Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 28

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By Decree Of He Who Writes (Ryk E Spoor), this is the last snippet. Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 28 Chapter 28. “Fictional powers can be made real,” Laila Canning repeated slowly. Her sharp brown eyes studied Oasis as … Continue reading

By Decree Of He Who Writes (Ryk E Spoor), this is the last snippet.

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 28

Chapter 28.

Fictional powers can be made real,” Laila Canning repeated slowly. Her sharp brown eyes studied Oasis as though the redheaded woman was a specimen on her dissection table. “How certain are you of this?”

“Between ninety-five and a hundred percent sure,” Oasis said. “I mean, Wu Kung already demonstrated he’s going totally beyond the normal limits of the Arena and he can do that talk-to-animals thing that no one does, as far as we know.”

“That’s… that’s a total game-changer right there,” Carl said after a pause. “I mean… the Arena giving Hyperions their… how do I say it? Natural superpowers?”

“It’s perfectly in line with the Arena’s normal behavior,” Simon said. “Although, based on other events, I have to assume that the Arena has a range of discretion it can use in interpreting its directives and actions. The real question isn’t so much how it can justify this… but why it has chosen to do so.”

Laila nodded. “That is indeed the question. As Carl says, this potentially changes everything — in general, favorably for us, although your possible sighting could be very much not in anyone’s favor, Oasis.”

“Fairchild? He’d be a total disaster for everyone. Especially with DuQuesne and Wu off for who knows how long.”

She still sounds worried. “Oasis, why DuQuesne specifically? I mean, we still have you, and Velocity, and I presume there must be a few others left.”

The woman’s long, slender fingers caught at the ponytail dangling near them and began twining the red strands around them, a nervous motion at odds with the cheerfully unflappable Oasis he was used to. “There probably are some more — I think DuQuesne said there might be fifteen, sixteen of us still around, so with me, DuQuesne, Wu, Maria-Susanna, and Vel, that’s ten or eleven still back in the System. But I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t want to know, remember? I was hiding out as Oasis Abrams, not really ever planning to be ‘K’ again. I think DuQuesne was the only one with a good idea of who the other survivors were and where or how to contact them.”

She took a breath, glanced at her hand, and with a visible effort made it release her hair and drop to her side. “DuQuesne is Fairchild’s opposite number. Fairchild… wasn’t exactly human, I guess is the best way to put it, and both he and DuQuesne had a lot of powers that go way, way beyond normal human capabilities. Way out of my league, or Vel’s. Plus being his designed opposite, in a world that assumed the good guys win and bad guys lose? That has to give DuQuesne a major edge over Fairchild.”

“Very interesting,” Laila said. “Eminently logical, if I accept the basic premises. The Arena is accepting their universes as real for the purposes of what powers it gives them; if the universe itself had a clear… definition of right and wrong and of victory conditions, you believe that at least some of that would also transfer to the Arena.”

“Yes. Or it’s at least a real good bet.”

“You know, we should be able to get an answer as to whether this Fairchild guy is here or not,” Carl said.

“Really? Aside from Oasis, none of us here would even recognize the gentleman,” Simon said.

“Probably not, but you’ve got that super-cheat-code in your head, right? Couldn’t you just look for him that way?”

Simon blinked, then chuckled. “I probably could, at that.”

Will you?” Laila asked. “I understand very well your reluctance to abuse that ability, but I think time may be of the essence in at least knowing if we do have a Hyperion-born enemy out there.” For a moment, he saw unconcealed worry on the former biologist’s face. “Honestly, Simon, the idea of someone who is DuQuesne‘s equal out there as an enemy? That terrifies me.”

“You and me both, as DuQuesne might say,” Simon agreed. “Very well, Laila. I will make the attempt; at the least this capability of mine should be used to serve the needs of our Faction Leaders — permanent or temporary.”

Once more he drew on that transcendent feeling, the ultimate clarity that lay beyond mere mortality. Doctor Alexander Fairchild, he thought. Is he here? If he is, where?

Almost instantly he felt that sudden wrenching turn of virtual viewpoint, the sensation that presaged his ascension to a pure and detailed vision of his target.

But just as suddenly it stopped. He had the vaguest sense of the target and its location — somewhere in Nexus Arena! — and then… nothing. An impenetrable gray fog enveloped most of the gigantic construct.

He sat back with such startled force that he nearly tipped the chair over.

“What is it, Simon?” Oasis asked, steadying him with one hand on his shoulder.

“It was… the most disorienting thing I have ever experienced,” he said after a moment. “I had the feeling I was about to see, or at least locate, this Doctor Fairchild… and then … nothing. I had a sense that he was indeed here, somewhere in Nexus Arena… but after that, it was as though the truth were cloaked, hidden in shadows I could not penetrate.” He gave a wry smile, trying to hide how startled and, truth be told, upset he felt. “After never encountering a limit with this power, I must say I was unprepared to find one.”

Oasis could not hide the fact that she had gone pale. “But you did sense him.”

He frowned. “I think so. But I admit I have never tried to look for an individual before. Perhaps that is not allowed except in a very broad sense.”

“Simple to find out,” Carl said. “Try locating someone you know is around.”

“Very well. Let me see…”

He rose to the Olympian heights and thought, Dr. Relgof.

Without a pause, he felt that turn, and his vision sped away from Humanity’s Embassy and across Nexus Arena. He found himself looking down on Relgof Nov’Ne Knarph as he engaged in some form of discussion with a number of other members of the Analytic, inside the huge Great Faction House.

That worked. It’s terrifying, also, but it worked. He thought for a moment. Perhaps it doesn’t work on Hyperions?

Easy enough to test. He thought about Oasis, and his perception swiveled and spun, to come to rest above, well, himself, looking down upon the red-headed Hyperion. So much for that theory.

Perhaps it has to do with that… universe of origin? In which case I should be able to find Ariane but not DuQuesne.

But both attempts rebuffed him; he streaked off through vast spaces of the Arena, to a location that would be distant indeed… but long before he even got a clear sense of where that was within the titanic confines of the Arena, everything dissolved in grayness. Odd. Decidedly odd.

The transcendent feeling still remained with him, and a few quick tests showed that he could still hold details beyond human comprehension in his mind. The power did not seem weakened. But there are particular beings, or locations, that refuse to be… remote-viewed, scryed, whatever I might call it. He tested a few other choices, finding it easy to locate and view Oscar Naraj, Sethrik, and even Mairakag Achan, serving various customers in his restaurant.

But when he tried to look in on Nyanthus, he was once more completely stymied by gray indeterminism. Then, perhaps, it has to do with particular capabilities. If so, perhaps I could not locate Ariane because she has such powers locked within her.

Maria-Susanna was also grayed-out. Now that worries me. I did not get the impression she had inhuman abilities per se. Why can I not locate her?

He opened his eyes, letting that sense recede. “I can locate some people but not others. I am not yet entirely sure of the rules that determine which I can, well, spy upon and which I cannot. It is not, however, based on whether they are inside a Faction House, or a member of any given Faction, or limited by species. My best guess at the moment is that it reflects people who have some type of Arena-granted special capabilities, but even that is not universal.” He looked at Oasis. “I could view you easily enough, even though I know you must have at least some special talents or powers from your Hyperion background.”

Laila frowned and smoothed back her pageboy-cut chestnut hair. “Nonetheless, we have confirmed the existence of Doctor Fairchild. Correct, Simon?”

“I… am afraid so. The sensations were the same as the ones I felt for other people I know exist but who were hidden for some reason.”

“Damn,” Carl said. “That’s bad. Do you think we could sort him out of the people who’ve come through our Sphere?”

Oasis bit her lip, thinking. “I really don’t know. He’d want to leave no trail. If we knew exactly what he looked like now, maybe. But while I’m pretty sure whatever body he cloned for himself will look like his sim image, I’m also very sure it won’t be identical. He’s not stupid. He’s a genius and he’s really, really good at thinking things out a hundred steps ahead.”

Someone with DuQuesne’s brain and the moral compass of a classic villain — a smart — villain — in one of the grandest-scale tales ever written. Very much not what I would have wanted to hear. With an effort, he made himself smile. “This is bad news, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. We have at least two advantages over him, after all.”

Oasis looked up with surprise, and even one of Laila’s eyebrows curved up like a seagull’s wing. “Really? What are those?”

“Well, first, he doesn’t know we know he is here. If he insists on wearing that outfit you described — a white classic suit — we can make sure many people keep an eye out for him and report; we’ll locate him fast enough.

“But more importantly, we know that you Hyperions can use your special abilities… but he won’t. He’s undoubtedly read the reports sent back and could tell that none of you were doing anything beyond what your special engineering would allow. He may figure it out eventually, but for now, it’s a clear advantage.”

He was glad to see Oasis’ face smooth out a bit. “You’re right, Simon. And he’s also without a Faction — or else he’s stuck under the rules of Humanity’s Faction. It will take even Fairchild a while to figure out the Arena and how to exploit it.”

“And in the meantime we will do our best to locate him and, hopefully, contain him,” Laila said. “Carl, if I understand our delegated powers, we have essentially absolute authority in the Arena, correct?”

“Basically, yes. As long as we follow the Arena’s rules, which are pretty loose when it comes to internal Faction business.”

“Good. Then we will do our best to locate him — and capture him when opportunity presents itself. Put him back in regular space and put him on trial for murder — as I believe we can all agree he is the primary suspect for the deaths of the other Hyperions?”

Simon saw Oasis nod, and added his own. “And, quite likely, the one who was guiding General Esterhauer — and tried to wipe her when things weren’t following his script. Yes, I think that you not only can use your delegated Leader of Faction powers to capture him, but also have more than enough justification to keep him back home.”

“I don’t think you can keep him imprisoned forever,” Oasis said. “Or even for very long.”

“I would think we can keep him busy enough until DuQuesne gets back, at which point, if you’re right, we will have the antidote to his poison, so to speak.”

Oasis suddenly grinned. “I think you’re right!”

“Good,” Laila said decisively. “The news was not what we hoped, but we have a plan of action — a practical plan of action, I think. Oasis, I know you don’t have standard headware, but please generate some images of this Fairchild for us so that we can transmit them to all our people who might be in a position to find him.”

“Will do!”

Simon nodded, but somewhat absently. He was still trying to figure out the rules of this strange gray blankness. A quick test showed that he could locate the other known Hyperion — Velocity Celes — as he practiced piloting one of the Arenaspace vessels near Humanity’s Sphere. Carl Edlund, ditto, just as easy as anyone else.

But there was one other individual about which there were some questions…

Even as Simon felt his eyebrow rising in surprise, he realized Laila was speaking to him. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said, I just realized there is one other question you might be able to answer for me. Well, more precisely, for our negotiator Oscar Naraj, although I admit it is important to me as well.”

“I’m always willing to help. What is the question?”

“It is more a fact that poses a question. You understand that Mr. Naraj is an extremely observant man, and especially so in his specialty of negotiation and diplomacy.”

“I would expect so, yes.”

“Well, he has of course kept a close eye on the doings of our enemies as well as our allies, and just the other day he asked me if I knew of any particular events that might have affected the Molothos. When I said I did not and asked why, he said that he was fairly certain that neither he, nor anyone else, had seen or heard from their Leader, Dajzail, in quite some time.”

“Hmm. Well, I can certainly try to answer the question as to where he is.” He closed his eyes once more.

He rose above and through the Embassy, and thought the question where is Dajzail, Leader of the Molothos?

A wrenching turn and a rush of speed, flying through the varicolored clouds and spinning Spheres and innumerable living things of the Arena, until he found himself seemingly floating in air within a compartment that to his eyes was too brilliantly lit, and filled with Molothos attending to various duties. In the center sat Dajzail, squatting on some sort of support structure that Simon presumed was a chair. The Leader of the Molothos was examining something on a screen projected before him.

He’s on board a ship, it would seem. But what ship, and where?

With barely an effort of thought, Simon rose up, through the hull of the vessel, and floated beyond, looking around, trying to sense the position of the ship below him.

Wait. There was more than one ship. Simon concentrated, expanded his vision. Two ships. Three. A dozen. Two dozen… no. There were hundreds… no, thousands of ships in this fleet!

And he suddenly knew where they were.

His eyes snapped open and he realized he had already stood. “Laila… I believe we have a far bigger problem than a mere renegade Hyperion.”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 27

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 27 Chapter 27. “Your words tantalize me, my friends,” Orphan said as DuQuesne was still trying to wrap his mind around this latest revelation. “It is clear — it has, in truth, always been … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 27

Chapter 27.

“Your words tantalize me, my friends,” Orphan said as DuQuesne was still trying to wrap his mind around this latest revelation. “It is clear — it has, in truth, always been clear — that there is some great mystery surrounding Doctor DuQuesne, and his compatriots Wu Kung and Oasis and, I believe, Maria-Susanna. I have to believe it also has to do with Wu Kung’s extraordinary performance in the recent Challenge.

“It seems that these connections now encompass our Captain as well, yes?”

“In a way, yes,” DuQuesne admitted. “But we’re not going into detail here.”

Wu Kung was looking puzzled, unlike Ariane who was still shell-shocked. “I’m right, aren’t I?” she said, and transmitted an image to him.

The man in the faded denim was undeniably familiar, and the details that DuQuesne could notice — a particular faint scar on one cheek, the pattern of wrinkles around the eyes — confirmed it. “It checks out, Ariane. That’s Bryson, all right.” He grinned suddenly. “And you know what, it makes a whole lot of other things make sense. How many people these days even heard of Doc Smith’s work? He’s not even a fringe thing, he’s ancient history, older than Shakespeare was in his time, and never even vaguely that popular. I never met another person in my life outside of Hyperion who recognized my name; hell, he wasn’t much remembered only a century after publication, and now it’s three hundred fifty-plus years later than that. Your parents let you get half-raised by that old throwback and that’s how you came to be this way.”

“But… but you said he was alive!” The dark-blue brows had come together and he could see anger welling up within her. “He died in a fire. They even found a body, so –”

“Maria-Susanna,” DuQuesne said quietly. “Saul and I helped him run to start with, but he had to live his life, or lives, real careful. I’ll bet he stuck around a lot longer than was safe, watching you grow up. But finally he knew he’d pushed his luck too much and had to die. A clone body’s not hard to get made if you know the tricks to it.” He reached out, touched her arm. “Don’t be mad at him, Ariane. He did it for his safety and yours. He probably didn’t think Maria-Susanna would hurt a kid, but he couldn’t be sure. She’s not easy to predict.”

He looked over at Orphan. “Sorry I can’t clear things up much for you, Orphan, but the real answers you’d want are way too valuable.”

“Quite understood, Doctor. Alas, I cannot guarantee any privacy here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Ariane shook her head, and then he saw her eyes widen and her gaze snapped to meet his own. “Marc –”

With a visible effort, she stopped herself. “Well… damn. That’s going to make it hard to talk about anything we don’t want to give away.”

And I’d really like to know what it was she just thought of, because whenever she gives that expression you know it’s going to be a doozy.

“I can understand your reluctance,” said a high, clear voice, “but I assure you that I have no intention of intruding upon any privacy you may require.”

Standing in a wide doorway that had not been in that wall a moment ago was a tall, slender figure in robes of pearl-gray, edged with green and gold threads. Its stance and outline indicated a bipedal form, highly attenuated and graceful. The robes had long sleeves which currently fell in a way as to conceal the limbs within, and the hood of the robe allowed only a hint of features to be seen within. It was not quite the utter shadowed void that Amas-Garao seemed to favor; the faint outlines of what seemed a face could be made out.

