Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 03
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Simon jolted awake from the doze he’d been in, the restraints on Holy Grail‘s copilot seat keeping him from catapulting through the air. Whatâ€¦
“We have a detection, Simon,” his AISage Mio said, her projection materializing nearby. “Displaying now.”
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Simon didn’t question her assertion, but for his own peace of mind — or lack thereof — he checked the readings himself. The results did not comfort him. No doubt about it. But the location makes no sense.
“What is it, Simon?”
He saw Gabrielle poking her head through the interior doorway of Holy Grail with a concerned look on her face. He opened the commlink and let her see the display. “You see the triple peak, there? That’s a spacetime disruption which can’t really have any other explanation other than the activation of a Sandrisson Drive.”
“Something came in, or went out?”
“Out, I’m sure. There’s no sign of anything there now, but examining the minimal data I have for the region indicates there was a small vessel in that area previously.”
Gabrielle looked puzzled. “Minimal data? Where was it? Ain’t too many places you could go that don’t have telescopic records.”
“Ahh, but this was far to zenith — very far out of the plane of the solar system. Far enough that normally we don’t monitor the area much at all.”
“That far up, so to speak?”
“Yes. Which is one of the things that worries me. To do that without being noticed earlier, the ship would have had to depart somewhere around two, two and a half weeks ago — no more than a month after our arrival.”
Gabrielle looked serious, and the other AISages materialized at the same moment.
“INDEED A MOST INTERESTING PROBLEM, YOUTH,” Mentor thundered, in the manner of the fictional character Ariane had designed her AISage to operate, and then in reduced volume continued, “From even the fragmentary data you have, it is a matter of only moderate difficulty to extract some useful parameters for the departed vessel. It was small — my Visualization gives a ninety-six point two percent probability that it was one passenger with a considerable mass of supplies of unknown type. It departed from, and was presumably constructed at, L-5 Shipyards. Data from the last trans-System update indicates that construction of the vessel began five point two six days after our arrival.”
“A new Sandrisson Drive vessel constructed and launched in less than one month. How?” he murmured, stunned. “Physically it’s not impossible butâ€¦ even with what I gave the SSC I would expect it to take at least a few weeks just to settle on the basic design, let alone construct it.”
“As yet there is insufficient data to answer the question,” Mentor answered. “However, additional data may be forthcoming. Mio and I have been tracking another small vessel and it is now preparing to dock with Holy Grail.”
“Who is it?”
“The identification provided by the onboard AISage, and indirect verification from other data available, indicates that our visitor is Saul Maginot. There may be at least one more vessel approaching but that is uncertain at this time.”
Oh dear. That cannot be good news. “Well, allow Commander Maginot aboard, of course.”
“Security deactivated for outer lock,” Mio confirmed.
By the time he and Gabrielle arrived, the lock was cycling. Saul Maginot stepped carefully from the lock on surface-cling boots; his AISage Elizabeth drifted near him, dressed in what appeared to be formal partywear from several centuries past. “Welcome aboard, Commander,” Simon said.
“Thank you, but we have little time for pleasantries. My coming here is itself going to be a signal to certain parties, of course, but I will be damned if I am going to talk anywhere someone can spy on me.”
“The Anonymity –”
“– Protocols, yes, yes, but in a public project that can get rather fuzzy, and in a public space even more so. Here there’s absolutely no fuzziness about it, thank goodness, and moreover I have confidence that you’ve made sure of your security here as well.”
“Your confidence is well placed,” Mentor’s deep voice responded, “and our examination of you and your personal belongings show that you are ‘clean’, as the saying goes. You may speak freely.”
“Good, because there isn’t much time; I hope DuQuesne and Captain Austin return soon fromâ€¦ wherever they have gone. The public announcement hasn’t yet been made, but as of tomorrow I am officially Commander of the Combined Space Forces â€¦ and as of tomorrow, that is all that I am. Oscar Naraj will be head of the Space Security Council, and his right-hand woman Michelle Ni Deng has already been in charge of the new Arena Research Division. The ship — christened the Duta, which Elizabeth informs me means ’emissary’ — will be ready to leave very shortly; Elizabeth and I estimate no more than a week from now, possibly as little as five days.”
“This is unfortunately entirely in line with our Visualization,” Mentor said.
“That’s terribly fast, Mr. Maginot,” Gabrielle said. “You’ve been running things there for fifty years, more or less, and people’ve always been supportive of you. How in the world did this happen so quickly?”
