Tristan and Arianne

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Chapter 18

The next morning they broke camp and continued riding across the ancient lava flow, the hippocybes picking their way over the tesselated terrain with a delicacy that no vehicle could achieve.

Towards noon, Arianne reined in close to an anonymous jumble of rocks, not unlike similar piles that they had seen at intervals. “This is a special treat,” she said, grinning broadly.

Tristan watched, bemused, as she swung out of the saddle and alighted. She sat down on a boulder and pulled off her boots. He continued to watch, his astonishment mounting, as she proceeded to strip off her clothes. She opened her saddlebag, pulled out a large cloth bundle, and tucked it under her arm.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

She winked cheekily at him. “Get your gear off, and come and find out.”

He was left transfixed by the cute wiggle of her rump as she scampered over the rocks and disappeared from view.

With some trepidation, he dismounted and began to deseam his nanosuit. The chill breeze raised goosebumps on his skin. He looked around anxiously. He had never in his life been naked in the open air. In spite of the desolation, he expected a crowd to suddenly appear over the horizon. He looked again in the direction that Arianne had gone, and, wondering if he was being played for a fool, set off after her.

Beyond the rocks there was a small depression, partly filled by a lake of steaming water, a natural mineral spa. Rock terraces, sparkling with salt crystals, cascaded down to the water like a frozen torrent. At the bottom, Arianne lay immersed.

He gingerly picked his way down to where she was, the rock feeling hard and prickly, and his flesh by comparison feeling especially soft and vulnerable.

Arianne looked up at him. “Come in,” she said. “The water’s lovely.”

He dipped a toe in. “Ow!” he yelped. “It’s hot.”

“Not when you get used to it,” Arianne reassured him. “Then it’s perfect.”

The sight of her nakedness was enticing. Thinking he was about to be broiled like one of those Remelesch lobsters that Temmar had spoken of, he eased himself into the water.

She was right. After the initial shock wore off, it contrived to be invigorating, refreshing and relaxing all at once. It was also curiously buoyant. His body was lifted off the bottom.

They basked silently for a while. He put his arm round her shoulders, and then eased her on top of him, so that her back was against his chest. He was pressed down, but the rock ledge beneath him was surprisingly smooth, as if polished by generations of backsides. With one hand he began to massage her breast, with the other her sex. Her legs tightened around his, and she grasped the ledge beneath them with her hands. Her eyes fixed on the perpetual overcast above them, her head came to rest on his shoulder. She was making soft mewing sounds, somewhere between a groan and a whimper, and he came into her from beneath, building her slowly and steadily to a spectacular orgasm.

When it was over, they lay still for a long time, simply opening up to the pleasure of each other’s company.

At last, Arianne slipped out of the water and began drying herself with one of the towels. Tristan looked on with delight. Her curves glistened, and he saw how the soft brown down, when wet, came to a point between her thighs.

They dressed and continued their journey.

Later in the afternoon, Tristan became aware of something on the horizon, a streak of darker grey. At the same time the air smelled sharper. As they drew closer, white birds swept overhead, examining the newcomers and giving their verdict with raucous cries. And Tristan knew what it was that he was looking at.

“The sea!” he shouted with childlike glee. The first glimpse of it recalled trips with a boy, taken with his father when he was transporting a consignment of relf cheese to the coast. Large bodies of water were still one of the greatest sources of fascination for him, with their many moods and the tranquility imparted by their rhythms.

Arianne smiled indulgently. “Most of this planet is water,” she said. “It seemed silly for you not to see it.”

In time they came close to a cliff. “Don’t go too close,” Arianne warned. “The cliff is undercut, and apt to collapse without warning.”

“Thanks,” said Tristan. He took in the view. A dark, sombre ocean boiled and tossed, rolling breakers surging shoreward, the spume skimmed from their crests by an incessant wind. Off to the left, the land formed a gulf many kilometres across, leading to a snow-capped mountain which trailed smoke off into the wind: a volcano, yet more evidence of Thelema’s unquiet core.

“This way,” said Arianne. She led him along the shore, and in time he saw that the land leading to the volcano was a narrow peninsula with a relatively sheltered bight lying beyond.

They stopped atop a gale-swept hillock. Before them, close inshore, was a small island. The action of the waves had carved a neat archway through its cliffs.

“Doorhole Island,” said Arianne. “This is the place I most like to come when I want to get away for a while.”

Further along the coast, beyond the island, the cliffs dropped away and it became possible to get onto the beach, a long sweep of black volcanic sand leading to a further headland. Arianne reined in and sat for a moment, reading the topography of the ocean. The waves were breaking well offshore, rolling in as foamy whitewater. This she could interpret as signifying a shallow, shelving sea floor. Closer to the shoreline, she could see a band of darker water, where a gutter had been scoured by a rip. She suspected that at its shoreward end there were holes. Such natural intersections were what she was looking for.

She gestured. “Do you want to start making camp somewhere in the dunes over there?”

“Sure,” said Tristan. “What are you going to do?”

“Aha!” said Arianne mysteriously. She released the long tube affixed to her saddle and unbuckled the strap holding the cap onto the end. From inside the tube she drew something Tristan had never seen before, a long rod with a reel attached to one end.

