Spheres of Influence – Chapter 01

Spheres of Influence

Sequel to Grand Central Arena

By Ryk E. Spoor

Chapter 1.

The slender blond man glanced up from his desk, startled – DuQuesne had, of course, been suppressing the station security systems. Couldn’t take a chance that someone would be warned, if things had gone bad.

          The startled look immediately gave way to caution. “Stop right there, please.”

DuQuesne stopped immediately; Ariane did the same. He saw Ariane looking around, and could tell she’d recognized that they had not in fact entered the reception area, but were in a sealed and – from the click behind them – locked separate chamber.

“If you are Marc DuQuesne, you gave me some very specific instructions prior to leaving me. You will now prove to me that you are in fact Dr. Marc DuQuesne.”

DuQuesne turned towards the left side of the room, strode over, and placed his hand against it for a moment. Then he looked at the other man. Make damn sure I get this part right… “Let’s see… it’s a Tuesday. Ninety-seven rows, tungsten, and a nurse who wasn’t a robot,” he said enigmatically.

The man looked down at a display in front of him, and the suspicion dissolved to a cheerful smile. “Dr. DuQuesne! I did not expect you to be visiting at all!”

“I said I’d be here regularly when I could.” He grinned down at the doctor, who was only barely shorter than Ariane but looked petite next to the massive Hyperion. “How’re things going?”

“Well enough, I suppose. There hasn’t been any significant change in the past months – any more, I gather, than there was in my predecessors’.”

“Good.” DuQuesne glanced to his side apologetically. “I’m forgetting my manners. Captain Austin, this is Doctor Davison. He’s … been watching over a few friends for me.”

Davison’s expression held a bit of speculation. “Captain Austin of the Holy Grail expedition, of course. And you’ve brought her with you. I’m … startled, given the extreme measures you took to make sure no one else even knew where this was.”

“It’s … necessary, now.” The tension was back, his shoulders now rigid as steel, aching with anticipation and, he admitted, fear and doubt. “And I appreciate the fact you’ve been willing to keep to those extreme measures.”

“It hasn’t been easy at all. No outside contact, even electronic contact only through your methods… but I’ve kept my end of that bargain.”

DuQuesne smiled, trying to ignore the tension. “I know you have… and believe me, you and my friends are probably alive because of that.”

He looked down at the blond-haired doctor levelly. “Can I see … him?”

“Naturally. You’re paying the bills, so to speak.” Davison led them to one of the other doors, which opened at their approach.

Within was a top-of-the-line nanosupport facility, a medical setup he suspected that Ariane had only seen a couple of times for pilots who had been so badly injured that they needed their brains regrown and personalities re-engraved from backups. But this was a permanent installation… and the figure lying on the bed was also wired to something that was not one tiny bit like ordinary monitoring equipment.

“I need an inductor, Doctor.”

Davison froze in the middle of starting the typical “patient condition review” speech. “I beg your pardon?”

“An inductor. I’m going in. I have to talk to him.”

Davison stared at him for a long moment, then nodded, turning to a nearby cabinet. “It’s your call, of course,” Davison conceded. “But as with the four others, this subject has been in sim-induction for the entire time of my tenure and, I must presume, that of my predecessors as well. I really do not know how he will react to an intrusion at this time.”

DuQuesne nodded slowly. He saw Ariane still gazing with amazement and consternation at the figure on the bed – humanoid, very humanoid, yet… clearly not human, stout clawlike nails on each hand, gold-brown fur on the body, the head adorned with red-black unruly hair that was a bit too stiff and rough for human, a face subtly changed with some features broadened and shifted, sharp, long canines just visible in the slightly opened mouth, and, folded around the body, a long tail. “He’ll talk to me. I don’t know if it will do any good… but it’s been way too long since I tried. And things are different, now. Maybe… just maybe…”

He found he couldn’t bring himself to actually verbalize the hope. It had been too long, too much pain and regret. He almost snatched the induction connector from Davison’s hands. “I’d better do this now, before I lose my nerve.” He took a deep breath, feeling lightheaded. Never let myself realize how much this mattered… how much I felt guilty about the whole thing. He sat down next to the bed. “Ariane… could you and the Doc wait outside?”

