Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 01

Challenges Of The Deeps

Sequel to Grand Central Arena and Spheres of Influence

By Ryk E. Spoor

Chapter 1.

Ariane Austin felt the peculiar jolt that the Sandrisson jump always gave her, and found a smile on her face. “We’re back,” she said.

“Out of the political frying pan and into the Arena’s fire,” DuQuesne said, chuckling. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”

“Not something I would have expected, if you’d asked me before all this started,” Ariane said. “But I have to admit that Arena politics are more exciting.”

“Fates preserve us from exciting politics like that last adventure,” Simon Sandrisson said.

Ariane looked back at Simon, who was sitting in one of the passenger seats of the shuttle Century Eagle, adjusting his hair clip to catch a stray lock of his pure-white hair. “Why, Simon, are you saying you don’t want to rescue me again?”

There was general laughter from everyone present – DuQuesne, Wu, Gabrielle, Oasis Abrams, and Simon himself. “I would say rather that I would prefer you never be in a position to require rescue,” Simon replied, his smile and wink charming as ever. “Although you and Sethrik did well enough for yourselves at the end.”

“With the Monkey King’s help, yes,” she said, nodding at Wu with a smile. “But yes, I agree. Still… we’re about to go out and get ourselves in danger again, aren’t we?”

DuQuesne looked momentarily grim. “And I really wish I could find a decent argument to keep you out of it, but I can’t.”

“No, you can’t, Marc. I could keep you out of it with more justification. The only argument that even has relevance is that the Leader of the Faction should stay home where it’s safe.”

They all knew that wouldn’t wash with her, and wouldn’t for the other Faction leaders. Orphan, leader and – until recently – sole member of the Faction of the Liberated, often risked his life in questionable ventures, such as the one they would be accompanying him on.

His unique position excused his risk-taking, but the fact was that – despite the Arena residents’ overall greater aversion to high risk – Faction Leaders and equivalents seemed quite willing, and capable, of facing dangerous situations personally. Sethrik and his Mind-groomed traitorous successor Vantak had shown that clearly, engaging adversaries directly and without any reluctance in deciding the fate of worlds with guns, swords, or bare chitinous hands. Her impression was that Selpa’A’At of the Vengeance, Dajzail of the Molothos, and even wise, considered Nyanthus of the Faith would all be willing to take on threats to their Factions personally, if need be.

And that’s the kind of company I have to run in. Me. Ariane Austin… Leader of the Faction of Humanity.

The thought was still ridiculous, even though she’d lived with that title for well over a year now. The idea that she – formerly just a high-ranking racing pilot – had ended up as the literal leader of the entire human race was inescapably ridiculous, yet also as inescapably true. She’d nearly lost her life – and cost humanity a great deal more – before she’d not only grasped, but accepted, that burden that the nigh-omnipotent Arena had laid upon her.

Now she was going back once more… and she already had a challenge ahead of her.

The rest of the trip to the great docking facility within their Sphere’s “Harbor” was uneventful, not that she expected anything to happen. Of all the places in the Universe, being inside one’s own Sphere was probably one of the safest, at least in terms of threats from outside your own faction.

Unlike earlier voyages, there was traffic at the Dock. Multiple ships were coupled to the airlocks along the kilometers-long, eerily skeletal structure. “Approaching saturation,” Simon observed. “Are we regulating transitions carefully?”

“Yeah,” DuQuesne answered. “Checked with Saul on that and a few other things. They’ve done a few experiments and verified your theoretical limits – minor tweaks that might change the model slightly but nothing major – and there’s now a lot of oversight on transitions on both sides.”

“So how many vessels can we get in the harbor before we get stuck?” Ariane asked as their seats unlocked and restraints retracted.

“For vessels of reasonable size, the limit’s twenty,” said DuQuesne. “Doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re in groups or all spread out, either, which doesn’t make much sense to me.”

