Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 13

Chapter 13.

“Not taking Zounin-Ginjou?” Simon asked, looking at the relatively small craft — no more than fifty meters long — that was sitting at the end of the berth the Liberated were assigned.

“Later,” Orphan said, carefully checking the exterior of his ship. “If all three of us took Zounin-Ginjou from here, too many eyes would note the departure; this is a short range vessel, the sort used for brief jaunts from point to point.”

“With your permission,” said Sethrik, watching as DuQuesne dragged a large case into the shuttle’s loading door, “We intend to allow a ‘leak’, as you call it, of information which will lead people to believe that the Liberated were donating some very valuable materials to your cause, and this was the mission to transfer it out of sight or range of those in Transition. Sensitive material is often transferred in this manner. Decoy missions as well, of course, so they will wonder whether the real material is in some other shipment through Transition at about the same time.”

“And in actuality you are just transferring Orphan, Marc, Ariane, and Wu to Zounin-Ginjou?”

Sethrik gave the swift outward flick of the hands that indicated negation. The former member of the Blessed and only other member of the Liberated continued, “Our story will have a core of truth, and you will be receiving something very useful to your current efforts. Details can be leaked later, so that suspicion will be kept to a minimum until it is far too late for anyone to even attempt an effective investigation.”

Simon shook his head, smiling. “Everything you do in the Arena seems to have three more layers than one sees.”

“And that,” Orphan said, leaping back to the loading dock, “is why the Liberated still exists. Three or four layers are the minimum.”

“I think we’re ready, Orphan,” said Ariane, Wu shadowing her closely; Simon saw his eyes darting everywhere.

Ahh. The last time they were on the Docks, Ariane was kidnapped. I doubt Wu Kung will ever forget that. And this is an open, and thus potentially dangerous area, and one that we know has far less restrictive rules on violence. “So you have no idea when you will return?” he asked again.

Ariane shook her head, making the dark-blue hair ripple. “Afraid not. A pretty long time, though, so I’m going to be trusting you to keep things under control here. Laila and Carl are in charge, but you’re going to be my eyes while I’m gone, you know.”

“I know.” He took her hand. “I will miss you. Perhaps a dinner when we return?”

She grinned. “Perhaps!”

“C’mon, Ariane, let’s get inside and give Wu a chance to settle down,” DuQuesne said, emerging from the door. “Everything set, Orphan?”

“All is in readiness, if all of your cargo is loaded.”

“I don’t see any travel bags,” Simon said, looking around.

“Everything’s in one of the crates,” DuQuesne said. “That way doesn’t instantly look like we’re going on a long cruise.”

Sethrik gave the compress-release gesture that approximated a shrug. “When your Leader is no longer seen, they will realize she is gone.”

Ariane raised a finger. “Not so quickly they won’t. Credit Oscar Naraj with this idea: anyone watching will see me and DuQuesne emerge from Transition, go back to the Embassy, and then a little while later see both of us go join Tunuvun and a bunch of Genasi on a clearly Earth-designed ship. The rumor there — and like yours, it will also be true — is that we’re making an official gift of an Arena-capable vessel, with a lot of normal-space tech and information, to the Genasi.”

“Ah, of course,” Orphan said, with his oft-amused tone. “And these decoys will not be seen again. But then the questions about where you have gone will center, not around the Liberated, but the Genasi. Who have an honor debt of immense size to you, so keeping the secret is a given. Well done.”

Ariane gave Simon a quick hug, and didn’t hesitate to include a swift but emphatic kiss before pulling away. DuQuesne shook his hand, as did Wu Kung.

Simon waved as the four disappeared inside the small Arena ship, and watched alongside Sethrik as the sleek transport — something like a Victorian-designed bullet with wings — pulled away and accelerated smoothly towards the area of the Sky Gates around Nexus Arena.

“So,” he said to the tall, green-and-black alien as they began walking back, “do you have any better idea than I do as to what it is that Orphan’s all secretive about?”

