Part One of the Big Reveal!
DuQuesne studied Orphan as he hesitated. Despite the alien biology, the body language wasn't all that hard to interpret. Not surprising, really; much of it's going to have derived from social and instinctive reactions which are pretty fundamental. That bow is a sort of submissive posture, possibly rank or dominance derived. Now he's unsure how to start and he's shifting back and forth – like someone trying to choose from different routes, or trying to find a way out of a small box.
"Such a simple question with so large a set of answers, Captain Austin." Orphan said finally. "How to begin? I am not being evasive, I assure you; I simply am at something of a loss as to the proper starting point." He looked around at them. "You know how you came here. Perhaps the best starting point is to realize that all species come here in the precise same manner."
DuQuesne glanced at Ariane, then at Sandrisson. The reaction in Ariane's eyes was surprise and curiosity. Sandrisson's much more closely parallelled his own disbelief. "All?"
"Well, all those of which we currently know. Except, of course, whoever or whatever created the Arena in the first place."
"How many species are there in the Arena?" Ariane asked.
"None can be entirely sure, Captain Austin, but roughly five thousand separate species are known to have at least one Sphere."
"A Sphere… that's where we are right now, correct?" Ariane said. "And each race has at least one of these? Five thousand – maybe two, three times that many – Spheres twenty thousand kilometers across?"
Even before Orphan answered, DuQuesne shook his head. Not even close. Impossible, remember. Everything here is impossible.
"I said all species, Captain Austin," Orphan said. "Those that are, and have been, and will be."
Now he saw her start to grasp the implications. "So anyone in the galaxy who activates an FTL drive ends up inside their own sphere."
Orphan flicked his hands out, a gesture of negation. "No. Not in the galaxy.
"In the Universe."
Even DuQuesne found himself staring at Orphan, who seemed to be still searching for the right words. Finally the alien spoke, gesturing as though to encompass all things.
"Step outside on your homeworld and look up. See, my friends, the thousands of stars that must blaze in your skies as they do in mine. See the dots of light that are galaxies, so far away that the racing rays of light they emit are old, old by the time they reach the eye. Try, if you can, to grasp these things, hold them all in your mind.
"Then imagine… imagine that you could hold it all in your mind, that you could see all things, all places, at the same time, that to you the riddle of time and space was as trivial a puzzle as opening a box in your hand, that you could open that box and see every star, every planet, as a master artisan might look upon it. An artisan who wished to create a replica, the greatest work of art praising Creation that ever has been…" Orphan paused a moment. "For every star, a Sphere. Within each Sphere, a faithful duplicate of its attendant planets and their moons; and the Spheres themselves, collected as are their originals in great gathering, a hundred billion Spherepools filled with a hundred billion Spheres, and all, all following with infinite precision the same cosmic dance as their counterparts."
For a moment, DuQuesne saw in his mind's eye what Orphan was describing, and it was enough to stagger even his imagination. He glanced at Sandrisson, who seemed half-fascinated, half-terrified at the thought. The physicist clearly grasped something of the scale and implications, far more than the awed Ariane. "You… can't be serious. You are saying that … that the entire realm of, Kanzaki-Locke-Sandrisson space is filled with these constructs?"
"You still do not understand, Dr. DuQuesne." Even Orphan seemed subdued, as though simply thinking clearly and in detail about the truth weighed upon him. "It is not even that… small a construct, if you will permit me such an outrageous statement. As near as the scientists of all races have been able to determine, this 'space' is a construct – or at least, all of it that can be reached is enclosed within a construct. The Arena is a single construct, a volume many lightyears across which itself contains a duplicate of every galaxy, a Sphere for every star, in all the cosmos from which we come."
Ariane seemed to shake off the mood; perhaps her mind didn't handle the scale to the point that it could overawe her. "Who made all of it, though… and why?"
Orphan managed another, if weaker, laugh. "Ah, Captain Austin, the second question is perhaps the greatest of the mysteries… well, aside from the obvious how. Perhaps my little conceit of an artist, a model-maker who made a perfect model, is accurate – though it fails to explain other details of the Arena. Others believe it is a deliberately designed method to restrict us – imprison, some say, while others attribute a more benevolent motive to the Voidbuilders. The Faith, of course, have a far different interpretation of the situation."
With a great effort, DuQuesne forced himself to stop trying to comprehend the entirety of the Arena and the implications behind it. "Right. I hope we've given you some satisfaction in our reactions, Orphan, because I can honestly tell you I've never been so completely knocked for a loop by anything in my entire life." In some ways, not even by the discovery of what a lie my life had been on Hyperion. A part of me had been guessing that for years. This… is completely out of the blue. "But I think we'd better back off from the big cosmic questions and start to get down to the serious business, the details of our situation and what we need to know to keep ourselves alive.
