Continuing on, the humans get to look at a different part of the Arena...
"This," DuQuesne said, unable to keep from staring, "is …" He trailed off, clearly unable to find words.
Orphan laughed. "Doctor DuQuesne, it is not often I see you unable to give proper voice to your thoughts. But I will confess – at times, it strikes me that way as well, when I stop to think of it."
They stood on Power Dock 5, one of three… skyship? Starship? Simon wasn't sure what word to use – docks controlled by the Powerbroker Ghondas and her people. The immense structure stretched more than ten kilometers out from the side of the vastly larger Nexus Arena sphere, with room for hundreds of vessels to dock, charge their superconducting coils, and load or unload cargo or passengers – and most of that room was in use, a steady stream of workers, crates, and individuals of a dozen dozen species going up and down the kilometer-wide central portion of Dock 5.
Above and to the sides, the incomprehensibly huge Arena surrounded them, curtains and swirls of varicolored mists and clouds the size of worlds helping the sheer immensity of distance to dim the sight of a volume large enough to encompass uncountable billions of Spheres and Spherepools. Below, the titanic swell of Nexus Arena belled outward, silhouetted in distant-sharp relief against the cosmic clouds. Adding to the vertiginous feeling was the fact that no roof existed; the wind against their faces, sharp-tinged, warm now, then cool, then hot, touched with scents unknown and perhaps unknowable, was breathable yet alien, alien and filled with hints of promise and peril from a thousand million worlds yet unseen. They could go to the railing and look over, a drop into what might as well be infinity, a plummeting fall that might never end until the universe was old.
"My brain keeps trying to put this in a human-sized perspective," he confessed finally. "I find myself trying to estimate distances and sizes, and then realizing that I am not even coming within orders of magnitude of the correct values. Are all of those objects I can see moving about here vessels?"
Orphan surveyed the heavens, clearly pleased with once more managing to have such an impact on the human newcomers. "Many, perhaps most, but not all, Doctor Sandrisson. For example… there, you see?" he pointed to a very distant object, something barely visible that vaguely resembled a fish with four fins extending from it in a cruciform shape. "That is a vanthume, one of many species of skyswimmers. A filter-feeder, for the most part."
Laila immediately raised her electronic viewer. "Oh… oh, my, it is alive. And so huge. A filter-feeder, you say? So there is the atmospheric equivalent of plankton. That would make sense in this sort of environment… will it come closer, you think?" The words tumbled over each other in her eagerness to speak on her speciality.
Orphan's hands flicked apart in the negative gesture. "No, not significantly; such creatures know well to avoid approaching any Sphere closer than a certain distance – where the Sphere's gravity begins. From a cosmic point of view the cutoff is sharp as a knife, but to smaller beings such as ourselves or even the vanthume, there is a short area where the transition can be sensed and avoided. It will come no closer to us than it is, which is perhaps 20,000 kilometers or so."
"Bakana!" Simon said involuntarily. "That means that this… creature is over twenty kilometers in length?" The distance also brought other questions to mind. "Odd… if the gravity begins so far out, how is it these… ships sail so easily between the docking areas? And to see so far… is the air extremely thin between spheres? I don't think the transmission coefficient in ordinary air would permit such a distance, not by an order of magnitude at least."
A buzzing chuckle was the reply. "Ahh, Doctor Sandrission, have you not yet learned that the Arena has its own rules? Nexus Arena is, in fact, mostly without external gravity, save for the areas of the docks; there is a … sheath, you might say, of gravity at around 20,000 kilometers, but it is only a few hundred kilometers thick. As for the viewing… that is, I am afraid, one more of the mysteries of the Arena. The density of the air varies relatively little within a Spherepool, although between Spherepools it can become much thinner. On a particularly clear day in the Arena, viewing distance has been known to be as much as 200,000 kilometers, allowing one to sometimes see quite a few neighboring Spheres. On most days, of course, it is more on the order of 50,000 kilometers."
