The second part of the Big Reveal.
Another door rolled open before Orphan – Ariane thought this made six since they'd left the area where they'd first met Orphan, going in the direction that Sethrik and his gang of Blessed had gone. This time, however, instead of just continuing onward – perhaps with another of his travelogue-like comments on the structure and layout of their Sphere, the green-and-black alien stepped in and then aside, as though pulling open a curtain. "The Inner Gateway, my friends."
The room into which they entered was very large, even bigger than the oval rooms; it was essentially circular, over two hundred meters in diameter and nearly one hundred high at the center. Concentric low walls, interrupted in the center, emanated outward like ripples from the center of the far wall, with support structure pillars spaced between the low walls. And at the center of the far wall was something that could only be the Inner Gateway.
Ariane felt a chill go down her back. Even at this distance the Inner Gateway was awe-inspiring, a whirling funnel of light-destroying black twenty meters across, with occasional pearlescent fragments of light flickering in its depths. "That's… a Gateway?"
Orphan's hands tapped together. "Of course. You did not expect a door like these others, did you?
DuQuesne eyed the whirling ebony vortex analytically. "Perhaps not exactly, but I think we were expecting something less bizarre. Why, I'm not sure, it's not as though this entire trip hasn't been bizarre. So we step into that and end up at this Nexus Arena?"
"Even so. You will note the size and arrangement of this room, permitting the residents – yourselves, in this case – to construct appropriate structures to secure the area, limit traffic, and so on."
"No way to just turn it off?"
Orphan flicked his hands outward, a gesture of negation. "None. Although only those with the proper code, or random chance, will be able to arrive here." He advanced to stand before the Gateway.
Remembering their brief discussion of that aspect of travel and security, Ariane said, "And those codes are only directly available to us, right?"
"It is even so. Once I leave, I will be unable to return – barring a recurrence of the same fortuitous random chance that brought me there in the first place – unless you grant me access."
The maelstrom of night drew the eye and held it. Ariane tore her gaze away with great difficulty as DuQuesne said, "Well, how do we use this thing?"
A buzzing chuckle greeted his question. "That, my friend, is one of the easiest questions to answer." Orphan turned and strode without a moment's hesitation through the Inner Gateway. As he touched the swirling nothingness, it suddenly enveloped him in a gentle blaze of iridescent cold flame that just as abruptly disappeared… and he was gone.
The humans stared for a moment. Then DuQuesne shrugged. "Well, I don't see him as the suicidal type," he said, and stepped through.
Sandrisson approached the Gateway, staring. "Some form of … dimensional interface? Tesseract?" He reached out, touching the very surface… and disappeared in a blaze of subtle pearlescence.
Alone in the cavernous room, Ariane grinned. Diving into a dimensional whirlpool so I can go somewhere I've never been! And my mom thought racing was dangerous!
She backed up and took a running leap into the whirling heart of the Gateway.
There was a moment of abyssal cold, mixed with hair-raising electrical tingles and the scent of ozone, while dark-glowing streamers of impossible shapes whipped by her in a vortex her wide-open eyes could not translate and her mind could not fathom, touching nothing yet compressed on all sides as though in a vise. Then she burst through into brilliant golden light.
Her foot touched down on smooth stone or metal, skidding slightly as she realized her forward speed was undiminished, and she tried to slow down as something massive and dark – DuQuesne, she sensed – loomed all too closely in front of her. Instead of the graceful landing she'd envisioned, she stumbled and smacked clumsily into the power engineer's back. DuQuesne barely moved – giving her a new estimate for his mass and strength -- but turned and helped steady her. "Are you all right, Captain?" he asked. His voice sounded oddly distracted.
She knew she was probably blushing; that had been a stupid stunt. "Yes, sorry, I was…" she trailed off, unable to speak, as she began to take in the scene in front of her.
Orphan appeared to fully understand their reaction; he opened arms and wings in a sweeping, expansive gesture. "Welcome, my friends, to Transition, what one might call the grand foyer of Nexus Arena."
The room – though that word was utterly inadequate – in which they stood made the one they had left seem little more than a closet, a cupboard when compared to a ballroom. Dozens – no, hundreds – of the enigmatic ebony-whirling vortices of Inner Gateways were arranged in concentric circles, smooth landing areas before them grading into downward-sloping ramps towards the center of the room. Lit from above by a gold-shining sphere, Transition was kilometers across, a vast amphitheater of pearlescent steel, rainbow-touched gold and crystal, and polished fragments of night.
