Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 02

Chapter 2.

“Captain Ariane Austin, Doctor Marc DuQuesne, it is an honor to welcome you back to my Embassy once more,” Orphan said, giving the full pushup-bow which both the Blessed and the Liberated used as a sign of greatest respect. “And you as well, Sun Wu Kung. I take this to mean that the various… issues in your home system have been addressed in a satisfactory manner?”

DuQuesne saw a smile instantly appear on Ariane’s face, the smile that she often wore around the flamboyant, devious yet likeable Leader of the Liberated. “They have, Orphan. Though – as I’ve come to expect – they created additional ‘issues’ that will have to be addressed in time.”

“That is ever the way of things, is it not?” Orphan said, gesturing them to follow. “The course of a Leader is never simple.”

“And if it ever looks simple,” DuQuesne said, “you better believe you’re missing something big.”

“So very true. Here, seat yourselves, I have provided some of the refreshments you found most palatable on our last meeting.” The tall, green-black semi-insectoid creature took his own seat, which was more a resting perch than anything else, and raised a drinking globe. “To our continuing alliance, my friends.”

“I’ll drink to that,” DuQuesne said, raising his own glass. “How are things now? Where is Sethrik?”

Things, as you say, are going very well since our secret victory over my former people. At the moment, Sethrik is in a meeting with the Naquari, a small but very capable Faction, who may be able to assist us in exploiting some of the resources of our new Sphere.”

DuQuesne grinned at that. Ariane’s inspired generosity in gifting one of the three Spheres they’d won to the Liberated had not only doubled the holdings of the Liberated, it had also sent an unmistakable message to the Blessed (whenever they realized it) that the Faction of the Liberated was considered one of the most important allies of Humanity… and thus any action against the Liberated might well bring the unpredictable and unknown forces of Humanity to Orphan’s aid. “We might have some more help for you there, too.”

Orphan’s head tilted inquiringly. “Indeed? Please, continue.”

“The story of your Faction is a pretty inspiring one from a Human point of view,” Ariane said. “We’ve had inquiries as to whether a human could join the Liberated. I presumed that they could, and that you would have no objections to appropriate humans joining, but wasn’t going to say so until we spoke with you.”

“Object? Most certainly not, Captain Austin!” Orphan’s voice – translated perfectly by the Arena – was enthusiastically emphatic, and he reinforced this with the double-handtap that indicated assent. “Obviously anyone joining would have to be of appropriate… caliber, given our situation with respect to the Blessed, and would have to understand that our ultimate goals will eventually put us directly into conflict with the Blessed and the Minds themselves. It will not be a… safe choice of Faction.”

“We’ll make sure any volunteers are fully informed of the nature and depth of commitment. But you may want to hold off on accepting more than one or two at this time.”

“Hold off? But I -” Orphan broke off, stiffening. “Captain Austin, are you saying -”

“– we’ve found you a crew!” DuQuesne finished for him with a grin. “Yes. And so if you took in more than a couple recruits, you’d exceed that limit of four members you mentioned to us a while back – which would mean that Sethrik would be severely limited in where he could go, and also stuck having to either trust, or keep an eye on, new recruits.”

Orphan was speechless for a moment, then performed another deep push-bow. “Given your difficulties, I had of course decided not to remind you of this promise for a time; I am honored and touched that you clearly have kept it in mind even through such trying times. When will I have the opportunity to meet this crew?”

“You’ve already met them,” Wu Kung said, his own smile showing his fangs. “It’s us.”

A handtap of assent. “Of course. Only those I can trust, and those whose capabilities I know.”

“And in my case,” Ariane said, “someone with a vested interest in this mystery of yours.”

DuQuesne saw the tightening of the wingcases that indicated tension or sudden thought. “Ahh. Of course. You hope that this mission may shed light on the powers of Shadeweaver or Faith that lie locked within you.”

“Do you think it could?”

Orphan was silent for a moment. DuQuesne caught Wu’s narrow-eyed glance, but even without that he could tell that Orphan was weighing options, deciding what to say and what to hold back. “Orphan, don’t make me suspicious of you again.”

Orphan made a buzzing sound, translated as a brief chuckle. “Ahh, Doctor DuQuesne, I doubt that you are ever likely to lose all suspicion of me. But here I must tread carefully. There are things I do not speak of even here, in Nexus Arena, that I will only speak of in the Deeps between the Spheres, where even Shadeweaver or Faith would have difficulty locating me, let alone spying upon me.”

DuQuesne nodded slowly. The Shadeweavers can mess around with the Arena’s rules, so it stands to reason that someone like Orphan might not trust even the Embassy’s security without limit. But what that implies about his secret? That’s pretty scary.

After another moment, Orphan’s hands tapped quickly. “In answer to your question, Captain Austin, yes, I do believe it could shed a great deal of light on this most difficult mystery of yours. Not without some… risk, but then, risk is not so terrifying for you as for some, yes?”

“I rather enjoy it at times,” Ariane said honestly.

