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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Forty One

       Last updated: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 22:12 EST



    That's the fun thing about the Arena. Every time you get a question answered, it just leads to more questions. DuQuesne didn't speak immediately, and neither did any of the others, following Ariane's summary of the previous night.

    Tom Cussler was frowning, as was Simon. Carl was grinning and shaking his head. "This place just gets wierder and wierder," the controls expert said, finally. "But I'm glad it looks like we have a solution for Laila's problem. Speaking honestly, we could really use a bio expert."

    Simon nodded. "And it will take a great weight from my mind. After all, I was the one who let her join, despite the fact that we didn't really need a biology expert … or at least we didn't think so at the time."

    "If what Mandallon does will work, it'll be a big relief. I've already invited Orphan over – I want to make sure I'm not making any mistake from his point of view."

    "I agree." DuQuesne weighed whether he should continue. Someone has to at least bring it up, even though I know what the result's going to be. "Being perfectly honest here, Captain, the problem I have with it is that you're planning on bringing in what could be a 24-karat spy and letting him get full access to one of our people."

    He could see Ariane start to open her mouth to protest reflexively. It was clear she'd already taken a great liking to Mandallon. She managed to stop herself, while the others glanced at each other but didn't seem inclined to immediately comment. Finally, Ariane spoke. "I'd hate to think that was the case, but, okay, I suppose it could be." She frowned.

    "I don't think it really matters," Simon said.

    Yeah, he would be the one. DuQuesne glanced over at Simon. "Why's that?"

    "There are really only two possibilities here. The first is that the Faith are, within the limits we already know, being straightforward with us. In that case, Mandallon truly is here to do us a service and anything he learns would be incidental to that service – and we could probably prevail upon him to not speak of it.

    "On the other hand, the Faith could be playing a cynical game and Mandallon, as innocent as he appears, could be a world-class actor. But in that case, the Faith would need no special permission from us to get information about our biology. We trusted Nyanthus' word – based on others saying it was good – that no 'funny business', as you would put it, would be used on Ariane. But with the implied capabilities of the Faith and Shadeweavers, they could easily have gained most, if not all, of the information they would get from examining Laila while Ariane was visiting their own Faction House." His glasses flashed opaquely for a moment as he adjusted them slightly. "In point of fact, the only way in which this event might give them information that they could use, and yet not have gained otherwise, would be if their powers require our permission to function – and we can of course place our own conditions on this operation, to minimize this risk."

    DuQuesne grunted. "You have some points. I don't think that nearly covers it all, but the bigger general point probably is that the Arena natives have an awful lot we want, and the more important things about us… probably aren't going to be in our biology. Mandallon's going to be in Laila's mind, though, which should be a reason for concern."

    "The problem is, right now we don't know if she has a mind," Ariane said bluntly. "According to Gabrielle, she doesn't, by our standards. She doesn't think we could fix her even if we got her back home. If Mandallon can fix that… we owe it to Laila."

    And that is the real issue. Basically whether to abandon one of her crew, or take a chance to save her. A responsibility she takes seriously now. "I've said my piece. You people can call the shots, but just remember: in a way, every single word we say might be valuable to someone." But there's no way I'm getting these people to act like covert ops people, and – being honest with myself – it wouldn't work. The trusting approach gets us information, too, and they're just not cut out for paranoia. "Bring in Orphan, like you said. Not that I trust him any more than I have to, but he's got his uses. DuQuesne shrugged and moved on to the next subject. "How about the Vengeance?"

    Ariane acknowledged this with a small smile. "Oh, I want to hear what they have to say. Getting a good perspective on how everyone views the Arena… I'm starting to think that this is going to be one of the major aspects of how everyone interacts – how they think of this place."

    "That sounds very likely, and fits with what we've seen so far," Simon agreed. "More interesting to me, of course, are the specific phenomena you witnessed last night. More than ever I wish I'd been there to see them. How long did that … transportation trick of the Shadeweaver's take?"

    "Based on my own internal clock, and comparing it to the running time… a very small fraction of a second. The whole 'things went black and spinning' seems to have been either just my own reaction to it, or my perceiving something as taking a lot longer than it did." Ariane shrugged. "Honestly – there's no actual clear interval that I can measure."

