"My question," Gabrielle said finally, "is what the hell you were thinking, getting involved in that mess to begin with."
Ariane tried to maintain a calm, reasonable look, but the heat in her cheeks told her that the embarrassment must be clearly visible. "To tell the truth, Gabrielle… I haven't the faintest idea. I was actually asking myself the same question at the same time I stepped out and got their attention."
"And," the deep voice of DuQuesne put in, "from your body language, I think the same thing happened when you triggered the attack, after Sethrik had dismissed us as a threat. Am I right?"
"But," Carl put in, slowly, "it's not entirely out of character for you, Ariane. Captain, I mean."
"How do you mean?" she said, defensively. "I wouldn't ever do anything that stupid!"
Carl grinned. "Oh, come on. Who started that bar brawl in Nuevo Aires because she couldn't let that amazon fanplayer push herself on some poor tourist? Who was the one who missed a qualifier because she just HAD to stick her nose into the wrong alley and ended up having to testify at a realporn trial in Moscow? And then there was –"
"All right, all right, you've made your point, I sometimes get myself in over my head, but really, Carl, Steve, you can't think I haven't got a little idea that things are different here? Gabrielle, help me out here!"
"No, you're right on that. You've settled into this Captain role right nice, Arrie," the gold-haired medic said with a smile.
"So the impulse is in character, it's just that she shouldn't have acted on it," DuQuesne summarized. "And Orphan said something… 'perhaps I also owe a debt there, as well'… while looking where that thing they called a Shadeweaver had been."
Momentary nausea washed over her. "You think that thing somehow… controlled me?"
"Not controlled exactly," DuQuesne said, gazing speculatively into thin air as he spoke, "but… affected you. Perhaps suppressed your inhibitions just a tiny bit, causing you to act a little more on instinct. A number of drugs and other things can cause that. Of course, they can't do that so indirectly and accurately on an alien species, I wouldn't think, which makes the possibility rather more impressive and disturbing. But then, there's an awful lot that's disturbing about this place."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "I wonder if these 'Shadeweavers' are maybe the people in charge here."
"Might be," Ariane said thoughtfully. "Sethrik and his pals sure seemed about to wipe us out until they saw the Shadeweaver was there, and then they bugged out."
"It's not much to go on, but I doubt it." Simon stood and stretched. "If I assume – as seems fairly likely – that the translations we are getting are as accurate as they appear to be, then the actual reaction Sethrik showed did not sound to me like the reaction of someone to a boss or completely overwhelming force, but more the reaction of someone to a dangerously unknown quantity. It's just a gut feeling," he said with an apologetic grin, "but that's the way it seemed to me."
"I'd agree." DuQuesne said. Ariane was glad to see that he was – at least outwardly – fully recovered from his traumatic trip down memory lane. Until she'd noticed the dark face go pale, seen the haunted look in his eyes and heard the pain in his voice, Ariane simply hadn't realized how very much she'd come to rely on the imperturbable and calmly confident DuQuesne as a sort of bedrock, a backstop of sanity in case she totally screwed up. It's only been a couple of weeks, but in some ways I'm closer to these people than I've been to anyone. Amazing what desperate circumstances do to you.
"In any case, it's not critical to answer right now. The question is what we do next."
Tom Cussler looked up from the AIWish, where he'd been fiddling with some food templates. "Captain, I really don't think we've any choices. The empty, mostly-dead part of this installation seems to go on for a large portion of the sphere, or maybe the whole sphere. We could spend a lifetime exploring it and still not find a source of power, even if there were a thousand open and available energy outlets. The interior area of just the tiny layer we're in is greater than that of every body we've colonized put together, including Earth.
"And this alien you've met has indicated there's power resources to be had. He may be opportunistic, but I think self-interest is a good basis for at least a temporary relationship. Even though we've moved off the ship and, it seems, can at least save ourselves the energy of basic environmental maintenance, we've still got a limited time before we start running out of energy. A few months, half a year… once the AIWish runs out, we're dead if we have no allies, or no way out."
