They had been “in transit” on Alvulix for two years. Solveig had lied, that was apparent, and now they were stuck, seemingly eternal transients, never wanting to establish deep friendships, never wanting to put down roots, not knowing from one day to the next if they would get the word to move on to their promised final destination. They lived on welfare, and they had no purpose, nothing meaningful to do. Morgan, particularly, became increasingly morose.
Tristan brooded, perched on the ragged cusp of manhood, trying to fathom out a future. He had watched a large gunmetal grey troop transport land and disgorge a contingent of men. He wondered what this portended. Were they at last going to get moved to a farming planet somewhere, to begin life anew? He was still brooding when they came for him, squatting on a rock overlooking the settlement that had become known as Limbo Town, watching life-by-rote as it was played out in the streets and squares and in the houses that were the same flat brown as the hills surrounding the town.
He first became aware of them as shadows blocking out his sun and chilling his skin. He looked up, flicking a lock of lank hair out of his eyes as he did so. When he saw the uniforms, he knew with a certainty he had never felt before who they were and what they wanted.
“Are you Tristan Cray?” the nearest of the two men asked.
Tristan looked into the man’s steely grey eyes. Even in the cradle those eyes must have sealed his fate, Tristan reflected, surprised by his own calmness. There was no way the possessor of such eyes could ever have any vocation but that of a soldier of Hadd.
Tristan nodded mutely.
The man recited what sounded like a prepared speech, one repeated on a daily basis. “Tristan Cray, it is my honour and my duty hereby to notify you that you have been selected, effective as of now, to join the ranks of the defence force of our supreme leader, he whom we call One, the great and glorious Hadd. You will accompany us to a transport which will take you to an induction unit on the Dynastic homeworld.”
Conscripted, in a word. There he had been, gazing into the murk, trying to see where the future was going to take him, and these leviathans had loomed up from the depths to whisk him away, helpless and unresisting, to the special brand of Purgatory that was the Dynastic Defence Force. It was an irony that was undoubtedly not lost on them, he realised, that he was being required to put on the uniform that represented all that was most detestable to him.
“Do you have anything to say?” Tristan switched his attention to the second man, standing a pace further away. He spoke softly, as if trying to mollify the effect of the edict just pronounced by the first man. Tristan wondered for a moment if this were some variant on the “good cop, bad cop” routine he had seen on countless holo crime shows. But at the same time he recognised that the second man was the senior officer.
“No.” He added, instinctively: “Sir.”
“Well then,” said the first man, with enforced joviality, “Let’s be going then, shall we?”
They had tramped swiftly back to his home, where his parents, who had directed the “recruitment officers” on where to find him, waited anxiously. Morgan was maudlin, and hugged his son with vehemence. Clara, while distressed, maintained a stoic reserve in front of the soldiers. She would save her grief for later.
Tristan glanced around the room, seeking to commit as much of it as he could to memory. In the corner, the “selfies” he had been given on his fourteenth birthday danced around each other in muted fashion, as if picking up the mood of the moment. He contemplated taking them with him as a memento, but they were too closely associated with the day he had lost his innocence. They were, indeed, the last relic of his childhood.
As gently as he could, he disengaged himself from his father’s grasp. He kissed Clara on the cheek. She clasped his hands, held them as if she would never let them go.
“I’ll send you an ethergram as soon as I can,” he said softly. She gave a nod. He turned to the soldiers. “Okay, let’s go.”
He stepped out into the bright sunlight. Walking between the two big men, he crossed the street, turned and waved one last time. Then he was gone from their sight.
All over town, similar scenes were being enacted, and soon a steady stream of young people was being herded down the broader thoroughfares like a river building in strength as it made its way inexorably towards the ocean. Some of the other conscriptees were people Tristan knew, and he read in their faces anguish at being parted from their loved ones and fear at what the future held in store.
Tristan felt those things also, but mingled with them was elation. Whatever life with the Dynastic Defence Force held in store, it couldn’t be worse than the tedium of Limbo Town. Could it?
On the outskirts of the town, the military transport waited. As Tristan’s shoes clattered on the gangplank, they seemed to be picking out a happy, optimistic rhythm.
Boot camp on the Dynastic Homeworld was, it turned out, nothing to be optimistic about. It was, in fact, nothing short of a living hell. Basic training included endurance exercises in chillingly realistic simulacra of every possible type of hostile planetary terrain, from polar ice caps through tectonic activity such as volcanos and earthquakes to coping with steaming tropical jungles and deserts. There were intensive simulator sessions with every kind of craft from one man patrol machines to huge logistical support vessels. And there were the tedious cultural indoctrination classes, where the socioeconomic systems and the ticks and mores of a broad variety of different worlds within the Dynastic Systems were introduced to semi-comatose rookie squadmen.
On top of all that, there was stellar navigation, for the Dynastic Systems occupied a broad sweep of the inner core of the galaxy, where stars and their planetary systems were densely clustered, often no more than a couple of thousand AUs, astronomical units, distant from one another.
