Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 17

Chapter 17.

I am completely exhausted, Simon thought. Refitting an entire ship with the ‘primary beam’ weapons was not easy.

That wasn’t entirely true, either. It had become easier and easier to perform the changes as he moved from turret to turret; his body moved almost of its own accord, the Arena-born knowledge and inspiration guiding his fingers as they flew across the complex interior of the energy cannons and readjusted, shifted, added, changed.

And that still frightened him; he could feel how simple it was to access that godlike knowledge, how many other things he could know, could do, that perhaps even the Shadeweavers and Faith could not.

And he was, as far as he knew, the only person with this power. With great power comes great temptation. I do not wish to prove the old saying about power corrupting, but I can understand how easily it can corrupt.

Still, he was exhausted. Superhuman understanding driving his body was still draining his physical stamina. The Embassy of Humanity loomed up before him, and with relief he stepped through the doors.

With a start, he saw that Laila Canning was already walking towards him.

“You have excellent timing, Simon,” Laila said without even so much as a greeting. “We have an emergency, and both Carl and I very much want you present.”

Bugger, as one of my father’s friends used to say. No rest yet. “Why didn’t you call me, if there was an emergency?”

Laila smiled briefly, but the smile did at least touch her eyes, light them momentarily. “Because the emergency literally just walked in the door a few minutes ago. I was going to call you if you weren’t on your way down the street.”

Simon sighed. “I presume it cannot wait?”

“The Leader of the Tantimorcan Faction is here, and he’s already very distressed that our Leader isn’t available. Took a few minutes to convince him that we were completely empowered to act — we had to play that recording of Ariane’s delegating that authority to us before he would.”

“All right. I guess we… wait. He’s here?”

“Yes. In the second conference room. I told him we would be with him as soon as possible.”

“Right.” Simon sighed. “Would you by chance know what the subject of this emergency is? I would prefer not to be entirely caught unawares.”

“He insisted it was something appropriate to discuss only with the Faction Leader, and judging by the way his manipulators vibrated, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

“Definitely wasn’t,” Carl said, joining them. “Glad you made it, Simon.”

“I suppose I should be also. Very well, let us not keep the Leader of our fine shipwrights waiting.”

The three of them reached the conference room and the door opened to admit them. Sangrey Vayhen, the Leader of the Tantimorcan Faction, immediately raised himself as a gesture of respect. He was a squat creature, something like a giant toad with a multi-eyed head and twin manipulator tendrils that split into many individual fingers sprouting from near the corners of a wide mouth.

“Leader Vayhen,” Laila said, “our apologies for making you wait on what is obviously urgent business; I felt it was important to have Doctor Sandrisson here as an additional representative of the Captain’s will, since you impressed on us the urgency of your problem.”

“No apology needed,” Sangrey answered. “Indeed, I must thank you all for seeing me so promptly.” Behind the formal wording Simon could sense a huge amount of nervousness. That subliminal over-sense allowed him to read the alien’s posture, scent, and motions. He’s actually afraid of something.

“Now, please, tell us the problem, Leader Vayhen,” Carl said.

“Ah, yes. Of course.” There was a thud-click from inside the creature — a sound that he knew had to do with the way they breathed, and one that sounded very much like a nervous swallow in context. “First… I must inquire as to whether I am correct in understanding that the name ‘Austin’ is a line or clan designation?”

What in the world…? “It is what we would call a family name, so yes, in a way,” Simon answered. “That is, in general, someone with that last name had at least one parent with that name, and will probably have other relations with that name — although not all of them will.”

If anything, Vayhen looked more tense; his manipulator tendrils were stiff and moved in a jerky fashion. “Oh, dear. You see, I have to come here to both demand an apology from your faction, and possibly to present an apology as well.”

Well, that is certainly a most… interesting way to present one’s situation. “Sangrey,” Laila said, “if the Faction of Humanity, or any of us, owe you an apology we will most certainly give you one, but we must ask you to please clarify what is going on! None of us have any idea what either of us would have to apologize for!”

“Ahh. May the mud rise above me, I am too nervous!” A vibration of color rippled up Sangrey’s flanks. “It may seem strange to you, Doctor Canning, Doctor Edlund, Doctor Sandrisson… but your faction has been most terrifyingly spectacular in your arrival and success, and the thought of confronting you is most daunting to one such as myself.” He raised a manipulator. “Display relevant events at Docking 5.”

An image formed in midair, of a group of people — people of multiple species — on one of the docking platforms of Nexus Arena. The group was following a lone human being, and was clearly agitated, shouting angry imprecations at the human, who was retorting in multiple human languages, wearing a broad grin all the while.

“This… individual had entered into discussions with several of our people over various political events, but…” Sangrey seemed at a loss. “… but he did not discuss. That is, he seemed… intent on finding opportunities to insult people, to twist their words in dialogue, not arguing in good faith. And he continued this in a manner that was quite maddening, causing a number of our people and others to follow him, trying to shout him down or force him to be reasonable. Yet he continued.”

