Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 16

Chapter 16.

          “Are you sure this is okay, DuQuesne? I mean, I really really want to go with you, but you want me to guard Ariane, and –”

“Relax, Wu,” DuQuesne said, smiling. Already talking a mile a minute. “We all agreed you needed to be able to get out and about.”

          “Quite so,” agreed Simon absently, as they made their way along the broad corridor towards the elevator to the Outer Gateway. Low, flat tracks of shaped superconductor now lay along the entire length of that corridor, and also to the Inner Gateway, allowing magnetic levitation to be used as a support and guide for cargoes. In this case, both Simon and DuQuesne were drawing large cases along behind them.

“And Ariane’s agreed that she’s not leaving the Embassy whenever you’re gone. Anyone wants to see her, they have to go in our territory.”

Wu grimaced. “I’d still feel better if you were with her right now.”

DuQuesne shrugged. “I don’t expect direct assassination, to be honest. The Arena clamps down pretty hard on anyone who initiates violence, unless the Shadeweavers or — I’d guess — the Faith mess with that.” There was a faint sensation of acceleration as the elevator doors closed and the room shot up towards the Outer Gateway. And if the geometry of the Sphere is anything like we’ve guessed, we’re actually accelerating at a lethal pace. We’ll cover a couple thousand kilometers from down here to the top in about five seconds. Something like thirty thousand gravities — hell, that wouldn’t be too shabby even from the old Skylark‘s point of view.

Almost before he had finished thinking that, the chamber slowed and the doors opened. They were now in what Gabrielle, if he remembered right, had christened “the antechamber” to the Upper Sphere.

But things were very different from the first time. Now, the superconducting tracks continued all the way to the huge doorway, and the whole area was covered by simple automated weapons emplacements, with storage areas for needed items and materials… and tracks and marks showing how much traffic there had been over the past few months. Carl, Tom, and Steve have been busting their humps over this, that’s obvious. “Open Outer Gateway,” he said.

The great door — made of the same “coherent quark composite”, or CQC, that appeared to be the Arena’s preferred structural building material — rolled effortlessly aside, and a blaze of golden sunshine poured in, along with the warm fragrance of a living world.

“Wow!” exclaimed Wu, and bounded out before DuQuesne could stop him. His voice came immediately from outside. “It’s beautiful! And there’s a waterfall over there — and look, something’s flying way, way over there, like a bird, but not quite!”

The tracks cut back from the Gateway and headed up the ridge from which the Gateway projected. “Ah. This road must lead up to the river, just above the falls.”

“So I am given to understand,” Simon said. DuQuesne noticed that he was not spending much time looking around — which was not characteristic of the usually highly attentive and aware scientist. Simon drew ahead of DuQuesne, because DuQuesne had to wait and catch Wu’s attention. “This way, Wu. Yes, this way! We’ll go over and look at the jungle in a minute, just hold your horses!”

The Monkey King bounded back towards him, then stopped at a gesture. “What is it?”

“First, I’ve got some things we need to get straight. You heard the lecture on the Challenges, and I know you read the accounts of what we went through here. I want you to be double careful, Wu. Yes, I know, there’s probably still not much here that could beat you, but this isn’t your world, remember, and you can’t just bust heads whenever people piss you off.”

Wu looked slightly hurt. “I know that! I wouldn’t… I mean, I never just break heads because… Well, almost never… unless they’re really mean… or…”

“See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve got to think, just like if Sanzo — or Ariane — were holding the charm to make your headband go crunch, got me?”

Wu Kung nodded, red-black hair tumbling over his face in emphasis. “I got you, DuQuesne. Think before I fight.”

“And about fighting — it’ll probably come to that, sooner or later. But I want you to hold it down, hold way back unless you’ve got no choice (like, for instance, Ariane’s life is in the balance).” He glanced, saw that Simon was still moving along towards the crest of the hill, grinned at Wu. “These people still don’t really know what we can do, you see… and I don’t think that even the best of them can match us.”

“I thought you said that you were beaten by this wizard, this Amas-Garao.”

“Well…” DuQuesne shrugged. “He’s a tough customer, no doubt about it, and he can cheat in a way no one but another Shadeweaver can. But truth? Wu, I spent fifty years shutting myself down, and even with active resistance clothing to keep me sort of in shape and a few other tricks, I just wasn’t anywhere near up to top form. I’d been … awake, I guess you’d call it, for only a few weeks when that happened, and to be honest? I think I was fighting at best at about eighty percent. Which means that they don’t know what I can really do when I’m pushed, and they sure as hell haven’t a clue as to what to expect from you.

