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Authors: Eric Brown

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BOOK: Meridian Days
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I shrugged, gaining time. "She wanted nothing there. We merely went for a walk—"

"Did she mention her sister?"

I shook my head. "No, she didn't." I was conscious of my heartbeat, and hoped that Trevellion would not see through the lie.

"Good," she said. "The incident traumatised her, and she becomes depressed when she dwells on it." She regarded me in silence, then said, "Just what
did
you talk about, Benedict?"

I cleared my throat. "That's between Fire and myself," I said.

Trevellion stretched her lips in what might have been a smile. "I presume she found time to ask you to take her away from here?"

Before I could find a reply, she went on.

"I might as well tell you, for your own good, that you are not the first. Fire uses her obvious attractions in a bid to get eligible young men like yourself to play the white knight and rescue her. She feels nothing for you personally. You're merely the means to an end. Fire is ill, and will use anyone in any way to attempt to leave the island."

I recalled the occasion of our first meeting, when Fire had suggested that we elope to Earth. "As a matter of fact she has asked me to take her away. But I refused—"

Trevellion's eyes widened fractionally. "You did? Then I wonder what else my daughter wants from you?"

"My company?" I suggested, not wanting to believe what the fish-woman was telling me. Was my sole attraction for Fire the fact that I had access to frost?

Trevellion gave a strangled splutter deep in her altered larynx. It might have been a chortle of contempt. "Don't flatter yourself, Benedict. Fire is using you, as you will no doubt find out. I warn you for your own good." She inclined her head in a mock-courteous farewell. "If I were you I would leave the island and keep away."

She brushed past me with a susurrous of filigree fins and climbed the path to her dome. I watched her go, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I was about to head back to my launch when I saw Fire's computer board, wedged upright at my feet. Curiosity moved me to pick it up, wipe grains of sand from the screen and switch it on. Green characters glowed in the darkness.

I read the title: "'Betrayal', by Tamara Trevellion."

Beneath it, the poem began: "I stand as one deserted/ An alien upon Alien soil/ Prey to terrors new to me..."

I read on for perhaps a page, but could make little sense of the extract. I dropped the board in the sand and returned to the sheltered cove and my launch, wondering if Fire's learning her mother's poetry was just one more form of psychological tyranny imposed on her by the fish-woman.

I made a conscious decision to do without frost that night. I was too concerned with thoughts of Fire to lose myself in the past. Without the drug I was prone to nightmares of the accident, but the only dreams I had that night concerned Fire Trevellion: I saw her in the arms of the next man, who could offer her both escape and the knowledge of what had happened to her sister.

~

I awoke late the following day, made myself a meal and sat on the patio. As the day progressed, I thought about what Tamara Trevellion had told me — and this had the effect of weakening my resolve to go without frost. It was a day since I had last taken any, and already I could feel the first symptoms of withdrawal. I was sweating slightly, and my limbs had the shakes. I felt as though I was coming down with influenza. A couple of hours later I felt even worse, and the prospect of the release that frost would bring was almost irresistible. All I had to do, I thought, was enter the lounge, ignite a little frost on the burner and find myself
elsewhere
, untroubled by thoughts of betrayal. I wanted more than anything to take the easy way out — but that, I rationalised, would be as good as admitting that I believed what Trevellion had told me about Fire's using me... I made myself leave the patio, take the path down to the cove and go for a long walk around the island.

As I went, I thought about my meeting with Fire that afternoon. Despite Trevellion's warnings, I would see her again today; I was too involved with her, and with her predicament on the island, to be frightened off by her mother. I recalled that I'd promised to contact Doug about the accident which had killed her sister. I returned to the lounge and got through to his office. The vid-screen flared, and Doug pulled himself towards it on a swivel-chair. He peered at me. "Bob, you're looking terrible."

"I'm fine," I said. "Had a late night, that's all. Look, I was wondering if you could help me?"

