Tristan and Arianne

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Chapter 21

Aurangzhebb, second son of Shajah Ha’an, scowled at his reflection on the bubble of the aircar and ran his hand through his slick black locks. He felt, as always, that he had good reason to scowl. His incompetent, mincing elder brother, Dara Shukoh, was next in line to be Hadd, to be One, to be master of the Dynasty, whenever Shajah Ha’an saw fit to relinquish the reins, and then his - Dara’s - brat, when he had one, would rule after that. And all the time it was so absurdly obvious that he, Aurangzhebb, was infinitely more suited to rule. After all, he wanted to rule, which was more than could be said for Dara. He, Aurangzhebb, would rule with an iron fist in an iron glove. He would bring recalcitrant systems into line, he would stop the haemorrhaging of deserters, and he would make such an example of them that no one would dare to run away! There would be no more of this human rights nonsense. History was littered with great empires that had peaked and then declined into soft decadence, and it looked as if Hadd was headed in the same direction. But he, Aurangzhebb, would stop the rot, and future generations would thank him for it.

He looked down again and ground his teeth. Below him, Shajah Ha’an’s Auverna Palace of the Winds spread like a vast, intricately patterned carpet to the horizon and beyond. Where once simple peasants had grazed their relf on the zomo scrub of the limestone uplands, there now stood Hadd’s latest pleasure dome, all constructed for him in the current style, elegantly conservative, with the shape of a sine-wave as its hallmark: endless mansions, courtyards, walkways, gardens, landscaped parklands, retreats, manor houses, sparkling lakes and waterways, fountains spilling into huge ornate basins, follies among the trees, bridges, terraces and avenues lined with intertwined subim trees and aroma figs. Shajah Ha’an had always been inordinately fond of the Hadd symbol, Aurangzhebb recalled with bitterness. He himself saw it as a symbol of weakness. He would have to consider instituting a new one.

It was not as if this was Shajah Ha’an’s first such creation. He had built similar edifices on other worlds. Aurangzhebb fumed when he considered how his father frittered away his time on such fancies, forever locked in consultation with his beloved architect, Jisepp Mengon, while the Dynasty crumbled at the edges and poisonous treachery crept ever closer to its heart.

He had seen enough. He ordered the aircar pilot to return him to his ship.

*****

Red...polychrome...red...polychrome...red... Jisepp Mengon wished he could turn off the flashing that coloured his whole world. Assemblers positioned directly in front of his retinas were flashing out a dire warning. Their effect was to turn the sky crimson as he watched Aurangzhebb’s aircar pass. Where he stood, on the highest tower of the Palace of the Winds, the aircar was on a level with him, and he fancied he could see Aurangzhebb peering out. ...Red...polychrome...red... He knew what Aurangzhebb thought of his creation, but it was of no concern. No more than the flashing. ...Polychrome...red...polychrome... It would be all over soon. It would not bother him any more.

Nor would the voice repeating constantly in his ears. “Your life-preserving assemblers have been deactivated. You may suffer injury or death. Your life-preserving assemblers...” He scarcely noticed it any more.

Slowly, with great deliberation, he walked around the tower, trying to absorb what he saw with maximum concentration during the bursts when he saw all the colours. The tower was not only the highest, it was also central. He could see his finest work spread before him on all sides. It was perfect.

He was grateful to Shalmuk for doing what he did, even though he knew he did it for the money. In the time before nanotech, even the “natural” lifespan of a human being had proved intolerable for many. How much greater, then, was the burden of immortality? Jisepp’s finest work was done. He knew that: the evidence was there before his eyes. He could not improve on it, so what was to remain? Sinking further into parody of himself? He could not let it happen.

So he had sought out Shalmuk, whose reputation as a disassembler he had heard of. Shalmuk had been terrified at first, on being confronted by such a close companion of Hadd, believing that he had been found out and that he was being arrested. It had taken a great deal of persuading before he would accept that his services were genuinely being sought.

Shalmuk! A master of the arcane art of nanomanipulation, he was among the chosen few who could penetrate the layer upon layer of firewall within a Personal Nanocomputer and give the command to cell-repairing assemblers within someone’s body that would shut them down.

But even Shalmuk could not switch off the hardwired warning signals. ...Polychrome...red...polychrome...red...polychrome... Even he could not silence the voice which whispered nanometres from Jisepp’s tympani. “...Deactivated. You may suffer injury or death. Your life-preserving...”

Jisepp watched as Aurangzhebb’s aircar banked and turned away in the direction of the spaceport, accelerating as it did so. His vision was now not only impaired by an intermittent carmine filter, but also blurred by tears. With trembling hands, he pulled himself onto the guardrail, and, barely pausing, launched himself into space.

*****

Tristan Cray found himself once again watching the marbled surface of Thelema grow ever more distinct as it drew nearer. He reflected on how things had changed since the last time. Then it had been with Smeed, Jokesh and Montague, on the run from a Dynasty frigate. The planet ahead had been an unknown, simply a place of refuge. This time he was still a deserter, but he wasn’t on the run, at least, not at the moment. And he was in a convoy.

Besides his own ship, which carried Arianne, Richie the nanohacker - a slender, slightly crazy-looking man with frizzy hair - and himself, there were two SLUFFs and a BLUFF. SLUFFs were Short Little Ugly Fat Fellers, snub-nosed fighter ships for close-range combat. BLUFFs were Big Long Ugly Fat Fellers, not unlike the patrol ship he and Smeed and the others had been assigned to. Bannon, Jacob and Lester were in one of the SLUFFs, Cy, Siobhann and Ellen were in the other. Howard, Dennis and Harvey were in the BLUFF. With their numbers evenly spread between the four ships, no one ship was more vulnerable than the others, although the BLUFF was the slowest and the least manoeuverable in a fire fight.

