Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 18

Chapter 18.

“The idea is tempting, Doctor DuQuesne, but … are you certain it will work?”

“Not certain. But… say eighty percent chance it’ll work,” DuQuesne answered. “And if it does work, your firepower just went way up.”

“It will drop if you fail, however,” Orphan pointed out. DuQuesne could tell that the protest was, at least partially, purely from Orphan’s instinctive need to be cautious.

“You’ll still have the top turret that Simon modified in the first place,” Ariane said. “And from what I saw of that thing in action, you could lose a lot of turrets and still be ahead of where your ship started.”

A buzzing chuckle accompanied by a handtap was Orphan’s reply. “You indeed have a point, especially since that weapon no longer requires someone to stand in the turret reloading it. And having another such weapon… or three… yes, that is definitely a gamble worth taking.”

“Three? You wouldn’t want all of them converted?”

“Alas, I do not have nearly enough channel assembly reloads to reasonably make use of that many. But up to three, yes, I have the supplies to make useful.”

“Okay, then we’ll get to it. On one condition.”

“That is…?”

“You don’t watch. If I’m right, and I’ve got the secret, I’m not giving it away. Giving you a SAMPLE, yes, but not the technique.”

The green and black alien chuckled again. “Doctor, I have gone over the one Doctor Sandrisson created many times, and failed to find the secret. If you have that secret, then it is your Faction’s by right. The gain of such weaponry will be more than adequate to salve the complaints of my curiosity.”

DuQuesne grinned. “Okay, then. C’mon, Ariane, I’ll need your help.”

Ariane looked puzzled, but nodded. Wu turned to follow them. “Hold off, Wu.”

True to his training and promise, the Monkey King looked at Ariane. “Do you want me to come?”

“If I’m not safe with DuQuesne, I’m not safe period. If he doesn’t want you there, he’ll have a reason.”

“All right. But I will be even more bored then.”

“I have an idea, Wu Kung,” Orphan said. “While I now know you were… oh, what was that term I heard one of you humans use… sandbagging, that was it! I know you were sandbagging during our little match, I think some sparring, and perhaps discussion of combat traditions of each others’ civilizations, could reduce your boredom.”

“Ha!” said Wu, his tail coming up with more interest. “You have a good idea there! All right, while DuQuesne and Ariane waste their time with machines, we will have some fun!”

“Just don’t have too much fun, Wu,” Ariane said with the smile that often showed up when Wu Kung was around. “We need Orphan in one piece.”

“Yes, please; I like keeping my limbs intact,” agreed Orphan.

“No dismembering, agreed,” Wu said with a grin. “But a warning: I think you were sandbagging a little too.”

DuQuesne saw Ariane’s eyebrows go up. “Really?”

Orphan looked, somehow, too casually innocent as Wu Kung replied, “Not much, maybe, but he’s the tricky type. I didn’t find out until years later how much Sha Wujing was holding back, and Orphan’s like him. Only with a better sense of humor!”

“That’s not hard to manage,” DuQuesne said, remembering the grim gray river-ogre from Wu’s home Hyperion world. “Okay, guys, we’ll see you later.” DuQuesne led the way towards the main starboard battery.

“All right, Marc, can you tell me what my role in this is? I know you’re testing to see if you can do what Simon did, but –”

“Wait.” DuQuesne took out a handheld scanner and observed its responses carefully; then he set it to give an alarm if anything changed and returned it to his pocket. “Sorry, wanted to double-check that Orphan wasn’t monitoring us. Yes, I probably don’t need help to do this. But no reason to tell him that. He knows Simon did it… somehow. He also knows he can’t figure out how. So if this time it’s two of us (and it works), he’ll have even fewer good clues to go on. As far as I know, aside from the Holy Grail crew, Nyanthus, Mandallon, and Gona-Brashind are the only ones who know what happened at the ritual that sealed your powers, and thus the only ones with even a chance to guess that there’s something strange about Simon. Without that, he’ll be shooting in the dark.”

