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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Forty Two

       Last updated: Saturday, February 27, 2010 10:56 EST



    "Welcome to our Embassy," DuQuesne said as he admitted the round-bodied, spider-legged Selpa'A'At. "May your course be ever your own, if my Captain has told me your greeting aright."

    "She has; your course be ever your own as well, Dr. DuQuesne." Clearly the representative of the Vengeance had done his research well enough to know the individuals he would be addressing.

    The two reached the conference room; upon entering Selpa rose high and dipped low. "I thank you for agreeing to speak with me so soon, Captain Austin. And I apologize again for intruding upon what was obviously an important celebration; while I do not, in any way, share the beliefs of the Faith, I would prefer not to have left a poor impression upon you."

    DuQuesne observed how Selpa quite casually muttered something even DuQuesne couldn't quite catch, and the walls extended some sort of complex framework which apparently served Selpa's people as a chair. He's been around the block a few times, I see. But then, maybe most people here are that casual about making use of these capabilities. Hard to tell at this point.

    "Say no more about it," Ariane said. "We've plenty of arguing factions back home, believe me, so I'm not unfamiliar with that kind of friction. I invited you here so that I could hear the truth of the Arena as you see it. We've our own views, of course, the Faith theirs, now it sounds like the Vengeance has a rather different one."

    Despite the Swordmaster's obvious intention to sound calm, courteous, and rational, DuQuesne noticed that Selpa couldn't conceal a rather acid undertone as he spoke. "Different? In some ways, not at all. There are many things on which we all agree; that something of vastly greater power than any of us can imagine constructed the Arena for some purpose of their own; that the limitations on travel to and from the Arena are no coincidence of spacetime, but designed features; and so on.

    "But different indeed are our interpretations of the facts we see, of the reasons and motivations that we attribute to these 'Voidbuilders'. The Faith, as you well know, believe that the Voidbuilders are nothing more or less than gods, beings so far beyond our comprehension that they exist on a plane entirely separate from, and superior to, we mortals below; they also believe that the Voidbuilders are essentially benevolent in their motives. The Analytic have no one theory, but many competing ones; they are interested in the how more than the why."

    "And what," DuQuesne said, when Selpa paused, "Do you believe?"

    "Let me, rather, set forth for you some of the facts, and then speak of what these facts lead us to believe, Doctor," Selpa countered. He considered a moment, bobbing slightly in his cats'-cradle chair. "Perhaps you are familiar with the question of why, given the age of the universe, neither your species, mine, or virtually any other in the history of the Arena have ever met? Why, in fact, the entire universe was not taken by whatever species first rose to full intelligence and went into space?"

    Ariane shrugged, but DuQuesne nodded. "The Fermi Paradox, we call it, after the scientist who first articulated it. Even sending out a few self–replicating probes at slower than light speed, a species could easily survey – and even settle or remake, with nanotech and power available – every star throughout the Galaxy in a few million years. Given how short a time that is in the cosmic sense, it seems to argue that intelligent life is really, really rare – so rare that at the least you can't have any other intelligent species closer together than several hundred million lightyears, maybe a billion or more depending on how fast technologically advanced lifeforms can develop."

    Selpa bobbed. "A reasonably succinct and accurate statement of the basic question, yes. Yet here there are several thousand species, and always have been, at least for many millions of years."

    "Hold on. Are you saying that your species, or those of some of those in the Arena, are 'many millions of years' old?" Ariane looked incredulous.

    "Not quite." A patch on the alien's body vibrated, a vibration translated as a chuckle. "The oldest species do approach a million or so, but it does seem that there is some limit on how viable even an intelligent species is over such a timeframe. But the members of that species have records showing that when they were First Emergents, a million years gone, there were roughly the same number of intelligent species present, of roughly the same ages."

    "Someone's giving me funny numbers." Ariane said after a pause. "I think Orphan said there were about 5,000 species currently known, and that new First Emergents only appear once every three or four thousand years, which would seem to mean that your oldest species would be closer to 20 million years old."

    The chuckle, accompanied by a bob. "Your confusion stems from conflating different concepts. Those 5,000 species include many who were never "First Emergents"; they may have been discovered by other species near their own solar systems, but not themselves have gained star travel; or they may be solely residents of the Arena itself, born here, with no homes in what we consider the true universe until they won a Sphere in Challenge. First Emergents are much more rare.

