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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Fifty Two

       Last updated: Monday, April 26, 2010 20:22 EDT



    DuQuesne found himself wandering the Grand Arcade. Like similar places in their home Solar System (at least since the Anonymity War), it was a place where the very volume of people could make you more alone and isolated than ever, just one in a sea of infinite faces, all different but all equally unknown to each other.

    And that was exactly what he was looking for. Maybe Ariane … Captain Austin… wouldn't have quite figured it out, but Simon wouldn't have had any difficulty figuring out what was upsetting Marc, and he wouldn't be surprised if Gabrielle had more than an inkling, too.

    Pretty ironic. They make a blasted superman but didn't bother to fix any of the little human problems. DuQuesne thought. Of course, that was the thing that brought all Hyperion down in the end. Poor bastards.

    He always ended up going back to Hyperion, one way or the other. Especially when I'm running from myself. But he was one of the few who probably mourned any of the lost on Hyperion, especially the scientists themselves. Well, the dreamers, really. Only a few had been true scientists; the rest had been believers in a vision with some damn powerful AIsages to help them. A fan club gone out of control. Their true sin, blindness in their own actions, and most of them had paid the final price, and caused the reorganization of a dozen branches of interplanetary law to ensure that nothing that monstrous could ever happen again.

    And the few of us left – experiments or experimenters – shuffled off, swept under the rug, forgotten except as a Bad Example in the books. He thought of some of those embarrassing secrets… some living ordinary lives, one still running from the law (or sometimes making the law run from her), one disappeared almost as completely as though she'd died… a few lying in a special hospital ward in dreams that never ended, others in unique asylums that might have to care for them forever, and one old man hiding from his mistakes on a distant asteroid. He knew them all, knew where most of them were, and suspected that the only reason he didn't see the others is that they were afraid of contacting him.

    But I'm just stalling. I want something to distract me, help me avoid this little issue involving my Captain.

    "Doctor DuQuesne, I believe?"

    The voice had spoken from a dark area to one side, where he could have sworn no one was standing a moment before. Now a dark-cloaked figure, almost human in outline, regarded him calmly from that niche, green-yellow reflection of eyes visible in the dim lighting.

    "Not a hard guess to make, I'm betting."

    "Indeed." The Shadeweaver's voice was soft yet resonant, a deep thrumming behind the words like the purring of a great cat. DuQuesne wasn't sure if that was an actual sound from the creature, or one of the many subtle touches of the Arena's translation. "You are quite distinct from your comrades, Dr. DuQuesne. Unique, it would appear, in a number of ways. My fellows and I have in fact been watching you for some time."

    "Odd. I would have thought it was the Captain you were more interested in. You've sure focused on her a fair amount."

    The Shadeweaver spread both arms slightly, circling the hands in a gesture which DuQuesne thought might convey agreement with a point. "This is a clear observation, but as you state in implication, she is of interest because she is, in fact, the Captain, the leader. This despite the fact that it is not at all clear that she is the one most suited to the position, from an objective point of view."

    What are you getting at? "I see. So what is it you want to say to me?"

    "Say rather, what is it that I wish to show to you, Dr. DuQuesne," the cloaked figure said, stepping forward slightly. Despite the additional light, DuQuesne could distinguish no more features within the cowl than the eyes. "You are clearly one of the most formidable of your people, and – for those with eyes to see – one who is perhaps not entirely one with your fellows."

    He – or his people – are damn sharp to pick up on that. Figuring out that I'm somehow separated from the others means that they've managed to interpret cues that many humans would find pretty subtle. Either that, or their special powers give them a lot of free insight. They definitely play their Spooky Magic Man image to the hilt. "So get to the point."

    "Ah, a being with little use for courtly evasion unless it serves his purpose. I appreciate that; so many here prefer it the other way." A flicker of something else in the cowl; bared teeth? A smile? Too quick and dim to tell. "The point, as you put it, is that I would like to show you something of our faction – something you will not learn by clumsy inquiries in the Arcade, as some of your people have been attempting."

    You know, I already think I see where he's going. Fine. I don't mind playing along and learning something. "I'm always interested in learning, especially if it's going to lead to something useful."

    A laugh, with an eerie shrieking backtone. "Useful? Ah, Doctor, I believe you could indeed say that. Then in that case, follow me."