"Go on."

"Well, you recall telling me about Jade Trevellion yesterday? I don't suppose you have the details of the accident on record?"

"I'll have them somewhere," he said guardedly. "Why the sudden interest?"

I shrugged. "I saw Trevellion's daughter yesterday. We got talking about her sister's accident. She's blocked the incident from her mind, but she'd like to know what happened. I said that I'd do my best to find out, and then decide if she really should be told."

Doug stared out of the screen at me. "Bob, how close are you to Trevellion's daughter?"

I shrugged. "We're just friends," I said.

"Do you see her often?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I wonder if you could possibly make it up to Main tomorrow? I'd like to see you."

"Sure. What about?"

"It has to do with your discovery on Brightside the other day."

"What has that to do with Fire?"

He shook his head. "I'll fill you in then, Bob. I think you might be able to help me."

I shrugged. "Okay... What time?"

"About five, say? Hold on, I'll try to get that data on the Jade case." He pushed himself away from the screen and careered across the office to a terminal.

I was still wondering how I might be able to further help him, and how Fire might be involved, when he returned a minute later. "Where do you want me to begin, Bob?"

"Well... what happened, exactly?"

He frowned. "Do you want the official version, the report my then commanding officer made public — or what he suspected really happened?

"How about both?" I said, wondering what I was letting myself in for.

"Very well." He glanced down at a computer board on his lap. "The official, sanitized version is that Trevellion's daughter, Jade, slipped and fell into a sculpture she and her mother were working on. She died instantly."

"A sculpture? Do you have any idea where the piece was situated?"

"You mean where on the island? Just a minute." He refered to his computer. "It was on a clearing on the southern side of the island. Why do you ask?"

I shrugged. "Just curious, that's all... You say she fell into it? What the hell was it made of?"

"It was a laser sculpture, Bob. It cut the girl to pieces."

"Jesus..."

"Well, that's the official story. You want the Inspector's off-the-record version?"

"I'm not sure I'm looking forward to this."

"According to the Inspector, Jade Trevellion just walked into the lasers. She committed suicide. The only witness was her sister, Fire. The Inspector questioned her and got the true version of events, but he was prevailed upon by Trevellion to release the 'accident' story."

"No wonder Fire blocked it from her memory."

Doug was shaking his head. "The tragedy was that Jade Trevellion had no reason to kill herself. According to the report, she was ill — she had a brain disorder which apparently was responding well to treatment — and I know for a fact that Trevellion was, and is, a rather strict parent... but these in themselves were no reasons for her to do what she did." He trailed off. "I'm glad I wasn't investigating the case, Bob. I'm flashing a pix of Jade now."

He typed in the command, and in the top right corner of my screen appeared a colour picture of Jade Trevellion. She was sufficiently similar to Fire to take my breath away; a fresh-faced, pretty blonde-haired girl, smiling as if she hadn't a care in the world.

"Lovely kid," Doug commented. "What the hell possessed her?"

I cleared the pix. It was too disturbing to contemplate.

"That's about it," he was saying. "If I were you, I think I wouldn't give Fire Trevellion the true version of events."

"God, I don't know." I shrugged. "Anyway, thanks for your help, Doug."

"See you tomorrow at five, then." He cut the link.

I sat and thought about Fire Trevellion and her sister. After what I'd just found out, I had no intention of allowing Fire to take frost. She had obviously blocked the incident from her mind for a reason, and who knew what harm it might do to release it with the aid of the drug? Perhaps it would be enough for her merely to
know
what had happened; perhaps the memories might return of their own accord if I told her the truth?

Around three that afternoon I steered the launch from the bay and towards Trevellion's island, wondering if a verbal account of her sister's death would satisfy Fire, or if she would insist on having the frost. Despite myself I could not help but speculate how she might react when I denied her the drug.

Physically, I was feeling much better now; the shakes had subsided and the sweating had stopped. I was relieved that I had resisted the temptation earlier to lose myself in the past.

