The use of a living creature as a means of transport was another novelty for Tristan, and he took a few minutes getting used to it. The rhythmic, swaying motion, the odour, the occasional snorts, and its bodily functions, all seemed most peculiar. In all the travelling he had done as a soldier of the Dynasty, he had never encountered anything quite so alien. Even compared to Auverna, this place seemed primitive.
They were descending the v-shaped valley he had seen from the cave. As they were about to turn the first bend, Tristan glanced over his shoulder, bidding a mental farewell to this spot, and wondering what lay ahead. At first sight, the answer seemed to be more of the same. For the time being, at any rate.
The descent became steeper quite suddenly. Tristan’s first instinct was to grab hold of the woman, but he resisted it, grasping firmly at the edges of the saddle instead. Her demeanour shouted that any more than the necessary minimum of physical contact would be highly unwelcome. But he could not help sliding forward in the saddle, so that her bottom was pressed yet more firmly against his loins.
A fast flowing stream carved its way down the middle of the valley, and from time to time, it became necessary for their mount to walk in the water in order to avoid piles of rocky detritus along the sides. As the animal was picking its way down the streambed, by now, mercifully, more level, he decided he would attempt conversation.
“Where do you live? I couldn’t see any sign of a settlement.”
“I live at the Thelema Abbey. My father, Alcofribas Nasier, is the director.”
Tristan shook his head. “The Thelema Abbey? What’s that? Some sort of religious institution?”
“You haven’t heard of it?” Arianne was surprised and a little hurt. It was the centre of her universe, and she had always been led to believe that it was at least moderately well known throughout the Dynastic Systems. By intellectuals and academics, at any rate. This man obviously didn’t qualify. “Well, the abbey is not an abbey in the traditional sense of the word. It is more in the nature of a secular monastery, a place for study rather than prayer.”
“I see,” said Tristan. It was something beyond his ken. “So it has a director rather than an abbot?”
“And what do you do there?”
“Odd jobs. Like collecting herbs, which is what I’ve been doing here.”
“I see,” Tristan said again. Arianne was not going to volunteer anything willingly, and he was not interested in making an interrogation of it.
There was a silence for a while. Presently, Arianne picked up the thread of the conversation.
“Why did you run away from the military?” she asked.
“I never wanted to be in the military in the first place,” Tristan said sullenly. “I was conscripted at sixteen.” Then in a gush of anger he added: “I hate the ’Nasty.” It was a common nickname for the Dynasty. “They tortured my father, they made us leave our homeworld and give up our livelihood, and we ended up on some miserable transit world. And then I got the draft.”
Arianne nodded sympathetically. “It happens a lot.” To others. She had been lucky, she had been spared that kind of thing. Thelema was the only home she had ever known, and most of the time it was the only home she ever wanted. There were definite advantages to living in a backwater.
The sky grew ever more leaden in hue, and presently the first snowflakes began to fall, spiralling down and whipping into Arianne’s face. The valley broadened, sweeping away on either side, while the stream meandered on ahead, flattening, becoming calm except where it chattered over barrages of tumbled black rocks, cutting a sinuous swathe through a flat grassy plain which was bounded at the horizon by low hills and the dull pewter sheen of a broad body of water.
The hippocybe seemed to relish the springy turf underfoot, and trotted on, approximately following the course of the stream. The snow fell more thickly now, but the animal pressed on unperturbed. She was well used to these conditions.
Tristan’s body leaned limply against Arianne’s back. With his head against her shoulder, she could hear his deep, measured breathing. He was asleep.
His closeness brought her round, in spite of herself, to thinking about her past encounters with men. Men, she caught herself thinking: they were barely more than boys. The lads of the abbey. Simple, unsophisticated lads.
She was not a virgin, but her experiences had been few and unsatisfying. Ewan, the cook’s son had been the first. He had pursued her for months, and one night, at last, she had given in to him. In his delight, he had fumbled her pants down, had not even completely undressed her, and had plunged at her without any pretense at foreplay.
“Wait!” she had cried. “I’m not ready yet!” But Ewan was ready, more than ready. He couldn’t hold back. She had yelped in pain as he had entered her, and he had come immediately.