Simon winced. Oh, Good Lord. “Sangrey, as a member of Humanity I do apologize. And I believe that all three of us apologize fully in Ariane’s place.”

Laila rolled her eyes. “I knew we’d get some of his type in sooner or later, but I had thought the screening that was being done would be… but no, I suspect this was not included in the original specifications. Our laws don’t stop you from being deliberately rude, at least not reliably.”

Simon caught a clearer fragment of dialogue and blinked in disbelief. Did he… he did. He actually said “I know you are but what am I” while taunting an alien mob! How is that even being translated?

“But I am afraid it is not over,” Sangrey said, and his eyes were positively wincing.

Abruptly, the mob lunged forward. Simon remembered: on the docks, many of the Arena’s usual protections against violence were relaxed or ignored entirely. There was a short struggle, and suddenly a single figure — a bipedal, human figure — fell, or was pushed, and plummeted away into the endless void below.

“We were informed, alas, that his last name was Austin, and so I was afraid that…”

Simon found himself suddenly laughing. “Oh, heavens, Sangrey, I understand. You thought your mob might have just killed off a relative of our Leader!”

Despite the nonhuman appearance, Simon could see Sangrey starting to relax. “Then we did not?”

Carl shook his head. “Ariane doesn’t have that many relatives, and I know most of them. I didn’t recognize that guy. See, while last names can indicate family, in most cases there’s a lot of different families with the same last name. And ‘Austin’ is a pretty common last name in the area of the world Ariane came from. I’ll check up just to be sure, but I’d bet money on that troll not being related to Ariane in any way.”

The Leader of the Tantimorcan Faction relaxed even more visibly. “Troll?”

Not translated, or translated too literally? Really, the Arena seems almost arbitrary in its translation. “A term that can mean a certain sort of monster,” Simon said, “but in this context means a person who derives amusement by bothering others in exactly the manner you describe, harassing them to get a response. Unfortunately our civilization doesn’t do much to stop such people; at home, you can just block people from contacting you. I am afraid that does not work so well here.”

While it was in the abstract sad to see anyone die, Simon found he could not summon much sorrow for the man who’d brought the violence of the mob down upon him. In truth, Simon simply found it incomprehensible that some people would take joy in making others angry and upset. And now someone had died at the hands of a mob, and the late Mr. Austin’s habits had now caused a serious issue that had to be dealt with at the highest level.

“You wouldn’t know this guy’s first name, would you?” Carl asked.

The large toadlike creature was sagging down slightly; Simon thought this indicated relief, a relaxation after facing something terrifying. It was bemusing to think of humans as something terrifying, though. “The other name was Terry, I believe.”

“I thought so!” Carl said. “This guy was notorious for this kind of stuff back home; I’ve actually heard of him before from Ariane, who was pissed that they shared the same last name. And you’re in real luck, Sangrey; according to a quick check of the records, he didn’t have any family of his own, doesn’t even have anyone in the ‘in case of emergency, contact’ slot of the form. So there probably won’t be too many people terribly broken up by the news. Maybe quite a few celebrating.”

I would dearly love to leave it at that, Simon thought, but he knew he couldn’t — and a glance at Laila confirmed that she was already on it. “While that is something of a relief,” Laila said briskly, “your people did take the law into their own hands. I can’t just ignore that.”

“This is most certainly understood, Doctor Canning. It is not entirely clear what happened at the end — it may have been at least partially an accident, but it may also have been as deliberate as it seems. We do not wish this to lie between us; what can we do as recompense?”

“I presume there was an attempt to recover him?” Simon asked.

“An alarm was given and some fliers dispatched by us and others, but … there were only some zikki found.”

Simon could not keep from wincing himself. Zikki were fast-moving Arena predators, something like armored flying squid. If Mr. Austin had fallen into a group of those, well…

He took a deep breath of his own. “Leader Vayhen, would you give us a moment to confer?”

The manipulator tendrils spread wide. “Oh, certainly; do you wish me to leave?”

“No, no, just give us a few moments.” The other two followed him out.

Once the door closed, he looked at them. “Technically, it’s your decision, not mine.”

Laila gave a dismissive sniff. “Legally perhaps, but we all know that you and DuQuesne are the ones she leans on, and she left you to give us the same backup.” She flicked a glance to Carl, who nodded.

“What do you think, Simon?” Carl was clearly uncertain. “This is a sticky situation any way I look at it. I mean, that guy may have been a total asshole, but even being a world-class asshole doesn’t mean you should get killed.”

