Let's see how Dr. Sandrisson is viewing things these days...
So the Hyperion has a heart, and it's Ariane who's touched it. That's quite interesting. And a bit intimidating, I must admit. Simon shook his head slightly to himself. Oh, there were some people comfortable in group relationships, others where there were three or four partners who simply alternated time together, and so on, but the fact was he – and, he suspected, DuQuesne – was the sort to look for the old-fashioned and still popular standard pairing, one man, one woman. And competing with someone like Dr. Marc DuQuesne, that will be something of a challenge.
But, as noted before, he liked challenges, too. And of course in the end the "competition" would really depend on Ariane's preferences. And he did, in fact, have a little advantage there. He recalled a prior exchange, just before they arrived, and smiled.
But back to matters at hand. He watched their guide and Ariane ahead of him. Orphan's stride still seemed a little… off, somehow. He was still upset, obviously, and Simon had to admit that he wasn't altogether recovered; his hands shook slightly from the adrenalin of preparing to back up DuQuesne in that confrontation.
Then, he thought, let's get back to the discussions and learn some more. Lengthening his stride, he caught up with the other two. "Orphan, something Ghondas said drew my attention. What are the 'Straits'?"
The buzz-chuckle sounded almost normal now. "Another assumption not even thought of. In the interior of your Sphere, you undoubtedly noticed three depressions along its… equator?"
"Yes. About a hundred kilometers across each, depressed only about a meter or so."
"Those are the Straits; the conceptual parallel is that they can be opened, providing a – relatively speaking – narrow opening through which traffic may pass from within your Sphere to the rest of the Arena." Orphan seemed thoughtful. "A hundred kilometers now… that's somewhat unusual. Most Straits are much smaller, twenty kilometers or so. Interesting."
Simon glanced meaningfully at Ariane, and filed away that difference for additional thought later; anything unusual about their Sphere might indicate something of value, either here or at home. "And these Straits cannot be opened unless we meet one of these Challenges?"
"Then," DuQuesne said, entering the conversation as he fell in next to Orphan on the other side, "We need to find a good type of Challenge, one we're likely to win, and start moving."
"Alas, Dr. DuQuesne, if only it were so simple. But in general those who seek a Challenge have vastly less control over the nature of the Challenge; you may issue a Challenge at any time, but the Challenged is free to decline… and if they accept, they – not you – select the type of contest."
Simon nodded. "Not all that different from how many of our cultures handled duelling; the challenged party had the choice of weapons, thus – at least in theory – preventing a skilled and malicious individual from constantly forcing his chosen victims to match his skill in his chosen field."
A thought seemed to strike Ariane. "Well, Orphan, could you challenge us, and we then accept the challenge and –"
"Not feasible, no." Orphan's translated voice echoed his amusement. "The one issuing the Challenge will have to risk something of equal proportionate value to that which you risk, you see, and I have very little more than you that I can afford to risk. And there are other issues which would take a considerable time to explicate – which I promise I will do, later. Take it as given that while it may be possible, if you have large numbers of resources and allies, to arrange a Challenge for another ally that does, to some extent, favor them, as a general rule they are, and must be, serious affairs for all concerned."
They stopped before one of the elevator columns they had noted earlier. The side of the column slid open and they entered the 15 meter wide cylindrical room within. With artificial gravity available, Simon wondered if they'd even feel the motion, but it appeared that Nexus Arena did not care much about minor shifts in acceleration; he felt the room begin to descend.
"So," Ariane said, looking curiously at Orphan, "why was Ghondas afraid of you?"
"Afraid?" Simon wondered if the subtle, sinister edge to the accompanying chuckle was just his imagination. "You give me vastly too much credit, Ariane Austin. The worthy Ghondas is afraid of very little indeed. However, I am not named the Survivor idly; as our prior discussion touched upon, I am quite long-lived by the standards of most in the Arena." The doors opened, revealing another space which once more demanded superlatives of size. Simon's mind was becoming either accustomed to the scale of things, or simply numbed by the constant assault on his prior conceptions; focused as he was on the conversation with Orphan, he merely noted that this layer of Nexus Arena was much more like a city, and vastly larger than the prior layer.
