Why had they picked his birthday to come? Why that day of all days? It was a question that had haunted him down the years. The same answer came back every time: blind, capricious fate.
He was fourteen. His parents were simple relf farmers, herding their animals across the limestone plateaux called “causse country” on the rugged Middle Systems world of Auverna, with only the most rudimentary of robotic herders, and making a little relf milk cheese to sell in the markets down on the coast. It was a hard life, but the compensation was in the rugged beauty of the landscape.
Indeed, word seemed to have got out about Auverna’s charms, for there appeared to be increasing numbers of off-worlders - “tourists” was the word Morgan, his father, had used: it was the first time he had ever learned that such people existed - cruising about the place in their gleaming aircars. Certainly the sales of relf milk cheese had improved dramatically, but Morgan was ever wary of change, and muttered in his beard of grim foreboding.
They did not have much money, so birthday presents were simple. But the simpler gifts often brought the greater joy. This year, they had given Tristan a pair of “selfies”, self-motivated spheres. They were the big craze with the teenagers. Two silver spheres, about five centimetres across, interacted with each other, bouncing over each other in a kind of slow motion leap-frog. They followed him everywhere, playing games with each other, like a kind of aerial ballet. The instruction plaque accompanying them said that when they were to be put away, they had to be lured by subterfuge into their storage box, and when the lid was closed, they would be heard for a while, slowly winding down.
He was dancing round the house, leading them along from room to room, weaving this way and that around the furniture, when the soldiers came.
The military landing craft dropped out of the clouds, the high-pitched screech of its engine heralding its arrival. People ran out of their houses to watch as this sinister-looking gunmetal coloured box descended, landing on its four flat feet in the village square. On the sides was an insignia, the subim tree, a native of the Hadd homeworld which had been transplanted to every colonised world which would support it, and curling around it the sinuous stalk of an aroma fig, a plant which supplied the subim tree with nutrients it was unable to acquire for itself. The aroma fig, so called for the strong sweetish odour given off when the fruit was opened, in turn could not grow unsupported. The two plants had thus evolved a symbiosis. Those in the know gave a gasp, recognising this as the emblem of Hadd’s personal Dynastic Guards.
The crowd encircled the vessel at a cautious distance.
A hatch popped open in the side of the ship, and a flight of shallow steps extended itself, stopping just short of the soil, as if wishing to keep contact with the dusty ground to an absolute minimum. A contingent of soldiers spilled out at the double and spread out to form a cordon, each olive drab clad man or woman positioned directly in front of the crowd, a few metres apart. A burly, barrel chested trooper, the subim tree and the aroma fig on his right pectoral glinting in the afternoon sun, stood centimetres in front of Morgan Cray, so that the latter had to crane his neck to see what was going on behind the man.
Two more men emerged and took up positions either side of the steps.
When the troops were in position, the man who was evidently the senior officer emerged from the landing craft and stood on the steps, as if he too resented spoiling his polished boots with the dust of such a plebean world. He looked about, sizing up the crowd, and even from a distance it was easy to read the contempt he felt for such simple folk.
“People of Auverna,” he began. The sound of his voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, bouncing off the walls of the cottages to come at the people from behind as well as in front. “My name is Solveig and I am Captain of the Dynastic Bodyguard. I bring you tremendous news!” Morgan Cray felt a spasm of fear pass through him. “Over recent times, word has spread through the Inner Systems of the charms of this world, and holos of the striking topography, the high country and the extraordinary coastal cliff formations, have been seen by our most excellent leader, One himself.” Morgan’s fists began to clench at his sides. “Hadd has decreed a stately pleasure dome, a residence for the Dynastic Family. It will be a large, elegant palace, in keeping with Hadd’s reputation as the Dynasty’s builder par excellence...”
“...Squandering our taxes to build himself more mansions!” Morgan snarled, semi-audibly.
Solveig stopped. He hated to have his flow interrrupted, but there was always one, always.
The trooper directly in front of Morgan eyeballed him, challenging him. “Did you speak, citizen?” he growled.
Morgan felt the restraining hand of Clara, his wife, on his arm, and was aware of Tristan staring at him, open-mouthed. He ignored both. His chest swelled as he rose to the challenge. “Damn right, I spoke,” he said loudly. “I said Hadd steals our taxes to build his palaces. Instead of looking after our interests, he’s perpetually off on some cosmic-scale wank...”
A beefy fist seized a handful of his tunic under his chin. “Silence!” the trooper roared.
Morgan Cray spat, a constellation of spittle showering the Dynastic device on the soldier’s chest. He was dragged from the crowd, struggling in the military grip.
“Morgan!” Clara screamed. As one, the soldiers in the cordon drew their weapons and held them raised, poised. There was no question that they would use them.
Solveig gave a curt gesture towards the interior of the vessel. The guards flanking him gave a crisp acknowledging salute and vanished into the ship’s interior. He resumed speaking.
