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Challenges of the Deeps: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Saturday, October 8, 2016 07:06 EDT



    “That might not have been the best choice, Ariane,” DuQuesne said somberly.

    Simon was puzzled by the gravity in his voice. Reflexively, he glanced around the meeting room, but there was no one present except the members of the “core group”, as Simon thought of it – DuQuesne, Ariane, Simon himself, Laila, Carl, and the newcomers Oasis and Wu Kung. “Do you think Wu might lose? Or is there some other reason?”

    DuQuesne looked down; the brows were lowered, and Simon could tell that his friend was thinking furiously.

    Finally, DuQuesne looked up, meeting Ariane’s gaze first before looking to Simon. “Yes, he might.” He held up a hand to forestall Wu’s protest. “Wu, I know that no one here knows what you’re like when you actually go all out – and that we’re both finally back in shape for real. But ‘Racing Chance’ is only about half the ‘racing’ part. The rest of it – as Carl described to us,” he nodded to the tall, slender controls specialist, “and as I verified by checking in our records, is a game of chance and skill. That’s the section of the challenge still to be hammered out, but it throws a royal wrench in the works compared to a straight-up race.”

    “On the other hand,” Laila said, with her usual analytical calm, “was there a reasonable alternative? We want the Genasi to win their Challenge, correct?” At the nods around the table, she continued, “Then what alternative was there? Speaking honestly, is there anyone else here who could possibly be a better choice than Wu Kung, at least for the racing portion of this Challenge?”

    Oasis tilted her head. “Well, Marc and I could… but no, not better. Not for something as relatively straightforward as an obstacle race.”

    “Something else is bothering you, Marc,” Simon said flatly. “Or something else is relevant that you don’t want to say.”

    Ariane’s quick look showed that she’d come to the same conclusion.

    The big Hyperion pursed his lips, then gave a short, explosive laugh, followed by a quick grin that subsided all too swiftly. “You’ve got me pegged pretty well, Simon. Yeah, there’s a couple things that’ve got me chasing my tail. One… well, I’d like to take Orphan’s route and wait until we’re in the Deeps, but then we’ll be on Orphan‘s ship, which wouldn’t do us any favors in security. I like that exoskeletal joker, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t trust him all the way.”

    He drew in a deep breath. “It… has to do with some of the things I guess about the way the Arena operates. And it’s pure dynamite, if I’m right.”

    DuQuesne paused again, looking around the table, and Simon was struck by his hesitation. He just doesn’t have this kind of… indecision. “Marc, what is it?”

    “Sorry. Look… No offense to anyone here – and I mean that – but I can only discuss this with Ariane and Oasis.” He caught Wu Kung’s gaze. “And that means not with you, either, Wu. Sorry.”

    Ariane frowned. “Marc, I trust Simon – everyone here, in fact – with anything. If -”

    “This isn’t a matter of trust. It’s a matter of need to know, and I think no one else needs to know, yet.” DuQuesne held up his hands. “Now that will be your call, Ariane. If you decide you want to let the whole crew know, that’s up to you, and I’ll back you on whatever course you take. You are the Captain, and that’s the pure-quill truth; you’ve proven it to all of us, and my not accepting that damn near got me killed once. I will try to never second-guess you again like that. But you can’t decide to keep it a secret if I let it out to begin with.”

    Ariane looked over to Simon.

    Well, now, she’s obviously giving me a chance to object. It was highly gratifying, really; she was basically saying, without words, that if he raised an objection she’d override DuQuesne, which was something she was very reluctant to do (and for extremely good reason, given their history in the Arena).

    Simon was tempted. He really wanted to know what sort of secret was so desperately important, and how it involved Ariane and Oasis but not Wu or himself. But at the same time, he trusted DuQuesne implicitly. Marc DuQuesne hadn’t been the most approachable of people to begin with, but in the year and more since they’d become crewmates, he’d found Marc’s insight and advice invaluable – even before they first launched Holy Grail.

    “If Marc thinks this is the best choice, I’m not going to second-guess him either, Ariane,” Simon said. “But before we all leave, is there any more to discuss that doesn’t require we leave the room?”

    “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Simon,” DuQuesne said, and Simon could hear the sincerity in his tones. “Yeah, we need to talk a little about strategy and timing. Tunuvun and the Genasi decided to go all-in with Humanity – they’ve turned the whole Challenge over to us.”

    “Really?” That startled Simon. “I would have thought their pride would require otherwise.”

    Wu Kung shook his head. “They’re proud as warriors, but Tunuvun said to me that this is more important than pride. He’s their best Challenge-warrior and now the Vengeance has him. He knows all the Genasi’s other candidates cold, but no one really knows us that well, so we’ve got an advantage.” He grinned, fangs glinting sharply. “And after our victories, we’re making people nervous. A good thing in an opponent. Tunuvun said we were on a winning streak.”