    Which means it was essentially instantaneous; teleportation? "Did it feel anything like our experiences with the Inner Gateway?"

    Ariane thought. "You know, Marc, I think you may be on to something. It wasn't identical, but there were strong similarities."

    "I," said Tom, "am actually more concerned with some of the implications about the Faith's 'Initiate Guides'. If you reported that conversation accurately, it seems to be clearly implied that a more experienced Guide actually would be able to recharge Holy Grail's Sandrisson Coils. Am I correct?"

    "All but stated that outright, yes."

    DuQuesne met Tom's gaze; Tom spoke for both of them. "That is, to be perfectly honest, terrifying. If that's true, Captain, the better trained of these people are the equivalent of nuclear weapons."

    Ariane shrugged. "I realized that myself, but it's not … relevant, to be honest. We're not here to match ourselves against them, and from everything I hear no one in their right mind would try to face them down in a blunt-instrument conflict anyway."

    A pale green sphere of light chimed into existence nearby, making most of the others jump suddenly. DuQuesne wasn't startled mainly because he'd adjusted his expectations in this place. "Liberated Representative Orphan has arrived, Captain Austin," the Embassy voice said quietly.

    "Admit him and show him here," Ariane said. "I wish I knew how this place manages those little stunts," she continued to Carl and DuQuesne.

    "I could think of several ways I could arrange it," DuQuesne said, ticking those ways off in his mind as he said it, "but I'd also bet none of them are the method it's using."

    The tall green-black figure of Orphan strode into the room, and gave them a broad, deliberately human bow. "I greet you once more, my friends."

    Less defensive posture. Less stress in his voice. Surface coloration seems slightly richer, at least in some parts of the spectrum. "You've had good news, I see." DuQuesne said dryly. Ariane shot him a startled look.

    "Is it indeed so obvious?" Orphan looked at DuQuesne with little-veiled curiosity. "I had thought I was good at being, how might I say it, circumspect. But yes, quite good news. A small Challenge I accepted some months past has come due, and I have won it – due, of course, to your assistance."

    "How'd we manage that when we didn't even know about this Challenge until now?" Ariane asked.

    "Because the nature of the Challenge had to do with my, shall we say, social position in the Arena. You might say that the Challenge here was in the nature of a rather serious bet. The bet was that I could not convince any faction to ally with me, other than those which had already provided assistance, and that I could not get any substantial additional assistance from any of my prior allies, given my current precarious circumstances." He gave the open-handed gesture that served sometimes for a smile. "Now it has become clear that you have allied yourselves with me, and on the strength of our current relationship a number of other factions have been cautious but willing to extend me some additional support and credit, and thus there is no doubt that I have won this Challenge, which will prove most useful.

    "But you did not invite me hear to brag of my current good fortune, I am sure; so instead tell me what it is that you wish to discuss."

    Ariane smiled; the smile contrasted brilliantly with her tanned skin and dark-blue hair, DuQuesne noticed. It was a very nice smile, too. "That's wonderful news, Orphan. Was it the Blessed who made this bet?"

    "Oh, not them directly, but one of their minor allies, the Tantimorcan. A mostly one-species faction – there are of course quite a large number of those – with special skill in the design of ships both civilian and military that can operate well in the Arena. I will introduce you to them sometime; my own price was for them to become my allies for a period of not less than three of their years – which is about two point seven of yours." Orphan's voice showed the deep self-satisfaction of this victory.

    "That would be excellent, Orphan," Simon said. "I am quite sure that there are factors involved in building vessels for this environment which are different from both the demands of building aircraft for Earthly environments, or ordinary deep-space craft."

    "Many, some of them obvious, some… quite subtle indeed, Dr. Sandrisson. But please, I appreciate the congratulations, but what is your news?"

    Ariane quickly filled their alien ally in; DuQuesne nodded at the efficient way she laid out the situation. "So, basically, we think this is probably the best use of the favor that Mandallon offered, but I don't want to make a mistake here."

    Orphan considered. "I now recall having heard something of this tradition, a long time ago, perhaps when I first spent considerable time talking with Nyanthus. An intriguing and most useful offer. There certainly are other options… but given that I know that you feel a strong responsibility towards your people, and that you must have severely limited numbers of people available, I would concur. This is an excellent use of the Faith's abilities, and Mandallon is almost certainly underestimating his potential. Securing your Sphere would be another possibility… but I do not believe that he will as yet have the knowledge and skill to do that effectively and reliably." He gave a decisive handtap. "Yes, indeed, have him cure your injured."

