Arianne breakfasted on the high protein cookies that, as far as Tristan could tell, made up her staple diet. She rejected the more appetising omelette that he conjured from his food processor. Indeed, it appeared to him that she was doing her damnedest to keep as much distance between them as possible, although she showed a good deal of interest, from afar, in the molecular conversion technology.
Arianne, for her part, was grateful to Tristan that he had made no attempt to molest her during the night. But she knew what sort of women he must consort with. All like him, with unnaturally perfect bodies. Stomachs like landing pads, thighs like duralium columns, boobs like... Well, never mind. He clearly would have to be pretty desperate to give a second glance to the likes of her, a “natural” girl.
“Are you coming?” she called with more sharpness than she had intended. His closeness in the saddle made her uncomfortable, but there was nothing for it.
Tristan swung up behind her once more, and she spurred the hippocybe into action.
As they skirted the lake, he took in more of the view. In the middle of the lake were long flat islands, and along the shore, fingers of land stretched out towards them. Scattered here and there were small pools, the same colour as the lake, so the overall effect was one of an intermingling of land and water, opposites, each inured to the presence of the other.
After an hour or two, they came to the far end of the lake, where a large river issued from between craggy hills and wound away into the distance. They followed its course, and presently Tristan became aware of a sound, a low rumble, transmitted through the earth as much as it was carried in the air, and saw in the distance a mist rising above the river.
“Gullfoss,” said Arianne, as if no further explanation were required.
The cliff along which they were now travelling reached a higher elevation, and after a short period a tremendous spectacle was revealed to their eyes. A deep, narrow chasm opened up, practically at a right angle to the course of the river, and the torrent plunged into it in a wall of dazzling white foam and to the accompaniment of an incessant thundering.
Arianne guided their mount around a rocky outcrop and descended a short slope. They came to a place where a cliff with an overhang terminated at the water’s edge. She motioned the hippocybe forward until they were barely a metre from the falls as the water leapt from a point just above their heads. The ground shook, and spray splashed incessantly into their faces.
Arianne let the reins drop from her hands and sat motionless, drinking in the stupendous power, revelling in the glory of unbridled nature.
Tristan watched over her shoulder, fearful and uncomprehending, it had been so long since he had been so close to anything this raw. It reminded him for a moment of his experience in the cave, back at home, the sense of an unnameable, untouchable something of tremendous force that lay just beyond his reach.
His enhanced hearing picked up slight sounds. He looked round, and he saw that they were not alone. A posse of six men on hippocybes had gathered at a respectful distance, though Tristan could not tell whether it was Gullfoss or Arianne that the men were more respectful of. They were equipped with ropes and climbing equipment, and what appeared to be stretchers.
Tristan tapped Arianne on the shoulder, and she turned and saw the men. She gestured for them to distance themselves from the deafening roar. They turned and moved away from under the overhang, and regrouped on the grass a little further along the chasm.
“This is Tristan,” Arianne said. “This is Will, Simon, Arkab, Denereb, Mattius, Roper and Dan.” Each man nodded or waved as he was introduced, and Tristan returned the gestures. “Tristan is a deserter from the Dynastic military. We will be sheltering him until...” She paused. Until when? And at what cost? “...Until he makes further arrangements. He has three comrades.” She twisted in the saddle to face Tristan. “What are their names again?”
“Smeed, Jokesh and Montague,” said Tristan.
“That’s them,” said Arianne, with the barest trace of a smile. “They’re nano-types, of course, so they’ll be alive and in one piece, but they could be at the bottom of a ravine, and if they’re brain damaged, they won’t have a clue about anything. Tristan’s ship came down on the eastern spur of the Sturlusons, so I guess you should concentrate your search there.”
“Righto,” said Will. He turned his mount. “Nice to meet you, Tristan.”
The posse wound away up the slope past the waterfall. Arianne and Tristan headed along the chasm for a spell, and then Arianne turned her beast’s head away from the river. They rose up onto a broad, trackless plain of waving tussocky grass.