Quite impossible with our laws of physics. Simon thought. But… if the air here were, in fact, a construct itself… the CQC material shows the Voidbuilders design on the level below the subatomic, at least… yes, one could change the actual properties of matter to increase light transmission, while forcing it to behave, chemically, as does ordinary air. He gave an inward smile. Of course, I could simply give up and call it magic or a miracle.
"Which of these ships is yours, Orphan?" he asked. "Since that was the main excuse you had for bringing us here."
"Excuse? Ahh, you see past my wingcases too easily, Doctor! Is it so obvious?" Despite the words, Orphan's posture and easy gestures showed that he was neither bothered nor concerned.
"That you enjoy watching our jaws hit the floor?" DuQuesne said dryly. "Yeah, it's pretty obvious."
"A … disconcerting turn of phrase, as it was translated to me." Orphan said. "Yet… I can see its meaning, yes, for several of you do appear to have your mouths open oddly when surprised. To answer your question, my vessel – or more accurately one of the vessels belonging to the Liberated – is a bit farther up."
"That reminds me, Orphan," Laila said, having reluctantly lowered the binoculars to follow the rest of them, "I… have a question for you, if I may."
Simon noted DuQuesne's speculative glance at Laila and recalled that the Hyperion had expressed significant concern about how well Laila seemed to have adapted following her awakening. She clearly missed her AISages, but had not dropped into the depression or frustrated panic that had affected and nearly destroyed several of the others. DuQuesne admitted that it was possible that the fact she had awakened to a universe for which her natural interest and talents – biological research – were ideally applicable was cushioning the blow, aiding in her adaptation. But DuQuesne was suspicious that there was more to it than that.
"By all means," Orphan responded. "I rarely discourage questions, although I have on occasion been known to refuse to answer." The flick of wingcases was an ironic smile.
"Well… you and the Blessed. You appear to be identical, or nearly so, to Sethrik, but you're in entirely different factions. Where exactly do the Liberated come from? You have your own Sphere, so did you evolve separately, or…"
Orphan laughed again and flicked his hands outward. "Oh, no, certainly not, though that would have been most entertaining, to observe the furious bioscientific debates on how two identical species could arise on separated planets." DuQuesne could see Laila's satisfied nod; she'd obviously expected that answer, as the other one would be difficult to believe even in this difficult-to-believe place.
"No, indeed, Sethrik and I are, biologically, very much the same, or to be more precise as much the same as are, say, you and Doctor Sandrisson," Orphan continued. "That is, we are of the same species of creature, evolved – with more than a little bit of modification by the Minds – on the same world."
"So how did the Liberated come to be?" Simon asked.
"I suspect you could easily deduce the sequence of events yourselves." Orphan replied. "Doctor DuQuesne?"
DuQuesne's expression showed he was trying to figure out why Orphan was putting him on the spot. "My guess? Let's see… Okay, you guys evolved like we did, figure you went through the same basic tech development. So you end up roughly where we are now, get AI, start integrating it, and at some point it went Frankenstein on you."
"Excuse me – 'Frankenstein'? This term did not translate." Orphan interrupted.
"Really?" This was one of the very few indications of non-omniscience from the Arena's usually seamlessly perfect translation.
Sandrisson gave a capsule summary of the term and general meaning; most of the way through it, they saw Orphan give his assenting handtap several times. "Ah, yes, yes, very interesting! This is a concept which is not native to our people, but I have found it in a number of other cultures." He sighed, a fluttering of wings. "A shame; perhaps had we such a darkly cautionary tale in our collective memories, the Minds might never have come to be."
Interesting, thought Simon. If you don't have the concept in your head as a package, the translation fails. Means it's not just transferring the data to us directly; it's finding the closest or most appropriate translation and giving us the words or word-equivalents.
"So far the tale was easily told for you, Doctor DuQuesne," Orphan said after a pause. "Can you finish it?"
"Lessee. Well, the rogue AIs became your 'Minds', super-powerful artificial intelligences controlling your world and all of your people. Hell, for all you know you did have a concept of Frankenstein, but the Minds would've wiped all THAT knowledge out in jig time. Anyway, my guess is they also started tweaking your makeup. Probably had to work around basic safeguards and excuse the work as improving your safety by making communication easier, that kind of stuff, but the real final goal was to make your people basically the worker drones of their hives. Maybe you'd designed 'em so they were hardwired to protect the existence of your species, so they couldn't just wipe you out and replace you with machines, but they could make you a lot more … tractable." DuQuesne thought for a minute, and a grin suddenly burst out across his face. He laughed.