    "There is another … interesting issue." Ariane described her short conversation and encounter with the Shadeweaver; Orphan stopped her at several points, making her back up and tell the sequence in more detail. Once she was done, the green-black alien stood silently for several moments, thinking.

    "You do not have uninteresting days, do you, Captain Austin? The Shadeweavers are an intriguing faction, as you know. They are separated from the other factions not merely by their unusual abilities, but by their focus and dedication to their own interests. One who becomes a Shadeweaver is required – as far as I can tell – to abandon their prior responsibilities and commitments. They belong only to the Shadeweavers, not to their old species or factions.

    "They also do not speak idly to others. Something about you has interested them greatly, Ariane Austin. Perhaps something of your people, or something of you personally." His wingcases tightened in a manner DuQuesne thought of as indicating a frown. "Your conversation does make it clear that I owe our alliance to their interference, which is alas somewhat worrisome. I must go to them and ask what sort of offer they would like from me. They expect such debts to at least be acknowledged and, in preference, paid, though they cannot demand or force such payment." The black wingcases gave a scissors-like shrug. "How unfortunate that you did not converse with him longer; it might have given us an insight into their true interest."

    "Next time, Captain," DuQuesne said, "Try to keep your temper under control."

    "It's not easy, Marc. That whole business gives me the serious willies. I don't like the idea some guy just waved his hand or whatever and made me step forward to almost get us killed. No matter WHAT his motives are."

    DuQuesne could see that even just talking about the subject bothered Ariane. "Fine. Then maybe I'd better try talking to them sometime." I don't like it either, but I can deal with it a lot better than she can, I'd bet.

    "Sounds good to me." Ariane gave him a brief smile. "Carl, Tom, could you go and get Laila brought back here?"

    "Sure thing, Cap," Carl said. "Do you want Marc to come with us?"

    DuQuesne repressed a small smile. That was a clever way for Carl to ask "Who should stay on the Sphere" without giving Orphan an idea of how many people constituted their faction currently.

    Ariane answered,"The work you'll be doing there is pretty straightforward as I understand it –"

    Carl grinned and gave a half-serious salute. "Very straightforward – repress the natives and exploit the natural resources for our own selfish gain. Oh, and build a water-powered generator."

    "Yes, straightforward," she said with a fond smile at her long-time crew chief, "and I'd like Marc here for when we talk to the Vengeance, at least, and to observe whatever it is that Mandallon does."

    She's right enough on that. Tom and Carl shouldn't have any trouble following through on what I gave them, and having new visitors here … well, I am the best qualified to observe stuff everyone else misses. "Understood, Captain."

    "So you are inviting old Selpa to give you his recruitment speech? How droll." Orphan's voice was vastly amused.

    "You don't take him seriously?" Ariane asked.

    Orphan's hands flicked out in that no gesture. "Oh, I take the Vengeance extremely seriously indeed. They did not choose that name idly, and the implications of dangerous intent are most clearly desired. But Selpa'A'At is a true believer, and…" he paused, searching for the right words. "I suppose what I find droll about it is that you are now being pursued by most of the significant factions, so you'll be hearing the same story from each … just told from a completely different and sometimes quite amusingly wrongheaded point of view."

    "Make sure you record it, I'll want to hear it all," Carl said as he and Tom got up. "We're heading out then – no reason to leave poor Laila there any longer than necessary."

    "Thanks, Carl. Tell Steve to take a break and come along; I know obviously Gabrielle will be coming since she's overseeing Laila's care now."

    "He'll be glad to hear that; he's been … looking forward to getting the chance to come." Tom sounded relieved at the thought he'd be giving Steve the good news; reassessing certain subliminal cues, DuQuesne suppressed a slight smile. It appeared that Steve and Tom shared something more than just a preference to NOT get into the line of fire. Good for them. He suspected that Ariane hadn't noticed, though, and made a note to quietly bring up the subject; interpersonal relationships could be very good or bad in such a small group, and as the commanding officer she needed to be aware of what was going on in her command. And once more, the dialogue had managed to avoid directly implying how many people they had.

