So when last we saw Our Heroes, Ariane had apparently accepted a Challenge...
"No offense, Captain, but what the hell were you thinking?"
Ariane restrained an acid retort. The former Hyperion's tone of voice and gaze showed that his anger had its basis in concern; he was afraid of the consequences to her and maybe the rest of them, not just mad over her doing something stupid. "Marc, I was thinking about the characteristics of the Challenges. Remember, we've been getting info about them sort of piecemeal, mainly because we've had so many other things to worry about."
DuQuesne took a deep breath, held it, let it out, visibly calming himself. "Right. Well, we still have the option of backing out, though it would cost us a lot, so let's just look at the situation. What happened?"
It all started out so simple. "Well, Steve wanted to see the Arcade for himself, and there's a lot of it I hadn't seen yet… and to be honest, we're still just feeling our way around here. Going out and meeting people in unofficial settings tells us a lot that we won't necessarily get when we have these big formal meetings with reps from various factions." She glanced around, saw the others nod (except of course Orphan and Relgof, who gave their own equivalent). Not surprised Orphan's here, with the Blessed involved, but I think Relgof came along because he just actually likes us, or Simon at least. Don't think I'm discussing anything sensitive yet, so I don't need to worry about kicking them out.
"So we wandered around for a while, looking into new areas – Steve actually managed to trade, gave some art examples to a physical artistics trader and got us some trade credits, basically the local currency. He's a good haggler." Steve tried to smile, but didn't manage much of a grin. Wasn't really his fault, but I'll bet he thinks it is. "Thinking back on it, there was this one guy – from that sort of rhino or triceratops-headed race, you remember them? – always in sight, but it didn't really register at the time, and I don't know if I'd paid much attention to it even if I had. I mean, these days there's always someone following us or staring at us, we're still awfully new."
"Right," DuQuesne agreed. "Maybe you should've been more careful, but hindsight's perfect and we aren't. So go on."
"So we ended up at the Random Fortune Casino, and Steve decided to try his luck."
"Let me guess." DuQuesne said with a grimace. "He got cleaned out, leading to an argument that got leveraged to a challenge?"
Steve couldn't keep from a laugh there. "Oh, how very wrong you are, my favorite superman. Take a look at that!"
Steve Franceschetti upended a small bag and a river of silvery-bronze polygons rattled across the table. Orphan almost upset his chair – would have, Ariane suspected, if it weren't for his bracing tail – and Relgof's beard-filter flipflopped so hard she thought he might sprain it.
"By the Death of Minds!" Orphan exclaimed. "Stephen, this is… a quite considerable sum indeed!"
DuQuesne was eyeing the pile speculatively. "Well, well, well. So it was the other problem."
"Other problem?" Sandrisson looked puzzled.
Ariane shook her head, laughing despite herself. "Simon, I think it's clear just where you haven't spent a lot of time. Real casinos don't like anyone to win too much, too reliably; it generally means the guy's cheating somehow; even if not, too many good wins can cost you a lot in your house margin. So they've got people around to escort you out of the establishment if you get to be too lucky. You don't actually see this happen very often, because it really is very, very hard to cheat in a modern casino, even with good AISage help, and to get to that level with just honest to god luck… well, it's rare."
"But I got there." Steve said. "I understood that craps-like game pretty well, so I took some shots on that, tripled my money pretty quick, then played a few hands of this card-type thing, doubled my money, figured it was my lucky day, and went to their roulette machines.
"Guys, it was like I was psychic. I think I missed about two or three picks in a hundred. I could do no wrong; any game I hit, anything I tried playing, once I knew what the hell I was supposed to do, I did it." Steve shook his head, grinning.
Then the grin faded. "I was back at the dice table and there was a big crowd around, and all of a sudden these two bruisers, same type as Nyanthus' bodyguards, grab me and drag me out, where this horn-headed guy starts accusing me of cheating." The diminuitive design engineer's jaw tightened at the memory.
"Steve's almost pathologically honest," Ariane said, taking over. "It's a matter of pride with him, and accusing him of cheating just really pushes his buttons. Which of course to some people looks like he's guilty and defensive. And I got stuck in the crowd – I think partly deliberately – and by the time I got there it had gotten to a shouting insult match, and Mr. Hornhead suddenly said," she consulted her headware to make sure she got the wording right, "um… 'for such insults exchanged and received, if you will not apologize, then there is no remedy but a Challenge! Do you accept or do you refuse?'"