Ariane rose to her feet as the figure approached; now she bowed; DuQuesne and, he saw, Wu followed suit, with Orphan performing his pushup-bow. “Vindatri, I presume,” Ariane said.

“I am,” the figure answered.

“Is this your real shape?” Wu Kung asked.

A rippling laugh echoed around the room. “It is a shape that is mine, and not copied from any of you, and a form that should be one you can accept. In that sense, it is real.”

“But it’s not the shape you were born with,” Wu persisted.

“No,” conceded Vindatri, “but is the form so important? I have worn more than could be easily counted in the ages that have passed since that time. To me, the effort to craft an appropriate shape is less than the effort one of you might put into choosing a set of clothing.”

He (DuQuesne decided to stick with that pronoun, as it was the one Orphan had used) gave an extravagant bow and flourish of the arms. “Welcome to Halintratha,” Vindatri said, and the name or word momentarily had that eerie many-in-one resonance. DuQuesne caught hints of bastion or castle, of vault or safe, of mystery and knowledge, of quester or researcher, of the Arena itself, and other words as well. A stronghold of knowledge? Bastion of Mysteries? Not a library, though.

“Welcome to Halintratha,” Vindatri said, “you who have journeyed far through the Deeps to find me. Orphan I know, and have given my first greetings to each of you as well. Now it is time for us to speak together, and understand the ways in which fate and the Arena have brought you hence.”

“Wasn’t ‘fate’, it was Orphan,” Wu pointed out. “He’s got some sneaky reason for it, too, besides the one he’s already told us.”

Orphan gave the open-shut shrugging gesture. “And I have admitted that I was not allowed to speak of the second reason, as you know, Wu Kung.”

“That is, however, past,” Vindatri said. “I give you leave to speak as you wish, Orphan. And if you describe fully, I will be learning as well, so do not be overly coy with your words.”

Orphan bob-bowed to Vindatri, but his posture shifted, and his tone was dry and humorous. “Be not overly coy? You remove much of the joy of speaking, o Vindatri.”

The half-seen features within seemed to crease in a smile. Which would be really strange; how many animals on Earth do things that are really like smiles? An alien doing that? I’d like to see what’s really under that cowl.

But Orphan had now turned to them. “As you know, the first condition was a simple one: bring news of First Emergents, and of course if I could bring one or more such with me, that would be a far better form of news.

“However, I had terribly specific instructions that I must bring members of any First Emergent species with me if they were to demonstrate a particular characteristic.”

As usual, Orphan chose to pause at this intellectual cliffhanger. Wu obliged Orphan’s need for dramatics. “Well, don’t stop there, what was it?”

“It was something which was both incredibly broad in its definition, yet something which, Vindatri assured me, I would know if ever I saw it. Specifically, that the First Emergents in question would have ‘the blessing of the Arena upon them’.”

DuQuesne thought the phrase was familiar, but it was Ariane who stiffened and stared at Orphan. “That… that’s part of the Canajara prophecy.”

“Ah, you know of the prophecy of the Faith?” Vindatri said with an air of faint surprise. “Or I should say prophecies, as the Canajara is a complex and often contradictory myth cycle for that Faction, with at least four significantly different tellings of the tale — each with of course almost numberless variations. But forgive me, Orphan, continue.”

“Of course. I observed your people very closely, as you know. You became my allies — rather tolerant allies, I must admit, as I gave you ample reason to suspect me, or even to sever any alliance with you. And the result of those observations was to conclude that indeed you fit this description.”

“This has to do with that… secret you’ve been keeping,” Ariane said with certainty. “And for some reason you thought it was going south during the Genasi Challenge, and suddenly you were absolutely certain, like you’d been vindicated.”

“And when you were all mysterious during the battle against the Blessed,” DuQuesne said, starting to see the pattern. “When you said… oh, what was it… ‘”Let us just say I believe I have confirmed a hypothesis, and that this is most in your favor’.”

Orphan’s buzz-laugh was delighted. “Quite on-target, both of you — and a fine memory you have, Doctor DuQuesne!”

DuQuesne grinned back. “Well, I can’t take all the credit; that was a weird enough comment that I actually filed the quote in my headware. So out with it. What’s this ‘Blessing of the Arena’.”

“Surely you can guess, Doctor DuQuesne,” Orphan said slowly. “And you, Captain Austin. Perhaps not Sun Wu Kung; he has not been privy to all the relevant events. But let us review the points that impressed themselves upon me, some at the time they happened, others upon deep reflection.

“First, your encounter with me. You happened upon me just as I was cornered by the Blessed, and managed — with the assistance of a rather unexpected visitor — to cause them to depart. Then, having just entered the Arena with my guidance, within days you discover that your Upper Sphere has been invaded… and repel the invasion with but two of your limited number.” His black eyes measured DuQuesne. “Correct me if I am wrong, Doctor, but it would be my contention that it was, specifically, your presence that made that possible — and to be even more specific, that your victory had something to do with the secret you share with Maria-Susanna, Wu Kung, and Oasis Abrams.”

DuQuesne glanced at Ariane, who nodded. “All right, I’ll give you that one. Carl wasn’t in any way useless, and he was crucial for some of it… but yeah, given the way that all went down, no one else in the crew could’ve pulled it off without me, and you’ve got the connection right.”

“Excellent. And would I also be correct in assuming that your victory over the Molothos was one involving some… oh, desperate improvisation, perhaps?”

“That’d fit, yeah.” Rigging together controls for an alien ship we’d never seen a few hours before and turning it into a kamikaze to take out a full-sized warship? Desperate enough.

A satisfied hand-tap from Orphan. “So, moving on, there was the startling performance of Doctor Franceschetti at the casino, leading to your Challenge by the Blessed to Serve. Your victory over Sethrik in that race was also highly instructive.

“And then you attained victory over Amas-Garao of the Shadeweavers — not once, but twice, the second time in direct Challenge of personal combat.”

Now the tall figure of Vindatri went rigid. “Is this truth that you speak?”

“Oh, it was a magnificent — and at times heart-rending — battle, Vindatri. Captain Ariane Austin, a First Emergent but a few scant weeks in the Arena, facing Amas-Garao, one of the oldest of the Shadeweavers, and — ultimately — defeating him with a maneuver that shocked both Shadeweaver and Faith — and required them both to act to preserve their own lives as well as those of most in the stands who had been watching.”

Vindatri turned slowly towards Ariane. “You … you Awakened yourself?”

Ariane’s white grin was a deadly, beautiful blade. “I did.”

“That is impossible.”

“Ahh, Vindatri, I have heard — and spoken! — that word in association with Humanity so many times, it has become a comforting refrain to me,” Orphan said wryly. “I am sure you, too, will become very familiar with it. Perhaps you already are.

“But we have hardly finished yet, my friends. As you mentioned, Doctor DuQuesne, there was our chase and confrontation with a fleet of the Blessed to Serve. There was the utterly inexplicable ability of Doctor Sandrisson to repair — and then improve — my own vessel, and your similar ability to make use of my own ship’s controls with a skill that seemed barely short of the supernatural.

“And there were other events, several of them… but then we reached the Genasi Challenge, and it seemed that perhaps I was wrong, as I saw what was happening. But then I formed a modified hypothesis, and indeed, the Grand Finale of that little race turned out precisely as I had guessed.”

Turning all the events over in his head, DuQuesne thought he saw what Orphan was driving at… and it was both impossible and terrifying. “You think… you think we’re, well…”

“… lucky,” Ariane finished. “Naturally — or if you’re right about the ‘Blessing’ business, unnaturally — lucky at almost anything.”

“Precisely,” Orphan said. “Random factors align for you. The right people are at the right place at the right time. The accidental offense, or the deliberate, turns out to be precisely what you needed. Your own cavalier attitude towards risk itself was another hint — one borne out by several of the entertainment modules your people shared with me. It seems to be a common trait of your heroes to say something to the effect of ‘never tell me the odds’. Partly, of course, that is because you have never integrated the same probability-evaluation technology that most of the Arena natives take for granted… but it seemed to me that you truly had less respect for the threat of random chance.”

He looked around slowly, and DuQuesne could tell Orphan was enjoying the reactions he was getting. “Yet if you were truly anomalously lucky, surely your people would have noticed it back home; you are not incapable in the areas of statistics, after all. But then, as I watched that final Challenge, I thought that there was one possible explanation, and that Challenge, I felt, confirmed it. Not proof, perhaps, but good enough.”

Klono’s Tungsten… “Maria-Susanna.”

Very good, Doctor DuQuesne. If you were all lucky, the luck would cancel out when it was, in short, human versus human, or in this case, human faction versus a faction with one rather unusual human in it. You had your… trump card, yes? Yes. Your trump card in the form of Sun Wu Kung, but for once your preternatural luck could give you no headway in the card game, because Maria-Susanna had joined the Vengeance… and brought her own luck with her, even though she was not directly playing.”

“But that’s… how?” demanded Ariane.

“That’s the sixty-four thousand-dollar question, isn’t it,” DuQuesne said slowly. “Though with the Arena involved I guess it’s not all that hard to explain. As long as you don’t need to explain why.”

“And that,” Vindatri said, “is of course the question of interest. Why? Why would the Arena favor you? For I do not accept any possibility that this is some kind of natural ability; ‘luck’ is a spurious concept in normal conversation, a perception that because random factors have aligned well several times that this represents some sort of special phenomenon. But with the Arena’s powers? It would be quite possible to influence events exactly in the manner necessary to provide such luck.

“But how this would serve the Arena’s interests? That, now, that is a difficult question indeed.”

“Does it have to serve the Arena’s interests?” Ariane countered. “I haven’t even been convinced that the Arena has ‘interests’, in the sense of things it wants to accomplish, rather than rules it has to follow because it’s built that way.”

Vindatri fluttered his hands in a way that somehow symbolized argument. “The very existence of those rules imply some form of purpose. The Factions have debated the nature of that purpose, of course, and it is certainly true that it may not be the Arena, proper, that has the purpose… but whether it be the Arena or the Voidbuilders of myth, I think we must agree that there is a purpose, and thus some number of interests, involved in the operation of the Arena.”

“So what’s your interest?” Wu Kung asked bluntly. “You gave Orphan directions on who to bring back, your own words tell me that you must have some purpose, yes?”

“Yes,” agreed Vindatri. “But I will not tell you that purpose. Doing so would fail to serve said purpose.”

“Would your purpose mean that you can’t help us — specifically, help me?” Ariane asked.

Another hint of a smile. “I can say that no, it would not impede me from providing you with some level of assistance in unraveling the mysteries of these powers. And for my own part, teaching you would perhaps reveal to me something about the powers I have not yet learned; as my own surprise doubtless revealed, I have never heard of a self-Awakening happening, and certainly never in combat.”

DuQuesne could see Ariane’s expression lighten. “Really?”

“Indeed and in truth. I will be happy to help you unbind the seals the Shadeweaver and Faith placed upon you, and then show you the way in which those powers may be used.”

“And what do you want for this help?” DuQuesne asked. “I don’t think you just give stuff like that away for free.”

“Free?” Vindatri’s gaze was coldly speculative, despite the shadowed smile that reappeared beneath the hood. “Oh, certainly not. Yet to some it may appear so. I will consider the price before we begin. To an extent, learning precisely what your Captain is would be payment; never before have I heard of a self-Awakening. It is of course assumed among the Shadeweavers that there had to once be such, to begin the order, and similarly the Faith presume there were those touched by the Creators directly to begin the Faith, but in all the records of both there are no mentions of such actually happening.”

Yeah, that would be valuable. “But that wouldn’t pay the whole freight, I’m guessing.”

“In all likelihood, no. As I have said, I must consider.” Vindatri gestured, and a sparkling white light appeared in the air before them. “Follow, and you will be led to quarters suited for you.”

“We could just sleep on board Zounin-Ginjou,” Ariane said.

Orphan made a swift gesture of negation, even as the figure whirled about, tense and menacing. “My apologies, Vindatri! She means it in a kindly way, to not put you to additional effort on her behalf when we already have comfortable spaces aboard my vessel.” The undertones of Orphan’s voice showed he was very nervous, even afraid. And the way Vindatri’s standing, he’s probably got a reason to be afraid.

Slowly, Vindatri straightened from what had been almost a predatory crouch; his head tilted as his gaze fell on Son Wu Kung, who had instantly placed himself between Ariane and Vindatri.

By now Ariane had grasped the situation. “Many apologies, Vindatri. I did indeed mean no offense to you in any way.”

Vindatri gave a broad, fluttering gesture. “Then I apologize for my anger, which must have been apparent. It is … very rude for a host to not provide accommodations for his guests, and similarly exceedingly rude to refuse such accommodations when offered. But I see you did not understand, and thus I thank you for the thought of courtesy, but beg you accept my own.”

Ariane glanced at him. Reluctantly, he nodded. Last thing we need to do is piss this guy off.

“We would be honored,” Ariane said, and Orphan relaxed as they began to follow the light.

DuQuesne was not relaxing, even as Vindatri disappeared through another doorway. One crisis averted. But this guy’s ancient, powerful, and used to doing things his way. Working with him’s going to be like walking through a minefield.

And if you keep walking through minefields, sooner or later something’s gonna blow up in your face.

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 26

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 26 Chapter 26. “Doctor Alexander Fairchild,” repeated Simon, studying Oasis closely. The Hyperion-born woman was still not entirely herself; the strain showed in the stiffness of her arm as she reached out for the … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 26

Chapter 26.

“Doctor Alexander Fairchild,” repeated Simon, studying Oasis closely.

The Hyperion-born woman was still not entirely herself; the strain showed in the stiffness of her arm as she reached out for the water-pitcher and poured herself a glass. She drank, looked aimlessly around the conference room that Simon had chosen when they had returned — in haste — to the Embassy. “Yes,” she said finally.

The name finally clicked. “Masaka. That was the name of the Hyperion AI that nearly –”

“– did kill me, Oasis, forcing K to take me in. Yes.”

No wonder she’s so shaken. Fairchild literally ripped her mind apart trying to take her body. “But… K, you seem just as upset as Oasis, so to speak. That is, it seems that all of you is terribly shocked — by what has to be a coincidence or misperception.”

Oasis’ smile was weak and without humor. “You are right, Simon. I am upset, and if DuQuesne were here, he’d be freaking out, too.”

“Why? Oasis,” he put a hand gently on hers; she immediately gripped his painfully hard. “Ow. Oasis, why?”

“Because Doctor Alexander Fairchild was DuQuesne and Seaton’s worst enemy in their universe, Simon.”

Other people might not have quite grasped the import of that statement, but Simon had been around enough Hyperions to understand. If Fairchild had been a long-running enemy to DuQuesne, it meant he was at least DuQuesne’s equal. “I see. Yes, that would be terrifying. But, Oasis, you know it’s impossible. Fairchild was an AI. Formidable as he might have been, there is absolutely no way he could enter the Arena.”

When she did not immediately answer, he went on. “We know this. AIs do not work here, ever — unless the thing we call the Arena is an AI, and in that case it suffers no rivals. The Minds of the Blessed have spent tens of thousands of years, perhaps more, trying to evade that law of the Arena’s, and failed completely. According to both Orphan and Sethrik, the Minds have tried placing versions of their intellects into bodies prepared for them, bodies otherwise perfectly identical to any other Blessed. The bodies collapse upon entrance. The Arena is not fooled.