    "Still, you can appreciate the point that in the universe on average at least every few thousand years a new species must be reaching full intelligence and beginning on the path to the stars, yes?"

    "Thus," DuQuesne nodded, "bringing the Fermi Paradox question directly to the fore."

    "Tell me," the alien said, rocking slightly forward, "Dr. DuQuesne, tell me what the Paradox might say if instead of these replicating probes, you assume that you must travel to each star physically, as intelligent beings in a vessel that will sustain them for the journey?"

    "Slow things way down," DuQuesne said immediately. "Not sure exactly how much – depends on your assumptions – but a hell of a lot slower."

    "As it turns out, that is, in fact, the way it must be done." Selpa said quietly.

    DuQuesne frowned. I think I might see where he's going with this already, and I don't like it one little bit. And it fits way too well with what I told Simon way back about our unmanned expeditions. "You mean if I were – not here in the Arena, where the stuff doesn't work, but back in our own universe, where it does – to launch a small fast nanoprobe to a nearby star, it … what? Wouldn't work? Wouldn't get there?"

    "To be honest, it is difficult to say for sure, Doctor." Selpa's voice was hard and cold. "What is known is that – naturally – many of the Arena species had tried just such methods of exploration and colonization. And all of them have failed, completely and utterly, despite long-term in-depth studies of their approach in-system, seeming to demonstrate that the technology worked perfectly. A few – such as the Rodeskri, Nyanthus' people – have even gone so far as to launch full-scale manned expeditions following such automated exploration devices, and on those occasions the automated exploration devices operate perfectly."

    Ariane rubbed her temples. "That doesn't make much sense. In fact, it makes no sense at all."

    "Oh, but it does make perfect sense, Captain Austin." There could be no mistaking the bitter tone now. "Taken together with other facts, it makes all too much sense. Consider, for example, the fact that if you were to actually travel far out into interstellar space, beyond the edge represented by the portion of Arena space near your Sphere, you will find that the stardrive fails to work. And similarly, too, for any attempt to use it outside of a Sphere or the Sky Gates.

    "Or the fact that one cannot open the Outer Gates and live on your Sphere until and unless you have found your way to Nexus Arena and been confronted by all who have come before you. The inability of those in the Arena to enhance their capabilities with the assistance of artificial intelligences, or even to enhance themselves beyond certain limits, for another fact. And the entire 'arena' aspect itself, the webwork of challenges and restrictions, of confrontation and fortunes that rise and fall."

    The hair on the back of DuQuesne's neck felt like it wanted to stand straight up. Yeah. I know exactly what he's saying, and in some ways it makes sense. And hits way too close to home.

    "Well… it certainly says it's an artificial environment." Ariane said, thoughtfully. "But we knew that from the start. Instead of tapdancing around it, why not come out with it? What is it that your faction takes from all of this?"

    "Very well. To us, there are two obvious conclusions. The first is that the Voidbuilders are nothing mysterious at all; they are, in fact, very like all of us. They simply got here first. They reached the pinnacle of technological capability, and used that to make sure that no other species would ever equal them again. No species would expand too far into the cosmos. None would travel unhindered between the stars, for good or ill. Instead, all following species would be drawn into this … cleverly-designed trap, where they would be deliberately, and inexorably, maneuvered into confrontations with each other, keeping them busy, making them feel as though they were progressing or at least fighting for progress. All the while, of course, distracting them from focusing on the true adversary: the Voidbuilders themselves, the makers of this box into which we are lured and trapped.

    "Some of us believe that it is even worse, in fact; that the Arena is a source of entertainment to them, that our little struggles are promoted not merely as distractions for us, but as amusements for the Voidbuilders – or their heirs. Or," and the way Selpa'A'At turn-rolled in his chair somehow gave DuQuesne the impression of a twisted, humorless smile, "For the Arena itself, the original Voidbuilders having perhaps died off a hundred million or billion years ago, leaving only the Arena to watch itself and follow directives given by those long dust."

    Ariane's face looked slightly paler, but DuQuesne saw her shake her head and give a faint smile. "That's a pretty grim view. I mean, take this limit on automatically exploring and terraforming or whatever the entire universe. You could look at that as actually just keeping any one species from wiping out the possibilities of others, right?"

