A vacant cell a short distance from Tristan’s own was set up as a nursery. The three men shared the circular bed, which had been surrounded with padding to keep them from injuring themselves while they slept. Nurses of both sexes came and bathed them - the one time whem they did not wear their nanosuits - and fed them and entertained them and put them back to bed.
And Tristan sat and watched with increasing despair. It would be months before they could even learn to walk again, and who knows when they would learn to read and write. As he watched them being spoon fed by an attractive blonde cultural anthropologist who, under normal circumstances would have elicited a very different response from her three charges, particularly Smeed, Tristan could not recall a time in his life when he had felt so alone.
He had no idea what the Dynasty would do when it found them in this state. They were supremely vulnerable, and there were certain branches of the armature of state, he knew, which would be keen to experiment on them. And there was no one standing in their way but a bunch of monks and him.
He jumped, clutching at his chest as his heart did a tremulous little dance. His keen hearing had registered the footfall behind his back, but it was worthless when his mind was elsewhere.
“Arianne.” There she was, standing at his shoulder, those glacial blue eyes looking down intently into his. He looked again at the three men. “They’re children - babies,” he sighed.
Her hand came to rest on his shoulder in a gesture that was eloquent beyond words.
After a protracted silence, he said, “Arianne, about yesterday...”
“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” she replied with crushing finality. There was a further pause, and then she said, “Let’s go.”
Tristan got up, and they walked slowly back to his room.
Tristan slumped in a chair, lost in his thoughts. Arianne took up a position by the window, watching intently as the abbey went about its daily business.
After a few minutes, she said, “Tell me about nanotechnology.”
Tristan closed his eyes and gripped the arms of the chair. “Not now,” he answered.
“Yes, now,” Arianne said softly.
He saw it for what it was: a device to take his mind off what he had just seen. But behind it also lay a genuine interest. “What do you want to know?” he said tiredly.
“Well, you people are always saying it’s not unnatural, having these machines running round in your bodies and so forth. How is that so?”
Tristan thought for a moment. The biochip encyclopaedia implanted in his brain fed the appropriate entry into his cerebral cortex, and he duly regurgitated it for Arianne’s benefit. “Well, every living thing, from the smallest microorganism to the largest megafauna, Arctinian plant-mats, whatever, is based on exponential cell duplication. One cell becomes two, two divide and become four, four make eight, and so on. Assemblers, the microscopic machines on which our whole society is based, manufacturing whatever we need in precisely the right quantities, operate on exactly the same principle, but with a far greater degree of control than is found in nature. That’s all. They put together the required substances, atom by atom, with no strays and nothing surplus. And they can achieve formations which occur in nature only on a very irregular basis, like diamonds, on a production-line basis. As for the ones in our bodies, well, left to themselves, our bodies reach a certain peak of performance, but then they start to decline as the number of defective cells increases. When you die, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in an accident, or from disease, or simply from old age, the real cause is always the same: the number of functioning cells in the critical organs of your body have declined beyond the minimum required for the organ to perform. The assemblers inside each cell have a template of what a healthy cell should be like, and when the cell suffers damage, the assemblers repair it. The result is continuous perfect health. The only losers are the phagocytes, the cells that eat dead cells. They have a somewhat reduced bill of fare. But they have other jobs to do, so they don’t even become redundant the way the appendix did.”
“Immortality, then?” Arianne prompted him, recalling their earlier conversation by the lake. She was hoping to wipe the slate on some of what had taken place between then and now.
“Not quite, because eventually entropy comes into play, but it’s damn close. And it’s no more unnatural than putting a loose brick back into the wall of your house when it falls out.”
Arianne crossed her arms. “So why was there the fear and loathing when it was first introduced?”
“People misunderstood,” said Tristan. “The public information campaign could have been better handled, from what I understand. People heard about this stuff that could reproduce itself, and there were fears that it would never stop. It became known as ‘The Grey Goo Scenario’. People thought that whole planets would wind up knee deep in some unidentifiable mush. It didn’t get through that every assembler is answerable to a nanocomputer, and that assemblers accidentally running amok was about as likely as an aircar plunging into the woods and living on tree sap.”
