Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 20

Chapter 20.

          “What the living hell is wrong with you, Sun Wu Kung?”

Despite her anger, Ariane found it difficult to maintain the grim expression; the Hyperion Monkey King looked so utterly hangdog that part of her wanted to laugh, and another wanted to give him a hug.

          But I can’t. This is far too important. I have to make this point.

None of the others looked like they were laughing. DuQuesne’s brows were drawn together like a line of thunderclouds, Gabrielle’s lips were tight, and Laila Canning had the cold clinical stare of a scientist looking over a dissection table. And Marc didn’t sound like he was in a great mood to begin with when I called him in. Well, that’s okay; Wu needs to face a little hostility now.

She had not called in Naraj, Ni Deng, or Abrams. This was her problem.

“You were specifically told to avoid confrontations, Wu Kung! I gave you permission to see the Arena, not to fight it!” She transferred her angry stare to DuQuesne. “He was under your wing when you left. What happened?”

DuQuesne waited a moment, making sure that Wu Kung saw his directed glare before he looked up. “Ariane — Captain. Captain, I had a talk with him just before we parted. I said, and I quote, ‘try to stay out of trouble’.” He looked back at Wu, who seemed to be trying to shrink inside his flamboyant robes. “God-damn it, Wu! I should have known it was a lost cause, but for cryin’ out loud, couldn’t you have managed one multiply-qualified hour without getting into a scrap?”

“I’m sorry!” the little Monkey King said, and he sounded almost on the verge of tears. Emotional swings. What did they do, those bastards of Hyperion, in the name of making some twisted dreams come true? “But I couldn’t ignore it, I just couldn’t!”

He leaned forward. “DuQuesne, you know! They were mocking him, and he couldn’t do anything!”

DuQuesne’s face showed just a momentary flicker of softness, but it hardened immediately. “Wu, the problem isn’t just what you did, it’s what you could have done.”

“I don’t have all the details yet,” Ariane said, keeping her voice at the same deadly level tone, “but I did ask Mandallon to give me what he saw. He says that you, in effect, promised that your opponents could make YOU issue a Challenge — meaning we’d be stuck with it, and whatever they chose to use as the medium of the Challenge — if you lost.”

“Well… yes, I did, but –”

“No buts!” she cut in. “Sun Wu Kung, I have no doubt you were confident of your ability to beat them. You were obviously right, this time, in these conditions, with that particular group. But you did not have the right to take that risk.”

He fidgeted, started to open his mouth, then closed it. Good. She moderated her tone just a fraction. “Understand, Wu Kung, this isn’t about whether you know what you can do, or what you think you can do. It’s about the fact that you potentially exposed our Faction to a Challenge that we would have a terribly strong chance to lose, and — honestly speaking — we can’t afford to lose. Humanity’s only got so much to give, and we’ve got a war coming with the meanest bastards in the Arena. All it would have taken is one bad break — you being thrown just far enough that you fell off the Dock, someone sneaking in a weapon that could take you down for a minute, or a one-in-a-billion slip by you in combat, and suddenly you’re forced to issue a Challenge to someone who might be a stooge for our worst enemies.”

She sighed. “Wu, for all we know, the scene that drew you in was meant for you. These people play games exactly that deep.”

“Let’s be fair, Captain,” said Gabrielle. “I don’t think they’d know enough about Wu yet to be able to set up something like that ahead of time.”

“Probably not,” she conceded, “but there’s no telling for sure; the Shadeweavers might be able to guess a lot about him, and even if they couldn’t touch his mind directly, there’s nothing preventing them from arranging some kind of psychological test.”

Wu’s head tilted a bit at that, and the green-golden eyes flickered quickly towards her before dropping their gaze back down. “Um… Captain… The one called Amas-Garao did speak with me for a bit before then.”

Coincidence? I’d like to think so. Maybe it is. But… “So we don’t even know if it was a setup.” She sat slowly down, gesturing for Wu Kung to take his seat. “All right, Wu, I’ve given you the dressing-down you deserve — and you damned well better remember it. But right now I want the whole story, from the time that Marc left you to the time I called you back.”

The story that unfolded was as straightforward as Wu himself, and as clear. Damn. If that hadn’t been a setup, it should have been, because it was virtually flawless as bait for someone like Sun Wu Kung.

Be honest with yourself, her conscience spoke up. It probably would have worked on you too.

Another part of her protested that she knew better than that. I would think I’d be smart enough not to risk our whole faction for something like that.

But the events that had brought them into the Arena and farther into their challenges — her intervention between Orphan and the Blessed, the Challenge that led to a desperate race between her and Sethrik, her direct Challenge to Sethrik which turned out to be a trap by Amas-Garao — those had all been caused by her own actions. Amas-Garao was influencing me on two of those, yes… but I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have done any of those myself. Maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn’t.