Sandrisson shook himself, blinked, and gave an involuntary shudder. "Yes… yes, I think I'd much prefer that, at least for now. I'm not sure but what this will give me a few nightmares."
Ariane looked at the two of them, clearly puzzled. "What am I missing, here?"
"Captain… Ariane," DuQuesne said, feeling a sudden and unexpected grin appear, "believe me when I tell you I'm glad you are missing it. You need to keep focus on the situation, not worry about a picture so big that we're just a minor detail in one corner." And it's not that she's stupid and we're smart. Sure, Sandrission and I are probably brighter than she is, but she's got something we don't, and I'm not even sure what the word would be for it.
Orphan bob-bowed from his chair. "I agree with Dr. DuQuesne, and I find that I have, also, contemplated more of the infinite than I care to. So… details.
"First, your Sphere. I have mentioned the Inner Gateway and Outer Gateway. The Inner leads to Nexus Arena, what one might call the heart of the Arena. To Nexus Arena all species travel eventually, and there are almost all Challenges given, accepted, and performed.
"The Outer Gateway, or – more likely – Gateways, lead to the top of your Sphere, to its exterior."
"And what's up there?" Ariane asked.
Orphan gave a wing-shrug. "In detail, one cannot say until the Gateway is opened and you take a look. In more broad terms, living space. The Arena insures that the top of the Sphere is reasonably habitable by the native intelligent species."
"Hang on," Sandrisson said, "Are you saying that outside the Sphere there is breathable air? Even though the interior of the Sphere, where the Holy Grail entered, is vacuum?"
"Indeed I am, Dr. Sandrisson," confirmed the alien. "The 'breathable' part is of course not guaranteed once you leave the immediate region of your Sphere."
DuQuesne very carefully avoided trying to visualize those implications; time enough for that later. "And, to return to an earlier conversation, why – if there's breathable air, water, and so on up there – would the Outer Gateway be useless to us now?"
"Because the Outer Gateways will not open until at least some of the native race have used the Inner Gateway… and returned."
This place has a lot of rules… and we'd better get familiar with them. "So we couldn't force the door, or hack the controls?"
Another wing-shrug. "Many have tried; I have never heard of any group succeeding. Of course, most would end up exploring the Inner Gateway eventually, especially once the Outer balked them, so I would doubt that many have spent inordinate amounts of time on it. Perhaps it is possible, but why concern oneself with it?"
DuQuesne snorted. "Maybe because we just don't like someone else determining what we can and cannot do. Maybe we don't want to join this little community."
Orphan gave the bow-like gesture. "Truly there do we have similar thoughts, Dr. DuQuesne. That is in fact the very foundation of the Liberated – that we direct ourselves and our own choices, and follow not the directives of other overseers, no matter how great their Minds may be."
"The 'Liberated'?" Simon repeated.
An assenting handtap. "My faction, you might say – of which I am, both unfortunately and fortunately, currently the sole surviving member."
Ariane grimaced. "I see. So the Spheres are set up to basically force everyone to meet at this Nexus Arena."
"Indeed." Orphan's body tightened and relaxed. "I now begin to comprehend your difficulties, my friends. Many apologies; when one has lived one's entire life aware of the Arena, of its dangers and opportunities and rules, and has never before encountered any who have not… well, it is now somewhat sobering to realize how very much you do not understand." Orphan's hands stroked the edges of his head-crest in a gesture that somehow brought to mind the semi-conscious motion of someone drumming his fingers, or rubbing his chin in thought. After a moment, his hands dropped and he gave a brisk wing-snap. "We have limited time indeed, and I had best try to choose the most useful material to tell you. Thinking about it, I believe that will be to summarize the most important factions and the immediate steps you will have to take if you are to become accepted residents of the Arena – which you must, if you wish to return home in any reasonable time."
DuQuesne considered Orphan. He still thought the alien was willing to use them for its personal gain if the chance presented itself, but he was now much more convinced that Orphan did feel both a considerable obligation and something of a kinship with them. He caught Ariane's eye and nodded.
"All right, Orphan," she said briskly, "we'll have to leave it to your judgment. We've only got a few hours; tell us what we need to know."
DuQuesne made sure his internal data recorders were fully on. I'd better not miss anything he says, because if I do… there might be no one left to complain about my sloppy procedure.
And there's still MORE to come!
(no, I have no idea why that last paragraph insists on being in a different font when all of it came from the same source...)