Meanwhile, back at Nexus Arena...
"Meet me here in thirty-nine and a half hours," Orphan said, preparing to step through the Gateway.
"That's a rather odd number," Simon said.
Orphan buzz-chuckled. "Because in this case the facile nature of the Arena's translation obfuscates the actual meaning. That is two of my days." He gave them a serious look. "Don't be late; I would not want to meet my erstwhile people alone." Then he disappeared in a flare of iridescence.
Alone in the Arena. The very thought sent a chill – both of excitement and fear – down her spine. Instead of showing that, she turned cheerfully to Simon – who was looking apprehensive – and said "Well, now that we've dumped our chaperone, let's see what kind of trouble we can get into."
"I think," Simon said dryly, "we'd best avoid the trouble if we can." His eyes scanned the immense foyer area as they walked towards the elevators.
"No real argument there," she conceded. "Simon, I've been thinking about what we know about the Arena, and I guess I'm starting to get a – really vague – grasp of why you and DuQuesne found it so shocking. That is, it's really impressive even to me, but for you guys it's kicking at the very foundations of reality, right?"
"I suppose that's one way to put it, yes," the green-eyed Sandrisson said after a moment. "I knew, of course, that there was a conceptual framework which permitted a UFOR – Universal Frame of Reference – and that it was on that conceptual framework that I could base the Sandrisson-Kanzaki-Locke drive." He shook his head, gazing around in bemusement. "But never in even my wildest dreams – or I suspect DuQuesne's – would I have imagined a literal instantiation of this, a separate reality which permits us to make the concept of simultanaeity a real and rational part of the universe. And – in point of fact – we are seeing, not one UFOR, but two, two separate levels of such a frame of reference, one privileged over the other."
"Whoa. Two? Where are you getting that?"
He waved a hand behind him. "Those, for starters. They amount to instantaneous teleportation gates from one part of the Arena to here. But from what Orphan said, the Arena itself is – while vastly smaller than the universe it models – truly immense, something between fifteen and thirty lightyears across.
"Those gates means that simultaneity is meaningful within the Arena as well as in our universe. Meaning that there is some privileged frame of reference for the Arena itself as well as for our universe." Simon smiled faintly. "I know, for you, the entire concept of NON-simultaneity makes no sense. It doesn't for many people."
"I'll agree with that. But I'll accept that it's an important and – until now – very real concept for understanding our world."
Simon waggled a finger at her. "It is still a very real concept for understanding our world. The existence of the Arena and associated frames of reference merely shows that the relativistic effects are limited – special cases which will collapse if subjected to analysis from the point of view of the privileged frame, but only if they become relevant to the spacetime track of…" he saw the incomprehension in her eyes and stopped. "Sorry."
She grinned as they entered the elevator. "No need to apologize, Simon. Just because I don't understand doesn't mean you have to stop talking." She stared at the blank doors of the elevator as they descended. "The thing that gets me is really the sheer scale of the Arena. I spent time trying to visualize it last night, and it's … scary. Billions of stars, each with a Sphere, gathered into billions of galaxies, all connected, running like clockwork – you know, sorry to divert, but I don't think I've ever actually seen clockwork, and I’d think it must fail a lot more often than solid-state devices… anyway, all of that running, while keeping track of all the things happening in the different locations…"
"Not to mention," Simon said, "maintaining the environment around the Spheres. Energy balance for something this size is… inconceivable. How do you stop areas of Spheres from overheating or underheating? If the walls are reflecting heat, the entire Arena should be warming eventually to an oven. For that matter, how does one have walls on something like this? Are the walls themselves expanding as the universe does? What powers this?"
