Arianne emerged from the shower. She wished for a mirror. The biochip in her head picked it up and relayed a message to a section of the bulkhead, which reformulated its crystalline matrix to create a reflective surface. The first thing she saw was her own satisfied smile. She was still getting accustomed to the technology, and such sleights of hand still seemed to her to be little short of the magical.
She surveyed her body, and the smile of satisfaction lingered. While she had never been vain, she had always been aware of her own physical imperfections. What woman hadn’t? Down the centuries they had striven to deal themselves a better hand than nature had, submitting to all manner of grotesque tortures, including even surgery, inserting bits here, taking out other bits there, all to satisfy some sense of inadequacy. And now, with nanotechnology, it was all so simple. Call up a menu, tell the interface how long you want your legs, how big your bust, what colour your hair, and commands would be sent to the assemblers in your body to add, subtract, change, and then, if necessary, change again. Satisfaction guaranteed.
She had not strayed far from the original. Tristan had told her of men who had left home in the morning, only to be greeted by a completely different woman on returning home a few hours later: it seemed there had been a fair amount of accomodating, not to say ’cybe trading, in the early days of the technology. No, Arianne had not changed her hair, beyond giving it a little additional lustre. She was still recognisably Arianne Nasier. But she was leggier, tauter, firmer. Her breasts and buttocks seemed to defy gravity. Her stomach was flatter and more muscley.
It all seemed quite fitting somehow. She had this new identity to deal with, as the daughter of the current incarnation of Hadd, Shajah Ha’an by name, of the ancient Dynastic lineage, and, much as she wanted it to, that was not going to go away. Her father was who he was, and she was going to have to find some way to cope with that. Perhaps, she thought, a new physique might help her with the new persona.
Of course, she reflected, if she didn’t like the physique, she could always change it. Not so the persona.
The door slid open and Tristan entered. He approached her, putting his arms around her, massaging her spine with his fingers, kissing her neck, her throat, her shoulders. His wanting of her was so arousing, she melted in his embrace as he swept her towards the bed chamber.
“Who’s flying the ship?” she gasped between kisses.
“Autopilot,” he mumbled, as his embraces advanced steadily southwards.
They had been travelling for two months through the Outer Systems, where Dynasty patrols were few, and the chances of meeting up with like-minded malcontents were much greater. So far they had had no luck, but Tristan’s hopes remained high, and he continued to school Arianne on what to say, and what not to say, if they stumbled on deserters like himself, or others similarly hostile to the autocratic Dynasty regime.
Boltembar appeared on the screen, an unprepossessing ochre ball on the extreme edge of Dynasty space. Beyond, the stars were few and far between. Arianne had the impression that to look past Boltembar was to stare into the abyss.
“It’s a mining colony,” Tristan explained, reading the information off the viewscreen as they lurched into its upper atmosphere. “Robots fossicking for volatiles, that sort of thing.”
“I guess ‘volatile’ would be the watchword here,” said Arianne, watching the wisps of burnt umber cloud flying past the windows.
“I think it’s a real frontier sort of a place,” Tristan agreed. “Lawless. Wild...”
“...And we’re dropping in in a Dynasty patrol ship,” Arianne added. “That should guarantee us a warm welcome.”
Tristan nodded silently. He had done his best to reprogramme the assemblers in the skin of the ship to give her a different colour scheme, but they were hardwired to resist all attempts to subvert them.
“Our best hope,” he said, “is to put her down somewhere on the edge of a settlement and walk in. That way we get less unwanted attention.”
As the ship descended through the atmosphere, roiling masses of cloud attained a pea-soup density, diminishing the light from the planet’s sun to a weak luminescence, and gale force winds buffeted the craft with alarming intensity.
“It’s just like home in winter,” said Arianne through gritted teeth, all too aware of what she would be like now were it not for her body being under artificial control. Nanotechnology had done away with airsickness bags.
“Even so,” said Tristan, “a little mild weather now and then wouldn’t go astray.”
“Ha!” Arianne snorted. “That place you grew up made you soft!”
An alert sounded, drawing their attention to the fact that the landscape was rushing up to meet them, and it was a terrifying landscape to behold, a mountain range of tortured ridges and chasms, twisted back on themselves in fantastic convoluted patterns, a vast natural maze, with pinnacles like teeth that seemed to be forever on the verge of collapse.
“There’s a settlement in the lee of this range,” Tristan observed, his face a livid green as he peered at the viewscreen. “We’ll put down near it.”