“So you see, what you saw was a trick of perspective, a chance coincidence of form and color. It had to be, because there is absolutely no way that — even if this Fairchild is the renegade Hyperion AI we encountered in our own space — he could possibly be here in the Arena.”

She squeezed his hand again, then looked up, but her eyes were still haunted. “I wish I could be so sure, Simon. But it’s possible that that rule doesn’t apply to Hyperion AIs.”

“What? Why not?” He remembered something. “Does this have to do with whatever you discussed in secret with DuQuesne?”

She nodded, twirling one of her four ponytails absently. “Yes.” Oasis bit her lip, thinking. “Simon, I think I have to tell you. Because honestly you could probably find it out anyway, if you wanted, and you haven’t. Right? I mean, that power of yours could do that, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Probably.”

“Then… why not try? I’m going to tell you anyway, so it’s not like you’d be stealing the information.” Her voice was more animated, and he could tell she was genuinely curious, and the question at least was drawing her back out of the completely atypical state of tension and fear she’d been in.

Nonetheless, the question made him tense, as any serious consideration of using that ability always did. Still… he could think of no sensible reason to refuse the test. He drew in a breath, preparing himself. “Very well.”

Preternatural clarity rose up within him more swiftly, more readily than before, infusing him with an absolute perception of his surroundings; he could hear Oasis’ breathing, sense her heartbeat, observe the tiniest motion of each hair on her head, watch motes of dust in their random courses across the room, and hold it all within his head as easily as a three-letter password. Great Kami, I forget. Every time, I forget what it’s like to have this power… yet I always remember enough.

He focused now, focused on a single question: what was the secret DuQuesne told Oasis here, before they left?

The answer came to him in a flash.

He opened his eyes, then closed them as he banished that godlike perception once more. His hands shook and he took a moment to calm himself.

This time it was Oasis’ hand on his, and his squeezing hers tightly. “What’s wrong, Simon?”

“You don’t understand, do you?” he asked quietly. “Yet… of all people, you should.” He drew another breath, let it out slowly. “Even the fringes of that… power, perception, access to the Arena… goes beyond anything a human mind should be able to process, yet I do, it seems like mere child’s play. I can rise up, see… oh, anything, it feels like, expand my perceptions and knowledge so far that, honestly, I have never even tried to push its limits. A part of me fears there are no limits, even if that sounds utterly ridiculous.”

He could see a dawning understanding in her eyes. “And it feels so right, so perfect, especially for a scientist, someone whose goal has always been to understand the world. I want this power, Oasis. And I am terrified of it.”

Oasis’ eyes were wide and he could see she did understand. “Oh, God, Simon, I didn’t realize… of course you would be. One moment you’re not all that… and then you are ‘all that’. You can see anything, know anything… and that’s your heart’s desire. And maybe your worst fear, because if you ever did know everything, what would be left to know?”

“And if I did know, not everything, but even a measurable fraction of the Cosmic All, as Ariane’s Mentor calls it, what would I be thinking then of the people who could not even understand a billionth of it?” he murmured. “Would I still even be human? Would I care about humanity?”

She suddenly reached out and hugged him. “Simon, you asking those questions is one of the best arguments that you would. You have to trust yourself… and maybe us, too… to keep you anchored to who you really are, no matter what… head-rush the Arena-sense gives you.”

She let go, but the warmth and affection, the comfort, of that embrace lingered, and he felt the fear and apprehension fading. “Thank you, Oasis. Yes, I’m afraid of all that… but you and Ariane and DuQuesne all seem to think I can handle it. So perhaps I should trust you and use this power more often.”

“Well, don’t go too far. I don’t want to have to deck you if you go all glowy-eyed ‘A GOD AM I’ on me. And I’ll do it, you know.”

He chuckled. “I am sure you would. And I give you full permission to do so, if that ever happens.”

Her smile answered his, then faded back to a more serious expression. “So? Did you get it?”

“Ah, yes. I did, I believe.” He studied her, replaying the revelation and what it might mean, and found that even without the cosmic vision it was an awesome thing to contemplate. “That the Hyperions — by virtue of having been raised from birth in settings that were completely real to them, by people whose sole purpose was in making those lives as real as possible, those people as real as possible — may potentially have the same powers and abilities here in the Arena as they did in their Hyperion worlds.

“The Arena gives to those entering it the abilities that were natural to them, even to the extent of tailoring environments in all ways. To the Hyperions, the worlds they were raised in were natural — they had not an inkling that they were not, and their creators had no other thought in their minds but to fulfill that perception. In other words, they are not limited by the restrictions of the Arena on other species, and may even be aided by the Arena in achieving abilities that would normally be… well, utterly impossible, but are natural to them.”

“That’s it. We already know one big piece of evidence: Wu Kung gets to talk to, and influence, animals in the Arena. No one else — that we know of, anyway — can do that. And his winning of the Challenge proves that he’s not subject to the normal physical limits, anyway.”

Her brows came down. “And that is why I’m not so sure about Doctor Fairchild. Sure, a normal AI couldn’t find a body and move into the Arena… but a Hyperion AI who, like his physical counterpart, had been designed and raised to be a particular person, who believed they were that person, who lived the life of that person… I’m not so sure that they couldn’t pull that off. That the Arena wouldn’t see them as legal entries, so to speak. Maybe it would, but maybe not.”

The thought gave Simon something of a chill. “I wish I could disagree, but you’re right. It fits with what we know of the Arena’s rules. As an AI — in a computational chassis — I am sure he would not be allowed. But if he could transfer himself into a human body, then … yes, it might be something the Arena would permit.”

He stood up. “Oasis, this is of course your secret. But I think it has now become imperative we share it with Laila and Carl, if no one else. Because if it is possible that a Hyperion AI — or, as Mentor said, possibly as many as three — has even the slightest chance of entering the Arena with their full fictional capabilities, we are not going to be the only people in danger.

“It could be every Faction in the Arena.”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 25

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 25 Chapter 25. Dajzail ripple-walked from the airlock down the ramp; Alztanza himself waited there, holding his fighting-claws rigid in salute. “Guard not,” he said to Alztanza, who immediately relaxed his stance. “It is … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 25

Chapter 25.

Dajzail ripple-walked from the airlock down the ramp; Alztanza himself waited there, holding his fighting-claws rigid in salute. “Guard not,” he said to Alztanza, who immediately relaxed his stance. “It is good to see you again, ‘Tanza.”

The Fleet Master clattered a smile at him and they briefly clasped claws. “And you, Daj. How was your journey?”

“Well enough, though it took me homeyears, it seemed, to extricate myself from the Embassy. I have selected temporary representatives, but they all needed individual instruction… so in any event it took me a while to get here.”

Alztanza rattled his claws in sympathy. “I do not envy you the administrative duties, Daj. For my part, it took me some time to reach here as well, as I traveled with my ships, and it takes no fewer than three Sky-Gate transitions to get here, one of them quite a long ride. Oh, greetings to you, Kanjstall,” he said as Dajzail’s Salutant stepped up near them, carrying the most vital of Dajzail’s luggage. “But in some ways, Daj, the time was well spent. I was able to complete arranging the basic strategy and drill our forces prior to your arrival, which is good. You know how the presence of an actual ruler can disrupt perfectly good training exercises.”

“True enough. So the entire two Forces are assembled?”

“All four thousand eight hundred and two vessels are here, yes. Of the original Force there were five not really suited for deployment, but I have received fine replacements for them. I would be honored if you would take Claws of Vengeance as your personal warship.”

Claws of Vengeance? That would be a Twinscabbard vessel, yes?”

“It would,” said the Fleet Master, clearly pleased he remembered naming conventions well enough to make that deduction.

“Then I accept. A fine symbolism to lead from a vessel of the same class they destroyed, and such ships are excellent combinations of firepower and speed.” He saw Alztanza’s eye flickering in its scan. “No, I have no one else in my party.”

“Really? I had expected the Master of Forces, at the least.”

“Malvchait remains on the Homeworld, and is directing the assembly of the Fleet which will take their lowspace system, once we have secured their Sky Gates. That will be a matter of several turnings, I think.”

“I would expect so.” For a few moments Alztanza was quiet as they walked towards the military docking areas. “Faction Leader, might I ask if the secondary force is necessary?”

“In truth, I hope not,” he answered after a moment. “It will mean diverting a significant portion of our current military resources to one target which cannot be engaged for several homeyears at least, depending on how close we can Transition. That Fleet will have to come here and deploy, and deploying it will take a long time as well. If by terrible chance we are defeated here in Arenaspace, we would prefer to merely send near-lightspeed projectiles to destroy their worlds, but…”

Alztanza nodded. No military member of the Molothos could be unaware of the limitations the Arena imposed even in lowspace, including eliminating in one fashion or another any cataclysmic-level weapons or simply negating their effects. Fractional-lightspeed projectiles were one such weapon. “Still… if I may speak with all bluntness?”

Dajzail felt his head tilt, in the manner of a savaziene trying to find the best viewpoint. He and Alztanza had been second-nest friends, and even though they had been separated for a long time, he was startled that his friend would be so formal with him, especially in person rather than via official communications such as the one that had started this venture. “Always, ‘Tanza. Quicksand, friend, do you need to be so nervous around me?”

“You are not just Dajzail, the lightweight moltling that I kept from being pushed around by my nestmates. You’re the Leader of the Faction of the Molothos, and that means that yes, I have reason to be nervous — as you will probably see.” Alztanza took a breath so deep that Dajzail could hear it, and then spoke. “Daj… I am not sure this is a wise thing that we do.”

Dajzail stopped so suddenly that Kanjstall almost ran into him. He studied his friend and Fleet Master carefully with the full regard of his eye. “Kanjstall, please carry the luggage ahead and arrange transfer of the rest to Claws of Vengeance.”

Kanjstall, flicking his attention between them, asked no questions. “As you command,” he said, and ripple-walked away as fast as he could.

Once he was gone, Dajzail surveyed the quiet corridor carefully before turning back to Alztanza. “Explain your statement, ‘Tanza.”

His friend’s tension was — just slightly — less, realizing that by ensuring no witnesses Dajzail was also ensuring that there would be no one to tell him that he had failed to act properly. “Daj… first, the lowspace intrusion will reduce our ability to project force elsewhere. Especially in lowspace, since the majority of our forces are highspace-focused. We may be taking only a seventh of our total forces — which still is nothing to take lightly — but closer to fifty percent of our lowspace forces.”

Dajzail restrained an annoyed retort that of course he knew these things. Alztanza would realize that, and so there had to be more to it than that. “Say onward.”

“A lot of the undercreatures in our various systems may become restive if they believe we no longer have sufficient resources to control them,” Alztanza said bluntly. “Our lowspace military resources are outfitted for invasion, yes, but pacification and security are their other two missions, and we’re cutting those forces in half for a significant period of time for this mission.”

“But even if our current attack succeeds, ‘Tanza, we’ll need a lot of forces to send in and pacify the humans’ star system. Perhaps, I’ll grant you, not nearly this many, but it is also a statement, one that we will want to make known. But you’re right — we could at least wait until we know the outcome of this first strike mission. We’ll keep the forces assembling but they won’t deploy until we’ve secured the Upper Sphere and destroyed all exterior resistance. Better?”

Alztanza still did not look entirely happy, but he rocked his claws to indicate some level of assent. “Better, yes, Leader. But…”

“Place it all before me at once, ‘Tanza! Don’t draw it all out!”

“As you say, Daj, but then remember you asked and don’t strike at me without thinking.”

What in the name of the Homeworld?

Alztanza raised himself a bit higher. “In all honesty, Daj… I don’t know if this entire thing is a good idea.”

“You…” He felt his eye flicker. “You mean teaching the human undercreatures a lesson?”

“I mean exactly that, Daj. Remember, you promised!” That last was said with a sharp warning buzz, as Dajzail found his fighting claws rising of their own accord. He forced them down with difficulty as Alztanza continued. “Daj… Leader, we already have conflicts with several Factions. None of the Great Factions at the moment, although relations with two of the others are very strained and there are skirmishes, but several others. Speaking as a Fleet Master, I truly do not relish the thought of opening a new war-front without having eliminated at least one of the ones I already have. Especially doing so while drawing down our forces significantly. A single Force, or even two, that’s nothing to worry about, but a Fleet is many orders of magnitude more likely to cause problems.”

Dajzail waited; it was clear that Alztanza was not finished.

“And… we get into these wars so easily, Daj. Let us look clearly in the water and see what it reflects, not what we would prefer to see there. These First Emergents came out, found us on their world, and managed — through methods we do not know — to defeat our scouting force. They have won multiple other Challenges and lost none, to our knowledge. I studied what is known of these ‘humans’ carefully — if I am to lead a force against them I must know them. And…”

He paused, then sighed loudly, a whistling sound, and continued. “And we do not know enough, Daj. We do not know how they defeated a scout force with two and only two of their number. We do not understand how their Leader was able to gain the power to defeat Amas-Garao. Her defeat of the Blessed Leader Sethrik seemed due to utter insanity. And their most recent victory is even more inexplicable, implying that some of their number have learned how to evade some of the Arena’s most well-known restrictions. Truthfully? I would rather have a less conflicting interaction with them, perhaps to learn some of these truths.”

Less conflicting…? Dajzail heard the whistle-shriek of a breath drawn suddenly, knew it was his own. “Alztanza… you of all my people, you cannot be … a Beast-Talker?

“What? No! Daj, I’m cautious, not insane!”

He felt a tiny bit of relief. “Well, they claim to be sane, you know.”

The Nest of Accommodation, more familiarly and insultingly called the ‘Beast Talkers’, were a small faction of Molothos who claimed that the undercreatures weren’t really under-creatures, but actually PEOPLE, hard though that was to believe, and that the Molothos should learn how to “go past” their usual behaviors and start treating these beings as equals. Of course, what they wanted everyone to “go past” was the obvious and inarguable truth that the Molothos were the only truly civilized species in existence and start consorting with undercreatures little better than mindless beasts.

The Beast-Talkers were a splinter movement from the Rational Reward movement, which was fairly radical but had shown some good results from creating a system of more generous rewards and privileges for undercreature slaves, and they had been a splinter from the Maintainable Nests, who were perfectly respectable and had created the current system that provided more sustainable undercreature service resources rather than the traditional methods which even Dajzail felt had been ridiculously wasteful. Because of this line of descent, there were a small — but unfortunately increasing — number of people who thought this implied there might be something to the Beast-Talkers’ ravings. This was the classic fallacy of the Extreme, similar to someone noting that you needed two milligrams of silicon carbide every day to keep your exoskeleton strong and from that claiming that you could be invincible if you just ate forty grams of it.

“That said… I am close to converting to the Rational Rewarders. Their results are impressive. But no, my point, Daj, was that we’re going up against a species that’s got too many unknowns in it and I’d rather try to trick, steal, or buy some of those secrets first before throwing my people into a mouth-grinder.”

“The longer we wait,” Dajzail said after a moment, “the more the humans will expand and fortify their position, Alztanza.”