“I feel kind of guilty for working so hard to hide things from him,” Ariane said.

DuQuesne reached the door, unsealed it, let Ariane enter first and then closed and dogged the hatch down again. “So do I — a little. But friend or not, that joker’s always got his own agenda in mind, and he’s got us in trouble before. So I don’t feel that guilty.”

Ariane looked up and an expression of momentary awe flickered across her face. “Wow. That’s a big gun.”

“It is that. Even without these mods, it’s nothing you would want to mess with. Shooting hundreds of kilometers through sea-level thick atmosphere, that’s not a popgun by anyone’s standards.”

“So — being a devil’s advocate here — why are we going to just give Orphan these super-guns?”

DuQuesne nodded in appreciation. “That is the question. And I’ll bet you can answer it yourself, Captain.”

The blue-haired woman nodded, watching as he started to take the cover plates off the energy cannon. “Well, first, we’re on board and could end up in a fight, so it’s just covering our own bets to make sure he’s got the best equipment.”

“Sure a good point,” DuQuesne agreed. He concentrated, thinking back. Me and Richard… working on the Dauntless before launch… “Go on.”

“Hmmm… well, he’ll owe us something. Something pretty big, since he couldn’t get this anywhere else. And keeping an ace in the hole like this is something that’s second nature to him; he’s not going to blow the secret for us.”

“You’ve got it. Most of it, anyway.” Simon routed these power leads here, then… oh, yeah, now I see it! The modifications suddenly made sense to DuQuesne, were clear and straightforward. He began working faster, feeling himself getting into the flow.

With an abrupt shock, he realized Ariane had been addressing him, with increasing concern. “DuQuesne! Can you even hear me?”

“What? Sorry, Ariane, I got really immersed there.”

“Scared me a little; your hands were flying, and before you looked like you weren’t even quite sure what you were doing.”

“I wasn’t,” he admitted. “Then all of a sudden it just clicked. What’d I miss?”

“Not much, really. I just asked you what the rest of it was.”

“It? Oh, why we’re giving these to Orphan.” He adjusted another setting, tested the connections. “Simple: I want to keep him in debt to us. The one thing he’s scrupulous about is keeping his word and paying his debts; that’s something everyone in the Arena cares about. So as long as he knows he owes us, we’re not just relying on his sense of friendship, but on his sense of … well, honor, I guess.”

“I wish I could let my idealistic side argue, but I remember the way he helped Amas-Garao get me in the ring. Good work, ‘Blackie‘.

He chuckled. Somehow, having someone use that old, old nickname while he was there with his arms buried in a starship’s guts… somehow it felt like home. Is there an afterlife for AIs? I hope so, Rich, because I really feel like you’re watching me, somehow. “Thank you, Captain.”

“No problem. On the subject of ‘he’s gotten us in trouble before’… what do you think about the condition he couldn’t tell us?”

“You mean the other part of his bargain with this Vindatri?” He frowned, arranging his thoughts. “Well, first, no point in trying to pry it out of him. Obviously he gave his word not to tell, and we’re relying on that characteristic of Orphan’s nature.”

“Agreed. Any guesses?”

Hmm. Yeah, these go… here. “A few. You know I can read even alien body language pretty well — which fits with our other deductions. And… you’re right. I think it’s potential trouble. No hostile vibes from him, but he showed just a touch too much tension in his stance. Not as bad as the time before he set Gabrielle up, but not good.”

Ariane was silent for a few moments as he worked. Then, “So… is there anything we should be doing to prepare for … whatever it is?”

“Damned if I know. I know there’s something he didn’t say, that he knows we’d really want to know. What, exactly? Not even a guess. On the other hand, we’ve got a massive trump card that — even if he somehow figured it out — he’d have a hell of a time countering.”

Orphan might have a hard time countering it, but what about Vindatri?”

That is the question of the hour, and I hate to say it but I haven’t got a clue. Orphan doesn’t know who or what Vindatri is, he’s in debt to the guy, and he’s scared to death of him, too.”

He could see her stiffen. “He is?”