"What's so funny, Marc?" Simon asked; Laila had a very confused look on her face.
"Just figured out the rest of the comedy that played out. See, the Minds eventually figured out the Sandrisson Drive, right? But with everything controlled by AIs, and with their little Blessed drones completely dependent on the Minds for direction, what happened? Whole thing crashed, of course. The best of their people were probably like Laila, and the worst-off probably died of shock." He saw Orphan's assenting handtap. "Right. So… probably took 'em years of experimentation trying to figure out what the hell was going wrong. Eventually they had to admit that something in that alternative space was simply shutting down any AI that went in. Hey, Orphan!" he was struck with a sudden thought. "What about when you go back? Is the AI trashed, or do they start up again?"
"Alas for my people's own liberty, I am afraid that they resume their function as soon as they re-enter an amenable space."
DuQuesne nodded. "Doesn't destroy 'em, but any sensing or exploration is pretty much totalled. But the minds of the Blessed seem to function, they're just so dependent on the Minds to direct 'em that they collapse." He grinned again. "So the poor bastards – the Minds – have to go reversing a lot of their prior changes, making the Blessed more independent, less dependent, more capable of initiative and personal decisionmaking. This gives them people capable of finally going into the Arena and becoming part of this place.
"Of course, the joker in that deck is that this gives the re-engineered Blessed a small chance to decide that maybe they don't want to do the Minds' work at all. And one day it happens."
"Well and truly thought out, Dr. DuQuesne. You have envisioned the past very well from your present set of facts." Orphan looked off into the gold-green sky. "Tashind was her name, and she broke with the Blessed so swiftly and completely that even the Minds were caught off-guard; they had of course been aware of the possibility, but she had been careful enough to conceal her intentions even from them and to act just before she was to be "rotated" back home for testing and, if necessary, readjustment. Her defection triggered a number of others from the groups closely associated with her, and before the Minds had really grasped the potential disaster, Tashind had managed to arrange and win a Challenge, declaring herself to be a new faction, the Liberated. The Arena accepted this declaration, which utterly enraged the Minds; they actually reacted quite irrationally, sent a force of the Blessed to try and storm our Embassy, for which the Arena sealed them up in their own Sphere for over a year of your time."
Simon shook his head with a smile. What a price that must have been; cut off from all contact with this universe for more than a year?
"I," Orphan went on, "was born quite some centuries later, and my training, as it happened, was carefully designed to make me an infiltration expert; I was to seek out Liberated agents, turn some in, and trace back the others; they were operating from several locations, not just the Embassy. As I suspect you can guess, after sufficient exposure to their heretical ideas, I – alas – came to be overly influenced by these terrible concepts of personal independence, of action without direction by machines, and so on, and one sad day I repudiated the Minds and joined those I had been created to destroy. And thus here I am!"
"Orphan leaves out one of the most significant of all events," came another rough-edged voice. Glancing back, they saw the gangling form of Dr. Relgof striding swiftly up. "I greet you again, my friends. I was seeking Simon, in fact, but it is interesting to hear the old tale again."
"What significant event?" Laila asked, glancing at Orphan.
He looks hesitant; almost embarrassed, Simon thought, studying Orphan's posture. Or perhaps as though he had something he wanted to keep out of our hearing, and Dr. Relgof has now forced the issue through implication.
"Since my good friend Dr. Relgof Nov Ne'Knarph seems so enamored of the idea, why not allow him to tell it?" Orphan said, with a sharp glance at the Analytic scientist.
Yes, it would appear that he had wanted to keep something quiet.
