The tall green-and-black figure of the one addressed as "Mindkiller" strode forward. Simon noted DuQuesne moving up to interpose himself between Ariane and the alien. "Don't bother," Ariane said. "He's not going to hurt us at this point. Go check Simon."
"I'm fine," Simon said, pushing himself shakily to his feet and coming forward. The impact had stunned him but his suit had cushioned the blow. The real blow is this entire … impossible set of events. None of it makes sense.
About six meters off, the alien dropped to a sort of strained four-point posture, tail stretched far out behind, looking almost like a man doing a pushup. "My thanks, First Emergents," he said. "Truly I owe you much, for the Blessed had cornered me beyond any calculation of escape."
Simon could see Ariane's face now, a mask of caution. She clearly realized how carefully she would have to proceed. "You're welcome – I hope, anyway, that I won't come to regret it, since I didn't even know who or what you were when I got involved. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I did," she said, after a moment.
"Ahhh." The alien rose from what was obviously a formal position analogous to a bow or something of the sort; he cast what was clearly a speculative glance down the corridor to the shadows into which the "Shadeweaver" had vanished. "Then perhaps I also owe a debt there, as well. I find that… considerably more worrisome."
Up close, it was clear that however "Mindkiller" was talking, it wasn't the same as human conversation. The apparent mouth – smaller than the human equivalent, set in a just-too-triangular face with overlarge, slanted eyes and a tiny, almost unnoticeable pointed nose – moved not at all in relation to the words, or to the scraping, buzzing sounds she now heard as an undertone to the voice.
"If you owe us, does that mean we're going to get some explanation of what just happened here – and for that matter, where we are?" DuQuesne said.
"I will do what I can to enlighten you, indeed," the alien agreed.
"I think introductions are the first thing to do," Ariane said. "I'm Ariane Austin; I suppose I'm the one in charge of this group. This is Dr. Marc DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson."
"I thank you for your names; individual designations are indeed useful," it said, studying them closely. "It would seem to me – forgive me if this intrudes on some custom of yours with which I am of course unfamiliar – that your names carry little meaning other than the identification of self."
"Overall true," Simon responded with a nod. "While some people choose or are given names of specific significance, most of them are simply a matter of parental or personal preference and have no other significance."
Something about the creature seemed to relax; maybe the wingcases expanded slightly, as though not holding tightly to the body, or tense joints relaxed incrementally. Now I wonder what it was that worried him… and what about our naming practices relieved that worry?
"My designation is not 'Mindkiller', as the Blessed called me. I call myself Orphan."
"Does yours have the implied meaning?"
"Indeed, for I chose it carefully."
The fact that the "implied meaning" existed only in English reminded Simon. "So can you explain exactly how it is that you're speaking our language?" he asked, noting that Ariane was allowing him to do the talking for the moment.
Orphan gave a short buzz-laugh. "I cannot explain what is not true; nor can I explain the truth of which you speak, save only to say this: none here speak each others' language, yet we all understand each other to perfection. It is one of the gifts of the Arena."
The expansive gesture Orphan gave with arms and tail encompassed the entirety of space. "You stand within the Arena – a small portion of it, indeed, but then, none stand within more than the smallest portion, nor pass through more than a fraction in all their lifetimes."
"Why," asked DuQuesne, "is it called the Arena?"
"There are other names for it, true," the alien conceded, "but Arena is, to my thoughts, the most accurate single word. It is a place where we all meet and challenge, where bargains are made and broken and avenged, where an alliance may be built on blood and fortune. It is a place where faith is lost, and where religions are founded or proven true. It is where you shall confront, and be confronted by, truths and lies, enemies and allies, belief and denial, impossibility and transcendence."
A short-range radio ping from Ariane carried her reaction. Great. That speech sure narrowed things down. "Are you trying to be evasive?" she demanded.
Orphan's voice was contrite. "No, not at all, Ariane Austin. But the Arena admits of no simple words. You shall have to see it for yourself. Speak to me again in a few years and tell me if perhaps I was close."
"Look, we're actually trying to find a power source. If you can help us find one, I'd consider us even."
"A power source…?" For a moment the alien looked curious, then his head moved back in a clear gesture of enlightenment. "Ahh, it is clear! Forgive me, I have never before encountered First Emergents – in truth, within my knowledge it has not happened for a long time indeed. Of course, your –" for the first time, a word was not translated clearly, but sounded almost like a mishmash of many words said at once, "—Drive will need much power to return you to your system of origin. And you cannot generate it within your rooms."
"We already know that," DuQuesne said dryly. "We were hoping you had an answer to what we could do."
Orphan tapped his hands together in a casual gesture that Ariane guessed might be something like a nod. "Yes. There are several possibilities. All have some… cost associated with them, of course.
"You could trade something with a Powerbroker, naturally. But unless you were quite fortunate you probably have little or nothing to trade with you."
"What kind of things?" Simon asked. With an AIWish replicator, they could naturally duplicate just about anything, with a pattern.
"The most common things to trade are unique services, unreplicated items of interest, and of course people," Orphan answered.
"Naturally. You learn so much more about a species that way. Many species, however, are reluctant to sell members of their own group."
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Yes, that grouping would include us."
"You haven't learned enough to provide useful services, I don't think, and unreplicated items you'll have very few of."
"Just out of curiosity," DuQuesne said, "how would they know, and why would they care, whether it was replicated or not?"
"As to how, I cannot say for sure. Some employ Shadeweavers to verify such items; others just seem to know. The why… well, for those willing to trade in such things at all, it appears to be a matter of perception. They think there is something more important about, for example, a sculpture done by hand or food grown as it does on its native world, than the identical object created by a replicator."
The collector's mindset; the numinous of the original. "All right, that makes sense," conceded Simon. "And I'm afraid you are correct that we did not bring much along those lines. What else could we do?"
"Well…" Orphan hesitated. "I have very limited resources of my own, but I could probably obtain enough energy for you to go home. But…" He was clearly torn between conflicting drives.
"…But it might be more than you can easily afford, even though we did save your tail – and the rest of you?" DuQuesne finished for him.
A buzzing laugh. "I… suppose that would be a good way to put it. But without your assistance, there would have been nothing in any case."
Ariane held up her hand in a cautioning gesture. "If it's going to end up causing you just as much trouble in the long run, I'd rather you not do it. Otherwise we wasted that rescue mission."
"No, no." Orphan seemed to have made up his mind. "Show me your power-cells or coils or whatever you may call them, and I will give you the energy you need."
"I find it hard to believe you carry so much energy on you," Simon said.
That won him another laugh. "Of course not. But I will have to see exactly how your devices are constructed in order to connect mine to yours, or else I shall have to bring yours with me to my own Sphere and then return them after they are filled."
"Makes sense. You'll pardon us requiring you to go through the more complicated process of bringing your storage material here for the transfer, rather than letting you take our storage coils." Ariane said.
"I forgive you the suspicion. It is only rational, an assessment of potential risk and gain perfectly in line with the situations."
"Then," said Ariane, "let's go back and let you take a look – and you can give us some more explanations, with all of us able to listen in."
An abbreviated dip and movement of the arms, clearly echoing the full-bore pushup-like pose Orphan had given earlier. "It would be a great pleasure to move forward so smoothly."
"Then follow me." She led the way; Orphan followed, with Simon and DuQuesne in the rear.
The excitement of the situation was starting to really make itself felt. First contact, Simon thought almost dizzily. We have made first contact with an alien race, on the first voyage of a vessel using my own drive – and we shall soon have the power to return home!
Things were finally looking up.
Ah, yes, Simon, isn't everything just peachy? Nothing could possibly go wrong NOW, could it?