    DuQuesne followed. As they moved along through the Arcade, he took careful note of the route he was following; no point in getting lost. But that also led to another observation: people didn't seem to notice him. Oh, they wouldn't bump into him, they evaded him in a crowd, but they simply never appeared to be looking directly at him or his dark-clad guide. Given the usual reaction to the Shadeweavers, that last bit was really odd. "So… hey, what do I call you? Mr. Shadeweaver would be kind of stupid-sounding, and there's a lot of Shadeweavers around."

    "There are, yes. My name is Amas-Garao."

    Thought as much. The one the other Shadeweaver mentioned to Ariane. "Noticed that we're not, so to speak."

    A slight movement, perhaps a hesitation in a step, showed that he'd surprised Amas-Garao. "A perceptive observation indeed, Dr. DuQuesne. Yes, I have bound the forces to ensure that their interests lie elsewhere, that we are unnoted in the crowds."

    And that no one knows I've gone anywhere with you. I wonder why? DuQuesne wasn't particularly concerned about a trap; first, if these Shadeweavers wanted to hurt someone, they probably could do it pretty directly without even being caught. Second, they'd already established that once you were a citizen of the Arena, the Arena acted like the universe's best comm net; just speak a message clearly directed at another person, and the Arena established the connection with one of those green lightballs.

    And, of course, he wasn't exactly helpless.

    The rather roundabout journey took them to a street within sight of the Five Great Faction Houses. Amas-Garao led him up the steps of a nondescript, blank-faced building, like several others on the same street, and gestured. The wall – not the door at the head of the stairs, but the wall next to it – opened like a curtain of mist. "Please, enter."

    "After you." DuQuesne said, studying the opening with interest. There was nothing visible through this open archway, just blackness as complete as the inside of a cavern. Even his enhanced sensitivity to spectra that were normally closed to human sight didn’t pick up anything.

    The Shadeweaver passed through the dark new doorway, and DuQuesne followed. As soon as he passed the threshold, he found himself in a long, trapezoidal corridor of dark polished stone; glancing behind him, he saw a simple door, already closed. "Neat trick."

    "Do you disapprove of theatricality? It is part of our mystique – and not entirely without practical justification, either."

    "Not at all." I've used dramatics enough times in my own life. My life was built on theatricality, in a sense. "Just observing."

    The corridor opened up into a seven-sided hall, walls intagliated with thousands upon thousands of symbols from what must have been hundreds or thousands of different written languages – mostly from different species. They were at the top of the hall, which DuQuesne could see – looking over a railing – descended a LOT of levels down. He wondered how that worked here in Nexus Arena; you couldn't very well just DIG. Each level had a walkway and railing encircling it, and a single corridor leading out from each of the seven sides. "That's an awful lot of building for you guys. I got the impression you were a rare breed."

    "Indeed we are, Dr. DuQuesne." There was another alien chuckle. "But please, do not play the innocent or innumerate with me. Even if we are rarer than genius itself, still there would be many thousands of us, would there not? And this, our Faction House, is meant to house us all in times of need or ritual."

    Okay, I'm not going to easily lead this guy into thinking I'm stupider than I am. Have to be more subtle than that. These guys are all going to be Big Time Operators. "So why don't you have one of the big Faction Houses? You can't tell me you couldn't have one, if you wanted."

    Amas-Garao nodded; the gesture was just emphatic enough to show that he'd picked it up by studying humanity. "Oh, indeed we could, Dr. DuQuesne. But why not tell me why?"

    Marc snorted. "Fine. More dramatics, of course. You're the mysterious hidden force. Everyone knows you, no one knows where to find you – unless you want them to – and they know you're always there behind them. It's a sort of backhanded declaration of superiority. You don't take one of the big Faction Houses because it's simply not important enough to warrant the attention of the mighty Shadeweavers."

    "True enough, so far as it goes."

    "Plus, you're not exactly a Faction. Not the way people like the Faith, the Vengeance, and even the Analytic are." DuQuesne continued to follow Amas-Garao, who now led him down one of the corridors off the seven-sided hall.

    "Indeed? And how do you know, or deduce, this?"

    DuQuesne debated with himself about how much to reveal about what they knew. But if what he suspected was right, he needed something to start gaining, if not trust, at least an impression of mutual interests. So… "Because one of your people came to Captain Austin and basically said as much. Mentioned your name, in fact, and not entirely in a complimentary fashion, either."