"We could explore the rest of this next area first," Simon pointed out. "It had active lighting. Possibly energy sources, or another route to somewhere useful."
"Doubt it," DuQuesne said. "I think Orphan's being honest most of the time, and there'd be no real reason for these 'Powerbrokers' he mentioned if people had high-level energy sources available elsewhere. Sure, we could be an exception… but I wouldn't want to bet on it, or take months exploring to rule it out."
Ariane glanced around and saw no disagreeing faces. "So we have to go. While I know the arguments against, I think it should be Dr. DuQuesne, Dr. Sandrisson, and myself again."
"Actually," Carl said, "I'd agree. You've already made contact, Orphan respects you, and in this case the less they know about exactly how many of us there are, and what the rest of us can do, the better off we are. An unknown reserve will give some people more pause than a known one."
DuQuesne nodded approvingly. "I'd say you're right. What you people might do, though – if the Captain agrees – is fabricate a bunch of solar panels. The next area seems pretty constantly lit, and if we cover a large part of a couple of the big rooms with panels… well, we'll never recharge the main coils with it, but we might get enough power to keep us going a lot longer. I don't like the idea of relying on outsiders just for survival."
"Good idea," Ariane said. "Like they say, 'make it so'." She thought for a moment. "We have no way of knowing exactly how long we'll be gone, either – it may be a long trip, or we may have a lot of talking to do. So… everyone, help us make sure we take what we need with us. I have to assume Orphan won't take us somewhere we can't breathe, at least for too long, so our suits should be fine there, but we'll need to bring food, at least. A water purifier? Something to condense water from the air, maybe? I sure don't want to carry days worth of water. Weapons, definitely."
DuQuesne nodded. "But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, Captain. The first thing to do, before we go anywhere with our ally of convenience is to grill the hell out of him." He frowned, black eyebrows furrowing over onyx eyes. "'Arena'; the name alone is a flare-lit tipoff, given how very very accurate the rest of the translations seem to be. Just the side comments he's given, the assumptions made by Sethrik, that damn Shadeweaver character – there's about a billion things we don't know, and any one of them can get us killed."
"But we can't take all that long," Carl pointed out. "Orphan may be tough and all – your description sure seems to imply it – but he's got to eat and drink like anyone else, I'd bet, which means he can't take days and days waiting. Or probably can't, anyway."
Ariane frowned. "You're right. We never even asked him that. I'm starting to feel like a real idiot, you know."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," said Sandrisson. "We've all spent the last few weeks at the edge of shock, and that completely unexpected encounter was bound to throw off any reasonable train of thought."
"So we go out and have a long chat with Orphan about just where we are, what's going on here, the pitfalls, the advantages, the people – everything we need to know to survive long enough to get home," Ariane summarized. "But first we find out how long he can wait."
"Indeed," the physicist concurred. "It appears his biology is very similar to ours in some respects, but there's no telling what may be different."
"Something else you'd better be aware of, Captain," Tom Cussler put in. "As you requested, Steve and I went over your network data records following your encounter, and something very disturbing cropped up. Something killed off all your remote nanos in that outer area; they didn't spread, stopped working. We have nothing on your aliens except direct sensor reads from whatever you carried on you."
"But our internal nanotech is functioning fine?" At Tom's nod, she went on, "And the nanos we released here, in this old alien installation…?"
Steve nodded. "Yep, still functioning just fine. Makes no more sense than anything else, but I'm sure there's some answer."
Ariane sighed. This place seems to be a determinedly perverse mixture of ludicrously helpful and impossibly obstructive."Well, given all this, I think we've wasted enough time. The same logic of who goes still applies. Let's take a couple days' supplies and go out to question our alien friend."
As the others nodded and started assembling the food, water, and other essentials, she found herself already staring at the closed door, on the other side of which – perhaps only meters away – waited Orphan. Maybe we'll finally get to the point of getting answers faster than new questions.
Ahh, yes, Ariane, your naivete is rather charming at times...