Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 26

Chapter 26.

“Doctor Alexander Fairchild,” repeated Simon, studying Oasis closely.

The Hyperion-born woman was still not entirely herself; the strain showed in the stiffness of her arm as she reached out for the water-pitcher and poured herself a glass. She drank, looked aimlessly around the conference room that Simon had chosen when they had returned — in haste — to the Embassy. “Yes,” she said finally.

The name finally clicked. “Masaka. That was the name of the Hyperion AI that nearly –”

“– did kill me, Oasis, forcing K to take me in. Yes.”

No wonder she’s so shaken. Fairchild literally ripped her mind apart trying to take her body. “But… K, you seem just as upset as Oasis, so to speak. That is, it seems that all of you is terribly shocked — by what has to be a coincidence or misperception.”

Oasis’ smile was weak and without humor. “You are right, Simon. I am upset, and if DuQuesne were here, he’d be freaking out, too.”

“Why? Oasis,” he put a hand gently on hers; she immediately gripped his painfully hard. “Ow. Oasis, why?”

“Because Doctor Alexander Fairchild was DuQuesne and Seaton’s worst enemy in their universe, Simon.”

Other people might not have quite grasped the import of that statement, but Simon had been around enough Hyperions to understand. If Fairchild had been a long-running enemy to DuQuesne, it meant he was at least DuQuesne’s equal. “I see. Yes, that would be terrifying. But, Oasis, you know it’s impossible. Fairchild was an AI. Formidable as he might have been, there is absolutely no way he could enter the Arena.”

When she did not immediately answer, he went on. “We know this. AIs do not work here, ever — unless the thing we call the Arena is an AI, and in that case it suffers no rivals. The Minds of the Blessed have spent tens of thousands of years, perhaps more, trying to evade that law of the Arena’s, and failed completely. According to both Orphan and Sethrik, the Minds have tried placing versions of their intellects into bodies prepared for them, bodies otherwise perfectly identical to any other Blessed. The bodies collapse upon entrance. The Arena is not fooled.

“So you see, what you saw was a trick of perspective, a chance coincidence of form and color. It had to be, because there is absolutely no way that — even if this Fairchild is the renegade Hyperion AI we encountered in our own space — he could possibly be here in the Arena.”

She squeezed his hand again, then looked up, but her eyes were still haunted. “I wish I could be so sure, Simon. But it’s possible that that rule doesn’t apply to Hyperion AIs.”

“What? Why not?” He remembered something. “Does this have to do with whatever you discussed in secret with DuQuesne?”

She nodded, twirling one of her four ponytails absently. “Yes.” Oasis bit her lip, thinking. “Simon, I think I have to tell you. Because honestly you could probably find it out anyway, if you wanted, and you haven’t. Right? I mean, that power of yours could do that, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Probably.”

“Then… why not try? I’m going to tell you anyway, so it’s not like you’d be stealing the information.” Her voice was more animated, and he could tell she was genuinely curious, and the question at least was drawing her back out of the completely atypical state of tension and fear she’d been in.

Nonetheless, the question made him tense, as any serious consideration of using that ability always did. Still… he could think of no sensible reason to refuse the test. He drew in a breath, preparing himself. “Very well.”

Preternatural clarity rose up within him more swiftly, more readily than before, infusing him with an absolute perception of his surroundings; he could hear Oasis’ breathing, sense her heartbeat, observe the tiniest motion of each hair on her head, watch motes of dust in their random courses across the room, and hold it all within his head as easily as a three-letter password. Great Kami, I forget. Every time, I forget what it’s like to have this power… yet I always remember enough.

He focused now, focused on a single question: what was the secret DuQuesne told Oasis here, before they left?

The answer came to him in a flash.

He opened his eyes, then closed them as he banished that godlike perception once more. His hands shook and he took a moment to calm himself.

This time it was Oasis’ hand on his, and his squeezing hers tightly. “What’s wrong, Simon?”