    The Shadeweaver paused at that, a faint hiss escaping the cowl. "Gona-Brashind, it must be." He moved on for a few moments in silence; DuQuesne took that time to confirm the observation that Ariane had reported; Amas-Garao did not seem to actually touch the ground, but floated above it by a few centimeters, drifting forward with an eerily smooth motion. "This is interesting news… and I am surprised you tell it to me."

    DuQuesne shrugged. "I have no reason to trust this Gona-Brashind any more than the rest of you, and in my experience someone who comes to you uninvited to tell you all the bad things about his comrades has got something of an agenda of his own."

    "Perceptive again." Another Shadeweaver was heading towards them, as they were passing a huge set of double doors; Amas-Garao stopped and spread arms wide before the doors and held the pose as the other reached them. "Your pardon, Dr. DuQuesne; I must assist in this ritual momentarily."

    The two exchanged a complex gesture and the newcomer turned and threw open the doors. He stood there a moment, which gave DuQuesne a somewhat-blocked view of the room within; it, like the hall they'd left, appeared to have seven sides (judging by angles), and it looked like there was a Shadeweaver standing in a doorway on each of the sides that he could get a look at, and seemed to be someone standing in the very center on a platform, with a lot of other black-robed figures circling it. A fragment of a chant or invocation was audible as the second Shadeweaver stepped through and the great doors swung shut: "…dem orthar usat.."

    Amas-Garao stayed immobile for a moment, then made another gesture that somehow conveyed the impression of locking something to DuQuesne. "Any other observations, Dr. DuQuesne?"

    "A couple possibles, but let me wait on those a bit. Anything else you want to show me?"

    "Indeed. Quite a number of things, in fact, which I hope you will find interesting and instructive."

    The first stop they made was several levels down; the door opened into what seemed, at first, to be blackness, but then as DuQuesne entered fully into the room, he saw an immense sphere glowing in the center, a sphere that seemed to be solid yet transparent, and within it a huge number of incredibly tiny swirls and dots and clouds. DuQuesne stared at it and felt a creeping sensation between his shoulderblades. "That…"

    "Is the Arena, or our vision of it. Perhaps not perfect," Amas-Garao admitted, "yet you shall find none more detailed, even were you to search from the Halls of the Faith to the very farthest reaches of the Arena. The colored dots are the Spheres of the races, most of which we have seen. With this, we can guide ourselves – and others – through the Arena's endless clouded sea of sky." He gestured, and with dizzying speed the vision zoomed inward, showing finally Nexus Arena itself, then flashing back outwards to the universal view. "Intriguing, I am sure you will agree."

    Not half enough words for it there. If that overgrown snow-globe's accurate, it's a map all the other factions would kill for.

    The Shadeweaver led him to another room, gesturing him inside. DuQuesne, realizing that this was a tour with a purpose, walked in and looked around.

    This room, a couple of hundred meters across, had a rough stone floor, with open archways of what appeared to be crudely-hewn rock standing every few dozen meters. But instead of seeing the same room and more distant archways through them, each archway showed something different; in this one, a sunlit field filled with blue-green waving fernlike vegetation and red fluttering winged creatures; in that, a desolate rocky landscape, dark, with the twining-glowing cloudscape of the Arena above; in the next, a thunderstorm drove waves against a cliff of rock standing against the raging sea.

    "The Hall of Portals," Amas-Garao said. "Step through any of these, and find yourself on another Sphere. And if you are a Shadeweaver, conjure yourself another Portal and return, or continue onward. If you are not, hope instead that you have found a place where you can live, rather than die, for without our powers or aid you will never find your way back."

    "And where do all these go?"

    "A myriad different Spheres; perhaps one of them leads to your own." This time there was a definite hint of a smile within the cowl.

    "But you were walking for some time before we met, and our journey here was also circuituous. Allow me to offer you some refreshment, if this is appropriate for your people?"

    "If you mean, do we have anything against being offered something to eat, not at all."

    "Then come, follow me again." As DuQuesne had more than half-suspected, this was not just a matter of his host remembering his manners; the fact that there was a simple-appearing dining-hall only a short distance away indicated that Amas-Garao had planned this stop as well. "Please, sit down, Doctor."

    "Sure." DuQuesne complied; he didn't mind taking a load off his feet for a few minutes. "But I dunno if you've got anything I can eat."

