And finally a chance to relax and reflect...
"Whew," DuQuesne said, sinking into an oddly-shaped but compliant chair. "This, my friends, has been one long, long day."
Ariane couldn't help but smile at the huge power engineer. She suspected he wasn't nearly so tired as he made himself out to be, though. "In what looks to be a series of long, long days," she agreed.
"But overall an extremely fruitful one," said Simon. "A shame about the Powerbroker, but I believe we will find the Analytic a very useful partner."
She nodded. "I'm more interested in determining our next steps. My first question is… do we really want to go forward? We've opened the Outer Gate. Do we really need to go through this Challenge business now?"
She could see that DuQuesne had already been thinking along those lines; Simon gave a little "Ah…" which indicated that the question hadn't occurred to him. She waited to give him a few moments.
"You know, that's an interesting question, Captain." Simon said finally. "Orphan's a rather… forceful personality, and this day has been filled with wonder enough that his assumptions as to our next steps have simply seemed natural." He looked over to DuQuesne. "Marc?"
"Much as I hate feeling like I'm being herded down someone else's path," DuQuesne said slowly, "I think we have to go through with it – not desperately, not stupidly, but we have to play the game. For two reasons.
"First, unless the top of our Sphere is completely different than I suspect, the best possibility we'll have for generating power will be building something like a waterwheel. It'll take us years to recharge the coils that way – assuming the AIWish keeps working and we can keep it building stuff for us, and the stuff works on what he calls the Upper Sphere like it does inside. Can you afford to be away for years? Hell, I don't like having been gone for the weeks we've already been."
Sandrisson shook his head sharply. "No, definitely not. I am sure there are people waiting back home for all of us – friends, family, and so on. More practically, if the 'Straits' are not opened, the Sandrisson Drive is, essentially, useless. It will allow us to move swiftly around the solar system, but never give us the stars, because we cannot exit from the Sphere and cross to other parts of the Arena. And there is the issue that if we are gone too long, others may try the experiment on their own, which could severely complicate the situation here."
Ariane nodded. "And the second reason?"
DuQuesne gave a tight, cynical smile. "This whole place is set up to make us meet at this Nexus Arena, right? So I wouldn't put it past the builders or controllers of the Arena to make it force you to play the game, if you try to go to extremes to avoid it. Anything that can basically switch nuclear reactions on and off, and make the AISages shut down without causing a detectable bit of damage, can probably do other stupid physics tricks, like keep batteries from charging beyond a certain level."
Ariane winced at that thought. "That's a nasty thought… and it fits with what we know so far. Okay, we have to move forward. So what's our next steps?"
DuQuesne spoke up. "For my part, Captain, I'd like to head back and bring the others up to date. Then maybe take an expedition to this Outer Gateway and see what we have up there, take advantage of whatever resources we actually have to work with."
Ariane repressed an immediate expression of dismay. She really didn't like the idea of facing the Arena without the black-bearded, omnicompetent DuQuesne backing her up, but he didn't come up with ideas without good reason. "Can we afford to split up like that?" she asked finally.
DuQuesne shrugged. "I don't think we can afford not to, Captain. We've got more people than we've sent here, of course, but there's no way we're taking any part of this place by force of numbers. What we do need is resources, stuff that we can either trade or at least live on, and from what Orphan says, the Outer Gateway leads to a livable environment – maybe with food and water we can use. With that, we would have a lot more options, especially on the timeframe side, and – more importantly – we have to update everyone else.
"At the same time," he continued, "we can't drop the ball here, either. We've made apparently a pretty good start for a first entry, drawn some attention, and people are interested in that. We can't vanish for days or weeks after that, we'd lose the momentum of the moment."
"Are you sure you want to go back now, Marc?" Simon asked. "I don't mind saying that I feel a lot more comfortable with you here."
"Thanks, Simon. And I appreciate that," DuQuesne said. "But I think I have to, for the reasons I just gave. We've got a bunch of other people back there who've got nothing except a little ping I gave them when I went back through. And no, I'm not saying how I managed that, Captain, not here, not now. But they need the full update, and we need those resources. So, yeah, I'm going. The Captain can protect you pretty damn well, Simon – at least against anything ordinary – and the security setup they have should prevent all-out war. Just don't commit to anything, and if you've got a question – any question at all – about whether someone's trying to put something over on you, say no and kick it over to the Captain."