He could see that his friend had no immediate answer to that, and went forward. “I’m not being overconfident here, ‘Tanza. Even the Master of Forces thought we could probably do it with a Seventh-Force, but I told him not to be stupid, and I’ve made it two full Forces. These are First Emergents, Alztanza. They’ve had a turning and a half in the Arena, and some of that was just getting home. They’ve got a few allies, and are trying to gather more. Right now they only have whatever they’ve been able to build on their own, which will be far from optimal for highspace Arena operations, and perhaps a few loanships from the Survivor.

“But if we wait and maneuver and try to bait them into revealing secrets, they will only be getting stronger. And we cannot allow these undercreatures to get away with their prior insults; you must agree with me on that?”

Alztanza stood immobile for a moment, then dipped all legs and his claws. “As you say, Leader. They cannot be permitted to do this with impunity.”

“And …?”

The Fleet Master gave a buzzing sigh, then laughed. “And you’re right, Daj. A full Force is probably ridiculous overkill, but if we wait a few more turnings we could find that they’ve made alliance with one of the Great Factions that’s willing to fight for them, or they get new Spheres, or something else. Sorry for bothering you with my misgivings.”

Tremendous relief washed over Dajzail. I absolutely feared getting in an argument with him — and if I had, I’d have had to remove him from command, something we might never have been able to forgive each other for. “Do not apologize, Alz; your points made sense. I just think this is the best course, and you seem to have agreed in the end. So it’s just been a good chance for me to face the reflection myself.”

He linked claws with his friend for an instant, and the two of them began to move up the corridor again. “Then let me get settled into Claws of Vengeance while you give the Seventh-Masters their final instructions prior to departure.

“Tomorrow we begin our mission of purification!”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 24

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 24 Chapter 24. Ariane stumbled to a halt, mouth dropping open, eyes wider than they had been since she was a child. The old man — who didn’t look so old now, to a … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 24

Chapter 24.

Ariane stumbled to a halt, mouth dropping open, eyes wider than they had been since she was a child.

The old man — who didn’t look so old now, to a girl ten years older — smiled broadly at her and held his arms wide. “Hey there, racer girl!”

I thought I was prepared. Boy, was I wrong, a part of her thought. That part, Captain Ariane Austin, Leader, knew perfectly well that this was — had to be — just an unexpected guise of Orphan’s mysterious “Vindatri”.

But the other part of her was starting forward, tears rippling her vision of the man, brown hair sprinkled with gray, smiling lines creasing his face, sharp eyes twinkling like polished wood, wearing the blue jeans and shirt that had been a standard outfit for workers for, literally, centuries. There was even a streak of black oil or grease on one cheek, just as if he’d been working on one of the…

Even as she thought it, she realized that she was no longer in a sterile, dimly-lit room of metal and plastic and glass; the Texas sun shone brilliantly overhead, striking hot highlights from the red-painted metal of the ancient truck that Granddaddy leaned against, hood wide open, tools neatly arranged on his mobile rack nearby.

His hug felt the same, too, and the smell — of oil, a touch of gasoline, a little sweat, citrus soap — was enough to make her actually cry. Don’t let him see that much of you! the Leader snapped, but it was a halfhearted self-scolding.

She let go and stepped back. “You’re dead, Granddaddy.”

“Maybe so, Arrie, or maybe not so dead as you think.” He wiped his eyes, and she could see the glitter of tears.

A thin trickle of anger finally began to seep in. “I know you are. Saw the garage burning, and we’d seen you go in, and they found your body in it. So this, this is all a trick, and a pretty mean trick, too, Vindatri.”

Granddaddy frowned, but it was a sad frown, an apologetic one. “Sorry about that, Arrie. I never wanted to make you sad, you know that. And… well, neither does Vindatri, since you bring him up.”

Ariane swallowed the anger. This is the person we came to see. Whatever he does, he may be the only chance I have to understand the power I’ve got. “So… what is the purpose, Vindatri?”

“Wish you’d just call me Granddaddy, like you always did. Y’see, this, well, everything around you, that’s not actually Vindatri’s doing. Not exactly, anyway. He can give… call ’em hints, guidance, stuff he wants to see or know or talk about, but the way those questions show up, that’s more you than him.”

“So he’s not just reading my mind?”

“Nope. Maybe he can, but that’s not the way this game’s being played. He’s getting to see what you’re seeing, but only touches of what you’re thinking — the stuff you’re focused on, what’s being projected.”

That did make some sense. Obviously she would know exactly what her Granddaddy’s old farm would look and smell like; she suspected that someone just reading her mind and trying to build it from scratch would find it a lot harder. She smiled finally, brushing away the last of the tears and feeling less embarrassed by it than she might have been. “I was actually expecting Mentor.”

“Ha! Be too predictable. Besides, there’s a damn good reason it’s me and not him. Bet you can guess it.”

“Because he’s been… more a friend than anything else. He didn’t raise me, didn’t shape me. He’s named Mentor but he wasn’t my mentor, so to speak.”

“And you’re fast on the answers as you are on the track. Good answer, Arrie, and pretty much spot-on.” He reached up and slammed the hood of the truck down. “C’mon, let’s get inside. Hot out here, a body could use something cold. Want a beer? Or maybe lemonade?”

It’s just like a simgame. Play along. “One of your lemonades?”

“You bet.”

They walked to the somewhat weathered-looking house in silence, puffs of dust kicking up around their feet until their boots rattled across the wooden porch and into the dimmer, cooler interior. Granddaddy opened the refrigerator — startling in its modernity, shining sharp edges in the midst of centuries-old décor — and got out the lemonade. The pitcher was just the way she remembered it, light shining mistily through the glass, slices of lemon swirling in the water, scattered bits of pulp drifting as Granddaddy poured her a big tumbler full. “Here you go.” As usual, Granddaddy had pulled a beer from the back of the fridge and popped the top off easily.

She took a long series of swallows. My god, it tastes just like Granddaddy’s. Tears threatened to well up again, but she forced them back. Once she was sure she had everything under control, she spoke. “So what does Vindatri — you — want?” she asked. It was a huge temptation to just accept what she saw at face value, but that level of escapism wasn’t really in her. It’s an awesome simulation, but it’s still just a trick, and for some purpose I don’t quite know yet.

“Truth? He’s not sure, exactly. To know more about you. Figure out why you came with Orphan. Find out what you want, coming this far with someone you must know didn’t tell you the half of the truth about what he was doing.”

I was afraid of that. “Orphan held something back, yes, but he was, well, up-front about not telling us everything.”

“Was he, now? Good for him. Boy’s spent years learning how to keep his left hand or right hand from knowing what the tail was doing, if you get my drift. Nice to think he’s tryin’ to get over that.” He took a long pull from the bottle. “That hits the spot! Now… Orphan says there’s been two sets of First Emergents?”

So he’s already been talking — probably is right now — with Orphan. Wonder if he plays games like this with him now? “Well, we’re your standard First Emergents, if there is such a thing. The others are natives to the Arena, the Genasi, who just got their first Sphere.”

Granddaddy froze — just a tiny hesitation, but that hesitation was like a glitch in a simulation, suddenly bringing home the fact that this was not real, no matter how much it seemed like it was. “The Genasi? Citizens now? Well, well, well, that’s a surprise and a half. Though I can’t figure there’s anything standard about you and your friends, no how. That DuQuesne’s a firecracker, and Sun Wu Kung’s just a plain hoot. How’d you get your citizenship? Who’d you Challenge?”

She hesitated, but honestly couldn’t think of any reason not to tell him the basics; everyone in Nexus Arena already knew, after all. “We actually got that through a Type Two Challenge. The Molothos landed on our Upper Sphere, and we kicked them off.”

The stare was definitely two-edged; in a way, it looked just like her grandfather’s incredulous gaze, and yet there was something else, much older, alien, behind it. “First Emergents defeated a Molothos scouting force on their own Sphere? As their initial Challenge?” The voice had shifted the tiniest bit, but then warmed back to that of her Granddaddy. “Dang, Arrie, you people know how to make an entrance! Not that I didn’t already know that, having seen you at the races and all. Still, that’s one hell of an introduction. You’ve had other Challenges too?”

“Yes. And some conflicts that weren’t, strictly speaking, Challenges. But like you said, we came here for a reason, so I’d like you to answer a question or two, instead of just me talking.”

“Ask away, Arrie. Can’t absolutely guarantee an answer, but won’t hurt to ask.”

Here goes nothing. “Do you know how to teach someone to use the powers of the Shadeweavers or the Faith?”

The imitation-Granddaddy didn’t answer right away; he gazed at her with a faint smile on his face, taking an occasional sip of his beer as he studied her. Then, just as she was about to speak again, he said “Why would you need anyone to do that? Both of those groups’ll gladly teach anyone who gets the initiation. Hell, they keep the initiation tight so that they’re the only game in town.”

“Usually, yes. But…” She concentrated, and in a flash of silver-gold light swapped her current clothes for the uniform that had been created in the moment of her apotheosis.

The entire simulation flickered, and for a moment she stood again in a shadowed gray room, facing a simulation of her grandfather that stood rigid and blank-eyed. It was a full second or three before the farmhouse reformed around her with its scents of old wood and coffee and barbeque. “Well, dye me pink and call me a pig. You’ve got the power without being either? I will be dipped. Absolutely dipped. That shouldn’t be possible.” Another chuckle, touched with the alien tone. “And that is the second impossible thing I have seen this day. Fearsome indeed.”

I’ll bet he’s talking about DuQuesne. “So are you going to answer my question?”

A slow smile spread across Granddaddy’s face, a smile like the one he’d worn when she first convinced him to take her for a ride in one of his antiques. “Answer it? All right, Arrie. Yes, Vindatri knows how to teach someone about those powers. He’s got the data, archives going back millennia. Maybe not the Encyclopedia Galactica, but good enough. That what you’re here for?”

“Mainly, yes. And paying a debt and a promise we made to Orphan.”

“Well, now, that’s fine. Good to know Orphan managed to make himself a few friends. Lord knows he needs ’em in his line of work.” While the words were very much Granddaddy, the motion was still a little off, and his next words showed that Vindatri must be aware of it. “I have to say, I’m still a little shell-shocked by that trick you pulled. Never happened before. Never heard of it happening before. I… Vindatri… will need to think a bit on this. Your other friends, they’ve had their surprises too, but yours takes the cake. Put your glass in the sink and run along, Arrie — you’ll find your friends waitin’ for you just down the road.”

“Are they all right?”

“Be a poor host who hurt his guests the first hour they were in his house, wouldn’t it? They’re just fine, Arrie. Maybe a bit peeved and confused — like you — but no real harm done. Go talk it over with ’em, and we’ll talk again later, without all the different masks.”

She rose and put the glass into the old stainless-steel sink, then looked over at the illusion of her grandfather. “Vindatri… this was a very well done illusion. And… I guess a part of me really wanted to see Granddaddy again. So… it’s okay. Thank you, even.”

The smile, also, seemed to have two people behind it. “Then you’re very welcome, Ariane Stephanie Austin. Now go meet up with your friends. See, time goes by differently for each of you in these interviews, so they’ve been waiting a bit.”

That makes sense, actually; he probably wanted to devote most of his attention to each person as he interviewed them, so he had to stretch out the perceptions of the others during that time. Which meant she’d been here at least three, maybe four or more times as long as she’d thought. “On my way!”

As she walked, the sun faded, the landscape went ghostly and disappeared, and she found herself striding quickly down a brightly-lit passageway that ended in a trapezoidal door. The door slid open as she approached, and she saw, seated around a table, DuQuesne, Wu Kung, and Orphan. “Good to see all of you!”

The others leapt to their feet, even Orphan. “Captain! Glad to see you’re okay too,” DuQuesne said.

“Indeed!” Orphan’s voice was emphatic. “I did not, of course, expect Vindatri to do anything… extreme, but as you realize I do not know him well, so there was a degree of concern.”

Wu had already made his way over to her and surveyed her, sniffing. “You were upset, but you are not hurt. Good.”

That’s an impressive nose he has. “But you look… a little scuffed up, Wu,” she answered. And it was true; the Hyperion Monkey King’s costume was somewhat askew in areas, and she thought she saw darkening under the fur of one cheek.

“Ha! This Vindatri’s version of Sha Wujing and I had a discussion… sometimes with our fists!”

“Of course you did. Look, can I sit down and we can all talk about what happened?”

“Sure,” DuQuesne said. “Though remember that whether he’s here or not, Vindatri’s probably listening in.”

“Yes, I’d expect he must be,” Ariane said, pulling out a chair at the table and sitting down. There were three platters of various snacks on the table, one obviously for Orphan and the other two apparently meant for human consumption. “This stuff all checks out?”

“One hundred percent,” DuQuesne affirmed, “which tells us one hell of a lot about Vindatri’s abilities. He obviously didn’t know much about us before talking to us, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know squat before we got to his area of space, otherwise he wouldn’t need Orphan to go playing messenger boy. So he managed to get a read on us and whip up quite a spread in the time he was interviewing us — and I’m pretty sure most of his attention was focused on us, not setting up a snack bar.”

That did emphasize that Vindatri’s powers went considerably beyond making quick sims and having a very impressive and distant secret base. “So he evaluated us, matched biochemistries, and somehow figured out something about our palates in that period of time. That is pretty impressive.” She looked at the others. “So what happened to the rest of you? What was your private conference like? Orphan?”

“Mine? I would suspect the least entertaining of us all. I saw Vindatri again and he asked me a few questions about you — after instructing me to tell him nothing other than the precise and most limited answers to his questions.”

“So he didn’t want you supplying any more information than he asked for?” That actually made some sense. “He wanted to evaluate us as much as possible without having any preconceived notions. So what did he ask you?”

“Hm. First he asked if all of you were part of the same Faction, to which I answered yes. Then he asked if you were part of the same species, to which — after some hesitation — I answered that I believed so, but was unsure.” Orphan paused, then gave one of his decisive handtaps and continued. “He then asked if I was here to fulfill both of my conditions, to which I also answered yes. And that, I am afraid, was the entire substance of my interview.”

DuQuesne studied him. “And you still can’t tell us the second condition or requirement he had on you?”

“Not as of this moment, no. I am hoping that restriction will be eased soon.”

She turned to Wu Kung. “So, did you actually keep your temper?”

“Well…” Wu Kung shifted in his seat. “Mostly. As I told you, I met Sha Wujing, or really an imitation of him. The imitation was… good, but not perfect. At first I could smell it was not him, but then the smell got closer.”

“Hmm. Tells me that Vindatri’s not scent-oriented,” DuQuesne said. “Visually and audibly his illusions or sims were spot-on from the start, and the only bobbles I noticed were when things weren’t going the way Vindatri expected or was used to.”

“Most people like you don’t use your noses much,” Wu pointed out.

“Although there are quite a few species with excellent scent capabilities,” Orphan said, “and I concur with Doctor DuQuesne’s conclusion; Vindatri must not be one of these, or he would have had scent as a focus of your sim from the start.”

“Anyway, after I told him I knew he was a fake, I asked him why he was too much of a coward to show his real face.”

“This was your idea of behaving?” DuQuesne demanded.

“I didn’t even try to punch him then! I was behaving really well!” Wu Kung said defensively. “He laughed and said he just wanted to take a form that I was more comfortable with and that I could understand. So I said that I could understand any form he took well enough, and that all he needed to understand was that I was your bodyguard and I needed to get back to you.”

