Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 05
“All, right, Simon; you insisted we have breakfast in private today,” Ariane said; per Simon’s request, she’d even had Wu Kung stay outside the meeting room. “What is so important?”
Simon was uncharacteristically sober; his usual smile was a shadow of its normal self. “I would have brought this up yesterday, but by the time I got back you were dealing with Arena business, and it was rather late before you were free. This… is something best tackled with a fresh mind.”
“So stop beating around the bush, Simon.” She was concerned now; Simon, while certainly rather loquacious, usually didn’t evade answering a question.
Simon looked down at his plate, long white hair momentarily shading his face from view; with an audible sigh he raised his head, looking directly at her. “I had a very disturbing conversation with Orphan yesterday. You remember, of course, the weapon I improvised for Zounin-Ginjou?”
“Well… Orphan claims that he cannot duplicate it.” He went on to recount the exact conversation he had heard.
He copied the device and it doesn’t work? “Was he serious?” Ariane was trying to get her head around this idea.
“Deadly serious, Ariane,” Simon said, helping himself to a samosa. “Oh, he was clearly enjoying the confusion his news engendered, but there was no sign that he was actually joking around.”
“Is what he describes even possible?”
She felt embarrassment well up within her as Simon laughed. “My apologies, Ariane, but… you ask this in the Arena. In the normal way of things, no. With the tools we have, and that I presume Orphan has at his disposal, if you create the closest replica you can of a device, then the two devices will work very nearly identically. To not even come close to functioning? No. That makes no sense.
“Yet, if I believe what Orphan said – and I do – then the nonsensical is fact: this device which functions flawlessly cannot be duplicated.”
Ariane took a few bites of omelet while she thought. “The Arena.”
“Obviously, yes. The Arena itself must be doing this – either allowing my modifications to work despite them not actually being able to accomplish what I thought they would, or preventing a duplicate which should work from functioning.” He spread some Arena-local fruit over his pancakes. “The how is not terribly relevant – the Arena’s capability to switch nuclear reactions and AIs off on a whim show that it has the capability. What I cannot quite work out is why.”
“I can work out a reason why,” Ariane said. “Really, several reasons. Maybe it doesn’t want that weapon being used in a general sense. Maybe it just wanted you to be able toâ€¦”
Simon nodded as she trailed off. “… able to rescue you. Yes, that thought occurred to me. But if that is the caseâ€¦”
“Crap.” She couldn’t even express the mixed brew of confusion, fear, and even a strange elation that this thought triggered in her. But this touched on the question that DuQuesne, Simon, and she had discussed the day after their return to the Arena: why, precisely, had the Arena spoken to her directly? None of them had managed to come up with an answer. But this new factâ€¦
“That would mean,” she said finally, “that the Arena has taken a direct interest in us – something that seems completely contrary to the way it usually functions.”
“If that was the reason, yes,” Simon agreed.
Ariane forced herself to consider the situation carefully as she finished what was on her plate and drank some coffee. The idea that the godlike intelligence that controlled the Arena had a direct interest in Humanity – or, even worse, her personally – was terribly disturbing. Why would that apparently dispassionate being or power suddenly focus on one newcomer species or individual?
“There is a way we might test some of that,” Ariane said after a few moments.
“Which part?” Simon asked.
“Whether it was, in essence, a one-time thing allowed to permit the Zounin-Ginjou the firepower it needed to have a good chance to rescue me,” Ariane said. Because there is another obvious possibility. “Simon, could you duplicate what you did to that gun?”
“Given another such weapon?” He looked abstracted, his eyes gazing thoughtfully into nothing. “I… believe I could, yes. I would have to focus myself into achieving that… connection again, but my impression, upon thinking about it, is that I could choose to duplicate those actions.”
“We have some of the same energy cannon on the ships Orphan has loaned us. I want you to go back to our Sphere and try to duplicate that change. If it works, see if other engineers on our side can copy it.”