Ariane noticed, as they exited and headed for one of the automated taxis, that a considerable number of the Arena's diverse inhabitants were – mostly discreetly – watching them. By now, imagery – suitably translated for the various species – from their prior day must have made the rounds, and given that First Emergents showed up only once every few thousand years, they were undoubtedly a major source of interest. Some of those creatures were probably trying to figure out a good way to approach them, others just wondering what they were up to. Hopefully none of them were hostile… well, except the Blessed and the Molothos, both of which were already sort of done deals on that side. The Molothos hated everybody and they'd gotten in the Blessed's way from the start. She helped Simon board, as she was leading the way, and then sat down. "The Grand Arcade," she said, giving the name Orphan had given them for the central meeting, entertainment, and business district to be found on this level of Nexus Arena. The silver autocab immediately departed.
"Simon," she said finally, "do you think… do you think the Arena is a technological construct?"
He stared at her for a moment. Then his glasses flashed as he tilted his head back and gazed to the far-distant ceiling, chuckling gently. "Ariane, I am a scientist. I do not believe in gods or demons. And as DuQuesne pointed out, we know theoretically how such technology might come to be. The existence of a universal frame of reference is upsetting and astounding, but given that, someone with Plancktech – the ability to manipulate reality with what amount to spacetime-scale devices – could do everything we have seen.
"That would no more make them gods or magical than we would be gods in, oh, the Roman era. Being hidden is what makes them mysterious. Clarke's law applies, of course – I can't distinguish the powers here from magic, not logically and beyond argument, but Occam's Razor helps me there; it is less complex for me to simply assume a race that's progressed a great deal farther down the path of technology, than to assume some being or set of beings with utterly unknown and unconnected powers of 'magic'."
Just hearing him say that so calmly, with a certainty that swept aside the awesome existence of the Arena and replaced it with the investigative analytical wonder of the eternal scientist, steadied her. She smiled. "Thanks, Simon. That really does help."
The elegant white-tressed head bowed graciously. "My pleasure as always, Ariane. Oh, by the way," he continued, as though a thought had occurred to him, "did I mention that I actually did figure out why it was that the probes seemed to be giving almost random results in terms of their emergence?"
"No, actually, you didn't. So, go on, tell me."
Simon smiled. "It came from examining the data logs on our… shutdown, and comparing those with what would thus likely have happened on the probes. On Holy Grail, we had deliberately designed alternative paths and shutdown protocols that assumed other systems onboard, and that were predicated on the assumption that things that normally never fail… might. Well, modeling the WAY in which the systems would have failed in the absence of such careful design – which would have been useless without, of course, human beings on board to run those alternative systems – shows that many of them would have had their drive systems come on and run wild, so to speak, for the duration of their time in the Arena-space. Thus causing them to randomly displace, rather like a rocket touched off in atmosphere with no guidance. Since they tended to start with relatively small vectors, unlike Holy Grail which was moving at something like ten KPS when we transitioned, the final emerging locations were very close to random."
"Ha! That does make sense. I'm glad we cleared that little mystery up."
The vehicle slowed and stopped, depositing them at the entrance to what would, elsewhere, be an immense open-air mall or marketplace; a vast circular expanse of streets and smaller buildings, miniature parks, covered smaller arcades, wandering street performers and vendors of a dozen species. Smells – ranging from the enticing to the repugnant – drifted on the air, though something prevented the entire effect from being overwhelming; the scents of uncountable numbers of species of intelligent beings, of meals being cooked in a hundred or a thousand different ways using a million ingredients, the pungency of other goods – perhaps spices and fuels, or perhaps something indescribable in function – combined to make a heady and almost intoxicating whole. Everywhere Ariane looked she saw some new type of creature, and all around were the sounds of different beings, devices, and signals.
"Let's just take a look through the area. If someone engages us in conversation, fine, but let's not try talking ourselves yet. And don't commit us to anything."
Simon nodded his understanding. "More than a trifle overwhelming."
Taking a deep breath, she plunged into the whirl of the Grand Arcade, Simon at her heels.
Well, they have their own particular sort of excitement. Not quite sure it's as ... intense as DuQuesne's, but...