Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 07

Chapter 7.

“I yield the play, Dr. DuQuesne; once more you have outmatched me.” Orphan tipped his remaining cards into the dump-bucket. “Anyone else still in?” he asked the others, looking around the conference-room-turned-simulated Arena. A shadowy holographic display showed several simulated runners speeding along a course, overcoming various obstacles.

“Not me,” Oasis said promptly. “I know Marc too well to keep going on a losing streak.”

“I yield too,” Carl said, throwing his cards after the others’.

Ariane’s blue eyes regarded DuQuesne coolly. “I’m still in play. I think you are bluffing, Marc. I’m taking ten Obstacle points and throwing a block in front of your simulated runner in the form of a patch of swamp. The rest I’m betting on my hand.”

DuQuesne grinned darkly. Yeah, that’s the way she plays. All the rest? You sure about that, Ariane?”

“She said it, that’s how she’s playing it,” Carl said. “In the real thing, you’re not going to give your opponent a chance to reconsider, are you?”

“He might. It’s a classic bluff tactic. Or a non-bluff that you’re hoping the other guy thinks is a bluff,” Ariane said. “But yes, I’m sticking with that decision. All in, no draws.”

“Show ’em,” DuQuesne said, doing so himself. “Then read these and weep, Captain; Three Spheres, Two Gates, two Shadeweaver Faction Cards, and one that doesn’t matter.”

What? But with your outer cards that’s –”

“Triple Triples, Shadeweaver Controlled,” he finished, grinning at her stunned look. “You had a Triple with two Doubles — good, but my Shadeweavers dominate your single Malacari Faction and negate one of the Doubles anyway.”

“Extraordinary,” Orphan murmured. “I have seen a startling number of improbable plays during this round of Arena Chance.”

DuQuesne shrugged. “Not that improbable. There’s several of most cards and their interactions are fairly predictable, though the circulation of the cards through the dump and exclusion of shown cards for a few rounds can complicate the odds. Not to mention the Draw die to add a really random element. It’s similar to a mashup of several card games I’m familiar with, in any case. I made a lot of money in college from teaching people odds, so to speak.” He raked in his winnings. “And I’ll put three swamp areas on your simulated runner, a bargain at twenty-five points. Time for another play?”

“I’m up for another few,” Ariane said. “Our simulated runners still have a ways to go.”

“Perhaps,” Orphan said, “we can just leave it to the two of you. In the real Challenge it will be a two-person contest, after all.”

A green com-ball popped up in front of Ariane as the triangular cards were distributed in front of them by an automated device. “Ariane, I am back,” came the voice of Simon Sandrisson. “I would very much like to speak with you as soon as I reach the Embassy.”

“Of course, Simon.” She looked up. “Oasis, Orphan, Carl — would one of you take over for me?”

DuQuesne raised an eyebrow, but he knew that she and Simon had a secret already. I’ll trust her to know when to tell it. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t kept secrets — and sometimes kept them too long. “Okay, who’s up?”

The three conferred in a corner of the room, then all three came and sat across from him. “We shall all play against you,” Orphan said cheerfully. At that statement, three of the phantom runners stopped and vanished from the course, leaving only two — DuQuesne’s, already considerably in the lead, and Ariane’s former runner, the only one in striking distance.

“All of you on one play?” He grinned, and by Orphan’s expression he knew they all could see the challenge in that smile. “Fine. All the helpers in the world won’t change luck.”

As play progressed, he proved himself right; for every play they won, he won three, and by the end of the simulated Challenge his racer had crossed the finish line fully fifteen minutes ahead of his competitor.

Orphan rose and gave a push-bow. “A most instructive game, Doctor DuQuesne. If you play so well tomorrow, I have little fear of you losing. I will say, however, that Byto Kalan is an excellent player — better than I at this variant of Arena Chance, I am certain — so you should be very wary.”

“Believe me, with this much at stake I am not going to just give it a lick and a prayer,” DuQuesne said.

