Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 21

Chapter 21.

“I am glad, tremendously glad, that you were able to resolve that situation so well, Laila, Carl, Simon,” said Oscar Naraj, his deep, rich voice resonating in the comfortable meeting room. “The Tantimorcans were appreciative of your tact and sympathy, and I have thus concluded a most advantageous negotiation with them.”

Simon still found it somewhat uncomfortable to sit in the same room and talk civilly with a man he still suspected of being the prime mover in Ariane’s abduction. From her expression, Oasis Abrams felt the same way; Carl and Laila had been working with Naraj long enough that any remaining dislike wasn’t visible. Still, Naraj had accepted the rulings of the SSC and CSF as far as anyone could tell, and had thrown his full energy into his duties as Ambassador and negotiator.

And he was, beyond any doubt, very good at that. The other species of the Arena generally responded well to his approaches, and he had negotiated numerous “advantageous”, as he said, deals with various smaller Factions.

His powers were, of course, strictly limited. “I presume you have a copy of this agreement?”

“For your review, and the approval of our duumvirate Leaders Pro Tempore, certainly. The gist of the agreement is that we will provide or procure Champions for their next three Challenges, and in exchange they will design and construct full prototypes of five Arenaspace vessels for our complete use, including all data to allow us to begin full production of the vessels.”

“That does sound like a bargain,” Laila said. “But what if — despite our record thus far — our Champions do not quite make the grade, so to speak?”

Oscar nodded gravely. “A concern, of course. Two of the five designs will not be completed unless and until we have won one Challenge for them. If we lose all three, by some terrible mischance, there will of course be penalties. The details are in the contract. Please review them as soon as convenient.”

“Definitely,” said Carl. “We’re learning a lot about ship design in the Arena from studying Orphan’s ships, but we still need some better tailored designs for operations other than big military patrols. The Arena and Warship SFGs have produced some decent designs, but I don’t think they’re quite up to the level of factions that have spent centuries doing this stuff.”

“And we do need more ships,” Simon said. “The Sim Focus Groups’ work will do for the interim, but I am becoming more and more certain that time is running out for us. The Molothos have not forgotten about us, and if they ever find out where we are… they will crush us.”

“Believe me, Doctor Sandrisson, I completely, completely agree,” Naraj said. “You may recall that I approached their Leader with the naïve belief that some form of negotiation would be possible, and was swiftly disabused of that notion.” He frowned, an expression that made his broad face look sad rather than angry. “Negotiation might be possible with them — I refuse to believe that it is utterly impossible — but only if one was in a position of vast strength.”

Laila Canning shook her head swiftly, bobbed brown hair following the motion. “Perhaps, but irrelevant for now, Ambassador. It will be a very long time — if ever — before we are in such a position.”

“I think we’re all agreed on that. But do we have any other, well, Hyperion Champions around?” Simon asked. “After all, DuQuesne and Wu Kung are not available, and we’d like to have such a trump card available.”

A (reasonably) gentle punch stung his arm. “Um, hello? Earth to Simon? I’m sitting right here!” said Oasis Abrams, AKA the mysterious “K” of Hyperion. The redhead’s smile took the sting from her words, and lessened the sting in his arm, too.

He smiled. “I meant in addition to you, Oasis, but yes, I should have phrased that more clearly. My apologies.”

“No problem,” she said. “And yes, we’ve got at least one more. Vel just made the jump here; he’s being checked out as a pilot for some of our Sphere defense ships, but he’ll be available.”

“Vel?” Simon sorted through memory and briefings. “Ah yes, Velocity Celes. But I thought he was a ground racer, not a space racer like Ariane’s friend Hawke.”

“He is, but he’s a Hyperion, Simon, and one designed as a driver and pilot. Believe me, he’ll be one of the best we’ve got in just a few days.” Oasis’ grin held absolute confidence. “Trust me on this.”

“I wouldn’t dream of doubting you, Oasis,” he said. “But as I understand it there are at least a few more; I think we should find a way to recruit as many as possible; as DuQuesne put it, the Arena was almost tailor-made for them.” As he said that, he caught a momentary, almost subliminal shift of Oasis’ expression; it vanished in the instant he saw it, but he was certain it had been there. Interesting. What does that mean? “From what we know, all the Hyperions enjoy some rather unfair advantages over regular Arena citizens. And Lord knows, we could use all the unfair advantages we can get.”

“True, very true indeed, Doctor,” agreed Naraj. “On the subject of gaining unsuspected advantages, I also have a summary of our actions in what your Captain whimsically named ‘Operation Dandelion’.”