    "Take care, Dr. Edlund, Dr. Cussler. I look forward to meeting these others of yours." The alien raised a tall glass in their direction, one set with the sipping arrangement Orphan seemed to prefer. Orphan had gotten himself a drink from the containers set aside for him in the room's preservation unit – something like a refrigerator, but with some other wrinkles that DuQuesne hadn't quite figured out that made food and other perishables keep a lot longer.

    While the Arena proper had incredibly advanced technology for its own use, the inactivation of nanotechnology and associated devices meant that they had to stock up the Embassy in the same manner that places had been supplied centuries ago: go shopping, find what you want, and literally carry it home with you. DuQuesne found that quaintly amusing, but it also introduced a lot of other considerations in terms of supply which simply hadn't been an issue previously. You actually had to think ahead and go get supplies for any guests you were inviting over, rather than just having them bring along a few templates and plug them in.

    "No offense, Orphan," Ariane said, after the others had left, "but I'm not sure we want you present when the Vengeance gets here… which will be in about twenty minutes or so."

    "Indeed? But…" Orphan paused. "I think I see. They will surely change their approach if I am present – recognizing my long residence and detailed knowledge. They may speak more directly and freely if I am not there."

    "And that might let us learn more than we would otherwise. Unless you think they'll try to say something about you that you don't want us to hear?"

    Orphan laughed. "Oh, there is no doubt that some people will have many things to say against me. But I think I need fear nothing from the Vengeance, save that they'll likely call me a fence-sitter and opportunist – which, in all truth, I am." He stood. "But I trust that I need not leave your Embassy?"

    Ariane smiled. "Oh, not at all. I'll want to talk over everything they say afterwards, anyway."

    "In that case, I shall with your leave take myself – and my drink – into the adjoining meeting room, where I shall communicate with my new allies on some specific arrangements I need from them. I can keep quite busy." Orphan bob-bowed to them and left, still quite cheerful.

    "Nice to see him happy," Ariane said.

    "Oh, quite," Simon agreed. "He may be, as he claims, an opportunist, but I get the impression he is also one to abide by his commitments – so anything which improves his lot will likely improve our own."

    "As long as we keep an eye on him," DuQuesne said. "I like him myself, but everyone else isn't comfortable around him. Which means that there's a downside to being associated with him, and we still haven't run into it."

    Ariane looked at him sharply. "You really think so?"

    He nodded. "Captain, I've listened to a lot of conversations – both ones you've been present at, and others – that touch on our little ally there. Here, let me give you an example. I wondered whether that 'Survivor' monicker was just because he was the last surviving member of the Liberated, so I asked around.

    "Captain, that's only a tiny part of it. The real reason he's called the Survivor, and at least a good part of the reason people aren't comfortable around him is that he's gone on at least three expeditions into unexplored parts of the Arena – other Spheres, the Deeps between Spheres. These expeditions were looking for something – remnants of other civilizations that were here and died off, maybe traces of the Voidbuilders themselves, whatever. These were well-equipped expeditions – several ships, trained crews, supported by at least one major faction each time – and not one of the people who set out on them was ever seen again.

    "Except Orphan. I didn't get the details on the others, but once he was apparently found, drifting alone through the clouded space between Spheres, by a Shadeweaver contingent. What he saw, what happened, he has apparently either never told to anyone, or else everyone he's talked to has never said a word." He shook his head. "So whether they call him The Survivor or Orphan or some other nickname, everyone's nervous, maybe a little afraid, maybe a little distrusting. Lot of that's associated with the fact that he's a direct – really, the only direct – adversary of the Blessed, and the Blessed are scary folks. Means that at the very least, he's bad juju by association; you pal around with him, the Blessed lean on you."

    "And I suppose the grace period we bought by our little victory is pretty much over," Simon said slowly, "since we're now no longer First Emergents but full-fledged citizens."

    Ariane winced; DuQuesne could see that point hadn't occurred to her. "You're right. So we'll  have to be really on our toes from here on out."

    "And try to keep as many other factions on our side as possible," DuQuesne emphasized. "Now I think I'll get myself a few snacks; listening to someone else's slanted discussion of the Arena's going to be thirsty work."

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