Simon nodded, to her vast surprise. Just "kick it over to the Captain", as though I actually had any better judgment on this kind of stuff than Simon? And he just accepts it? Don't they realize I'm making it all up as I go along? "Well, then, I think I'm going to avail myself of the water for a cleanup, and then eat a little something and go to bed," Simon said. "Apologies for disappearing, but I actually want to replay some of my conversation with Doctor Rel; there were a few things he let slip – deliberately or not – which give me some new insights."
Once Simon was gone, she glanced over at DuQuesne. "Just kick it over to me?"
The big man shifted uncomfortably. "Sorry. I know that put you on the spot, but you didn't torpedo me."
"Because I figure you know what you're doing. You've proven you think about five steps ahead of everyone, even Orphan, so I have to assume you have some reason to make Simon and the others believe I actually deserve that silly title you all stuck on me."
DuQuesne shook his head. "You've got it all wrong, Captain. You don't believe it yourself, but believe me, you've got what it takes. The instinct, the aura of command, look of eagles, whatever it is, you've got it. I can fake it up when I need it, but that's not even close to the real thing, not by about ninety-seven rows of little apple trees."
She just stared at him for a minute, realizing that he sincerely meant every word of it. Me?
Then she shrugged. "Ooo…kay. Whatever you say… Blackie."
He winced and grunted. "I was afraid that if anyone on Holy Grail would know, it would be you. Please do not use that name again, all right?"
"All right. It was just that last line."
"What? Oh, that damn apple tree thing. You know, I've tried to drum all that crap out of my head for the past fifty years, and whenever I get put under stress, the blasted stuff comes right back out."
"Could be worse. I'd imagine if they had people based on even less realistic backgrounds…"
DuQuesne looked bleak. "Don't."
Touching on something he's not ready to talk about. "Sorry." She tried to give an apologetic grin, but her lip stung. "Ow."
"You going to be okay?" DuQuesne looked relieved to find another topic.
"It's just a split lip, Marc, I've had lots worse even when I was a kid. Does remind me how much I've been relying on your being there, though. Not that I want anyone getting killed trying to save my pride, but I wouldn't have been able to face down that… thing at all." She couldn't quite keep the embarrassment off her face. "I've got a … problem with spiders, and those things set off my spider reaction."
"They do have the look of the same kind of nasty to them in some ways, I'll agree. But after what we've seen, I don't think you need anything from me, at least not for the next few days. Just trust your instincts, don't give anyone anything, and if things really look bad, have Orphan bring you back to the gate. Bring him with you, if he's really in danger; he's got his own agenda, no doubt, but we need him, I think." He got up. "I'm going to get ready for bed myself. Captain, the only thing you need to do that you aren't doing is pretty simple – and it's also the damn hardest thing you'll ever have to do.
"Trust yourself. You're not just Captain because we stuck you with the job. That's just how you got the job. But if you weren't actually able to do the job – to hold together this little group of independent thinkers – we'd never have gotten this far." He looked reluctant to bring up the subject, but said, "Do you think someone… something… like me follows just anyone? I've worked to get rid of the real superiority complex, but believe you me, I've still got a lot of little issues in that area, and most bosses put my back up. You… you just say what has to get done, and we do it. Even when I'm asking myself what the hell's going on, I'm still following your lead. So try believing you deserve the job you've got," he grinned suddenly, "even if you really didn't deserve to have it dumped on you."
He left for his own room, and Ariane headed for hers. Maybe… no, given his experience, probably… DuQuesne was right. She had always been able to direct groups she was in. Maybe she did have a talent for leading people. Maybe it was even guided by good instinct for the right thing to do.
But still… he was going to be gone, leaving her with no backup except Simon. I'd argue, but I think he's right.
But oh dear Gods am I going to miss having him here.
Yes, that will be difficult, but are there any better choices?