Simon chortled. “Let us have it, then!”

Assured that they were prepared, Oscar Naraj transmitted a quick data dump from his own headware. Simon found that his experiences with the Arena had, at least, made assimilating large amounts of information far easier. He quickly sorted out the salient features of the report.

Operation Dandelion was, in Ariane’s words, “Our plan to grow like weeds in the lawn of the Arena.” Having obtained two other Spheres — completely unbeknownst to anyone else in the Arena except the Liberated and the Minds (both of which had strong vested interest in keeping that deal a secret), Humanity had every reason to establish and expand its presence on those Spheres… and the worlds they represented.

“As you can see, reconnaissance of the Spheres and their associated solar systems has been very successful. The first Sphere, named Tellus by Captain Austin, is associated with a solar system with eleven major planetary bodies, one brown dwarf orbiting at a considerable distance from the primary, and two Earth-type habitable worlds. The second Sphere, named Gaia, is associated with a solar system with seven major planetary bodies, two asteroid belts, and one Earth-type world. The most interesting fact about both of these systems is that while we know they belonged to the Blessed to Serve and were, therefore, presumably colonized by them to one extent or another, there is no trace of any prior colonization or exploitation.”

“That’s… frightening,” Oasis said after a pause, red hair exaggerating the awed shake of her head. “I know that some of our prior conversations with Arena residents implied something of the sort, but…”

“I concur,” Simon said. “This is perhaps the most complete demonstration of the Arena’s capabilities. If we are in any way correct, it removed vast numbers of former inhabitants from the Spheres and the planets and solar systems associated with them, relocated them safely to some other appropriate Spheres, reworked any aspects of the planet to fit Earth-normal requirements, and…” he thought a moment, “… and must have rearranged the planets including physical distribution of ores and such to make the system appear completely untouched.”

Even Oscar Naraj — normally focused more on the political and social than on the physical issues of the Arena — looked daunted. “A truly, truly awe-inspiring capability. And I must also wonder how the Arena determines the location of those removed; surely it does not simply dump, perhaps, billions of people onto another world?”

“I asked Relgof about that,” Simon said. “The Arena distributes the refugees as evenly as possible — apparently taking into account things like family and friend associations, resources at the destination, and so on. And in the event that a simple relocation is not practical — for example, a small Faction with two Spheres whose systems have large populations — it has apparently created appropriate habitats for the refugees.”

“And does this in what may be a matter of hours, presumably, depending on how the Sphere is claimed and how quickly the claimants may go to their new possession,” Laila said. “Impressive does not begin to cover it. But,” she said with a brisk air, “we are off the topic. Have we begun colonization efforts to Tellus and Gaia?”

“Initial exploration and preparation efforts are underway,” Naraj said. “As expected, AI and nanotech capabilities are in full force in the normal-space solar systems, which will give us a tremendous ability to begin construction and expansion.”

That reminded Simon of one of the other crucial issues. “Has the SSC moved forward on AI Emancipation?”

“Forward, yes. Swiftly, no. As you can imagine, it is a tremendous, tremendous challenge to address the potential issues in a manner that even a plurality, let alone a majority, of the Council is comfortable with.”

Simon knew that Naraj was one of those not comfortable with the idea — and the knowledge of the existence of the Minds of the Blessed and their total re-engineering of their creators gave a very concrete weight to the concerns of fully-unleashed computer intellects. “Would it help if any of us were to go and try to push things along?”

“Yeah,” Carl said. “I’d point out to them that when Ariane gets back she’s going to expect something to have been done on this, and if it hasn’t been she’ll raise all kinds of hell. And every one of us will back her to the hilt.”

Oscar’s face wrinkled in thought. “It may be necessary for someone to apply pressure. But allow me to convey your concerns on my trip tomorrow. If I feel there is no inclination to hurry things along, then one or two of you might put in an appearance.”

“You’re not really enthusiastic about the idea, though,” Oasis said.

“Not a bit of it, no. But I have agreed to perform my job to the best of my ability, and I know the group of you are indeed — without any doubt — speaking with the full authority of, and complete consistency with, Leader Ariane Austin’s position in these matters; I have no intention whatsoever of incurring Captain Austin’s wrath ever again, I assure you, so thus my beliefs are not relevant.” Naraj smiled, and Simon could see a rueful edge on that smile. “I cannot earn back trust unless I am absolutely reliable, after all.”

“And for a long time,” Laila said bluntly. “All right, we’ll wait until you get back. But you should know we’ll have other sources.”

