Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 19

Chapter 19.

Simon stared incredulously for a long, long moment, before his natural politeness asserted itself. “Pardon me. Of course, please sit down.” I’ve just invited a known mass-murderess and part of another faction to eat lunch with me. But perhaps a wiser course than rejecting her.

Relief was visible on the perfect features as Maria-Susanna sat down. “Thanks so much, Simon. I… know you probably haven’t heard good things about me.”

“And some of them are true,” he said. “Most of them, I suspect.”

For just an instant he saw — or, perhaps, sensed, through that strange connection with the Arena — a flash of agony, remorse and anger and confusion. It was gone almost before he saw it, and she simply said, “I… suppose, yes. At least in some sense or another. I won’t argue with you, not now.”

Her eyes were downcast, and he heard a trace of shakiness in the breath she drew before gesturing, with too-casual a movement, for the menu to appear before her. She’s worried. Frightened? A Hyperion? He found a part of him wanting to reach out, take her hand and ask what was wrong.

Oh, this is dangerous. She may not assault me physically here, but already I can feel her effect on me. He recalled her prior appearance, how she had charmed even Ariane, to her confusion… and the furious anger he’d sensed in her, when no one else had seen it.

In that instant he understood. Of course. I had not yet fully admitted the existence of this strange ability, and it was active without my awareness. It gives me a perspective beyond the human, and here, against a woman who is herself beyond human, I am afraid I need that detachment.

Simon concentrated, allowed that godlike perception to trickle in, to elevate his senses and knowledge above those he owned naturally. As he did so, he could suddenly see layers of tension within the woman across from him. It does not let me read minds, but perceiving external signals that I would ordinarily miss, that it can do.

More importantly, he felt that preternatural attraction and sympathy becoming more distant. He could still feel them, but they were no longer gaining a hold on his deeper emotions and perceptions. But they are real. There is an attraction, a fascination, that goes beyond any ordinary emotional reaction. He could, somehow, tell that, even though he could detect nothing objective that would explain the attraction.

But none of that changed the fact that in front of him was a woman who was worried, afraid, a woman to whom such fear would be alien, perhaps was the trigger to make her into the monster he had heard of.

Or… just possibly… the lever to find a way to curing her. Is that possible?

“You could have called me — or anyone — if you wanted,” Simon said finally, as she scanned the menu with the air of someone only half-seeing what was before them. “But you did not. Why?”

Her eyes met his, a flash of deep-sky blue more intense than Ariane’s, and even through the Olympian detachment of his connection to the Arena he could feel the heartrending impact of that sad gaze. “The contact through the Arena… is impersonal, Simon. You know that. No one would have met with me without first preparing, formulating their suspicions, their fears.” She sighed. “And I’m not a danger to you. I’m not! I don’t agree with DuQuesne and some of the others on everything, but I want to save humanity, protect it… it’s… it’s my purpose.

That much was true, and at the same time trembled on the ragged edge of disaster. To admit she has a real purpose is probably dangerously close to recalling that she was created. “I am not arguing with you, Maria-Susanna. What brought you to me, then, Maria-Susanna of the Vengeance?” He thought it best to remind her that despite her protestations, she was no longer with humanity.

She laughed, and there was a bitter note in that laugh that sent a jolt through Simon. “Just ‘Maria-Susanna’ now, I am afraid. I am no longer a member of the Vengeance.”

My God. “What? But… why?”

“I don’t know!” she snapped. Then she blinked, clenched her fists, and took three deep breaths. To Simon’s oversight, a roiling crest of emotion rose and was just as suddenly damped down. “I don’t know. Selpa ‘A’At called me in, said that the Vengeance felt that my presence was no longer a benefit to the Vengeance, and removed me from the Faction.”

She shook her head slowly, confused, angry, sad, all at once. “He seemed… horrified. By me. Or something associated with me. But I had told him a version of the truth, and he had seemed not to care as long as I posed no threat to his people. Now, suddenly, without warning, I am disposed of.”

“Just like that? Now you have no home, nothing?”

A wan ghost of a smile rose on her face. “Just like that. Oh, I am not a beggar on the streets; he did not begrudge me a very large number of vals for both my service and to pay for the insult and injury of dismissal. But I am now… nobody in the Arena.”

“I am certain there are other factions that would accept you,” Simon said.

“But not my own homeland, I suspect.”

Simon paused, and drove himself higher, looking at Maria-Susanna as he had Vantak during the battle. Is there a solution here? A chance? A way to draw her back from the brink?

Even as he did that, he saw.

Saw the woman before him, younger, without the signs of care or anger, alongside a man in a gold shirt that she looked at with absolute adoration. She traveled with him, fought at his side, tended him in injury, and was in turn tended when she had fallen.

