Picking up where we left off...
Ariane finally broke herself out of the spell that the awful grandeur of the Arena had cast. The description that Orphan had given before had been impressive, but it simply – to be honest – exceeded her ability to visualize. Apparently that wasn't the case for DuQuesne and Sandrisson, who'd been clearly shellshocked by the scale of the Arena in a way she hadn't.
But this was different. Here she could see and her mind was forced to grapple with a scale of construction and distance that wasn't appropriate to anything built by the hand of mortal beings. That almost-invisible shadow against the darkest reaches of the Arena's … atmosphere, that was a Sphere… like the one inside which they'd arrived, something so monstrously huge that they needed an interplanetary drive to travel from one side to the other in reasonable time. And that was just one Sphere, barely visible, with others to be found if one just kept going into the infinite veiled darkness and light.
She laughed suddenly, and Sandrisson jumped. Even DuQuesne twitched. "What's the joke?" Simon asked.
"It's just… funny how things hit you differently, just depending on what you're thinking at the time," she answered. "It occurred to me that if this was one of the simgames, I'd simply be looking and saying 'wow, that's a cool idea – nice effects'. Totally different reaction if you're seeing it and thinking 'this is real'."
DuQuesne grunted, a surprised sound. "Hadn't thought of it that way. Of course, I have reasons for not wanting to think of reality the way I do a game. I keep a very clear division between them, as you might guess."
"Actually," Simon said, "I'm rather surprised you participate in such entertainments at all… given the circumstances."
"My own form of therapy." DuQuesne's gaze was distant, and she saw a shadow of sadness in his expression. "It'd be easy to simply avoid all things that reminded me of Hyperion; it would also have crippled me in a number of ways, professionally and socially."
Orphan was looking from one to another, puzzled. "Having near-perfect translation is little help, my friends, when you talk in riddles."
"Never mind. It doesn't concern you," the dark-haired scientist snapped, brusquely. "No offense. It's personal, and let's not get sidetracked."
Orphan studied him a moment, then gave one of his wing-shrug gestures. "Indeed not. Come then. I hope you found this diversion entertaining and instructive."
"Gave me a gut feeling for what we're dealing with, that's for sure," Ariane said, following Orphan back towards Transition."That's what's outside our Sphere, then?"
"Something of that nature, yes. The view will differ in details," Orphan said, as they emerged once more into the Brobdingnagian foyer of Nexus Arena. "For example, from my Sphere, currently the sky is predominantly greenish as a major storm is passing, and –"
Orphan suddenly stopped short – so suddenly that Ariane once more found herself bumping into someone's back. Orphan's was considerably less yielding than DuQuesne's. "What the…"
She trailed off as her gaze followed Orphan's, to see ten figures very like Orphan's striding purposefully through the crowd. The other groups parted, making way for Sethrik and the Blessed, who had apparently just entered via a Gateway somewhere near the middle of Transition. After a moment it became clear that Sethrik had not seen them, and they were able to watch as the Blessed left via the farthest side exit.
"My apologies, Captain Austin." Orphan said, once the last of the Blessed had disappeared. "Perhaps it was foolish of me, but I did not wish to precipitate a confrontation at this time."
"No apology needed. I didn't want another face-off right now either." Seeing Transition again reminded Ariane of a more immediate concern. "Orphan, you said we would get the access code to go home when we got here… but I haven't seen anything even in the way of controls for those Gateways."
"Eh?" The puzzled vocalization was translated from a muted wing-buzz. "But of course not. Would the Voidbuilders be so crude? A code you might misremember? One that might be left behind, or stolen? You already have the code, Captain Austin."
As Orphan said the words, she realized he was right. There was… something, embedded in her knowledge of this place, something to think of or a state of mind to be in or an indescribable object to visualize, associated with the Inner Gateway. Something that hadn't been in her memory before, but was now ensconsced with all her other security codes as though it had always been there, even though it was nothing like any security code ever conceived elsewhere. Creepy, I tell you! It's becoming my favorite word of all time!