“Tell me something,” she said, trying to make her tone as inconsequential as she could. “Won’t your people come looking for you?”
Tristan put his hand involuntarily to his clavicle. Buried somewhere deep in there was the beacon chip. Any Dynasty vessel in nearby space would pick up its signal and come looking for him. And the frigate would most assuredly have relayed their co-ordinates. How could he have forgotten? And what should he do? The Dynasty would not deal kindly with those who harboured deserters.
“Yes,” he said at last. “They will. And that means you and your people are in danger.”
“That’s okay,” said Arianne, trying to sound non-committal. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
Tristan couldn’t see how a band of unarmed intellectuals would deal with the Dynasty in a bad mood.
Around noon, although it was hard to tell with any accuracy, since the sun never broke through the continual cloud cover, the topography changed fairly abruptly. Gaps opened up between the tussocks of grass, and they were filled by a coarse grey sand. Swiftly, the grass petered out, and they were crossing a monochrome desert.
Expanses of grey gravel and dust stretched away to the distance, sprinkled with a rubble of white stones. At frequent intervals, outcrops of sepia-hued rock rose up, displaying long, almost horizontal sweeps of stratification, the layers of softer rock deeply eroded, forming channels and gullies between the ribs of harder rock.
Tristan had seen similar places, during survival training, on barren, out of the way planets, always uninhabited and usually tectonically active. He had never seen such rawness on a colonised world, but then, most of the colonised worlds he had known - indeed, all of them until now - had been heavily terraformed, and, in, any case, a handful of intellectual malcontents hardly made this a colonised world.
Still, it made him wonder about the mentality of those who chose to make their home in such an unforgiving place. Guts and determination, sheer dogged tenacity, would have to figure high on the list of their personality traits. He admired that. This Arianne, she was like no other woman he had ever met, not that his dealings with women had been so plentiful. She exuded strength. She was courageous even, picking up a strange man in the middle of nowhere. She was wasted in a place like this, in all likelihood.
A train of thought came creeping. If he was going to have to leave this place, why not...? He pushed the thought away. He knew damn well why not.
He tried to figure how he was going to get off this world before the troopers came for him. He tried to work out how best to protect these innocent people from the wrath of the Dynasty. It all seemed hopeless.
He gazed across the desert. It put him back in mind of the manoeuvers. He had settled into a comfortable routine with Maddie. She had made a man of him in that wedding bed. They had shared exquisite pleasure, and had delighted in each other’s company. But she had said to him once that she felt like she was preparing him for another woman, and deep down he had suspected that it was probably true. They had both refused to contemplate a time when he would be snatched away from her.
But that time had come. He had passed his exams, and he had got his assignment to a ship. That afternoon when they had made love for the last time, she had held him inside her, as if she would never let him go. He had dressed and packed his bag. They had kissed at the door. Then he had walked away down the street without looking back.
He had passed the survival courses with flying colours. He had been drafted onto a cruiser, the ‘Annihilator’, as an apprentice engineer. It was there that he had run into Smeed again, as fate would have it, and had made friends with Jokesh and Montague. They found they were all conscripts, and each had some axe to grind vis-a-vis the Dynasty. Together they had hatched a plan to desert.
Their chance had come when the ‘Annihilator’ had dropped them off in a patrol ship among some of the thinly populated Outer Systems. It was a cardinal rule that a patrol should never be composed solely of conscripts, but someone, somewhere, had made a clerical error. Jokesh and Montague had been entered on the ‘Annihilator’s’ database as voluntary recruits. It was the opportunity they had been praying for. They had waited until the cruiser was out of scanner range, and then they had bolted. They were not missed for several days, but, of course, the frigate had come looking for them, and had stumbled on them close to Thelema.
Tristan lurched awake. He realised he had been napping, lulled into sleep by the rhythmic gait of the hippocybe. He had been leaning against Arianne’s shoulder, but she had not protested.
It was, he judged, fairly late in the afternoon. They had not stopped all day, and he was hungry. They were climbing a steep incline, with the grey desert dropping away behind them.
At the top of the escarpment, the grassland resumed.