    “More than he knows,” Simon murmured; the rest of the Arena didn’t know about the kidnapping of Ariane and the subsequent utter humiliation of the Blessed to Serve, making that three of the major powers – Molothos, Shadeweaver, and Blessed – that Humanity had managed to defeat soundly in less than a year.

    “Like Wu said,” DuQuesne said, “We’re on a winning streak, and they’re betting it holds. In any case, Selpa’s not going to give us too much time before we choose our representative in the Chance section of the Challenge, and then we have to all agree on the exact details of the game – we went through this before, with Ariane’s Challenge against Amas-Garao. We’ll want an Advocate – I’m thinking either Nyanthus, if he’ll do it again, or maybe Orphan.”

    Simon nodded. The Advocates mediated the decision making process between the Challenge parties, enabling, at least in theory, a fair and reasonable compromise to be reached with respect to all aspects of the Challenge; they also watched for any inherently unfair aspects of the Challenge. From that, Simon deduced that only in extreme cases did the Arena itself intervene directly. “Nyanthus would be my preference initially, but I think he would be a poor choice, given that the Faith and the Vengeance are well-known to be opposed.”

    “Technically, pretty much everyone’s in competition with everyone else here,” Oasis said. “Even allies seem to think it’s a good idea to keep their friends on their toes, you know what I mean?”

    “Right,” Carl agreed. “But Simon’s got a point. We don’t know what the Vengeance’s second Champion will be, and even less do we know who they’ll choose as Advocate, but picking an Advocate specifically known for hostility towards the Vengeance – is that a good idea?”

    Ariane shrugged. “The Advocate’s supposed to be on our side, just not part of our faction or – I’d guess – so heavily associated with us that they might feel pressure to bend the rules in our favor. The latter might put Orphan out; we’re well-known to be about his only reliable allies.”

    “Point taken,” DuQuesne said. “We’ll leave him out of it, then. Any other candidates?”

    Oh, here’s a thought. “If we want to stick with the high-profile sorts,” Simon said, “then I propose Dr. Relgof.”

    DuQuesne brightened. “I could go for that. He’s friendly towards us, not hostile towards any faction – except maybe the Molothos, which goes for pretty much anyone still breathing – and he’s sharp as a box of razor blades.”

    “I like it,” Ariane said. “He’s been one of our supporters, but no commitment to do so.”

    “I approve,” Laila said emphatically. “If, of course, he will accept.”

    “I would be willing to bring up the question,” Simon said.

    “Please do, as soon as we’re done here,” Ariane said, after her quick survey of the conference table got nothing but approving nods. “What else, Marc?”

    “Well, we’ll probably want to take a few days to practice whatever the game is that we end up with, but we don’t want to delay Orphan’s trip, either.”

    “I’ve already contacted Orphan,” Ariane said. “His response was ‘My dear Captain Austin, such a Challenge takes precedence over anything. And in truth, I look forward to watching this one. Your friend Wu Kung versus Tunuvun? Alas that I cannot sell admissions!’.”

    Simon laughed along with the others, at least as much from the way in which Ariane managed to capture both the intonations and the posture of Orphan perfectly in her quote. “So who will be our other Champion?”

    “Marc,” Ariane said instantly.

    Simon nodded. “That makes sense, but why are you so certain?”

    “Any of us might make good players of a game of skill and chance – sounds like it could be the equivalent of a game of poker. But with Wu Kung involved, and – per Carl’s description – the fortunes of the game being able to directly affect the obstacles and difficulty of the racing course – that pretty much argues that whoever’s playing the game be someone very familiar with Wu Kung’s habits, capabilities, and limitations. That means really only DuQuesne and Oasis, and – being honest here – I understand Marc’s capabilities a little better than yours, Oasis.”

    The redhead tossed back her long ponytails. “No offense taken, Captain. I’d make the same choice; Marc’s beat me at cards more than once.”

    “All right, then that’s settled.” Ariane looked up at the rest. “Now, I’ll listen to whatever Marc has to say; if we need you again, I’ll call you in.”

    Simon nodded, and he and the others filed out; Wu Kung looked particularly hesitant, but finally he left. “Carl, can we do some sparring?” he said. “I want something to keep me focused instead of just waiting.”

    “Sure thing, if you’ll take a heck of a handicap. I don’t mind a little practice, but imitating a punching bag isn’t really practice.”

    “No problem – make it as hard on me as you want!”

    “In that case, I’ve got some ideas that should still make it fun for you. Let’s go. Simon, you want to watch?”

    “Perhaps later. I’m going to speak to Relgof; that’s a time-limited situation, you know.”