Tristan looked at Arianne. Her eyes were filled with deep melancholy, and he took her hand.

“It’ll be all right. You’ll see.” But he was not convincing.

During the trip, he had tried to occupy her mind, talking about the struggle against the hereditary rulers of the Dynasty, Hadd and his brood, and how, if one took democracy to its logical extreme, there was no place for them in it. He had talked about how the government of the entire star cluster had to be not only more open and accountable but also more responsive, more genuinely in touch with the needs of its people. And Arianne had nodded, struggling at times to concentrate, to block out her fears. Of course she agreed, it was entirely logical: only those with a vested interest in the status quo, and some diehard traditionalists, would fight to preserve it. After all, hadn’t she been prepared to abandon the lifestyle she had cherished when someone showed her a better way?

But it had all seemed abstract. An ideal. It wasn’t something that flowed in her blood the way it did for the others. And she was continually preoccupied with her father.

The atmosphere kicked at them. They bucked and swooped down through it, until the clouds parted and they saw the ocean glinting below. Tristan led the convoy, guided by Arianne. A beach flashed past, like the one they had fished from, then a belt of stunted forest, which gave way in turn to tundra.

Tristan watched for familiar landmarks. They came in low over the lake, and at last he saw the spray rising above Gullfoss.

“At least it’s not raining,” he said lightly.

Arianne did not reply. He followed her gaze, and saw the grey smear of smoke on the horizon. They dipped into the rift valley and began to decelerate. Arianne sat erect, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Then they rounded the last headland, and she crammed her fist into her mouth.

The secular abbey of Thelema was no more. The elegant white honeycomb structure was charred and pitted with holes, and its roof was blown off, as if some monstrous creature had hatched from its egg and stomped off into the wilderness. The greenhouses, workshops and other outbuildings had been razed to the ground. In the paddocks, cybes lay inert, and human bodies could be seen on the pathways, apparently shot down as they ran.

Bannon’s voice came over the intercom. “Weapons primed, everyone.”

They all reached for their guns. Even Arianne, who was still uncomfortable with firearms, pulled her pulse rifle from its locker. The ships set down gently on the lawns in front of the main entrance, Tristan’s craft landing in almost the same spot it had occupied before.

The hatches opened almost simultaneously, and the men and women were disgorged onto the grass. Slowly, watchfully, they began to move towards the portal.

Arianne could stand it no longer. She ran, pushing aside the door, which hung by a single hinge, and burst into the grand entrance hall. It was open to the sky. There were corpses everywhere, innocent, unarmed men and women going about the pursuit of knowledge. But they had crossed the Dynasty, and that was fatal.

Arianne looked from one contorted face to another. She had known them all, to a greater or a lesser degree. She felt sick. Her head swam with the stench.

Tristan came and stood beside her, a solicitous hand on her shoulder. As if in a trance, she walked away in the direction of Alcofribas’ quarters. As she picked her way over the rubble on the steps, she leaned against a charred beam that was poised precariously. It crashed down beside her in a cloud of dust, but she barely noticed it.

“Father? Father?” She could not bring herself to call him anything else. “It’s me, Arianne. I’ve come back.” Her calls echoed in the stillness.

She pushed open the door to her father’s reception room. It had been torched. The shafts of light from the high windows cut through a dense, acrid fog. The walls and ceilings were blackened and the furniture reduced to skeletal remains. An unholy slurry of ash and melted plastic carpeted the floor. She went from room to room. In every one, the story was the same.

Outside, she wiped her eyes with soot-stained fingers. She saw that Tristan and the others had been joined by four newcomers. She recognised them at once as the palaeontologist, Master Shale, and Tristan’s three friends, Smeed, Jokesh and Montague. They still had the bearing of children, hanging back shyly. Shale had been out on a ramble with them when the Dynasty ships had come, and had managed to keep them hidden. But the sights they had seen on their return to the abbey had traumatised them. They were like zombies.

“Master Shale,” Arianne managed to say as she drew close. Everything in the old man’s bearing suggested he was the bearer of bad tidings. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Come with me, Arianne,” he said in a kindly voice, and led her away along the path that led across the valley. She clung desperately to his arm. She knew where he was taking her. The others followed at a distance.

The little cemetary was filling fast. Smeed, Jokesh and Montague had worked tirelessly for three weeks digging graves. Their shovels, salvaged from the ruins of an outhouse, were plunged into the soft earth at the side of the latest. And there were many more victims still to bury.

The graves were all unmarked, for there was nothing to mark them with. But one bore a piece of basalt culled from the cliffs in the valley-side nearby.

Master Shale gestured to it. “They shot him.” No more needed to be said.

Arianne stumbled to the graveside. She was trembling. Sensing Tristan close behind her, she spun, clasped him, buried her face in his chest. “How could they do this?” she wailed. “How could they do this?”

Presently, Arianne asked if she might be left alone for a few minutes with her father. Tristan and the others withdrew. As they began to make their way back along the path, Tristan glanced back repeatedly at Arianne, kneeling by Alcofribas’ grave, her back turned and her shoulders hunched.

Arianne stood up at last, her tears splashing heavily onto the soft soil at her feet. The struggle for democracy was no longer abstract. It was personal now, very personal.

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