“Not too much further,” said Arianne quietly, as she sensed the burden of her passenger lift from her back. She stretched languidly, arched her spine, rotated her arms, weary and aching as they were. She yawned. The air was getting cooler, and it felt as if it might snow again soon. She urged the hippocybe into a trot.
An hour passed. Tristan was watching eagerly for the first sign of a settlement, but saw nothing. In the distance, mountains speckled with snow lost their heads in the scudding clouds. The wind whipped around beast and riders with growing vigour.
And then there it was. A valley had opened up before them, long and straight with sheer cliff walls, tesselated as if composed of individual stone blocks. On the side on which they stood, the wall was discontinuous, interrupted here and there, with steep grassy slopes descending to the valley floor, but on the further side, a kilometre away, the cliff was a continuous black line through a landscape of otherwise muted colours. Its top was uneven, like the ruins of some ancient fortress, and at one point, by a bizarre quirk of nature, two stunted columns, like stubby fingers, held a boulder between them, as if holding it up for inspection.
The valley floor was flat. Hardy grass grew, and low shrubs maintained a tenuous existence. There was not a tree to be seen. A sprinkling of marshy ponds was scattered along the valley floor like shards of a mirror, and like a snaking trail of mercury, a creek insinuated its way through the middle.
Tristan’s eyes took it in, and his mind digested the information. Somewhere in his planetary physics lectures, he had seen similar formations. In moments, his cerebral biochip offered up the appropriate information. The straight valley with the sheer sides and a flat floor was a rift valley, formed over the fault line where two tectonic plates met. There was, in such circumstances, a strong chance of geological instability.
Tristan was on the verge of saying something about this, but Arianne spurred on her mount, and they progressed along the edge of the cliff. As they continued on, Tristan’s eye was caught by a glimpse of something white on the far side of the valley. It became visible, standing in the lee of a bluff, and Tristan gasped.
Had the Abbey of Thelema been a simple structure built of the local stone, it would have been noticeable. Any artificial construction would have been noticeable in a landscape otherwise void of any trace of human activity. But the building which met his gaze was extraordinary. It was chalky white, and built in the shape of a brain. Apart from the softly curving roof, its entire outer surface was a honeycomb of individual cells, the interior of which was lost in shadow, with the exception of a few where the soft yellow glow of a lamp could be perceived. A well trodden path bordered by whitewashed rocks led to a particularly large cell opening at ground level which was clearly the entrance to the building.
Close by, the ground sloping up to the base of the cliff had been terraced and given over to horticulture, and a short distance away, a cluster of geodesic spheres testified to a more sheltered growing environment. At a further remove, an assortment of outbuildings, some sprouting communications antennae, suggested workshops, repair facilities and even a few small cottages. Smoke curled not only from one or two of the dwellings but also from one of the more functional-looking structures, the window of which was illuminated by a flickering orange glow, and from within which came the sound of metal being struck repeatedly.
Below the main building was a large pond. The pond was fed by a channel running from the abbey, which carried water into a flight of dish-shaped oxygenating basins before it reached the pond. The edges of the pond, Tristan observed, were composed of a series of peninsulae resembling fingers, an artifice resembling the shore of the lake that they had passed along that morning, and within the pond there was a reedy island with a shallow bay along its lee side, within which waterfowl paddled..
Closer to the creek, a cluster of hippocybes grazed.
Arianne’s animal sensed the closeness of its kind, and the ending of the journey, and trotted down the grassy incline between two ramparts of cliff with a gleeful air.
A track led across the valley, traversing the small narrow gorge through which the creek ran by means of a simple stone bridge which blended seamlessly into its surroundings. As they crossed, Tristan looked down, and was stunned by the clarity of the water. He felt as if he could reach in and pluck a stone from its bottom, but a sixth sense suggested that its crystalline depths were far greater than they appeared to be.
And then they were dismounted, standing before the entrance to the abbey. Arianne gestured with a broad sweep of her hand.
“Well,” she said, smiling the broadest smile he had yet seen, “this is the place I call home.”