Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 14

Chapter 14.

“Orphan…” Ariane said apprehensively. “Are you sure we want to get any closer to that?”

“My dear Captain Austin, we are going to get far closer,” Orphan replied with a chuckle.

The immense vessel loomed ever larger in the suddenly-tiny shuttle’s viewport. Just about an old-style mile long, and looks it, DuQuesne thought, as he saw a brilliant line of light that widened, became a massive pair of doors into a huge landing bay. “Almost like coming home, isn’t it?” he said.

“In some sense it is coming home, Doctor DuQuesne,” Orphan said, his wingcases relaxing, showing that he was indeed genuinely happy to be returning to Zounin-Ginjou, the flagship of the Liberated. “I have spent at least as much time in this wonderful ship as I have in Nexus Arena, or on the Liberated’s Sphere.”

That is Zounin-Ginjou?” Ariane demanded incredulously. From Wu’s expression, he hadn’t recognized the ship either.

“Indeed it is,” Orphan replied, with an amused tone in his translated voice. “Yet truly, I cannot fault you for being surprised.”

“I would’ve been, if it weren’t for the fact that I knew you’d never land on any other ship, and I could tell you were heading for this one from way back,” DuQuesne said.

In truth, it did not look much like the quasi-Victorian work of art that was the flagship of the Liberated, replete with brassy-golden trim and fittings, rich wooden hull hiding battleship armor, and vanes and fins to make the most avid Vernian steampunk fanplayer cry with joy. The sleek spindle-shaped vessel was no more; a much broader, duller outline, one completely utilitarian, efficient, massive, with lines and angles that DuQuesne thought were all too familiar.

“It looks like one of the Blessed’s ships,” Wu said, putting DuQuesne’s thoughts into words.

Ariane nodded. “That’s exactly why I was nervous; I thought it was a Blessed vessel.”

“Quite deliberately so,” Orphan said. The shuttle passed through the doors and DuQuesne felt the artificial gravity slowly take over, allowing Orphan to bring the vessel to a soft landing. “The exterior of Zounin-Ginjou is now identical, at least to any ordinary inspection, to that of a Madon-class Arena freighter, a common vessel type for the Blessed to use in intra-Arena trade.”

“Ha! I see!” Wu Kung grinned with his sharp fangs showing. “You look like the Blessed, so you can pretend to be one.”

“I thought you would understand quickly, Wu Kung. Exactly; I can play the part of my former people very well — I was one, after all, for a long time before changing sides. With luck, any confrontations would be ended by simply identifying the vessel as one of the Blessed; very, very few wish to risk the wrath of any of the Five Great Factions, after all, and the Blessed is probably the second-worst to offend.”

“With the first being our hair-trigger xenophobes the Molothos, yeah,” DuQuesne said. “I like it. You’ve made her into a Q-ship; looks like a freighter, registered to a dangerous power, and if someone is stupid enough to try to hijack you…”

“… they find out they’re attacking one of the most powerful warships in the Arena,” Ariane finished with a grin. “I like it. And now that we’re inside, I can definitely see this is really Zounin-Ginjou. What cabins will we have?”

“I see no reason you cannot have those you used previously. In fact, when I was conducting the rather extensive repairs necessitated by our prior argument with the Blessed, I performed a few more modifications to that entire suite of cabins to make them better suited to the use of Humanity.”

“I’m sure we’ll appreciate that,” DuQuesne said, as he made his way to the cargo area. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to unload here and get to our living area.”

Orphan, already making his way down the ramp extending from the forward section of the shuttle, gestured toward some shapes on the far side of the bay. “You will find cargo handling equipment there — I believe you recall how to use it from our prior adventures, yes?”

“Not helping out, Orphan?” Ariane asked with a faint smile.

“Many apologies, but I wish to get us underway immediately. The less time we remain in this part of Arenaspace, the less chance for any to notice this vessel’s departure — or the fact that the little shuttle we rode in has docked here.”

“No worries,” DuQuesne said. “Get us going; this is your party. Me, Wu, and Ariane can get everything moved pretty quick.”

It was not all that quick; moving the provisions for what might be up to a year wasn’t a trivial exercise, especially when the food and such had to be brought to the galley, while clothes and other personal baggage had to be brought to the living quarters. Still, they were almost done when DuQuesne felt that subliminal shock that told him they’d made a Sandrisson jump, presumably through a Sky Gate. “We’re really on our way now,” he muttered.

“And I don’t have a single meeting to go to!” Ariane said, grinning broadly.

“Yeah, but we have no idea what we’re heading into,” DuQuesne reminded her — not without an answering grin. “We might be in a battle three days from now, who knows?”

“Battles are fun!” Wu Kung said, emphasizing that with a sharp rapping of his staff on the deck. “Meetings with talk-talk-talk, that is danger!”

“You know, maybe I need to reconsider; is it a good thing that I’m agreeing with Sun Wu Kung?” Ariane asked.

“There are worse choices, but yeah, agreeing with him usually leads to an awful lot of heads getting busted.”

“Only bad people’s heads,” Wu pointed out.

“Generally, I’ll grant you that.” He straightened up. “I’m going to go check up on our host on the bridge.”

The other two followed, Ariane moving up to walk next to him; Zounin-Ginjou‘s corridors were more than wide enough to make that possible. Orphan sure didn’t skimp on comfort on this ship.

Of course, that was partly from necessity. If Orphan had been able to make use of top-of-the-line automation, he could have used every cubic inch of space for more armor, weapons, stores, and so on, leaving himself only as much space as he wished to keep for his own comfort and any anticipated allies. But with the Arena restricting automation to the point that he was stuck somewhere around the early 21st century, Orphan ran into a different limitation: how much he could actually control.