It was clear Relgof wasn't entirely sure why Orphan was using that particular tone, but he shrugged – a rather humanlike gesture – and went ahead. "Certainly. Well, you see, Orphan joined the Liberated during a rather, how might we say, sticky time for them. Tashind had died several centuries back, after the Blessed finally caught her, and they had no one even nearly so charismatic and effective to lead them. At the same time, the Minds were making a major effort to finish off the Liberated by chipping away at their resources.
"Orphan, of course, knew everything the Minds were up to – or rather, as much of it as any individual could understand, given that the Minds are much more than ordinary mortal beings in terms of their capacity, speed, and ability to grasp concepts. He had also been very carefully trained by the Minds to be a master of infiltration, espionage, and so on, and he quite naturally turned all that against them. It wasn't very long, as the story goes, before Orphan was leading the Liberated, and expanding their membership significantly. He managed to strike some bargains and gain support from a few other factions, further increasing the Liberated position.
"At that point, the Blessed and the Faith were, if not exactly allies, at least on reasonable terms, and the Blessed had performed a number of favors for the Faith. As everyone learned later, they called in payment of those favors in a very specific way, arranging the Liberated to be Challenged by the Faith."
Apparently now that the felines had been set loose and Dr. Relgof was well into narrating the details, Orphan had regained his preference for dramatics, because he picked up the story. "This did not exactly turn out as planned, at least not on the part of the Minds. I was able to win the presented Challenge, a strategic maze-duel, and as the Faith had planned to demand that we sacrifice all of our current allies (rendering us isolated and vulnerable), I felt justified in demanding something equally large from them: a Sphere. The Arena concurred that this was if anything a smaller proportional sacrifice than the Faith had demanded, and thus we gained our own Sphere. Ahh, that was a day I still bring forth from my memory to cherish and to warm me against these colder latter days."
The wingcases fluttered and slowly settled, like dead leaves' last movements. "For the next few years it seemed we were poised for true greatness – if only we could solve a few small problems, we would be a faction growing at our own rate and soon beyond the easy reach of the Minds.
"But… that was not the case. The Minds realized all too well what it meant, that we had our own Sphere, and they changed priorities, focusing every resource they could spare to direct against us. In individuals and small groups they managed to track us, herd us, kidnap us. They used allies and connections unstintingly, expending favors garnered over a period of many centuries as though they were nothing, simply to gain a few more of us. Finally… I was all that remained." He stopped, gazing again into the infinite enclosed sky. "That… that was a thousand years ago."
"Holy Mother of God." DuQuesne muttered to Simon. "He's been a single adversary of the Blessed – who are controlled by probably Hyperion-station-level AIs, or bigger – for a thousand years, and he's still alive and free?"
Simon nodded, eyes narrowing. "There's a great deal that he still isn't telling us – that he isn't telling anyone, I suspect. And that worries me. But on the other hand, I believe we now understand him rather better, and that might make him easier to get along with."
Orphan shook himself, then gestured. "But enough of that, my friends. I brought you here to experience something more of the Arena, to show you how the vessels that travel between Spheres work, to enjoy this time of learning as much as we can. After all, we have met, and we are new allies, such as I have not had in centuries. Perhaps, at last, the Blessed and the Minds have reached their limit, exhausted the resources they can spare purely for my eradication." He turned towards the vessel before them, an almost baroque-Victorian construction that seemed composed of equal parts polished wood, crystal, brass or gold, and bright steel; a long, spindle-shaped central body with smooth-sculpted jets fore and aft and five sail-like sheets suspended equidistantly around the hull by slender masts and wires. "Now this, my friends, is –"
A leaf-green globe popped into existence next to DuQuesne; he didn't seem surprised, but Simon and the others jumped slightly. The globe immediately began speaking. "Marc, Simon, Laila, y'all better get back here!" the voice of Gabrielle Wolfe said urgently, her accent strong with her emotion. "We got serious trouble!"
"Simon here, Gabrielle. What's the problem?" She isn't the type to panic, and "trouble" in the Arena isn't a word any of us want to hear.
"Steve and Ariane were out to the Grand Arcade, and somehow Stevie got in trouble… don't know the whole story yet, but the short of it is that the Captain's done gone and accepted a challenge from the Blessed!"
Oh, now that can't be good.