“Unlikely,” Sethrik said. “While he has given me many details about the history of the Liberated, about our resources — surprisingly large, given how much the Faction was reduced — and so on, he has remained extremely quiet about his personal secrets. And this one seems even more personal than most.”

Simon nodded. “I rather expected as much. Although you would also have to deny it if he had told you but wished you to keep it secret, I suppose.”

“You begin to understand the way of the Arena, yes.” Sethrik looked into the distance; this part of the Docks was actually rather empty today. Simon wondered if there was some sort of day/night cycle in loading and arrivals, or if it was merely the random chance of schedules. “Of course, even with the distractions you have planned, it will eventually become clear to watchers that Orphan and your Leader are gone, and they will reach the correct conclusion that they left together on this day.”

“But that shouldn’t pose an immediate problem, correct?”

Sethrik’s buzzing chuckle was somewhat disconcerting. “What should be, and what does happen, these are often different things in the Arena. As I have occasion to know. Still, no, I would expect that Orphan will have gained enough time so that the chances of any tracing his passage or learning his destination will be extremely small.”

They passed from the Docks to the interior of Nexus Arena, and Sethrik waved down one of the automated hovercabs. “Are you returning to your Embassy?”

“No, Sethrik — I actually have business at the Analytic today, so you go first.”

Sethrik gave the handtap of assent and directed the cab to bring them first to the Embassy of the Liberated, before carrying Simon on to the Analytic’s Great Faction house. Simon jumped down and walked into the huge, soaring edifice of polished alloy, glass, and stone that was the home of the faction dedicated to pure knowledge.

Having been there multiple times previously, it was simple to make his way to the Archives. Not so simple was keeping his breath from being taken away upon entering. The vaulted ceiling, a hundred meters above, with arched windows streaming sunlight — or a perfect facsimile thereof — into the cavernous space filled with rank upon rank of shelves, the shelves themselves fifty meters high, and each row dwindling away into unguessable distance, fading into the softness of mountains on the horizon. Here was the sum-total of the knowledge of the Analytic, one of the five Great Factions, the knowledge of a hundred thousand years and more, of species beyond counting, of Challenges as vast as the stars of Earth’s sky, of secrets from a million worlds.

And I have nearly a whole year to roam it at will. It seemed a terribly short time, yet the opportunity was beyond price. Simon Sandrisson could not restrain a wicked grin. When the Analytic’s board had agreed to give him this access, they had clearly believed they had by far the better end of the deal, because the access lacked one crucial element: access to the indexes of the Archives, the searchable database-equivalent of the incomprehensibly huge morass of data, prototypes, samples, and other accumulated knowledge held within the Archives. Thus — as far as they knew — Simon had no way of knowing where to find data that he truly wanted, nor of translating finds that were not recorded in any known language, for the Arena’s translation did not work for such data, only in general for the spoken word.

Had they known about that nigh-omniscience that Simon could tap, they might have thought very differently.

“Ahhh, Simon! I had heard you had come to visit!” The rough tones of Relgof Nov’ne Knarph interrupted his reverie. “And I see you cannot yet enter the Archives without feeling the impact of a thousand generations of knowledge.”

“Can you, Doctor Rel?”

The semi-humanoid alien’s filter-beard rippled with a chuckle. “No, truly. The immediate impact has somewhat lessened, but never have I come here without a moment of awe and reverence. Let others have their gods; I have this temple of knowledge.”

“Have you come to watch me wander the stacks?”

“That is a fascinating turn of phrase, Simon, given the circumstances,” Relgof said, with a near-human tilt of the head. “Come, let us examine a section of the Archives.”

Climbing into one of the egg-shaped floating carts used the way old-fashioned library ladders were — to reach any part of otherwise inaccessible materials, the two set off; Relgof allowed Simon to direct the course of the cart. I wonder what he meant by that bit about circumstances. Since he didn’t have a particular question in mind at the moment, Simon chose a direction at random and sped the cart down it for four and a half kilometers, stopping at a set of shelves with assorted memory crystals and some models and skeletal exhibits. A record of a civilization? An archaeological record?