Tristan struggled to concentrate through the engineering classes. Slow transport ships had magsails driven by particle beams, and he was required to know how many terawatts of energy were required to drive such and such a payload at so many g’s, and how the mass flow could be divided among a million small beam drivers bundled together in a common structure to share their high-power drive fields. Among the vessels driven by relativistic particle beam propulsion were the big unmanned tankers which carried cargoes of fuel to outstations around the systems to resupply what Tristan considered to be the serious military hardware.
His attention perked up when the lectures came around - finally! - to the fighting ships, which, for greater speed and independence, used the more advanced pulsed fusion ion propulsion engines. But again the lecturer seemed to find it necessary to delve into history, analysing the evolution of the Kaufman-type thruster from the earliest models with mercury fuel, through xenon - with its better cathode physics, reduced discharge chamber erosion and sputtering of the ion extraction system - to the more modern deuterium-based EITAs ( electron-bombardment ion thruster assemblies ). Deuterium, the lecturer explained, produced high-energy ions as exhaust without the massive amounts of readily detectable waste heat which accompanied the highly energetic neutrons emitted by earlier systems. Neodymium-glass lasers in the five hundred megajoule range were fired at fuel pellets. Initially, the pellets had been made of a combination of deuterium and tritium, the latter generated by the combination of waste neutrons with a lithium blanket ring surrounding the core, but tritium had only a short half-life, and was substituted with helium three. The breakthrough had come, the lecturer declared, injecting his sermon with new passion, with pellets combining deuterium with... deuterium! Deuterium’s reaction with itself was the best of all!
In the months following the trauma of his arrival and induction, Tristan learned to bend with the wind, and to adapt to the discipline of his new world. Occasionally, when the opportunity presented itself, he would find ways to adapt his world to suit him, as when Smeed cracked the access code to the stores. But such opportunities were rare.
If nothing else, at least the food was good. Most of the time, he had to draw his meals from the automated servers in the mess hall, but when he was off duty, he would head for one of the eateries in the townships scattered around the perimeter of the base. The food was not better than that served by the machines, which were programmed for culinary perfection, but they had ambiance, and there was a certain something about a meal cooked and served by a fellow human being. Cynics said it was all in the mind, and Tristan did not doubt that it was, but that did not diminish the pleasure of the experience.
Tristan had been talking to Mooman after the strategy theory class one day, and Mooman was talking about this great little bistro he had discovered called Maddie’s.
That was how it came to be that on his day off, Tristan found himself sauntering through the door of Maddie’s. The decor was attractive, with a particular shade of misty blue providing the key, and there was a continual hubbub of voices competing with some very hip music, generating a bright, cheering atmosphere.
A holo-generated display in the middle of each table depicted the items on the menu, together with their smells. Tristan paused at an unoccupied table and flicked through the dishes until he came to an appetising-looking relf casserole. It was steaming, as if fresh from the oven. He leant forward to savour it.
Someone tickled his private parts. He gave a yell and stood bolt upright.
A woman was standing a few feet away. She was lithe and curvy, with waves of chestnut hair and big dark eyes. She had a hand up to her mouth, the other being occupied with a tray of empty plates, and an embarrassed look on her face.
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I thought you were someone else. One of my regulars.”
Tristan was amused at this explanation. “It’s okay,” he smiled. “I guess a lot of men look the same from behind.”
He sat down at the table. A few moments later she returned to take his order. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Maddie. This is my place. What can I get you?” She was smiling and apologetic, and anxious to put him at his ease.
She succeeded. He became a regular, dropping in for coffee and solace when the tedium of his classes got too much to bear. Maddie was flirtatious with her customers, of that he was already well aware, and it was clearly very good for business: her cafe was always brimming, mostly with men. Women looked askance at her, often steering their male partners elsewhere. With Tristan she played the flirt less than with most. He brought out a more solicitous side of her nature, she showed a greater concern for his well-being, while taking care not to mother him.
One day, she came and sat next to him. “It’s my birthday,” she said softly, her tone almost conspiratorial. Tristan smiled. With assemblers in their cells, people’s lifespans were now immense, but the technology had only been available for a couple of centuries, and they still hadn’t had time to get used to it, so they still celebrated birthdays as if their lives were measured in a few short decades. He wondered if the custom would lapse in time. But then, it was always a good excuse for a party.
“Happy birthday,” he smiled. Many happy returns went without saying.
“I’m having a little celebration this evening,” Maddie told him. “Would you like to come?”
He put on his best pseudosilk shirt and his most fashionable billowing pants in a matching pattern of forest greens, and his calf-length lattice-boots, and arrived at Maddie’s apartment. From behind the door he could hear that the festivities were already well under way.