“Not a doubt about it. He wasn’t just creeped out from the meeting; he was still scared to this day. Not all that surprising — Orphan’s the kind of guy who wants to have a handle on everything, and Vindatri obviously was out of his league in pretty much every direction.” DuQuesne thought about it a while, inserting new circuitry into the control ring. “But honestly? Unless this guy’s one of the Voidbuilders themselves, and I kinda doubt it, I think our ace is still good insurance.”

Ariane paced slowly around the turret, her path marked by the clicking of her boots on the deck. “But that story still creeped you out, too. Why?”

He paused, looked up. For a moment he couldn’t speak; habits of silence decades old still had a hold on him, even in Ariane’s presence.

Finally he sighed and sat back. “Hyperion again.”

“I guessed that much. It echoed something that happened to you there?”

“Yeah. Our first encounter with Mentor, actually. Not your Mentor, of course.”

Not for the first time, a tiny voice in the back of his head asked Are you sure? Ariane’s AISage sure sounded like the one DuQuesne had known. He could have escaped, somehow. It’d explain why he was able to track down other escaped Hyperion AIs once the possibility was raised. Crippled, of course — he’s in a T-5 housing now, not a T-10+ like the … well, the original Mentor.

Aloud, he continued, “We needed support for the fledgling interstellar community we were setting up, and we already knew we were up against some kind of hostile interstellar power, one that already had agents on Earth even before we got the Skylark off the ground. One of those agents was the one that hurt the original Oasis so bad that K had to transfer her consciousness gestalt into her own body.”

“Fairchild, right?”

“Doctor Alexander Fairchild, yes. And I hope to God he isn’t the AI that escaped… not that any of the major bad guy AIs would be a picnic. Anyway, the way we ended up meeting Mentor was by following clues to a particular location in space and, well, getting drawn in just like that. And met Mentor in pretty much the same way, him choosing to manifest an appearance appropriate to each of us.”

Ariane — who had actually read the originals he was based on, unlike about ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of humanity — nodded slowly. There was a faint smile on her face. “So you weren’t just a sort of Seaton-Crane cross. You were… what, Virgil Samms, too?”

He blushed. “Sort of. Kimball Kinnison, too. Not quite the model of perfection Samms was. Put me and Rich together for that. And yeah, put both series in a Mixmaster and fast-forward for the plot. Anyway, that’s why it creeped me out; sounded waaaay too familiar, and I know this is the real world.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “I can’t blame you, Marc. It creeped me out too, and I sure wasn’t in Hyperion.”

He nodded, squeezed back, and then straightened up, started working on the next section.

“Marc,” she said after a moment, “that subject reminds me of our ‘trump card’.”

“Not surprised. What’s on your mind?”

“Well… speaking as the Captain and Leader, I’d like to know… how sure are you of it working, and to what extent?”

Wondered when she’d ask those questions. And when I’d have to let myself think about them again. I’d shoved them way to the back for damn good reason. But she’s also got a damned good reason for asking. “Given what we saw with Wu, I think we’ve got a hundred percent guarantee of something. As to the extent… that’s the sixty-four dollar question.” He checked his sensor again, then sighed. “Okay. Ariane, you’ve pretty much backed me into a corner here, so we’ve got a mini-crisis on our hands.”

She blinked. “A crisis? Of what?”

“Of secrets and leverage, basically. See, this Vindatri — he could make something that trumped the Shadeweavers’ powers, do other things that creeped out even our favorite opportunist Orphan. So I have to assume he could do a lot of the same things the Shadeweavers could.”

She nodded after a moment. “Okay, I follow, and I think you’re right. He told Orphan that device would work to protect him against either Faction, so we can take it as a give that he understands their powers very well, and can probably use at least some of them. What’s the crisis?”

“Once I really started to think we Hyperions might be able to use our Hyperion-world capabilities, I did a few quick tests. And the answer was yes. They worked. The powers of the mind that I got from my Smithian mash-up Hyperion-verse? Working. Telepathy, perception, the whole nine yards.” He gestured to the energy cannon. “This is just another demonstration — the wonky physics and technology tricks that shouldn’t work, do. For me, anyway. And apparently for Simon, maybe for a different reason though.”

