Arianne awoke, aware instantly that she was not in the cell where she had been when she had gone off to sleep. She sat up, and the flat surface she was lying on swayed slightly.
She looked around. She was lying on a small circular platform with a guardrail encircling it. It was suspended by cables from a bogie set into a grid of tracks criss-crossing the roof up above. Some ten metres below her, the floor was a mass of military vehicles of various kinds. On her level, and a few metres distant, a walkway encircled the entire vast chamber. Opposite her was some sort of control room with large windows overlooking the parking lot below. It reminded her a little of the Heisenberg.
She was not wearing her usual clothes. The clothes she had on she had never seen before, which meant she had been dressed in them while she was unconscious. Which meant she had obviously been given some kind of nanocomputer - in her food most probably - which had overridden her own internal nanosystems. All of which gave her distinct chills: what were they doing to her?
The clothes she was wearing were extraordinary. She had on a tunic and a full-length skirt of gold lame, and knee-high lace-up boots, also gold. Some quick investigation revealed that she had other layers on underneath, all of the same material.
She was aware of pressure on her forehead and temples. Putting her hands to her head, she found that it was surrounded by a cold metal band that resisted all attempts to remove it. Something told her that it was not there for decoration.
There was a stirring in the control room facing her. Her awakening had been observed.
Presently, a door at the far end of the chamber opened, and beyond it she recognised the bridge of the Aurangzhebb’s Fist. Aurangzhebb marched through the door, dressed in his usual black suit and high black boots. He was carrying some sort of small handset.
He stopped opposite her. “How are you, my dear?” he oozed.
“Don’t ‘my dear’ me, you scum.”
He ignored this. “You’ll be pleased to know, I suppose, that your friends have won the first round, thanks to the collusion of my father and my sister.”
Arianne was elated. They’d won! The rebels had won! She stopped short. “What do you mean, ‘the first round’?”
He smiled a smile that was enough to freeze her blood. “With this ship we can travel far away, somewhere outside the Dynasty itself if necessary, and regroup. And then, when they have forgotten about us, we will come back. And we will give your friends and my family such a hiding that they will regret they were ever born.”
“You’re going to regroup? With one ship and her crew?”
That smile again. “In the short term. But I’m thinking really long term. I’m going to start a new dynasty, I’m going to have sons who will grow up learning of their stolen birthright, and when they’re old enough and strong enough and angry enough, we will return!”
Arianne stood stock still, gripping the guardrail. “And who is going to give you these sons?”
Aurangzhebb beamed. He gave an amiable shrug, arms outstretched, palms upward. “But my dear, that’s where you come in!”
It was the reply she had been dreading. “Over my dead body.”
His demeanour changed abruptly. His face darkened, and he became threatening. “You will be guarded night and day,” he said grimly, “until you bear me those children. You will be watched at all times. You will not so much as take a pee without someone looking at you. Then, when you have served your purpose, well, what happens to you then will be a matter of complete indifference.”
“But in any case we’re...”
“Half-brother and half-sister? That’s the trouble with growing up as a Naysayer. You don’t have a full grasp of the power of nanotech. Genetic abnormalities? Fixed in a snap, no problem!” He stood staring at her for a minute, letting the enormity of her situation sink in. Then he said: “Now, please take your boots off.”
Arianne suddenly became aware of a small crowd of men gathering around Aurangzhebb.
“You heard,” he said brusquely. “Take your boots off.”
“Don’t ask questions. Just do it.”
Aurangzhebb gave a theatrical sigh. “I can see it’s time I introduced you to this device.” He held up the handset. “You may have noticed the headband you are wearing. It picks up signals sent by this apparatus here, and tells your brain that you are experiencing certain sensations, which I can create here at will. These sensations can be of any strength...”
He fiddled with the controls. Arianne screamed as an electric shock coursed through her arm.
“And they can be sent to any part of your body.”
She felt a light tingling sensation in her groin. Her hand went there. She glared at him: he was chuckling like an adolescent.