“Doctor Canning, I would be extremely disappointed by you if you did not. Trust is only a part of it; for domestic and foreign intelligence it is desperately important to have multiple resources providing you with information.”

“Don’t worry, I am running that part of the operation!” Oasis said with a grin. “It’s like going home, in a way.”

Naraj’s eyebrows rose. “Truly? Then with a Hyperion running your intelligence, I have no further concerns.” He nodded. “In any event, I expect to begin serious colonization movement in the next… oh, month and a half. There are already a large number of applicants, and as these are merely to be new human colonies they do not need to be screened to nearly the degree as new entrants to the Arena need be.”

Simon felt a touch of his internal omniscience stirring, allowed himself to perceive what urgency drove it. Ah. “I would caution people to construct nothing on the Upper Sphere that can be detected, not until we have formidable system defenses and are ready to deploy equally strong defenses around the Sphere. While it seems unlikely that we will have another encounter with the Molothos or other hostiles at our new homes, we do not want to give away our presence inadvertently.”

“Noted, Doctor Sandrisson. I concur, and I will convey these instructions myself,” Naraj said. “Now, there are a few other issues that I must review…”

Simon finally extricated himself from the meeting; Oasis followed him out. “Lordy, he does like to talk, as Gabrielle would say.”

Oasis laughed, green eyes sparkling. “He sure does. But hey, not like there wasn’t talk-talk on both sides.” She fell in next to him, matching him stride for stride; she was somewhat shorter but her legs were long. “I’m starved after all that, though. Want to go get something?”

“I would love to. I need to get out of the Embassy.”

While the Grand Arcade was the center of Nexus Arena’s commerce, it was far from the only place of commerce, and Oasis led him to a restaurant actually on Dock 4; it was a tall spindle of a building with a broad, glassed-in deck atop, something like pictures of the ancient Space Needle or some of the delicate towers in some of the more popular space sims.

“The view is stunning,” he said as they were seated.

The immense Dock stretched many kilometers out from the side of the incomprehensibly huge cylinder that was Nexus Arena. Hundreds — thousands — of vessels of every size and description were docking, loading, casting off, maneuvering near or far from Dock 4 and the many other Docks visible to one side or the other. A flock of teirann — which DuQuesne had named “aetherbirds” — streamed by, their crystal bodies and wings a ripple of rainbow and diamond, while in the distance the many-colored clouds turned and streamed slowly, majestically, occasionally lit from within by lightning.

“It is gorgeous, isn’t it?” Oasis said, smiling broadly. “Privacy screen,” she said to the apparently empty air, and a faintly-visible luminous curtain surrounded them. “I love this place. Great view, get to watch the life of the Arena going by, and still have a private talk with someone.”

How private?” he asked. Given the kind of subjects that might come up with Oasis, he felt the question was important.

“Contracted from both the Analytic and the Faith. So as private as anything gets, really, aside from what Orphan mentioned once about going into the Deeps. Or maybe going back home. And the food’s great — as long as you don’t mind some spice. Lots of different spices, actually.”

“I have tried to be quite adventurous, at least in the cuisine area,” Simon said. “Bring it on, as DuQuesne might say.”

Her face flickered through a number of emotions in an instant at the mention of the other Hyperion — fondness, melancholy, a misty-eyed reminiscence — before returning to a more immediate good cheer. “All right, Simon! I like a guy who’s willing to try things that bite back.”

“As long as they’re not venomous,” he said with an answering smile. As he examined the menu that materialized before him, he asked, “So you were a… what, intelligence agent before? You said that it was like going home.”

Oasis’ face flickered, and the expression… shifted. It was a tiny shift, but he had seen it many times now. Oasis Abrams and the Hyperion known to him only as “K” were not quite fused. That shift happened when one or the other of the women sharing one brain was slightly more dominant, and the expression told him that this was “K”.

She nodded, even as her fingers made a selection on the menu; he did the same. “Technically for both of us, actually. I… Oasis… did a fair amount of intelligence work for Saul and others once we got over the fall of Hyperion enough. But I… K, that is… been doing spy stuff since, well, about the time Marc was trying to decide which college to apply to. Before that, really.”

“I imagine it was rather different than such work here, though, unless your… er, world was like ours.”

She laughed again, though with the same touch of wistful sadness that the other Hyperions often showed when thinking of the past. “Like this? No, totally not much like this. Either the Arena or modern Sol System. But a lot of the basics don’t change, just the tricks and the targets.” She looked back at him; those amazing green eyes almost matched his own in color, but he was sure his never managed a tenth of the intensity in hers. “Now you, you’ve always been a scientist, right?”