As he said that, another comm-ball sparked emerald before him. “Marc?”

“Who — Saul! You’ve made it over?”

An image of Saul Maginot appeared, hair if anything a little whiter but otherwise looking well — if he disregarded the tight lines on his face. “For the nonce, yes. This is really just a short jaunt, to accustom me to the novel and, I must admit, most disquieting sensation of Elizabeth being gone.”

“No surprise there; even those of us who don’t have our AISages in our heads had a hell of a time getting used to being without them.” He noted the others had already started clearing the room; they knew there had to be something more. Once the door closed, he nodded. “Okay, Saul, let’s have it. You didn’t ring me up just to say hello.”

He saw the flash of a smile at the antiquated expression “ring me up” — like his occasional fits of colorful and unique swearing, a legacy of Hyperion — before Saul’s face went serious again. “We completed our analysis of the remains of the attack, including Wu Kung’s station.”

Damn. I almost wished it would take longer. “And…?”

“We were able to recover some of the world. Not, I am afraid, nearly all of it. Many of the… people inhabiting it are gone. But not all of them. Several of his friends remain.”

“What about his family?”

He saw the steady gaze drop for a moment. “The two youngest boys were recoverable. Sanzo… according to Sha Wujing, who we were able to partially interface with, she was reinitialized by the destruction of the main system.”

Reinitialized? Damnation. “She doesn’t remember a thing.”

Saul sighed. “Nothing past her upbringing in the temple. Apparently she doesn’t even remember being sent out on the Journey to the West, and her physical parameters are back to those of the girl who started the journey. And before you ask, no, there’s nothing left to check for a backup. We’ve taken the structure apart down to the atomic level and probed for quantum storage. Nothing.”

“Dammit. I mean… that’s better news than we were prepared for, but still… Damn them. Whoever they were. Did we get any clues?”

“None. Whatever happened was abrupt and provided no input from the outside; from Sha’s point of view it was a sudden racing wave of destruction that he was barely able to outrace, carrying the two boys with him.”

“Blast it. Whoever this is, he’s a real Big-Time Operator, that’s for sure. No surprise there — if Mentor’s on the beam, we’re up against one of our worst adversaries.” And the worst part is that it’s really likely that our enemy’s nemesis died fifty years ago. “Thanks, Saul. I’ll break the news to Wu myself.”

“Good luck on that, Marc. And on your Challenge, that I was just briefed on.”

“Thanks. I’m going to need it, I think.”

The door opened just as the comm-ball disappeared, and Ariane stuck her head in. “Marc? Could you join us, please?”

One thing after another. “Be right there.”

He followed Ariane to one of the smaller conference rooms, where Simon was waiting. “All right, I’m here. But before we get into whatever you’ve got on the stove…” He quickly went over his conversation with Saul Maginot.

Ariane and Simon wore expressions that probably mirrored his own. “Oh, poor Wu. I mean… it is better than we thought, but…”

“Yeah. And we didn’t get a single damn clue. Unless the fact we didn’t get a clue is a clue. Anyway, I’ll let Wu know in private. You didn’t call me here for this, so what’s up?”

Ariane hesitated, clearly still thinking about the tragedy to Wu Kung’s world, but then shook it off. “Simon came to me with a very… interesting piece of information from Orphan.” She summarized the discussion she had previously had with Simon. “So that’s why Simon’s been away a few days; testing our theories.”

He looked over to the tall, white-haired scientist. “And? What’s the results?”

“It appears that I — and only I — can replicate the weapon you called a ‘primary beam’,” Simon said after a moment. “I was able to duplicate the changes to the weapon on board Paksenarrion, but another person present, performing the exact same modifications, created a completely inactive, nonfunctional weapon that required a fair amount of work to repair.”

Well, well. I kinda suspected this, after what happened in that battle. Still a bit of a surprise to get it confirmed. “And the primary worked just the same?”