"That's… interesting." DuQuesne said after a moment; by Sandrisson's expression, he felt the same way. "But let's test it, shall we?"
"If you wish," Orphan said, turning in the direction of the nearest Gateway. "In fact, that is not at all a bad idea. It will cause your Outer Gateways to be unlocked; if some terrible misadventure befalls us all here, your remaining people will have two options, rather than one."
Orphan's easy acquiescence, and suddenly more purposeful stride following his new thought, made DuQuesne relax visibly. He made no attempt to change the course of action, but Ariane got the impression that Orphan's reaction had been enough of a confirmation for him.
They reached the Gateway; DuQuesne stepped through without even pausing in his stride, and only a few seconds later reappeared in a quiet shimmer of mother-of-pearl. "Works perfectly. Definitely took me back to our area; I was leaving markers."
She saw Orphan twitch with surprise – a feeling she shared. She hadn't seen DuQuesne do anything that indicated he was blazing a trail, and they already knew that scattering nanodust didn't work. Other Sphere's Gateway areas might look identical to their own, so how could DuQuesne be so sure? "I didn't see you do anything…" Sandrisson said, confirming that none of them had.
"You weren't meant to." DuQuesne said with a sideways grin. He did not elaborate.
After a silent pause, in which Orphan was clearly regarding DuQuesne with increased trepidation, Ariane spoke. "So… where to now?"
Turning from his study of the black-haired scientist, Orphan considered. "The Powerbrokers, I think. They hold the crescent that corresponds to Transition, on the other side of this first layer of Nexus Arena. The Embassies and the Grand Arcade are in the second layer, with the docks in a ring around the edge of that layer."
"I had the – perhaps mistaken – impression that Nexus Arena is even larger than our Sphere," Simon said, as Orphan began once more leading them onward. "Yet if we are walking I would presume these layers are not impossibly large. So either I was mistaken, or there is some other use for the majority of the volume of Nexus Arena."
"In that you are correct, Doctor Sandrisson," Orphan responded. "None are sure whether the majority of Nexus Arena is dedicated to the Challenges, or to administration and control of the Arena itself; it is, however, well-known that no attempt to map the interior with accuracy has succeeded. The very top layers, these are constant, but below these – relatively minute – sections, Nexus Arena is yet another of the mysteries; a most frustrating one to many, as it remains impenetrable to analysis even though it is as close to all the inhabitants of the Arena as their own Embassies."
The bewildering scenes around them were simply too much to grasp all at once. Ariane left some of her internal nanos on record, just to make sure crucial data wasn't missed, but she focused mostly on Orphan rather than trying to take in everything they were passing; her comprehension and sense of wonder were already near to burning out, and she needed to have some reserves for these Powerbrokers and anyone else they were going to meet.
"Orphan, you said you'd never met First Emergents before, right?" DuQuesne said suddenly. "How often do they show up, anyway?"
"As one might expect, the times vary quite a bit, but I would say, on average, once every… oh, four to five thousand years." Orphan was leading them through an area filled with widely-spaced columns which a little observation showed must be elevators or something similar. "A bit longer than I have been present, I admit."
Ariane started to chuckle, then stopped herself, realizing that what would have been gentle understatement for a human being might be something very different here. "How old are you, Orphan? If you don't mind my asking?"
"Hm? Oh, roughly three thousand years. Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy-seven, to be more precise."
She glanced over at DuQuesne, whose eyebrows had climbed suddenly with that comment. "Is this normal in the Arena?"
"Oh, not at all," Orphan said cheerfully. "Most live considerably shorter lives. Including the Blessed, which gives me some most unkind thoughts as to the Minds."
"The Minds are the leaders of the Blessed? Is Sethrik one of them?" Simon inquired.
"Sethrik? A MIND?" The explosion of buzzing that served as laughter for Orphan was so loud that the translated sound was actually momentarily overwhelmed. "A… a Mind! Why, if Sethrik were to hear that, he would… well, to be entirely honest I have no idea what he'd do, but it would be amusing, I assure you! No, he is no Mind, and you may pray to all the fates and gods which may be that you shall never meet one. In the Arena, fortunately, that is a prayer likely to be met, as no Mind has ever successfully entered the Arena, nor likely ever will."
