasped a handful of Sally’s tunic. “You don’t get it, do you?” she growled. “I am not playing hard to get. I am not interested in sex with Tristan. What’s the point? One way or another, he will be gone from here soon, so getting attached to him will only bring pain. Besides, he’s not interested in us natural girls. We’re not perfect.”
“What’s the point?” Sally echoed, disengaging Arianne’s fist from her clothing. “I don’t believe it! The point is the first real ray of sunshine to come into your miserable life, and you slam the shutters on it, worried that it’s going to cloud over soon.” She put her hands on Arianne’s shoulders, looking imploringly into her face. “Ari, listen to me. If you let that man get away without giving you a damn good you-know-what, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. You will. I mean, how many chances like this do you think you’re going to get?”
Arianne stiffened. “Nothing is happening between Tristan and I. Nothing will happen between Tristan and I. And if you start spreading any rumours to the contrary, I’ll kick you from here to the homeworld.”
She picked up the tray of breakfast things, suddenly conscious of how their voices had risen during the exchange. Ewan, at the far end of the room, had ceased any pretense of tending to the stove, and was gaping at them, open-mouthed. Arianne glared at him.
As Arianne was heading for the door, Sally called after her. “Hey, nice idea. Breakfast in bed. Coffee, tea, or me?” And she laughed.
At the door to each cell was a small bell. The one outside Tristan’s door tinkled softly. Arianne had said she would bring breakfast. In the kaftan he had been given as night attire and a pair of scuffs, he padded expectantly to the doorway. It was a bemusing feature of this place, he had found, that they didn’t go in for doors, except for Alcofribas’ chambers, but preferred merely a decorative curtain across the entrance to each cell.
He threw back the curtain. It was not Arianne who stood there, but a man dressed in multi-layered garb, different folk art patterns woven into each layer. He was holding a communicator of the type Arianne had used.
“There is a message for you, sir,” said the man, a little unsure how the stranger in their midst should be addressed. “It’s Will, the leader of the search party.”
“Oh, yes,” said Tristan, the previous day’s events coming back to him. “We met them when we were on the way here. Come in.”
Tristan led the way back into the main chamber of his cell. Apart from the floor, which was flat, and covered by a circular rug in a pattern of lemon and mauve, every surface within the cell was curved, walls and ceiling forming a continuous smooth surface. The round window in its alcove was fitted with a circular blind which folded away to one side like a fan. Two oval archways led off, one up a short flight of steps to the egg-like bed chamber, which was almost entirely filled by the circular bed, and the other leading to a similarly shaped bathroom with a sunken ovoid bath which had a shelf running all around it. Everything had a very organic look to it, as if the building were a gigantic conch shell, or some other natural phenomenon.
The man handed him the communicator, and he took it to the window, where he could look out on a landscape tinted by a light film of snow, except, as Alcofribas had pointed out, where it was criss-crossed by the dark lines of the water-heated paths.
Will’s face was on the communicator, a snow-streaked crag visible behind him. “Mr. Tristan, sir,” he said, his tone soft and deferential. “We’ve found your friends. Or, what’s left of them.”
Something clutched Tristan’s heart tightly. “What do you mean, what’s left of them?”
Will’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment as he struggled with the words. “Well, as I understand it, with this nano-gubbins, the individual cells of the body are able to be repaired.” He swallowed. “But if the body is in a number of pieces, then they are only able to fix up each separate piece.”
The screen of the communicator trembled, then Will turned his to show Tristan what was at his feet. Body parts, staining the snow bright pink. Torsos, limbs and heads, which Tristan immediately recognised as belonging to his comrades, were lying there with snow packed around them and over them to keep them from decomposing. It was an instinctive thing for those unfamiliar with cell repair technology.
It was like a ghoulish butcher’s shop. Tristan gagged. Hot bile rose in his throat, and he struggled to keep it down.
He could hear Will still talking, a nervous stream of words. “We were up at first light. The wreck of the ship was not hard to find, it left a huge scar across the mountain. And the bodies were there among the wreckage.”
Tristan collected his thoughts. “Put them back together,” he heard himself saying.
“Pardon me?” said Will, his face mercifully re-occupying the screen.