“Accidentally, yes. But what about sabotage?” Arianne queried him.
Tristan smiled, warming to his subject. Arianne saw the smile and felt relief.
“I thought you’d come around to that,” said Tristan. “Yes, there were a few incidents, according to the accounts from the time. But they were all able to be nipped in the bud. One way the nanotechnology pioneers was smart is they made sure as many people as possible knew about it. That way it didn’t become the plaything of some powerful elite, and it was impossible to suppress. The knowledge was too widely disseminated.”
“There were riots, weren’t there?” said Arianne.
“Yes,” said Tristan, “there were. “People got very irrational, didn’t understand that they stood to gain far more than they lost. You know, centuries ago, they had to rejig the calendar on each planet to synchronise them onto Standard Dynastic Time. On some worlds they necessarily had to skip a few days to bring them all into line, and on some of the more primitive worlds, there was actually rioting in the streets because people thought those days had actually been stolen out of their lives. It’s been a bit the same, I think, with nanotech.”
“But this time there was something much more material at stake, wasn’t there?” said Arianne. “Like I said before, it made work almost non-existent, and people define who they are by what they do.”
“They still can,” said Tristan. “The only difference is that what they do now isn’t work, and they won’t starve if they don’t do it. There’s a whole social safety net geared to making sure folk have enough to keep them occupied.” Arianne pouted. “Look, it was the paradigm shift to end all paradigm shifts, for goodness’ sake. What’s the old saying? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
“Yeah,” said Arianne. “And while the omelette was cooking, the cooks took off to some space habitat and battened down the hatches.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Tristan. “I think I’d do the same. Sure, there was chaos for a decade, but what’s a decade of chaos compared with aeons of peace and fulfilment?”
Arianne was still searching for a reply when her communicator bleeped. She pulled it out of her smock and pressed the pad. “Father?”
“Arianne.” Tristan heard Alcofribas’ stern tones. “The apothecary would like your help in collating the database on the herbs you brought in. When you have a moment.”
Arianne pursed her lips, on the verge of saying something tart. Her presence was not absolutely necessary for such a chore. She had the momentary impression that Alcofribas was checking up on her. “Yes, father, I’m on my way.” She turned to Tristan with an apologetic expression. “Duty calls,” she declared, secreting the communicator in her clothing once more.
She was about to leave when she paused. “You may be right,” she said. “About the nano-stuff. But I’m still not convinced.”
She slipped by the curtain at the door and was gone.
“And what, I wonder,” Tristan muttered, looking towards the doorway, breathing in the air that she had breathed out, “would convince you?”
Just after lunch, Temmar jangled Tristan’s bell. “Some of our people are working on a new geothermal project,” he said. “I thought you might be interested to see it.”
“Sure,” said Tristan. He followed Temmar, happy once more to be taken out of himself.
In front of the abbey, two hippocybes were saddled. Elisa, Temmar’s little sister, round faced and ruddy cheeked, was grasping their bridles. It occurred to Tristan that if the animals seriously wanted to bolt, she would have little chance of holding them.
Temmar mounted one hippocybe, and Elisa passed him the reins of the other. Tristan, imitating Temmar’s action, swung up into the saddle of the second. With a snort and a faint hiss of hydraulics, they set off along the valley.
After a kilometre, the shrubbery along the valley floor became denser, and, looking over his shoulder, Tristan saw that all trace of the abbey had disappeared from view. Shortly afterward, Temmar led them to the left and up out of the valley.
Through the greenery, Tristan saw ahead what appeared to be smoke, spread along the base of a low ridge. He considered the possibility of brush fires, but it was altogether too cold and damp. And a faint smell became perceptible on the breeze, which was not the smell of smoke.