She waited for Wu to finish, which he did and sat there with the expression of a child waiting to be scolded — something very much at odds with the overconfident, brash, dynamic Monkey King. I can’t cut him much slack yet, though. So she paused another several seconds — an endless time in that tense silence — before speaking.

“Thank you for telling us the whole sequence of events, Wu,” she said finally. “That did make everything clear. Does anyone have any questions or comments before I go on?”

Laila spoke up. “I find coincidence of that level very difficult to swallow.” Gabrielle nodded, as did DuQuesne. “At the same time,” she went on, tones as precise as her scientific work, “I find it hard to imagine how it was arranged so swiftly, if arranged it was, unless Amas-Garao did so.”

“And I just don’t think he did,” said Gabrielle reluctantly. “Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think he was satisfied with the last results and wouldn’t be playing games with us now.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” DuQuesne said. “But I’ll admit, it just doesn’t quite feel right for one of that Shadeweaver’s tricks. But that might just be because we don’t know what he’s planning to get out of the whole mess.”

Ariane nodded. “In any event — plan or accident — this could have been disastrous. Sun Wu Kung, I want your word that you won’t ever do anything like this again, at least without consulting me.”

Wu opened his mouth, closed it, and then sat there, a startling agony of decision on his face. “I… San… I mean, Captain! Captain, I … I can’t promise that.”

That brought her up short; she had assumed he would give his word when directly asked. And what was it that he almost called me, and why? “You can’t? Wu, do you understand how serious this is? Why I have to ask you not to do things like that?”

“Yes! I do understand, Captain! I’m not stupid. I’m sometimes distracted and I get excited and I don’t have patience, I guess, but…” he muttered something in that mangled language she didn’t understand. “I… I see things that are wrong and I can’t ignore them, Captain.”

She found herself looking to the ceiling as though for guidance. And do I want to order people to ignore things that are wrong? Ariane pushed her hair back, as it had started to fall forward over her face, and rubbed the back of her neck. “Wu… All right, I don’t want you to ignore things that are wrong. But you have to weigh the cost to us. It’s wrong to endanger the rest of us without us even knowing, isn’t it?”

He looked down. “Y… yes.”

“Then all I’m asking is that you talk to me before taking action like that. Or if I’m not available, DuQuesne, and if neither of us, any of the others of the original eight — Gabrielle, Simon, Steve, Carl, Tom, Laila.” She looked at him steadily. “I realize there still may be exceptions — if it looks like someone is about to be killed and you really feel you must act, I can’t argue with you about it. I can’t tell you not to be yourself, or — to be honest — not to do what I would probably do in your position. But in this case you could have called ahead, given me at least some idea of the situation, let me make the call as to whether to intervene.”

“And would you?” Wu Kung’s eyes were a hair brighter, and the question held a hint of the old energy.

She hesitated, then with a sigh she nodded and smiled. “Yes, I suppose I probably would, though I would hope I wouldn’t offer a free-for-anyone Challenge as the prize to the winners.”

“So does she have your word, Wu? That you’ll ask her before you act, if it’s at all reasonable to do so?” DuQuesne’s voice was just the tiniest bit less hard, following her lead.

“Yes. Yes, Captain, you have my word. I won’t do anything even the tiniest bit like that without asking you if there’s even a little bit of time to ask in.”

I suppose that will have to do. “Thank you, Wu.” She leaned back. “And it wasn’t, in this case, a disaster. We gained face, didn’t lose any, and you’ve just made a personal ally — one that we know from prior observation is both honorable and formidable.”

“More than that,” DuQuesne said with a slow smile.

Laila raised an eyebrow, and then suddenly both lifted, wings of surprise. “Ah. Of course. They will be the newest Faction, First Emergents, if they succeed in their Challenge. And an excellent set of allies, if we maintain close support to them prior to that time.”

I hadn’t thought of that. It was obvious once mentioned, though; those who arrived in the Arena with a single Sphere to their names were First Emergents like Humanity; what else would the Genasi become, then, except the first native Emergents? “And we can use all the allies we can get — as could they.”

Gabrielle tilted her head in thought, straight gold hair forming a momentary curtain. “Well, they haven’t won their Challenge yet. It’s a nice thought, but you know what they say about counting your chicks before hatching.”

“They will win,” Wu Kung said positively.

Ariane remembered the tiny Genasi battling down to the wire against the huge Sivvis — and how the honor between the two led Sivvis to send his opponent to victory, undoubtedly pissing the Vengeance off mightily. “They’ll sure try,” she said, “and I think we should be ready to help them any way we can.”

Because, she thought, it sure couldn’t hurt to have the best warriors in the Arena on our side before the Molothos come calling.