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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Thirty Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 22:05 EST



    "So we're now at all-out war with the Molothos," Ariane summarized.

    "Maybe not," Simon said. "Challenges are fairly clearly defined here. The Arena itself emphasized that it's frowned upon, at the least, to create a cycle of Challenges for the sake of revenge."

    DuQuesne snorted. "That just means that revenge is a dish served very cold here, and maybe you have to get creative about how the Challenge gets delivered."

    "True," said Ariane as a thought struck her, "but there's something you don't know that we've discovered that really has a big bearing on the whole situation."

    DuQuesne sat, attentive but somehow… hard to reach, as she and Simon described the apparent disparity between the alien and human attitudes towards acceptable risk. "I'd have to guess that, once they calm down, the Molothos will have a real problem in that they'll have to evaluate the risk involved in pushing a war with us. Right now, they only know two things, assuming they listened to the Arena carefully (and I'll bet they did): first, that we did kick them off our Sphere, and second, that it only took two of us to do it. They have no way of knowing that we just happened to have a superman available for the job."

    DuQuesne nodded. "I'm hoping they'll also have quite a bit of work to do to figure out where we are," he said. "The Blessing of Fire came to us the long way around, took 'em a year of travel, and I'm pretty damn sure no one got a message out before the crash. From what Maizas said, this kind of exploration is pretty standard for them, and they've been doing it for thousands of years. It's slow, and they have lots of problems off and on, but I'd be real surprised if they don't have several dozen, maybe several hundred, expeditions like that going on all the time, maybe from separated colonies that themselves take a while to get news to the central groups."

    "Yes, I see what you mean," Simon said. "In many ways, parts of the civilization of the Arena are going to mirror the Age of Sail. The 'sky gates' are only accessible from Spheres that are fully active, which means that if they colonize only the surface of a Sphere they have to travel to and from it by long journeys. Unless that particular sphere has a Sky Gate terminus from an active Sphere, I suppose. So it could be as little as a year, but likely considerably more, before they can even figure out which of those expeditions has to have been the one that met up with us."

    "And it might take even longer if expeditions can get lost from hazards along the way, which I get the impression is possible." Ariane felt a little better. If they hadn't gotten fully up and running in a year, they'd probably have other problems to worry about. "We've lost the chance to study their ships, but was anything salvageable?"

    "Haven't checked the wreck yet," DuQuesne answered, "but there was a lot of equipment we could salvage from the base camp and the dead troopers. And our witch-doctor Gabrielle is busy defiling their corpses in the name of science. Truth be told, I'm pretty sure that there's going to be nothing much worth saving at the crash site; the energy involved was nuclear detonation range. That gives us a good idea of what sorts of weapons you can make here, too. Nukes won't work, but there's a few ways to hit that scale of power that seem to be perfectly possible in the Arena."

    They were still dancing around the real issues, and Ariane was tired of it. She stood and faced DuQuesne squarely. "Okay, Marc," and even as she said it she felt herself having to fight the invisible weight of … whatever it was that had changed in him, that seemed to have dropped a wall between him and everyone else. "Okay, Marc, the real question right now is… how are you, and what's wrong?"

    DuQuesne's mouth tightened, but she didn't drop her gaze, though her heart was inexplicably pounding doubletime and she felt for some reason as though she was the one being cornered. Finally the big engineer looked away. "Captain, I didn't have any choice. I had to … had to become the person I was back on Hyperion. But do you know what that was? I was someone's idea of a superman, yes. And as you – and probably no one else on Holy Grail – know, based on someone else's idea of a supervillain."

    He stood and began pacing, and even that pacing was different, the movement of a predator, of something so dominant and dangerous that you just knew you'd better stay out of its way… or else. "I'm not even, strictly speaking, human. They put… other stuff in us. And no one, not even me, knows exactly what, or what it might do. How stable it is in the long term. But it's the personality that's the problem. I was designed, dammit!" He slammed a fist against the wall, and the sound was like a sledgehammer. "The way I think, the way I talk, what I like, what I hate, the way I cut my hair or trim my beard, you can be sure as God made little green apples that someone wrote it into my profile and made sure it became reality."