He could see she had a thousand questions, but she didn’t even say anything. She just nodded and gestured to Davison, who followed her out after a long, worried glance. Good man, Davison. Worried about whether I’m going to hurt his patient, even though I’m the guy who’s been paying for his care for the last fifty years.

Alone finally, he set his teeth. Into the illusion again. The original illusion. His skin literally seemed to crawl at the thought. He’d managed to break a lot of the old fear, the habits, learned to even enjoy the sim-adventure games that were one of the most popular forms of entertainment across the Solar System… but this was different. This was the honest-to-God, pure-quill, one hundred percent original Hyperion simulation, preserved after the fall for just this purpose – to give a life to those for whom the real world offered nothing.

He forced his hands up and, with a convulsive movement, set the inductor on his head.

The soft-lit, quiet extended care ward vanished. Suddenly he stood in a mighty forest, cool green trees towering over him like brooding giants, a rush of brightly-colored birds streaking through the branches with song and chattering. It hasn’t changed.

Of course, why should it? His world lives and grows, but stays the same, too. He chose this, begged for it even. Do I have a right to come here again? I promised to let him live in the home he understands for as long as he lived.

DuQuesne shook himself, then glanced around. There… that’s the mountain path.

The path wound through lush undergrowth; behind him, DuQuesne knew, it ended at a deep pool of a mighty river. In the distance he could hear the sound of a cataract. He might be there even now, fishing. But the slant of the sun is late… I hope…

He walked lightly, quietly. The forest was filled with life, but all shied away from him when they spied DuQuesne’s massive frame. No animal could mistake his movement for that of any prey, only of another hunter to be avoided.

Suddenly, a second too late, he became aware that seemingly-random flutters of branches had been nothing of the kind. He started to turn, but too late, as something powerful smashed into his shoulders from behind, sending him crashing headlong into the brush. He rolled, striking out, but his opponent was already gone, vanished, no, behind again! Another strike, this one at his knees, another at his arms as he tried to roll, and he found himself flat on his back, gazing up…

At a figure with a laughing, slightly-fanged face, hanging head-down from a branch above him from a strong tail, spinning a gold-capped staff idly between its fingers. “DuQuesne? DUQUESNE? Is it really you?”

He couldn’t help but laugh in return at the simple joy on his old friend’s face. “Really me, Wu. It really is.”

Wu Kung dropped from the trees above and threw slender but tremendously strong arms around him, lifting DuQuesne and spinning him around like a child. “Marc! This is wonderful! It’s been so long! I have to show you around! There’s so many things for me to tell you!” Wu let go and bounced into the tree again, pointing. “Up this way! I haven’t bothered to make a new path, but if we go straight up, we can get home much faster!”

“And how many trees do I have to swing through, Wu? You know I’m not exactly as light as you are.”

The Hyperion Monkey King laughed again. “No, no, just a steep path, no cliffs, follow me, come on, follow!”

DuQuesne smiled and followed, hammering his way up the slope as Wu Kung bounded from ground to tree to stone with abandon, urging him onward.

Abruptly they burst from the trees to a clearer space, a steep crest of the hill that afforded a view extending out to the horizon. Massive limestone hills, pillarlike, reared from the plains below, more brilliant and picturesque versions of their karst-born models in Yangshuo on Earth. DuQuesne paused, admiring the view and the shades of the setting sun. Simulation it may be… but it’s his home right now, and the simulation is breathtaking in its own way.

“Sanzo! SANZO! It’s DuQuesne! He’s here to visit!”

