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Challenges of the Deeps: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Thursday, November 24, 2016 08:33 EST



    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.”


    “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.”

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