Wu’s face shifted into a scowl. “But instead he started asking me questions about you and why I wanted to be your bodyguard, and at first I told him about DuQuesne but then I said I liked doing it, and he asked why, and I told him how important you were to Humanity and all that, and then that fake Sha Wujing snorted at me and said that the real reason was that I couldn’t handle myself alone so I’d found a cheap substitute Sanzo! So THEN I hit him!”

Of course we were going to get to the hitting sooner or later. “And did he hit back?”

The scowl turned into a grin. “Oh, yes! We had a fine sparring match, and I got to kick him through some of his simulated trees and he mashed my face in his phony dirt.” His green gaze was suddenly sharp and focused on her. “But I remembered to do it just like when I sparred with Orphan, so neither of us got really hurt.”

That look had a lot more meaning in it than just the words, and in a moment she’d fished it out. He’s not just saying he didn’t fight to kill; he’s saying he held back a lot to hide what he can really do. Orphan might blow that lie out of the water, of course, but it’s still the right move overall. She smiled. “Well, that’s good, Wu,” she said, catching his eye and nodding for emphasis to show she understood. “Wouldn’t want to hurt our host. Go on, though.”

“So we traded a lot of punches — and kicks and throws and all — but finally he admitted he might have sounded a little insulting, and he apologized, so we stopped fighting. He asked me about why I didn’t seem to be quite the same species, and,” another glance at both her and DuQuesne, “I told him I’d been genemodded a lot before I was born.”

He’s saying he kept presence of mind enough to not talk about Hyperion. Good work, Wu. “Well, that’s certainly the truth. Then what?”

“Well, he said he had a lot to think about and was still busy with the rest of you, so he sent me on to this room. That’s it.”

“Suggestive,” DuQuesne said after a moment. “He probably learned a lot about you by getting you fighting mad, but you surprised him with a couple things too.”

Wu looked smug. “I also learned he isn’t a fighter.”

“Really?”

“His simulation kept… what’s the word? Glitching, that’s it. It kept glitching for tiny fractions of a second during the fight.”

“Might be that he’s a fighter, but not your kind of fighter,” DuQuesne said. “Remember, he was trying to simulate Sha Wujing, who’d going to be fighting a damn sight different than Vindatri would, no matter what he’s really like. So the sim had to keep making split-second adjustments to keep things working anything like the way you’d expect.”

“Maybe. But I think he wasn’t used to lots of real combat.”

“Still, either way it’s interesting,” Ariane said. “How about you, Marc?”

DuQuesne nodded. “I’ll sum up in words, but since I recorded mine in headware, I’ll dump the whole thing to you.”

She opened a connection, felt DuQuesne access it and braced herself for the flood.

And then she found herself staring in open-mouthed disbelief at DuQuesne.

He noticed immediately. “Ariane? Ariane, what’s wrong?”

For several long moments, she still couldn’t speak. Finally, she got a grip on herself. Of all the things… This can’t be coincidence… but what else could it be? “Marc… take a look at this.” She sent him a quick clip of her own experiences.

He went pale beneath his olive skin. “Holy Mother of God. What in hell –”

“I don’t know either, Marc,” she said, voice shaking with disbelief. “But your ‘Professor Bryson’… is my grandfather.”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 23

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 23 Chapter 23. DuQuesne stared narrowly at the man before him. He knew the patrician, lined face, the graying hair that had once been brown, the sharp brown eyes looking levelly into his own, … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 23

Chapter 23.

DuQuesne stared narrowly at the man before him. He knew the patrician, lined face, the graying hair that had once been brown, the sharp brown eyes looking levelly into his own, the half-smile of the lecturer and scientist so familiar to him.

“I had expected to end up talking with myself,” he said finally. “Not you, Professor Bryson.”

Clearly this couldn’t be the man he looked like; this had to be one of Vindatri’s guises. At the same time, it was almost impossible to think of him as anyone else, when the man lit up a cigarette and took a swift puff, raising one eyebrow. “Indeed, Mr. DuQuesne? And why would you expect to have a conversation with yourself? Admittedly, this would allow you to have a conversation with someone on your intellectual level, but I would expect a rather boring one.”

DuQuesne moved forward a bit closer — warily, because he had no idea what this… manifestation of Vindatri’s was supposed to accomplish or what might trigger a less innocuous reaction. “Oh, I’ve had some pretty interesting arguments with myself, whenever I’ve of two minds on a subject. As for why, Orphan’s story ended up with him facing himself.”

“Ahh, Orphan. It was exactly as appropriate that you meet me as it was for Orphan to confront himself. And I hope you are aware that Orphan neglected to tell you various details of that encounter.”

“Suspected it, yeah. He’s been a stand-up ally in some ways, but I don’t think that guy even tells himself everything that’s going on.”

Bryson, or the image of him, chuckled in the same dry-leaf way DuQuesne remembered. “A particularly apt characterization, I am forced to admit. The question remains, then, why are you speaking to me, in particular?”

“Technically, I’m speaking to Vindatri, and don’t think I’m forgetting that,” DuQuesne said. “And I bet you’re not going to trick either of my companions, either.”

“As another acquaintance of yours might say, do not indulge in such loose and muddy thinking. Tricking is not the point of this interview, not in the sense you mean it.”

“Hm. So it’s an interview, is it? A way for you to… what, examine our reactions to some particular stimulus? Interesting that you’d need to do that when you can obviously read our minds in detail.”

“What is obvious, Mr. DuQuesne, is quite often not the truth — something I believe I mentioned more than once in class, yes?”

Damn, he’s got that “superior professor” attitude down perfect. “That your doppelganger’s doppelganger mentioned, yeah. The Hyperion Bryson never got old enough to go all gray. So, you want me to answer the riddle here? Fine.” He thought a moment. “Okay, I think I’ve got a line on it. Orphan’s more self-defined than just about anyone else you’ll ever meet. He was built to be a weapon against a faction that he then personally converted to; in a pretty short time after that, he was the only member of the Faction, and he’s been defining his Faction as himself, and himself by being his Faction, for so damn long that he’s pretty much the only, let along biggest, influence on his life. So who else was going to be used to play mind games with him, but himself?”

“Full marks, Mr. DuQuesne,” said the fake-Bryson. “And why me?”

“That’s a lot more interesting question,” he muttered, looking at Bryson carefully. I’m impressed. Every detail’s just as I remember it. “You… you were the nexus. You were the point that brought me and Rich Seaton together, the guy who got both of us pissed off about the same thing enough that we clicked and teamed up to humiliate you. And then you helped make us grow up enough to become the people we were supposed to be.”

Bryson nodded slowly.

“Key influences. What made us who we are. And Bryson… you’re the real Bryson. Well, a reflection or image of the real Bryson, the Hyperion researcher that… designed me. So you represent what shaped me on both sides of the glass.”

“Precisely.”

And,” he said with sudden conviction, “you didn’t even know why, not right off. Because what you — Vindatri — did is to trigger a reaction in us that generates the illusion. That’s why you implied you don’t read minds; you can find the right way to trigger a memory or a reaction, but until we live it, see it, experience it, you don’t get the details; we make those for you.”

“Oh, excellent, Marc,” Bryson said, with the rare, broad smile he remembered well. “Truly, you live up to your designer’s intent, and then some.”

“And from that, you start to get a real, personal handle on who we are, what we think is important, what we’re really like.” DuQuesne nodded, then frowned. “Not that I like it, or approve of the method. I’ve had a bellyful of being manipulated before.”

“Understandable,” Bryson said. “Yet you would, I think, agree that actual mind-reading is much more of an intrusion, and disapprove even more, while I think you would also understand that a being such as Vindatri has good reason to be cautious.”

“Maybe. I don’t need to be cautious around babies, and power-wise you sure seem to have that level of divide on us.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps. Yet in the Arena things are rarely what they seem, Mr. DuQuesne.”

DuQuesne suddenly became aware that his surroundings had slowly, subtly, but completely shifted; he was now in what appeared to be Professor Bryson’s office, complete with stacks of papers waiting to be graded and the same slightly-battered wooden chairs with green leather-cushioned seats for students looking for additional help. “That’s impressive. Don’t know if I like it, but it’s impressive.”

“You don’t find a familiar setting comforting? Interesting, Mr. DuQuesne.” Bryson seated himself in the larger swivel-chair behind the desk, and stubbed out the cigarette which was now burned almost to the filter.

“Okay, that actually counts as evidence you don’t read minds, unless you’re just playing a really deep game. Because if you read minds, you’d know that this stopped being a comforting setting for me about fifty or so years ago.”

“Yet these images are also what you produced under the stimulus you theorized I have created. Even more interesting.”

It was interesting, and DuQuesne found he had to stop and consider the situation. If he was right, this was a sort of self-generated illusion; “Vindatri”, whatever and whoever he really was, just sort of poked your brain and then gave it the tools to generate one hell of a hallucination that Vindatri could participate in — but much of it was provided and directed by DuQuesne’s brain, not Vindatri’s. So why, exactly, was he seeing this particular setting?

He found himself involuntarily glancing over his shoulder, and the answer was obvious. “Blast it. Because seeing you, talking with you… thinking about all of that… I keep thinking Rich is going to walk through that door. Part of me would like nothing more. Except I don’t want a shadow play of him, I’d want the real thing, and he’s gone.”

Bryson nodded slowly, pulling out his cigarette pack again absently and proffering it to DuQuesne in the same gesture DuQuesne had seen a thousand times and more. He saw his arm, almost against his will, reach out and take one of the white cylinders; Bryson lit his first and then handed the shining metal lighter to DuQuesne.

The sharp, warm taste of the smoke was the same, too. DuQuesne felt a sting in his eyes that wasn’t from smoke. My aunt’s cat’s kittens’ pants buttons, as Rich might’ve said, this is just too damn good an illusion.

“Why are you here, DuQuesne?” Bryson-Vindatri finally asked.

“Here-your office, or here-Vindatri’s home?”

“Oh, Vindatri’s home, I meant.”

“Orphan needed someone to help him run his ship; from what he told us later, we’re also sort of exhibits to help him fulfill an obligation to you to tell him about any true newcomers to the Arena.” DuQuesne figured Vindatri would know the details; if he didn’t, his questions might tell DuQuesne something about the things Orphan might be hiding.

“That is… a rather surface explanation, Mr. DuQuesne –”

“If you’re going to keep being all formal, I’ve been Doctor DuQuesne for fifty years and more now.”

“Humph,” Bryson snorted, but then shook his head and smiled. “Old habits, eh, Doctor? You were my students and then adventurers for a while before you ever officially finished that degree. But in any event, Doctor DuQuesne, that was a surface explanation. I asked why you were here, not why Orphan would want you here.”

Interesting question. Let’s see how this dance goes.  “Pain in the ass or not, we owed Orphan a lot, and so we’re fulfilling a debt.” He debated internally for a moment, but realized that holding back the next piece of information would be pointless; it was in fact one of the major reasons they’d come. “And since we know about Orphan’s little toy, we wanted to come here to find out what you know about the powers of the Shadeweavers and the Faith.”

Bryson’s façade cracked for an instant; the brown eyes were suddenly strange, unreadable, and the figure was rigid and motionless. Almost instantly, however, it resumed the more natural motion. “Does that mean that Orphan has had occasion to use my gift? Interesting. I had reached a tentative conclusion that he would likely never use it as he did not know its limits and would always argue with himself that there would be a moment of greater need… later.”

“Used it and maybe burned it out. Might want to give it a maintenance check and replace it if it’s still in warranty.”

The Bryson-illusion smiled. “I may have to do that, yes. Now… somehow it does not seem to me that you have any direct interest in these powers, other than the quite natural curiosity of a scientist trying to understand a power that seems to violate some of the basic principles of science.”

“Ha! That’s the whole of the Arena in a nutshell. But until we’re all together, I don’t think I want to discuss the rest of it. You want to talk about other things, hey, great, but our mission and my purpose or lack thereof? Wait until me and my friends are all together, and you’ve taken off all your masks.”

“An interesting requirement,” he said, and the tone was not quite Bryson’s any more. “How, precisely, would you know I had, as you say, taken off all of my masks, when you do not know the truth of what I am?”

“Trust me, I’d know,” DuQuesne said. “I’m real, real good at telling real from fake. You might say it’s one of my absolute defining characteristics.”

“Still, I would very much like you to tell me a bit more about your interest in the powers of Shadeweaver and Faith.”

DuQuesne had been tense and waiting for it, and so he sensed it instantly; a disturbance in his mind, a sudden awareness that part of him was not thinking in the direction that it should. He shot to his feet and slammed his fist down on the desk so hard that the illusory wood cracked from one side to the other. “Stop it right now. Understand this, Vindatri or whatever your name is, I’m giving you one chance, and one only, to back off. You don’t touch our minds. It’s one thing to do what you did here — and I still don’t like it — but the microsecond I catch you poking around trying to change my mind, or anyone else’s, again, that’s the microsecond I’ll make you regret it.”

The sensation vanished instantaneously, and the figure across from him only looked like Bryson the way a doll of Bryson would have. “You sensed that. You resisted. Extraordinary. Utterly unheard-of. Yet you do not truly think you can threaten me here, do you?”

The last thing DuQuesne wanted to do was trigger a conflict here and now; yes, he had his trump card in the form of the fiction-made-real powers the Arena was granting him… but he had no idea what Vindatri’s real power level was, and even back on Hyperion DuQuesne had known there were people out of his league. Still… You gotta double down on stuff like this. Can’t let him get the complete upper hand, think he can push us around. “Maybe. Maybe not. But sure as God made little green apples you’ll find out if you ever try messing with any of our heads again. Do you follow me?”

Slowly animation returned to the figure; Bryson stood and bowed slowly. “You are a fearsomely interesting arrival, Doctor Marc DuQuesne. So be it. I will refrain from testing your capabilities in so dangerous a fashion.”

He gestured, and the door of the office opened, showing — instead of the brick corridor of the school — a long, well-lit passageway of metal. “I thank you for a most instructive meeting, Doctor. Please proceed.” The smile was neither human nor comforting. “There will be much to talk about… later.”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 22

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 22 Chapter 22. Wu Kung found himself feeling an incredibly rare tinge of apprehension, as well as awe, staring at the thing that had just become visible through the mists of the Arena’s Deeps. … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 22

Chapter 22.

Wu Kung found himself feeling an incredibly rare tinge of apprehension, as well as awe, staring at the thing that had just become visible through the mists of the Arena’s Deeps.

Silhouetted against a backdrop of dull crimson clouds, it was black as night, an angular shape of incomprehensible vastness. An ebony stitching of criss-cross darkness that looked like monstrous girders, great arching curves with hints of fluted, organic shapes rising about a central assemblage of contours that implied some gargantuan onyx flower of alien and unsettling aspect.

Ariane’s voice echoed Wu Kung’s own nervousness. “Orphan? Is that –“

“– our destination, the home of Vindatri? Indeed, Captain Austin.” Though his voice was relaxed and controlled, Wu could smell a great deal of nervousness from him. He may have a duty to fulfill here, but this Vindatri guy doesn’t make him comfortable.

“And he lives there alone?” DuQuesne asked. The tones and DuQuesne’s posture showed how wary his fellow Hyperion was. “That’s an awful lot of house for one guy.”