    “I’ll watch,” Ariane said, coming up behind them.

    Simon jumped slightly. “I thought you were having a top-secret secret meeting with DuQuesne.”

    “I was, but… I saw how tense he was, and I asked him if there was a good reason, in his view, that he should keep this a secret from me too, as a real ace in the hole. He hemmed and hawed a little but eventually said yes.” She smiled. “I trust his judgment, really, and since he was straightforward about trusting me and was going to tell me whatever it was flat-out, I decided to return the favor. Besides, I think I’ll just see if I can figure it out myself; I’ve got some clues to work with.”

    “Always time for a little mystery in life, yes. All right, I’ll see you all later, then.”

    Ariane nodded and turned to Carl. “Then let’s go!”

    “Right. Onward to my beating!” He gave a cheery wave and led Wu away, Ariane just behind.

    Simon stepped out into the simulated evening of Nexus Arena. The light was just starting to fade, and there were even faint pink shades to the light, a perfectly-emulated sunset behind the various buildings. Is even that a matter of tailored perceptions? Would I see something different if I were a Genasi or a Tantimorcan? Or is day and night here something very real, and thus seen at the same time and, as much as perceptual equipment allows, in the same way?

    Not for the first time, he was tempted to reach inside himself and push for answers – to whether this was real or generated perceptions, for what secrets DuQuesne was telling Oasis, for hints as to what they should consider with this new Challenge, but he shoved the temptation away. Having the potential to look into the mind of God and be a panopticon at the same time is far too potentially corruptive. I’m not taking chances with this.

    With one of the floating cabs to take him, it was only a few minutes to reach the great square-faced headquarters of the Analytic, third of the Great Factions. The door opened for him – his one-year pass to the Archives gave him entrance at any time – and he stopped within the entrance hall. “Relgof Nov’ne Knarph, would you be free to speak with me?”

    The green comm-ball appeared even as he began to speak, and floated before him; no red aura appeared, which meant that the call was not being blocked or, as of yet, refused.

    A moment later it flickered. “Dr. Sandrisson, it would be my pleasure. You are here in the Faction House, I see. Is this a private matter?”

    “Moderately so. Nothing terribly secret, but a request made in person and with reasonable privacy seemed preferable.”

    “Then come, come. I will meet you in the third conference room, the same one we discussed your fascinating book in.”

    Simon remembered that discussion well, and found the room without much difficulty. True to his word, Relgof, in his customary white outfit, entered only moments later. “Simon, my friend, it is good to see you. I trust you and your Faction are well?”

    He returned the handclasp, noting again the peculiar sensation of a second thumb gripping his hand. “Very well at the moment. But we have an issue we believe you could assist with.”

    “By all means, tell me of your problem,” Relgof said, waving him to a seat. His filter-beard flip-flopped in a gesture that seemed to be related to a smile.

    “I do not know if you are aware, but the Genasi have issued their Challenge to the Vengeance.”

    “That much I had heard, yes. The details have not been released by any yet, however. Already you interest me!”

    Information, the greatest coin of the realm for the Analytic. “Well, as the Challenged party, the Vengeance chose Racing Chance as the Challenge method. They also called upon the terms of a previous contract and selected Tunuvun of the Genasi as their Champion.”

    Relgof, who had bent to scoop a bit of the water from the inset flowing bowl in the table, started and splashed himself and his usually spotless uniform. “Silt and sand! Now that is a bold and clever move. They seek to use the competitor’s own honor and dedication to his craft against him.”

    “Exactly. So Tunuvun countered by selecting Sun Wu Kung of our faction as the Genasi Champion.”

    “Wu Kung… yes, of course! The one who fought alongside Tunuvun in a rather impromptu and unofficial challenge, and won. The bodyguard of your Leader, correct?” At Simon’s nod, Relgof rubbed the side of his head pensively. “A most interesting Challenge this promises to be. But there are two Champions in Racing Chance.”

    “We do not know the Vengeance’s second, yet, but the Genasi gave us the option on that as well. I believe they think that our tactics are less likely to be open to the Vengeance. We have selected Marc DuQuesne as the second.”

    “An excellent choice. The very fact that he faced the Molothos and defeated them will weigh heavily in the mind of any playing against him. So, then, what is your problem?”

    “We are, of course, still very unfamiliar with many details of these Challenges,” Simon said. “And there are a great many specifics to be nailed down for this Challenge -”

    “Say no more. You would like me to be your Advocate – or more specifically that of the Genasi – in the negotiations.”

