Tristan and Arianne

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Chapter 29

The coded message had reached the Heisenberg by one roundabout route, passing through several intermediaries along the way, while the cipher enabling it to be read travelled by a different but equally circuitous route. In this way, if either were intercepted by the Dynasty’s spies, it would be useless. However, the cipher arrived a day after the message, resulting in twenty-four hours of nail-biting tension.

Once the cipher had arrived, it was a matter of a few minutes to convert the message into plain text. It contained a simple set of coordinates and an admonition to come alone. Tristan, alone and miserable without Arianne, and champing at the bit to see some action, put in a bid with Bannon to be the rebels’ emissary, and Bannon could not find it in his heart to refuse him.

Within an hour, Tristan’s SLUFF was powering off the great ship’s flight deck. Once he was clear of the main shipping lanes in the area, he fed the coordinates into the navigational computer and engaged the automatic pilot. He set the pilot’s chair into a reclining position and pulled a book plaque from his cabin bag. It would take the best part of a week to get where he was going, so he knew he would have plenty of time to catch up on some reading.

But he found his thoughts wandering constantly. Arianne was the love of his life, and he had allowed her to fall into the hands of a monster. He tortured himself constantly, thinking of how he should have been firmer in keeping her from coming on the raid, hwo he should have ensured that if anyone was going to get captured, it should have been him, not her. She had had no military training to help her withstand interrogation, and... He broke down. He could not bear to think of what they might have done to her.

Eventually, the tears stopped coming. For the moment. It was going to be a long week. But he consoled himself with the thought that this mission might be the turning point in the war, and he was determined that he would live through it to have his revenge on Aurangzhebb.

He was still thinking of novel ways of inflicting pain on the usurper of the Throne of Hadd when an alarm sounded, denoting that Dynasty ships had been detected on an intercepting course. Without any intervention from him, his vessel automatically adopted a new course, diverging from theirs, and he waited anxiously to see if they had spotted him and were going to give chase. But they appeared to be concentrating on bigger fish elsewhere, and did not falter from their course.

Tristan sighed. It was indeed going to be a long week.

*****

Tristan was sleeping fitfully when the alarm roused him. He woke from anguished dreams and looked around. It felt hot, and he vaguely remembered turning up the climate control in the hope that it might help him sleep. He reached out and turned it down again, thinking that he might have overdone it a little.

And then he saw it on the viewscreen: his destination. P175 was its designation in the star charts. Way out on the fringe of known space, it had not been given a proper name, and had certainly not been explored.

He cancelled the alarm, took a long draught from his water canteen, and gave the command to begin a planetwide scan for technology, specifically a ship, probably a small scoutcraft similar to his own. As the world on his viewscreen grew larger, he struggled to make out some details, but the star it orbited was distant and dim, and it required an overlay from the radar mapper to get a sense of even the basic topography.

The SLUFF entered a parking orbit above the equator of P175, from which all but the poles could be surveyed. He had completed four orbits, and was beginning to despair, when at last a different note sounded from the control panel in front of him, and a green light winked excitedly. He had found what he was looking for.

He brought the SLUFF down through the clouds, homing in cautiously on the location of the ship he had detected. Beneath the cloud cover, feeble, diffuse light picked out mountainous terrain and deep valleys, all swathed in a sickly yellowish blanket, which his sensors identified as sulphur and sulphur dioxide snow.

His instruments said he was only a kilometre or two from his target, and he squinted anxiously at the screen, but could see nothing. He was descending from the mountains into a broad flat-bottomed valley, which his sensors told him was a lake of frozen methane: it was going to be cold out there, very, very cold. But he could still see no ship. His spotlight played across the yellow snow beneath him as the signal from his detector grew ever more strident.

And then there it was. The light picked out a mound, the same colour as the surrounding terrain. It had to be the ship, snow-covered.

“Well,” Tristan muttered, “it’s well camouflaged if nothing else.”

Expecting at any moment to be blasted out of the sky by unseen enemy positions, he slowly eased his ship down a few metres from the sulphurous mound. As it came to rest, he was already out of his chair and making for the locker in which hung a large, bulky environmental protection suit, complete with its self-contained life support system.