“Not alone, entirely. Later in my … stay with Vindatri, I did see and meet others who were apparently his servants. And as I said, there is a Sphere not far away.” He gestured, and Wu could see, through the clouds a faint hint of form, a curve of an artifact larger than Earth. “I believe that Sphere to be inhabited, although I have never actually landed upon it.”

Ariane was studying the huge, shadowy assemblage. “Where exactly am I heading? There’s an awful lot of that thing — if I’m getting the scale right, it’s something like three or four thousand kilometers across!”

“Larger than that, Captain. If I recall correctly, I docked at –”

A quiver ran through Zounin-Ginjou, and Wu tensed, seeing that the position of the distant shadow had shifted slightly in the forward port. “What was that?”

Orphan’s wingcases had compressed, and his stance was rigid; the scent of tension and even fear was suddenly sharper. But he answered in his customary relaxed tones, “Ah. I believe the decision of how to approach and dock has been taken out of our hands. Note that Zounin-Ginjou has already altered its course.”

Wu felt very little other motion, yet the … Castle of Vindatri, as Wu Kung had to think of it, began to swell before them at astounding speed, as though Ariane had set the engines on full power and was driving them towards collision. “Crap,” Ariane muttered. “I sure hope this Vindatri doesn’t fumble the ball at the last minute, or we’re just gonna go splat when we hit.”

The alien structure rushed closer, expanding beyond the width of the forward port. Glints of light — diamond-white and emerald green, shimmering ruby and sapphire, warm amber — became visible, dotting the forbidding megalithic blackness with jewels set on a crown of night; Wu could now pick out hints of detail, of scalloped planes and oval ports and sharp-edged lines of decks or floors.

A cavernous opening yawned before them, six lines of white light guiding their uncontrolled, headlong rush down the center of a landing bay so huge that it seemed to Wu that it could have held a fleet of ships like Zounin-Ginjou. Without more than the tiniest jolt, the massive warship of the Liberated came to a halt, its incredible speed reduced to nothing in less time than needed to draw a breath, and settled into a cradle that rose from the massive deck, a structure of dark metal and glinting crystal that enfolded Zounin-Ginjou as though made for it. Wu heard both his human companions exhale shaky breaths, and Orphan’s spiracles whistled once more.

“It seems,” Orphan said after a moment, even his voice wavering with uncertainty or fear, “Vindatri is very eager to meet with us.”

“Have you ever returned here before, Orphan?” Ariane asked, rising slowly from her pilot’s seat.

“Once, long ago… in part, I must admit, to verify to myself that he and this place truly existed. I had the… item that I used in our confrontation with Amas-Garao, yes, but I had never yet used it — nor had good reason to at that time — and that experience was so unheard-of in the annals of the Arena that I had to remind myself that I had truly experienced it.”

“I get that,” DuQuesne said with a touch of humor. “We felt a little like that about the Arena.”

“Indeed.” A wing-snap of decision and, Wu thought, a touch of bravado. “Well, friends, shall we greet our host?”

Ariane and DuQuesne nodded. “No time like the present,” Ariane agreed.

Wu immediately stepped in front of her. “Bodyguard, remember?”

She smiled. “I remember,” she said. “Do what you have to.”

Orphan led the way. DuQuesne took the rear, which made Wu feel slightly more comfortable; this would let him focus mostly to the front and sides. Ariane made no protest about being in the middle.

The main lock from Zounin-Ginjou opened to reveal a wide platform already in place outside of it. Stairs led down to the dark-polished deck of the massive installation. It is all dark; it feels like a fortress of one of the underworlds. Even the Dragon’s Palace was brighter-lit, and that was at the bottom of the sea! He reached back, touched Ruyi Jingu Bang, reassuring himself that the mighty staff was still there. Though it is not a thousandth as mighty as it was in the real-dream of Hyperion, he thought sadly. Against this Vindatri it may be of less use than the floating drift of a dandelion.

The dim-lit volume was silent save for the echoes of their motion. Orphan stopped a short distance from the bottom of the staircase and looked around, then raised his head and arms. “Vindatri, you have guided us thus far; where must we go?”

The echoes of the question had not even died down when four lines of fire sketched themselves through the air, arrows of brilliance leading across the great landing bay and then splitting to follow separate paths. Each line was a different color, and all four started in the air scarcely three feet in front of Orphan: a line of red, a line of green, a line of blue, and a line of pure white.

“Wonder which is which — or whether it matters,” DuQuesne said.

“I have little doubt that it matters,” Orphan said. “But it may be that the selection is nonetheless up to us.”

“In that case, I’m taking blue,” Ariane said. “Always been one of my colors.”

“I refuse to choose another color,” Wu said. “I am following Ariane. I am responsible for her.”

“I agree with the principle, Wu,” said DuQuesne, “but my guess is that you’re gonna find out it’s not that easy. Me? I’ll take green; has a little resonance for me in the space-exploration context.”

“I see,” said Orphan. “White is, I believe, for me.”

“Still not taking red,” Wu said.

The four of them made their way across the deck, echoes of footsteps chasing themselves around the nearly-empty room. Finally, they reached the point where the paths split, and Wu could see that there were four separate staircases; one turned and went straight off to the right into blackness, the second bent right for a short distance than turned back to go ahead through a dark archway, the third similarly went left for a short distance and then turned back ahead through a different archway, and the last turned left and also faded into darkness. Ariane’s blue took the strong righthand turn; the neglected red line turned to the far left, while green and white took the middle paths.

Wu Kung continued up the blue line, glancing back to make sure that Ariane was following. When he turned his attention back to the glowing line of light before him — a delay that was no more than the blink of an eye — he saw a brilliant scarlet streak leading into distant darkness.

He spun around, to see Ariane and the others staring at him; Ariane stood with one foot in the air, frozen in the act of following.

Wu Kung growled faintly and started for Ariane again —

— to find himself marching with the same angry determination up the red line of fire.

Now the growl was a snarl. “I am her bodyguard and you do not get to take me away!” He whipped Ruyi Jingu Bang off his back and commanded it to extend; DuQuesne and Orphan ducked out of the way as the pole streaked out to place its one end in front of Ariane. “Grab on, Ariane!”

“Wu, I don’t think this is going to work,” Ariane said reluctantly. “But… okay.” She grasped the golden ball at the end of the staff tightly.

“Good!” He retracted the staff slowly, following along until he reached Ariane. “Now keep hold, okay?”

“All right,” she said.

Now we can go!” he said, confidently stepping forward.

The line of fire was suddenly red, and he felt no other hand supporting the great Staff. His cheeks burned under his fur with embarrassment. “All right, you coward sorcerer! Come out here! You are mocking me? I will beat your face in!”

“Wu!” Ariane’s voice was sharp, although he could hear a note of sympathy too. “We are visiting his stronghold. He seems to want us to play by his rules. Please, try not to antagonize our host, no matter how… peculiar his behavior is.”

He snarled again and stamped his foot, causing an echo like a gunshot to chase its way around the room half a dozen times. Then, seeing DuQuesne’s remonstrative look, Wu swallowed, closed his eyes, and forced his breathing to slow, his meditations to begin. It was not easy; besides his anger, other, unsettling thoughts insisted on intruding. Like Sanzo. So like Sanzo. Even the same commands as Sanzo, sometimes.

Finally, he felt a semblance of balance and calm returning. “As you command, Captain. But I will still be angry with this Vindatri!”

“Be angry all you want, but behave, Son Wu Kung. Do you promise?”

He rolled his eyes. This was all so unreasonable. But it was not the first time he had had to deal with unreasonable people… and this sort of negotiation had been part of the Journey to the West, and he had learned that, often, Sanzo was right about not starting fights. And Ariane probably is too. “Yes, Captain. I promise I will behave myself.”

Decision made, he turned and began loping down the direction indicated by the red fire. The faster I finish whatever is ahead of me, the faster I can go back to guarding Ariane! He gritted his teeth. She had better be all right, or I will somehow teach this “Vindatri” a lesson!

The darkness ahead was not so dark to his own perceptions, and he could see that there was an archway through which the leading line of light passed. The light shrank before him at the exact speed of his own progress, so the line always started just a short distance in front of him. That’s a nice trick. I remember how one of Guyamaoh’s underlings could trace lines of smoke and flame sort of like this. He had to admit it was pretty, a bright crimson shimmer that receded ever before him like a rainbow.

Up another set of stairs and finally the light ended at a door, an oval affair set in the metal wall, with a wheel in the center. He tested the door, found it did not move, and so grasped the wheel and turned. It yielded smoothly, and with a clack he heard a lock or latch disengage. The door swung easily back now, and Wu Kung stepped through into a pitch-black space. He advanced cautiously, on guard, all other senses extended; he heard nothing, smelled nothing but faint traces of oils and metals and old, alien scents of things long gone.

Abruptly the door behind him slammed and the latch engaged. At the same instant, lights blazed on, illuminating the room as brilliantly as day, and in the glare before him was a tall figure. As his eyes adjusted and he could make out the figure before him, Wu Kung felt his jaw dropping and the staff in his hand sagging down.

“Took you long enough,” said the towering gray-skinned form of Sha Wujing.

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 21

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 21 Chapter 21. “I am glad, tremendously glad, that you were able to resolve that situation so well, Laila, Carl, Simon,” said Oscar Naraj, his deep, rich voice resonating in the comfortable meeting room. … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 21

Chapter 21.

“I am glad, tremendously glad, that you were able to resolve that situation so well, Laila, Carl, Simon,” said Oscar Naraj, his deep, rich voice resonating in the comfortable meeting room. “The Tantimorcans were appreciative of your tact and sympathy, and I have thus concluded a most advantageous negotiation with them.”

Simon still found it somewhat uncomfortable to sit in the same room and talk civilly with a man he still suspected of being the prime mover in Ariane’s abduction. From her expression, Oasis Abrams felt the same way; Carl and Laila had been working with Naraj long enough that any remaining dislike wasn’t visible. Still, Naraj had accepted the rulings of the SSC and CSF as far as anyone could tell, and had thrown his full energy into his duties as Ambassador and negotiator.

And he was, beyond any doubt, very good at that. The other species of the Arena generally responded well to his approaches, and he had negotiated numerous “advantageous”, as he said, deals with various smaller Factions.

His powers were, of course, strictly limited. “I presume you have a copy of this agreement?”

“For your review, and the approval of our duumvirate Leaders Pro Tempore, certainly. The gist of the agreement is that we will provide or procure Champions for their next three Challenges, and in exchange they will design and construct full prototypes of five Arenaspace vessels for our complete use, including all data to allow us to begin full production of the vessels.”

“That does sound like a bargain,” Laila said. “But what if — despite our record thus far — our Champions do not quite make the grade, so to speak?”

Oscar nodded gravely. “A concern, of course. Two of the five designs will not be completed unless and until we have won one Challenge for them. If we lose all three, by some terrible mischance, there will of course be penalties. The details are in the contract. Please review them as soon as convenient.”

“Definitely,” said Carl. “We’re learning a lot about ship design in the Arena from studying Orphan’s ships, but we still need some better tailored designs for operations other than big military patrols. The Arena and Warship SFGs have produced some decent designs, but I don’t think they’re quite up to the level of factions that have spent centuries doing this stuff.”

“And we do need more ships,” Simon said. “The Sim Focus Groups’ work will do for the interim, but I am becoming more and more certain that time is running out for us. The Molothos have not forgotten about us, and if they ever find out where we are… they will crush us.”

“Believe me, Doctor Sandrisson, I completely, completely agree,” Naraj said. “You may recall that I approached their Leader with the naïve belief that some form of negotiation would be possible, and was swiftly disabused of that notion.” He frowned, an expression that made his broad face look sad rather than angry. “Negotiation might be possible with them — I refuse to believe that it is utterly impossible — but only if one was in a position of vast strength.”

Laila Canning shook her head swiftly, bobbed brown hair following the motion. “Perhaps, but irrelevant for now, Ambassador. It will be a very long time — if ever — before we are in such a position.”

“I think we’re all agreed on that. But do we have any other, well, Hyperion Champions around?” Simon asked. “After all, DuQuesne and Wu Kung are not available, and we’d like to have such a trump card available.”

A (reasonably) gentle punch stung his arm. “Um, hello? Earth to Simon? I’m sitting right here!” said Oasis Abrams, AKA the mysterious “K” of Hyperion. The redhead’s smile took the sting from her words, and lessened the sting in his arm, too.

He smiled. “I meant in addition to you, Oasis, but yes, I should have phrased that more clearly. My apologies.”

“No problem,” she said. “And yes, we’ve got at least one more. Vel just made the jump here; he’s being checked out as a pilot for some of our Sphere defense ships, but he’ll be available.”

“Vel?” Simon sorted through memory and briefings. “Ah yes, Velocity Celes. But I thought he was a ground racer, not a space racer like Ariane’s friend Hawke.”

“He is, but he’s a Hyperion, Simon, and one designed as a driver and pilot. Believe me, he’ll be one of the best we’ve got in just a few days.” Oasis’ grin held absolute confidence. “Trust me on this.”

“I wouldn’t dream of doubting you, Oasis,” he said. “But as I understand it there are at least a few more; I think we should find a way to recruit as many as possible; as DuQuesne put it, the Arena was almost tailor-made for them.” As he said that, he caught a momentary, almost subliminal shift of Oasis’ expression; it vanished in the instant he saw it, but he was certain it had been there. Interesting. What does that mean? “From what we know, all the Hyperions enjoy some rather unfair advantages over regular Arena citizens. And Lord knows, we could use all the unfair advantages we can get.”

“True, very true indeed, Doctor,” agreed Naraj. “On the subject of gaining unsuspected advantages, I also have a summary of our actions in what your Captain whimsically named ‘Operation Dandelion’.”

Simon chortled. “Let us have it, then!”

Assured that they were prepared, Oscar Naraj transmitted a quick data dump from his own headware. Simon found that his experiences with the Arena had, at least, made assimilating large amounts of information far easier. He quickly sorted out the salient features of the report.

Operation Dandelion was, in Ariane’s words, “Our plan to grow like weeds in the lawn of the Arena.” Having obtained two other Spheres — completely unbeknownst to anyone else in the Arena except the Liberated and the Minds (both of which had strong vested interest in keeping that deal a secret), Humanity had every reason to establish and expand its presence on those Spheres… and the worlds they represented.

“As you can see, reconnaissance of the Spheres and their associated solar systems has been very successful. The first Sphere, named Tellus by Captain Austin, is associated with a solar system with eleven major planetary bodies, one brown dwarf orbiting at a considerable distance from the primary, and two Earth-type habitable worlds. The second Sphere, named Gaia, is associated with a solar system with seven major planetary bodies, two asteroid belts, and one Earth-type world. The most interesting fact about both of these systems is that while we know they belonged to the Blessed to Serve and were, therefore, presumably colonized by them to one extent or another, there is no trace of any prior colonization or exploitation.”

“That’s… frightening,” Oasis said after a pause, red hair exaggerating the awed shake of her head. “I know that some of our prior conversations with Arena residents implied something of the sort, but…”

“I concur,” Simon said. “This is perhaps the most complete demonstration of the Arena’s capabilities. If we are in any way correct, it removed vast numbers of former inhabitants from the Spheres and the planets and solar systems associated with them, relocated them safely to some other appropriate Spheres, reworked any aspects of the planet to fit Earth-normal requirements, and…” he thought a moment, “… and must have rearranged the planets including physical distribution of ores and such to make the system appear completely untouched.”