    "But… Marc, you've spent fifty years not being that. That has to have changed you."

    "Yeah. Maybe. But a lot of that was done by forgetting, Ariane. Forgetting and repressing everything about myself." He smiled bitterly. "And if necessary, making my environment repress it. Gravity isn't variable, at least not where we come from. So what exactly was I going to do in order to both keep in shape and keep from constantly feeling – and looking – like I was an Earthman walking on the moon?" He held up his arm, pinched it. "Sure, medical nanos will minimize muscle and bone loss, all that, but they won't shift your perceptions.

    "For that, I had to design my own clothes. Every suit of clothes I wear, every piece of it, is basically actuator fabric, harvesting energy from my movements to oppose those movements. It drags at every motion I make so that it feels as though I'm in my full gravity. None of you have been inside my cabin, so you don't see the other rigs I have there to keep myself restrained. All of them have cutoff signals, of course – in case of emergency – but until yesterday I hadn't cut them off in 50 years."

    Ariane nodded. She thought she was starting to understand what DuQuesne was driving at, and it sent an ache of sympathy through her.

    The big man sighed, looked down, shook his head again. "I didn't want to be what they made me. I'm not even exactly sure why I didn't change my name, except maybe… well, no, I do know. I was erasing so much, I needed to keep a part of me, a central core that would let me at least have a touchstone of continuity."

    "DuQuesne… Marc…" Simon's brows were knotted, trying to understand. "What was so bad about what you were? What you are now?"

    DuQuesne gave a frustrated snort, almost a snarl, that made them both jump. "I… don't know. It's hard to explain. I try to get my own head around it and I just end up chasing my tail. It's even harder now, because I'm… what I was, mostly, now. It's like letting the damn genie out of the bottle.

    "Part of it's just knowing I'm… not a person. I didn't grow up, no matter what my memories say, in anything like a real world. That haunts me every day. Am I saying these words because I'm programmed to? Because it's what a good-guy version of Marc C. DuQuesne would say? When I let go, I'm so totally confident, certain… and different… everyone can see it. Feel it, even. But I'm not… close to most people. Very few. Can't be. Part of me doesn't even really know how to connect, but I can fake it."

    DuQuesne was pacing again, faster, with the sharp, nervous motions of a trapped animal. "Like I said, I'm not even human, Ariane. They didn't just make perfect humans, they changed bone density, modified muscle structure, spliced in useful elements from a dozen other species, redesigned skin, connective tissue; as long as it wouldn't show outwardly… or show anything they didn't want to show, like some poor SOB's who were based on something a little inhuman… they'd use it for any advantage. And nobody knows exactly what all the stuff was that they did. Oh, if I was willing to do a full analysis, let someone put me through a full-scale scan or nanoprobe, yeah, we could have figured it out… but there are some things that ought to stay buried."

    He suddenly threw back his head with a sharp, barking laugh that had very little humor in it. "And of course there's the other set of reasons. The less people know, the better my advantage. Good guy or villain, DuQuesne still knows the value of a secret, my friends. And the worst part? Hyperion's Marc DuQuesne lived about 20 years – though there were parts that felt longer, and the Marc DuQuesne you knew, about 50. I've lived half a century in the non-Hyperion world, had friends, a career, all that.

    "But there's no doubt which part of me's dominant now. I can feel the loss, I feel sorry for it, I'm scared by it even, but the fact is that … that shadow, that little mask, feels just exactly like that, a little role I was playing until I woke up. Everything's a dozen times sharper now, brighter, clearer. Those fifty years were spent in … in a daze, slow, dumb, crippled. The fact I did it to myself doesn't make any difference. I'm awake now, and the thought of going back… oh, there's no way in hell I'm going back, not ever again, not by all the hells of space!"

