Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

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Alastair Reynolds The Prefect
  • Название:
    The Prefect
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Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect


Thalia Ng felt her weight increasing as the elevator sped down the spoke from the habitat's docking hub. She allowed herself to drift to the floor, trying to judge the point at which the apparent force reached one standard gee. Thalia hoped this was not one of those habitats that insisted on puritanically high gravity, as if it was somehow morally improving to stagger around under two gees. Her belt, with her whiphound and polling-core-analysis tools, already weighed heavily on her hips.

"Thalia," Dreyfus said quietly as the elevator slowed to a halt, "try not to look so nervous."

She tugged down the hem of her tunic.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"You're going to do fine."

"I wish there'd been more time, sir. To read up on House Perigal, I mean."

"You were informed of our destination as soon as we left Panoply."

"That was only an hour ago, sir."

He looked at her, his lazy right eye nearly closed.

"What's your speed-reading index?"

"Three, sir. Nothing exceptional."

Dreyfus took a sip from the bulb of coffee he'd carried with him from the ship. Thalia had conjured it for him: black as tar, the way her boss liked it.

"I suppose it was quite a long summary file."

"More than a thousand paragraphs, sir."

"Well, there's nothing you need to know that wasn't covered in training."

"I hope so. All the same, I couldn't help noticing …"

"What?" Dreyfus asked mildly.

"Your name's all over the summary file, sir."

"Caitlin Perigal and I've had our fair share of run-ins." He smiled tightly.

"As I'm sure she'll be at pains to remind me."

"Count on it," said Sparver, the other deputy field on the lockdown party.

Dreyfus laid a thick-fingered hand on Thalia's shoulder.

"Just remember you're here to do one thing – to secure evidence. Sparver and I'll take care of any other distractions."

When the elevator doors puckered open, a wave of heat and humidity hit like a hard, wet slap. Steam billowed in the air as far as Thalia could see. They were standing at the entrance to an enormous cavern hewn into the rocky torus of the wheel's rim. Much of the visible surface consisted of pools of water arranged on subtly different levels, connected by an artful system of sluices and channels. People were bathing or swimming, or playing games in the water. Most of them were naked. There were baseline humans and people very far from human. There were sleek, purposeful shapes that might not have been people at all.

Dreyfus pulled a pair of bulbous glasses from his tunic pocket and rubbed the condensation from the dark lenses onto his sleeve. Thalia followed his cue and slipped on her own glasses, taking note of the changes she saw. Many of the apparently naked people were now masked or clothed, or at least partly hidden behind shifting blocks of colour or mirage-like plumage. Some of them had changed size and shape. A few had even become invisible, although the shades provided a blinking outline to indicate their true presence. Luminous branching structures – Thalia couldn't tell if they were sculptures or some form of data visualisation related to an ongoing mindgame – loomed over the complex of pools.

"Here comes the welcome," Dreyfus said.

Something strode towards them, following a dry path that wound between the bathing pools. A pair of shapely, stockinged female legs rose to support a flat tray arrayed with drinks. High heels clicked as the legs approached, placing one foot before the other with neurotic precision. The fluid in the glasses remained rock steady.

Thalia's hand moved to her belt.

"Steady," Dreyfus breathed.

The servitor halted before them.

"Welcome to House Perigal, Prefects," it said in a squeaky voice.

"Would you care for a drink?"

"Thanks," Thalia said, "but we should – "

Dreyfus put down the coffee bulb and dithered his hand over the tray.

"What do you recommend?".

"The red's acceptable.".

"Red it is, then." He took a glass and lifted it towards his lips, just close enough to sniff the aroma. Thalia took a glass for herself. Only Sparver abstained: his metabolism couldn't cope with alcohol.

"Follow me, please. I'll take you to the matriarch.". They followed the legs through the cavern, winding between the pools. If their arrival had gone apparently unnoticed, that luxury had passed. Thalia could feel the back of her neck prickling from the uneasy attention they were now warranting. They climbed to one of the highest pools, where four ornamental iron fish vomited water from their gaping mouths. Three adults were floating in the water, up to their chests in perfumed froth. Two were men. The third was Caitlin Perigal, her face recognisable from the summary file. Her muscular shoulders and arms tapered to elegant webbed hands with acid-green fingernails. A peacock's feather adorned her hair. Green nymphs and satyrs buzzed around her head.

"Prefects," she said, with all the warmth of superfluid helium.

"Matriarch Perigal," Dreyfus said, standing with his feet a few centimetres from the edge of the pool.

"My companions are Deputy Field Prefects Sparver Bancal and Thalia Ng. We've met, of course.". Perigal turned languidly to her two companions.

"The sleepy-looking fat one is Tom Dreyfus," she explained.

One of them – an aristocratic man with long, white hair – examined Dreyfus through clinical grey eyes. His plumage rendered him in impressionist brushstrokes.

"Your paths have crossed before, Caitlin?". Perigal stirred, breaking the water with the muscular fluked tail that had been grafted on in place of her legs. Thalia touched the stud on the side of her shades to verify that the tail was real, not a hallucination.

"Dreyfus' function in life seems to be finding obscure legal channels through which to harass me," Perigal said. Dreyfus looked unimpressed.

"I just do my job. It's not my fault that you keep being a part of it.".

"And I do, don't I?".

"So it seems. Nice tail, by the way. What happened to the legs?". Perigal nodded at the walking tray.

"I keep them around as a conversation piece.".

"Each to their own.".

"Yes, that's the general principle." Perigal leaned forward in the pool, her voice hardening.

"Well, pleasantries over with. Make your inspection, do whatever you have to do, then get the hell off my habitat.".

"I haven't come to inspect the habitat," Dreyfus said. Thalia tensed despite herself. This was the moment she had been both dreading and quietly anticipating.

"What, then?" Perigal asked.

Dreyfus removed a card from his tunic pocket and held it up to his face, squinting slightly. He glanced briefly at Thalia and Sparver before reading, "Caitlin Perigal, as matriarch of this habitat, you are hereby charged with a category-five infringement of the democratic process. It is alleged that you tampered with the polling apparatus, to the intended benefit of your house.". Perigal stuttered something, her cheeks flushing with indignation, but Dreyfus held up a silencing hand and continued with his statement.

"While the investigative process is in operation, your habitat is to be placed under lockdown. All physical traffic between House Perigal and the rest of the system, including Chasm City, is now suspended. No incoming or outgoing transmissions will be permitted. Any attempts to break these sanctions will be countered with destructive force. This is final and binding." Dreyfus paused, then lowered the card.

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