Tristan passed the remainder of the day in his cell, reading. Temmar reappeared at dinner time and conducted him to the refectory. This was a large hall in the heart of the abbey, served by a cavernous kitchen beneath it, below ground level. Tristan was introduced briefly to the chef, who was the only resident of the abbey that he had seen who rivalled Alcofribas in bulk. Evidently they shared a delight in all things gastronomical.
Over two hundred acolytes of academe sat down to dine in the dimly lit Great Hall. Tristan was invited to sit with Alcofribas at what was known as the Top Table, a table situated on a dais at one end of the room reserved for the abbey’s most senior students. Taking his seat, Tristan looked down the hall at the scholars, their faces illuminated by the yellow glow of the table lamps. Above them, holoportraits of Alcofribas’ predecessors as director glowered down, enough, Tristan suspected, to give one indigestion if one paid them more than a moment’s heed.
From the perspective of the Top Table, Tristan began to suspect that the egalitarianism which the abbey had initially presented as one of its characteristics was little but a veneer, and that in reality a rigid hierarchy held sway. Still, he reflected, if it was anything like the Dynastic Defence Force, that was a necessity: human beings were fairly compulsive about ordering their universe.
A man whose whole appearance and bearing betokened venerable old age, complete with wispy white hair, approached, swung his legs over the bench one after the other and sat down on Tristan’s right.
“Tristan,” said Alcofribas from his other side, “may I introduce our head of palaeontology, Master Burgess Shale?”
Tristan shook the wizened hand that was proffered.
“Welcome, young man,” said Master Shale. “I suppose you are aware that you are something of a celebrity? We don’t care much for the Dynasty here, and most of us think that getting away from it is a good idea. Well done.” This was accompanied by a toothy grin.
Tristan hesitated. “I’m afraid,” he began, “far from getting away from it, I may have brought it down on your heads.”
The old man curled a lower lip in an expression that mingled concern with distaste. But after mulling it over in his mind for a moment, the old man declared, “Well, that’s in the lap of the gods, isn’t it?”
Tristan thought it appropriate that a man who studied old things should speak in such an antiquated fashion. “It would draw the attention of the Dynasty to you in a manner that could be catastrophic,” he said, “yet you seem to take it all very philosophically.” He caught Alcofribas’ eye as he said this, but the director said nothing.
“Oh, philosophy’s not my subject,” said Master Shale drily. “For that you’ll have to talk to Harding.” He gestured along the table to its extremity, where a man with frizzy red hair was talking animatedly to the matronly woman sitting opposite him. “Just joking,” Shale avowed after a pause. “But what else would you have us do? Running around shouting “The sky is falling” isn’t going to help.”
Tristan was searching for a response when a young woman stood up from her place at one of the lower tables and walked to a lectern in the corner of the hall. A hush fell.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she intoned, speaking both swiftly and loudly, “may the brain food of Thelema assuage your hunger for knowledge of the All, may your thirst for understanding of the Prime Movers in nature be quenched, may you spend your days feasting at the table of Universal Wisdom.”
Two hundred voices replied, “Aye, so be it.”
As the young woman returned to her place, servers emerged from a doorway carrying trays of lentil soup.
“A different person is selected to read the Declaration each night,” Master Bakka explained. “You were not here last night, I believe?”
“No,” said Tristan, “I was late, and had something in my cell.” He swung to one side as his soup was served. He began to attack it with relish.
The meal consisted of soup, salmon steaks in the Theleman style, with parsley sauce, pommes noisettes and julienne of carrots and zucchini, and banana fritters. As it progressed, Tristan discussed with Master Shale the latter’s theory that the evolution of many different planets had incorporated a phase when the land mass was dominated by very large fauna, based on findings unearthed on more than twenty different worlds, and that while the creatures varied enormously from one world to the next, they had certain features in common, such as multiple organs, necessary to deal with their bulky physiologies.
At the conclusion of the meal, Tristan rose to leave. He thanked Master Shale for his enlightening and entertaining conversation.
“My pleasure,” the scholar smiled, settling in with a snifter of Bacbuc brandy.
In his cell, Tristan pondered his discussion. It was curious how things worked, he thought. People pursued knowledge for its own sake, without any consideration of how, or, indeed, if, it might be applied. And yet history had thrown up countless examples of seemingly useless information which had subsequently proved in some way to be crucial to the welfare of the human race. It was most curious.