As always, it gave DuQuesne a major jolt of cognitive dissonance to see a slender, beautiful young woman answering to that name. They put every version of the Journey to the West ever made into a blender and came out with this. It was another jolt – somewhat smaller – to realize that in some ways Sanzo, with her long dark-blue hair and athletic martial monk’s figure, was not at all unlike Ariane. Very much like Ariane, actually. That’s an interesting coincidence.

Sanzo smiled and bowed a welcome. “It has been far, far too long, Master DuQuesne,” she said. “I hope you may stay and eat with us?”

“I have business to attend to, Mistress Sanzo,” he answered, “but I may be able to, if time permits.”

“I shall plan for it, then.” She looked to Wu Kung. “Our sons will not return from the Three Ways until tomorrow, so there is also room for him to stay.”

“Yes! That would be very good!”

This is making it… a lot harder than I thought. Sons? Of course there would be. Dammit. “Look, Wu – I have to talk to you first. It’s really important.”

For the first time he saw a flash of comprehension in the Monkey King’s eyes – the knowledge that there were important things left unsaid, truths unthought. He saw a plea there, too, one to drop it, leave it lie, to stay a day or two and return to his “faraway land” without disturbing that which was here, in Sun Wu Kung’s paradise.

But Wu was also his friend, and part of him knew DuQuesne would not have come if he didn’t have some terribly important purpose. “Of… course. Sanzo, we will be nearby – just over the other side of the ridge, to speak of whatever secret matters DuQuesne has on his mind.”

He bowed to Sanzo as they took their leave, and then followed Wu over the nearby ridge. “Thanks, Wu.”

The Monkey King fidgeted, no longer so cheerful. “We … were allies in a great war, you and I. I cannot refuse to hear you out.”

Even in your own thoughts you try to evade it. As did I. As K does, even better that I could manage. “Wu, you know I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think I had to.”

“I know. But… you promised. Never again.”

Yeah. I did. But I also promised myself that I had to find a way, someday, to free you from yourself. “Something’s happened, Wu. Something huge. Something wonderful, in a way, but also pretty scary.” He took a deep breath – very vaguely aware, with the part of him that still had the perceptual skills of the ultimate end of Hyperion – that his real body was not breathing deeply, was sitting quietly inert, almost paralyzed, with the mind occupied in this waking dream. “I want you to come back with me.”

Wu shook his head, frowning. “No. No. I told you…” his voice suddenly took on the pleading tones of a child, a little boy who knew that something terrible was waiting for him, and that there was no way to avoid it, “… told you, I don’t want to anymore. I can’t. There… it’s cold. Cold, and none of my friends can follow. Just you. And there’s no place… no place for me.”

He stepped forward, reaching out. “Wu –”

A sledgehammer smashed into his jaw; for a minute the pain was so shockingly, blazingly overwhelming that he thought, impossibly, that it had been broken. The impact sent him crashing uncontrollably through the brush, over a small cliff, to land with almost bone-breaking impact on thin turf. He managed to roll slightly aside and the gold-ended staff hammered a small crater in the dirt rather than trying to shatter his ribs. “NO!” Wu Kun shouted, and yanked him up, shaking him like a rat in the jaws of a terrier despite the fact that DuQuesne outweighed him by three to one. “Why do you want to destroy them? They’re my family! My friends! Don’t come here saying those words again! I can’t! I can’t!” The too–wide green-gold eyes were filled with all too human tears. “You KNOW there’s nothing out there but cold and loneliness and machines, there’s no poetry in the sky, no trail of wonders, no miraculous Dragons waiting under the ocean, just … just …”

Oh, damn. DuQuesne felt his heart ache inside. It’s harder than I thought. So much harder. He saw Wu sinking to his knees, looking at DuQuesne’s blood on his hand.

“Wu… there is a place now.”

For a long, long moment he was sure that Wu wouldn’t ever answer – that he either would not hear, or was too angry and afraid to accept what he did hear. But then, finally, the childlike tenor whispered, “… a place?”