“So remember, we need diplomacy and sneakiness here. I don’t want them getting any idea just how much tougher and faster you are than me. Except — just a little bit — Orphan, because I think he’s guessed it and we did imply we’d show him. Even then, though, I want you to baffle those jets way down.”

Wu grinned, showing his fangs. “Until there’s no choice — and then I have surprises!”


Wu looked more serious, and DuQuesne followed his gaze. “He’s … not happy, exactly,” Wu said.

Yeah, I knew it. “How do you mean?” he asked aloud.

“He smells… nervous. Upset. Confused,” Wu said after a moment. “Not about what he’s doing now — he’s pretty sure about that. But something else — maybe related to it, maybe not — that’s bothering him.”

Wu’s senses were always the best. “Noticed it myself. But he hasn’t decided to talk about it, and I’m not quite ready to force him to talk.”

Cresting the hill, they could see the broad, swift-flowing river flashing in the light as it ran from the mountains which lay to the east (figuring apparent sunrise as “east” and sunset as “west”) and then plunged straight down thousands of feet. The rumble-roar of the shimmering cataract was clearly audible.

Just before the river plunged into air, there were new, rough-looking structures, erected on each side. Our first native generators; thank the Gods for people like Tom and Steve and Carl. Together they got this stuff going with nothing but one AIWish unit and a lot of personal sweat. And not a minute too soon — we’re going to be getting new potential colonists any day, maybe any minute now.

Simon looked around. “This should be as good a place as any. Marc –”

“On it.” He unslung his own pack and started setting up the control relay set. Have to hope it works.. “Wu, hold on, would you? Once I’m sure this is all working I’ll show you some of the sights.” Damn but I’d forgotten how it’s like babysitting a toddler sometimes. I don’t suppose I should really worry right now; there’s not much he can hurt wandering around here, and there’s sure as hell not much here that could hurt him.

Still, he wanted to make sure he kept an eye on Sun Wu Kung; getting into trouble seemed to be his tradition.

“Seems like a beautiful day for this,” Simon said, sounding more relaxed than he had been. “Hardly a breath of wind.” He squinted into the distance. “I see some clouds off to the horizon, but nothing worrisome.”

DuQuesne glanced upward. He suspected that what he saw was somewhat different than what Simon saw; to DuQuesne, the alien shadows behind the deceptively-normal blue sky were clear and ominous, the echoes of a universe that violated every law DuQuesne had thought he understood. But I’ve figured out tougher puzzles in stranger worlds, he thought wryly. Even if the worlds were simulated, I didn’t know it at the time.

“What are you doing?” Wu asked, having bounded back nearby. “I mean, I know you’re looking for these Sky Gates, but how?”

“Well, that’s… fairly simple and complicated at the same time,” Simon said, smiling. “The simple explanation… we need to search a large portion of the sky over our Sphere to find the Gates. I’ve…” DuQuesne caught the slight hesitation, “made some quite sensitive instruments that should be able to detect a Gate if they get within a reasonable distance of one. The problem is that the Gates are … well, out of our gravity well, so to speak. Just above the region where gravity ends, much as I hate to use such a term.”

“Accurate here, though. Border’s just about as sharp as a knife from everything we’ve seen; goes from no gravity to full in maybe a few meters.”

“But that’s a really long way up, isn’t it?” Wu asked. “I mean, way higher than even the Mountains of Heaven!”

Simon’s smile returned at that. “Yes, much higher.” He glanced at DuQuesne. “Is he exaggerating himself for me?”

Wu snorted and looked slightly embarrassed. “There’s your answer. Look, Wu, I know your personality. You don’t have to go making yourself look stupider than you are around Simon. Or me, or Ariane, for that matter. Other people, yeah, but the core group — the eight originals? Be yourself, but no less than yourself.”

“All right! You’ve caught my tail fairly.” He bowed apologetically to Simon. “So, that’s a long way up — thousands of kilometers, yes?”

“About twenty thousand above the Upper Sphere, and extending about five to ten thousand kilometers to the sides of our Sphere, yes.”

Wu thought. “You came here with DuQuesne before, a couple of days ago, while I was out with the Captain, right? So you started it… hmm… Ha! Balloons!”

Simon laughed. “Not a bad idea, but I’m afraid too slow. At any reasonable ascent rate a balloon would take on the order of a month to get there, and we have something of a time pressure involving our friends the Molothos. But your general concept is right. DuQuesne and I sent the instruments up in what amount to heated-air ramjet drones manufactured by Tom according to my specifications. They used the majority of the energy in their coils climbing, but in the weightless environment above they should be able to recharge from the sunlight provided by the so-called ‘luminaire’ above our Sphere, and they won’t need nearly so much power to maneuver.”