Simon closed his eyes and frowned. “That rather depends on location and time, Carl. In many past civilizations, being an… asshole could, and often did, carry a penalty up to and including death. I am not entirely sure that in the setting of the Arena — where offending the wrong person could lead to a war — it is not in fact completely appropriate that we look at things in that light.”

“Still,” Laila said thoughtfully, “we don’t want to set a precedent that our people can be disposed of by mobs.”

“No. But Leader Vayhen has already accepted that there is wrongdoing on his side.” Simon was suddenly certain what Ariane would have done. “Laila, Carl, what do you think of this…”

After he’d explained, he saw both Carl and Laila nodding. “Works for me,” Carl said. “I think it’s probably the best compromise.”

“I concur,” Laila said. “I was thinking along similar lines; this confirms it.”

“Then shall we?” The other two followed him in.

Sangrey raised himself slightly as they entered. “You have come to a decision?”

“We have, Leader Vayhen. The fact is that we, as Humanity, must accept a large part of the blame. It is imperative that we start screening all our people for such tendencies and keep those sorts at home where they won’t cause trouble. We should have done so already, and this event is a result of that oversight. Laila, we can have people start on that right away, yes?”

Laila nodded. “Not a problem.”

“And,” Carl said, “The fact is… Showing that vid to people back home just might get through to some of those types that there’s limits on what they can do. The Arena’s filled with consequences, and there’s nothing wrong with hammering that home.”

He did work for someone who raced in a potentially lethal sport; I suppose that gives you an appreciation for the less forgiving aspects of reality. “Obviously, Sangrey, we expect you will mete out appropriate punishment to the perpetrators, by your own standards, but insofar as our official reaction? The Faction of Humanity is willing to simply let it pass, as long as the Faction of Tantimorcan is also willing to let this pass.”

Sangrey squished himself low to the floor, apparently his equivalent of a bow. “The Faction of Tantimorcan accepts. May this incident be forgotten.”

“May it be forgotten,” the three of them chorused.

Once Sangrey had left, Simon turned to the other two. “We do have to make sure this sort of thing cannot happen again.”

“No argument there,” Carl said. “I found this guy’s file and I can see why he was let in — he’s really good at inventory management, creative, good at leading people in the right circumstances. But he is… was also really good at finding weak places in people’s mental armor and pushing; it was more than a habit, it was an avocation with him.”

Laila smiled — a cold smile that Simon was rather glad was not directed at him. “Then I suppose he achieved his life’s goal. I would presume that we could get the AIs working on sorting out these people before they come through.”

“Naturally,” Simon said. “It might be as simple as looking at how many blocking lists an applicant is on. However, I think that will require some more CSF/SSC work. Restricting where people go is not normally permitted when it’s not conflicting with another individual’s rights. I am afraid a lot of our laws are going to have to be revised.”

“I will send a summary to Thomas Cussler,” Laila said. “It’s really the sort of thing he should be watching for. As you say, we will have to adjust our screening, and perhaps our laws, to deal with this.”

“And fast,” Carl said, looking more serious. “Trolls are usually just nuisances, but there’s other people who have more sinister motives, especially now. But you’re right, that’s Tom’s and the SSC’s problem; we’ll send ’em our recommendation and let them figure it out. The fact someone’s gotten killed should give them a good kick in the pants to move forward.”

Simon stretched. “Well, now that that’s settled, I want to get myself some dinner and go to sleep. I feel, as DuQuesne might say, like I have been pulled through a knothole.” The others waved as he left.

However, now that he’d had to deal with another crisis, he found he wasn’t yet ready to relax. Blast. Well, then, I’ll go out and eat. That should work off the extra nervous energy.

The Grand Arcade was — as at almost any time — a whirl of scents, sights, and sounds uplifting, dizzying, and, in a way, comforting; here there might be a thousand different species, enemies and victims and allies, and yet they were all here to do things so very much the same — shop, haggle, eat, entertain, gamble. It was here that you could see that in many ways we really were all very much the same.

Simon found a restaurant that he’d seen before, run by a Daelmokhan. Despite their rather inhuman appearance, the Daelmokhan had biochemistries quite close to that of humans and their restaurants tended to have a large variety of edible, and even quite tasty, selections. Armed with his headware references to make sure he didn’t choose unwisely, he quickly made some selections and sat down.

Yes, this was the right call, he thought, as he cracked the shell on a creature that looked like an almost spherical crab with circular frondlike appendages on two sides. I can feel myself relaxing. Once I’m done, I know I’ll be able to go to sleep by the time I’m back at the Embassy.

“Hello, Simon. Would you mind terribly if I could sit down?” said a light, musical voice, a voice with just the perfect undertone of huskiness to make it completely arresting.

Startled, he glanced up.

Hair gleaming like spun gold, eyes like pure sapphires, Maria-Susanna looked down at him, smiling, with just a hint of uncertainty that made her look startlingly vulnerable. “Honestly… I need to talk to someone.”