Orphan laughed, though the laugh was a bit strained and his color momentarily paler. “I would like to say how incomprehensible I find that, except that I have found myself, at moments, feeling the same way during some of our more … perilous moments.”

“So, will the three of us be enough?” Wu asked, “or do we have to find a couple more?”

“My initial preference would be for a few more… but in truth, three capable beings such as yourselves will suffice, and in some ways … yes, in some ways fewer is preferable. Secrets, you understand.”

“In that case, it’s still too many,” DuQuesne said equably.

“How do you mean?”

He grinned. “We’ve got an old saying back in Earth system: ‘three can keep a secret… if two of them are dead.’.”

Orphan burst into buzzing laughter. “Ahhh, yes, how very appropriate, Doctor! It so truly reflects the way of the spy and manipulator, does it not?”

“It wouldn’t have lasted so long if there weren’t truth in it, that’s for sure. So, can you tell us how long this jaunt will be for?”

Orphan took a drink, obviously thinking. “The precise length of time depends on many factors, as one might imagine. But… months, certainly. The journey is not short, and of course we must first travel there, and then return, and I cannot say precisely how long my… business, so to speak, will require before I may return.”

Months… we’ve had some experience now with travel in the Arena. That means… “You mentioned only talking within the Deeps about certain things. Does that mean…?”

“Ah, Doctor DuQuesne, you are as perceptive as ever. Yes, our journey will take us through the Deeps indeed, far from mapped Sky Gates and well-trafficked routes through the Arena’s skies. You are, I believe, well-familiar with one of the reasons for my sobriquet of ‘the Survivor’, yes?”

“Yeah,” DuQuesne said, “and that’s actually one of the things that’s got me worried. You’ve been on at least three expeditions to the Deeps, expeditions of which you were the only survivor.”

Wu Kung stood slowly. “I did not know that.”

“It is true. And it is also true that on one of those expeditions I made the… discovery which now necessitates my return. But by that token, I did learn much of the perils surrounding that particular location and the, hmm, peculiar approaches one must take to survive there.” Orphan leaned back, his tail bracing him as he regarded the group.

“I would like to know whether we will survive, then,” Wu Kung said, looking much more menacing than someone of his small stature would be expected to look. “Because if it will put Ariane in too much danger I will say we are not going.”

Orphan’s wingcases contracted, then released. “To know? All of us would very much like to know, for certain, whether we would survive a given choice, would we not? Alas, I can only give you likelihoods and intentions, not certainty.

“What I can say, my friends, is that I know what happened to the members of those ill-fated expeditions, and I know how to avoid those fates. While I give you no guarantees, I have every intention of making this journey as safe as possible. I would very much like to return here with my entire crew intact.” He gave the broad gesture which DuQuesne interpreted as a smile. “After all, this would also encourage others to possibly journey with me without suspecting that such a trip could be a death sentence.”

Wu Kung stood immobile for a moment, regarding the alien narrowly. “There are many things you are not saying.”

“Indeed there are. And things I will not say until we are well within the Deeps, I assure you. But I very much mean it when I say that I regard you as my friends, and do not wish to bring harm to any of you.”

Wu shrugged and sat down. “Okay, that much was truth. We will go.”

Orphan looked over at Ariane. “Had he said no?…”

“… then we’d be staying,” Ariane answered immediately. “There’s no point in having a bodyguard if you don’t listen to him, and Wu’s instincts are pretty good.”

“Well. In that case I thank you, Wu Kung.”

“Do not thank me; it is just that, past all your twistiness, you like Ariane and Marc, and you don’t want to hurt them. You were telling the truth there. So that should be all right, and if I’m along, I can take care of them anyway.”

Orphan chuckled. “Very good, then.”

“So we’ll be out for months,” DuQuesne said thoughtfully. “We’re taking Zounin-Ginjou?”

“Yes, my flagship has been repaired, and I will have it appropriately disguised by the time we are ready to launch.”

“Disguised?” repeated Ariane.

“Indeed. The more misdirection I can manage, the better. I do not wish to be followed nor tracked in any way; minimizing the ease with which others can recognize my vessel is certainly one way to reduce this risk.”

“This will be interesting,” Ariane said. “All right. Well, we won’t lack for space on Zounin-Ginjou, so we should be able to take anything we need, yes?”

“Oh, certainly. Bring anything you feel you require or that will make you comfortable. Your own foodstuffs, of course, are recommended. While I will naturally bring food with me, my selections for human palates are of necessity currently quite limited.”

Ariane nodded thoughtfully. “Good enough. I still have a few things to do here, though – I have to touch base, as we say, with the other Factions, make sure that there aren’t any key issues I have to address before I turn things over to Carl and Laila, and so on.”

“Certainly, certainly, Captain Austin,” Orphan said cheerfully. “And as I have been waiting a while, another week or two is no great burden. Let us plan on launching on this expedition in two weeks from this day; is that satisfactory?”

DuQuesne considered, then nodded. He was pretty sure it would be easy enough to assemble anything he wanted or needed in that space of time. “Works for me.”

“And for me,” Ariane concurred. “Orphan, make your plans. In two weeks, we set sail into the Arena!”