Wu squinted up. “So that is not really a sun at all?”

“Nope,” DuQuesne said. “It still isn’t small, of course — not in any way. We’re pretty sure it’s at an altitude just a little ways outside of the gravity area, which would make it about a hundred, hundred and ten kilometers wide.” He remembered the lighting shifts and grinned. “The Arena also does some kind of lighting tricks with it so that you get sunsets and night pretty much like at home… though you’ll be seeing something other than stars in the night sky.”

“Hm. You know, I hadn’t thought about that, Marc,” Simon said, “but that’s yet another of those subtle but impossible effects we keep coming across. In an atmosphere that extends so far, the light should be more diffuse, and there should be no true night.” He shrugged. “Now, if we could finish getting set up…?”

A few minutes sufficed to get all the equipment assembled — and pitch a tent nearby. “You’re sure about this, Simon?”

“It’s almost like camping in the backyard, Marc. Someone’s coming up here at least once a day, and as I understand it the first group of newcomers will be arriving tomorrow or the day after. I’ll be fine.”

“So your probe-things are already up there in the sky?”

“They should be, Wu. We’ll find out if they all made it and if they’re all ready in a moment.”

“How many did you make?”

Simon bent over the console and pulled out a hardwired interface connection, locked it into the connector port at the base of his skull. The system went live; while DuQuesne could see displays on the field controls, he knew Simon would now be seeing much more. “Fifteen units — as many as Tom could manage in two days with the materials input we could scavenge from Holy Grail.” A pause. “I am getting operational responses from twelve; number six probe is at altitude but the instrument package is showing no operation, and two others are simply not responding.”

“Is that enough?”

“Oh, I think so. Lined up side by side, I’m confident they can each cover a hundred-kilometer radius, so together they cover the equivalent of twenty-four hundred kilometers of the projected area in a sweep. A few weeks, perhaps a month or two at the outside, should give us contact with most if not all of our Gates.”

“How about knowing where they go?” Wu Kung asked sensibly. “It will be fine to have many doors in the sky, but you would like to know what waits on the other side.”

“Oh, most certainly. Tom is making some additional probes for that; once we locate the gates, two-stage probes will be sent up. The second stage will enter the gates, and each will have enough energy for a double jump at such a small size. They will jump, take readings for a few seconds, and jump back, relaying the data back here.”

“You’re going to check all of them?” DuQuesne asked.

Simon seesawed his hand. “Maybe, maybe not. The goal, after all, is to find out if we have a Gateway to Nexus Arena. So I will send probes through until either I have found Nexus Arena on the other side, or I have run out of Gates to check. I would prefer not to send probes through the others if I could avoid it, as we have no idea what might be on the other side — including a hostile Molothos colony.” He tapped controls on the console before him. “That may seem improbable in the extreme… but I think we can all agree that the improbable has become the commonplace for us here.”

“Amen; I read you to nine decimals on that. Find Nexus Arena and then stop until we have ourselves set up, courtesy of Orphan.” He saw Wu starting to follow the river. “Okay. You set for now?”

“Marc, go,” the white-haired scientist said with an honest grin. “I may look like an academic, but I am not entirely unable to survive outside of the laboratory for a few moments. It will be a novelty, at least for a while, and if I find it wearing the elevator is, what, fifteen minutes’ hike away.”

DuQuesne chuckled. He does have something bothering him, but this isn’t the time to push. “Okay, then, I’m off. Let us know as soon as you find something.”

“I assure you, I will sprint home with that news.”

By the time DuQuesne caught up with Wu Kung, the Monkey was hanging over the side of the waterfall. “Wow! This is almost as far as Seven Devils’ Torrent!”

He thought back and managed to remember that part of Wu’s own world in Hyperion. “Yeah, just about. Seven Devils would’ve been maybe thirty meters higher.”

“It’s really beautiful. The color of those plants is so bright — and different!” Wu let go, slid down the sheer cliff face so quickly that DuQuesne found himself frozen, reaching out for a figure that had already dropped far out of reach. Clawed hands contracted, dug indestructible claws in, found purchase in stone. The Hyperion Monkey King now dangled by one hand from the cliff-face, sniffing at a flower that grew from a blue-green clump of leaves in the middle of an otherwise barren span of rock. He sneezed. “Spicy! I’ll bet you could use that as a flavor.”

