Two men and a woman in Dynasty uniform clumped into the entrance hall, shaking the rain off their weapons. At the sight of them, people shied away. The leader, a man named DeGreave, reached out to grab a passing woman. She let out a shriek, hastening backwards, with DeGreave and the others stumbling after her. She backed to the edge of the carp pond.
DeGreave’s gloved hand closed about her throat. He raised the pulse rifle menacingly, pressing the muzzle against her neck. “Take us to your leader,” he commanded. “Or we might use this place for target practice.”
The other man spoke hesitantly. “Cap?”
DeGreave looked round. He loosened his grip and the woman slipped away.
Previously, the monks of the abbey had been going about their business, their paths leading them in all directions. At the appearance of the troops, that immediately changed, in accordance with Alcofribas’ briefing. They formed a circle, and an unheard signal summoned everyone else in the abbey to swell their ranks. A human noose surrounded the three Dynasty soldiers, and began to close.
It was an interesting phenomenon. The three uniformed figures of authority in the centre were the ones holding the guns, but it was the unarmed, pacific monks who held the power. It had happened many times in history that armed troops had opened fire on unarmed civilians, but it was often a heated moment when the soldier’s moral sense did not have time to come into play. Alcofribas had carefully coached his people to remain calm, and to appear as unthreatening as possible.
As more acolytes arrived, the inner edge of the torus shuffled forward. The men and women of whom it was composed gave the appearance of being propelled forward against their will.
DeGreave levelled his weapon, and his two companions imitated him.
“Stop! I’ll shoot!” DeGreave threatened. But his mien betrayed him. He was not a man in control, but he was not a mass murderer either.
The crowd pressed ever closer, imposing its collective will on the servants of the Dynasty. Those at the forefront no longer made any pretence of resisting the pressure from behind. There was a look of determination in their faces, reminiscent of an animal at bay that turns at last to face its hunters.
In the end, it became all too easy to reach out and take the weapons from the limp hands of the troops. It was, in every sense, a moral victory.
The crowd parted as Alcofribas came through. He took the pulse rifles in his arm like a sheaf of harvested wheat. He nodded to those nearest the soldiers, and they were hustled away.
When the crowd had largely dispersed, Arianne and Tristan emerged from Arianne’s quarters. She had hastily changed, and was now wearing the same durable leather coat, pants and boots that she had been wearing when she had found Tristan, for both practical and sentimental reasons. Over her shoulder she carried a duffel bag containing some favourite music and books, and a holo of Alcofribas. Tristan, as always, wore his nanosuit.
He handed Alcofribas the nano-device which would intensify the sulphur content of the pool which would be the Dynasty people’s last resting place. Tristan had triumphed over the Naysayers, but not in the way he had intended.
Alcofribas presented Tristan and Arianne with the guns. “Something tells me you might need these,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.
Arianne hesitated. Guns were normally repugnant to her, but she sensed that this was probably not the time or the place for such qualms. She took one and slung it across her back. She took a second one in her hands and hefted it. “How do you work one of these?” she asked.
Tristan took the third from Alcofribas and demonstrated. “This is the safety catch here. As you see, they are already off.” He looked at Arianne’s hands as she held the pulse rifle, imitating his pose. To his eyes they seemed ill suited to handling a weapon of war. “For long-range work you have a laser sight on the top here. There’s a monopod underneath to support the weapon in prone firing. Battery pack is here on the side. Energy-dispersant flanges along the barrel, here. You can choose between a single shot and continuous fire with this switch here, and you fire by pressing this red patch here by your thumb.”
They were as ready as they would ever be. There was much still to say, but it would remain unsaid. With Alcofribas, they strode across the hall to the door.
Alcofribas embraced Tristan. “Forgive the possessiveness of an old man,” he said.
Tristan smiled. “Forgiven.”
Alcofribas too forced a smile. “Give ’em hell,” he said.
“You’ll look after Smeed and Jokesh and Montague?” Tristan asked.
“As if they were my own children,” said Alcofribas, with just a hint of irony. He turned, and clasped Arianne to his bosom. “What do you plan to do?” he asked.
Arianne sighed. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Alcofribas looked her in the eyes. “Take care,” he urged. “You’re all that I have.” And he anointed her brow with a kiss.
Tristan moved to the doorway and peered out into the rain. It was a mercifully brief dash to the ship’s walkway. Arianne watched as he bolted across and disappeared inside.
There was a brief exchange of fire, then a silence. Arianne grasped Alcofribas’ hand.
After a heart-stopping interval, Tristan reappeared in the doorway, dragging the limp body of a fourth crew member, a second woman. The electromagnetic pulse from Tristan’s weapon would have temporarily thrown her body’s assemblers into disarray. By the time she recovered, she would be Alcofribas’ prisoner.
Tristan heaved the body off the walkway onto the wet grass, and signalled for Arianne to join him. She gave Alcofribas a farewell kiss and raced to board the ship.
The walkway withdrew into the ship’s underbelly, and the hatch closed. Through rheumy eyes, Alcofribas saw Arianne’s face at the bridge window. She waved.
With a soft hiss, the ship rose from the ground, paused for a second, then climbed rapidly, soon lost in the rainclouds.
Alcofribas gave curt orders for the woman on the grass to be put with the other prisoners. Then he retired to his room to weep.
Arianne moved away from the window, wondering when she would see Alcofribas again. She sank into a chair, luxuriating as it moulded itself to every contour of her body. It would not have surprised her to learn that the moulding extended to the whorls of her fingerprints as her hands rested on the arms. She watched Tristan’s hands move busily, expertly, over the controls. She resolved to learn to do what he did.
In moments, the cloud belt had washed away behind them. The vault of space was soon not just above them but all around, fading with startling rapidity from indigo to black, and the spectacular panoply of stars was laid out for her to admire, a merchant’s wares spread for her to pick and choose.
“Where are we going?” she said at last.
Tristan looked up, his hands frozen in mid-dart. “Out,” he said. “Out to the outermost of the Dynastic Systems, and, if necessary, beyond.”
Arianne did not reply. A welter of conflicting emotions washed over her. Anguish at leaving her father - she could not help but think of him as such - while the wound of his unburdening of his soul was still open and unstaunched. Guilt also, for she knew that the abbey’s Dynastic prisoners would be dispatched to decompose at the bottom of a pool of sulphuric acid, these were people who had believed something close to immortality was their birthright. Trepidation, too, at the sudden discovery that she was of the Dynastic bloodline.
And joy, when she considered how, in such a short interval, her world had turned upside down. She had considered herself destined to live out her “natural” life on Thelema, handmaiden to Alcofribas and to the Naysayer cause, pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake and feeling desperately lonely. And now, here she was, side by side with her new-found lover, on the run from the authorities, bound not only for the Outer Systems, but, possibly, beyond, when the vast majority of the population of the Dynastic Systems had no inkling that they even had a beyond!
There was no telling where this adventure would end, whether in death or in glory. That would be revealed in due course. But for the present, Arianne was determined to suck its marrow and savour it to the utmost.
End of Part One