I steered into the sheltered cove, moored the launch on the disused jetty and made my way over the headland to the beach where we had arranged to meet. The day, as ever on Meridian, was perfect. On any other occasion I might have been more appreciative of the sunlight and the clear blue skies, but this afternoon I was more than a little apprehensive at the prospect of what might pass between Fire and myself.

I had no reason to be, as things turned out. It became clear, as the beach came into sight, that I would not be meeting with Fire. At the far end of the crescent stretch of sand, diminished in the perspective, was short, squat hovercraft. Between it and the headland on which I stood were two people: one was the tall, dominating figure of Wolfe Steiner. The other was Fire, tiny by comparison. They stood facing each other, their disproportionate figures dark against the low sun. They had the look of lovers, wrapped in a silence where no words were needed. I felt suddenly sick.

I considered approaching them — I had, after all, arranged to meet Fire here — but their intimacy stopped me. I wanted to join them so that my suspicions might be banished, but at the same time I was afraid that by doing so my worst fears might be confirmed.

They were exchanging words, lost in the distance between us. Something about their postures and attitudes suggested an end-of-affair confrontation: Steiner was imposing, almost threatening; from time to time he made gestures which might have accompanied pleas. Fire stood with her head bowed, occasionally lifting it to give quick glances. There was a certain air of sullenness on her part, indicating someone reluctant to be cajoled by a lover's entreaties. Or was I, in my jealousy, reading more into the
tête-à-tête
than was actually there?

Fire looked up then and defiantly shook her head. Steiner reached out and took her by the shoulders. She seemed to stiffen. He drew her head to his chest, stroking her hair.

At this, Fire pulled away, broke free of his embrace. She cried something at him, which cheered me with its vehemence, although all I heard was: "No..."

In a show of emotion quite alien to him, Steiner almost shouted: "Don't you realise..." but the rest of the sentence failed to reach me.

Fire shook her head, avoiding his eyes.

At this, he grabbed Fire's shoulders and rattled her. Fire went lax, and as if in horror at what he had done, Steiner released her. She slipped gracefully to the sand.

I was about to run from the headland and confront the Director when I saw three figures emerge from the shadows at the foot of the cliff and approach Steiner and the prostrate girl. I recognised the obese surgeon; he was accompanied by two uniformed security guards.

The surgeon knelt with difficulty and examined Fire, alternating his probes with questions directed at Steiner. The guards had drawn their weapons; Steiner looked distinctly uneasy. At a word from the surgeon, the guards replaced their pistols. Between them they picked up Fire and carried her carefully up the beach towards the steps that lead to Trevellion's dome.

The surgeon remained with Steiner; there was a brief, heated exchange, before the surgeon turned and hurried up the beach. He caught up with the guards and fussed with the unconscious girl as they climbed the steps. Director Steiner watched them go, then hurried along the beach to the hovercraft. The vehicle rose, turned and sped away from the island

I returned to my launch. I could not clear from my mind Steiner's obvious affection for Fire, which suggested a certain intimacy in the past. As I made my way home, I told myself that I should not feel betrayed — there was in all likelihood a reasonable explanation for everything I had observed. But some other, suspicious part of me could not forget what Tamara Trevellion had told me the evening before.

The half-shell of frost awaited me on the coffee table, beckoning. To coincide with my arrival home, stomach cramps and nausea had taken hold of me. It was all I could do to hurry through the lounge and lock myself in the bedroom. I spent a fitful night and awoke in the morning feeling like a victim of the plague.

FOUR///MAIN ISLAND

Two hundred kilometres and almost as many islands separated my home base from Main, the largest landmass of the archipelago. The garden city, if the settlement could be called a city, occupied all the island, a collection of one-storey, quake-safe buildings and wide, tree-lined streets. The Telemass station was situated on a small neighbouring isle connected to Main by a suspension bridge.

