Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 16

Chapter 16.

“To use a human expression that’s probably going to be interesting in translation, Orphan, we’re all ears,” Ariane said.

Orphan tilted his head. “That… was an interesting expression indeed. But I get the gist of the meaning.” He stood, leaning back against a railing in front of the actual viewport, silhouetted against the planet-sized whirlpool of cloud and storm ahead.

“It begins many, many years ago, when I signed on for an expedition to the Deeps headed by a consortium comprised mainly of members of the Vengeance and the Analytic. As I am sure you recall from our prior conversations, the Deeps are of vast interest because they may hide almost anything; in particular, they may conceal remnants of the Voidbuilders, or some of the earliest residents of the Arena, information of great interest to both of those Great Factions.

“Now, one of the things one looks for in these explorations is unknown Sky Gates. While we know that Sky Gates will appear around Spheres of worlds owned by any faction, it is also known that sometimes there are Sky Gates associated with other locations, but not predictably so. Thus, such exploration expeditions will have sensors for the disturbances of Sky Gates and hope to pass close enough to one to detect it. This is naturally a very rare event; even if such Sky Gates are quite common, the Arena is vast beyond easy grasping and the range of detection makes detecting them a random affair indeed.”

He turned and looked out of the port; Ariane could see the tightening of the wingcases. “But on this trip we found one, an unknown Sky Gate far from any Sphere. The captains conferred and decided to venture through — not that there was much chance they would decide otherwise, in truth.

“Alas, we emerged in the very center of one of the great storms, a massive tempest that seized our vessels, assaulted them with lightning large enough to span a world, sent us spinning out of control. I managed to reach one of the emergency launches, just as a veritable wave of rocky debris hurtled from the depths of the storm and battered both vessels furiously. A shard of metal embedded itself in the base of my right wing, nearly shearing it off, and piercing deep into my back, but I made it inside. The launch fired thrusters automatically and shot me from the doomed ships; I watched with horror as they began to break up, and then the storm sent me hurtling beyond sight of the disaster.

“Such a small vessel has some advantages in surviving storms, even if there are many others where size would be a great comfort. I could not control the launch, but though I was sent hurtling hither and yon, and occasionally rapped violently by a careening boulder or random zikki, the launch survived reasonably intact; I was somewhat less than well, but my wound would not be swiftly fatal. I could not remove the shard, but there were field dressings in the emergency launch which would prevent infection.”

Orphan began pacing slowly back and forth, not even apparently aware of his motion as he continued to speak. “At last, I broke out into clear air, a space where I could get some idea of my bearings and no longer be out of control within the storm.

“To my immense surprise, there was … something already there. Not a Sphere (although I later discovered a Sphere sat very nearby) but an immense and complex structure, many thousands of kilometers in extent.” He glanced to them and tilted his head, a gesture that made her think of a wry grin. “I was, as you might imagine, somewhat reluctant to approach this unknown installation; a Faction that constructs something so large in an isolated portion of the Arena is almost certainly hiding something, and if they were one of the more… intolerant Factions –”

“Like the Molothos,” Wu Kung put in.

“Precisely, yes, if they were of that sort of Faction, they would be likely to do something extremely rude and final to me.” Orphan seemed to look up through the hull of Zounin-Ginjou. “Still, I had no idea of where I might be, how far away the Sky Gate we had entered by was, nor very many provisions to keep me alive. And it is a general rule of the Arena that stranded people are to be assisted; is this true on your world?”

Ariane nodded emphatically. “Yes. Whether on sea, land, air, or space, a distress signal is expected to be heeded and anyone capable of effecting a rescue in the indicated region is expected to render assistance immediately, regardless of the nationality or associations of the distressed vessel or people. There are some exceptions — it’s not a legal requirement for most people — but there’s a very strong tradition.”

“Excellent; this is of course true with most civilized groups. So, I decided that I had little to lose and headed for this structure as best I could, transmitting one of the standard Arena beacon signals for help.” The wingcases drew in even more, and Ariane saw a vibration of the tail that gave her the impression of a shudder.

“Without the slightest warning, my ship was seized by some… unknown force. There was no sign of another vessel or any activity near the huge structure, but my ship was suddenly borne towards it with remarkable rapidity and complete precision; we travelled, as near as I can tell, in an absolutely straight line from my location to a bay at one side of the structure. I attempted to use my ship’s thrusters to affect the motion, but to no avail; it seemed to have no more effect than if I had pitted my own wings against the power of Zounin-Ginjou‘s engines.

“My little vessel landed in the bay, and immediately shut down — again without the slightest act on my part. Seeing that my choices were minimal, I exited the launch. I will not deny that I was not merely mystified, but frightened. There had been no communications of any sort, and in this landing bay was no sign of any other ship, or even any living thing. It was a grand and chilling isolation, a place absolutely devoid of living presences… and yet I knew I was watched, that my slightest move was being noted by whatever force had chosen to bring me thence.”

