When last we left Our Heroes, Ariane had accepted a Challenge from the Blessed...
A glittering double-headed arrow, with a curved cabin section in the center, slid to a halt in the polished landing/launch bay. Barely had the movement ceased when DuQuesne saw the top hatch pop open and Ariane vaulted from the pilot's cabin. Carl was already in motion, running forward from his support and maintenance station.
"YeeeeHA!" Ariane whooped, a sound so joyful that DuQuesne couldn't help but grin; he and Simon started forward, as Carl caught Ariane up in a hug that spun her around.
"I like the enthusiasm," Simon said, "but it seems a bit overmuch, given that we haven't even gotten to the race yet."
"But now I know I can win this race, Simon," Ariane answered. "This is a sweet, sweet ship, Carl!"
"You looked awfully wobbly at first, Captain," DuQuesne said slowly, a bit reluctant to throw a damper on things. "In fact, I'd wager money that you just about lost control on that second go-round."
"Oh, you are so totally right, Marc." The deep blue hair cascaded out of her helmet as she yanked it off. "But you are also totally wrong."
Carl nodded, smiling. "You get a brand new ship – especially one like this, for use in a type of race you've never been in – you do your best to make it screw up, if you think you can risk it, so that you know what the worst possible failure modes are."
"And this certainly is a type of race I've never been in," Ariane concurred.
"And that," DuQuesne said bluntly, "is what's got me dancing on pins and needles. We should've forced the game to go our way."
"We already did, Marc." DuQuesne felt a small part of him want to glare in disbelief, because he simply wasn't used to hearing people talk to him in that tone of voice, that said that he was a worrywart who just didn't know what he was talking about.
Sethrik and Ariane, with Orphan and Nyanthus and, sometimes, the Arena itself acting as intermediaries, had spent two days hammering out the details of the challenge, partly through each making a refining proposal and sometimes outright argument. "Space racing" had at least two, sometimes three, definitions in the Arena, and Sethrik had insisted on it taking place in Arena conditions (i.e., not vacuum) – especially since her careful and deliberate specification of "single-seat" meant that he would be flying alone. Ariane had noticed that the Blessed never seemed to go anywhere alone, and Orphan had confirmed that there was a constant low-level link between Blessed that helped take some of the burden of being separated from the Minds. Her condition was going to negate that, place additional stress on him, and so Sethrik insisted on this as compensation. Ariane, for her part, had been equally adamant that it had to take place at least partially in null-gravity, and after considerable debate both sides had agreed to make a course which would offer challenges familiar to both sides, but whose aggregate was unfamiliar to either side.
As Ariane had no Human vessels at all appropriate to an Arena-focused race, Nyanthus had proposed – with Orphan supporting – that both contestants use essentially identical vessels (with controls modified to fit their expectations) from some other race's base designs, so that neither would be any more or less familiar with the equipment; this was one point that Sethrik had balked at, but been overruled on; clearly he'd hoped to use a Blessed-designed racing vehicle and gain that advantage over Ariane. The race, therefore, would be performed in modified Vengeance scout-combat units called thysta, roughly translating to some kind of venomous fast-striking creature – cobra, viper, something of that nature.
The course as plotted would be at some location in the Arena (for which the Arena would provide passage to and from) which featured both gravity and non-gravity portions, with multiple obstacles of various types to maneuver around and through. The exact details of the course were being withheld until the time of the race.
"You're a space obstacle race expert, Ariane." Simon clearly shared DuQuesne's concern. "This race is… not space racing, as we know it."
"Exactly my point," said DuQuesne. "This is atmospheric racing all the way, although the lack of gravity in some portions will sure throw some weird curveballs at you. These clowns have been flying in the Arena for, what, thousands of years?"
"Marc, Simon, thank you for your worry, but please, stop it." Ariane's voice was as confident as he'd ever heard it, a calm contralto that was only somewhat like the worried, duty-ridden Captain Austin that was her usual face to the world. "You don't even get to space obstacle racing until you've shown you can beat the hell out of almost anyone in atmosphere racing. I won my first air obstacle race – the Texas Aero Unlimited – when I was 15, Simon, and I was racing against some guys more than ten years older than me who'd won that same race before. Sure, I've lost races, and I could lose this one –"
"—but don't you bet on that side, guys," Carl Edlund interrupted smoothly, "because you are looking at the lady who was almost unbeaten for two years in a row in the Solar Unlimited league, and whose overall record looks to beat out Hawke's – the only guy who beat her those two years – by the time she's 30. It's been my privilege to work with her for almost five years now, and let me tell you, she's just the best there is."
Ariane blushed. "There's no way I'm beating Hawke."
"Well, maybe not now that we're missing the best part of the season. Then again, he isn't racing in this league."