They all oriented themselves before entering the airlock; among the other impossible things the Arena did casually was to provide science-fiction-standard artificial gravity within the Spheres and most other living areas. Not orienting yourself before you stepped out was a good way to fall on your head.

“Why’s that?” Gabrielle asked. “Seems to me that if you spread ’em all out, they wouldn’t interfere with each other so much. Or maybe if you crowded ’em all together that the interference wouldn’t reach far out.”

Simon’s head came up with a sharpness that showed an insight. “Ah, of course. The problem, Gabrielle, is that when the ships are close together, the interference resonance is magnified by the multiple coils, so that it in effect ‘balloons out’, vastly larger than the individual drive fields would be alone. At the same time, if you distributed the ships widely, each one has a very large interference radius. I suppose you could get more in, if you distributed all of your ships exactly right, but it would be a difficult process and would involve sending your transitioning ships billions of miles out – in all directions. And, of course, if any of those ships started to move, all bets would be off.”

Wu Kung left first, as usual; he would not allow Ariane to enter any location without scouting it himself. The others followed once he waved; exiting, Ariane saw how Wu was studying the bustling groups of workers. “All clear, Wu?” she asked.

“Come on, Captain,” he said. “They’re just working.” The deceptively diminutive Hyperion trotted ahead of her, brown-furred tail waving a counterpoint to his footsteps, gold-tipped staff slung over his back. Wu’s gaze flicked back and forth, shown by the slight movement of his head, but despite his alertness he was also moving with the relaxed bounce she knew signaled that everything really was all right.

She noticed a pensive expression on DuQuesne’s face as they continued, and a similar shadow pass over Oasis’ as well. She let the others go on past and joined them; Wu glanced at her but then looked away, clearly aware of what she was doing. “Are you both okay?”

The immense black-haired engineer looked down at her, started to answer, then stopped himself; the red-haired former CSF officer seemed also at something of a loss for words. Finally DuQuesne sighed. “For what we have to do now, yeah, I’m okay. But losing those four…”

“…losing any of them was bad,” Oasis said bluntly. “But four? And not by accident, not even by Maria-Susanna? She was bad enough, but we…”

“You knew her,” Ariane finished. “She was… a known quantity, no matter how terribly she was broken. This came out of the blue. You don’t know what happened?”

What happened, that was fairly easy,” DuQuesne said, looking up reflexively as they passed through the immense door that led to the Inner Sphere. “The question wasn’t what but who and why. Whoever did this wanted to make sure there wasn’t a chance of reconstructing anything, biological or electronic. They were in the process of wrecking Wu’s when we arrived, that’s why it wasn’t completely totaled.” He looked surreptitiously at the Hyperion Monkey King, but Wu appeared to be busily leading the way and watching.


He shook his head. “Still not much. Saul’s got his best people working on it, but he’s … well, not hopeful. There’s a possibility there’s some left in the deep backup data archives – those are hidden inside extra hardware layers embedded in the internal shell supports – but I’m not optimistic.”

Ariane tried to keep her expression neutral, but inside she felt the sting of sympathetic loss. Poor Wu! That would be his whole world they just destroyed – his friends, his enemies, his family and everything he was raised with. Simulated or not, they were real AIs which means they were as much people as we are. And that would be true of the other Hyperions who died. Whoever did this murdered a lot more than four people.

“It has to be someone associated with Hyperion,” Oasis said. “They knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it, and that trap they set for Marc… they knew him.”

“That ought to narrow it way down.”

“Problem is,” DuQuesne said, “none of the known Hyperion survivors fit this pattern. The only good candidate – at least for planning this – would be one of the old Hyperion AI adversaries.”

She felt a chill, as if a procession of ants dipped in liquid nitrogen had run down her spine. “And according to Mentor, at least one of them has escaped.”

“Right. But that puts us back to square one, in a way, because even Mentor couldn’t tell us which of the villain AIs it might be, and there are a lot of candidates. There were slightly more than a thousand Hyperions, and while a few of them didn’t have, well, epic-scale adversaries, most of them did, and some – especially those from long-running fictional universes – had many.” He looked to Oasis.