    "Of course we do not… at this precise moment. However…"

    With a gesture, the Shadeweaver caused a platter to appear before him, with what appeared to be a grilled steak, thick-cut french fries, and a large mug of dark beer. What the hell? We haven't given out any of our food templates, and if my nose isn't playing tricks on me, that beer's one that doesn't HAVE a template here. He sniffed again, then cautiously sampled the steak. Holy… That's genuine Kobe. Well, it tastes like genuine Kobe. And that beer sure tastes like Forraker's Dark Secret. He shook his head. "Okay, that's good. In more ways than one. And a little scary in some ways."

    The Shadeweaver conjured a green-skinned oval something which he stuck a straw into while DuQuesne ate, which he did with gusto. Again, doubt he brought me all the way here to poison me.

    Once he was done, he stood up, and Amas-Garao followed suit. "So, Dr. DuQuesne," the Shadeweaver said as he led the way out of the hall, "What about those observations? Have you any more to add?"

    Showtime. "Well, I'm guessing that your point in showing me all this was to impress me with what you can do – without showing me too much that was critical; letting me see and hear a little bit of some ritual, showing me the map, and so on. Which really leads to only one logical conclusion."

    The Shadeweaver tilted its head. "And that is…?"

    "You want to recruit me."

    "Very good, Doctor. Like our opposite numbers in the Faith, we also like to recognize the arrival of a new species of citizens in the Arena by a special ritual involving them. Unlike the Faith, however, we do not do this by asking you to perform some symbolic service and then 'assigning' you a member of our group who is in actuality serving our own needs, and who has no kinship to you at all save from this symbolic service. Instead we prefer to select an especially worthy member of the new species and teach them the ways of the Shadeweavers – awaken, if possible, the powers that lie within them, train them in their use, and welcome them into the Blood of the Skies."

    "Blood of the Skies?"

    "An expression of many meanings; so was my phrasing translated to you, but it could easily be something else. The Brotherhood of the Arena, in another sense. We are of no world, bound to each other by skill and knowledge, but also free to act as we see fit. You seem a man of great curiosity, of a desire to know and see all things, to travel as you will, to bring forth that which you envision. This is indeed what we seek as well, and what we can offer you."

    Quite an offer. "But if I understand right, I'd also have to give up my own faction."

    "Say, rather, you would be expected to give your new brothers higher priority. But there is for Shadeweavers no absolute requirement that you refrain from contact with or assistance to your original people." Amas-Garao continued forward.

    "I can't say it's not a big temptation. But my friends may need me."

    Amas-Garao stopped. "With the powers of a Shadeweaver you could be of much more assistance."

    That's certainly true. But from what he says… "I'm not sure; if your training takes significant time, I might be gone at a critical moment."

    The Shadeweaver spread his hands. "All things are possible," he said softly, that powerful undertone to his voice again, "yet they have done well before, and is it not unlikely that the truly critical event must come when you are gone? Come. Join us, Marc Cassius DuQuesne."

    A grinding internal shock sent a flood of adrenaline through DuQuesne, as dizziness and confusion were opposed by the trigger of a cold iron-hard alertness he had never thought to feel again, that he hadn't thought was possible to feel outside of the lies of Hyperion. Mind control! The son of a bitch is trying to CONTROL me!

    Alert now, he focused his will. Damn you designers, but you did some things right. Figured out a sort of mental checksum, a parallel automated process in my brain that makes sure it's following its own path unaffected by alien sources. Seemed such a totally useless addition, when we knew there was no such thing as psionics, when the Fenachrone were just a piece of a story…

    His head came up and he glared straight into the narrowing, startled eyes of the Shadeweaver. "That was a good try, but you don't… quite… ring the bell. And after that little trick, the answer is no."

    The long-drawn hissing sound was a disbelieving curse. "How… this should not be possible!"

    "Deal with it, you second-rate sideshow magician. It's not going to work. And I'm leaving."

    "Fool!" Amas-Garao snarled. "Do you think I brought you here and showed you secrets so you could talk? You will be joining us – your unique resistance simply shows that you have something very much worth learning. And I assure you, it will not hold out forever against us!"

    And he's probably right about that. Once they figure out how that defense works, whatever their mumbo-jumbo really is, it's bad medicine, and they can probably either rewrite me or overpower the resistance somehow. "Ariane!" he called, seeing a green shimmer appear in the air. "I'm in—"

    The green ball vanished in a coil of black fury. "Oh, we won't be having any more of that, I assure you, Dr. DuQuesne. No one will be coming to help you – even if they could, which – I promise – they cannot."

    DuQuesne turned and ran. I may not be able to get away… but I sure as hell am NOT going to make it easy!

    The laughter from behind him… was already ahead of him.

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