Maddie opened the door wearing a stunning, slinky, rose-pink envelope of a dress that was suspended from her shoulders by a kind of mesh attached to the bias-cut decolletage. Embroidered with flowers, this sheath clung provocatively to breasts and hip bones as it swept to the floor, where it culminated in more of the mesh, and tassels. Tristan had never seen anything like it in his life. He sucked in his breath.
“Tristan!” she beamed, ushering him through the door, past a baroque collection of nick-nacks from a dozen planets, gifts from admirers who knew Maddie’s taste for the offbeat. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
She escorted him into the living area, pressed a glass into his hand and began to fill it with blue-tinted liquor while reeling off the names of those standing closest, names he forgot almost instantly, so bedazzled was he by the new Maddie at his shoulder.
He moved to the buffet, a groaning table of sumptuous delights, including carpaccio of smoked relf, langoustines served in the Dynasty manner, pate made from the liver of the Simoonean pronking buck - beloved of the hunting fraternity, including Hadd himself - and Calvadonian andouillettes in aspic.
Most of the guests had a slender cylinder attached to their arm, with a tube leading to a patch on their skin. Tristan immediately recognised Bypass apparatus. With assemblers patrolling the system for toxic intruders, alcohol of the traditional kind was neutralised long before it could reach the nervous system and do its mood-altering business. In order to feel its benefits, therefore, alcohol had to be introduced into the brain concealed in a protein coat, bypassing the defending assemblers. As soon as it shed that coat, however, the assemblers would sweep in to neutralise it. For this reason, the feed from the supply container on the party-goer’s arm had to be continuous. Bypass was outlawed throughout the Dynasty, but was widely used nevertheless.
It was not long before Maddie was strapping a Bypass feed to Tristan’s arm. The very fact that its use was illicit was, he realised, a major part of its attraction.
He wined, he dined, he conversed amiably with a variety of people, few of whom seemed to have any connection with the sprawling military complex an olive pit’s throw away, and many of whom seemed to have travelled vast distances for this soiree.
As the evening progressed, and the number of guests gradually dwindled, Tristan began to feel a warm langourousness wash over him. He wandered away from the hubbub in search of the bathroom, which he found with a little searching ( for the apartment rambled in a disjointed fashion ) and which proved to be something out of an ancient myth, a creation of columns and marble, tricked out in soft blues and greens - some of the paint from the cafe, he noted, had found its way upstairs: Maddie might be exotic, but she was far from impractical. The centrepiece was an immense sunken spa which looked as if it might accommodate ten people with ease. Visions of bacchanalia loomed in Tristan’s head and he retreated.
Trying to find his way back to the entertaining area in the dark, he got lost. He stumbled into a room. “Light, soft,” he commanded, and the room was dimly illuminated. It was a bedroom. An immense canopied bed decorated in red and black lacquer with a frieze of motifs in gold running round it occupied much of the space. A huge satin bedspread depicting assorted wild beasts - a number of which were displaying their maleness - covered the bed, and was in turn partly covered by a luxurious pile of matching pillows.
It drew Tristan forward. It was nothing if not inviting. He sat on the edge. Slowly he allowed himself to be drawn backwards into its soft embrace. The hubbub of the partygoers seemed distant, the steady throb of the music more muted. Mentally congratulating Maddie on her excellent taste, he closed his eyes.
He awoke with a start. The room light was dimmer, just a minimal glow. Something was being done to him. Someone was taking his boots off.
He sat up, leaning back on his hands. At that moment Maddie stood upright. She was naked. He could see everything. He had never seen a woman naked before in his life. He felt a trembling in his arms, as if they might no longer support his body.
Maddy leaned over him and kissed him. He was overcome by her heady, musky perfume. He had noticed it before, but it was much stronger now, as if she had bathed in it. He inhaled. It triggered a deep long-suppressed something in the depths of his being.
“What... what are you doing?” His voice was tremulous.
Maddy smiled, mischievously, and playfully pushed him back on the bed. “I would have thought that was obvious.” Her hands were deseaming his pants. “Lift up.”
He arched his back obediently, and she pulled his pants down over his hips and peeled them away from his legs.
She began stroking his thighs, softly, teasingly. He froze rigid. Realisation came to her, and she, too, froze. Cautiously she asked, “You’re not... gay, are you?” He shook his head. Experimentally, she touched him... there... and he came instantly to attention. No, clearly not gay.
Then the truth dawned. “Oh my God,” she said softly. “This is your first time, isn’t it?”
Tristan’s head jerked up and down.
Maddie sighed. “Okay, just take it easy.” She removed his shirt, and rolled onto the bed, bringing Tristan with her. She showed him where to put his hands, where to touch, and then she helped him to enter her.
Tristan awoke in the darkness. He knew at once what had happened. He had had a wet dream. He cursed softly. He was not in the wedding bed from Du R’app na Graal - for that was what Maddie had told him it was - but then nor was he in his bunk on the ship.
He heard the soft, regular breathing a few centimetres from his ear, and felt Thelema’s chill night air on his face, and knew where he was. He drifted slowly back to sleep.