The hippocybe stumbled awkwardly through a streambed and laboured up the bank on the far side. She’d been making heavy weather of the trail for half an hour. Cursing softly, Arianne reined her in and dismounted.
The problem was immediately obvious. The animal’s right foreleg hydraulic augmentation system was draining fluid from a cracked o-ring close to where it entered the chest. Arianne sighed. It would take a good couple of hours to drain the fluid, disassemble the unit, replace the o-ring, put the whole thing back together again and re-infuse the hydraulic fluid.
Reluctantly, she pulled off her fleece-lined gloves. It would be impossible to work in them. She stuffed them in a pocket of her coat. From a side pocket on her satchel she retrieved a treat laced with sedative, which she fed to the animal. It would keep her from becoming restive while the repairs were being done.
A sudden noise made her spin in alarm. Looking up in the direction that the sound had come from, she saw a Theleman condor, its raucous cry splitting the silence of the morning as it spread its great black wings and took off from the nest it had built on a high ledge. It was spring, and Arianne wondered if the nest contained chicks. She heard the beat of the wings carried to her on the thin mountain air as the majestic bird swept away down the valley.
Arianne returned to the task in hand. She flipped open a saddle bag and ferreted out the tools she would need, then set them down on a rock near the hippocybe’s shoulder and began screwing the draining bladder into the port on the hydraulic reservoir. When it was firmly in place, she thumbed the tab on the attached micropump, and the bladder began to fill with greenish fluid.
She looked around her. In front of her reared an escarpment, steep in places, almost sheer in others, to which snow still clung determinedly. Beyond, orographic stratus cloud clung, doggedly unmoving, to the higher flanks of the mountain ridge.
It was a beautiful but desolate place. Here and there, in crevices and other sheltered spots, hardy saxifrages nodded to her, and stunted specimens of other alpine species, whole trees in miniature, offered themselves to be carried home in her specimen satchel and replanted in decorative pots. But these were not what she had come for. The mountain passes were her source for some rare herbs that the apothecary needed and which were in short supply. So she had come on a gathering expedition, and had garnered a bountiful harvest, culled from improbable nooks and crannies among the scree. Anywhere that a few grams of soil could collect. She reflected that her father would probably have a seizure if he could see her scrambling about up here. But she was as nimble as a mountain goat, and aware of the hazards. And he was always busy with his research into this, that and the next thing. What was more, the herbs were needed, and no one else was free, or game, to do it. Besides, she reflected, she didn’t take unnecessary risks. Risks, yes, but not unnecessary ones.
She unscrewed the collar of the bladder and began to take the hydraulic assembly apart. She was still vaguely wondering about the sound she had heard the previous day. It had sounded like an explosion, but there was nothing up here to explode. Probably an avalanche, or some isolated thunder. The acoustics of the mountains could play all kinds of tricks.
At last the hippocybe’s hydraulics lay in pieces on the rock in front of her. She dropped the defective o-ring in the corner of her saddlebag and pulled a fresh one out of its shrink-wrap. Her fingers were greasy, and they were becoming numb with the cold. It was at times like this that nanotechnology - that thing that the rest of the Dynastic Systems took for granted - seemed like a really good idea. But the colony was opposed to it on principle and that was that. There was no use yearning for something you couldn’t get.
The hippocybe was beginning to get restive. The sedative was wearing off. One more reason to make haste. She busied her hands putting the hydraulic assembly back together, then re-installed it on the animal’s shoulder. The last element clicked into place. She felt the satisfaction of a job well done. Quickly she returned the bladder to its feed port, flipped the pump into reverse and watched it suck the fluid back into the hippocybe’s mechanically-augmented muscles.
While it was doing that, and before she put her gloves back on, she pulled out a snack pack, containing two large oatmeal cookies and a flask of juice. She ate and drank, watching how the clouds now came lower down the mountain slopes. There was a good chance it would snow before the day was out. She would have to get moving. It would not be a good place to get stuck for the night.
Her eyes moved again to the condor’s nest. Part of her said it would be fun to climb up and see if there were chicks in it. But it would be a tricky climb, and it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to disturb the chicks. Particularly if the mother bird came back. She wouldn’t take kindly to visitors dropping in.
Time to be moving on. She snapped shut the latch on her saddlebag, pulled her gloves on, and swung up into the saddle. A last glance around to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind, and she slapped her heels against the flanks of the hippocybe, urging her back down the valley.
Tristan awoke. Through the crack above his head he could see a lowering grey sky. He had slept through the night. He took a moment to recall where he was, and then the memories came flooding back. The crash, the bird clawing him, the fall, the broken leg. He hesitated to move, fearing more pain.
But once again, the assemblers had done their stuff. He was literally as good as new. Only the memory remained to assure him that it all had really happened. His suit had repaired itself as well, and had kept him warm through what must surely have been a freezing cold night. But he was hungrier than ever.
He moved into a sitting position, then stood up. The crack was just above head height. He reached up with his arms and grasped the rock outside the crack. He hauled himself up, and wriggled his shoulders and torso through, and saw...
...A human being! A woman, judging by the long brown hair, just mounting some sort of animal. Her back was to him, and she was just about to leave. At the same time, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the black bird returning, winging gracefully towards the cliff, carrying a respectable kill in its claws.