Maginot smiled sadly. “I had fifty years partly becauseâ€¦ if we are being entirely honest with ourselves — there wasn’t much for us to do. We were not expected to act, only to react, and administer the security update operations for destructive nanos, engineered biologicals, and malicious code. That’s the way it’s been for half a century — and that was after Hyperion tightened things up. Oh, you get little flareups, friction between groups crowding each other, a few people forgetting that their right to be offended ends at the other person’s personal space, but nothing that can’t be dealt with using a couple patrol vessels, maybe one warship.” He looked up. “And then you came back, and everything changed.”
Oh, great Kami. “Politics matters again.”
“How succinctly you put that, Dr. Sandrisson,” Saul said with a sigh. “But yes, that’s exactly it. The situation before was stable, overall. There was no lever that someone like Oscar could find that would make it worth the time and effort to oust me. Everyone was comfortable with me being in charge — why, even the debates on the warships usually had the undertone of ‘we really don’t need them, but with modern automation the maintenance is basically zero and it’d be too much of a pain to decomission them’.
“But suddenly there’s a whole universe out there of other species, other threats to the entire human race, and the project I had okayed and promoted seems to have potentially begun a war we’re not ready to fight.” He raised a hand. “Please, don’t tell me that’s not fair, I know perfectly well it’s neither a fair nor accurate assessment, but it is the undertone of what Oscar and his people have been saying. We have fear and uncertainty galore now, and people who like to be at the forefront of this kind of thing now have something real to drive them.” He frowned. “And I cannot help but think that anyone who wants power for those reasons really is not the person I want to have it.”
“Amen to that,” said an unmistakable deep voice from the entrance.
“Marc!” Simon had no trouble admitting that knowing DuQuesne was back took a tremendous load off his shoulders. “Mentor, why didn’t you –”
“Because my first loyalties are to Ariane Austin, and she had directed me to take no actions to disturb anyone during their approach,” Mentor answered.
“Sorry,” Ariane said, becoming visible as DuQuesne left the doorway, her smile lighting the roomâ€¦ or perhaps just my vision of the room, whenever she enters. “Mentor told us you were talking with Commander Maginot so I said not to interrupt.”
“Quite all right,” Saul said. “Glad that you could make it. I wasâ€¦”
He trailed off, jaw literally going slack and eyes staring in utter shock.
Simon looked back to the entryway to see one of the most outlandish figures he had ever beheld — and given what he’d seen in the Arena, that, as DuQuesne might have said, was really going some. The newcomer wasn’t tall — in fact, if you discounted the spiky-tumbling hair that almost seemed like a ruff or mane atop his head, he was only about as tall as the diminuitive Gabrielle â€“ but he was wearing something that looked as though it came from the overactive imagination of the most sleep-deprived simgame designer, gripping a red-enameled, gold-capped staff in one hand, with a golden band around his headâ€¦ and his features were definitely not quite human.
Golden headband? A staff? A tail? Masaka. It can’t beâ€¦
“Sun Wu Kung,” Saul breathed slowly. “By God, DuQuesne, I never thoughtâ€¦”
“Neither did I, Saul. But thank all the heavens we were wrong.”
Sun Wu Kung — The Monkey King? — bared his fangs in a cheery grin. “I remember you! You argued with the other men and let DuQuesne take me away! But you were much younger then.”
Saul nodded, still with a stunned air about him. “You, on the other hand, seem not to have aged a day. Not surprising, I suppose. Welcome to the real world, Sun Wu Kung.”
“Thanks!” Wu Kung bounced past Saul, catching one of the consoles with his tail to stop in front of Simon. “And you’re Doctor Sandrisson — they told me about you, said you had white hair and looked like a Hyperion genius!”
Simon didn’t know exactly what to make of that, but the Monkey King’s smile was infectious. “Pleased to meet you, Sun Wu Kung.”
“Call me Wu, everyone does — Hey, you’re Gabrielle, the healer!”
A short attention span seems to be one of his characteristics. As the newly-wakened Hyperion transferred his attention to Gabrielle and the AISage manifestations, Simon heard more serious conversation. Saul was talking to DuQuesne: “â€¦ of the others?”