The following morning, Tristan’s breakfast was delivered to his room, but not by Arianne. It was brought by Sally, who giggled nervously, then scampered away. As he ate, Tristan pondered how to repair the damage which seemed to have been done to his friendship with Arianne, if her continued absence was anything to go by. He considered approaching Alcofribas, but then decided against it. Time was a great healer, and perhaps the best thing to do in this instance was nothing. The situation would, he felt sure, sort itself out naturally in due course.
While the inhabitants of the abbey were able to access any data they wished at a terminal in their cells, there was also, Tristan was informed, a physical library, a place where one could study in a communal atmosphere, or simply sit and contemplate the mystery of being.
Tristan set out to find the library as part of his continued exploration of the abbey and its surroundings. He discovered that it occupied the topmost floor of the building. What appeared from the outside to be the windows of individual cells were, in this instance, the source of illumination for the library. It was, consequently, a light, airy place, warm and inviting.
The librarian was a man named Thaddeus, with greying hair and a moustache. He struck Tristan at once as utterly charming, with an engaging manner and a willingness, if not an eagerness, to please. The overriding impression that he gave was of one who was entirely without malice. He radiated warmth, and displayed clear delight that Tristan had sought out his domain. In the end, he spent much of the morning accompanying Tristan, demonstrating to him how to obtain material on any subject, no matter how obscure. He also talked with great pride of the former Theleman students who now held positions of influence on a host of different planets, and Tristan wondered how it was that he had never heard of this place, since its alumni seemed to have developed an informal network spanning the Dynasty.
“It is without doubt,” Thaddeus owned with a satisfied smile, “the best kept secret in the Dynasty.”
Tristan passed the remainder of the day with a book plaque in his cell. As evening approached, he began to wonder what culinary delights awaited him in the refectory. He hoped he might meet some of the other academics of Thelema - Harding the philosopher, perhaps? - and plough some new furrow of learning.
The communicator bleeped solemnly.
“Hello,” said Tristan.
Alcofribas’ face appeared. “Tristan.”
“Tristan, Will and the other members of the rescue party are almost here with your comrades. I thought you might want to prepare yourself. Your friends are in a bit of a bad way.”
“How so?” said Tristan.
“Well, their mental functions are more badly impaired than you might have thought.”
“I see,” said Tristan. “Thank you, Alcofribas.”
Alcofribas’ face vanished from the communicator screen.
Tristan rose and began pacing anxiously in front of his window, staring out into the gloom for what seemed an eternity, watching for the arrival of the rescue party. At last, in the encroaching twilight, he glimpsed movement along the ridge on the far side of the valley. He watched as the hippocybes approached by the same route as he and Arianne had done, winding in pairs down the steep slope to the valley floor and then joining the track that crossed over the bridge and up to the door of the abbey.
Long before they reached the bridge, however, Tristan was hastening down the spiral stairs and out through the entrance hall. He took a few paces beyond the portal and stopped. He stamped impatiently as the riders made their unhurried progress towards him.
He could see now that they had slings between their animals, carrying bundles. When they came to a halt in front of him and dismounted, he stepped forward and looked closer. Homespun blankets woven in rich earthy colours enshrouded the three sleeping men. Jokesh was in the front, Montague in the middle, and Smeed bringing up the rear, just like usual, Tristan recalled.
Will approached Tristan while the other men busied themselves releasing the slings from the harness strapped to the hippocybes.
“Good to see you again, Tristan,” he said. “I hope you’re settling in well.”
“How are they?” Tristan grilled him. “Why are they asleep?”
Will put a calming hand on Tristan’s arm. “We brewed a sleeping draught to ease the rigours of the journey. See? They are already stirring.”
Jokesh’s sling was already on the ground, and Montague’s was being lowered. Tristan could not see the men’s faces, but Jokesh appeared to have drawn his legs up into a foetal position, and was wriggling under the blanket.
“But otherwise they’re okay?” Tristan asked, stunned by the miracle that had put their bodies back together and had revived them from biostasis.
“Physically, yes,” Will concurred, himself no less amazed by what he had seen. He had heard all about the repair capacity of bioassemblers, but had never given it much credence. Until now. “I have to hand it to you...” he began.
“Physically?” Tristan repeated, unhearing.
Will sought a way to break the news gently, but there was none. “They are babies, Tristan. They have the primitive neural response systems in place, but they can’t speak, or walk, or feed themselves. And I am very grateful that the nanosuits have a waste recycling facility.”
Two of the other men passed by, carrying Jokesh on his sling bed between them. Jokesh looked up at Tristan with blank, unrecognising eyes. He was sucking his thumb.