And it was busy. Movement of a dozen dozen different shapes and outlines, iridescent flashes as creatures and machines emerged from one gateway, disappeared through another. Scents sharp, sweet, pungent, indescribable, filling the air just below the level of tolerance. A babble of voices, of alien shouts and electronic hums, of a dozen different rhythms of walking, rolling, hopping…
Ariane found that she, DuQuesne, and Sandrisson had almost unconsciously drawn together, backs to each other. She forced her one hand to release what had been nearly a deathgrip on DuQuesne's arm.
Something – three somethings – moved up the ramp towards them. The one in the lead flowed forward with an easy grace if somewhat slowly, clothing like a shifting cloak or skirt of shimmering green-gold beads and plates concealing the exact method of motion. The upright portion was a latticework of blue and brown that looked for all the world like an elaborate open-work carving of wood in the shape of a candle flame, with a fluted, ribbed central column. Other small shapes darted around and back and forth inside the latticework, hovering and flitting around the creature, sometimes zipping out for a short distance then coming back; a humming sound accompanied its approach. The other two shapes moved in a more familiar two-legged gait, though not a human one; instead they bobbed forward with the measured rhythm of an ostrich. Wide-padded feet were visible underneath their clothing, which had slightly different coloration but similar patterns to those of the first creature, and the overall effect was something like a toad or frog crossed with a kangaroo. Gray-black eyes with slit pupils regarded the little party from those odd creatures, as the first alien reached the landing in front of the Gateway.
"Orphan!" the lead creature said. The translated voice was mellifluous, deep, hearty; an undertone of humming chimes seemed to come both from the main central column and the flying shapes nearby. "So it is indeed true, that you have encountered First Emergents and they have rescued you from the Blessed!"
"I would prefer to describe the events a bit differently." Orphan responded, "But the facts are indeed as you see them. Perhaps my companions and allies might care to present themselves to you, or you would wish to present yourself to them."
The creature drifted sideways to bring what Ariane presumed were sensing capabilities based in its central column more to bear upon the humans. It suddenly unfolded, the carved-wood appearance belied as the candle-flame outline blossomed, the alien momentarily taking on the look of an anemone; the small shapes within flew outward in the same moment (though all carefully avoiding coming near Orphan or the humans; Ariane could now see that they appeared to be something like a skate egg case with wings on each corner.) "A greeting and great welcome to you, First Emergents! We greet you, and offer our name, which is Nyanthus, and our Faction, which is the Faith, and our position, which is First Guide."
The Faith… that's one of the most powerful factions. Ariane quickly accessed the information Orphan had given them, the thumbnail sketches of a hundred things they needed to know. Religious types, believe that the Arena isn't a "construct" in the technological sense, but that we're in the ruins of, or maybe an antechamber to, heaven or hell, and that the "Voidbuilders" were nothing more or less than true Gods.
Data access being very fast, she'd called that to mind even as the anemone-like Nyanthus continued, "To you we also present our fellows in Faith, Tchanta Zoll and Tchanta Vall. The Faith welcomes you, and praises your arrival in hope." The creature re-folded itself, the independent fliers returning to it.
Ariane guessed the gesture was one of welcome or respect, a bow or something. The speech had clearly ritual, or at least formal, elements to it. She hoped she wouldn't screw this part up. The last thing we need to do is alienate another major faction… since it turns out the Blessed are one of the big boys. "First Guide Nyanthus, we thank you for your greeting." Orphan gave a very slight handtap, showing she was proceeding correctly. "We offer you our greeting as well. I offer you my name, which is Ariane Austin, our … faction, which is Humanity, and my position –" by default, she noted to herself, " – which is Captain. To you I also present my friends and companions, Doctor Marc DuQuesne and Doctor Simon Sandrisson. We hope that all the greetings we shall receive in the Arena will be as pleasant as yours."
"Indeed would that be a fine thing." Orphan said. "Though I am afraid not entirely likely. Tell me, First Guide, what brings the leader of all the Faith to be passing by this ramp at this very moment?"
The chime-and-buzz translated to a warm chuckle. "Do the Initiate Guides not see when the Creators permit? Do we not watch and hear their guidance, that we, in turn, might guide those of the Arena to truth and revelation? It was in the seventh turning of yesterday's light that I saw this place, and knew you would come. Perhaps they are the ones?"