“So, are you going to clarify that comment, Rel?”

Relgof did not bother to pretend he didn’t understand. “Simon, the Analytic can, of course, observe any activities within its own House. You have visited several times. Now, we are both well aware that you were denied the use of the Great Index and other search tools.

“It is rather difficult to imagine how, then, you managed — on your first visit — to unerringly locate key records on detection and uses of Sky Gates, and based on your reactions and subsequent events, were able to understand them, despite at least one source being in an ancient language with no known remaining members.”

Simon kept his face expressionless with an effort. Of course, since the Arena seems to even sometimes translate expressions from body posture, I cannot be sure some of my surprise or concern was not also translated.

“Now,” Relgof went on, reaching out and picking up one of the models of a strange house with oval doors and hexagonal windows, “It so happens that — at the moment — I believe I am the only one who knows about that most unbelievable event, since the others were not inclined to monitor you. And I do not wish to alert them to this. I am however genuinely curious and wonder if you might be willing to enlighten me.”

Simon raised an eyebrow. “I don’t suppose you would accept ‘coincidence’ as an answer.”

“Would you, my friend?”

“No. I admit that I don’t have nearly your experience with the Archives, but even my few visits have given me some impression of its vastness.” Simon thought for a moment as he took memory crystals and fit them into a visualizing device built into the cart, scanning the images and text therein. History, looks like. Might be archeological work on a long-vanished species. Relgof watched patiently.

Finally, Simon shrugged. “I won’t deny that I have found a way around that limitation, but the value of that secret — in all honesty — is a lot greater than a mere year’s access to the Archive.”

Relgof’s filter-beard froze, and the entire creature went rigid. After a moment he relaxed. “Yes, I suppose it must be. Either you have — in a manner we find undetectable — managed to gain access to the Index, which insofar as I am aware would require assistance directly from a Shadeweaver or Initiate Guide, or you have found a method that allows you personally to find what you wish without any recourse to the Index.”

Technically, without any recourse to the Archives at all. But I am far too cautious and — in honesty — afraid of using this power to that extent. “That seems to be roughly correct, Relgof. What do you intend to do about it, if anything?”

“Hmmm. Well… I would be willing to not mention this to anyone — and to steer the rest of the Analytic away from analyzing your visits, if any show such interest — if you have some unique piece of information, something useful to impart to me.”

Simon pursed his lips. “I suppose friendship does have limits when such secrets are involved.”

“When I am, myself, the Chief Researcher, the Leader of the Faction? Alas, yes. I must receive value for that offered. I have allowed considerable latitude already, partially for the uniqueness of your situation as First Emergents, and partly because I feel we truly are kindred spirits. But this…”

“I understand. Not like our prior after-hours research where the information we uncovered was something of interest to us both.”

Relgof tilted his head. “To what do you refer?”

Simon blinked in puzzlement. “Rel, to that rather long-drawn out session of research on the background of Shadeweaver and Faith capabilities, culminating in your discovery of that old story about the Ryphexian ‘Master of Engines’?”

The gangly alien’s posture and voice were replete with utter confusion. “Simon, I confess that I have not the slightest idea of the event to which you refer.”

Suddenly it all made sense. There had been no references in the Index to Shadeweaver or Faith powers being used outside of the Arena. The two had found it necessary to perform many hours of research in order to find a single confirmation.

If you want to keep a secret like that… you need a way of making people forget.

But Ariane Austin’s victory over the Shadeweavers in direct Challenge against Amas-Garao meant that the Shadeweavers could not affect Simon or any other human. That didn’t hold true for the other species and factions, however.

Simon suddenly smiled. “Then I have something to trade, Rel — your real problem is going to be keeping it in mind long enough to make use of it!”