“What are you going to do with that?” Tristan asked.

“With any luck,” Arianne replied, “I’m going to catch us our dinner.”

Tristan watched in fascination as Arianne drew out of the holdall a smaller satchel, which she opened to reveal an extraordinary collection of paraphernalia. Some was immediately recognisable, other was more mystifying, including something resembling artificial bugs, each attached to a small barbed hook.

“What the heck are they?” he asked.

“Flies,” said Arianne. “Fake flies to fool a finny fish.”

In a world of monochrome and sepia, they stood out like jewels. Arianne pointed them out one by one with professional aplomb. “This is the Goose Creek Deceiver,” she said. It had a bluish head, and a large white feather flanked by two smaller feathers barred in black and white. “This,” she declared, pointing to another, “is the Pink Thing.” What else, Tristan thought, could you call it? It had the same combination of white and striped feathers making up the body as the Goose Creek Deceiver, but its head was framed in an extravagant shocking pink ruff. “Here we have the Sauri Fly,” Arianne continued, indicating a two hook creation in cobalt and deep magenta. “But today I think we’ll need one of these.” Between her fingers she held an insane-looking piece of bright yellow fluff with eyes. “This is a Yellow Crazy Charlie.” It too was the most appropriate name imaginable. “It’s sure to spark the fishes’ curiosity,” she added confidently.

Tristan had heard of curiosity killing cats, but was unaware that a fish might meet the same fate.

Arianne led the way to the beach, picking out a course that brought them down the slope, across a chattering creek and onto the sand.

While Tristan remained in the saddle, Arianne dismounted and began to assemble her gear. He watched with bemusement as she attached a hook and a fly to the end of a fine, almost invisible line leading from the rod. Then she startled him by flicking the rod upward and back, then forward. He had a sense of the fly hurtling overhead, then hitting the water with a small splash.

He remained, observing for a moment, intrigued by the dexterity with which she handled the rod and worked the line. If anyone could catch a fish in this manner, he mused, it was probably Arianne. Again he found himself marvelling at her toughness, her resilience in surviving on a barren and unpromising world, her resourcefulness, achieving all that she did with what seemed to him pitifully inadequate tools.

He led her hippocybe back up the beach and tethered it with his own among the dunes. From this vantage point, he looked away along the sweep of the shoreline. Arianne, casting and reeling, casting and reeling, looked small and vulnerable amid its vastness. They were a man and a woman alone, a spark in the solitude. It felt like the dawn of time, like an opportunity to begin everything afresh.

He shook himself out of the reverie. If he took her away from here, a man on the run, he would be taking her into an uncertain future, and unimaginable danger. And yet, selfish though it was, he could not conceive of not taking her with him.

He began to busy himself with setting up the camp.

*****

“Ari.” He had never used the diminutive of her name before. It was a familiarity which others around her had permitted themselves. He felt like he was shouldering his way into the circle of the elite around her.

Arianne looked up from the fish on the griddle. It was large and silvery grey, and had a mouthful of small needle-sharp teeth which it appeared to be gnashing in a last gesture of defiance, even as Arianne strewed a funerary garland of herbs along its carcass.

She wore an expectant look. “Yes?”

“Ari, I am going to have to leave soon.”

She looked away, resuming her ministration to the fish. “I know.”

“I’m going to be a hunted man. The Nasty’s going to be on the lookout for me, wherever I go. And I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I don’t know how hard they’d try and catch me. I suppose it depends how important such things are to them. But there could be danger.”

“I know,” she said again, not looking up. She continued breaking off small stalks from the herb branch in her hand. The fish was already more than adequately garnished, but she needed to busy herself with something.

“And yet...”

She glanced up. Her eyes met his, twin steel blades fixing him to the spot. “And yet?”

“And yet I want you to come with me.”

Her expression softened immediately. “Well, thank goodness that’s over.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you don’t think I was going to let you go without me, did you? I was getting ready for a fight, in case you said you were going to love me and leave me.”

“It could get hairy out there.”

Her heart quickened at the prospect. Thelema had cradled her protectively, but for too long. Tristan had opened her eyes to all that lay beyond its skies, and suddenly she yearned to be out there, living a life of her own.

She threw herself on top of Tristan, kissing him passionately, grinding his skull into the sand.

*****

He woke, with pulsating, softly coloured light playing across the fabric of the tent. Immediately he knew that Arianne was gone from his side. Groping, he deseamed the flap and pushed it aside.

Arianne was sitting with her back to him, silhouetted against a spectacle of strange, silent curtains of colour billowing in the solar wind.

“I knew you’d come,” she murmured softly, not taking her eyes from the glowing iridescent drapery sweeping across the heavens. “This is what I really wanted you to see. The Northern Lights.”

Tristan put his arm around her and cuddled close, sharing her vigil. He wondered how it was that he had known to wake, sensing even in his subconscious that she was not there. The flickering light alone would not have been enough. The unspoken communication of lovers, that psychic bond shared by those truly on the same wavelength, was it kicking in already?

