He’s waking up! Quick! Get Bannon!”
Tristan heard the words penetrating his dream. The voice was female, and familiar to him. He felt that he should be able to place it.
He opened his eyes. The lights were bright. There was a woman staring down at him. She had short dark hair, and her brown eyes were filled with anxiety.
The expression changed to one of utter joy. “You remember me!” she squealed in delight. “Oh my God, it worked!”
Tristan was perplexed. “What worked? Why shouldn’t I remember you?” And then the recollection came back. For a sudden chilling moment he was reliving it: the screams, the rebels being taken away, Arianne with that huge ape holding her, and then the flash of sunlight on a raised PPG...
Bannon rushed in. “Tristan!” he beamed. “Welcome back to the land of the living!”
“It’s good to be back, Bannon.”
“So it worked? You remember us? You remember everything?”
Tristan looked away glumly. “I remember too much,” he said quietly.
Some of the other members of Bannon’s inner circle filtered into the room and gathered at the foot of Tristan’s bed. “Some of us have been away on operations,” Richie said. “Can you fill us in on the secret? How does a man have half his head blown away and yet retain all his memories?”
“Simple,” said Tristan with a smile. “Backup. When I was on Thelema, I met an old man called Master Burgess Shale, who had made a study of the prehistory of many worlds throughout the Dynasty, and had propounded a theory, Shale’s Theory, which states that there is a phase in the evolution of life on every planet where it does generate, when nature experiments with megafauna. Any planet you can name that has life, if they’ve dug around, they’ve always found really big fossils. Always.”
“Yeah,” said Richie. “And?”
“And some of these ancient animals were really weird. Some of them, so Master Shale said, had tiny little brains in their heads, and then a whole separate brain at the base of the spine to control the tail. So that gave me the idea. I had my whole brain replicated on a nanocomputer which I had attached to my coccyx. Then, after I was shot, my brain tissue self-repaired, and then I had all my memories and everything else transferred back into it. Simple.”
He looked around at the dumbfounded faces. “It seems like the sensible thing to do if you’re going into a risky situation,” he explained, “but since no one had done it before, I figured it would be good to test it out on myself first.”
They all nodded in agreement. “Simple,” they declared.
“They what?” The polyhedral bridge of the Beacon of Hadd fairly shook with its master’s rage. “You let them escape?”
On the main viewing screen, the bearer of bad tidings blanched. The light years separating him from Aurangzhebb seemed scarcely adequate to protect him from the wrath of the Hadd.
“But sir,” he began falteringly, “What can the... what can your father do to us? It’s only he and your sister.”
“Great Isaac’s shade, man!” Aurangzhebb roared. “Are you a complete moron? When I replaced him, do you really think everyone who wears that uniform instantly and genuinely switched allegiance to me? Of course they didn’t! They pay lip service, of course, because they know I can make things very unpleasant for them if I even suspect their loyalty. Very unpleasant indeed. There are thousands out there still essentially loyal to Shajah Ha’an.” He leaned closer to the screen. “For all I know, you might be one of them.”
The man before him stiffened. “No sir, not...”
“Or the commander of the penitentiary station. Whose name is, by the way...?”
“Newgate. Good. The thing is, Captain, with my father neatly out of the way, all those loyal to him were effectively ronin, masterless warriors, running round like headless chickens. Now,” Aurangzhebb went on, an expression of extreme distaste creasing his countenance, “he will be seen as a leader returning to his people. That, Captain,” he added, his voice deep and sinister, “must not be allowed to happen.”
The man on the screen swallowed hard. “I will commit all our resources to tracking him down.”
“Good. And Captain?”
The messenger hesitated, not sure if he had understood correctly. “P-permanently, sir?”
“Yes, permanently. His self-repair system is to be flushed from his body, and he is to be killed.”
“It is time,” Aurangzhebb added thoughtfully, “to resort to some old-fashioned measures. I want his dead body set up in the Plaza of the People on the home world. I want it made clear that this will henceforth be the price of treachery or incompetence.”
The man shuddered visibly. Dead! Death had been abolished, done away with! And now here was Aurangzhebb bringing it back as a punishment. It was barbaric, but then, by all accounts so was Aurangzhebb! “Yes, sir.”
“That is all,” Aurangzhebb said bluntly, and terminated the communication.
It was only an hour after this that Adjutant Tyburn presented herself with more disconcerting news for Aurangzhebb. She, however, did not have the benefit of a vast gulf of empty space separating her from her leader: she had to face him in person, and the mood he was in following the report of the escape of Shajah Ha’an and Jahann’ara filled her with black foreboding as she arrived on the bridge. She could not tell the exact import of the news she bore, but something in her bones told her that it was not something Aurangzhebb was going to want to hear. When she had heard it, she had felt tempted to simply ignore it, to try and pretend that it didn’t exist, but it was a sure-fire certainty that if she did that, Aurangzhebb would hear of it by some roundabout route, and then she would be in even deeper trouble.