Without intelligent automation, there were only so many bells and whistles he could hang onto Zounin-Ginjou before they became useless distractions. Paradoxically, even though the ancient-style automation took up a lot more space per system, he ended up with a huge amount left over because he couldn’t install nearly as many systems; some of that volume was of course used as additional cargo space, but he had apparently decided that a large luxury suite might one day be useful, and turned a hundred cabins’ worth of space into about twenty.

Even so, Zounin-Ginjou packed a fantastic amount of firepower and resources into its hull compared to any similar vessel, and DuQuesne approved. When you’re alone in the Dark, carrying the biggest guns you can helps light things up, so to speak.

“Relaxing while you can?” he asked Ariane.

“As much as I can, yes. It’s not easy; I’m always worried about what’s going on back at Nexus Arena. It’s only been six days, but…”

“… but we know how a few days can change everything. But you were right about this trip. I can feel it, somehow.”

“So can I. But I’m still worried.”

Wu Kung grunted behind them. “I worry a little, but mostly that’s a waste of time. We just have to be ready.”

“Yeah,” agreed DuQuesne as they arrived at the bridge, “the problem is, ready for what?”

“Oh, wow,” Ariane said, looking up.

“Ahh, Captain Austin, I see you already appreciate some of the wonders of the Arena.”

Wu Kung bounded up and pressed his face against the near-indestructible transparent ring-carbon port, staring in a combination of joy and awe.

Before Zounin-Ginjou was a vast canyon of clear air, with gargantuan, rolling walls of cloud to either side, extending unguessable kilometers above and below their current course. Streaming twilight-lavender and grey-touched black, rolling deep green and mountain-waves of deepest blue, the clouds formed a dark corridor with faint yet white-tinted light streaming from behind the massive ship.

A barely-visible cone of shadow preceded them, a shadow against shadows where Zounin-Ginjou blocked the light of the Luminaire that must be almost directly aft. Periodically, blue-white, brilliant scarlet, or burning orange arcs of lightning would streak across the impossibly huge clouds, swift yet traveling so far that the eye could sometimes follow them into the distance ahead or above or below. Other lightning strokes, deeper within the clouds, would illuminate the interior, turning the dark cloud momentarily to a wall of frosted crystal tinted with all the colors of the rainbow.

“Wow,” Ariane said again, reverently. “Orphan, do you ever get tired of it?”

“One grows used to anything… but with your eyes, I see it anew, and am once more uplifted and humbled. Humbled by the vastness and the grandeur of the Arena… and uplifted by the thought that I, Orphan of the Liberated, am one of those who may travel these skies at my own will.”

He does “talk purty”, as Rich would’ve said. Wonder if his own people would hear language this flowery? “Where are we?”

“That, Doctor DuQuesne, is actually a most interesting and perplexing question. I can describe the location, if I wish, by the directions needed to reach it, but can I truly say I know where it is? I do not know. For instance, I cannot tell you whether Nexus Arena lies in the direction we are heading, or behind us, whether it is a mere twenty million kilometers to our port side or five light-years distant to starboard. Without an active, inhabited Sphere in this area of space, with inhabitants to tell us from which galaxy they hail, we cannot even guess where within the vastness of the Arena we may be.”

“Are we in the Deeps yet?” Wu Kung asked.

“We begin to approach them. But our destination is still a great distance away… or, at least, a great deal of time away, even though for all I know our destination lies just on the other side of these clouds.”

“So where are we going right now?”

“There is another Sky Gate here,” Orphan answered. He studied various instruments; DuQuesne saw lines flicker on the viewport. “If my navigation is correct — and I am reasonably confident that it is — the Gate lies just inside of the wall of cloud to our starboard side, about two thousand kilometers ahead and down, relative to our current orientation. If we detect no other vessels here, then we will pass through that gate.”

“And if we do detect other vessels?”

“Then we will continue on, pass through another gate that is ahead, above, and just slightly to port. I will then have to take another roundabout route to return here again, taking us another several days.”

Ariane nodded. “So that gate you want to go through is one you know about, but no one else does.”

“You have the essence of it, yes. Though there may be others who know. I have no knowledge of any others living who do, however.”

“You sensing any ships now?”

“None whatsoever. And, with luck, we shall detect no others. This is a very little-traveled route.”

“And then we will be in the Deeps?”

“For a while, yes. Then another short leg of the journey through somewhat-explored territory before we reach our true destination.”

DuQuesne nodded. Wherever Orphan was taking them clearly had to be reached a very specific way — which fit with what he knew of the Arena. There must be a lot of places that can only be reached one way — one sequence of Sky Gates in or out.

Zounin-Ginjou, disguised or not, was still very fast, and it was not long before they were approaching the area of the secret Gate. Orphan spent the last few moments watching his monitors tensely before finally turning the vessel and sending it darting straight for the clouds a short distance below them.

A blaze of pearlescent light started at the forward end of Zounin-Ginjou, and DuQuesne knew another had started aft, the two light-circles racing to meet each other. That undefinable, tingling jolt, and suddenly the scene outside the port changed. A majestic maelstrom of silvery cloud spread out below them, turning with ponderous, lazy power beneath a sky of gold.

Orphan rose from his seat and turned. “Welcome to the Deeps of the Arena, my friends.” He bowed deeply. “And now… now there are none to hear us as far as any can imagine, and at last I can tell you the why of our little journey.”