And then the same woman, screaming in horror and denial as she cradled the man’s body in her arms. Denial turned to rage, rage to murderous fury and the first cold-blooded killing, hunting a woman whose features echoed her own through the increasing chaos that had to be Hyperion Station during its fall. The loss of others, hundreds of others, and the mind made to be a support and hero and defender broke, and he could see the pattern of the madness within her, bent inward, self-supporting, self-destroying.

Yes. It could be done. But not by me. Only by someone who knew her well, whose voice could reach her… and only if they said the right words. Still, he now had a grasp of what could be said, what could be done, even if it was very little.

“Perhaps,” Simon said, after what must have been only a fractional pause to Maria-Susanna. “But if you return, you will have to answer for everything you have done. You know that. Even if you justify it to yourself, the law will not have the same view.”

“Yes…” her eyes blanked for a moment, then refocused, with another of those flashes of madness or pain. “Yes, I know. And so I cannot come home. Not now.”

“I’m sorry, Maria-Susanna.”

She looked at him then — really looked at him, not through the lens of her own worries, but with the wide-eyed blue gaze that he had seen in the younger girl. “You mean that. You really are sorry for me, for this… situation.” She smiled, an expression with the force of a cannon of sunshine, and reached out to squeeze his hand. “Thank you, Simon. And… I’m sorry, too. For having misled you, and especially for taking your research without permission. I needed it… but that’s not really a good excuse.” A moment of pained self-awareness. “I’m … good at excuses, though.”

“Given your situation… I won’t hold a grudge,” he said, with a smile and a nod. “Don’t do anything like that again, though.”

“I won’t. I promise, Simon; you’re safe from me — you and your marvelous brain and whatever it invents.” Again another flash of self-awareness, and her other hand convulsively tightened. “You aren’t associated with them, so I can promise that.”

“Them being Hyperion, I have to assume. The thought of Hyperion triggered another recall, and he suddenly found himself trying to weigh the dangers of exposing something.

She leaned forward. “What is it, Simon?”

Well, there’s no way I’ll convince her there wasn’t something. And… in all honesty, I would not want to keep this secret from her. “I just remembered something very important that I need to tell you.”

“Important? For me?” She was, for the moment, honestly startled. She knew no one in the Faction of Humanity would have anything they wanted to say to her, barring ‘you’re under arrest’, or possibly something worse. “What is it?”

“Someone’s killing Hyperions, and it isn’t you.”

Maria-Susanna went pale, face now alabaster white. “What? Who?”

“We have not yet identified the culprit. But we do know that he, or she, or it, is responsible for the deaths of at least four Hyperions, and nearly killed DuQuesne as well.”

Her perfect brows drew down and he could suddenly see the resemblance between her and DuQuesne: there was an implacable rage there at any who harmed people she thought of as hers. “Who did this… person kill?”

“I wasn’t given the details — probably wouldn’t recognize their names. DuQuesne and Oasis said it was…” he checked his memory of the conversation to make sure he got it right, “… Johnny, Telzey, D’Arbignal, and Giles.”

I was wrong; now she’s gone white. The beautiful golden-haired woman sagged back in shock. “No. No, not Johnny! Not funny old Giles! I didn’t even know… I thought they were dead already! Oh, DuQuesne, you were hiding them from me, and now they’re gone?” Her color was starting to return, and a hard, cold light was rising in her eyes. “But this enemy found them, even when I hadn’t?”

“Our top suspect… is an escaped Hyperion AI.”

She froze. Not only pale, her hands suddenly shook. “No. No.

Simon couldn’t ignore that horror. He rose and gently put an arm around her.

Maria-Susanna leaned into him — just for a moment — shuddering. She pulled away, but did not move far enough to take his hand from her shoulder. For long moments, she sat there, still, gazing into an unseeable distance.

At last, she swallowed and nodded. “Thank you, Simon. Thank you very much. Not just for telling me… but for being here, for me, when you owe me nothing. I won’t forget this.”

She rose, taking his hand and squeezing it. “They… might be right about me,” she said, in the quietest whisper. “I… sometimes ask myself if they are. But… I can’t think about that. Not really.”

“Maria –”

“No, don’t. Just… take my thanks. You’ve been very kind, Doctor Simon Sandrisson, and I haven’t had — or earned — much kindness of late.” Her eyes were misty for a moment, then she blinked the incipient tears away. “And thanks to you, I know what I have to do. Again… thank you.”

Without another word, she turned and strode away, quickly weaving through the crowd until she completely disappeared.

She knows where she’s going now. He had no idea how he had led her to the decision, but clearly something about their conversation had given her the direction she had lacked. What Faction will she approach? What is her goal now?

And am I EVER going to get to relax enough to go to sleep?