"Ghondas' people have held that station as Powerbrokers for a considerable time, nearly a thousand years, meeting many challenges to maintain that position." Orphan continued. "I have been their constant customer for all that time, and perhaps there have been occasional… incidents in which I figured that have been enlarged upon over that time. I find that having, at times, a somewhat mythic reputation is convenient; not being myself a Shadeweaver, I must, regrettably, rely on the magic of appearances alone at times."
"Appearances," Simon said, "can be as useful as actuality, at times. A more interesting question for myself and certainly for our biosciences people is whether – as it appears to me upon naïve inspection – most if not all species here are dependent on oxygen in fair proportion in their atmosphere."
"By far the vast majority, yes. There are a few known intelligent species that use slightly different metabolic pathways requiring other available materials, but these are extremely rare and none have established themselves as a significant factor in the Arena. Similarly, the common gravity span centers around the level that you and I currently enjoy."
"These facts giving rise to long and spirited debate indeed." A new voice, tenor, slightly rough and cheerful, interjected. "Are these the First Emergents, Orphan?" The new speaker was a tall, slender creature, wearing a loose-fitting white garment something like a martial-arts gi, pure white fronds like feathery hair falling forward over a beaky face with large circular eyes. What appeared to be a beard underneath moved independently, sometimes covering the wide mouth completely; Simon, noting the way it could position itself and the fine, regular spacing of the hairlike portions, deduced the "beard" was a filter of some sort. This was the first alien they'd encountered which really had a very similar body-plan to human; it stood on two legs, apparently jointed in similar places, had two arms with hands (though composed of what appeared to be six fingers in opposable pairs), and lacking the balancing and defensive tail of Orphan and the Blessed.
"Relgof!" Orphan's greeting was equally hearty. "An excellent chance brings you here at this time." He gave a bob-bow to the creature. "My friends, this is Relgof Nov Ne'Knarph, a Researcher of the Analytic. Relgof, Captain Ariane Austin and Doctors DuQuesne and Sandrisson of the First Emergent species Humanity."
Relgof emphasized his anatomic similarity by doing a spread-armed motion of respect and greeting somewhat like a curtsey. "Welcome! My best wishes to you that you may quickly find your way to full citizenship in the Arena, and join us in the never-ending quest."
The Analytic! Simon felt a rush of excitement that he controlled with difficulty. As Orphan had described them, The Analytic was in a way the polar opposite of the Faith; an association of scientists, researchers, engineers, and other groups whose main interest was to explore the Arena and understand it and all its contents – more like a research foundation and scientific brotherhood than a government or faction, as Simon understood it. They wielded considerable influence; as they had no true long-reaching ambitions, they could often get along well with most other factions, who would use the services of the Analytic.
"Thanks for the kind wishes, Relgof Nov –"
"Relgof, or Doctor Rel, will do, Captain. My full name is a cumbersome waste, I think, though it serves to identify me to my people. Doctor DuQuesne and Doctor Sandrisson? Are you, then, also students of science?"
DuQuesne chuckled. "I'm more a practical man, not much into the theory. Power engineering's my main focus. You want theory and science, Sandrisson's your man. He invented the Sandrisson Drive, after all."
Oh, Kami-sama, this is embarrassing. "Please, Marc, don't. That's like bragging to a modern researcher about your brilliance in inventing the wheel."
To Simon's astonishment, Relgof's reaction was very different. "The Sandrisson Drive?" he repeated, the word having that unique additional echo/overlay effect Ariane had noticed previously. "You invented for your species the method that brought you here? It is a great honor, sir, a great honor indeed!" The spread-armed curtsey seemed more emphatic this time.
Simon was, rather uncharacteristically, momentarily speechless, and he could see from the corner of his eye Ariane grinning at his discomfiture. "Why… thank you, Doctor Rel, but… why? After all, there isn't a species here that has not achieved that knowledge, and – as I am given to understand – the most recent of those almost five thousand years ago."
The beard-filter flip-flopped twice, translated as a "tch-tch" noise. "You think modestly, as a true scientist should; yet tell me, how would you feel to meet, say, the scientist of your people who first explicated the laws of gravity? Vastly excited, eh? To a high, and terribly lonely, brotherhood you belong, Doctor; in all the history of the Arena, throughout all the reaches of time and space, a few thousand individuals have made that discovery and brought their people from isolation to participation in the Grand Arena. Even fewer have been those who themselves were alive, and willing to risk themselves in that first transition. Not to be argued is it that we have much knowledge that you lack, yet rest assured that your achievement is, by itself, sufficient to rank you highly as a Researcher."