*****

Spring on Thelema was wet. Rivulets streamed down the window of Tristan’s cell. Arianne had brought the chaturanga board and a little low table. They were seated on soft cushions on the floor, deeply engrossed in the game. Arianne had made a deft flanking manoeuvre which had not only taken Tristan by surprise but had also taken control of a not insignificant portion of his territory.

“Shaag’s Gambit,” she chuckled, as Tristan gaped open-mouthed. She plucked half a dozen of his pieces from the board. “Didn’t you learn that one in boot camp?”

“No,” Tristan conceded. “I didn’t.”

Propping his chin with his hand, he studied the situation before him, anxious to retrieve something from the impasse that he had become embroiled in. As he stared fixedly at the board, he heard heavy shuffling footsteps approaching along the passage outside, accompanied by laboured breathing.

The bell tinkled.

“It’s your father,” Tristan said softly. Then he called out, “Come in.”

Alcofribas swept into the room, ruddy cheeked and panting. The cell suddenly seemed very crowded.

“Arianne, you’re wanted in the...” His gaze fell on the chaturanga board. “Bah!”

With a kick he sent the table and the board flying. The pieces clattered noisily across the floor. Grabbing a handful of Arianne’s dress, he dragged her to her feet. “Bitch! Who taught you to play this damnable game?”

Tristan lurched upright, only to be shoved floorward again by Alcofribas’ free hand. Stunned by the older man’s strength, he sat, leaning back on his hands.

“Temmar taught me,” said Arianne, struggling to disengage her clothing from Alcofribas’ grasp. “What of it?”

“You never told me!” Alcofribas roared. “Another damned subterfuge!”

“You are never there to tell,” Arianne grunted, pouring all her might into prising away one of her father’s fingers. “But who cares? It’s just a game.” She was working on the second finger. “Everyone plays it.”

“Damn you!” bellowed Alcofribas, shoving her to the floor beside Tristan. She stared up at him: she was trembling with fear and he with rage. “I lost Martine thanks to this stupid game, and I’m damned if I’ll lose you the same way!”

Alcofribas inhaled deeply. He became still, his head bowed, his arms limp.

“Father?”

“Don’t call me that.” His face was importunate, the mask of indignation crumbling to reveal desperation. He sank to his knees on the cushion before them, the tyrant turned supplicant in an instant.

Arianne reached out to him tenderly, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Why not?”

Alcofribas’ face was wet with tears. Slowly, from deep within himself, he dredged up the truth. “Because I’m not.”

Arianne struggled to understand. “Not... my father?”

Agony was writ large on Alcofribas’ features. The shame he had borne all the years since that afternoon in Simoon City had been held back behind an impenetrable dam of stoicism and reserve and a desperate keeping of his daughter at arm’s length, in the fear of just this eventuality. But now the dam was cracking.

“No!” he blubbered, burying his face in his lap. His broad arched back trembled as if an earthquake were coursing through him.

“Father?” With the utmost gentleness, Arianne took Alcofribas’ head in her hands and lifted it. He would not look at her, keeping his gaze downcast. “Fa... Alcofribas? Tell me. Who is my father?”

Alcofribas sobbed quietly. He drew a sigh, then mumbled a monosyllable.

Arianne thought she had misheard. She could not possibly have heard correctly. It was just not possible.

“Fa... Alcofribas. This is most important. I’m not sure I heard you correctly. Did you say that Hadd is my father?”

She expected him to ridicule her question. But he did not. Alcofribas nodded.

Her mind reeled, teetering before an abyss of insanity. She wrestled to bring out the words. “How is that possible?”

Alcofribas sat back on his haunches. He drew back his sleeve and mutely contemplated the old scars on his forearm. Then in slow, painful sentences, he took the man and the woman before him back in time, back to Sim-sim Simoon, a Naysayer world, but also a hunting ground for the Dynastic Leader. He drew for them a picture of the chaturanga game with the mayor, which of course he had won. He told how his beloved Martine had caught the eye of the lecherous ruler, and of his vigil before the door of the mayor’s residence while Martine lay with Hadd through the night. In the morning, the door had opened, and Martine had walked solemnly out into the sunshine and into Alcofribas’ arms.

Martine was, of course, as they later learned, with child. With assemblers in the reproductive tract, contraception was childishly simple for nano-man. But Hadd, being Hadd, couldn’t be bothered with this simple piece of programming. He left it to his women to take care of that side of things. And of course they did. All except the Naysayer woman.

Arianne hugged Alcofribas, her mind reeling as she sought to work out what this revelation meant for her. The temptation was to simply act as if it were not so, but in her heart she knew that her life was irrevocably altered, and that future events were unlikely to be hers to control.

They remained there in silence for some time. But then the silence was broken by a soft sibilance. Tristan started. It was a sound he knew too well. He rose, and went to the window.

There on the grass before the main gate was a small Dynastic vessel, a scout ship similar to the one he and the others had deserted in. Hot from its descent through the atmosphere, it steamed as the rain pelted down on it. A hatch opened, a walkway was extended, and three figures in Dynasty uniforms emerged, carrying pulse weapons. They ran towards the portal of the abbey.

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