"I was going to refuse." Steve said pointedly. "I'm not stupid, I recognized that I didn't want to commit us to that kind of thing, even if it was my authority to do it, which it wasn't."
"But it wasn't that simple." Ariane glanced at Orphan. "One of the points I remembered then was about the strategy of Challenges. You can refuse a Challenge, or even two, but you have to accept the third one, or else you suffer the penalty as if you'd lost the Challenge anyway. Right, Orphan?"
"It is indeed so."
"Now, just hold on there. Why in the world would anyone decline the third one, then?" Gabrielle demanded.
"What if the Challenge ends up a duel to the death?" DuQuesne pointed out. "Might be worth giving up whatever you'd lose in the challenge to keep from dying, or seeing one of your friends die." She saw Gabrielle nod in understanding.
"So what Orphan had told us was that one of the most common strategies is to set up Challenges to be refused, so that the real person behind it could then put forth the third Challenge and come out of it with what they were after. I thought it would be a real bad idea to put us in a position where someone else could back us into a corner, so I decided to shortcut the tactic and accept."
"Unfortunately," Orphan said, "That is also another common tactic – to prey upon those who are cautious in the other way."
"Yeah. I kinda figured that out," she said with barely restrained sarcasm. "So as soon as I accept, the guy says 'So be it! I then present to you our representative in this Challenge,' and that son of a bitch Sethrik steps around the corner, and I swear if he were human he'd have been wearing a shit-eating grin about a yard across."
"They can do that? Choose other representatives? What's to stop everyone from choosing the most dangerous people to represent them?" Simon looked disturbed and worried – the way he tried not to look too much at her, she guessed he was mostly worried about her.
"Two things, in truth." Dr. Relgof answered. "First, of course, the Challenger does not choose all of the conditions of the Challenge; the major type of Challenge is chosen by the Challenged. So unless you can be certain as to the skills and choices of your opponent, any proxy is something of a risk.
"More importantly, however, is that the one who actually meets the Challenge is the one who receives the benefit."
"Oh, my." Gabrielle said. "You mean, if I were to issue a Challenge to, oh, those nasty Molothos and I had Orphan be my representative –"
"—then upon winning I could, in fact, take for myself and the Liberated the prize that I was ostensibly gaining for you. Yes."
"Of course, since this was pretty obviously a Blessed set-up, that wouldn't have been an issue. The stooges never expected to get the prize, they were just looking for an opportunity to pick enough of a fight to trigger a legal excuse for a Challenge."
"So," DuQuesne said slowly, as though he was afraid of the answer, "What is it that you've challenged them to?"
"I hadn't made up my mind yet." Ariane said with a sudden smile. But I have now. "Since it was our first official Challenge, and because I think Sethrik's pretty damn sure he has the knowledge and skill edge in most things, they gave me a little time to talk to you and think about it. With one stipulation: that I, personally, am the one to actually participate. I did counter that with the requirement that Sethrik himself be the one in on the other side."
DuQuesne looked up sharply. "I don't like this one tiny little bit, Captain." Is there more than just professional concern behind that voice? Am I crazy to even think it? And even if there was, should I even pay attention to it? "Sethrik's got almost all the cards here."
"That's a very accurate assessment, Doctor DuQuesne." Even Orphan's translated voice was somber. "I feel somewhat responsible for this, as the Blessed would undoubtedly not care much about you were it not for me. But… Captain Austin, I dislike counselling retreat, yet Sethrik is a terribly formidable being; he is the current leading agent of the Blessed, the chosen representative of the Minds, and they can – without manifesting full artificial intelligence – provide him with considerable knowledge and skill in many or all fields of endeavor."
One of the green balls of light appeared. Ariane smiled at the others. "I appreciate the concern… but I really think I can handle this one."
"Ariane Austin of Humanity, you have had time to consider," the little sphere said, in Sethrik's voice. "I ask that you either select the nature of our Challenge, or concede and prepare to pay the price of that concession. How do you answer this Challenge, Captain Austin?"
She felt her grin broaden, and saw Steve's eyes suddenly go wide with understanding, as she answered. "I will accept your Challenge, Sethrik. And the nature of that Challenge will be…"
DuQuesne, never slow on the uptake, let out an abrupt chortle of comprehension, as she finished,
"… will be single-seat space obstacle racing."
... but maybe not quite so much a problem as we thought.