Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 27

Chapter 27.

“Your words tantalize me, my friends,” Orphan said as DuQuesne was still trying to wrap his mind around this latest revelation. “It is clear — it has, in truth, always been clear — that there is some great mystery surrounding Doctor DuQuesne, and his compatriots Wu Kung and Oasis and, I believe, Maria-Susanna. I have to believe it also has to do with Wu Kung’s extraordinary performance in the recent Challenge.

“It seems that these connections now encompass our Captain as well, yes?”

“In a way, yes,” DuQuesne admitted. “But we’re not going into detail here.”

Wu Kung was looking puzzled, unlike Ariane who was still shell-shocked. “I’m right, aren’t I?” she said, and transmitted an image to him.

The man in the faded denim was undeniably familiar, and the details that DuQuesne could notice — a particular faint scar on one cheek, the pattern of wrinkles around the eyes — confirmed it. “It checks out, Ariane. That’s Bryson, all right.” He grinned suddenly. “And you know what, it makes a whole lot of other things make sense. How many people these days even heard of Doc Smith’s work? He’s not even a fringe thing, he’s ancient history, older than Shakespeare was in his time, and never even vaguely that popular. I never met another person in my life outside of Hyperion who recognized my name; hell, he wasn’t much remembered only a century after publication, and now it’s three hundred fifty-plus years later than that. Your parents let you get half-raised by that old throwback and that’s how you came to be this way.”

“But… but you said he was alive!” The dark-blue brows had come together and he could see anger welling up within her. “He died in a fire. They even found a body, so –”

“Maria-Susanna,” DuQuesne said quietly. “Saul and I helped him run to start with, but he had to live his life, or lives, real careful. I’ll bet he stuck around a lot longer than was safe, watching you grow up. But finally he knew he’d pushed his luck too much and had to die. A clone body’s not hard to get made if you know the tricks to it.” He reached out, touched her arm. “Don’t be mad at him, Ariane. He did it for his safety and yours. He probably didn’t think Maria-Susanna would hurt a kid, but he couldn’t be sure. She’s not easy to predict.”

He looked over at Orphan. “Sorry I can’t clear things up much for you, Orphan, but the real answers you’d want are way too valuable.”

“Quite understood, Doctor. Alas, I cannot guarantee any privacy here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Ariane shook her head, and then he saw her eyes widen and her gaze snapped to meet his own. “Marc –”

With a visible effort, she stopped herself. “Well… damn. That’s going to make it hard to talk about anything we don’t want to give away.”

And I’d really like to know what it was she just thought of, because whenever she gives that expression you know it’s going to be a doozy.

“I can understand your reluctance,” said a high, clear voice, “but I assure you that I have no intention of intruding upon any privacy you may require.”

Standing in a wide doorway that had not been in that wall a moment ago was a tall, slender figure in robes of pearl-gray, edged with green and gold threads. Its stance and outline indicated a bipedal form, highly attenuated and graceful. The robes had long sleeves which currently fell in a way as to conceal the limbs within, and the hood of the robe allowed only a hint of features to be seen within. It was not quite the utter shadowed void that Amas-Garao seemed to favor; the faint outlines of what seemed a face could be made out.

Ariane rose to her feet as the figure approached; now she bowed; DuQuesne and, he saw, Wu followed suit, with Orphan performing his pushup-bow. “Vindatri, I presume,” Ariane said.

“I am,” the figure answered.

“Is this your real shape?” Wu Kung asked.

A rippling laugh echoed around the room. “It is a shape that is mine, and not copied from any of you, and a form that should be one you can accept. In that sense, it is real.”

“But it’s not the shape you were born with,” Wu persisted.

“No,” conceded Vindatri, “but is the form so important? I have worn more than could be easily counted in the ages that have passed since that time. To me, the effort to craft an appropriate shape is less than the effort one of you might put into choosing a set of clothing.”

He (DuQuesne decided to stick with that pronoun, as it was the one Orphan had used) gave an extravagant bow and flourish of the arms. “Welcome to Halintratha,” Vindatri said, and the name or word momentarily had that eerie many-in-one resonance. DuQuesne caught hints of bastion or castle, of vault or safe, of mystery and knowledge, of quester or researcher, of the Arena itself, and other words as well. A stronghold of knowledge? Bastion of Mysteries? Not a library, though.