“Put them back together,” Tristan repeated. “Figure out which bits belong to which body. That shouldn’t be hard. Press the parts together. The assemblers in boundary cells will respond, and they will bind the parts together.”
Will was hesitant. “What if we put parts of two different bodies together by mistake?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem,” said Tristan, beginning to feel a little more in control. “The assemblers will recognise the non-matching DNA of the neighbouring cell, and won’t make the bond. The body parts will simply remain unattached.”
“Yes, but...” Will faltered.
“But they’re still... dead.”
Tristan heaved a sigh of despair. These savages really didn’t understand. “They’re not dead,” he said firmly. “Their body parts are in assembler-induced stasis, triggered by major trauma.” If that wasn’t an understatement! “Plus, of course, they have lost a huge amount of blood, which will have to be regenerated. Neural... brain damage will be repaired, but they will have lost a lifetime of learning, which will have to be retaught. They will be vegetables, more or less.”
“Okay,” said Will, not relishing the task awaiting him. “We’ll put them back together as you say. Then we’ll bring them home.”
“What about the ship? What state is that in?”
“It’s a bit of a similar story,” said Will. “I’ve never seen the like. Blasted into a billion pieces, of course, but each piece has repaired itself as far as it is able. Not a scorch mark, not a scratch. If the same thing is true of the ship as it is with the bodies, then I suppose, if you managed to collect every piece, and knew how to put them all together, you could rebuild the ship.”
It was an idle speculation. Tristan sensed himself clutching at straws. They could scour that mountainside for weeks, and there might still be some crucial subsystem wedged in a crevasse somewhere. And Tristan had not the first idea how to put the parts back together even if he did have them all.
“Thanks, Will. See you when you get back.”
“Ah, very good, Mr. Tristan. See you tomorrow, then.” The communicator screen went blank.
Tristan handed the communicator back to the multicoloured messenger, and the man left the room.
When the man had gone, Tristan went to the bathroom and ran a bath. The water had a faint mineral odour, and was piping hot. Tristan could well believe that it had surged up out of the ground.
When the bath was full, Tristan kicked off his scuffs and pulled the kaftan over his head. He sank gratefully into the tub, hoping to soak away the memory of what he had just seen.
Arianne arrived outside Tristan’s door with the breakfast tray, still seething at Sally. Sally was her closest friend, and normally there was little on which they didn’t see eye to eye, but there were certain things on which Sally’s approach was different. Men, for example. Sally took the view that life was there to be lived, and that you took what you could when you could. There were times when Arianne wished her own life could be so uncomplicated. But she was Alcofribas’ daughter, and she was never allowed to forget that.
She cursed. With her hands full, she couldn’t ring the bell. She would have to put the tray down, and... Oh, dammit, it was the middle of the morning already. He would be up and dressed, surely.
She brushed past the curtain and walked in with the tray. And froze. He was standing with his back to her, looking out of the window, a trailing a towel absently from his hand. He appeared to be lost in thought. He was naked. No, not naked. Nude.
Arianne stared at him. His glistening black hair hung in rat’s tails as he dripped onto the rug. His shoulders were broad, his biceps seemed to be made of some kind of flexible steel. His back tapered elegantly towards his hips. He had cute little dimples above the sacrum. And then there were those gluteals that were pure muscle, lean and taut.
He had not heard her come in. She did not dare to move. Her knees began to quiver. She felt a moistness growing between her thighs, and a wanting, an intense desire to draw him into her, deep into her.
Her arms began to tremble, and something on the tray rattled. He turned round with a start, belatedly drawing the towel across himself. She squatted, her eyes never leaving his, and deposited the tray on the floor, then raised herself upright with painful slowness. She stumbled backward, reaching behind her for the support of the doorway arch.
She was gone. He heard the staccato patter of her feet fading along the passage outside.
She bolted for the refuge of her room and shut the door. Swiftly, she undressed, though her fingers did not seem to work properly.
She stood in front of the mirror, critically assessing herself as she had done many times before. Her breasts drooped, her tummy bulged, her hips were flabby.
In despair, she threw herself on the bed and began massaging, working herself up into the old familiar self-induced high.