Tristan was still trying to pin down the odd smell, when an even odder sound met his ears. It was a dull bubbling, which fancy suggested was like some great creature slowly digesting a large meal. Temmar led the hippocybes round a large bush, and they came to a flat pan of cracked beige-coloured mud, in the middle of which was something resembling a miniature shield volcano. The gastric eructations that Tristan had fancied he heard originated within the caldera, where liquid mud gently simmered, occasionally forming a bubble that welled up and burst.
Further on, the phenomenon repeated itself with increasing frequency, while the surrounding vegetation grew ever more stunted and sparse, and eventually died away altogether. Before the two riders was a flat bare plain, across which trailed plumes of white steam. The smell, which was increasingly pungent, was finally identified by Tristan as sulphur, and he saw its bright yellow crystals encrusting the boulders round about.
“We must be careful here,” said Temmar. “Follow me precisely and don’t stray. Some of the ground is very fragile, and if you fall into some of those pools, you’ll boil like a Remelesch lobster. In seconds.”
Tristan did not need telling twice. He kept his animal in direct line with the tail of Temmar’s, but the beasts gave every indication of knowing where they were going anyway.
Here and there, holes could be seen, filled with rubble and steaming gently. Tristan had the impression that the crust of the planet here was paper thin and that precious little separated him from its boiling core. Misty vapour billowed from cracks in pancake-like layers of rock, laid down over the centuries by magma bursting like acne through Thelema’s skin. Pools, some intensely aquamarine in colour, a few metres across, some separated from one another by no more than a few centimetres and connected by little channels, lay scattered across the plain. A creek wound through the middle, dropping at one point through a pretty little cascade.
“It’s funny,” Temmar called back to Tristan. “You can get water that’s close to boiling and water that’s close to freezing, side by side.”
For a further half hour they picked their way through the tortured landscape of tan rock streaked rust red, and where the only living things were the hardiest of lichens, eking out a borderline existence in this hellish environment. The switchback course of the creek crossed their path repeatedly. Where its channel was inconveniently deep, it was spanned by a timber walkway. Tristan wondered where they got the timber in this treeless realm.
Temmar pointed ahead. “They’ll be just around this bluff,” he called back.
As a low headland passed to their right, Tristan peered expectantly through the billowing veil of steam, but saw nothing. He drew up level with Temmar, who had reined in his animal.
“That’s odd,” said Temmar. “This is the site that’s marked on the map.”
He opened a flap on his overvest and pulled out a map to confirm that he was in the correct location.
Beyond the bluff, the ridge swept away in a broad curving embayment, arriving at a similar bluff over a kilometre away. At the foot of the further bluff, Tristan detected some movement. “What’s that?” he asked.
Temmar, lacking Tristan’s nano-assisted visual acuity, squinted. “Do you see something?” he asked.
“Two men,” Tristan answered. “Both around one-eighty cents tall, one with reddish brown hair and a beard, the other fairer and clean shaven. They’re working on some sort of machinery on a plascrete platform in the middle of the creek.”
Temmar consulted the map anew. “Good God!” he yelled. “They’re drilling in the wrong place.”
“Is that a problem?” said Tristan.
“Right there it is!” Temmar exclaimed. “There’s a capped off geyser not two hundred metres from there. It would take nothing at all for it to reroute itself up their borehole. Yah!”
He spurred his hippocybe into a ferocious gallop, leaving Tristan standing. He had not realised that the mechanically augmented beasts were capable of such turns of speed. Meanwhile, the nanochip inside his head delivered the definition of a geyser.
“Yah!” Tristan spurred his mount into action, and they thundered off in Temmar’s tracks. Tristan struggled to stay aboard, his thighs straining against the animal’s flanks as he pressed his feet into the stirrups. He desperately tried to ignore the pounding the saddle was delivering to sensitive parts of his anatomy.
The hippocybe leapt yet another meander of the creek and came down hard on the far side. Tristan was unseated, and hit the ground with a heavy thump. He looked up to see the animal’s skittering hoofs as it continued its headlong dash. Temmar was approaching the site of the borehole, bellowing an incoherent warning to the two men.
And then, without warning, a spout of superheated water sprang from the earth, shooting fifty metres into the air, precisely where the men were working.