Orphan's snort of laughter was, perhaps, not as polite as it could have been. "And has the Faith not asked that question ever, for each new Emergents? Did you not even ask it of the Blessed when they arrived?"
"And so we shall ask, until the answer becomes yes." Nyanthus spun slowly in place. "You know that it is joy for us to see new arrivals, for they are most ready to appreciate the wonder of this Creation and understand it, as others – more jaded and cynical – cannot." The First Guide flowed a bit closer to Ariane. "Behold much of Nexus Arena, Captain Ariane Austin; see many of its wonders. But commit to nothing until you have understood what you see, and if you need help in that understanding, know – the Faith is ready to assist you."
Commit to nothing indeed. I never wanted to be in politics, and now I don't have a choice. "I thank you for your gentle warning and your offer, Nyanthus," she said. "I am sure we will have many questions which the Faith can answer, once we know the right questions to ask."
The creature flickered its carved-candle top open momentarily again. "We are pleased with your courtesy, and shall now leave you to the learning; it would be unkind and unwise for us to further press you now." It bobbed at Orphan. "Treat with them well, Orphan; remember that the current can aid only those who seek not to shift it."
"I have been given more than one lesson in such things, First Guide. But your advice is well-taken." Orphan waited until the three strange figures had moved some considerable distance off. Then he turned to the humans. "Your first official greeting is, to be honest, one of the best that could be hoped for. Although somewhat worrisome in its own way."
DuQuesne nodded. "You mean the fact that the leader of a faction important enough to play a major role in everything that happens here would show up to greet us?"
"It shows his interest, and does indeed give you an opening; the Faith are – within limits – trustworthy, and they do not make empty offers." Orphan's body language somehow conveyed a cynical smile; Ariane wondered if she was just learning to interpret it better. "Doing favors can gain the goodwill they need to gain more… converts, I suppose would be the best term."
"They're also powerful because they can perform miracles, if I understood you correctly?" asked Simon.
A buzz-slap was translated as a derisive snort. "Miracles? ZZ-Zk. Shadeweaver tricks with a different name, as far as I can tell."
"Which is why they don't get along with the Shadeweavers," Ariane said, nodding. The musing on the interactions reminded her of a question she hadn't asked."How many factions are there, Orphan?"
"Some would say as many as there are individuals, Ariane Austin." Orphan spread his wingcases apologetically. "But that is not truly what you ask. There are a very large number of factions, but there are – relatively speaking – only a few of them which are truly powerful and on whose actions much of the politics of the Arena hinge. You have now met three such, or four if I might count myself."
"I don't know if seeing a Shadeweaver for a second and having it disappear counts as 'meeting' the faction," Ariane pointed out, glancing a bit nervously at a squat pair of creatures whose appearance seemed to owe a great deal to tarantulas; however, those aliens gave them a wide berth; in fact, it was evident that much of the Transition traffic kept to the individual lanes sloping down from specific Gateways, making collisions of traffic minimal and encounters between different species or groups something that would almost have to be done deliberately.
"A point. Although they undoubtedly consider that they have met you now. One of the most unpredictable and dangerous factions, yet also most helpful when the mood strikes them." Orphan confirmed.
"Isn't counting yourself pretty arrogant, if there's only one of you?" DuQuesne asked.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not, in another sense. You will come to judge on your own. Let us say that my very existence is sufficient to disturb the Blessed and affect their actions, and in any accounting of the factions the Blessed would be ranked very highly indeed."
Sandrisson, meanwhile, had been studying the spectacularly-varying crowds. "Orphan, I must say that there are other aspects of this that confuse me mightily. For example… how is that creature managing to walk at all?"
The creature Sandrisson indicated was a translucent creature, blue and green, that seemed as delicate as a jellyfish and moved along on tendrils scarcely more sturdy looking than tentacles.
"How… Ah, yes, I see your meaning, Dr. Sandrisson." Orphan said after a pause. "Look about you closely. See you the three Milluk – round-shelled creatures on four legs?"
After a moment, Ariane spotted the Milluk, about three feet high, almost spherical. "Yes, I see them." There seemed to be a faint haze near them, slightly brownish.
"I think I get it. Though if I'm right it's just one more 'how the hell does that work' mystery." DuQuesne said. "The Arena is maintaining individual environments around all of us. So that thing Sandrisson was pointing at, it's in a very low-g pocket, and those, um, Milluk have their particular atmospheric requirements met."