“Don’t worry, Marc,” she said, and put a hand on his arm. Ariane saw, in her gaze and posture, the duality that lived inside that single body – a nearly-merged combination of the original Oasis Abrams, and the Hyperion that was usually just called “K”. “You’ve got your own mission. Leave this one to me.”

Ariane didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, because Tom Cussler was waving at her from next to Wu Kung. “Hello, Tom,” she said, returning his bear-hug and hearing him grunt a bit at the reminder she was probably stronger than him. “Or I should say, Governor Cussler.”

He grinned, and Steve Franceschetti, standing next to him, gave him a congratulatory punch in the arm. “Way to go, Tom!”

“So that’s the title, is it? Confirmed by the SSC?”

“Confirmed and a lot of other things, too.” She handed them each a datachip. “Go over that tonight in detail. You’ll have a lot to absorb. Short version, I’m still Leader of the Faction, but there’s a mechanism to yank me that I think we can live with. And I’m not going to be around long; got a promise to fulfill for Orphan.”

“I hope the details on that are here too,” Tom said, falling in next to them as they continued onward.

“They are. As much as I know, anyway. Not to be spread around outside of our inner circle, though. You people need to know, but most others don’t.”

“Are you staying?” Steve asked. “I could get things set up for -”

“Sorry, Steve,” she said. “Next time, I hope. But I want to get back to Nexus Arena right away and make clear that things have been settled at home. The Leader of the Faction really can’t be absent long.”

“Right. Of course.” Steve’s sharp face, topped by curly brown hair, showed his disappointment, but there was understanding there too; he knew exactly how important it was for the Faction Leader to be present and active in the Arena.

The group continued through Gateway Colony, as it was now being called, making their way through the canyon-like roadways to the hexagon-paved center of the colony, then through the next doorway and through a series of corridors to the Inner Gateway, that huge swirling circle of iridescent-sparked ebony that led to Nexus Arena.

The familiar whirling tingle and indescribable, spinning, hurtling sensation seized her as she stepped through that portal and emerged into the kilometers-wide room filled with Gateways that was called Transition, the entryway to Nexus Arena itself.

In all directions were almost uncountable alien figures – bipedal, amorphous, multilegged, tentacular, floating – moving into or out of the Gateways, meeting with each other, avoiding others, and passing eventually out of Transition through a great archway into Nexus Arena proper. A Milluk – the same species as Vengeance Leader Selpa’A’At – was walking with spidery elegance alongside a sluglike Shiquan; a massive Daelmokhan’s semi-saurian body maintained a slow, dignified pace in order to continue a discussion with one of the Blessed To Serve. A dozen other species, all intermingling, talking, gesturing, moving in a dazzling and, Ariane admitted to herself, somewhat intimidating array of diversity and mystery.

But the very sight sent a thrill through her soul, and she knew she was home. She felt the grin spreading across her face as she stepped forward and headed down the ramp. “We’re back, Arena,” she said.

Welcome back, Captain Ariane Austin, said a quiet, yet somehow profoundly powerful, Voice in her head, a Voice she had heard a few times before: the voice of the Arena itself, or whatever intelligence hid behind and within the nigh-omnipotent Arena.

She stumbled with the shock. “I didn’t expect an answer.”

This time there was no additional remark forthcoming, but the simple fact there had been one at all filled her with a vague foreboding. The Arena generally didn’t speak unless it had a very, very good reason to do so, and from what she’d heard from other inhabitants of the Arena, she’d already had it speak to her, or in her presence, more times than most people ever would, even full-time residents of the Arena. So why did it speak now? Just to greet me?

“Something wrong, Captain?” DuQuesne asked.

“I don’t know, Marc,” she replied as quietly as she could. They reached one of the giant elevators in the area outside of Transition, a meters-broad shining column of metal. “The Arena welcomed me back. In person, so to speak.”