So that was it. Electronic rape, as a prelude to the real thing. And enforced strip tease in front of his apes for an added dose of humiliation.
“Why do you do this?” she asked.
“Men. To women. In war. You don’t have to, do you?”
Aurangzhebb appeared amused by the question. “Why do we do it? Because we can. Power. And because we like it. Now, the boots?”
Arianne hesitated. Aurangzhebb did something on his handset, and she felt something like thorned plant tendrils wrapping themselves around her torso, growing tighter.
“All right,” she gasped. The sensation vanished. Slowly she unlaced the boots and tossed them off the platform.
Contented, Aurangzhebb walked away. The rest of the audience also dispersed.
Arianne opened her eyes. She started. Aurangzhebb was standing staring at her. The crowd had gathered again along the catwalk, hovering expectantly. She scrambled to her feet.
“I was thinking about what you said,” Aurangzhebb remarked conversationally. “About why men mistreat women in war...”
“Rape,” said Arianne angrily. “The word is rape.”
“...And it occurred to me that that is what this whole thing has been about.”
Arianne shook her head in irritation. “I don’t follow you.”
“This war we’ve just had. This clash of political ideologies. Your namby-pamby, caring-sharing, everybody-gets-a-say republic, so feminine in its qualities, up against my strong, masculine, might-is-right Dynasty.”
Arianne huffed. “In case you didn’t notice, it was our might that was right in the end.”
“As I say,” said Aurangzhebb, “I regard that as being but the first round.”
“And while you’re pounding your chest,” said Arianne, “I might mention that there seems to be a fundamental flaw in your system of inherited power. Ever since nanotech came in, you haven’t been able to resolve what happens when the previous generation of rulers doesn’t die off like they’re supposed to.”
“Well, it’s simple. Either there comes a time when father and son mutually agree that it’s time for the former to step aside for the latter...”
“...Or the latter just shoves him out of the way and takes what he wants anyway. Regardless of whether it’s his to take or not.”
Aurangzhebb smiled a crooked smile. “Exactly.”
“It’s a bit crude, isn’t it, a bit law-of-the-junglish, for a supposedly advanced interstellar society?”
“It doesn’t matter that we travel between the stars,” Aurangzhebb said. “We are still animals underneath. You can’t govern by consensus and committees. There has to be a strong figurehead, a dominant leader, and if it isn’t a man it must be a woman in man’s clothing.”
“Pah!” Arianne spat. “You still believe all that crap?”
“Of course,” said Aurangzhebb, smiling playfully. “But then, I suppose I am just the teeniest bit biased. But it’s a natural law. It just shows up best in war. It’s a time when as a species we are allowed, even expected, to revert to our more brutal past state. There has to be a pecking order, you see, with the biggest and strongest at the top. Take the rooster out of the farmyard and the result is chaos.”
Arianne ground her teeth. “We’re not chickens!”
“Suit yourself,” said Aurangzhebb, appearing suddenly to tire of the conversation. “Now, if you’d be so kind, please remove the tunic.”
In a blaze of anger, Arianne gave him the finger, universal symbol of contempt. “Spin on it, you b...”
She gasped. With a touch on the keypad, he had locked every joint in position, from the offending finger to her shoulder. Her entire arm was rigid.
“I’ll teach you to show some respect,” he murmured.
He touched the keypad again. The uppermost joint of the finger began to feel warm, then hot. Tears started from her eyes. A burning sensation was creeping down her finger and across her hand. She expected to see the flesh blackening and crisping, smoke rising, but there was nothing.
She screamed in pain, writhing, sinking to her knees, her free arm stretched out, imploring.
Aurangzhebb stabbed at the keypad. The pain vanished and her arm became mobile again.
He made an impatient gesture. Kneeling, she peeled off the tunic. Underneath she was wearing a skimpy bolero cut to just below her breasts, fastened across the front with a little gold chain.
Aurangzhebb walked away again, making clucking noises.