She was staring at him in awe. “They really work?”

“Yeah. Don’t know their limits — how much can the Arena give me? How much does it want to give me? What can people like this Vindatri do? Not a clue. But that’s not the key point here. The point is that with those abilities I of course got the capability to wall off that knowledge. I know it’s there, but even that is shielded. A Shadeweaver — or this Vindatri, or the Faith if they ever tried — would have to force his way in. It’s not like that trick the Hyperion designers came up with; I’m pretty sure that once they recognize that trick exists, the Shadeweavers could find a way around what amounts to a mental checksum, and Amas-Garao sure thought so too. But these things… they’re genuine mental shields, complete with surface thoughts that hide what’s there.”

Ariane suddenly closed her eyes and smacked herself on the forehead. “Duh! Pushing you like this, and getting the information from you, means I am now going to be thinking about it. And that makes me a potential security risk.”

“Basically, yeah. Problem is that while the Shadeweavers promised not to mess with our heads, this Vindatri sure didn’t. A trump card isn’t much of a trump card if the other people can see it.”

“And,” Ariane went on, “if you weren’t hiding it from yourself most of the time, you might give it away in your behavior. Right?”

“You can bet those legendary ninety-seven rows of little green apple trees on it, especially when you’re dealing with Big Time Operators like Orphan or this Vindatri.”

Ariane stood there for a few moments, obviously thinking, and he saw her grow a shade paler. Her eyes met his again. “And now that I know the potential extent of your — and Wu Kung’s — abilities, I am the big security risk. It was bad enough before that I had suspicions, but with you confirming it –”

“About the size of it. Yes.”

“Then…” she hesitated, and he wasn’t surprised. I’d damn well hesitate before suggesting what I think she’s going to. “Then could you… do something to either make me forget, or shield any thoughts I might have?”

“If I’m right? Yes, I can do that. If you –”

“Do it,” she said sharply. “Until I know how to use the power the Faith and Shadeweavers locked up in me, I’ve got no defenses against beings like that messing with, or reading, my mind. We can’t take the chance of someone finding out key information because I pulled it out of you and can’t keep from thinking about it.”

DuQuesne could see that she was absolutely certain. “Yes, Captain,” he said. Arena, you damn well better be picture-perfect in making these powers work, because I am about to mess with someone else’s mind.

He put down the tools, seated himself comfortably, gestured for Ariane to sit as well. “Main thing is for you to be as relaxed as possible,” he said. “Had to do something like this for some of our allies like Dorothy — Rich couldn’t quite bring himself to touch her head but he knew it had to be done.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll try. What’s it … like? Will it hurt?”

He concentrated. Shouldn’t hurt at all, he thought, projecting towards her.

YOW! Oh my GOD that’s weird! I mean… I’ve had stuff sort of like that in the simgames, but it’s been a long time, and that’s real.”

“Think of it as a simgame effect, if it makes it easier,” DuQuesne said. “This may be physically real, but the Arena’s running the show. The show’s just really convincing.”

He closed his eyes and entered the surface of her mind. Ariane? I’m here again.

A sensation of nervous excitement. Yeah, I can hear that. Or think that? Vocabulary for telepathy isn’t really there, you know?

He grinned, knew she “saw” a mental representation of the smile. Yeah, I know. Now, I don’t want you to forget what you knew, so I’m going to do something a little trickier; build a sort of mental camouflage around that part of your knowledge. I can’t really build in a mind-barrier that’ll protect you from a direct push by someone with any kind of mental power, but if he or she doesn’t suspect there’s something to look for, they’re not going to see it.

So how will that work? If I think about our trump card –

It will use your own knowledge of the surroundings and situation to emphasize whatever other thoughts you might have. People’s minds flicker from one thing to another pretty quick, and they’re usually thinking at least two or three things in fast succession even when they’re only conscious of thinking about one. It’ll be a little disconcerting for you at first, because it’ll be a little like hearing yourself talking about two things at once, but you’ll get used to it. That’s what I’ve got up around my own mind.