DuQuesne’s brow furrowed, and he nodded. There was no need to explain anything to him. “Well, let’s get to the Embassy and check in. Then we can think about whatever this little mystery means before we call up Orphan.”

Once out of the elevator, it was simple to flag one of the floating, open-carriage-like taxis and tell it “The Embassy of Humanity”; the taxi accelerated smoothly, weaving through foot and vehicle traffic with scarcely a jolt until it finally arrived at the Embassy.

“Well, we made it without anyone trying to shoot us, interrogate us, or otherwise inconvenience us,” Simon observed. “That seems an auspicious omen.”

As they passed through the doorway into the foyer of the Embassy, Ariane saw the precise lines and features of Laila Canning emerge from one of the interior doorways and stride with perfect rhythm straight towards them.

“Welcome, back, Captain,” Laila said formally, and then with an unexpected grin stepped forward and gave Ariane a hug. “We’ve missed you.”

After the initial startlement, Ariane felt an answering smile on her face and hugged back. “Well, thank you very much, Laila!”

Nearby, Carl and Gabrielle had completed their own even more enthusiastic greeting. I wonder if I’ll be performing a marriage there. Already did one for Tom and Steve.

“Can I assume from your arrival without Mr. Naraj in tow that we have resolved our issues properly?” Laila asked, after also embracing Simon and – after a split-second hesitation – shaking DuQuesne’s hand.

“Well enough, yes. Though Oscar will be coming back. We could not prove his involvement in my kidnapping, and he did make a lot of progress with other negotiations that we would not want to drop. We’ll just have to keep an eye on him, that’s all. He will not be given the authority he had, I assure you.”

“But your position as Leader, that has been confirmed?”

“We worked out a deal. If you’ll open a link?”

Unlike most people, Laila took the whole data dump without batting an eye; Carl’s eyes practically crossed and he had to sit down hard. She was the sort who worked with three AISages simultaneously. I have no idea what it must be like to have a brain like that.  “Oh! Quite clever. I look forward to meeting this Mr. Fenelon – he is coming, I assume?”

“Him, General Esterhauer, and several more, yes.”

“What about the… well, the murders of those Hyperions?” Carl asked, finally recovering.

DuQuesne shrugged. “We’ve discussed that earlier. Basically… too many possibilities, but the investigation’s ongoing. You can check out the second appendix for everything we’ve got; in fact, I want everyone on our crew to do that. Any of us might have some insight, and believe you me, we all want the monster behind this caught.”

Carl’s eyes went blank momentarily. “It’d help if I understood more about Hyperion.”

She saw DuQuesne hesitate, then grin. “Yeah, of course it would. I’ll give you guys the same summary I gave the Captain. But… don’t pass this stuff to anyone else, understand?”

Laila nodded, as did Carl. “We will say nothing.”

“How have things been here, Laila?”

“Busy,” said the brown-haired scientist. “There are at least two or three queries per day for you. No real emergencies yet, however. Long-term, the real problem is going to be the Molothos. Everyone knows we are at a war footing with them, and while the major factions have gained considerable respect for us, the Molothos have many thousands of years of reputation – quite deserved, as far as I can tell – for military efficiency, brutality, and an ability to win wars even if they lose an occasional battle. The only losses they have suffered in significant conflicts have been against others of the Great Factions – the Vengeance and the Faith as well as the Blessed.”

She gave a rueful grin. “If we could actually tell people what you managed to do to the Blessed, that might change perceptions a bit, but we cannot. So right now, negotiations with other Factions are still quite touchy because they are, understandably, skittish about involving themselves with us and possibly being targeted by the Molothos in turn.”

“That doesn’t include the Great Factions, I hope,” Simon said.

“Not so far,” Laila said, looking thoughtful. “While I am sure none of them want to confront the Molothos if they can avoid it, they’re not terribly scared of the Molothos either.”

“Good. Then our relations with, at least, the Analytic and the Faith should not be affected,” Ariane said. “The last thing we need is to lose the allies we already have.”