“Well, I was always interested in being one, but you can’t call yourself a scientist right away,” he answered. “But yes, that’s always been my profession. I have found myself sometimes acting in other capacities since we arrived here, of course.”

“Oh, sure! DuQuesne told me you saved Zounin-Ginjou and fought the would-be Leader of the Blessed one-on-one!” He knew this woman — regardless of which persona he regarded as active or central — was older than he by a factor of nearly two, but she was looking at him with a wide-eyed excitement that made her seem scarcely eighteen. “We all got the summary, but tell me the details — what do you remember about it?”

Simon cast his mind back, a bit bemused by the conversation’s turn. “Mostly? Being terrified, I suppose. I mean, there was a great deal more to it, but once I realized there were actually people trying to kill us I assure you my heart was doing its best to pound its way out of my chest.”

“Were you just terrified?” she asked, leaning a little forward.

Remembering that battle — the flare of missiles’ jets passing scant meters away, the staccato hail-rapping of hypersonic cannon rebounding from armor, the incredible body-shattering concussion of the primary beam firing within a turret, the long, cold glint of his sword pointing at the green-black form of Vantak — Simon felt as though he were, momentarily, back on board Zounin-Ginjou, and… “No,” he said finally, hearing his own startled, incredulous tone. “No, I was … excited. Exhilarated, at times. Determined. Transported, in more ways than one.”

He looked up to see her smile, sharper, knowing, but the green eyes were warm and sympathetic. “I knew it. There’s nothing like that feeling, is there? The Edge. Running on a bridge as it’s falling apart under you and not knowing if you’re gonna make it, facing someone trying to kill you and wondering if you’re good enough to take him, hearing the countdown to disaster and seeing you have twenty-nine seconds to stop it or everything blows. You know the Edge now, don’t you?”

He felt the chill of gooseflesh along his arms, saw the hairs standing up, remembered the fear of his own omniscience warring with the exaltation of the prediction of the future, of combat against a chosen warrior of the Blessed to Serve, and nodded slowly. “Yes, if that is what you call it, I cannot argue that I do not know the ‘Edge’.”

She laughed joyfully. At that moment, their servers entered, placed the first plates in front of them, then withdrew. Once they’d left, she smiled again. “Fantastic, as another lost friend of ours would have said; you love the running, deep down, like all of us do. I couldn’t really hang out for long with someone who didn’t.”

Simon liked to think he had gotten a bit better at picking up on personal interactions over the years. “Oasis, pardon me very much if I am wrong, but are you making a pass at me?”

“Would it bother you if I was?”

“Not… precisely. I did think you and DuQuesne –”

“Ah. Marc. Yes, we did have something. Still do, sort of… but I’m not the woman he knew then, and that really does throw him way off. And me; Oasis never knew Marc, and he’s not entirely her type.”

“And … no one else?”

The distant look came back. “There was… when I was a lot younger. But… Hyperion. He was part of my world, and we couldn’t salvage it.” She smiled with only a hint of sadness. “And besides, even before Hyperion fell, we’d… drifted. That’s why DuQuesne and I got together.”

He frowned. “You know, I get a bit puzzled about time. It sounds like you and Marc were together for quite a bit, yet you could not have met until that grand-scale crossover that led to the disaster.”

She shook her head, the brilliant red hair rippling like flame in wind. “Remember, they could control perceptions and events in-universe — and they had the technology to do things like speed up or slow down metabolisms, too. So while in the real universe we weren’t even twenty, Marc was physically and intellectually well over thirty, and I was well into my twenties. The investigations, discovery of the truth and all that, from our point of view, covered a few years, while it wasn’t more than a couple of months from the … researcher’s point of view.”

“Good Lord. Every time I think I grasp the depth of that project, I learn something that shows me I was wrong. A bit like the Arena, I suppose.”

Too much like the Arena,” she said forcefully. Then she closed her eyes and sighed; when they opened again, she was smiling once more. “Anyway, hell of a diversion for an answer that really was yes, I am making a little pass at you, or flirting anyway to see if you are interested.”

You know, I honestly don’t think I was such an attention-magnet before. For a moment he really missed Mio, his AISage, who would have had some sort of witty and incisive remark on the situation; the silence in his head was sometimes too much. “I would have to be both blind and deaf to not be interested, I think. So this is a date, then?”

“If you like. I know you’ve been dancing around with Ariane, and Laila, too.”