“Welcome to Halintratha,” Vindatri said, “you who have journeyed far through the Deeps to find me. Orphan I know, and have given my first greetings to each of you as well. Now it is time for us to speak together, and understand the ways in which fate and the Arena have brought you hence.”

“Wasn’t ‘fate’, it was Orphan,” Wu pointed out. “He’s got some sneaky reason for it, too, besides the one he’s already told us.”

Orphan gave the open-shut shrugging gesture. “And I have admitted that I was not allowed to speak of the second reason, as you know, Wu Kung.”

“That is, however, past,” Vindatri said. “I give you leave to speak as you wish, Orphan. And if you describe fully, I will be learning as well, so do not be overly coy with your words.”

Orphan bob-bowed to Vindatri, but his posture shifted, and his tone was dry and humorous. “Be not overly coy? You remove much of the joy of speaking, o Vindatri.”

The half-seen features within seemed to crease in a smile. Which would be really strange; how many animals on Earth do things that are really like smiles? An alien doing that? I’d like to see what’s really under that cowl.

But Orphan had now turned to them. “As you know, the first condition was a simple one: bring news of First Emergents, and of course if I could bring one or more such with me, that would be a far better form of news.

“However, I had terribly specific instructions that I must bring members of any First Emergent species with me if they were to demonstrate a particular characteristic.”

As usual, Orphan chose to pause at this intellectual cliffhanger. Wu obliged Orphan’s need for dramatics. “Well, don’t stop there, what was it?”

“It was something which was both incredibly broad in its definition, yet something which, Vindatri assured me, I would know if ever I saw it. Specifically, that the First Emergents in question would have ‘the blessing of the Arena upon them’.”

DuQuesne thought the phrase was familiar, but it was Ariane who stiffened and stared at Orphan. “That… that’s part of the Canajara prophecy.”

“Ah, you know of the prophecy of the Faith?” Vindatri said with an air of faint surprise. “Or I should say prophecies, as the Canajara is a complex and often contradictory myth cycle for that Faction, with at least four significantly different tellings of the tale — each with of course almost numberless variations. But forgive me, Orphan, continue.”

“Of course. I observed your people very closely, as you know. You became my allies — rather tolerant allies, I must admit, as I gave you ample reason to suspect me, or even to sever any alliance with you. And the result of those observations was to conclude that indeed you fit this description.”

“This has to do with that… secret you’ve been keeping,” Ariane said with certainty. “And for some reason you thought it was going south during the Genasi Challenge, and suddenly you were absolutely certain, like you’d been vindicated.”

“And when you were all mysterious during the battle against the Blessed,” DuQuesne said, starting to see the pattern. “When you said… oh, what was it… ‘”Let us just say I believe I have confirmed a hypothesis, and that this is most in your favor’.”

Orphan’s buzz-laugh was delighted. “Quite on-target, both of you — and a fine memory you have, Doctor DuQuesne!”

DuQuesne grinned back. “Well, I can’t take all the credit; that was a weird enough comment that I actually filed the quote in my headware. So out with it. What’s this ‘Blessing of the Arena’.”

“Surely you can guess, Doctor DuQuesne,” Orphan said slowly. “And you, Captain Austin. Perhaps not Sun Wu Kung; he has not been privy to all the relevant events. But let us review the points that impressed themselves upon me, some at the time they happened, others upon deep reflection.

“First, your encounter with me. You happened upon me just as I was cornered by the Blessed, and managed — with the assistance of a rather unexpected visitor — to cause them to depart. Then, having just entered the Arena with my guidance, within days you discover that your Upper Sphere has been invaded… and repel the invasion with but two of your limited number.” His black eyes measured DuQuesne. “Correct me if I am wrong, Doctor, but it would be my contention that it was, specifically, your presence that made that possible — and to be even more specific, that your victory had something to do with the secret you share with Maria-Susanna, Wu Kung, and Oasis Abrams.”

DuQuesne glanced at Ariane, who nodded. “All right, I’ll give you that one. Carl wasn’t in any way useless, and he was crucial for some of it… but yeah, given the way that all went down, no one else in the crew could’ve pulled it off without me, and you’ve got the connection right.”