Simon smiled suddenly, a bright flash that helped her relax the tiniest bit. “I see, yes. Well thought out, Captain. No desperation or immediate need, so if that was the reason, my new cannon should not work. If our engineers – not of our inner circle – can duplicate it, that would indicate a general favoritism of Humanity, for whatever reason.” He paused. “And if my version functions and theirs does not… that would indicateâ€¦?”
“My guess? That you have the same, oh, what was it that Gona-Brashind said… that was it, ability to trick the Arena, to bend its rules, that the Shadeweavers and the Faith’s Initiate Guides – and probably me – have.”
Simon’s eyes lit up with understanding… and then dimmed with concern that mirrored her own. “But a completely different form of that capability. Even yours appears, from our limited knowledge, to be closely related to, if not identical with, the powers of those two groups; they both certainly believe that is the case.”
“But you were an accident,” Ariane said, feeling a certainty growing within her. “You said yourself that this happened during the very climax of the sealing ritual, when it was nearly disrupted and all three powers – the Shadeweaver, the Faith, and my own – were connected solely through you. You then saw… well, the same thing I saw when it happened, the entirety of the Arena at once.”
“Yes. And I feel something odd, as do you, whenever we go between the original universe and that of the Arena.” He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. “You believe that this is indeed the case.”
“I’m betting on it. I think you’ll find that you are the only one who can build that ‘primary beam’ variant. And probably other things, if you are using that strange connection of yours to build them, especially under pressure.”
“I see. So where you and the others are magicians or, perhaps, empowered priests, I am… what? An alchemist?”
“Something like that. Or,” she grinned suddenly and gestured to his habitual white outfit, “a mad scientist, perhaps.”
Simon burst out laughing. “But I’ve already shown the fools at the Academy!” he said finally, still chuckling. “When we arrived here, after all.”
“I know. But it would fit.”
Simon nodded decisively. “It might well.” He stood, finishing his fruit juice in a single quick set of swallows. “Then I shall commence the experiment today.”
“It shouldn’t take long, should it?”
“No. I would expect to have a definitive answer by tomorrow, in fact.” He looked at her with a warning expression. “I presume I don’t have to warn you how sensitive this information is?”
“No. We won’t talk about it to anyone outside of our group even after you’ve got your answer. I suppose,” she said, continuing the thought, “that Orphan probably guesses what’s going on.”
“I am sure he guesses something is going on, but as far as I can tell he has no way of knowing that I have this… power. However… yes, he obviously has made his own guesses and deductions, and he was implying to DuQuesne and I that there were secrets he had guessed about us – about Humanity, I think.” He started to turn, then stopped. “On the subject of secrets -”
She knew what he was about to ask. “I have for the moment decided to follow DuQuesne’s advice. What he told us last nightâ€¦” she shook her head. “It’s not certain that it’s true, yet, though the indications are strong, and if it is, it’s as he would say a trump card that we want to keep very close to our vests. The fewer people know, the fewer could give it away – or trigger it – voluntarily or accidentally.” She stood and looked him in the eye. “I feel the same way about your ability too. You tell me the results of your experiment privately, and we’ll decide who to tell after that.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “I won’t pretend I’m not a bit put out, and certainly burning with curiosity, but I will leave it to your judgment. I will not push further.”
It suddenly dawned on her. “Simon… you could just find out, couldn’t you?”
He didn’t pretend not to understand. “I suspect so, yes. And it is a temptation. But if I ever start abusing this power in such a petty fashion… well, I would not be the sort of person who should ever have such a power.” She nodded, as he went on, “I have to accept that you and DuQuesne understand the dangers as well as advantages of secrets, and not get in the way of you doing your job.”
He stepped forward and took her hand. “You have always had my support, and you always shall.”
The burst of warmth washed away her tension and concern, at least for the moment, and she impulsively pulled him closer, hugged the slender form tightly. “Thank you, Simon.”
He returned the hug, then pulled gently away, smiling. “My pleasure, Ariane. Before you go on Orphan’s mad expedition, though, promise me one thing?”