DuQuesne nodded. "Artificial intelligences. The Blessed To Serve are slaves to a bunch of AIs."
"Very good, Dr. DuQuesne. Very good indeed," Orphan said, confirming DuQuesne's guess.
DuQuesne chuckled. "Must drive them nuts. I think I start to get the picture, Orphan. They have to work through the Blessed, but they had to make you guys independent thinkers to send you through. Which meant that a few of you would get uppity ideas about going your own way. Thus… the Liberated."
"You have the correct general idea. Though none of it was or is as simple as you describe it." The little group now passed through another set of archways, and beyond these Ariane could see several huge alcoves, with what appeared to be an immense window or port in the wall of each, and many different creatures milling about.
As they walked closer, she could see that each alcove was separated from the others by a wall, and from the open space in front by an elaborate gateway; framing each gateway was a large building, in the shape of a trapezoid with the center cut out for the gateway. Gateway and building each had the shaded undertones that implied that a lot of the construction material was the CQC – Coherent Quark Composite – that made up the structural supports of the Sphere.
"I think the story of the Liberated might be well worth hearing … sometime later." DuQuesne said. "I'm guessing these are the Powerbrokers. My earlier question, before we got sidetracked, was leading up to the question: if First Emergents are so rare, and the Powerbrokers can't move their power production facilities, then who are they selling to most of the time, and why? Given what I've now seen about the outside, I can figure out several power generation schemes that should work."
"An excellent question, Doctor. Indeed, once a race becomes well established they can supply many of their own needs. However, it is often convenient to make Nexus Arena a stopping point for many travels, due to the way in which the Sky Gates operate, and recharging one's storage capacity here is an excellent opportunity. Beyond those windows are charging stations, where ships of a thousand species may be charging their storage cells even as we speak. Also, since the power generation facilities must – almost of necessity – be set up on the outer portion of the Sphere, it is often not convenient to run a conduit from the generators to the interior; that would require leaving the Outer Gateway open, and there are risks inherent in that. Given that, the exterior power generation is often set up such that it supplies the exterior colony and fleet, while recharging for the interior can be done more easily by exchanging fully-charged coils here."
Ariane nodded. "Makes sense. So First Emergents may generally be the only people who need the additional power, but it's valuable to most people."
"Correct." Orphan was leading them towards one of the central stations. "You recall what I said about them not being a true faction?"
"Yeah, I got it," DuQuesne affirmed. "Powerbroker's more a position – and not a permanent one. You have to answer one or more of these 'Challenges' every so often, or your station shuts down and won't start up again until someone else takes over – and that's a first-come-first-served situation. With you, the losers, as the only group that can't grab it."
"But they work together, sort of, to make sure that they all receive acceptable compensation for the power they supply, and that none of the Factions tries to control them." Simon continued.
"Excellent. This station is controlled by the Shiquan at the present time." Orphan's gaze was scanning the area directly before the gate, which included a sort of long, low table. "Ah. Very good. Come, I know this one."
The creature at the table was squat and had no need to sit, as it appeared to have no legs; it reminded Ariane somewhat of a slug with a sort of squarish face and four manipulative tendrils at each corner of the face. "Orphan of the Liberated," the creature said, waving all four tendrils, which changed subtly in color from gray-brown to several different shades as they moved. "Greetings and welcome to you. What purpose moves the Survivor from his safety?" The voice was light and warm, strongly feminine to Ariane's ears.
"Ghondas of the Shiquan, Master Powerbroker, my greetings and thanks," Orphan responded, giving the strange creature a full pushup-bow. "My purpose is to introduce to you those without which I would no longer be the Survivor. First Emergents, called Humans or Humanity."
Ghondas swelled and stretched upright, then flattened, attention now fixed on Ariane, DuQuesne, and Sandrisson. "To me you bring them? A kindly thought."