He eased himself into the suit and snapped on the helmet. He activated the heating system and stretched and moved, checking that his mobility was unimpaired, just in case he had to make a run for it. An arc of green lights around his chin told him that all the suit’s systems were functioning at full efficiency. At the temperature out on the surface, even the best self-repair nanosystems would be working sluggishly.

Tristan clipped a PPG onto his hip, making sure he could reach it and close the contact in a hurry. He stabbed the airlock control with a gloved finger, and the inner hatch slid open invitingly.

When the inner hatch had closed behind him and the airlock had been purged of air, he opened the outer door. He shuddered, knowing that conditions utterly inimical to human life were no further away than the thickness of his suit.

Out on the surface, his boots made a satisfying crunch on the yellow snow, and left crisp indentations to mark his progress. He looked around, his nano-assisted vision picking out details in the dim twilight, and the phrase which came to his mind was “magnificent desolation”.

He took a few more paces towards the mound, and then stopped sharp at the sight of sudden motion. His weapon was in his hand in a moment, and trained.

The opening of a hatch in the side of the buried craft ahead of him brought on a small avalanche. A patch of light appeared, projected onto the jaundiced ground, and in the middle of it was cast the shadow of a man.

The figure, dressed in a suit almost identical to Tristan’s, advanced down a ramp. When he saw Tristan’s firearm levelled at his head, he raised his hands. With his left hand, Tristan gestured for the man to continue to advance, and he complied.

Slowly, with great deliberation, the man extended his right index finger towards a panel on his left wrist, and pecked nervously. Behind him, the ramp retracted into the side of his ship and the hatch closed. Cleared of snow, the hatch could clearly be seen to bear the Dynastic insignia of the entwined subim tree and aroma fig, looking peculiarly out of place in the frigid wilderness all around.

The man came closer. Eagerly, Tristan sought to make out the features behind the visor.

“H-hadd?” he asked tremulously.

The man gave a simple nod. Tristan gestured for him to continue past him into the waiting SLUFF. The man complied. What, Tristan wondered as he pivoted on his foot and followed behind, his gun pointed unwaveringly at the man’s back, if they had sent an imposter?

When they were back in the little ship’s cabin, they removed their helmets, and Tristan looked at the other man. He had wavy golden hair and high, sculptured cheekbones, as well as piercing blue eyes. He looked like every picture he had ever seen of the Leader of the Dynasty. And the resemblance to Arianne was quite remarkable.

Arianne. He had done so much to try and keep from thinking about her, but now the memories of her came crashing in once more. And he knew again what this whole exercise was about. For him at any rate, it was not about winning the war, that was incidental. It was about rescuing the woman he loved, saving her from this man’s son.

“Hadd?” he asked again.

“Yes,” said the other man. “At least, to those who are still loyal to me. Those who see my son as an unprincipled usurper. And you are...?”

“My name is Tristan Cray.” He hesitated. “You... you have a daughter that you know nothing about. By a Naysayer woman. I love her. But she has been captured, and is being held, we think, by your son.”

Shajah Ha’an drew a deep breath. His mouth worked silently for a moment, then he said: “So we both have reasons to detest Aurangzhebb.” He thought for a moment of Dara Shukoh, and felt the anger rise once more in his throat. “But tell me about this daughter.”

Tristan drew a small container from a drawer. “In a moment. First I must do this to ascertain that you are who you say you are.” He placed on the back of Shajah Ha’an’s hand a small patch that was connected by a thin tube to the container. In the lid of the container was a screen. Richie, the Heisenberg’s ace hacker-in-residence, had successfully broken into the personal files of the Dynastic household and had acquired, among other things, a full record of their DNA. Before leaving on the mission, Tristan had run a comparison with Arianne’s, and had found the similarity to be startling: he knew that Aurangzhebb’s people would have done the same to captured prisoners like Arianne.

He programmed Shajah Ha’an’s assemblers to bring him samples of the man’s skin and blood and other tissues, and he fed them into the small container for analysis. It was not long coming, and when it did come, the results were conclusive. “Well,” he said, “it looks like you’re the real thing.”

As the SLUFF lifted off the surface of P175, Tristan reminded the Dynastic Leader of how he had forced a Naysayer woman to have sex with him during a hunting trip on Sim-sim Simoon. It was for Shajah Ha’an but one incident among countless similar ones. But he conceded that having sex with a Naysayer woman was one of his more foolhardy acts, and seemed to Tristan to be genuinely contrite.

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