We need to go back and see how Ariane and Simon are doing...
Ariane was trailing slightly behind Simon and Dr. Rel. She and Simon had discussed their next move, following their interesting, and still rather incomprehensible, discovery of the past day, and decided that at this point they should simply not mention the discovery to any of the aliens – even Orphan. "I definitely don't want to do anything irrevocable until I've had a chance to discuss it with Marc, at least," she'd said.
Simon had concurred. "Oh, definitely not. But in that case, I think we should continue talking with the other factions. Unfortunately, since we also have agreed not to be separated, that means we'll have to take turns selecting our… targets, so to speak."
She'd found the simile amusing, and accurate. They were trying to find appropriate targets from which to extract information while avoiding giving away anything important. That morning they had discovered that the Arena had something equivalent to a messaging service which could find them at Orphan's embassy, and found messages from no less than seven different factions – five of them unknown and thus, if Orphan's information could be trusted, probably of minimal importance in the short run, one from the Faith, and one from Dr. Rel. The Faith's message had been short, welcoming, and requesting a meeting at some point in the near future; Dr. Relgof's had been long, rambling, and excited, hoping to see them again today. As Orphan had indicated the essential benign nature of the Analytic, and since she already rather liked the odd alien scientist, Ariane had agreed to follow Simon's lead. She'd informed the Faith that she would be somewhere in the Grand Arcade with Dr. Relgof of the Analytic, if they wished to reach her.
So now they were walking through one of the parklike areas, with Simon and Rel talking, sketching incomprehensible diagrams in the air, arguing, all in that language of science which not all the technology of the Arena could make really understandable. The Analytic representative was, clearly, a recruiter of some sort, as he did subtly try to influence the conversation to discussion of their candidacy to join; but while Simon was clearly tempted on some levels, he avoided making any commitments and kept returning to scientific discourse.
Still… as she had to follow them around, it was a bit boring. So she was grateful to see the green-and-gold, bead-and-plate outfit of Nyanthus approaching her. Simon caught her eye and she nodded; Dr. Sandrisson stopped, making sure that he and Dr. Rel would not just wander farther off and separate the two.
The First Initiate Guide did his flowering, anemone-like bow. "Again, I am honored and pleased to meet with you, Captain Ariane Austin."
"And I with you, First Guide Nyanthus," Ariane replied, bowing in return. "To what do I owe the considerable honor of being once more sought out by the very leader of the Faith?"
A rippling, chiming chuckle. "To our constant interest in recruitment, of course, and the Guidance I have received, which says that you are perhaps of more importance than you may yet imagine. Such visions are oft-clouded, true, and have been known to mislead, yet I always heed them, for the Creators send no such guidance without reason."
She grinned. "I thank you for your honesty. I guess recruiting new members is a constant competition here?"
"Indeed, by most factions. It is, alas, not true of the Molothos – misguided and pitiful creatures – nor for the Blessed. But most of us do indeed compete to gain the advantage of appropriate additions to our membership. For us, it is of course a mandate, a responsibility, a duty, to prevent those that we can from falling too far into… how should I put it? The snares of disbelief, or worse, that entangle far too many of those who walk the Arena." Though Nyanthus had no clear sensing organs, he gave the impression of glancing in the direction of Simon and Dr. Relgof. "The Analytic… are a group of great knowledge, but of questionable wisdom. Still, a better choice of association than others, indeed."
"I hope," she said, with a bit of trepidation, "that you'll understand when I say I am not currently planning on committing to anyone. We want to be our own faction, at least for a while, until we're sure of our direction."
"Oh, quite understood." Nyanthus spun slowly about his center, symbiotic flying forms dancing around and through the candleflame-shaped openwork of his upper body. "But with such an understanding, have you any objection to learning more of the way of the Faith?"
"None at all." She was frankly curious. Orphan had talked of "Shadeweaver powers" and "Faith miracles" as being, to his mind, basically the same thing, but they'd actually seen very little of either, and she wondered exactly what it was that these beings could do that even the high-tech, super-advanced, and mostly ancient civilizations here could possibly consider miracles or magical. "As long as it neither commits me to anything, nor … influences me, in any way outside of the way that information would normally influence me."
Nyanthus paused in his rhythmic motion for a moment. When he resumed and spoke, the translation of the chiming voice was grave. "Ahhh. I see that you have already encountered agents of the other side, our adversaries, those which the naïve call 'Shadeweavers', and for which we have other… much worse… names. I understand your caution, Ariane Austin. You are wise to be cautious. But I give you my personal word – which, as you may ascertain with any here, is as solid and unquestionable as the very Arena's existence – that no such influence would be placed upon you."
"In that case, yes, I am very interested in learning more of your ways. All of the Arena is… overwhelming."
"Is it not?" She caught a hint of religious fervor in the simple question. "Indeed, is it not beyond any mortal comprehension? But let me not be carried away by my own beliefs. It is my purpose here to invite you to –"
A deep, resonant bell-like tone suddenly thundered through the air of Nexus Arena; the ground quivered beneath her feet, and all through the immensity of the Grand Arcade, silence fell. The sound, like a gong and a pipe organ built for a giant, throbbed in the atmosphere for long moments before fading away.
Nyanthus stood stock-still, even the symbiotes motionless on the ground or within his body; Dr. Rel was paused with one six-fingered hand in the air, as motionless as though he had been paralyzed. As far as she could look, no one moved. Distant autocabs traveled, carrying what momentarily seemed to be cargoes of statues.
Then motion resumed, and a huge sussuration of conversation, twice as loud as before, spread like a breath of wind before a storm through the Arcade. She turned to Nyanthus as he slowly resumed motion. "What the heck was that?"