"Exactly. Here we are all equal and supplied with appropriate support. On one's home sphere, of course, conditions are kept appropriate only for the legitimate owners or claimants."
"Yes. It is possible to land on the outer Sphere and claim all or part of it, and until the claim is successfully contested the claimants can cause the immediate area they claim to conform to their needs." Orphan was guiding them now across the flat floor of Transition, towards a series of huge archways which clearly exited from this central station. "This is of course a rare event indeed, since it can only happen when the legitimate and natural residents of a Sphere have not yet emerged and laid claim to the outer Sphere, or if a direct attempt is made to invade the Sphere by a credible force."
"Invade? On the scale you're describing, I'd think that would be virtually impossible," DuQuesne said, frowning.
Orphan gave a surprisingly humanlike sigh. "Alas, Doctor DuQuesne, the problem is that no matter how many things I think I have explained, I realize there are a thousand more I haven't, and that you will need to understand soon. There are the Sky Gates, which are something like the Inner Gateway but… well, no, not really like them at all, I suppose. And while it is of course convenient to have a Sky Gate leading you to another Sphere directly, it is not at all impossible to reach other Spheres without that advantage, and indeed many are the opportunities to be had in that fashion." The translation of his next laugh was low, controlled, like someone hiding an impending surprise. " Allow me to show you. There is a viewing lounge to this side, and the sight may assist you in understanding."
Ariane exchanged glances with Sandrisson and DuQuesne. Sandrisson grinned. "I think our friend may have thought of another opportunity for his vicarious sense of wonder."
"If it helps me get a better understanding of this cockamamie asylum, I'm all for it." DuQuesne muttered. Not for the first time, Ariane noticed the occasional odd turns of phrase the power engineer used, and now she understood why he did. Another tiny bit of comedy and tragedy from the Wagnerian-scale screwup of Hyperion.
They passed along a corridor which seemed – at least at the moment – little used, though still immense, thirty meters across and opening up into strange room. Ahead of them the floor changed from metallic/stony to something clear as polished glass, with a broad latticework of shining silver for internal supports. Ahead, this glassy floor extended only another hundred meters, ending a few meters short of the wall, the gap edged by a protective railing a meter and a half high. To either side, the room extended at least a kilometer, and it was at least that high overhead and – dizzyingly – extended at least that far below.
Orphan led them to the railing. When they were all gathered, he turned. "Captain Austin. Doctor DuQuesne. Doctor Sandrisson. Behold the Arena." He gave a sweeping outward gesture, and the wall suddenly became transparent.
Ariane gave an inarticulate cry and barely kept herself from stumbling back from the rail; she saw DuQuesne's hands tighten, and Sandrisson did step back, almost seeking shelter behind her and DuQuesne.
Before them was a vast skyscape, a twining, roiling sea of air and cloud, brown and black and white and green, extending beyond the reach of sight in all directions. Through this atmosphere swam tiny shapes, some dimmed by haze of distance, that seemed no more than a meter long, finned or sailed things like strange fish. Then one of them suddenly appeared to the left, emerging from a cloud in majesty, trailing streamers of mist from spars and masts, a titanic ship a kilometer long, lights blinking on its extremities, a distorted image of the massive, impossibly huge Nexus Arena reflected on the polished bronze-colored hull. As it passed, Ariane could see a bridge or forward observation deck, through which tiny figures were visible moving about. In the deepest distance, scarcely visible through the murk and gloom, another spark of light was seen, near to some monstrous shape, a shadow against shadow, of a Sphere that could envelop a world.
"Behold the Arena." Orphan repeated, more quietly, almost reverently. "The endless skies, the worlds that drift in cloud and light and shadow, a place where storms a million million kilometers wide clash above and around embattled Spheres, where trading ships and pirates and mercenaries travel beside, prey upon, and defend explorers, decadent tourists, lost souls searching for a home or a cause, armadas finding new worlds to conquer, and all, all of them looking, watching, asking for news… news of First Emergents, of ancient ancient ruins atop a lost Sphere, of rumors of Voidbuilder knowledge or Shadeweaver powers… and all of them returning here to hear that news, to behold the newcomers – and perhaps to Challenge them, or be themselves Challenged, and gain or lose all in a single contest. It is my home. Now it is yours."
And that last part has been often singled out as a favorite scene by my beta-readers; it's certainly one of mine, and I spent quite some time on it to make sure it said what I wanted it to -- much longer than I normally spend on individual scenes.