He started constructing the mind-block. It was something like a mirror, something like a blind, something like a false-front, but really not like any of them because it was a mental construct.

It was not, of course, possible to ignore everything about Ariane’s mind while he was there — though he tried very hard to keep focused only on the task at hand. A person’s mind is the only place they should be guaranteed to have privacy, and telepathy violates that. Even with permission… and dammit, I shouldn’t even be getting hints of what she thinks about me or anyone else!

But he kept on, weaving a cloak of thoughts that he could implant and layer over particular concepts and knowledge in Ariane’s consciousness. Got to be careful as hell here. The idea is to hide stuff, not to touch anything else.

He felt, distantly, a bead of sweat going down his back. Now I know why Rich didn’t want to do this for Dorothy; too much riding on it for me, personally. And doing it here in the real world, in a world where I haven’t spent years mastering these powers, where I’m just starting to think about it again — I could really mess it –

Relax, Marc. A flash of a confident smile, a warmth and absolute trust.

He was startled. You heard that.

Another flicker of humor despite tension. Marc, I almost didn’t need to. I know what you’re like by now, don’t I? I could guess what you’d be thinking. A sensation as though she had laid a hand on his shoulder, even though neither of them had moved. You’ve never failed me yet, and I don’t think you ever will. Trust yourself. You know what you’re doing, and you’re not going to mess anything up.

Her absolute confidence startled him… yet at the same time it was something he realized he had known all along. All right, Ariane. Hold on and this’ll be over in a few minutes.

A weave of thought and intention, anchored to her will and the conditions around her. Connections to the secrets, connections that shielded, deflected, turned away; it was as though a part of her mind was becoming blurred, shadowed, harder and harder to see, and he placed another layer on it, and another.

Finally he sat back. “Done!” He wiped his forehead and reached into the toolbox for the bottle of water he’d brought along, drained half of it.

She rubbed her head thoughtfully. “I don’t feel much different.”

“That’s the whole idea. Just try not to think on the subject too much; don’t want to put strain on the coverup.”

She looked askance at him. “You do know that’s like telling someone to not think about pink elephants, right? Suddenly they’re thinking about nothing but pink elephants!”

“Yeah, but better that I get to see how it acts under stress right now than find out it’s falling apart the moment we meet up with Vindatri.”

“A test run under stress? Okay, I get it.” She blinked. “You’re right, that is strange. It’s… it’s like being in a big empty room with one other person talking at the same time you are, the echoes bouncing around each other. I can hear… or see, or whatever… the thoughts that the people outside would get, and my hidden thoughts, too.”

After a few minutes he nodded. “Seems to hold up pretty well. I can see it by scanning, but I know it’s there and I know exactly what to look for. If I think about it from a surface-scan point of view I don’t think anyone short of the real Mentor or another Stage Three mind — as we used to call them — would catch it unless they were already suspicious and poking hard. It’s not going to protect you from a direct forceful scan, but it’s good enough for now.”

Ariane nodded thoughtfully but said nothing right away. He turned back to the gun and started working again.

After a while, DuQuesne became aware that she wasn’t saying anything, just watching him; it was distracting for a moment, but then the silence became… companionable. She was just there watching, not intruding nor impatient. He smiled again, and let himself focus completely on the work, hearing ghosts of old conversations and banter from the lab and the ships he and Rich had shared.

Finally she did speak, and the question was an echo of questions fifty years old and more. “So, do you think that gun’s going to work?”

“I’ll bet on it. Ariane, I can feel it. I can see how to rework this thing to fire the way that Simon did, and how to improve on it — since Simon wasn’t an engineer. Difference between a guy who had the world’s best instruction manual, and another guy who knows when to ignore the manual.”

“But what you’re doing… really wouldn’t work, right?”