"The Ascendant Chime." Nyanthus' warm, deep voice was subdued, hushed with startled awe. "I have never heard it before, and likely never will again. It means some one of the species here has met its first Challenge, become a true Citizen of the Arena."
Ariane was confused. "But… wouldn't that mean us?"
Nyanthus laughed faintly. "Oh, you are not the only species who have not yet met your first Challenge. Some species have spent thousands of years without daring to meet a Challenge, or – unfortunately – failing to win those they were forced into. One of these, undoubtedly, has finally succeeded. A joyous day!"
"The Arena doesn't tell you who?" Simon asked, joining them.
It was Dr. Relgof who answered. "Indeed it is a puzzle to me as well as to you, Captain," he said in his rough tenor voice. "Nearly always it is well-known the challenges which are underway, and the participants therein – and if one of them is a species seeking to win its first true recognition, then always there is someone watching. Yet so far, I hear nothing from the Arena, no announcement from spectators or Adjudicators, or from the victors themselves – who would almost certainly wish to spread this news far and wide."
Ariane could see that both Relgof and Nyanthus were sincerely as much in the dark as they were. "Are Challenges ever held outside of Nexus Arena?"
"On occasion," Relgof said. "Yet… even those are usually announced and well-known. But if not… then the victors, or the losers, would return here eventually, to announce the fact." He glanced around. "I see a few others have already reached the logical conclusion. Quickly – let us go, before the movement becomes a mob." He began to move off, his long gangly legs making surprisingly quick strides, so that both Simon and Ariane had to jog to keep up, and Nyanthus seemed hard-put to stay even with them; his two silent escorts, Tchanta Zoll and Tchanta Vall, grasped him on each side and began to carry him.
"Where are we going?" Ariane asked.
"I would guess… to Transition, yes?" Simon said in reply.
"Precisely deduced, my colleague," Dr. Rel confirmed. "There, almost certainly, will the news come. If it is not already being spread by joyous victors or pleased spectators, then soon it shall be, when they can arrive here – and, almost of a certainty, that shall be through the Inner Gateways of Transition."
It took some time for them to make their way through the thickening crowd and up the elevators, but eventually, after an hour or so, they did manage to reach Transition. The area that Ariane thought of as the foyer of Nexus Arena was incredibly busy now; it seemed that the news was spreading to other Spheres, and new arrivals appeared almost every second – perhaps the equivalent of news reporters, sightseers, or just the curious.
Even waiting here wasn't wasted time from Ariane's point of view; this odd event was giving them a chance to observe a tremendous concentration of the Arena's drastically varied lifeforms, and she had her head-recorders going constantly. She had no doubt Simon was doing the same thing.
A Gateway about a hundred meters away blazed with pearlescence, and she recognized the solitary green-black figure. "Orphan! Over here!"
As their alien friend moved through the crowd, she pushed forward to meet him. "How did you… Oh, I see. It's already that time, isn't it?"
"It is indeed, Ariane Austin. But it seems that we have a far more exciting moment at hand. I had hoped… but clearly you have taken no Challenges in my absence, for this is a gathering of people who await the news." Orphan glanced around. "Look, even Sethrik is here for the spectacle."
"I'm more interested in that," Simon said, pointing. Following his finger, Ariane saw three black-cloaked figures – two clearly inhuman, one not so alien in outline – standing in the middle of the floor, with a clear zone extending at least 10 meters around them in all directions.
"Well, now, that's interesting," Orphan said. "Even the Shadeweavers, it would appear, are entirely in the dark. And you, First Guide? You have no insight into this mystery?"
"Alas, I have none, surprising though that may seem, Orphan."
Ariane expected a momentary resolution of the tension – as did, it seemed, most of the crowd. But time passed, and none of the new arrivals knew any more than those already there. An hour. Three hours. Four.
"Maybe we should just go back to the Embassy?" Simon ventured. "I must say I'm getting hungry… and in need of certain other facilities."
Ariane winced. "Er. Yes, I think I need that myself."
"Well," Orphan said, "We can go back in pairs, and keep our position. I really do believe we don't wish to miss this; it is a once in many lifetimes' occurrence."
Ariane couldn't argue that. Her bladder, however, did need tending to. It'll be just my luck, she thought, that right after we get on the elevator heading down the news will break.
But when she and Simon returned, carrying food and cushions to sit on, nothing had changed. But with so much to see, and talk about, she didn't see it as wasted time. There's so much to learn from everyone. I can do that as well here as anywhere else.
Four more hours passed, and she started considering making a second trip. The peak traffic had died down, and the crowd was maintaining a watchful vigil, having sorted itself into some lanes to permit normal freight and traveller traffic to pass.
Then a shimmer of iridescence, near the very center of the room, caught her eye, and to her utter astonishment, she saw Carl Edlund step out. But instead of stepping down, he glanced around, staring wide-eyed at the incredible mob of aliens gathered in near-silent anticipation, and stepped right back through.
There was a whisper of confusion at this. Then the same gateway blazed pearl again. The shape materializing out of it, though, was huge and misshapen, something out of nightmare, unrecognizable…
Oh my GOD!
Marc C. DuQuesne pitched the body of a Molothos down the rampway before him, the chitinous carcass making a thunderous clatter that echoed throughout the entire room, followed by a shocked chittering screech from Dajzail and his group. "Sorry about the mess, Captain," he said, his voice somehow amplified by the Arena. "But we had to do a little pest control on our Sphere." His smile was brilliant enough to see across the two hundred yards separating them, and she swore she could see a twinkle in the black eyes. "Why don't we go find our new Embassy, and I'll tell you all about it?"
And hey, hey, the gang's (mostly) here!