I set off an hour or so after dawn that morning and arrived just before noon. I had a few hours to kill before my meeting with Doug Foulds, so I decided to take a trip out to the Telemass station. I had left home early in the hope that a change of environment might bring about a corresponding change of mind: whenever I thought of Fire, which was more often than not, I experienced a sensation equivalent to emotional nausea. I was beginning to wish that I'd never set eyes on the girl. My life before our meeting had  been, if solitary, at least straightforward and uncomplicated.

I drove across the suspension bridge, left the launch in the parking lot and bought a visitor's pass from the kiosk beneath the three towering scimitar legs of the station. A glass elevator pod rushed me and a dozen other sightseers up the tripod. From this altitude, the archipelago curved away on either side, a diminishing series of emeralds embedded in a strip of brilliant lapis lazuli.

The elevator halted and I stepped out onto a gallery overlooking the hexagonal operations area, marked with arcane heiroglyphs and busy with blue-uniformed technicians. This was only the second time I had visited the station since my arrival on Meridian, and once again its working end reminded me of nothing so much as the deck and superstructure of a battleship. I leaned against the padded rail that ran the length of the glassed-in gallery, surrounded by tourists, retirees and schoolchildren, and watched grab-trucks ferry crates from the goods-elevator to the centre of the pad. A large countdown monitor, set high on the opposite control tower, ticked off the minutes and seconds to the time of the next shot. The light show was just thirty minutes away.

As colony planets went, Meridian was insignificant. We produced nothing that Earth could not do without, and imported from Earth all the food-stuffs we required to survive. I could appreciate the logic behind Earth's decision to scale down the Telemass operations to and from Meridian. Each trans-stellar shot cost billions of credits and, as Earth sustained a massive network of Telemass links throughout the Expansion, it was understandable that it should wish to limit expenditure on some of the smaller worlds. As I watched the final preparations for the outward shot, I thought about how the scale-down might effect the planet. The reduction of shots from three to one a month meant, in real terms, a corresponding reduction of supplies by a third. All non-essential imports would have to be dropped, and a priority given to food supplies. The majority of materials used by the artists on Meridian were imported from Earth, and I wondered how a reduction might effect them. I foresaw a sudden exodus of artists from Meridian — and without its artists, the planet's economy would collapse. I hoped that my vision was ill-founded, a result of my mood that morning.

My thoughts were interrupted by the countdown from the public address system. The centre of the deck below us was stacked with a tall ziggurat of containers; as we watched, these containers began to glow. They lost their geometric definition and became shapeless, then dissolved into a million points of fizzing golden light, which brightened and rose to form a tall, spectacular column. Then the dazzling bolt streaked away into the heavens at the start of its fraction-of-a-second journey to Earth. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the shot was that it was accomplished in absolute silence. The spectators in the gallery drew breaths of delight and applauded.

Technicians swarmed across the pad again, lifted covers in the deck and began work on the revealed machinery. A voice over the tannoy announced the arrival of a shot from Earth in a little over one hour.

I moved along to the bar, bought a drink and positioned myself by the viewscreen. The palsy that I'd awoken with that morning was wearing off, and I was beginning to feel a little better. I wondered how long it would be before the next bout of sickness, and if the withdrawal symptoms would get worse before they ceased altogether. I had never before gone for so long without frost.

As I sat, I found myself glancing up with interest every time a station official came into view below. Only when I saw Wolfe Steiner stride across the deck and climb the steps to the bar did I begin to wonder if the reason I had come here today was to seek out the Director. At the sight of him, I suddenly had to know what his meeting with Fire had been about. I might have been reluctant to approach the imposing figure of the Director before yesterday, but his display on the beach of attributes I had not ascribed to him, like tenderness and concern, made him somehow approachable.