"Their leader I present to you, Captain Ariane Austin, who stepped forward and spoke for me when Sethrik had me inconvenienced." He introduced the others by title and name.
The sluglike Powerbroker did her rise and flatten trick again as her four eyes – shiny-crystalline objects, one set between each pair of manipulative tendrils – came to bear on Ariane. "Greetings and welcome to you, Captain of First Emergents. So you have confronted the Blessed upon your emergence? An… exciting introduction to our community, I would think."
"A bit, yes. Should I address you as Powerbroker, Ghondas, or something else, Master Powerbroker?"
Iridescence chased subtly around Ghondas' body; analysis showed that in ultraviolet she was constantly shifting color. This shift seemed to correlate with a translated gentle chuckle. "So long as we are speaking merely as new friends, Ghondas. Should we begin speaking business, perhaps we will be more formal – or perhaps not, as my mood takes me. I am sure that your visit is not entirely a casual one. Not sufficient power to return to the home, eh? It is a common story among First Emergents – or so I have been told."
"That is indeed our major problem at the moment, Ghondas. I do not know, however, whether we have anything of value to offer you for your vital services."
"Hmmm." The boneless body settled lower, relaxing, as though thinking was easier when less effort was expended to support Ghondas' form. "Confronted the Blessed… was it a Challenge? Was it accepted?" She glanced at Orphan.
"Alas, no. Such might have been the case, but I adjudged the odds poor, less than one in ten, and pointed out the Rules of Emergence."
A bubbling sound translated as a sigh. "Unfortunate. Not that your judgment was unwise – life is nearly always preferable to risk – yet that means they are still untested."
"So," DuQuesne said, "That means you won't trade with us?"
Ghondas rose. "A Powerbroker judges all risks, all factors, and makes no decisions with excessive unknowns. We have no need for extreme risk, save only if and when we must Challenge to keep our positions. Even if you have something of value – unlikely – and have sufficient of that thing to pay for the power you require – highly unlikely – the value is directly variant depending on your future; a unique collectible from a race that appears and disappears would be extremely valuable, but may be nearly worthless if you establish yourself and the collectible turns out to be something commonly available. The only thing of value you have that I would accept…" Ghondas' topmost portion swayed back and forth, moving her face to examine all three of the humans… "would be one of you. Service, and knowledge of your race. That would be worthwhile."
Ariane shook her head. "I can't afford to trade my crew, even if it was something our people permitted, which we don't."
A shuddering ripple echoed through Ghondas' body, a metaphor of a shrug. "Then we may only speak of little things, of gossip and superficialities, until you have won a Challenge. Until that time you remain children of the Arena, and must first grow up. It is for your own good, as well, for until you have won a Challenge you have no Embassy or hope of establishing one, few to none will bargain or treat with you – and even fewer in good faith – and you shall be unable to open your Straits, or reach the Sky Gates, until that time."
Ariane sighed. This was what she'd expected, but that didn't completely prevent the disappointment. "Well… I thank you for your time and your honesty, Powerbroker Ghondas. We shall meet again, I hope, when we have more to offer you."
"That is my hope as well, Captain Ariane Austin. At the least your story should be an interesting one, if you continue to associate with the Survivor. Not a long story, perhaps, but interesting."
Orphan has a reputation… and it appears to be both good and bad. "Are you hinting that we should reconsider the association?"
Ghondas' rise and fall was jerky, and the tone of voice reinforced an impression of quick – perhaps almost too quick – negation. "Oh, no, not at all, Captain! Orphan is not … usually… the cause of his problems. And we would not wish to imply that the Survivor is untrustworthy."
I think she's… wary of Orphan. Maybe even a little scared. And given the implied position of the Powerbrokers… maybe Orphan's estimation of his importance wasn't as arrogant as we thought.
She bowed to Ghondas and turned away. Now what?
From the corner of her eye, she saw something move abruptly, sharply; then an impact sent her reeling.
... and we'll have to wait until next time to find out what that "something" was...