    The vehemence, combined with the anachronistic wording and slight though definite change in voice and posture, frightened Ariane. Frightened her a lot more than she would have thought. "Does that mean that all the time and work we've done together… don't mean anything to you?" Does that mean we don't mean anything to you?

    The dark-haired head snapped up and the eyes looked wide; for a moment, the expression was much closer to the old DuQuesne. "No! That wasn't… wasn't what I meant. I'm not a monster. Not like that." He managed a small smile. "For all their idiocies, the Hyperion group weren't completely insane. They didn't want a sociopathic superman. A … a magnificent loner, maybe, but not someone who'd discard people whenever they were no longer useful." He shook himself and then forced himself to sit down, glancing around the sparsely-furnished room which was the conference room of their Embassy. "And my personal crisis of identity is wasting your time and ours, Captain. I'm sorry for the difficulty."

    The curtain had dropped again; maybe Marc still didn't even know what parts of his past and his present had to be addressed. Sure as hell I don't know. But whether he was really reachable or not now, he was right. "We're not entirely finished with this topic, Dr. DuQuesne, but you're right. But do not make the mistake of thinking that I will forget it, or let you forget it either."

    The black eyes managed a faint twinkle. "I would not dare to believe the Captain would forget anything at all."

    She smiled back. "Good. Then… what next?"

    "Well," said Simon, "I think it's clear that we have to move forward to another Challenge, somehow. Even with the additional caution, I'm afraid that Marc is correct; the Molothos hate all other races to begin with, and a humiliation like this must be essentially an imperative to war for them. They cannot afford to allow such an event to go unpunished."

    DuQuesne leaned forward, relaxing into … well, whatever his real self was, and grasping Simon's drift immediately. "So in a year or two – three at the outside – there'll be a Molothos battle fleet at our Sphere. The real problem is that, according to Orphan, the Sky Gates work two ways: if you activate a Sandrisson Drive inside one of those Gates as though you were trying to transition to FTL from our universe, you'll jump to the point that the Sky Gate connects to – somewhere near Nexus Arena, or to another Sphere, something like that.

    "BUT… if you invert the field inside the Sky Gate, you'll pop out into the regular universe, maybe a lightyear or so from the home system."

    "Oh, bloody hell," Sandrisson said in a horrified whisper, and a cold hand seemed to close around Ariane's heart as she, too, understood. "That means they can bring the war home to us, once they figure out where we are."

    "Exactly. So we can't take years to recharge and go home, even if we could afford to stay away that long personally. We've got to get home fast, and start the human race preparing." He grinned sharply. "But it's not all bad. We're citizens now. Our Sphere's fully activated. We need to establish some real relationships and figure out if we can manage some form of trade." He rubbed his chin. "Now that we've kicked out the Molothos, I advised Tom – with your approval, Captain – to start fabricating components for a water-driven power system. If we get that going, then we can bring in more raw materials, replicate a few more AIWish units, and at least have the start of manufacturing for our little set of desperate impromptu colonists."

    Ariane nodded. "That sounds fine to me."

    "What about the Straits?" Simon asked. "Should Holy Grail go out? We could bring her up to the surface…" he trailed off as Ariane shook her head vehemently.

    "Holy Grail was designed for space operation only, Simon. I'm not sure she'd hold up at all in an atmosphere, and if the descriptions of the way things work in the Arena are to be trusted, she'd have to fly through atmosphere in a 1-g field. No way."

    "Ah. Yes, that would be a bit sticky, to say the least. I suppose that must wait until we either are here long enough to manufacture ships, purchase them, or get home and can have them built there." Simon looked slightly embarrassed. "Then at this point all I can think of are generalities. I don't think it's fair to keep our other people back at the Sphere all the time, so I think we need to rotate people in and out on occasion."