“Depends on what it is,” she said with an answering smile.
“I take you to Mairakag Achan’s restaurant for that dinner we were supposed to have, oh, almost a year ago? But this time without getting interrupted.”
She laughed. “You have a deal, Simon!”
“Then I am off. I have, as Orphan would say, a most interesting experiment to conduct!”
She finished her own breakfast and then got up. “DuQuesne,” she said into the green comm-ball that appeared, “are you ready for the Challenge negotiations?”
“I think so. On my way, we can talk face to face.”
DuQuesne met her a few minutes later in one of several lounges in their Embassy, this one projecting a view as though they were a hundred meters above the floor of Nexus Arena, looking out over the other Embassies and out at the Grand Arcade, with the Great Faction Houses looming in the distance. “Nice view. Gives you a grasp of the size of this place.”
“Yes, it does. So what’s the situation with the Challenge?”
“Talked to Relgof while you were off talking to four different Factions last night. How’d that go, by the way?”
“Well enough. They recognized that as First Emergents we’re still reorganizing our politics to handle the Arena, so our absence wasn’t as bad as it might have been otherwise. The Tensari are very much attached to Oscar Naraj, so I’ve had to agree that he will continue to be a liaison. The others also spoke well of him. Regardless of what his connection to Ni Deng’s actions, he really was doing the rest of his job well.”
“So he’s coming back soon?”
Wu Kung growled slightly.
She glanced at Wu with a wry smile of understanding. “Tomorrow, I think. He does understand how very much under probation he is, I assure you both.”
“He better,” Wu said.
“If he steps even an angstrom out of line, Wu, I will have him shot back to Earth so fast that he won’t need a Sandrisson Drive to go faster than light. And,” she continued as DuQuesne opened his mouth, “I’ve already given Laila and Carl full authority to do that too.”
He grinned, and Wu Kung’s smile showed his fangs. “Fair enough,” DuQuesne said, “I figure you’re right; he knows just how close he came to a trial for treason, and besides, he’s lost his main play for power anyway. His best chance now is to play the game our way.”
DuQuesne sat back in a chair that was apparently a classic leather recliner; Wu was standing in a corner that gave him a clear view of the door. “So, the Challenge negotiations. Relgof’s on board all the way, gave me a rundown of what I should expect; it seems pretty similar to what you went through in preparation for yours with Amas-Garao, although at least in this case it should be more straightforward; we’re not dealing with Shadeweavers and their wonky powers.”
“Do we know who their second Champion is?”
“Yeah, and I’m relieved as hell. They picked a Dujuin who’s a known master of these kind of games, I guess something like their equivalent of a top gambler and poker player.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And you’re relieved about that… why?”
He grinned, with a humorless glint in his eyes. “Because I was damned certain they were going to pick Maria-Susanna.”
She winced. The renegade Hyperion multiple-murderer was, according to both DuQuesne and Oasis, fully the equal of any of the others. “Of course. Why didn’t they, I have to wonder.”
“That’s the part that isn’t a relief,” DuQuesne admitted. “She’s a part of the Vengeance now, so she’d seem a natural choice. And she would certainly be a natural to match up against me.” He shrugged. “Well, she was always hard as hell to predict.”
“Could she just be… well, playing the Vengeance? Using them to get something?”
“I’d bet a whole stack of vals on it, to be honest. Sure, the Vengeance fits her general outlook, but there’s nothing to hold her there specifically. The way she was… designed, she’s supposed to be a co-star, so to speak, with a hero, and no one at the Vengeance is going to fit the role. Since she went crazy, she’s been a solo act, and I don’t see that as changing. There’s something she wants from the Vengeance, and once she’s got it, she’ll move on… to what, I haven’t a clue.” DuQuesne frowned, black brows drawn down and sharp-pointed beard adding emphasis to the grim expression. Finally he sighed and relaxed. “Never mind; for now, I’m glad we aren’t facing her.”
“So am I,” Wu said, with the sadness that always touched his face whenever the subject came up. “She would be a hard opponent… and I do not want to fight her anyway.”