“Not by the normal rules of the Arena — or back home — no. But it will work by the rules I grew up with — and we just proved that my other abilities are working here.  Which means that Orphan’s ship just got a lot more dangerous.”

She grinned up at him. “You look happy, Marc.”

Do I? I guess I do… Yeah, I do. DuQuesne looked down and smiled. “I am. This… brought back the good part of the memories, and having you here…”

Her smile faded but did not go away, her eyes were serious, no longer laughing. “There’s a conversation I’ve always avoided with you,” she said finally.

He could have misinterpreted that, but he wasn’t going to let the invitation pass. “But not now?”

She shook her head. “Not this time. The two people I’m actually interested in are both my closest advisors. I’m not going to escape that problem either way.”

No, I guess she won’t. Technically she’s designated me second in command, Simon not really in the chain of command near that level, but we’ve been the two she relied on most. “Does that mean you’ll always have to keep a distance, or not?”

She rolled her eyes, then without warning reached up, pulled herself up by his shoulders and kissed him, open-mouthed and eager.

DuQuesne was caught completely off-guard, but he knew how to respond to that. The kiss lasted for something like forty-three years, but oddly the clock said it was only about thirty or forty seconds when she dropped her feet back to the deck. “Wow,” he said, which was utterly trite, and completely inadequate, and he found at the same time there was no better word. Haven’t done that since K and I separated. And for someone fifty years my junior, she’s good.

She laughed and gave him another quick kiss. “No, Marc, I’m not keeping my distance. I’m betting that our friendship — yours and mine, and ours with Simon — is strong enough that we can work this through without disaster.”

“And what about Simon?”

Ariane shook her head and laughed again. “Honestly, Marc, I don’t know. You’re both incredibly brilliant, capable, and courageous, Simon’s beautiful and charming and debonair, and you’re tall, dark, brooding, and angsty. And now both of you have awesome and mysterious powers, too.”

“I’m not angsty!” It was surprising how much of him rebelled at the characterization. Which might just be proving her point, dammit.

“Sometimes, my favorite Hyperion, you are. You can’t help it and I don’t blame you. And it’s kind of cute in someone as massively omnicompetent as you.” Ariane kissed him again before he could recover from being called ‘cute’, which — as far as he could recall — was a word no one had ever used to describe him before. “But like I said, I don’t know, Marc. I thought I would be a one-man woman eventually — I wasn’t comfortable thinking about my parents’ multi-relationship arrangement. But… maybe not. At least not when I’m presented with two such awesome people who think I am awesome, too.

He managed to finally catch up and laugh himself. “Well, you are, Ariane. If you weren’t, do you think you could boss me around? And you do, no mistake.”

“I do, don’t I? And that’s always a shock, you know. Anyway… I know you are a one-woman kind of guy, if you were raised to be a Doc Smith hero.”

“Sure the way I always thought of it. But… well, I’ll have to think about the whole situation.” He slammed the panels shut. “But… I do love you, Ariane. I think I have since…” he grinned, “since the time you shut us all down and told us that if we called you ‘Captain’ you were going to be the Captain, by ninety-seven rows of the proverbial apple trees, and we had better just sit down and suck it up.”

She returned the grin with a startled guffaw. “What? Well, that’s not the romantic memory I would have expected.”

“Oh, I liked you a hell of a lot before, but that was the point where I realized just how much you meant to me. It’s only gotten worse since.” He looked along the energy cannon. “Well, I think we’re done here. Better tell Orphan he can do a test firing once he gets his automation rigged.”

She hooked her arm into his, and he felt a weight lifting from his heart, even with all the complications he knew this would bring. “Oh, yeah, speaking of complications, which we sort of were, Captain, I should warn you, you have one other problem.”

She looked up as they stepped through the hatch. “And what exactly is that?”

“Sun Wu Kung. He’s kind of prone to developing attachments to the one holding his leash, and like I told you a while back, you look a lot like Sanzo.”

“What? You mean… Sun Wu Kung might be — oh, for God’s sake, no!”

He could not keep from laughing as the door swung shut behind them.