There was a crash as the ship grazed one of the pinnacles and veered drunkenly into a gorge.
“If we ever get there,” Ariane added. The fact that her body’s newly acquired self-repair system assured her of invulnerability was something she had not yet got used to, and she was not quite sure she believed in it. It seemed unwise to put it to such an extreme test, and so soon.
The ship climbed a sheer precipice out of the gorge, scraping her belly on the lip as she did so. Monitors depicted the rate at which repairs were conducted, swiftly eradicating the scars on the hull. Jinking left, Tristan took them down into a broader valley with greater margin for error. Through breaks in the mist, Arianne saw huge boulders bouncing away into gloomy depths that looked like they reached to the bowels of the planet.
And so it continued for some time, this insane roller-coaster ride, the ship bucking, the computer compensating, and then a fresh blast pushing them alarmingly in some unexpected new direction. Until at last they sensed a greater openness ahead of them, and even some briefly glimpsed lights.
“This is it,” Tristan stated flatly.
There was a gut-wrenching impact, followed by juddering progress over the ground, which threatened to shake the vessel apart. Her progress slowed, and she finally came to a halt.
Tristan and Arianne donned protective face masks. They could already feel the shaking as the ship’s nanodevices set about repairing the damage inflicted by the landing. In an hour she would be ready to fly again.
Tristan opened the hatch, and the blast almost swept them off their feet. “Welcome to Boltembar,” he said with a grin.
They climbed out into a wilderness of russet-coloured rocks striated with tan dust, and swiftly shut the hatch behind them. They laboured forward into the teeth of the storm.
The miners’ colony was a few kilometres distant, but getting there was supremely difficult, and by the time they reached it, and could shelter behind its squat buildings, each partly buried in a drift of powdery dust, Arianne felt herself to be close to exhaustion, and Tristan, red in the face and panting, did not look much better.
“What do we do now?” asked Arianne, when she had caught her breath. She was looking around at the unpromising adobe buildings arranged on a grid pattern, arbitrarily set down in the desert. Few of them had signs to indicate their purpose.
“Simple,” Tristan answered. “We look for a Bypass joint.”
“Of course,” said Arianne, remembering what Tristan had told her about the illicit circumvention of the body’s molecular defence system to achieve inebriation. “And how do we recognise a Bypass joint?”
“Good question. The Dynasty, of course frowns on the stuff. It is illegal, though I’m damn sure the upper echelons use it all the time. So even out here they keep well hidden. And for another thing, as soon as you stop the flow of Bypass, you’re instantly sober again. None of the hangovers and vomiting of the old days. But something of the high remains. And that, hopefully, is how we will find a Bypass joint.”
As they penetrated further into the centre of the town, they saw more signs of life. There were a few people in sandy-coloured work clothes, many with air-filters on their faces. Through an archway, which was fitted with an air-pressure system to keep the dust out, they glimpsed what appeared to be an indoor market. Someone, somewhere on this unforgiving planet, was growing fruit and vegetables.
“Underground farms, without a doubt,” said Arianne, and Tristan nodded in agreement.
A little further along the same street, they met a man who greeted them with a nod and a beatific smile.
“Bypass,” said Tristan. “I’d know that smile anywhere. We must be getting warmer.”
They walked on for a few more minutes. As they passed the end of an alley, Arianne tugged Tristan’s sleeve. The both watched as a group of men and women emerged from a doorway with a shabby red awning over it. They were all smiling, and talking softly among themselves.
“Bingo!” Tristan hissed.
They waited for the glassy-eyed revellers to emerge from the alleyway, and then ducked into it. One of the women glanced at them over her shoulder. “Enjoy!” she called back to them.
As they approached the doorway, the duple-thump of a bassline became audible. A flight of steps led down into a cellar. It was dimly lit. “Not a good place to try and escape from if things turn nasty,” Tristan observed.
“Let’s just hope they don’t,” said Arianne softly. She followed Tristan down the steps.
In the gloomy basement, the rhythmic pumping of the music was the first overriding sensation. They not only heard it, they felt it coming up through the soles of their feet. An oasis of light in one corner marked out the bar. Working their way between closely packed tables, Tristan and Arianne advanced on it.
“Good afternoon,” said the barman. He was a lean, wiry character with short spiky hair. “Two litrepacks?”
Tristan nodded. He began to reach across to the handreader.
Arianne touched his forearm. “Let me get this one, darling,” she smiled.
Tristan saw what she was doing. It would be far too easy to trace his movements through a simple bar tab. The financial records of Naysayers like Arianne were far more obscure.