“Excellent. And would I also be correct in assuming that your victory over the Molothos was one involving some… oh, desperate improvisation, perhaps?”

“That’d fit, yeah.” Rigging together controls for an alien ship we’d never seen a few hours before and turning it into a kamikaze to take out a full-sized warship? Desperate enough.

A satisfied hand-tap from Orphan. “So, moving on, there was the startling performance of Doctor Franceschetti at the casino, leading to your Challenge by the Blessed to Serve. Your victory over Sethrik in that race was also highly instructive.

“And then you attained victory over Amas-Garao of the Shadeweavers — not once, but twice, the second time in direct Challenge of personal combat.”

Now the tall figure of Vindatri went rigid. “Is this truth that you speak?”

“Oh, it was a magnificent — and at times heart-rending — battle, Vindatri. Captain Ariane Austin, a First Emergent but a few scant weeks in the Arena, facing Amas-Garao, one of the oldest of the Shadeweavers, and — ultimately — defeating him with a maneuver that shocked both Shadeweaver and Faith — and required them both to act to preserve their own lives as well as those of most in the stands who had been watching.”

Vindatri turned slowly towards Ariane. “You … you Awakened yourself?”

Ariane’s white grin was a deadly, beautiful blade. “I did.”

“That is impossible.”

“Ahh, Vindatri, I have heard — and spoken! — that word in association with Humanity so many times, it has become a comforting refrain to me,” Orphan said wryly. “I am sure you, too, will become very familiar with it. Perhaps you already are.

“But we have hardly finished yet, my friends. As you mentioned, Doctor DuQuesne, there was our chase and confrontation with a fleet of the Blessed to Serve. There was the utterly inexplicable ability of Doctor Sandrisson to repair — and then improve — my own vessel, and your similar ability to make use of my own ship’s controls with a skill that seemed barely short of the supernatural.

“And there were other events, several of them… but then we reached the Genasi Challenge, and it seemed that perhaps I was wrong, as I saw what was happening. But then I formed a modified hypothesis, and indeed, the Grand Finale of that little race turned out precisely as I had guessed.”

Turning all the events over in his head, DuQuesne thought he saw what Orphan was driving at… and it was both impossible and terrifying. “You think… you think we’re, well…”

“… lucky,” Ariane finished. “Naturally — or if you’re right about the ‘Blessing’ business, unnaturally — lucky at almost anything.”

“Precisely,” Orphan said. “Random factors align for you. The right people are at the right place at the right time. The accidental offense, or the deliberate, turns out to be precisely what you needed. Your own cavalier attitude towards risk itself was another hint — one borne out by several of the entertainment modules your people shared with me. It seems to be a common trait of your heroes to say something to the effect of ‘never tell me the odds’. Partly, of course, that is because you have never integrated the same probability-evaluation technology that most of the Arena natives take for granted… but it seemed to me that you truly had less respect for the threat of random chance.”

He looked around slowly, and DuQuesne could tell Orphan was enjoying the reactions he was getting. “Yet if you were truly anomalously lucky, surely your people would have noticed it back home; you are not incapable in the areas of statistics, after all. But then, as I watched that final Challenge, I thought that there was one possible explanation, and that Challenge, I felt, confirmed it. Not proof, perhaps, but good enough.”

Klono’s Tungsten… “Maria-Susanna.”

Very good, Doctor DuQuesne. If you were all lucky, the luck would cancel out when it was, in short, human versus human, or in this case, human faction versus a faction with one rather unusual human in it. You had your… trump card, yes? Yes. Your trump card in the form of Sun Wu Kung, but for once your preternatural luck could give you no headway in the card game, because Maria-Susanna had joined the Vengeance… and brought her own luck with her, even though she was not directly playing.”

“But that’s… how?” demanded Ariane.

“That’s the sixty-four thousand-dollar question, isn’t it,” DuQuesne said slowly. “Though with the Arena involved I guess it’s not all that hard to explain. As long as you don’t need to explain why.”