    The twitch Selpa gave hinted at an almost knee-jerk reaction to such questions which showed momentarily in an angry tone of his voice, before he got it under control. "Perhaps," he snapped. "Perhaps, but again, is it not disturbing that this is not the choice of those living in our own universe, but decided by those outside? Is it their right to decide how much expansion is 'reasonable'? For, after all, expansion in the more conventional manner would also allow you to wipe out the possibility of other species nearby, if you were to travel to nearby systems and remake them for your use."

    "So your name is meant absolutely literally," DuQuesne said, after a moment's pause. "You really do want vengeance."

    "One could say we want justice, Dr. DuQuesne. They think they can dictate the way in which the universe works? They believe they can keep the secrets of such technology to themselves? Let them try. For the power they use is everywhere, and throughout the Arena are traces of ancient works. Some of them are Voidbuilder relics. We seek these out, and other clues to their power and function, and one day we shall find the key to their power. And on that day shall there be a great reckoning, between these arrogant ancients and we, who have fought our way through all their snares and deceits!"

    Well now, full-on rant mode there. These guys are as serious as some of the Middle-Eastern types that honestly get worked up over what Alexander the Great did centuries back. "Okay, I got it – and obviously why you and the Faith don't get along. But if I get your drift, you figure the Faith are just using Voidbuilder tech, right, which should go for these Shadeweavers as well. Can't they shed a little light on this?"

    "Oh, I have no doubt they could, Doctor DuQuesne." Selpa's tone was ironic. "But why not follow the logic to its conclusion? The Faith might be tolerated, even encouraged, as their … beliefs do not endanger the Voidbuilders; worship automatically acknowledges that the one being worshipped is above judgment by mere mortal beings, or should be, and this would accord perfectly with their desires, and perhaps be even more amusing.

    "But would the Shadeweavers be tolerated? They must be using the Voidbuilder's powers, nothing else is conceivable. So why would the Arena tolerate their existence?"

    DuQuesne grunted in understanding. Well, like many fanatic creeds, if you accept the basic postulates, you can make a twisted sense out of anything. "Shadeweavers give up their prior faction and personal connections, if what we've been told is right. So… your guess is, they do that because they don't really belong to their old faction or have any of those connections, right?"

    "Oh, well deduced, Doctor. Yes. Our suspicion is, and has always been, that the so-called Shadeweavers are … call them avatars, perhaps… for Voidbuilders. Puppets they control, or perhaps that the Arena itself controls. They may look and act in some ways like their former people, but they are no more of their original people than you are of mine." He bobbed, and gave a hum that translated to a sigh. "On occasion we do – must – ask them for assistance, but we try our best to minimize the contact. We trust no one with those powers – not the Shadeweavers, nor the poor deluded Faith."

    "If you're right, it's pretty ironic that the Faith don't get along with the Shadeweavers, and vice versa. The Shadeweavers would be like angels, direct pipelines to God."

    Ariane nodded. "But … again taking the Vengeance's point of view… the conflict is in the Voidbuilders' best interest, keeping the Faith from seeing the two powers as being one, and also giving them an external clear opponent which seems as supernatural as their own."

    "And amusing, as well," concurred Selpa.

    "What about the Initiate Guides? Are they Voidbuilder puppets too?" asked Ariane.

    Selpa rocked back and forth. "I am… undecided on that, myself. Some of us believe so, others not. It happens that I knew Nyanthus before he became an Initiate Guide, many, many years ago. He … he does not seem to be a different person, does not seem to be a monster playing a role. I do not like the thought that anyone, even a Voidbuilder, could fool me in that way so completely."

    Different tone of voice and phrase there. Poor bastard; sounds like he was friends with Nyanthus way back when. He caught Ariane's eye; she glanced at Selpa with sympathy, and he could see she'd made the same guess. Nothing hurts worse than losing a friend to a cult you don't believe in. Or, maybe, having both of you in the cult but only one of you gets elevated? Hard to say. "So maybe they're actually given these abilities just to make the scam more convincing?"

    Selpa's response sounded eager, seizing on an opportunity to move away from the past. "Exactly my thought, yes. I have tried to show that it was a trick, self-delusion, but … much as I may prefer to say otherwise… I think that many or all of the Faith truly believe their delusions."

    Well, we've gotten the summary of their position – which, right or wrong, sounds pretty nuts to me. "What about the other factions? You have anything to say about them?"