    "Very important," agreed DuQuesne. "Right now they're starting to feel a little left out, especially Gabrielle, but even Steve and Tom are going to want to be part of this, and deserve to be. When we get back home – and we will, one way or another – the crew of Holy Grail will be famous, and all of us deserve some stories to tell."

    "I can't disagree," Ariane said slowly, "but what about the fact that we didn't want to reveal our numbers?"

    DuQuesne shrugged. "We don't have to state that they're seeing everyone… and this latest development will mean that even a couple of us may be seen as pretty formidable. If they think we're all capable of dealing with a Molothos invasion given two people and a little time, we may have some considerable leverage."

    Ariane couldn't restrain a laugh. "Yes… I suppose I'd be pretty scared if I thought some newcomers' entire species were superbeings."

    "So," Simon said, "the other thing to do is continue to develop the connections we've already made – Orphan, the Faith, and the Analytic – and see what we can manage to get out of those. I'd call Nyanthus immediately, Captain; how one of their rituals can relate to us I don't know, but I'm very sure we want to find out. Check of course with Orphan to make sure that accepting the invitation won't be a problem for us. I will meet with Dr. Rel – I would very much like DuQuesne to come with me – and see what the Analytic can discuss with us now that we have ascended to full citizenship, so to speak."

    "I've no problem with that." DuQuesne stood. "But I want to get back and start involving the others in the next couple of days."

    "All right," Ariane said. "We'll do it that way. Once we've had these two meetings and evaluated anything that comes of them, we start bringing the others over. Maybe even move everyone here, but we'll decide what needs to be done then."

    The finality in her voice caused both Simon and, to her surprise, DuQuesne to simply nod. Sensing the current meeting at an end, Simon excused himself. "It's been a very long day indeed, Ariane. I'll see you both in the morning."

    As DuQuesne nodded and turned, she said "Wait a minute, Marc."

    She could feel that intangible wall again, and it almost made her change her mind, tell him to go on. She thought, for an instant, that he was going to keep going anyway. But he paused, then turned. "Yes, Captain?"

    "Marc… I don't know… I can't know… exactly what it is you're going through. I suppose there's only two or three people living who could. But I want you to know three things." She took a deep breath, feeling the weight of his scrutiny. "First… I'm not letting you go hide inside that wall, Dr. DuQuesne. Maybe I look a lot slower and stupider than I did to you before, but I'm still your friend as well as your Captain, and I'm telling you I'm not letting you hide that way."

    The bit about "slower and stupider" hit him, made him blink apologetically. "Captain… Ariane… I didn't mean…"

    "Second, I want to thank you for taking that risk, for letting out something that obviously scares you so much. Because if you hadn't, I'm sure that you and Carl would be dead. I don't care nearly so much about the Challenge business – although that's a wonderful bonus; what I care about is that both of my friends came back alive, and it's only because you are what you are."

    A very faint blush appeared to be visible on the cheeks, not quite hidden by the almost olive complexion. He started to speak again, but she didn't give him the opportunity.

    "And third, that I trust you, Marc. Absolutely. I want you to remember that whether you were made or made yourself, you're a man that people can trust, and will trust. They made you a man of iron-clad honor and that's a part of you that you've kept. You've given your word to help us, and you will, and I want you to remember that I believe in you. If you need to talk… you know where to find me." She swallowed, feeling a new and hard-to-analyze nervousness, as though she was skirting a very dangerous canyon at her feet. "But if you don't, if you can't, it doesn't matter. Because no matter what you think, I know you're the hero you're afraid to be."

    She saw he was searching for the right reply, and a part of her suddenly panicked at the thought that he might find it. "That's all, Dr. DuQuesne. You can go now; I'd better get some rest myself."

    His expression was almost comical, and as the door rolled shut behind him she couldn't help but giggle. My god, I think I just managed to out-maneuver Marc DuQuesne!

    That made a very pleasant thought to take with her to sleep.

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