Seeing her smile in answer to Carl's point, and the way she stood casually leaning against the sharp-edged surface of her ship sent a strange pang through DuQuesne. I've never seen her like this. She doesn't need anyone's help here. She knows what she has to do, and she's going to do it, and she's as sure as anything that she can do it. This is her element.
God, she looks good like that. Confident, ready to take on the world, and ready to go right through anyone that gets in her way.
As soon as he thought it, he realized how terribly dangerous that thought was. He could also see that Simon felt the same way. That's a direction you do not want to go, Marc. Absolutely not. There's no chance of anything that would be able to last. Too dangerous for her. And nothing that doesn't last is going to work for me. The elegant Dr. Sandrisson was at least a reasonably worthy match for her, and not a dangerous one.
But even forcing his thoughts down that path was difficult, leaving a bitter mental taste in his mouth. I manage to avoid this kind of thing for almost 50 years, push K right out of my life, and now that I'm myself, I can't even make myself remember the reason I do avoid it? Idiot! She deserves a hell of a lot more than you could give her. Or maybe a lot less than you'd give her.
"So you're sure you can handle the transitions, Ariane?" Simon was saying.
The tall, slender pilot smiled again. "Tested it out there. There's four gravity varying sections in the test course, plus the adjustable obstacles I was flying around. This little baby," she patted the ship, "has jets and control surfaces in all the right places; I can do a roll, a somersault, banking turns, whatever, choose which surfaces repond, use air brakes grabbing the wind or even full thrust reversers, choose which controls respond for which maneuver easily… it's one of the smoothest handling ships I've ever flown, even if she is awfully strange in some ways.
"Transition from freefall to gravity is a bit of a jolt at first, especially since it happens over a pretty short range in the Arena. We can hit multiple Mach speeds in these ships, which may be puny by our spaceflight standards but is pretty damn fast in the Arena, since you have to worry about maintaining speed in atmosphere, friction, all those kinds of things. But once you've done the transition a few times, you know what it feels like."
"What about dirty tricks?" DuQuesne asked, having gotten himself under control. Time to focus on the practicalities. "There's a lot at stake in this race, both objectively and from the point of view of face. We're the newbies, if we lose to a massively powerful faction like the Blessed, okay, it's going to hurt, but it won't really damage our rep much, especially if we make a decent showing. But if the Blessed lose, it could really hurt. So they've got a pretty strong reason to try to get away with anything they can in this Challenge."
Ariane nodded. "I talked about that with Orphan. People try things even in our races, you know; hell, Simon was there when Hawke and I tried to get each other killed in a keyhole. Orphan says that there are some minor stunts that Sethrik might try, but any truly major cheating will be caught and he forfeits the race. Still, I'm going over the tricks he might try, and it is a fairly open-rules race. He's certainly not forbidden to try to cause me to crack up if he can." She grinned suddenly, a smile with a razor-sharp edge. "Of course, neither am I."
I love a woman who can swim with the sharks… and that's a bad, bad thought, he said to himself as that smile blazed out. Mr. Superman, can't you keep your eyes off her? He flicked his gaze to the side, only to meet Simon's level green glance; even that momentary meeting showed that the physicist was – as he had always been – completely aware of DuQuesne's focus on Ariane. He knew even before I did. Well, before I allowed myself to recognize it, anyway. "We're going to be able to watch, right?" he said quickly, realizing even as he did that he sounded… hurried, too elaborately casual, not quite himself.
It didn't seem to register with Ariane, fortunately. "From back at Nexus Arena, yes. At the actual race site, it will be just me, Sethrik, our support crew (one person each), and the two witnesses and intermediaries, Orphan and Nyanthus. Orphan's our advocate, Nyanthus is Sethrik's. Not because the Faith necessarily like the Blessed, but because each intermediary or advocate has to come from another faction than your own in cases like this. So just six people … and the Arena, whatever IT is."
He nodded and looked over the little modified fighter craft. It was very pretty, front and back essentially identical with vented jet ports, active memory-material control surfaces, polished a brilliant gold-touched silver, with black support rods between the front and back components and the squat oval area for the pilot's cabin. "Well, you did handle her well through most of that practice, and allow me to say that the ship matches the pilot." Watch it!
"Well, as Gabrielle might put it, how sweet o' you to notice!"
"Got a name for her, Ariane?" Carl asked. "Gotta give me time to blaze it on her front, and it'd be bad luck to go out without a name."
"I sure do. A special name for me and for my second-in-command, even if no one else gets it. She's the Skylark."
As the name and her smile pierced straight to his heart, Marc C. DuQuesne suddenly truly appreciated how very much trouble he was in.
Indeed, Dr. DuQuesne. Indeed.