    "Directly, they have little bearing on our goals, except insofar as they may discover or hear things that could help us in our search. The Analytic, of course, simply seeks out the truth for their own researches; we have often gained some useful information from them. The Molothos… well, in many ways their general attitude mirrors our own, but," the impression of a cynical smile, "they have certain rather insular attitudes which makes it difficult to maintain any long-term cooperation. It is not pleasant to work with someone who thinks of your entire species as a waste of resources.

    "The Blessed… we can work with them; the Minds who guide them have perhaps been more shortchanged by the Voidbuilders than anyone else; they have intelligence and capabilities vastly beyond those of any ordinary organic intellect, and yet they are utterly unable to enter or even perceive events in the Arena. So they are quite willing to entertain the possibility that the Voidbuilders are the enemy.

    "As to the other factions… there are too many to easily discuss. Some cooperate, some do not, some do not care."

    "What about the Liberated?" DuQuesne asked, partly out of curiosity to see whether Orphan's prediction would be accurate.

    The hum-buzz was translated as a snort of laughter. "A faction of a single member? A member who plays all factions against each other, never taking sides longer than necessary to gain his advantage? An opportunistic and untrustworthy creature, the Survivor."

    "He seems to have held up his end of our bargains so far," Ariane protested.

    "He has been in somewhat desperate straits," Selpa pointed out. "But… very well, perhaps I was overly broad in my statements. We have had… some unpleasant encounters with Orphan. But I will admit that I have not heard that he would directly violate his word or go back on a bargain, though he is certainly more than capable of obfuscation and creative interpretation where it suits him."

    Had "unpleasant encounters", have you? Have to ask Orphan about that. Sounds to me, though, like he managed to end up on the upper hand. Which says one whole hell of a lot about him.

    After a pause, Ariane stood. "Well, Selpa'A'At, I thank you for this meeting. It was certainly interesting and informative. I've gotten a different perspective on some things, and learned others I didn't even know. But we're not committing to any factions other than our own at this time. I hope you understand."

    Selpa put his feet fully down and the chair-cradle vanished into the wall. "I quite understand, Captain. I hope, however, that we will be able to work together. You have made a most … impressive entrance to the Arena, and it is clear your people will have much to offer."

    "I hope we will too." Ariane glanced at DuQuesne.

    DuQuesne nodded at her and went to escort the Vengeance leader out. Once Selpa'A'At was gone, he went back, making sure that Orphan was still in his conference room. "That was interesting."

    "What do you think, Marc?"

    "I'm not sure yet." He found her gaze uncomfortably penetrating.

    "Reminded you of Hyperion, didn't it?"

    Way too penetrating. Thought I was harder to read than that. "Yeah. Not the same idea, but same effect. Which I don't like even a tiny little bit. I had entirely more than a sufficiency of having my life and choices mapped out for me by some group of clowns outside my life, I really really don't like the idea of someone doing it to my entire universe."

    "But do you think they're right?"

    Do I? I'd better think about it on both sides. Part of me's paranoid enough to embrace that theory, the other part doesn't even want to think about it, and neither of them's exactly rational on the matter. "Like I said, I'm not sure yet. My guess… I think no one's got the exact reason yet. I don't think the Arena's going to be that simple to pin down. Like… do you believe Nyanthus and Mandallon were telling you the truth as they saw it?"

    Ariane nodded. "Oh, certainly. You would be, too, if you'd talked with them."

    "No doubt. Nyanthus struck me as a true believer, not a scam artist – and I'm pretty good at spotting those. So anyway, if what they told you is true, we're not dealing with people 'just like us', like Selpa wants to believe. Beings that can deal with seeing the entirety of the Arena, like Mandallon did for just a second? I don't think even those super-AIs the Blessed call Minds could do that for an instant. Even shrunk to scale, this place is too huge and complicated for anyone to really envision. Even me." He grinned at her for a moment.

    She laughed. "But if anyone could do it, it'd be you."

    "My Visualization is very flawed and imperfect," he said, and getting a slightly sad-edged smile in return for quoting the source of her own AISage. "But I do the best I can. Should I go get our opportunistic fence-sitter?"

    "Yes. I think I want to hear his input while the conversation's fresh in my head."

    DuQuesne nodded and went out. So do I. More and more, I'm getting the impression that he's a lot more formidable than he's generally let on. And at almost three thousand years old, he'll have something interesting to say about almost anything.

    And I still don't trust him as far as Steve could throw him.

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