"You… do me far too much honor, Doctor Rel." Simon could feel his cheeks burning, and see DuQuesne's grin join Ariane's. "Truly, I merely built upon the work of others."
The little group had reached what was almost certainly a conveyance, an object like a thirty-foot long loaf of silver bread with the top cut off. Orphan led the way on board; seating appeared to adjust to the individual needing to sit. He gestured to Rel to follow, but the gesture was both superfluous and probably not even observed; the slender alien was continuing his conversation. "Naturally, naturally – and the exact pathway of discovery is of interest to me. For example, in the records of my own people…" Relgof described the progression, which appeared to have developed through experimental results using extremely large-scale accelerators and the slight differentials that, Sandrisson knew, would show up in the particle counts due to the very rare event of just the right fields and vectors being generated to cause one of the particles to jump to Kanzaki-Locke space.
"That's fascinating. In my case, you see, we …" he glanced suddenly over at Orphan. "Meaning no offense, especially to such an obviously friendly and kindred spirit, but… is this discussion a good idea?"
"For the two of you to talk?" Orphan's handtap showed he understood perfectly, and Ariane's expression demonstrated that she'd been wondering if she should interrupt. "I think it should be a good thing. The Analytic tends to be rather free with information, far more so than most of us, and I doubt you have many secrets in the general theory area that need protection." He turned towards the front of the conveyance. "To the Embassy of the Liberated."
He looked back to Doctor Relgof. "My apologies."
Relgof waved that away with a surprisingly human gesture. "Think nothing of it, Doctor Sandrisson. You are First Emergents, you MUST be cautious. You know nothing of the Analytic as of yet, little of the Arena; I would be disappointed indeed if you were overly trusting."
Ariane was speaking to Orphan. "So the Analytic is one of the less dangerous factions?"
"To do business with, certainly." Orphan inclined his head to Relgof. "I would not wish to anger them overmuch, of course, as they have many friends and do, undoubtedly, keep some knowledge that is of value to themselves as a reserve and defense. Even the Shadeweavers have been known to consult and contract with the Analytic, so you can see that despite controlling only a few Spheres they have considerable influence. I had, I confess, not thought at all of the prestige your Doctor Sandrisson might have with them. History's impact is a bit different to me."
Reassured, Simon resumed the conversation, trying to describe the research process that had led to his own discovery. Relgof quickly showed his breadth of understanding, stopping at various points to clarify the steps he'd followed and exclaiming in warm appreciation at various insights. Simon still felt somewhat embarrassed at the reaction, but it was clear to him that it was a completely honest reaction from the alien scientist.
Before they had nearly concluded their discussion, the conveyance slowed to a halt before a building with green, black, and gold as its major color scheme. "Liberated Embassy," a calm, neutral voice said from midair.
Rel glanced up. "Ah, of course. You have no Embassy of your own. I suppose you will not be inviting me in at this time…?"
Orphan flicked his hands outward. "I am afraid not. My new friends need, I believe, some isolation and time for thought."
It was clear that entering another's Embassy was a nontrivial matter; this gave Simon considerably more appreciation for Orphan's willingness to assist them… or desperation in needing their help. "Doctor Sandrisson," Relgof said earnestly, "it has been fascinating. I invite you to come to our Embassy soon and continue this discussion – and perhaps discuss your people joining the Analytic. With such students of the universe as yourself, clearly Humanity is a prime candidate."
"I certainly look forward to another talk. As for joining, I'm afraid I will have to discuss such things with my Captain." Sandrisson glanced at Ariane. "But thank you very much."
Another spread-armed curtsey. "It was entirely my pleasure, and has brought a fresh ocean before me." As the others had now disembarked, Doctor Relgof muttered something to the vehicle, which swiftly glided off.
"So, we'll be safe here?" DuQuesne said, studying the massive building as they approached.