“But no commitment on either side yet; in the case of Ariane, of course, there is also DuQuesne and the fact that all of us tend towards monogamous pairings if we were to be serious.” And as both Ariane and DuQuesne are off on a journey of undetermined length…

“Great!” She grabbed his hand, squeezed it, then grabbed up one of the strange multifaceted fried objects in her appetizer and bit into it. “Wow, spicy indeed. Here, try one!”

From the crunching sensation and the strong, complex flavor and texture, he was sure this was some sort of meat, fried in hot oil of some type. And spicy it was, with hints of cinnamon, pepper, and capsicum … and maybe a touch of something like lemony cardamom? “Very good. I like it. Here, try my… um, marinated uljuru, which I think is some kind of worm-type creature.”

He watched with seeming casualness as she scooped one up, popped it in her mouth, and chewed. Her eyes flew wide, but she did finish swallowing before she went for her glass. “Holy cow that’s hot! HOT hot!” She paused, then suddenly laughed. “Well, that will teach me to underestimate you! You’ve got a more asbestos-lined mouth than I do!”

“My best friend when I was young, Marisol, had a heritage of Indian-Mex cooking going back generations, and she would try to give me something I couldn’t eat — it was a sort of friendly contest. For my part, of course, I refused to admit that anything she brought was too hot, so I developed quite a cast-iron palate.”

“Holy cow,” she repeated, now on her second glass of water. “You could’ve probably given Sydney a run for her money.” The wistful note was very faint, but he could still hear it. Another Hyperion memory.

That rang another bell. “May I ask you something?”

“You can ask anything, Simon. Can I have another of those?”

“Of course,” he said, taking one himself and enjoying the tingling burn. “Back in our little conference, I was quoting DuQuesne in saying that the Arena seems almost tailor-made for your people, and I noticed a little… change in your expression. What was that about?”

She seemed to be taking the second uljuru much better; perhaps the first had numbed her mouth. “That, Simon, is… something we might actually want more privacy for. Back at our Embassy, if not all the way back to Earth. Let’s just say that it’s maybe more the other way around.”

That they were made for the Arena? Yes. That fit with his internal sense, even though he did not have that Olympian perception active. “Very well, we can discuss that at a later time. But perhaps you can tell me something of what you’ve done since Hyperion?”

“I could bore you for hours on that topic, Simon,” she said.

The rest of the meal passed swiftly, and Simon found he was very much enjoying it. Oasis had a quick wit, a ready laugh, and despite her warning of boredom had lived an exciting life, helping Saul Maginot clean up the occasional but often very dangerous fringes of the otherwise peaceful Solar System of the late 24th century.

Finally, the two of them rose and went to the overlook, gazing out over the Dock several hundred feet below. She had taken his hand and was talking about what she saw. “… and that’s actually a Tensari cruiser; they’re not much into military stuff, but they do have a few — I think it’s still Tantimorcan design, but the decoration’s pure Tensari. That little one in between the two big cargo transports, that’s someone’s personal flyer; the general design looks like it could be Vengeance but I can’t be sure. Now, looking down towards Nexus Arena, we can –”

She broke off, and her face had gone stark pale.

Following her gaze, he had a quick impression of a tall figure, human or very humanoid, wearing a white suit of some sort. But before he could get a better look, the figure was swallowed up by the crowd.

His hand was empty, and she was already halfway to the stairs, at the stairs, running down them, flying down them at a speed he simply could not match. “Oasis!” he called, trying to catch her, “Oasis, what is it?”

She was a blur, leaping from one side to the other of the spiral stair, sliding down the banister and then bounding to the other side, making the other patrons going up or down the staircase seem frozen in place. Oasis reached the bottom before he — fast as he could run — was more than a quarter of the way down.

Panting with the exertion, he finally burst out onto the Dock, looking around, searching the crowd. He saw a flash of red hair in the distance, forced his now-aching legs into a sprint, weaving between Daelmokhan workers and Milluk tourists and a Chirofleckir businessman, until he finally came into sight of her, slowing down, feet unwillingly going to a walk and, at last, a stunned, immobile stillness.

“Oasis, what is wrong?” he demanded as he finally reached her.

“I… don’t know,” she said after a moment. “Did you… see anything, when I was looking?”

“A person — which could have been, or not been, a human — in some kind of white outfit, clothes and hat. But I could not even confidently say what kind of outfit, let alone whether it was being worn by a human being.”

“I swear it was…” She trailed off. “But that isn’t possible.”

“Why? Who did you think you saw?”

Her smile was fragile now, like a cracked crystal goblet. “Someone… someone who not only should be dead,” she said in a shaken whisper, “but technically wasn’t even ever alive.”