    “Exactly. Now, I don’t know what sort of fee, if any, is normal and customary -”

    “It varies extremely, depending on the relationship between factions and individuals, the interest in the Challenge, and many other factors. In this case, I would like to charge you, but honesty compels me to say that I would never forego the chance to observe the process for such a unique confrontation. The only recorded Challenge by native species of the Arena for their right to be First Emergents? It is without precedent. To be an observer first-hand for the Analytic is, itself, sufficient payment. I accept, Simon!”

    Simon felt a rush of relief – and gratitude towards Relgof for his inherent honesty. “That’s wonderful, Relgof. I will let Tunuvun know.”

    “Excellent. I look forward to it. Now, before you go, Simon, I have some questions for you about some details of your translated book – and in exchange I may be able to answer a few questions for you as well.”

    Simon settled back into his chair. “I’d be glad to play ‘trading questions’ with you. Go ahead!”

    About an hour later, Simon waved goodbye to Relgof and began to make his way back to the Embassy. As he boarded one of the taxis, a tall, very familiar form leapt up beside him.

    “Doctor Sandrisson, a pleasure to see you,” Orphan said.

    “And you, Orphan. Are things going well?” Simon realized this couldn’t be coincidence; things rarely were in the Arena.

    “Well enough. I would like a word with you in private, if I might, Doctor.”

    With me? Interesting. “I have no objection.”

    “Excellent.” The alien raised his voice. “To the Embassy of the Liberated.”

    The cab swiftly drove them to Orphan’s Embassy. Simon was silent through most of the short trip, trying to figure out what Orphan might want. He couldn’t ask any significant questions on the way, though, since the planned expedition to the Deeps was secret. “Ariane,” he said to air, and the expected green sphere popped into existence. “This is Simon.”

    “What is it, Simon?”

    “Orphan’s asked me to stop by and talk with him about something. I don’t know what, yet, but I presume it won’t take long?” He said the last looking at Orphan quizzically.

    “Not too long, no.”

    “Not long, then. So you can expect me back relatively shortly.”

    “No problem, Simon.”

    He followed Orphan into the Embassy and to one of Orphan’s conference rooms – the same one, as near as he could tell, that Orphan had previously used to meet with Humanity. “All right, Orphan, I am about ready to burst from the suspense. What is it?”

    “Something I think you will find most interesting, Doctor Sandrisson, if things are as I suspect. You recall, of course, that during our… rather forceful negotiations with the Blessed to Serve you not only temporarily repaired Zounin-Ginjou, but also improvised a quite impressive weapon that Doctor DuQuesne referred to as a ‘primary beam’, yes?”

    Now it made sense. A new weapon was something you certainly wouldn’t want to discuss in any public area. “That would be difficult for me to forget, given that I had to help it fire manually and that I fought Vantak in the same room with that gun.” A combination that had very nearly killed him, and one that made Simon wince just remembering it.

    “Even so.” Orphan ran his hand absently along his lefthand crest, a gesture showing he was thinking and distracted. “Might I ask, then, if you intended to keep its workings… proprietary, I suppose is the right term? That is, if you did not intend the Liberated to be able to make use of it and duplicate it?”

    “What? Oh, no, Orphan, I am sorry if you somehow got that impression. It was on your ship, and I put it together out of your components, and to make it a really practical weapon there would be many refinements. It is certainly as much yours as it would be anyone’s. You’re welcome to make use of it as much as you like – although I’d very much appreciate you sending the design data over so we could replicate it. I confess I didn’t really pay exact attention to memorizing what I’d done.”

    That was something of an understatement. He’d cobbled the clumsy superweapon together using that strange ability of insight and understanding that he’d gained in the near-catastrophe of the sealing ritual that had inactivated Ariane’s Shadeweaver-like powers. Thinking back on it, he really didn’t remember it all clearly, although he thought he probably could if he focused on the problem enough.

    Orphan’s hands made the twin dismissing gesture that meant disagreement. “You mistake me, Simon. I have already attempted to do so. I examined your revision of my topside turret gun carefully, and applied those modifications to my portside guns.” He paused, studying Simon so intensely that the human scientists found himself extremely nervous. “Those portside guns, however, refuse to function. Not only do they not produce the most impressive intensity and power of the topside cannon, they do not function at all. And my initial analysis of the design is that it should not function.”


    “The topside cannon, by contrast, continues to function exactly as before. I have added an automatic reloading option and found a way to store replacement matrices, of course, but I am extremely hesitant to actually disassemble the original – it is, after all, a ‘trump card’ as you might call it, of inestimable value. But I am at the same time confident that my scans and analysis of the unit are accurate. The portside guns are as near duplicates as I can manage… yet they are dead weight now.”

    The alien leaned forward, and despite the mostly expressionless face gave the impression of someone with a disquieting grin on his face. “I find this … interesting, Doctor Simon Sandrisson. Immensely interesting… would you not agree?”

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