Meanwhile, back at the Sphere...
The inner doorway rolled open, and DuQuesne found himself staring down the barrel of what appeared to be an old-fashioned but no doubt highly functional tripod-mounted machine gun.
The blue eyes behind the sights of the gun relaxed. "Thank God it's you, D… Marc," Gabrielle Wolfe said in her soft Southern drawl, swinging the gun to point in a safer direction and stepping away. "Where's the others?"
"Didn't get my ping?" he asked, then answered himself "Of course not; I entered during one of the closed cycles and it didn't take me long to get here."
Carl nodded. "It's still about 20 minutes before we'd be checking for the update. Thanks for that last one."
"Those weren't updates, they were 'wish you were here' postcards and 'still alive' pings." He glanced over at Cussler. "No one picked up on the scam, Tom, just like we thought."
"I'm glad. Not that most of us could have gotten away with it."
DuQuesne shrugged. "Admittedly, it takes a lot of training to be able to make sure no one's looking, or misdirect them, so that I could deploy one of the miniature RF nodes. I was most worried about Orphan; couldn't be sure he didn't have better senses, or some gadgetry I hadn't noticed. That's why I had a delay set up on them so they wouldn't radiate until after we'd left. Worked, though." DuQuesne chuckled. "He may be an alien, but you should've seen how totally flummoxed he was by the fact that I could be absolutely sure I'd come back to the right place, in a couple of seconds. He couldn't figure it at all."
Tom grinned widely. DuQuesne didn't blame him; it had been Tom and Carl who'd come up with the idea of making, not nanotech devices – which for some reason failed outside of living bodies – but truly ancient RF repeater/sensor nodes using nothing more advanced than late 20th or early 21st century integrated circuits, miniature sensors, power harvesting, and low-power transmitters. Several dozen of the centimeter-square devices had been hidden at various points in and around his clothing, and he'd deployed them at intervals and locations that would insure uninterrupted relaying. One of the others had had to come out and arrange for the inner doors to open at intervals, of course, but once the nodes had become active they could provide a map to each successive location.
DuQuesne was sure that such devices were common in the Arena – espionage being as popular as it must be – but the combination of their quick adoption of the technology and his ability to deploy it unseen had been the key to effective use. The latter was of course the reason he'd pressured even Carl Edlund into keeping the existence of the nodes secret from Ariane and Simon. Had they known he was deploying these devices, they might have given it away inadvertently. By being unaware of it themselves, even their body language could reveal nothing.
"Where's Ariane and Dr. Sandrisson?" demanded Steve.
"They stayed behind to keep the pot stirred. They should be safe enough for now. Look, let a guy get settled, gimme a few minutes to breathe, and I'll tell you about it."
He didn't let them rush him; he wanted to make sure he went through the sequence of events, and the implications of those events, carefully and clearly. Once he'd gotten himself lunch – having been brought by Orphan and the others to the Inner Gateway after breakfast and discussion – DuQuesne brought the others up to speed.
The story – with numerous interruptions and questions – took quite a while. But finally he was done. "So that's where we sit. I've got all this on record, I can dump it to main storage or anyone's headware who wants the whole thing. But that's the summary."
The others were silent for several minutes. He could see they were all trying to absorb the impact of the full scale of the Arena – and the magnitude of the tasks facing them. Finally Gabrielle sat up briskly. "Well, let's not sit here doing nothing, time's a-wasting. So our next step here is that 'Outer Gateway' you mentioned before, right?"
"You got it," DuQuesne agreed, smiling at her straightforward manner. "We go see what's outside and if it's got stuff we can use. If what Orphan says is true – and I don't have any reason to doubt it – we have liveable biosphere of some kind out there. Figuring out what kind, how liveable, and how we can best make use of it, that's going to require some of us go out there and take a look."
"Well, then," Gabrielle said firmly, "it's clear that you'll have to take me."
"No, I'd think you want me," Carl objected.
"We're talking about new lifeforms and what we can survive on, and exactly how much do you know about biology?"
"We're talking about exploring and getting information – and living to tell about it. That's sensors and combat."
The diminuitive blonde smiled innocently up at Carl. "Honey, you want to try two falls out of three with me?"
"Enough," DuQuesne said, and the two immediately went silent. "I can appreciate that you've all been bored and getting pretty itchy under the collar. And I also appreciate that two of you are enthusiastic enough to want to come with me." He glanced at Steve and Tom. "And that some of you would like nothing less until after someone else has scouted it out."
Steve shrugged. "Hey, I'm no coward, but I'm also not a fighter or a rugged explorer type. I'm curious, but that's not really a unique or useful trait."
"My position too, basically," said Tom. "Someone has to keep things running here anyway."
"Which is of course the crucial point," DuQuesne agreed. He glanced apologetically at Gabrielle. "Dr. Wolfe, in no way do I doubt your capability or your willingness. However…"
"… You are going to be telling me why you're taking Carl instead of me," she finished with a sigh.
"Yes. You're the doctor. That makes you in some ways the most crucial member of the crew; the longer we stay here – especially given the specifically dangerous conditions imposed on us by this 'Arena' – the more likely it is that some of us are going to get hurt, possibly very badly. Given that, it would be criminally irresponsible of me – or any of us – to permit you to be exposed to any more danger than we can reasonably avoid." He held up a hand to forestall an argument. "I am not saying we have to wrap you up in insulation and store you inside a box like a precious artifact; the fact is that with only seven functioning members of the team, we can't afford to have anyone who isn't kept busy most of the time. But you are not, and will not, be taking point on any serious exploration endeavors."
She nodded; he could see that she was severely disappointed, but couldn't argue the logic of the situation. "All right, Marc, you're right. Damnation."
"However," he said, smiling apologetically, "I do intend for you to come with us to the Outer Gateway and be standing by. If we run into something out there, I don't want to have to drag Carl – or worse, him have to drag me – back through a kilometer and a half of corridor just to get him to medical assistance."
"Well now," she said, more cheerfully, "that's a whole heckuva lot better than nothing. I'll at least get to take a peek out the front door and see the sky you were talking about."
"That you will."
Carl was already sorting through equipment that had been fabbed up. "We'll be going tomorrow?"
"I see no reason to delay. I'd go today, but I think we should take some time in examining what we will need to bring with us and thinking the potential scenarios through. I am not expecting to spend days outside without reporting back, of course – I want to scout areas no more than a few kilometers or so from the Gateway, enough to get a feel for the area accessible to us in the immediate future, and see what we can do with it."
Tom grunted. "In that case, I think I'd better start the old AIWish going on making some hiking and climbing gear in your sizes."
"And some radio relay beacons, and backup weapons. And given that we have no idea what type of environment it's going to be, you'll need to make stuff suitable for anything from Hawaii to Antarctica. We'll drag it all up and then after we pop the door we'll choose the gear most suited for the environment. We can always recycle the rest later."
"Just don't forget the most important stuff," Carl said emphatically. "Trail mix."
It's tough to prepare for a journey that could be to ANYWHERE, really.