Ariane gave him a smile of sympathy, then looked back to DuQuesne. “So do you have a clearer idea of the actual Challenge procedure?”
“Yeah. We’re going to hammering the details of the actual game that’ll be the “Chance” part of the deal, but basically what happens is that the two racers start out on the same course and start running. The course has a base set of obstacles on it, and it’s long enough so that even someone moving real fast will leave time for a good deal of play – think a lot of hands of blackjack or at least several hands of poker. The game ends when one of the racers crosses the finish line.
“The racers themselves are not allowed to directly interfere with each other – that is, they can’t injure each other, or push each other off a cliff or something – but they can themselves arrange to make the course harder.”
“Well, it depends on the course, but say that part of it goes through a forest, one of them could knock down a small tree across the path if they were ahead of the other guy, slow them down a bit. That kind of thing.”
Ariane nodded. “All right. Go on; what about the other side of this Challenge?”
“The Chance players start playing at the same time. Each of us have a set of Obstacle points that we can choose to either use as bets, or to have an obstacle of our choice placed in the way of the opponent, or possibly remove an obstacle from in front of ours – those mechanics are part of what we’re discussing tonight.
“Anyway, the level of obstacle you can buy, so to speak, depends on how many Obstacle points you pay for it. So you could spend, say, one point to put a rock right in front of the racer’s foot where he’d probably trip on it, or forty points to have a wall suddenly appear in front of him, stuff like that. Choices are basically limitless, as far as I can tell, except that you’re not supposed to choose lethal obstacles, and even ones that injure are really expensive. Past versions of this have had people throw obstacles ranging from a sudden dust-devil throwing sand in the racer’s eyes to calling one of the Adjudicators in against the opposition.”
“Adjudicators? You can call in the Arena’s enforcers to be an obstacle?”
“In theory. Apparently it happened once, about nine thousand years ago, when one side was just totally outmatched in the Chance section and the other could accumulate insane amounts of Obstacle points. Naturally that pretty much ended the race.”
Wu looked up with interest. “They are that dangerous, DuQuesne?”
DuQuesne seemed surprised, then grinned. “That’s right, you’ve never run into them yourself. Yeah, they sure are. They don’t hurt people, but they’re apparently boosted up past whatever other people, even the Molothos, can manage, and they’ve got this impediment field that makes movement like wading through mud; that pretty much ruins any fighter’s day.”
Ariane remembered that mired-in-glue field that an Adjudicator seemed to radiate at will, and the complete confidence they emanated. “I’d think so. But you’re good at this kind of thing, right?”
DuQuesne grinned. “Ariane, I used to play poker for money with the best Hyperion had to offer. If I can match Slippery Jim, Giles Habibula, Hannibal Gunn, and Dave Strider, I’m pretty sure I can handle the Arena’s best. Remember, too, these guys are a lot more risk-averse.”
Ariane remembered how she and Simon had discovered that, and the reactions of various Arena denizens to the humans’ perception of acceptable risk. “True. If you can push the game to something like what we’re used to in oddsâ€¦”
“That is indeed the plan. They’ll still play, but if I keep pushing them into their discomfort zone, it’ll have to throw their game off.”
Ariane nodded. “I hope so. It’s not so important for us, not immediately, but remember there’s a whole species’ hopes riding on this.”
“I know, Ariane,” DuQuesne said soberly. “Believe me, I know. And it is important to us. This is the first time anyone’s publicly put their trust in us. Sure, the Genasi aren’t technically full citizens of the Arena, but everyone knows them, and the fact that they’re trusting us newcomers to somehow give them victory? That’s big, Ariane.”
The truth sank in. She didn’t like it, but DuQuesne was – as usual – right. “Then you and Wu had damned well better win.”
“We will,” Sun Wu Kung said. “I will. I promise you, Captain, no matter what obstacles they throw, no matter how fast my brother in combat Tunuvun is, I will win this race – for him, and for you.
“By my honor, I will win.”