“Speaking of that, our next major order of business is with our first and most interesting ally,” DuQuesne said with a grin. “We still have a job to do.”

“And one we’ve put off for a long time,” she said. “Let’s give Orphan a call!”

“Just a moment, Captain,” Simon said. “Before you do that, I would like to – very regretfully – withdraw myself from this expedition.”

Ariane could see the regret echoed in the brilliant green eyes. “Withdraw? Simon, why? The three of us -”

“Well, you see, that by itself is part of it.”

DuQuesne grunted. “He’s got a point there. Like it or not, I think people recognize that the real top dogs of our Faction are you, me, and Simon. Taking all three of us out of circulation for some unknown time might not be the best idea.”

“Thank you, Marc. Exactly.”

Laila nodded. “I would very much not want to run things without one of the three of you here. These last few weeks have not been easy, and I expect – if that mysterious mission of Orphan’s is anything like what he implied – you will be gone much, much longer. One of you must remain.”

I wish I could disagree with that. Still… “You said that was part of it.”

“And not the largest part, no. In our excitement and – completely shared, I assure you – interest in finding out what, precisely, Orphan’s mysterious mission holds, I’m afraid we all forgot that I have a time-limited and extremely valuable opportunity.”

Ariane rapped herself on the forehead hard, just to remind herself how stupid she’d been. “Oh, God, how could I have forgotten that? The Archives!”

“Give me a smack too, Ariane. In fact, make that two smacks,” DuQuesne said. “Klono’s tungsten… dammit, no, not going back to those old oaths.” He blushed darkly, as he sometimes did when his old Hyperion upbringing surfaced. “But how the hell could I have dropped the ball that badly? Simon’s got a one-year pass to the largest library in two universes. We could end up away for months, and if he comes with us he’s pissing away one of the greatest chances we have to advance our knowledge and understanding of the Arena and everything in it.”

“I’m afraid that’s my feeling on the matter,” Simon said. “I should be spending several hours a week, at least, digging through those Archives, seeing what I can turn up.” The Analytic had given Simon the unlimited right to visit the Archives for one year – but had omitted any right of Simon to use the Archive’s equivalent of an index or search function.

Simon’s as-yet-poorly understood connection to the Arena, that sometimes provided him with knowledge or insight beyond the ordinary, had allowed him to mitigate this disadvantage to some extent, but didn’t substitute for the lack of the index. Partly, Ariane knew, this was because Simon himself was very wary of that capability – which had no known precedent anywhere in the Arena – and did not want to rely on it overly much.

But even pure random searching of a library that, literally, covered almost the entirety of the Arena – its history, its Factions, its technology – was an opportunity of almost incalculable value, and Simon was right – all too right – that it was one they could not afford to waste.

“I hate to agree, but I can’t see any possible argument in the other direction,” Ariane said reluctantly. “The fact that you’ll be seen – regardless of official positions – as something of my surrogate while I’m gone is just the cherry on top.” She looked to DuQuesne. “Do we need to choose a replacement, then?”

“I don’t think so. Orphan said a minimum would be three more, right? You, Wu, and me make three, and a pretty damned competent three at that.”

She felt slightly better, though she really didn’t like the idea of not seeing Simon for months. “True, he did say three was feasible. We’d probably prefer more, but unless he changed his mind, three should be enough.”

“You mentioned ‘official positions’,” Simon said. “Who’s actually going to be in charge?”

“While we’re gone? I’m making it a dual effort. Laila and Carl will be the nominal bosses, and I think you and Oasis can do the same for them that you and DuQuesne have done for me.”

“Advisors and gadflies, yes,” he said with a flashing smile. “That makes perfect sense to me.”

Carl grinned. “Or me and Laila the figureheads, with the mad scientist pulling our strings behind the scenes?”

Laila gave one of her short, explosive laughs. “Well, that would be satisfactory too.”

“Works for me, too,” DuQuesne said, grinning. “So are we ready?”

“Ready,” Ariane said. “Let’s go see Orphan!”