Afterwards he had apologised for hurting her, and she had forgiven him. It was a small price to pay for losing her virginity, which had become something of a burden, and she had been happy to be rid of it.
However, something she had not counted on was that it awoke in her a hunger that had not been there before. Avoiding the gauche Ewan, she had allowed two or three older boys to bed her, but they were almost as hamfisted, and they came too fast, so that she had to hold them inside if she was to achieve an orgasm herself.
In time, it came to seem that it was not worth the effort. She became aloof, and because, of course, she was the director’s daughter, she began to hear certain adjectives used whenever she was within earshot: proud, superior, and, almost inevitably, frigid. These were the epithets which became attached to her name, but she immersed herself in her studies - studies of anything and everything, much to Alcofribas’ delight - and tried not to let the name-calling bother her.
And as for the hunger, she ignored that too, until it became too insistent, and then she would satisfy it herself in the customary manner. But even that seemed to have dropped away of late.
In the fading light, they came at last to the head of the lake. Dimly discernible, a ridge of broken, lichen-speckled granite slabs overlooked the lake shore, skirting it for several kilometres. She reined in the hippocybe in the lee of the rocks.
“Tristan, wake up!” she commanded. She jerked her shoulder, snapping him awake.
“What’s up?” he mumbled sleepily, shaking his head. A chill wind was whipping her hair into his face.
“Our overnight stop,” she explained simply. She vaulted out of the saddle and began unpacking the saddle bag.
He blinked and stared at her as she busied herself extracting unidentified objects from the bag. “Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that you’ve woken me up because it’s bed time?”
She chuckled. “Something like that.”
She laid a tan bundle on the snow-covered grass, and attached a small black box. At the flick of a control, the box hummed and the bundle swiftly inflated itself into a tent. It was really a bivouac for one, and sharing it with Tristan was going to be cosier than Arianne would have liked, but she could not find it in herself to make him sleep outside, nano-suit or no nano-suit.
When the tent was up, Arianne opened the flap and threw her bedroll inside. She erected a small lantern on a tripod, and pulled out a camp stool, which she offered to Tristan.
He shook his head. “No, no, you need it more than I do.”
She wasn’t about to argue. In the nano-suit he could be sitting in snow or hot desert sand, and not know the difference. He sat on the ground by the tent. She settled onto the stool and opened a self-heating container of stew and activated the reheat device on a canteen of tea.
She indicated the stew. “It’s not much,” she said, “but if you’d like to share it? You must be hungry.”
“I am,” Tristan conceded, “but no thanks.”
He pulled a tiny object from a pouch on his belt. It swiftly grew, and unfolded into a box shape. He opened the lid on the top. He scraped away some snow next to where he was sitting, and shovelled a couple of handfuls of grass and soil into the box and closed the lid. He set a control dial on the side of the box and a red light came on.
“What’s that?” said Arianne.
Tristan stared at her in disbelief. It was like asking what arms and legs were for. “You’re kidding, right?” Arianne shook her head. “It’s a molly! A molecular converter! Everyone has them.” Not so, it appeared. Tristan gaped, speechless. A fundamental tenet of the cosmos, the universal possession of molecular converters, had been proved false. He sat in stunned silence.
The red light on the box was replaced by a green one. He opened the box.
Arianne looked in the box, and it was her turn to be dumbfounded. The box contained something that looked and smelled like meat. Tasty, bite-sized chunks of meat. “How does it do that?” she asked.
“Same way an animal does,” said Tristan, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Takes in grass - the soil provides a few extra minerals - and rearranges it atom by atom into the molecular structure of protein.”
Arianne ignored her own food in her lap and watched intently as Tristan began eating the contents of his box. He met her gaze.
“Like to try some?” he asked, offering her the box. She picked a piece out in her fingers and put it in her mouth. Beef? Or relf? She couldn’t quite tell. But it was good.
When the food was gone, Tristan repeated the process. “Seconds,” he smiled, as he waited for the “molly” to do its work.