He was in conversation with Weller, the bearded technical adviser — sporting dark glasses today — I had seen at the event the other evening. Steiner stood stiffly at the bar, a non-alcoholic drink in his hand. As always when observed over a period, he gave the impression that from time to time he was entirely elsewhere, listening rapt to the siren song of his implant.

I waited until the adviser finished his drink and left, then I crossed to the bar and stood beside Steiner under the pretext of ordering another drink. The Director seemed oblivious of my presence; his eyes were distant as points of light sequenced across his carotid spar. When he emerged from his reverie and took a drink, I caught his gaze and nodded.

His enquiry was brusque, almost brutal, and altogether in keeping with his mechanical demeanour. "Have we met?"

I smiled in sardonic acknowledgement of his civility. "At Tamara Trevellion's party a few nights ago—"

He regarded me sternly, as if attempting to judge the threat I represented. "What do you want, Mr...?"

"Benedict. Bob Benedict. I'm a friend of Fire Trevellion."

He took a sip of his drink, wholly non-committal. "And how might I help you, Mr Benedict?"

I decided to go for the diplomatic approach. "Well, I was hoping that you might be able to tell me something about her, Director."

Steiner smiled without humour. "You were?"

"You must know her rather well. Weren't you once a good friend of Tamara Trevellion?"

"I fail to see how that qualifies me in your eyes as someone who knows anything about her daughter."

"But you do know her?"

His expression flashed impatience. "What exactly do you want, Mr Benedict?"

"I saw you on the beach yesterday," I began.

His response was swift. "Did Tamara Trevellion put you up to this?"

"I assure you, I dislike Trevellion as much as you do. All I'm bothered about is Fire."

"Is that so?" His expression was patronising now, almost amused. "Then I hope you have more luck than I did."

I was bemused. I recalled the evident concern with which he had treated Fire yesterday. "Were you close to her?" I asked.

Steiner laughed uncharacteristically. "Not at all —  I pity her. I was trying to get her to leave the island, if you must know. Are you in the habit of spying on Fire and everyone she meets?"

"I was due to meet her there myself," I explained. I went on, "Anyway, she won't leave the island because of her illness. Hasn't she told you about that? She's being treated by her mother's surgeon, at great expense."

"That's what she told you, is it?" he said, watching me closely. "Then again, why not? That's probably what she believes."

My stomach turned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean simply that Fire Trevellion is not in command of her reality. She is controlled wholly by her mother. She might tell you what she genuinely believes to be the truth, but the subjective determinants of that truth are governed by Tamara. Don't forget that she has been on the island, under her mother's unwavering influence, for every day of her life."

I shook my head. "You make her sound like a puppet," I said.

Steiner lifted his lips in a parody of a smile. "That's a very good description, Mr Benedict. Fire is a puppet of Tamara Trevellion's warped sensibilities, caught up in a scenario she has no way of understanding." He hesitated. "A word of advice. If I were you, I'd stay well clear of Trevellion and her daughter. Tamara is a cruel and dangerous woman, and Fire is so unwitting and naive that she is almost as dangerous herself." He regarded the countdown display through the viewscreen. "Mr Benedict, I really must be going. I hope you take note of what I've said."

I remained at the bar for a long time, staring into my drink. In effect, Steiner had told me nothing that I had not already worked out for myself, even if his presentation of the facts was a little more forceful. I had been aware of Fire's subordination to her mother, but it had taken the view of a third party to bring home the extent of Trevellion's control. Even so, I considered Steiner's warning, if well-meant, vague enough to ignore. I suspected that he was thinking back to his own disastrous involvement with Tamara Trevellion when he counselled me to leave well alone.

As I left the Telemass station and drove across the suspension bridge to Main Island it came to me that, beneath his augmentation and rather severe formality, Director Steiner was human after all.

