She lay on her bed, her face buried in the pillows, sobbing.
After a few moments, a hand gently touched her shoulder. She spun furiously. “Go...” It was Sally.
Sally looked into the face of her friend as she had never seen it before, wracked with pain, her eyes screaming confusion.
“Tell me what happened.” Sally’s voice was thick with compassion.
Arianne described how she had sought solace in Tristan’s arms, only to have him become aroused.
Sally fought back a smile. So that was it. “Arianne,” she cooed, “there’s a lot you don’t know about men.”
“I know enough,” Arianne gulped between sobs, clasping the other woman like a lifebelt in a stormy sea, “and I don’t want to know any more. Ever.”
“Arianne, that thing men have,” Sally pressed on, “well, they don’t have much control over it.”
“Of course they do,” Arianne snapped. “It’s like an arm or a leg.”
“Not exactly,” said Sally. “A lot of the time it seems to have a life of its own. It stands up when they don’t want it to. And vice versa. Believe me. The versa has put an end to a lot of vice, I can tell you.”
Arianne was tickled, and she smiled. Almost laughed. And a glimmer of understanding came to her. “So... he wasn’t trying to take advantage of me? To seduce me?”
“No!” Sally roared. “Can’t you see, he’s not like that? Though heaven knows, I can’t see what’s so bad about him seducing you.” Arianne said nothing. “Ari, what is it with you? You shut yourself off, you build all these defences around yourself, then when someone drops in behind your lines, you still fight him off tooth and nail. Why can’t you just surrender with good grace?”
“I... I can’t do that,” Arianne stammered.
“Why ever not?”
“I’m afraid,” she confessed. “Afraid he’ll abandon me, either now or later, cause I’m not as pretty as the girls he’s used to, and I’ll be worse off than I am now.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Sally reassured her. “Listen,” she crooned, “it’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way. You love him, don’t you?”
Arianne was bushwhacked by the abruptness of the question, and she hesitated for a moment. “Yes,” she said at last, “I do.”
“Well then,” Sally said brightly, “it’s time to grit your teeth and take your chances. The opportunity won’t come again. Not on this rock.”
The pain returned to Arianne’s eyes. “But how? How can I even speak to him again, after what I said to him?”
“It seems to me,” Sally said, flicking her hair out of her eyes and batting her eyelids theatrically, “that what you need is a go-between. Someone to smooth your path for you.”
Arianne looked at her intently. “Would you do that for me?”
“For you,” Sally conceded. “Not for anyone else. But I’ll tell you this: when the two of you finally get together, you are going to owe me. Big time.”
Arianne was crying again, but it was not heartache any longer. It was relief.
Tristan was crossing the entrance hall in the late afternoon when he encountered Alcofribas.
“We should have a talk,” Alcofribas said in a tone that brooked no contradiction. He grasped the young man’s elbow and steered him in the direction of his quarters.
Once in the audience chamber, he offered Tristan a seat. Tristan accepted gracefully.
Alcofribas poured drinks. “I have not thanked you for your part in the rescue bid the other day. With Temmar injured, I gather it fell to you to take the initiative.”
“There was nothing much to it,” said Tristan. “The only advantage I had was up here.” He tapped his cranium. “I knew what was happening to the men, from a medical point of view.”
“Nevertheless, you acted promptly and, since I gather you had never been in control of a ’cybe before, quite bravely.”
“It was nothing,” Tristan averred.
“It was not nothing,” said Alcofribas. “On the contrary. It was definitely something. I know. I avoid ’cybes myself. I don’t trust them. So I regard your intestinal fortitude as highly commendable.”
“Guts, boy. Guts. It takes guts to do what you’re doing. Taking on the Nasty.” Alcofribas quaffed his drink and wiped his mouth with a sleeve of emerald green linen. “I admire that.”
“I’m not exactly taking on the Dynasty,” Tristan corrected him. “Not if I can help it.”
“You won’t have any choice,” said Alcofribas. “They’ll come looking for you, as I said.”
“Yes, and what then?”
“We’ll deal with them,” said Alcofribas, sounding positively gleeful at the prospect. “Permanently.”
“Whatever you do,” answered Tristan, “there’s still the problem of their homing beacons. Nano-machines buried inside their bones. Too tiny to even see. You can’t destroy them.”
“Oh but we can,” Alcofribas assured him. “Even if we can’t see them.”
Tristan almost choked on his wine. “How come?”
“Temmar showed you the hot pools, didn’t he?”
“And you smelled the air and you saw the yellow crystals everywhere.”
“And sulphur and water make...?”
Alcofribas looked triumphant. “It’s fairly weak in the case of the pools,” he explained. “But it’s enough to break down the molecular bonds of just about anything you care to throw in there. Eventually.”
Tristan looked exultant. “The nano-devices I have in my kit could easily round up more suplhur from the surrounding area. We could really boost the concentration in a single pool.”
“Good,” said Alcofribas. “That will hasten the process enormously.”
Tristan could not help capitalising on this. “You see?” he smiled. “Nanotechnology has its uses after all.” With ninety-nine point nine per cent of the population of the Dynastic Systems irrevocably wedded to nanotechnology, the remark was ironic. This was not lost on Alcofribas.
“Perhaps,” he said with a slight smile. “We shall see.”
There was a pause.
Tristan began to rise from his seat. “If that’s all...?”
Alcofribas motioned for him to resume his seat. He refilled Tristan’s glass. “There is one other matter I have to discuss with you, young man,” he said heavily. He sat down opposite Tristan and tended to his own glass. He was eyeing Tristan warily.
“I have to ask you,” Alcofribas said ponderously, “as fathers have asked since time immemorial, what your intentions are towards my daughter.”
“What do you want me to say?” asked Tristan. The subject of Arianne weighed heavily upon his mind.
“What I want you to say,” Alcofribas replied, “is that you have no intentions towards her at all.”
“I can’t say that,” said Tristan. “But, if it helps to put your mind at rest, I think my intentions towards Arianne are immaterial, since it is clearly her intention to see the back of me as soon as possible.”
Alcofribas appeared heartened. “What makes you say that?”
Arianne’s parting words flashed again through Tristan’s mind. “Oh,” he said casually, “just a feeling.”
“Be that as it may,” said Alcofribas, “I want you to swear to me that when you leave this planet, you will take your companions with you, and you will leave Arianne behind.”
“I can’t do that,” said Tristan. “In any case, she’s a free agent, isn’t she?”
“She’s too young!” Alcofribas snarled.
“So you’re just going to keep her incarcerated here in your little sanctuary until she dies, is that it?” Tristan retorted. “I don’t know what it is that you’re running from, but you can’t keep her shielded from the rest of the Dynasty. It isn’t fair.”
Alcofribas was turning puce. “No one is going to steal her away from me, do you hear? No one! This discussion is terminated.”
Tristan walked to the door and turned. “No one can steal her away, Alcofribas. But you have to give her a life. You have to.” He opened the door and departed.