When he had finished eating, he melted some snow in the box. He drank some and used the remainder to rinse out the box. A touch of another control, and the box shrank back to its previous miniscule size. He put it back in his pouch.
He caught Arianne’s eye and said softly, “May I ask a favour?”
Arianne eyed him cautiously. “Depends what it is.”
“My friends will be wandering about up there in the mountains,” Tristan said simply. “They’ll be wandering about. Disoriented, to say the least.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Arianne pulled her communicator out of her coat without hesitation. “Are you sure they’ll be alive?” She caught herself. “Oh, yes. Silly question.” She thumbed the transmit button. “Arianne to abbey central. Arianne calling abbey central.”
A face appeared on the communicator’s tiny screen. It was Sally, her best friend. “Hi, Ari! How’s it going?”
Arianne smiled. “Hi Sal. Er... something’s come up. I have a man with me. He’s the survivor of a crashed ship. I’m bringing him home with me.”
Sally laughed. “Great! Sounds better than a bunch of old herbs any day!”
Arianne let it go. “He has friends still up there, Sal. They’re up there in the Sturluson Mountains, pretty much due west of the abbey, wandering about.”
“Wandering about?” Sally echoed. “You’re sure of that?”
Arianne’s voice dropped conspiratorially. She glanced at Tristan. “They’re from off-world, Sal. You know...”
“Ah. Yes,” said Sally. “Creepy. How many are there?”
Tristan had appeared to be lost in his own thoughts, not giving any indication that he was listening, but he held up three fingers.
“Three,” said Arianne.
“I’ll put the word out straight away,” Sally assured her. Then as an afterthought she added: “Wow. Visitors.”
“So long, Sal,” said Arianne, and terminated the call. She pocketed the communicator once more.
Tristan was staring fixedly at her. “You’re those... what do you call them?”
“Naysayers,” said Arianne.
“That’s it,” said Tristan. “You don’t have assemblers or molecular manufacture or nanocomputers or any of that stuff?” Arianne nodded. “And you get sick, and things break down and don’t repair themselves, and you have to grow your food from scratch?”
“Yes,” said Arianne. She was feeling a little unsure of herself. She had never had to justify any of these things before. “We get sick, which is why I have to go off on trips like these into the mountains to collect herbs. And yes,” she added, remembering the o-ring, “things break down and don’t fix themselves. And yes, we grow our food from scratch. And before you ask it, yes,” she added with a sigh, though whether of regret or exasperation Tristan couldn’t tell, “we die.”
“Why do you go on like this, suffering unnecessarily?”
Arianne drew herself up straight. “It’s the choice we make. For myself, I have never known any different.” Until now, she almost added. “For my father, it has always been an article of faith that nanotechnology was somehow contary to nature, that decay and death were integral parts of life and should remain so.”
Tristan looked up at her, her glacial blue eyes full of a kind of chilly certainty. “Nanotechnology is not unnatural,” he said. “Far from it. It mimics the processes of nature, the exponential division of cells and so forth, but it just does it in a controlled manner.”
“But immortality?” queried Arianne, feeling a touch heretical as she sought to delve more deeply into what Alcofribas had decreed to be forbidden knowledge. “Nature selects against it, because it gets us into bad habits, genetically speaking.”
“That old chestnut?” answered Tristan dismissively. “It’s not natural, because nature chooses not to do it? When the first self-propelling transports were invented, way way back, people were afraid. They thought the human body was not capable of travelling at more than fifty kilometres an hour. They were proved wrong. And ever since then, every time some new technology came along, people said it was unnatural, it was ‘a step too far’, as if we were making a pact with the devil or something. But now people - most people - see that we have taken charge of our own evolution, and that it’s a good thing.”
Arianne stared coldly at him, without replying. He was aware that he was becoming talkative. He always did when he was nervous. “Anyway,” he pressed on. “That stuff about nanotechnology being unnatural, that’s what your father thinks. What about your mother? You’ve never mentioned her.”
It was a taboo subject, but Tristan was not to know. “My mother is dead,” she said simply. “She died in childbirth.”
Arianne went into the tent, curled up in her bedroll and went to sleep. Tristan was left alone with the night.