Even Oscar Naraj — normally focused more on the political and social than on the physical issues of the Arena — looked daunted. “A truly, truly awe-inspiring capability. And I must also wonder how the Arena determines the location of those removed; surely it does not simply dump, perhaps, billions of people onto another world?”

“I asked Relgof about that,” Simon said. “The Arena distributes the refugees as evenly as possible — apparently taking into account things like family and friend associations, resources at the destination, and so on. And in the event that a simple relocation is not practical — for example, a small Faction with two Spheres whose systems have large populations — it has apparently created appropriate habitats for the refugees.”

“And does this in what may be a matter of hours, presumably, depending on how the Sphere is claimed and how quickly the claimants may go to their new possession,” Laila said. “Impressive does not begin to cover it. But,” she said with a brisk air, “we are off the topic. Have we begun colonization efforts to Tellus and Gaia?”

“Initial exploration and preparation efforts are underway,” Naraj said. “As expected, AI and nanotech capabilities are in full force in the normal-space solar systems, which will give us a tremendous ability to begin construction and expansion.”

That reminded Simon of one of the other crucial issues. “Has the SSC moved forward on AI Emancipation?”

“Forward, yes. Swiftly, no. As you can imagine, it is a tremendous, tremendous challenge to address the potential issues in a manner that even a plurality, let alone a majority, of the Council is comfortable with.”

Simon knew that Naraj was one of those not comfortable with the idea — and the knowledge of the existence of the Minds of the Blessed and their total re-engineering of their creators gave a very concrete weight to the concerns of fully-unleashed computer intellects. “Would it help if any of us were to go and try to push things along?”

“Yeah,” Carl said. “I’d point out to them that when Ariane gets back she’s going to expect something to have been done on this, and if it hasn’t been she’ll raise all kinds of hell. And every one of us will back her to the hilt.”

Oscar’s face wrinkled in thought. “It may be necessary for someone to apply pressure. But allow me to convey your concerns on my trip tomorrow. If I feel there is no inclination to hurry things along, then one or two of you might put in an appearance.”

“You’re not really enthusiastic about the idea, though,” Oasis said.

“Not a bit of it, no. But I have agreed to perform my job to the best of my ability, and I know the group of you are indeed — without any doubt — speaking with the full authority of, and complete consistency with, Leader Ariane Austin’s position in these matters; I have no intention whatsoever of incurring Captain Austin’s wrath ever again, I assure you, so thus my beliefs are not relevant.” Naraj smiled, and Simon could see a rueful edge on that smile. “I cannot earn back trust unless I am absolutely reliable, after all.”

“And for a long time,” Laila said bluntly. “All right, we’ll wait until you get back. But you should know we’ll have other sources.”

“Doctor Canning, I would be extremely disappointed by you if you did not. Trust is only a part of it; for domestic and foreign intelligence it is desperately important to have multiple resources providing you with information.”

“Don’t worry, I am running that part of the operation!” Oasis said with a grin. “It’s like going home, in a way.”

Naraj’s eyebrows rose. “Truly? Then with a Hyperion running your intelligence, I have no further concerns.” He nodded. “In any event, I expect to begin serious colonization movement in the next… oh, month and a half. There are already a large number of applicants, and as these are merely to be new human colonies they do not need to be screened to nearly the degree as new entrants to the Arena need be.”

Simon felt a touch of his internal omniscience stirring, allowed himself to perceive what urgency drove it. Ah. “I would caution people to construct nothing on the Upper Sphere that can be detected, not until we have formidable system defenses and are ready to deploy equally strong defenses around the Sphere. While it seems unlikely that we will have another encounter with the Molothos or other hostiles at our new homes, we do not want to give away our presence inadvertently.”

“Noted, Doctor Sandrisson. I concur, and I will convey these instructions myself,” Naraj said. “Now, there are a few other issues that I must review…”

Simon finally extricated himself from the meeting; Oasis followed him out. “Lordy, he does like to talk, as Gabrielle would say.”

Oasis laughed, green eyes sparkling. “He sure does. But hey, not like there wasn’t talk-talk on both sides.” She fell in next to him, matching him stride for stride; she was somewhat shorter but her legs were long. “I’m starved after all that, though. Want to go get something?”

“I would love to. I need to get out of the Embassy.”

While the Grand Arcade was the center of Nexus Arena’s commerce, it was far from the only place of commerce, and Oasis led him to a restaurant actually on Dock 4; it was a tall spindle of a building with a broad, glassed-in deck atop, something like pictures of the ancient Space Needle or some of the delicate towers in some of the more popular space sims.

“The view is stunning,” he said as they were seated.

The immense Dock stretched many kilometers out from the side of the incomprehensibly huge cylinder that was Nexus Arena. Hundreds — thousands — of vessels of every size and description were docking, loading, casting off, maneuvering near or far from Dock 4 and the many other Docks visible to one side or the other. A flock of teirann — which DuQuesne had named “aetherbirds” — streamed by, their crystal bodies and wings a ripple of rainbow and diamond, while in the distance the many-colored clouds turned and streamed slowly, majestically, occasionally lit from within by lightning.

“It is gorgeous, isn’t it?” Oasis said, smiling broadly. “Privacy screen,” she said to the apparently empty air, and a faintly-visible luminous curtain surrounded them. “I love this place. Great view, get to watch the life of the Arena going by, and still have a private talk with someone.”

How private?” he asked. Given the kind of subjects that might come up with Oasis, he felt the question was important.

“Contracted from both the Analytic and the Faith. So as private as anything gets, really, aside from what Orphan mentioned once about going into the Deeps. Or maybe going back home. And the food’s great — as long as you don’t mind some spice. Lots of different spices, actually.”

“I have tried to be quite adventurous, at least in the cuisine area,” Simon said. “Bring it on, as DuQuesne might say.”

Her face flickered through a number of emotions in an instant at the mention of the other Hyperion — fondness, melancholy, a misty-eyed reminiscence — before returning to a more immediate good cheer. “All right, Simon! I like a guy who’s willing to try things that bite back.”

“As long as they’re not venomous,” he said with an answering smile. As he examined the menu that materialized before him, he asked, “So you were a… what, intelligence agent before? You said that it was like going home.”

Oasis’ face flickered, and the expression… shifted. It was a tiny shift, but he had seen it many times now. Oasis Abrams and the Hyperion known to him only as “K” were not quite fused. That shift happened when one or the other of the women sharing one brain was slightly more dominant, and the expression told him that this was “K”.

She nodded, even as her fingers made a selection on the menu; he did the same. “Technically for both of us, actually. I… Oasis… did a fair amount of intelligence work for Saul and others once we got over the fall of Hyperion enough. But I… K, that is… been doing spy stuff since, well, about the time Marc was trying to decide which college to apply to. Before that, really.”

“I imagine it was rather different than such work here, though, unless your… er, world was like ours.”

She laughed again, though with the same touch of wistful sadness that the other Hyperions often showed when thinking of the past. “Like this? No, totally not much like this. Either the Arena or modern Sol System. But a lot of the basics don’t change, just the tricks and the targets.” She looked back at him; those amazing green eyes almost matched his own in color, but he was sure his never managed a tenth of the intensity in hers. “Now you, you’ve always been a scientist, right?”

“Well, I was always interested in being one, but you can’t call yourself a scientist right away,” he answered. “But yes, that’s always been my profession. I have found myself sometimes acting in other capacities since we arrived here, of course.”

“Oh, sure! DuQuesne told me you saved Zounin-Ginjou and fought the would-be Leader of the Blessed one-on-one!” He knew this woman — regardless of which persona he regarded as active or central — was older than he by a factor of nearly two, but she was looking at him with a wide-eyed excitement that made her seem scarcely eighteen. “We all got the summary, but tell me the details — what do you remember about it?”

Simon cast his mind back, a bit bemused by the conversation’s turn. “Mostly? Being terrified, I suppose. I mean, there was a great deal more to it, but once I realized there were actually people trying to kill us I assure you my heart was doing its best to pound its way out of my chest.”

“Were you just terrified?” she asked, leaning a little forward.

Remembering that battle — the flare of missiles’ jets passing scant meters away, the staccato hail-rapping of hypersonic cannon rebounding from armor, the incredible body-shattering concussion of the primary beam firing within a turret, the long, cold glint of his sword pointing at the green-black form of Vantak — Simon felt as though he were, momentarily, back on board Zounin-Ginjou, and… “No,” he said finally, hearing his own startled, incredulous tone. “No, I was … excited. Exhilarated, at times. Determined. Transported, in more ways than one.”

He looked up to see her smile, sharper, knowing, but the green eyes were warm and sympathetic. “I knew it. There’s nothing like that feeling, is there? The Edge. Running on a bridge as it’s falling apart under you and not knowing if you’re gonna make it, facing someone trying to kill you and wondering if you’re good enough to take him, hearing the countdown to disaster and seeing you have twenty-nine seconds to stop it or everything blows. You know the Edge now, don’t you?”

He felt the chill of gooseflesh along his arms, saw the hairs standing up, remembered the fear of his own omniscience warring with the exaltation of the prediction of the future, of combat against a chosen warrior of the Blessed to Serve, and nodded slowly. “Yes, if that is what you call it, I cannot argue that I do not know the ‘Edge’.”

She laughed joyfully. At that moment, their servers entered, placed the first plates in front of them, then withdrew. Once they’d left, she smiled again. “Fantastic, as another lost friend of ours would have said; you love the running, deep down, like all of us do. I couldn’t really hang out for long with someone who didn’t.”

Simon liked to think he had gotten a bit better at picking up on personal interactions over the years. “Oasis, pardon me very much if I am wrong, but are you making a pass at me?”

“Would it bother you if I was?”

“Not… precisely. I did think you and DuQuesne –”

“Ah. Marc. Yes, we did have something. Still do, sort of… but I’m not the woman he knew then, and that really does throw him way off. And me; Oasis never knew Marc, and he’s not entirely her type.”

“And … no one else?”

The distant look came back. “There was… when I was a lot younger. But… Hyperion. He was part of my world, and we couldn’t salvage it.” She smiled with only a hint of sadness. “And besides, even before Hyperion fell, we’d… drifted. That’s why DuQuesne and I got together.”

He frowned. “You know, I get a bit puzzled about time. It sounds like you and Marc were together for quite a bit, yet you could not have met until that grand-scale crossover that led to the disaster.”

She shook her head, the brilliant red hair rippling like flame in wind. “Remember, they could control perceptions and events in-universe — and they had the technology to do things like speed up or slow down metabolisms, too. So while in the real universe we weren’t even twenty, Marc was physically and intellectually well over thirty, and I was well into my twenties. The investigations, discovery of the truth and all that, from our point of view, covered a few years, while it wasn’t more than a couple of months from the … researcher’s point of view.”

“Good Lord. Every time I think I grasp the depth of that project, I learn something that shows me I was wrong. A bit like the Arena, I suppose.”

Too much like the Arena,” she said forcefully. Then she closed her eyes and sighed; when they opened again, she was smiling once more. “Anyway, hell of a diversion for an answer that really was yes, I am making a little pass at you, or flirting anyway to see if you are interested.”

You know, I honestly don’t think I was such an attention-magnet before. For a moment he really missed Mio, his AISage, who would have had some sort of witty and incisive remark on the situation; the silence in his head was sometimes too much. “I would have to be both blind and deaf to not be interested, I think. So this is a date, then?”

“If you like. I know you’ve been dancing around with Ariane, and Laila, too.”

“But no commitment on either side yet; in the case of Ariane, of course, there is also DuQuesne and the fact that all of us tend towards monogamous pairings if we were to be serious.” And as both Ariane and DuQuesne are off on a journey of undetermined length…

“Great!” She grabbed his hand, squeezed it, then grabbed up one of the strange multifaceted fried objects in her appetizer and bit into it. “Wow, spicy indeed. Here, try one!”

From the crunching sensation and the strong, complex flavor and texture, he was sure this was some sort of meat, fried in hot oil of some type. And spicy it was, with hints of cinnamon, pepper, and capsicum … and maybe a touch of something like lemony cardamom? “Very good. I like it. Here, try my… um, marinated uljuru, which I think is some kind of worm-type creature.”

He watched with seeming casualness as she scooped one up, popped it in her mouth, and chewed. Her eyes flew wide, but she did finish swallowing before she went for her glass. “Holy cow that’s hot! HOT hot!” She paused, then suddenly laughed. “Well, that will teach me to underestimate you! You’ve got a more asbestos-lined mouth than I do!”

“My best friend when I was young, Marisol, had a heritage of Indian-Mex cooking going back generations, and she would try to give me something I couldn’t eat — it was a sort of friendly contest. For my part, of course, I refused to admit that anything she brought was too hot, so I developed quite a cast-iron palate.”

“Holy cow,” she repeated, now on her second glass of water. “You could’ve probably given Sydney a run for her money.” The wistful note was very faint, but he could still hear it. Another Hyperion memory.

That rang another bell. “May I ask you something?”

“You can ask anything, Simon. Can I have another of those?”

“Of course,” he said, taking one himself and enjoying the tingling burn. “Back in our little conference, I was quoting DuQuesne in saying that the Arena seems almost tailor-made for your people, and I noticed a little… change in your expression. What was that about?”

She seemed to be taking the second uljuru much better; perhaps the first had numbed her mouth. “That, Simon, is… something we might actually want more privacy for. Back at our Embassy, if not all the way back to Earth. Let’s just say that it’s maybe more the other way around.”

That they were made for the Arena? Yes. That fit with his internal sense, even though he did not have that Olympian perception active. “Very well, we can discuss that at a later time. But perhaps you can tell me something of what you’ve done since Hyperion?”

“I could bore you for hours on that topic, Simon,” she said.

The rest of the meal passed swiftly, and Simon found he was very much enjoying it. Oasis had a quick wit, a ready laugh, and despite her warning of boredom had lived an exciting life, helping Saul Maginot clean up the occasional but often very dangerous fringes of the otherwise peaceful Solar System of the late 24th century.

Finally, the two of them rose and went to the overlook, gazing out over the Dock several hundred feet below. She had taken his hand and was talking about what she saw. “… and that’s actually a Tensari cruiser; they’re not much into military stuff, but they do have a few — I think it’s still Tantimorcan design, but the decoration’s pure Tensari. That little one in between the two big cargo transports, that’s someone’s personal flyer; the general design looks like it could be Vengeance but I can’t be sure. Now, looking down towards Nexus Arena, we can –”

She broke off, and her face had gone stark pale.

Following her gaze, he had a quick impression of a tall figure, human or very humanoid, wearing a white suit of some sort. But before he could get a better look, the figure was swallowed up by the crowd.

His hand was empty, and she was already halfway to the stairs, at the stairs, running down them, flying down them at a speed he simply could not match. “Oasis!” he called, trying to catch her, “Oasis, what is it?”

She was a blur, leaping from one side to the other of the spiral stair, sliding down the banister and then bounding to the other side, making the other patrons going up or down the staircase seem frozen in place. Oasis reached the bottom before he — fast as he could run — was more than a quarter of the way down.

Panting with the exertion, he finally burst out onto the Dock, looking around, searching the crowd. He saw a flash of red hair in the distance, forced his now-aching legs into a sprint, weaving between Daelmokhan workers and Milluk tourists and a Chirofleckir businessman, until he finally came into sight of her, slowing down, feet unwillingly going to a walk and, at last, a stunned, immobile stillness.