“Yes. Extremely powerful and coherent beam, with both energy and range vastly increased. I left the modified unit installed — I hope that meets with your approval?” Simon turned to Ariane with an air of contrition. “I know I did not check with you –”

“It’s fine, Simon. Don’t make excuses for something like that. Actually, I think we’d very much like you to go around our little fleet and improve everyone’s firepower. Yes? No?” She looked at Marc.

DuQuesne thought a moment. “Yeah, I think so. Fact is that we’ll need every edge we can get when — not if — the Molothos get here.”

Simon winced. “I really wish I didn’t have to think about that. But no point in evading it. Yes, if you authorize it, Ariane, I will spend time while you’re gone upgrading the weapons.”

“I wonder if I might be able to do it too,” DuQuesne said slowly.

Simon looked uncertain, then suddenly nodded, white hair shifting like a curtain. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, you have shown some odd capabilities — and around the same time. The way you handled the weapons?”

“Cross-connecting them in a way that even Orphan hadn’t figured out how to do? That’s sure one of the things on my mind.”

“Well, you’ll have a chance to find out. Take a look at the one on Zounin Ginjou and see if you can replicate it.”

Ariane frowned. “Won’t that be revealing something?”

DuQuesne thought a moment. “Not much. He knows I talk to Simon a lot, and so for all he knows, together we figured out what makes ours work and his fail. To an extent, he’d be right, too. And since we’re heading out into the dark Deeps, making sure there’s more firepower on our transport probably isn’t a bad idea.”

Another thought occurred to him. “You know, Ariane, Simon — Orphan clearly has some kind of theory about us. He’s made some damn cryptic comments from time to time, and the way he looks at us –”

“You’re right, Marc,” Simon said. “I remember during the battle, he said something to the effect that he had become used to being surprised by us, and that the recent events confirmed a hypothesis he had formed.”

Ariane nodded, thoughtfully. “He’s said a few similar things to me. Maybe this is one of the things he will discuss with us when we’re in the Deeps.”

“Maybe,” DuQuesne conceded. “Though that joker keeps his cards close to his vest. And he doesn’t wear a vest. Still, if he’s got an idea about us that could be useful, he’ll have to tell it to us sooner or later if we’re going to exploit it.”

“Try nudging him about it,” suggested Simon. “His reaction might at least tell us whether he intends to tell us. I would like to at least know that much.”

“Why me?”

Ariane’s lips quirked upward. “I should think that was obvious, Marc; he sees you as by far the most kindred spirit in the crew. He likes me, and respects me. He seems to feel the same way about Simon, and have a decent regard for the rest of our crew. But I think he finds that you and he have the most in common.”

“Klono’s… heh, never mind. All I can say is I hope I’m not that devious.”

“For this next Challenge?” Ariane looked at him seriously. “I hope you’re more devious. Because the Vengeance are one of the Great Factions, and they didn’t get there by accident. So we can use all the ‘devious’ we can get.”

True enough. “I’ll admit I’ve been a little worried about that myself. They’ve got the resources and experience to basically get the absolute best for this Challenge, and Hyperion or no, gambling experience or no, that’s gonna be hard to make up for when the other guy’s probably been playing this game for years. This version of Arena Chance is actually harder for someone like me than a completely unfamiliar game would be, honestly.”

Simon’s eyebrows rose. “In what way? It would seem that any familiarity would be an advantage.”

“Sure would. And that’s the trap.” He saw Ariane nodding. “She gets it. Thing is, any time it’s close to something you know real, real well, it’s blasted easy to find yourself thinking that it is that same thing, and then you make some choice that makes perfect sense for the game you know well, but is the wrong choice for the one you’re playing now.”

“Oh. Yes, I see. Rather like playing or humming a tune that is very much like one you have known from childhood; it is too easy to find yourself suddenly humming the childhood tune rather than the newer one.”

“You got it.” DuQuesne couldn’t keep a grim tone from his own words. “Except that then, you just sound stupid. In this, I could end up giving away a world for a song.”