He struggled to cry out, but nothing came. He cleared his throat. The woman was spurring the animal into a trot, making off down the valley.
Once again the cry of the condor stopped Arianne in her tracks. She had not noticed it sweeping up the valley towards her with a young fox in its talons. It swept over her head, and she spun in the saddle to watch as it came in to land at the nest.
And then her eye caught another movement a little further down the escarpment. A figure, self-evidently a man, wearing some sort of grey, hooded, figure-hugging suit, boots and gloves, was waving to her, and then began working his way down towards her.
Arianne turned the hippocybe and watched the man’s progress. But she did not move forward. She was alone and unarmed. And a long way from the abbey. She reached for the communicator in an inner pocket of her coat. But what could she say to anyone, yet? And what could they do? She decided she would play it by ear.
The man continued to pick a path down the cliff face, glancing nervously in her direction every few moments to reassure himself that she was still there.
Arianne eyed him warily. His clothing did not look like more than underwear, certainly not anything like enough to keep him warm in the mountains. Moreover, she did not recognise him, and she thought she knew just about everyone on Thelema.
And then the realisation struck her. He obviously wasn’t from Thelema. He was from off-world! Arianne’s heart raced. She had never in her life met more than a handful of off-worlders, and they were the regular supply ship pilots. And his suit, of course was a nanosuit, catering for all his life-support needs with a network of computers, assemblers and buckytubes woven into its superfine cloth.
He reached the mishmash of boulders at the bottom of the scarp, hopping from one to another until he reached the smaller rubble which extended almost to where the hippocybe was patiently standing.
He came galloping towards her. Arianne thought that he could still break an ankle on the little stuff, but then, the nano-types didn’t care. Their assemblers fixed them up in no time.
“Boy, am I glad to see you!” he gasped, still negotiating the last few metres of scree.
Arianne held up her hand. “That’s far enough,” she said imperiously.
Obligingly, and to her relief, he stopped still where he was. He looked a little taken aback at her command. She looked him up and down. He looked young, in his twenties, but then they all did. The nano-types. They could be two hundred, and they’d still look the same. They’d look the same till the end of time, or near as dammit: entropy would catch up with them eventually, but even so...
He was a perfect physical specimen. But then again, they all were. The nano-types. Every cell of every organ in perfect condition. Perfect musculature. The absolute minimum of fat. She thought such perfection was more than a little bit creepy. The suit really was figure-hugging. With the exception of some sort of codpiece - some token gesture towards modesty she supposed - precious little was left to the imagination. She wondered if nano-women wore something similar.
Looking at him, taking in his physique, she felt something stir in her, something she had long since pushed away. Or thought she had. She switched to thinking about the practicalities of the situation.
“Who the hell are you?” she said at last.
He took another step forward. The forbidding hand came up again. “My name is Tristan Cray,” he answered. “My ship crashed up there.” He pointed up into the cloudbank.
The explosion. So that was it. Arianne looked again at his suit. “Are you military?”
He paused, debating for a moment whether a lie or the truth would serve him better. He opted for the truth. “Ex.”
“Ex-military. My friends and I deserted, stole a military ship. They came after us and shot us down.” Tristan thought again about the others. Their bodies would self repair in time, no matter how badly damaged they were, but their brains would be wiped clean, blank slates. They would just crash about in the mountains like zombies, falling and damaging themselves, hurting themselves, over and over again. “My friends will regenerate, but they’ll be like babies, if that. If there’s a settlement near here, I’d like to get some help to go and look for them.”
The woman didn’t answer at once. Tristan watched her, sitting astride this strange animal with tubes and conduits and radiator fans on chest and shoulders and flanks. It was obviously some sort of primitive performance enhancement system married to the animal’s own physiology, but why? Why not just assemblers like normal?
He looked more closely at the woman. She was so different in appearance to every woman - indeed every human being - that he had ever laid eyes on. Her eyes were blue, but the shape was not quite right. In fact, her face, an elongated oval framed by that long brown hair that simply hung over her shoulders, was, well, ordinary. It wouldn’t have been hard to programme her assemblers to come up with something more interesting: why hadn’t she? Her clothes, on the other hand, were extraordinary: instead of the regular nano-suit, she wore a bulky coat made of some sort of coarse fibre, pants made of some glossy brown material he couldn’t identify, and boots, which appeared to be lined with some sort of fluffy substance, which reminded him of his father’s... Animal skins! This woman was wearing the skins of animals, animals, he supposed with a shudder, that had been... terminated!
Something in the woman’s demeanour told him she had reached a decision.
“Well, come on, Tristan Cray,” she said. “You’d better get aboard. It’s going to start snowing soon, and I don’t want to be up here when it does.” She removed her foot from the stirrup to allow him to swing himself up behind her. He slipped into the saddle, his thighs against hers, his chest against her back. She bridled inwardly at this unlooked-for intimacy. “I just hope you’re as harmless as you look.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Nasier,” she replied formally. “Arianne Nasier. At your service.”
And with that she once more turned the hippocybe’s head to face down the valley, and they set off at a trot.