“Oasis, what is wrong?” he demanded as he finally reached her.

“I… don’t know,” she said after a moment. “Did you… see anything, when I was looking?”

“A person — which could have been, or not been, a human — in some kind of white outfit, clothes and hat. But I could not even confidently say what kind of outfit, let alone whether it was being worn by a human being.”

“I swear it was…” She trailed off. “But that isn’t possible.”

“Why? Who did you think you saw?”

Her smile was fragile now, like a cracked crystal goblet. “Someone… someone who not only should be dead,” she said in a shaken whisper, “but technically wasn’t even ever alive.”

 


Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 20

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Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 20 Chapter 20. “Orphan, we’re being followed.” The tall alien was beside her almost instantly. “Are you certain, Ariane Austin?” “Pretty sure. See these returns? And using the rear telescopes I thought I saw … Continue reading

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 20

Chapter 20.

“Orphan, we’re being followed.”

The tall alien was beside her almost instantly. “Are you certain, Ariane Austin?”

“Pretty sure. See these returns? And using the rear telescopes I thought I saw a couple glints where that cloudbank thinned out.”

Orphan straightened, stroking his headcrest in the way he often did when thinking. “This is an excellent place for an ambush. We are actually heading for another of the Sky Gates that — as far as I am aware — only I know of. But we will be passing quite near the usual gateway used by traffic in this region of the Arena.”

“Prep the weapons, then?”

“Best to do so, yes. I would rather not fight anyone, but please, ready us. I will take the main board, Ariane. If you would be so kind as to take the secondary, there? Yes. I will give control of the vessel to you, so that in the event of emergency you can use your superlative piloting instincts to our benefit.”

She grinned, feeling a surprisingly welcome tension spreading through her. Good Lord, am I so bored that potentially being in another Arenaspace battle sounds fun to me? I guess I am. That’s pretty pathetic, Ariane. “On it, Orphan.”

Wu Kung bounced up. “I will take one of the turrets, DuQuesne! These are not as fun as a real fight, but at least I can do something.”

“You have indeed learned how to operate them,” Orphan agreed. “However, I must impress upon you the need to minimize your impulsiveness. As I said, I wish to avoid conflict if possible.”

“I understand,” Wu answered. “I will not touch the weapons unless you say it is time. I promise.”

“Good enough,” DuQuesne said. “You take this panel, I’ll take the other.”

For a few minutes, they continued cruising through Arenaspace, now in a skyscape of red-and-purple clouds dimly visible in the wan light of whatever luminaires might be hidden in the far distance. A massive accretion of sky-rubble, accumulated from the castoff materials of who knew how many Upper Spheres, drifted in the middle distance, a jagged, irregular silhouette of black against the magenta and crimson background. A layer of white cloud lay below, streaming slowly across their course. Ariane thought she could see faint, darting movements in the distance — perhaps zikki or one of their smarter relatives.

Then the faint shapes on the radar display began to close in, their outlines to become sharper. Even as she turned to notify Orphan, she saw another set appear on the forward radar. They’re jetting out from behind that accretion! “Ambush, Orphan! Forward and aft, spreading laterally.” Another set of returns. “Crap. Some coming out of the cloud layers above and below, relative to our own orientation.”

“Well-organized pirates, indeed,” Orphan said. “If so, however, they will contact us shortly. Pirates, after all, prefer to take their prizes intact. How many do we have, and estimates on size or class?”

“Let me take a look,” DuQuesne said. At her glance, he winked. “I’ve got a little more experience in this than you, Ariane.”

Orphan gave him a puzzled look. “A single prior battle, impressive though it was, is not a tremendous amount of experience, Doctor.”

“Who said it was my only prior experience?”

Orphan began to reply, stopped, studied him, then did the expansive wing-shrug. “Carry on, then.”

“Lessee… total count is… eight vessels. Judging by size, maneuvers they’re making, I’d put five of them in something like a swift attack boat class; they’re not very big, but they’re fast and maneuverable and probably pack a punch. One of the ones coming out ahead is hanging back quite a bit, she’s a lot bigger than the others, probably the mothership or at least a mobile HQ; not maneuvering fast so a carrier-type, probably a converted cargo ship, looks about half to three-quarters the size that we are, or that our disguise looks to be anyway. Other two aren’t small and they’re in between in acceleration, so I’m guessing they’re frigate or destroyer class — hope that’s translating well for you.”

“Eminently well, Doctor. Two powerful but smaller military vessels, several much smaller attack craft, and the main vessel. Ranges?”

“The main ship’s about fourteen hundred kilometers away,” Ariane answered. “The destroyer-types, about five hundred kilometers — one above and below. The fast-attack boats started farther away but they’ve accelerated, they’ll be within four hundred kilometers very soon.”

“Very good.” Orphan’s head tilted, then he gave his assenting handtap. “Exactly as expected, I see a transmission. Now, all of you, remain silent. The onboard transmitters will focus on me, and make the rest of you look like members of my species, but do not strain this rather stupid automation any more than necessary.”

“Got it,” said DuQuesne, and Ariane nodded. Wu Kung acknowledged the command by miming a zipped-lip motion and grinning silently.

Without a pause, the display area of the forward port lit up, showing a powerfully-built creature with a head reminiscent of a monitor lizard, but with eyes on the sides of the head and a horizontally-opening jaw. “This is Shipmaster Bos Arbsa, on the Jewel of Night. If you are uncertain, that would be the large ship nearly directly ahead of you on your current course. My fleet has you completely boxed in. Please reduce your current vector until you are at rest with respect to Jewel of Night.”

It was startling the transformation that came over Orphan in that instant. With scarcely a movement, somehow the fluid, dramatic Leader of the Liberated was suddenly rigid, cold, expressionless. His wingcases showed neither tension nor excitement. “This is Dranlu, a Madon-class freighter of the Blessed to Serve. You will stand aside. You will not attempt to board or approach this vessel. The Minds of the Blessed will not tolerate piracy upon our vessels.”

Ariane had gained enough cross-species experience to recognize the momentary discomfiture of the Shipmaster; as one of the Great Factions, the Blessed were not to be crossed lightly. However, it was, indeed, only momentary. “We recognize the power of the Blessed. But I put it to you that even the Minds themselves cannot seek revenge when they know nothing of the crime.” The jaws parted in what somehow looked to Ariane like a cruel grin. “Which — to your great misfortune — means that I can make no offer to spare your lives. I am completely familiar with the capabilities of the Madon-class freighters, and their armed variants. Formidable, but insufficient. Make your farewells to your crippled computational masters.” The transmission cut off.

“So much for talking,” Ariane said. “They’re closing in to weapons range. Orders, Orphan?”

Orphan sighed. “Alas, we do wish our presence here secret. Yet I cannot see any way to defeat these pirates without revealing that this ship is far more than it is.”

DuQuesne nodded. “So we take ’em apart as fast as we can.”

“Primaries?”

“Not immediately,” Orphan said. “If by poor fortune any of these escape, I would rather they not also carry news of our new weapons.” Ariane saw his pose shift and knew that Orphan was, in his own way, smiling with a sharp and deadly certainty. “And it is they who do not realize what they have ambushed.”

“Missiles inbound!”

“Activate point-defense cannon emplacements… seven and twelve,” Orphan said. “These would fit with a Madon military transport variant, and should protect us sufficiently for the first salvo or two, before the remainder of their fleet gets in range.”

“You want to sucker them in,” DuQuesne said in an approving tone. “Get them close so that when our disguise comes apart they’re way too close to get away.”

“Perfectly correct. For now, return fire with main turret four, Wu Kung, and DuQuesne, missile batteries three and five. That accords with the expected armament, and if you use them well, our adversaries may already be significantly damaged by the time they realize that their trap has become ours. When I give this sign,” Orphan gestured widely with both arms and wings, “you may open fire with every weapon at our disposal except the ‘primary beams’, as you call them.”

Ariane was already maneuvering to avoid the incoming fire, to confuse enemy targeting. In keeping with their assumed identity, she was throttling the acceleration and maneuverability of Zounin-Ginjou down drastically. This wasn’t easy; it was like trying to make one of Grandfather’s old classic sportscars behave like a broken-down clunker when the steering, engine, and transmission were all tuned for high performance. She concentrated, imagining that she was steering not a ship but a whale, a slow, majestic creature that would respond to her commands only with the same ponderous, considered movement.

The fast-attack vessels closed the distance, but even her comparatively slow maneuvers were enough to force them to adjust their courses; this was not like space, where vacuum would allow nigh-infinite range and where stealth was impossible; Zounin-Ginjou under Ariane’s guidance found drifting haze ahead that blurred her outline, made the smartest missiles that could work in the Arena confused, forced them to go to infra-red tracking that could in turn be confused with tailored flare signals.

Point-defense cannon whined and spat their own shotgun-defense of destruction at incoming missiles, shredding or vaporizing the weapons. Two passed the point defense but were thrown off-course, exploding some distance from Zounin-Ginjou; even so, Ariane heard the detonations faintly, felt the vibration in the hull. “They’re getting the range, Orphan!”

“Understood, Ariane Austin. But their vessels are nearly in position!”

She could not restrain her own fierce grin as she saw Orphan was right. As the fast-attack craft began their next attack run, the destroyer-sized vessels launched a large salvo of missiles, far larger than their two embattled point-defense assemblies could manage; but they were now less than two hundred kilometers away.

Spears of energy cut through the thin armored shell that formed the disguise around Zounin-Ginjou, and hypersonic cannon shells stitched a line of holes along the false engine housing. “Surrender,” came the voice of Bos Arbsa. “Your main engine is damaged, and you are — Voidbuilders’ Curse!

Orphan had given the signal, and DuQuesne and Wu Kung’s fingers flew across their boards, then gripped and tightened on firing handles.

A fury of incandescent destruction lashed across the heavens, a full battery of main guns targeting each of the seven luckless vessels that had reached close-combat distance even as the multiple secondaries and point-defense emplacements raked the sky with fire and screaming hypersonic metal to erase incoming salvos without a trace.

The five fast-attack vessels stood no chance at all; Ariane, no longer needing to maneuver for the moment, sat open-mouthed as the gunships were literally erased, firepower sufficient to put holes through full-sized battleships focused on vessels not even a tenth the length or a thousandth the mass of Zounin-Ginjou. The destroyers did not disappear, but the combination of triple beams of main energy cannon and a salvo of missiles shattered them to useless, lifeless hulks in mere seconds.

Shattered, too, was the fragile disguise covering Orphan’s flagship, now falling away in tattered fragments. “Bring all three primary turrets to bear on Jewel of Night, Doctor DuQuesne, Son Wu Kung.”

“Who are you? The Blessed do not send stealth vessels against pirates!” The pirate captain sounded outraged, his translated voice practically screaming this isn’t fair!

“Alas, Captain Bos Arbsa, you have had the most terrible misfortune to fall afoul of Zounin-Ginjou and the Survivor,” Orphan said, and his light words were spoken in a cold tone that sent a tiny shiver down Ariane’s spine.

Bos Arbsa froze. “Oh no,” he said, a completely human reaction from such a monstrous face. “My apologies, Survivor! We will withdraw!” Even through the blurring of everything but the creature’s face, Ariane could see he was making quick, desperate gestures to his unseen crew.

“I was attempting a quiet, unmarked transit through this area of space,” Orphan continued, not even directly acknowledging the other’s words. “Now you have forced me to destroy my — you will admit — most convincing camouflage.”

Ariane saw that Jewel of Night was moving away — but not directly away, diverting to the side. “Orphan…”

“I see, Ariane Austin. Very interesting.” He looked back to the screen, and his voice was still light, empty, and cold. “I am afraid, Captain, that — like yourself — I can afford no witnesses to this conflict.” DuQuesne’s face was set in stone, as was Wu Kung’s; she saw that they had directed another salvo of fire at the remains of the two destroyers, which disintegrated to nothing but clouds of debris, no fragment large enough to show individually on the radar.

Ariane suddenly guessed what Orphan obviously already had; the reason Jewel of Night was maneuvering in the direction it was had to be that its captain knew of an uncharted Sky Gate, one close enough to afford a chance of escape if Jewel of Night could stay far enough from Zounin Ginjou. With concealment no longer an issue, she swung the battleship around with such acceleration she could hear faint creaking noises transmitted through the hull, and let the engines roar to full power, Zounin-Ginjou now thundering through the air of the Arena at an ever-increasing pace.

The other captain’s voice was still shaken, but regaining some of its bravado. “A good disguise, and a costly one, but you won’t get my own flagship, Survivor. You are faster, but you will not close the range fast enough.”

“I must, regretfully, disagree. Goodbye, Captain.” Orphan nodded to DuQuesne.

A triple salvo of intolerable brilliance annihilated the darkness of the Deeps, blazed its way in a fraction of a second to, and completely through, Jewel of Night. For an instant the stricken pirate mothership shuddered, faltering, and then with an eye-searing detonation vanished as damage reached its main superconducting storage coils.

Orphan stood still, watching the explosion and fire fade away, blazing pieces of wreckage careening through the endless deeps. He hesitated, then sighed, a sound amplified by his spiracles into a mournful hoot. “Gentlemen, if you would… complete the job.”

DuQuesne and Wu nodded and the unstoppable fire of the primaries eradicated all traces of Jewel of Night.

“You seem… bothered by this, Orphan,” Ariane said finally.

“Hm? And you are not, Captain Austin?”

“Well… yes. You know that from our last engagement. Fighting back is fine, but wiping out every trace, even possible survivors…”

“Your feelings are commendable, Captain. And not unexpected, given the outcome of our last battle together. But in this case… I dare not let this secret out, neither the secret of my possible destination, nor that of our weapons. I can take no chance on even a single survivor.”

“You’ve been at war with the Blessed — and sometimes others — for thousands of years, Orphan,” she said. “I’m not asking why you’re doing this — though I’d have a hard time giving that order — but why you are bothered by it. They did attack us, and after they thought you were Blessed, were going to wipe us all out; you had little reluctance before about vaporizing all the Blessed survivors.”

“Ah. Yes, I see the dissonance.” He looked out the forward port. “Continue on Jewel of Night‘s prior course. I would like to mark the location of its Sky Gate for later investigation. It is, of course, theoretically possible that its last maneuvers were meant to distract us from a more distant observer craft, but I would lay immense odds against that for many reasons.”

Orphan turned back to her. “In answer to your question… In that long struggle you have referred to, Captain, I have done many things. That included being a pirate, to be perfectly honest with you, a pirate who targeted Blessed vessels. I know exactly the fears and hopes that drive such beings, and the horror they must have felt to know that they had so terribly underestimated their prey. And even more, the despair of knowing that this time, their quarry would not be satisfied with anything other than their complete annihilation.” He looked out the port again, but Ariane had the impression he was not seeing anything. “But more… we cannot stay here and quarter space for days, examining every trace of these vessels for any sign of life. It is thus possible, though unlikely, that there are a few survivors, ejected or otherwise escaping the annihilation sent against their vessels.

“In that case, Captain, they will be drifting alone in the endless Deeps, with scarcely a hope in a trillion that there will be rescue or anything but slow death or sudden awaiting them behind the next deceptive veil of mist.” His eyes shifted back to her, and they were dark wells of pain. “And that fear and despair I have lived, once, and would not wish upon even the Minds themselves.”