She was expected, and ushered into Aurangzhebb’s quarters by a petty officer who gave her a look that he obviously thought was encouraging. She smiled weakly, and opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment the door to Aurangzhebb’s briefing room slid open and a voice from within boomed, “Enter!”
She stepped into the room and froze solid in the doorway. She had glimpsed the leader from time to time in the year that she had been posted to the flagship of the Dynastic fleet, but always from a distance, and never one-on-one like this.
He was studying what appeared to be strategic diagrams on a viewscreen, and was partly turned away from her. He turned to face her, and she drew in her breath sharply. His features themselves bore testimony to the message she carried.
Glacial blue eyes examined her slowly from head to foot. Aurangzhebb’s reputation as a lecher was well known to her. Even though the Dynasty uniforms were skin tight, it was considered common courtesy not to stare. Aurangzhebb stared long and hard. She felt naked under his penetrating gaze.
At last his eyes met hers, and he gave a slight smile. “And who might you be?” he asked.
“Adjutant Tyburn, sir,” she said softly.
“And what do you have for me, Adjutant Tyburn?”
She shifted her feet awkwardly. “Well, sir, we were examining the prisoners from the raid on Auverna, sir, and we found some anomalous readings on one of them.”
“What kind of anomalous readings, Adjutant?”
“It’s her DNA, sir. Well, it bears a stunning similarity to... well, to your own.”
Aurangzhebb scowled. “It’s obviously a mistake. Don’t bother me with such trivia.”
Tyburn now felt her honour was being impugned. “Beg pardon, sir, but there’s no mistake. We’ve double-, treble- and quadruple-checked. We wouldn’t disturb you, sir, unless we were a hundred per cent certain of the facts. And besides...”
It was true. He knew the fear he inspired. Junior crew members would not come visiting unless they absolutely had to. Aurangzhebb’s eyebrow twitched. “Besides?”
“Well, sir, if I may say, the physical resemblance is unmistakeable. She could be another sister.”
Aurangzhebb reached out his hand. “Show me that.”
The report plaque containing the statistics on the prisoners hung forgotten from Adjutant Tyburn’s fingers. She handed it to him at arm’s length, trying to keep as much distance between them as possible.
Aurangzhebb took the plaque and pored over it. “Seventy per cent overall DNA match,” he read aloud. “Perfect matches identified on chromosomes eight, ten, eleven, thirteen...” He turned again to the adjutant. “Bring this woman to me,” he ordered.
Arianne was ushered in, her wrists manacled. The woman called Tyburn hovered at her shoulder, nervously fingering the PPG on her belt.
“Tyburn, wait outside,” Aurangzhebb commanded. He smiled a sickly smile. “I may have need of you later.”
Arianne felt sick in her stomach. She knew what that smile meant. Like father, like son, she reflected.
“But, sir,” Tyburn protested meekly, “she’s a dangerous prisoner.”
Aurangzhebb looked Arianne over. “She doesn’t look so dangerous to me. And you’ll be within hailing distance, won’t you?”
Tyburn nodded and disappeared from view.
Arianne assessed Aurangzhebb with mixed emotions. It was true: the family likeness was unmistakeable and quite fascinating. And yet, a single glance told her that she was dealing here with an incarnation of pure evil. She felt her knees turning to jelly.
He faced her, hands on hips, feet spread wide, arrogance and super-confidence oozing from every pore. “Well?” he demanded. “Explain!”
“Blood and sand, woman, don’t play games with me!” he exploded. “Explain how it is that you look like my sister, how you have the Hadd genes running in your veins!”
Arianne smiled inwardly. Getting him to elaborate, and to lose control into the bargain, that was a victory of sorts. First blood to her. “We have the same father,” she said simply.
Aurangzhebb was turning puce. “Not possible!” he yelled. “Every woman my father has slept with would have had contraception built into her body’s self repair systems.”
“Not every woman,” Arianne asserted calmly. “Not Naysayer women.”
“Naysayers?” said Aurangzhebb, taken aback. “Those crackpots? When would my father ever have bedded one of those?”
“Sim-sim Simoon, twentysomething years ago.”
Aurangzhebb looked at her again. “You’re not a Naysayer. You’re much too good looking.”
“Not now, I’m not. But I was till recently.”
“Saw the error of your ways, did you?” cackled Aurangzhebb triumphantly.
“If you want to put it like that.”
He stared at her. He sensed at once that she was telling the truth. “Fool!” he bellowed. “The bloody fool! He never could keep his dick in his pants for five minutes together!” He went to the door. “Tyburn!” Adjutant Tyburn appeared. “Take her back to the cells. But tell those yahoo guards down there that she is not to be touched! Anyone who lays a finger on her without my say so will be out there sucking vacuum! Understood?”
Tyburn nodded. “Yes, sir.” She took Arianne by the elbow and led her away.
As they left, Aurangzhebb muttered darkly, “I may have some use for you. Sister.”