“And that,” Vindatri said, “is of course the question of interest. Why? Why would the Arena favor you? For I do not accept any possibility that this is some kind of natural ability; ‘luck’ is a spurious concept in normal conversation, a perception that because random factors have aligned well several times that this represents some sort of special phenomenon. But with the Arena’s powers? It would be quite possible to influence events exactly in the manner necessary to provide such luck.

“But how this would serve the Arena’s interests? That, now, that is a difficult question indeed.”

“Does it have to serve the Arena’s interests?” Ariane countered. “I haven’t even been convinced that the Arena has ‘interests’, in the sense of things it wants to accomplish, rather than rules it has to follow because it’s built that way.”

Vindatri fluttered his hands in a way that somehow symbolized argument. “The very existence of those rules imply some form of purpose. The Factions have debated the nature of that purpose, of course, and it is certainly true that it may not be the Arena, proper, that has the purpose… but whether it be the Arena or the Voidbuilders of myth, I think we must agree that there is a purpose, and thus some number of interests, involved in the operation of the Arena.”

“So what’s your interest?” Wu Kung asked bluntly. “You gave Orphan directions on who to bring back, your own words tell me that you must have some purpose, yes?”

“Yes,” agreed Vindatri. “But I will not tell you that purpose. Doing so would fail to serve said purpose.”

“Would your purpose mean that you can’t help us — specifically, help me?” Ariane asked.

Another hint of a smile. “I can say that no, it would not impede me from providing you with some level of assistance in unraveling the mysteries of these powers. And for my own part, teaching you would perhaps reveal to me something about the powers I have not yet learned; as my own surprise doubtless revealed, I have never heard of a self-Awakening happening, and certainly never in combat.”

DuQuesne could see Ariane’s expression lighten. “Really?”

“Indeed and in truth. I will be happy to help you unbind the seals the Shadeweaver and Faith placed upon you, and then show you the way in which those powers may be used.”

“And what do you want for this help?” DuQuesne asked. “I don’t think you just give stuff like that away for free.”

“Free?” Vindatri’s gaze was coldly speculative, despite the shadowed smile that reappeared beneath the hood. “Oh, certainly not. Yet to some it may appear so. I will consider the price before we begin. To an extent, learning precisely what your Captain is would be payment; never before have I heard of a self-Awakening. It is of course assumed among the Shadeweavers that there had to once be such, to begin the order, and similarly the Faith presume there were those touched by the Creators directly to begin the Faith, but in all the records of both there are no mentions of such actually happening.”

Yeah, that would be valuable. “But that wouldn’t pay the whole freight, I’m guessing.”

“In all likelihood, no. As I have said, I must consider.” Vindatri gestured, and a sparkling white light appeared in the air before them. “Follow, and you will be led to quarters suited for you.”

“We could just sleep on board Zounin-Ginjou,” Ariane said.

Orphan made a swift gesture of negation, even as the figure whirled about, tense and menacing. “My apologies, Vindatri! She means it in a kindly way, to not put you to additional effort on her behalf when we already have comfortable spaces aboard my vessel.” The undertones of Orphan’s voice showed he was very nervous, even afraid. And the way Vindatri’s standing, he’s probably got a reason to be afraid.

Slowly, Vindatri straightened from what had been almost a predatory crouch; his head tilted as his gaze fell on Son Wu Kung, who had instantly placed himself between Ariane and Vindatri.

By now Ariane had grasped the situation. “Many apologies, Vindatri. I did indeed mean no offense to you in any way.”

Vindatri gave a broad, fluttering gesture. “Then I apologize for my anger, which must have been apparent. It is … very rude for a host to not provide accommodations for his guests, and similarly exceedingly rude to refuse such accommodations when offered. But I see you did not understand, and thus I thank you for the thought of courtesy, but beg you accept my own.”

Ariane glanced at him. Reluctantly, he nodded. Last thing we need to do is piss this guy off.

“We would be honored,” Ariane said, and Orphan relaxed as they began to follow the light.

DuQuesne was not relaxing, even as Vindatri disappeared through another doorway. One crisis averted. But this guy’s ancient, powerful, and used to doing things his way. Working with him’s going to be like walking through a minefield.

And if you keep walking through minefields, sooner or later something’s gonna blow up in your face.