Marc shrugged. “It wasn’t all badâ€¦ but not all good, either. She got Jim — leastwise it looks like it was a struggle and there weren’t too many people that could even have found him, let alone beat him. Velocity’s thinking about it; my guess is he’ll come, after a little thinking. I couldn’t check on too many of the others and â€¦ well, I wasn’t ready to try any of the other sleepers yet. As for K, I checked but she’s been deployed elsewhere, and you know she never leaves a forward.” He made a handwave as if to shoo away the subject. “Anyway, Mentor kept us up to date on the situation. They’re nearly ready, and Naraj is setting up his own expedition to try to clean up what they see as our mess.” The huge Hyperion’s gaze snapped to Simon. “How are we set?”
“Now that you’re here? We can leave within a few hours, I think.”
“Are you coming with us, Saul?”
The older man shook his grizzled head. “A part of me would love to see this Arena — and one day I am sure I will. But I am still Commander of the Fleet, and that is now, as your friend points out, a vastly more real position now than it was a few weeks ago. I have to prepare for a potential warâ€¦ and try to minimize any damage our own politics might do here.”
“Right. In that case you should probably prep your ship, because we’ve got to get out of here so that we’ll hit the Arena before anyone else does.”
“I’m afraid it’s a bit late for that,” Simon said.
“No need to bellow, Marc. I mean that we just recently registered a transition. And judging from the path, the ship itself was completed two weeks or so ago — far earlier than I would have thought possible.”
“Who the hellâ€¦ Dammit! That throws a new monkey wrench into the works.”
Simon had been thinking. “You know, Saul, there just aren’t very many people who could have done this. It would have to be someone familiar with my work, considerable reserves of power or Interest or other value, and since no one picked up on this, someone very good at working under full anonymity. But even soâ€¦ there were key elements of the designs that I kept fully proprietary, so only your study groups were given access.”
“I see where you are going, Simon. Let me check to see if we have any candidates from the engineering and science group that was tasked with the construction of the Duta.” A pause; his AISage Elizabeth seemed to be paging through a book. “Hm. There does appear to be one possibility, but I would have thought someone you recommended would be a reasonable risk.”
“One of my recommendations?” Simon said.
“Doctor Shoshana,” Saul confirmed. “She left the SSC workgroup only about three days after joining, apologizing but citing some personal reasons.”
“Howâ€¦ odd. She was always reliable when I worked with her — she had to leave the project shortly before the end, but I never had any problems with her or her work.” He thought for a moment. “I suppose — if she had the resources — she would possibly be capable of this, although I had not thought her quite able to make that many leaps of design and judgment by herselfâ€¦”
DuQuesne stood up slowly, his face a shade paler. “Simon, who is this person you’re talking about?”
“Dr. Marilyn Shoshana, a –”
“SON OF A BITCH!”
The bellow was so loud that everyone — even Sun Wu Kung — jumped. DuQuesne continued with several outdated curses. And as he did so, Saul suddenly went pure white. “Oh, no. Not her.”
“What’s wrong, Marc?” Ariane looked grim, recognizing that only something cataclysmic could possibly make Marc C. DuQuesne react like that. In response, the Hyperion turned to Simon.
“This Doctor Shoshana — young-appearing woman, maybe twenty five, delicate, extremely beautiful, golden hair –”
Simon didn’t wait for the rest. “You obviously know who we’re talking about. What’s wrong, Marc? Who is Marilyn Shoshana?”
“Just the most dangerous psychopath in the entire solar system,” DuQuesne said quietly, grimly. “The one Saul’s people have been chasing for fifty some-odd years and never caught.”
“God, no,” Gabrielle whispered in disbelief. “The renegade Hyperion. The one that murdered –”
“The very one,” DuQuesne’s face was dark, and Simon thought he saw, unbelievably, a trace of fear as well as anger and sadness.
“And now she’s loose in the Arena,” Saul closed his eyes and shook his head.
“So she was the one you didn’t want following us.” Ariane said, apparently putting some things together. “And I suppose her name isn’t even Shoshana.”
“Not that far off.” DuQuesne looked into the distance sadly, and Wu Kung’s face was suddenly filled with horror and confusion.
“No, DuQuesne!” he said in shock. “No, not her!”
“Yes, Wu. I’m sorry.” He looked momentarily at Saul, then at the still-questioning eyes of Ariane. “She always uses a variant of her real nameâ€¦ though,” he continued with a twisted smile, “never her last name. Just her first.” He gazed out a window, clearly seeing something elseâ€¦ A ghost, Simon suddenly knew, a terrible broken vengeful ghost from the past that never leaves him.
“Just â€¦ Maria-Susanna.”