~

I still had some time to kill before my meeting with Doug, so I settled the launch outside a boulevard cafe and sat at a table in the sunlight. I ordered a light meal — one effect of the withdrawals was to reduce my appetite — and watched the citizens of Main promenading down the wide, tree-lined avenue. The majority were normals, with the occasional Altered and Augmented for variety. After the seclusion of my own island, where often I might go for weeks without seeing a soul, it was a strange sensation to be among so many people and yet still alone. I told myself that immediately upon my return I really should look up Abe or Fire.

My involvement with Fire served only to emphasize the fact that my isolation, which for so long had been my natural and preferred state, was coming to an end. I was entering uncharted territory, and while part of me welcomed the change, another could not help but feel afraid.

Along the boulevard, outside an electrical goods supplier, a long low-loader settled to the ground with a sigh of deflated skirts. A dozen men and women in white overalls, their backs bearing the logo of the retailer, began floating large crates onto the bed of the juggernaut. One piece of machinery was not crated: a satellite dish or small radio telescope.

I had been watching the loading operation for a minute or two before I realised that the tall, dark figure supervising the procedure was familiar. She was monitoring the loading with the hauteur of one to whom such physical work was anathema. She might have been any Altered fish-woman, but something in her overbearing attitude told me that it could only be Tamara Trevellion. I considered the irony of travelling two hundred kilometres only to happen across my least favourite person on the planet. I wondered what new project she was embarking upon which required so much technical apparatus.

I drained my beer and was about to settle my bill and leave when I was jumped from behind. Someone pressed warm fingers over my eyes. "You don't get away that easy, Mr Benedict! Guess who?"

I touched her hand. "Fire?" I was aware that my hand was shaking, and pulled it quickly away.

"Right first time." She fell into a seat across the table and gestured around her. "Isn't it a great day? I love the city!" She was wearing a bright yellow trouser-suit, with a tight bodice and flaring pants. The outfit was years behind the times and gave her the appearance of an invalid out on day release — which, in a way, she was. "What a coincidence meeting you here!"

I smiled. I was struck at how animated Fire was away from her mother. Watching her, I felt again that dangerous surge of jealousy which I had first experienced last night on seeing Fire and Steiner together on the beach.

"I don't often get up here," she went on, looking over her shoulder to where her mother was chastising a worker over some supposed misdemeanour. She frowned, then smiled dazzlingly at me. "But when I do I make the most of it. Look — Tamara hasn't given  me any creds today, and I'm starving. Do you think you could buy me a meal? I'll pay you back later. I have some savings..."

I passed her the menu and enjoyed watching her regard the list with confusion. She looked up, shook her head — "There's so much..." — then returned to the menu with renewed concentration.

When she had finally made her selection — a sea-food salad — she sat back with satisfaction and smiled at me. "Last time I was here I wandered off and got lost. Tamara was frantic. When she found me she said she'd never bring me here again."

"Why did she relent?"

Fire smiled. "Maybe she doesn't trust me alone on the island with you around."

Her manner evoked memories of three days ago, when she had suggested with flippant bravado that we elope. The only way she knew of hinting at a better life was to make it the subject of a joke.

I indicated the juggernaut. "What's Tamara buying?" I asked. "A radar to keep me away?"

Fire shrugged, as if the last thing she wanted to discuss was her mother. "I don't know... It's some special broadcaster, I think. She plans to beam her events to Earth in future, instead of sending tapes. I'm sure the citizens of Earth will be just
delighted
."

Her meal arrived, and its abundance fazed her as had the menu. For a while she busied herself eating, watching me between mouthfuls.

"Hey—" She bobbed her head, wide-eyed, in conjunction with a gulp — "are you okay, Mr Benedict?"

She was obviously referring to the sweat which had broken out on my face. I felt queasy. "I'm fine," I said.

She peered. "You don't look too well."

"I'll survive."

She smiled. "So... what brings you to Main?".

I had been wondering for some time how to broach the subject of her meeting with Steiner. I said, "Well, I was so disappointed after yesterday that I decided to come here and drown my sorrows." I lifted my glass.

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