“Yes, Wu.” He forced himself to stand as he searched for the right words, words so critical for this moment. “Something so wondrous and terrifying, something so huge and strange that… that even the Buddha would spend a year closing his hand around it and still never grasp it. A place where a thousand races of… of demons and gods walk and speak, where there are worlds floating in the clouds, where you can fly up to touch the suns or sail a ship off the edge of the sea into that infinite sky.” He heard his words, heard also the deep voice of Orphan as he tried in his own way to tell them of the Arena. “A place that’s called the Arena, where challenges given and received can determine the fate of a hundred, a thousand worlds. Where there’s magicians, and priests and… and everything you could imagine, Wu. And things neither of us can.”

He became aware of a massive gray-green figure, taller than he was, at the edge of the forest. Horned, half-concealed in a cloak woven of river-mist, Sha Wujing of the Seven Hells watched them with an unreadable expression on his broad, leather-skinned face. This version of the river-ogre of the original Journey West had been a king of the underworlds, one of Wu’s first opponents, eventually – after a long time – an ally and finally friend, though a grim and rarely warm one. Sha stood silently, listening and watching.

Wu stayed kneeling on the ground. DuQuesne saw tears falling on the grass. “Sounds… amazing… But I have to stay here, DuQuesne. My family needs me. My friends… this world has its own dangers that come to it, that I have to protect it from…”

“I didn’t joke when I said I needed you, Wu. This is it, Wu. This is the place … we were meant to be. A place where we can make a difference. Where there’s everything at stake… and every day hides an adventure.”

But Wu shook his head, unable to say anything. DuQuesne looked down and realized it was too much to ask. He had hoped…

The shadow of Sha Wujing fell over him. “Go.”

DuQuesne didn’t like being ordered by anyone… but he knew that there was nothing more to be said. “Yeah.” He turned and started off, glanced back at the still-immobile form of Wu Kung. Goodbye, Wu.

With the decision, he found himself once more sitting by the bedside of the warrior Hyperion, near the form which hadn’t moved for five decades. He closed his eyes, feeling once more tears that he hadn’t shed for so long coming to the surface. Goodbye, Wu. I’ll let you … stay where you belong.

But he couldn’t make himself leave Wu Kung’s bedside. Not just yet. Seeing that smiling face, full of mischief and innocence and wide-eyed wisdom, had made it far harder. Wu hadn’t been one of the first group, the five of them who had seen through the lies and begun the downfall of Hyperion, but he had become the heart of their group, the one all of them looked to for a smile or reassurance or the certainty they needed to continue. And DuQuesne just could not leave that behind.

He sat there quietly, trying to let go, to leave it all behind, but it was much harder than he had thought it could possibly be. He would start to move, and then he’d see K’s delighted face, laughing as Wu kept DuQuesne always just out of reach during a supposed sparring match. Or, more often, he’d remember that last look of hopeless determination on the Monkey King’s face as he prepared to make his last stand against the invaders.

The door opened slowly. “Marc?”

With a start he realized he had been sitting there far, far longer than he’d thought. An hour, maybe more. Don’t really want to check. “Sorry, Ariane. Looks… like this is a bust.”

The look she gave him said more than words could have. He returned it with a faint smile.

He took a shaky breath, then rose and started to turn.

A hand caught his wrist.

A shock of adrenalin and hope shot through him and he looked back.

Through eyes barely open, Wu Kung looked up at him, tears trailing down his cheeks. “… An adventure, huh?”

A great morning sun of joy seemed to explode from his heart, and he threw back his head and gave a booming laugh that echoed in his own ears, feeling chains of guilt and fear decades old just fading away into triumph and relief. “The biggest you can imagine,” he said, kneeling down and taking both of Wu’s hands, grinning from ear to ear at the weak, answering smile on the tear-streaked face.

“Welcome back, Wu.”