“As I was about to say, a new Dynastic residence naturally occupies a large tract of land, particularly when one takes into consideration the security buffer zone which must separate the main building complex from the outer perimeter. It will therefore, of course, be necessary to compulsorily purchase several villages, including this one, together, of course, with your traditional relf-grazing land. You will, naturally, be given adequate compensation for the loss of homes and livelihood.”
Shock at the overnight eradication of the lifestyle of generations mingled with deep skepticism at the promises of compensation. But not a word was spoken, not a tongue stirred in protest. For the two soldiers had re-emerged from the belly of the ship. carrying between them an elaborate piece of equipment.
Clara wanted to take Tristan away, to spare him the sight of what was to come. But she knew that Tristan was intended to witness above all others, to cow him into subservience and to drive from his mind all thoughts of taking vengeance for what was about to be inflicted upon his father. She knew that if she asked permission to spare her child, they would merely draw more perverse pleasure from denying her such a request.
The equipment was set up in front of the ship. At its centre was a bench. Above it arced a silvery arm ending in a needle. The arm was connected at its base to a control box at the side of the bench.
Solveig indicated wordlessly to the trooper holding Morgan that the procedure was to continue. Solveig had a wry expression on his face, as if the whole business was distasteful to him, and that he wanted it over with as soon as possible.
The burly trooper holding Morgan seemed to take delight in ripping the shirt off his victim’s back. Morgan was led to the machine and made to lie face down on the bench. Clasps emerged from it, holding firm his biceps, his forearms, his thighs and his calves. The machine had been set up so that the Dynastic insignia on the side of the landing craft would be in the plumb centre of his field of view.
Adopting a stentorian tone, Solveig declaimed loudly. “On the battlefield of Sammu Sammix, the victorious Golvan Affavion of Hadd stood in the shade of a subim tree around which curled its constant partner, the aroma fig, and declared the founding of the Hadd Dynasty with these words: “The people of Hadd and the Dynastic leader shall grow together and support each other as the subim tree and the aroma fig. The people shall give of themselves to the Dynastic leader as the aroma fig gives to the subim tree. The Hadd Dynasty will in turn support the people as the subim tree supports the fig. But if the fig threatens the subim tree,” ( here, botany and symbolism appeared to part company ) “the treachery of the fig will be turned against it.” This, the word of the Dynastic Founder, will be made known to...” Solveig went into a huddle with the trooper to determine the name of the miscreant. “...Morgan Cray of Auverna.”
The Founder’s statement was familiar to all. It was learned by rote in grade school throughout the Dynastic Systems. Tristan had wondered - and many before him had whispered the same thing, glancing nervously over their shoulders - why it was that no mention was ever made of the subim tree threatening the fig.
Tristan clasped his mother’s palm until his nails bit deep into her palm. With her free hand she clasped his head to her breast. He could feel the skin of her chest wet with her hot tears.
The trooper pressed a single tab on the control box. Ponderously, the sinister silvery needle rose, swung through the air and descended, pausing scant millimetres above Morgan’s left shoulderblade. It pierced his skin and began to write the statement in his flesh. At the completion of each word, a small nozzle on a tube adjoining the needle sprayed a congealant into the wound.
Morgan gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut, blocking out the pain and the sight of the hated Dynastic emblem. But his body twitched spasmodically. The sensors accompanying the needle responded in nanoseconds, adjusting its position according to his movements. In a part of his head, Morgan reflected that if the Founder hadn’t found himself standing next to these two symbiotic plants at the end of the battle, his founding statement could have been a whole lot shorter.
The writing seemed to take forever. Morgan drew strength from the murmurs of the crowd, willing him to withstand the pain a little longer. He ached. His head buzzed. The trickling of his blood across his skin irritated him. And still it went on.
At last, the needle pricked the last full stop, somewhere near his kidneys. It took Morgan a moment to realise that it was over, and then he let his body relax.
Solveig was required to read the statement. This he did. Already the assemblers in Morgan’s body were sealing up the wounds. The first few words were growing faint and would quickly disappear. Nanotechnology was a gift to the torturer: in a short while, the palimpsest of the body could be wiped clean, and the business of inflicting pain could begin afresh.
The clasps released their hold. Morgan was lifted clear, and helped to walk to where Clara and Tristan were standing. They embraced him and began to lead him away.
As they departed, they heard Solveig resume his announcement as if there had been no interruption at all. “You will all,” he declared, “be removed to a transit camp on Alvulix, and from there you will be given the opportunity to make a new start on one of the recently colonised worlds of the Outer Systems.”
Newly colonised worlds. The Outer Systems. Clara felt her flesh creep. She could not tell if Morgan were taking it in or not. But it meant they would be in for a hard time, on worlds in all probability not yet fully terraformed. The infrastructure would scarcely be in place, and as for established markets, well, there wouldn’t be any.
Tristan put his father’s arm across his shoulders and helped him walk back to their house. He would remember this day, as he was supposed to. But he would not be cowed. He would find a way, somehow, some day, to get even with the Dynasty.