Orphan gave an emphatic handtap. "Absolutely. I will grant you full guest access to the Embassy, until you win your own. There, no one may harrass us and there is light, comfort, and water to be had. You have of course brought sufficient food for a time."
DuQuesne gave a grunt of assent. "That'll do for now, I guess. How dangerous will it be for us to explore the Arena without you, though? Because I'm just guessing here, but you'll want to hide out in your Embassy, or go back to your Sphere, for a while, right? To stay out of the Blessed's way until you figure out an angle on how you're going to deal with 'em."
Orphan laughed. "You see clearly indeed, Dr. DuQuesne. But I will not abandon my position as guide as quickly as that, as long as one or more of you accompany me – to remind Sethrik of the circumstances of our truce, so to speak. Even so, it would not be amiss for you to venture out on your own, at least on this layer. As you have seen, true violence is discouraged in Nexus Arena – except in Challenge – and you do not wish to give the impression that you are afraid of this place."
"No, definitely not." Ariane concurred. "And I'd guess that if we have to answer a Challenge, we'll have to at least risk being in places where someone might Challenge us, right?"
"You speak truly. And – if you are cautious and watch what you say – you may well learn more than others learn of you."
The doorway of the building rolled open as Orphan approached, and the group passed inside, whereupon it shut. Inside was a room that was merely large by human building standards, but entirely appropriate as the entry hall for an embassy or other official building. Lit with a bright light that had a warm orangish tinge, the Liberated Embassy showed an exuberant and direct cheer in the rough-hewn statuary, sharply-executed relief mosaics, and other ornamentation. The art, Ariane thought, was something Steve would describe as primitive, very directly representational for the most part, but well-executed. The floor was of a hard polished stone, mostly white but with symmetrical splotches like black snowflakes scattered through it. Orphan paused for a moment in the center of the floor. "Embassy directive: the human beings present – Captain Ariane Austin, Doctor Marc C. DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon S. Sandrisson, are hereby granted full Guest privileges. I am assigning them the first suite on this floor for their use and convenience." He then led them across the floor to one of four doors evenly spaced across the far wall; the door rolled aside and he ushered them in.
"You are now privileged guests of the Liberated, on whose behalf I welcome you," he said, with a wry formality. "The Chief Ambassador Orphan also welcomes you, as does our great Leader, Orphan, and his Advisor, Orphan."
Ariane laughed. "Well, Orphan, Ambassador Orphan, Leader Orphan, and Advisor Orphan, I thank you. Something that Rel said has brought up another issue: you can join a faction?"
Orphan's hands tapped. "Oh, certainly. If the faction permits it, you could join and gain their benefits. The problem, of course, is that you would be committing yourself to that faction – yourself and your entire species. The Analytic, I admit, would likely be the least onerous such commitment to make, but still, I have not gained the impression that you are empowered by your people to negotiate for your species… but as far as the Arena is concerned, you are in fact empowered to do so, and the Arena will consider such decisions binding, and will care nothing for later protests by other members of your species."
Oh my. That would, as the old saying goes, put the cat among the pigeons. Simon frowned at the implications. Ariane was in the position to make decisions for all humanity from the Arena's viewpoint? That could indeed be sticky. And did rather eliminate the quick solution to their dilemma of how to get home. "Can other individuals go their own way? That is, if Humanity were to join the Analytic, could individual humans choose to go join, well, the Liberated?"
"Yes, for individuals. For groups the matter is complex, but the base case is as I have stated, and there would be many problems if, for example, you were to commit to the Analytic but your homeworld, or nations thereof, wished to repudiate that commitment."
"Forget it," DuQuesne said. "We're our own faction and staying that way for quite a while. Too much to learn here and too many pitfalls."
Orphan showed them how the suite of rooms – twelve rooms for "private or group quarters", a central meeting room, a side room for conferences, a food preparation area, and biological waste disposal areas – could be configured and, to a certain extent, customized to their needs. "Now I go to my long-awaited dinner, and I expect you shall wish to speak amongst yourselves and rest." With a bob-bow, he began to leave, then paused, looking back with body language that somehow conveyed an almost ironic smile. "I would assure you that Guest access provides you with privacy in your assigned quarters, but you might not believe me." He passed through the door, which rolled shut behind him.
More interesting people... and maybe now a chance to think about them all.