“We’ve barely begun categorizing stuff here, Wu.” Not that warning him would do any good, but he had to try. “So anything could be poisonous or –”

“Worry worry worry, you haven’t changed, DuQuesne! I will know if these are dangerous!”

Utterly hopeless. Why am I even trying?

As he watched Wu Kung swing himself back up to the top of the cliff and then start running precariously along it, back the way they’d come, he answered himself with a smile. Because he’s one of the few good things from my old life, and I want those things safe.

“Ah! There’s that path down!”

Naturally, Sun Wu Kung didn’t actually run back to the beginning of the path; he just dropped down twenty or so meters to the place where he’d noticed the path on the cliff-face.

DuQuesne swore good-naturedly. “Hold on, Wu!” I am not letting him drag me into some show-off “follow the leader” just so he can find out how out of shape I am even now.

Wu didn’t exactly wait, but he did slow down enough so that DuQuesne nearly caught up to him before he reached the winch that led to the forest below. “Oh, wonderful!” he exclaimed, and swung himself out and over, sliding down the cable that disappeared into the forest below.

“Dammit. Sun Wu Kung, I am going to…”

An explosion of colorful, glittering wings showed that Wu had just annoyed a stagfly nest — the giant insectoid things that DuQuesne had encountered on his first trip down. They weren’t dangerous to someone in armor, and that meant that Wu probably wouldn’t even pay them much mind, but there were other creatures down there…

Oh, stop worrying. You sound like my mother, Marc! He heard Seaton’s voice, with that humorous tone that always took the edge off the corrections or remonstrations when Marc DuQuesne found he wasn’t handling the situation as diplomatically as Seaton thought he should. A whole assault force of Molothos wasn’t enough to stop you, do you think there’s anything down there he can’t handle? No.

“Actually,” he muttered to himself, “I’m more worried about the native lifeforms.”

He could manage the slide down the cable too — his hands were, naturally, much tougher than any ordinary person’s — so down he went.

As he reached the bottom, having batted the odd stagfly aside, he heard burbling screeches some distance away. The sound was familiar from a recording. Carl called them splaywolves… Pack hunters, not top predators maybe but not harmless.

He jogged up cautiously. Sure enough, Wu was standing in a small clearing, ten or fifteen creatures with the sinuous bodies of weasels or ferrets circling him, running like lizards on wide-set legs. The heads were long yet flattened, almost crocodilian in a way, but covered with a ruffled material — something like scales crossed with hair; the same material covered the entire body in a close-woven pattern of pale browns and muted blue-greens. Each of the things was six feet long and stood a foot and a half off the ground at the shoulder.

One scuttled toward Wu, leaping slightly, snapping with backward-jagged teeth. Wu dodged effortlessly and smacked the creature on its rump, evading what looked like a bladed tail. The splaywolf gave a cooing shriek and fled to a distance of ten or fifteen meters. The others echoed the sound and shifted their patrol pattern slightly.

DuQuesne checked around to make sure there weren’t any of the predators trying to sneak up on him. No, not at the moment. But they’re pretty bright; they’re trying to adjust tactics, figure out this new animal.

Then Wu dropped to all fours, spun around on his hands and feet in a similar manner, and gave vent to a burbling call of his own.

What the…?

The splaywolves froze. Then one answered, this time with a threatening call; Wu responded even more threateningly, and the largest of the group gave an unmistakable snarl, baring all its teeth, claws extending on the feet.

Wu did not move.

DuQuesne stayed where he was, unable to believe what he was seeing. It can’t be.

The large splaywolf leapt forward and Wu met it halfway, boxing its head like a punching bag. A cry of pain and shock, and the creature spun again, trying to catch Wu, but this time Sun Wu Kung bounded over its snapping, clawing attack and landed squarely on its back. The creature tried to claw and bite, but Wu shoved its head down to the ground and ignored the attacks.

A moment later the creature gave a whining sigh, and Wu immediately let it go. The splaywolf backed up, head down, whining, and Wu bobbed up and down, giving another burbling call.

Immediately the whole pack moved in and rubbed around Wu in an unmistakable greeting.

My … God.

He knew what had just happened. But… “Wu!”

“Oh! Hi, DuQuesne! Caught up as I was making some friends! They aren’t quite like the monkeys, but they aren’t completely stupid.” The splaywolves were backing up, showing their teeth as DuQuesne moved into view. Wu shook his head. “No! None of that! This is DuQuesne. He is my friend. You go, smell him, know friend!”

And as the creatures followed Wu Kung’s instructions, he had to accept what he saw. It shouldn’t be possible. But it is. What’s the Arena up to now?