“If you’re sure,” he said, already stepping aside to give her access to the handreader on the counter. She pressed her palm into the yielding plastic.
The barman looked at her details on his screen. His eyebrows rose. “You folks are a long way from home,” he said in a decidedly louder voice, passing the Bypass containers over.
Tristan and Arianne became aware of a lull in the conversation, particularly from a large table in one corner, where some ten hunched figures sat. They straightened up, staring at the newcomers intently. Their corner of the room was less cluttered than the remainder. It gave Tristan the impression that a space had been deliberately cleared around them to prevent eavesdropping: his pulse quickened.
Not too far from them was a small table with two chairs. Tristan began striding resolutely towards it. Arianne followed him.
“That’s Dynasty marching if I ever saw it,” growled one of the men as they observed Tristan’s confident gait.
They stood as one, knocking over their chairs, and converged on Tristan menacingly, pulse-propelling guns in their hands.
“No!” screamed Arianne, leaping onto the back of the nearest and sinking her fingers into the fleshy folds of his throat.
Another, a woman, peeled away from the main group, effortlessly detached Arianne from the man’s back and engaged her in hand to hand combat.
The others surrounded Tristan, lifted him bodily and slammed him down across their table. Pinned, he found a PPG pressed against his cheekbone.
“What Dynasty parade ground tought you to walk like that, pal?” one of the men hissed. He pulled open the flap on a pocket of his jerkin and pulled out a Palmpak computer. “What’s your name?”
Tristan could hear Arianne wrestling with the woman, he could hear her grunts and shrieks, and the occasional curse from the other woman when she got some sensetive body part too close to Arianne’s teeth.
There seemed to be nothing for it. He was going to be terminated as a Dynasty agent. What an irony!
“Cray. Tristan Cray. But leave her...”
The man with the Palmpak keyed in the name and a search command. After a moment’s pause, during which Tristan listened to the continuing scuffling, interspersed with crashes as furniture on the other side of the room was upset, the man raised an eyebrow. He jerked his head in the direction of the bar.
Tristan was dragged off the table and hustled to the bar. He had the impression that the fight was not going Arianne’s way. Tristan’s arm was seized, and his hand was pressed into the reader. There was a pause, then it was released.
The barman turned the reader so that the man with the Palmpak could read it. He broke into a broad toothy smile. Shoving his computer back into his pocket, he pumped Tristan’s hand. “Ellen!” he yelled to the woman who now definitely had the better of Arianne. “Call it off! He’s one of us!”
By the time the two women shambled back to the main table, their cuts and bruises were already healing. Arianne was wiping a smear of blood from a cut lip with the back of her hand. The nose of the woman called Ellen was twitching disconcertingly as it regained its original shape.
Tristan was seated in the midst of the others, still trembling slightly. “You’re all deserters?” he asked, looking from one to another round the table.
“Every one,” said Ellen, drawing up chairs for Arianne and herself.
They introduced themselves. Pilots, like Bannon, the Palmpak man, whom they had elected as their leader, Cy, Howard and Dennis. Dennis had formerly been Denise, but was a nanotran, having programmed his assemblers to turn him from a woman to a man. There were terrestrial grunts like Jacob, Harvey, Lester and Siobann, the only other woman in the group besides Ellen. There was Richie, master nanohacker, and there was disaffected h.q. strategy expert Ellen. All had their stories to tell, all had their reasons for fleeing from a Dynasty career. But they wanted to hear about Tristan and Arianne.
So the newcomers told their tale. Tristan related how his father had been tortured, and how they had would up in some dead-end relocation camp, from which he had been drafted. He told how he had deserted and then wound up on Thelema, whereupon Arianne took up the thread and told how the Dynasty troops had come looking for Tristan, and how her father Alcofribas had killed them and dumped their bodies in a lake of sulphuric acid to destroy their homing devices.
“Not a chance,” said Richie at this point. He looked young and earnest, with wavy yellow locks sweeping down over his shoulders.
“What?” said Arianne, suddenly sensing danger.
“Take more than sulphuric acid to knock out a Dynasty homer,” Richie said. “Takes deep, deep hacking. I know. It’s how come the Nasty hasn’t tracked our ships here.”
“You have ships here?” said Tristan. “How many?”
“Never mind that!” snapped Arianne. “What do you mean?”
Richie looked grim. “They will have tracked those guys. And it’s going to be hard on your daddy. I’m sorry.”