Orphan’s entire body swelled and shrank, with a whistling sound from his spiracles — clearly the equivalent of drawing a long, uncertain breath. “My friends, I still find myself shaken merely recalling those moments.”

“Can’t blame you, Orphan,” DuQuesne said. “Sounds like some of our experiences when we first got into the Arena. As Ariane used to say, ‘creepy’ was the word that came first to mind.”

“‘Creepy’? Yes, most precisely, creepy is the right description, if the translation holds true.” He expanded and rattled his wings, then closed them tightly. “So, I stepped out, and a door across the bay opened. With no little trepidation I made my way across the polished and utterly empty floor to the corridor thus revealed, and was directed in similarly … creepy… silence through several other twists and turns, until I found myself before a set of immense doors; tired and injured as I was, I waited immobile a moment, trying to decide whether to move forward or not, when the decision was taken from me. The doors parted, folding up and away, and I knew I had no choice. I stepped into a room nearly complete in its darkness. Then, slowly, the darkness began to lift, and there was a figure standing there.”

From the tone of Orphan’s voice, and the slow-rising tension of his narration, Ariane felt a tingling, cold thrill edging down her spine.

“All at once the light came up… and I found that I was face-to-face with… myself.”

Ariane glanced at the others; DuQuesne was staring, riveted, and to her surprise she saw gooseflesh standing out on the former Hyperion’s arms. Son Wu Kung’s posture was taut, his eyes narrow, but his mouth curled up in a smile, as though the unknown were just one more challenge to assault.

“Holy Mother,” DuQuesne muttered. “Creepy doesn’t get the half of that.” She recognized a particular tone in his voice and realized that Orphan’s story must touch on something else, something in DuQuesne’s Hyperion past. “Wasn’t a mirror, was it?”

The buzzing, low laugh was filled with Orphan’s own apprehension. “Ahhh, Doctor DuQuesne, that might almost have been comforting. No. My other self gave me the tiniest of bows, and welcomed me to his home. I asked him, of course, who he was, and he said he was Vindatri. Did you hear that in your language or mine?”

“Yours,” Wu Kung answered.

“Hm. Yes, because it was used as a name. But it is also a word, and the word itself was suggestive.” He said the word again; this time Ariane heard what seemed half a dozen words or more, all said indistinguishably together. “You do not understand? Perhaps the exact concept is not easily translated. It means something like Watcher, Observer, Monitor, but with hints of ‘Guardian’, ‘Protector’, and also ‘Judge’.”

“Sentinel, maybe?”

“Perhaps, although that loses some nuance.” Orphan flicked his hands absently outward, then continued. “Vindatri then bade me stand still, and walked behind me to look at my wound. I felt a shock as the fragment of metal simply tore its way back out of my wing, and I saw my right wing and case drop to the ground; I collapsed myself, and lost consciousness.”

Orphan, clearly still nervous, seated himself, though that seemed almost useless as he almost vibrated in the seat. “When I awoke, I sat up — and realized I was no longer in pain. I reached back with my tail… and found that both wingcases were there, intact. The room I found myself in — provided with furniture and other accoutrements perfectly appropriate to our species — had a mirror, and — as you can see now,” he turned in his chair slightly, “my back was utterly unmarred; no sign of a scar, no sense of injury, only my memories to tell me that I had ever been injured.”

“Damn. So this Vindatri pulled you in, yanked the metal out of you, and fixed you up perfectly?”

“Yes. Rather than draw the remainder of the story out — for it would be long indeed — Vindatri kept me there for some time, discussing what I knew of the Arena and its people. He seemed particularly interested in the Faith and the Shadeweavers, but in my own story as well. Finally, he said to me, ‘I have rescued you and healed you. Would you agree that you owe me a debt, Orphan?’

“A very great one, Vindatri, if you can also return me to my home; else my gratitude and debt will mean little, I fear.”

“He laughed, and tapped his assent, and said, ‘True enough. And there is little you could do directly for me, even then. You have already done me a service by telling me of the Factions I have myself not seen in a very long time. So I will return you, in my own way. You have spoken of the strange powers of the Shadeweavers and Faith, and how you fear their abilities; I shall give you something to protect you from them. For this, I will ask only two things: first, that if ever truly new factions appear, you come, and tell me of them.'”

Orphan stopped, tilted his head. “The second condition, alas, is a secret. Perhaps one day I may tell you. I hope so.” He spread his wings. “But now, I think, you understand.”

“No doubt,” DuQuesne said. “You promised to tell him of new factions, and here we were. And as it turns out, you’ve got two to talk to him about.”

“Exactly,” Orphan said. “The fact that you are members of one of the new Factions, I believe, will directly interest Vindatri, and perhaps give you some chance of asking him some very interesting questions.”

“Such as,” Ariane said, “How he can make a gadget that stops the powers of the Shadeweavers cold, and if that means he can tell me what I can do with mine.”

A quick handtap and bob-bow. “Precisely, Captain Ariane Austin.” That tilt-headed smile. “I believe you will find this… a most educational trip!”