“You don’t understand, do you?” he asked quietly. “Yet… of all people, you should.” He drew another breath, let it out slowly. “Even the fringes of that… power, perception, access to the Arena… goes beyond anything a human mind should be able to process, yet I do, it seems like mere child’s play. I can rise up, see… oh, anything, it feels like, expand my perceptions and knowledge so far that, honestly, I have never even tried to push its limits. A part of me fears there are no limits, even if that sounds utterly ridiculous.”

He could see a dawning understanding in her eyes. “And it feels so right, so perfect, especially for a scientist, someone whose goal has always been to understand the world. I want this power, Oasis. And I am terrified of it.”

Oasis’ eyes were wide and he could see she did understand. “Oh, God, Simon, I didn’t realize… of course you would be. One moment you’re not all that… and then you are ‘all that’. You can see anything, know anything… and that’s your heart’s desire. And maybe your worst fear, because if you ever did know everything, what would be left to know?”

“And if I did know, not everything, but even a measurable fraction of the Cosmic All, as Ariane’s Mentor calls it, what would I be thinking then of the people who could not even understand a billionth of it?” he murmured. “Would I still even be human? Would I care about humanity?”

She suddenly reached out and hugged him. “Simon, you asking those questions is one of the best arguments that you would. You have to trust yourself… and maybe us, too… to keep you anchored to who you really are, no matter what… head-rush the Arena-sense gives you.”

She let go, but the warmth and affection, the comfort, of that embrace lingered, and he felt the fear and apprehension fading. “Thank you, Oasis. Yes, I’m afraid of all that… but you and Ariane and DuQuesne all seem to think I can handle it. So perhaps I should trust you and use this power more often.”

“Well, don’t go too far. I don’t want to have to deck you if you go all glowy-eyed ‘A GOD AM I’ on me. And I’ll do it, you know.”

He chuckled. “I am sure you would. And I give you full permission to do so, if that ever happens.”

Her smile answered his, then faded back to a more serious expression. “So? Did you get it?”

“Ah, yes. I did, I believe.” He studied her, replaying the revelation and what it might mean, and found that even without the cosmic vision it was an awesome thing to contemplate. “That the Hyperions — by virtue of having been raised from birth in settings that were completely real to them, by people whose sole purpose was in making those lives as real as possible, those people as real as possible — may potentially have the same powers and abilities here in the Arena as they did in their Hyperion worlds.

“The Arena gives to those entering it the abilities that were natural to them, even to the extent of tailoring environments in all ways. To the Hyperions, the worlds they were raised in were natural — they had not an inkling that they were not, and their creators had no other thought in their minds but to fulfill that perception. In other words, they are not limited by the restrictions of the Arena on other species, and may even be aided by the Arena in achieving abilities that would normally be… well, utterly impossible, but are natural to them.”

“That’s it. We already know one big piece of evidence: Wu Kung gets to talk to, and influence, animals in the Arena. No one else — that we know of, anyway — can do that. And his winning of the Challenge proves that he’s not subject to the normal physical limits, anyway.”

Her brows came down. “And that is why I’m not so sure about Doctor Fairchild. Sure, a normal AI couldn’t find a body and move into the Arena… but a Hyperion AI who, like his physical counterpart, had been designed and raised to be a particular person, who believed they were that person, who lived the life of that person… I’m not so sure that they couldn’t pull that off. That the Arena wouldn’t see them as legal entries, so to speak. Maybe it would, but maybe not.”

The thought gave Simon something of a chill. “I wish I could disagree, but you’re right. It fits with what we know of the Arena’s rules. As an AI — in a computational chassis — I am sure he would not be allowed. But if he could transfer himself into a human body, then … yes, it might be something the Arena would permit.”

He stood up. “Oasis, this is of course your secret. But I think it has now become imperative we share it with Laila and Carl, if no one else. Because if it is possible that a Hyperion AI — or, as Mentor said, possibly as many as three — has even the slightest chance of entering the Arena with their full fictional capabilities, we are not going to be the only people in danger.

“It could be every Faction in the Arena.”