I now have in hand my author's box of GCA. I've just packed the envelope to send to Al Trestrail (which I promised him).
While I can't give all my readers one for free, I can at least give you another chapter of Grand Central Arena!
Almost time, Ariane thought to herself as she ran her hand over Skylark's forward contours once more, staring at the display of the race course. "Carl…" she started.
"Yeah, I know, time for your pre-race focus. Getting out now, you won't see me until launch time. You got… ten minutes." Carl gave her a quick friendly peck on the cheek and strode out, leaving her to her pre-race ritual.
She smiled and then began to concentrate. The basic details of the course were spectacular, yet simple. From their launch point within the gravity well of the selected Sphere (which, as far as she could tell, belonged to none of the races currently active), they would have to pass what Orphan and Sethrik called a Skyfall, something like an avalanche in space. There was then a carefully laid out, slowly shifting set of asteroid-sized bodies which they had to weave between, not outside of; a huge cloudbank which included potential debris, living creatures native to the Arena, and so on; another gravity source (temporary – at Mach speeds they certainly weren't getting to another Sphere anytime soon!) around which they were to loop and return, going through the same very large cloud, a different set of asteroids, a small flock of zikkis (a rather stupid type of aerial predator which, while incapable of actually damaging the flyers, could deflect them or slow them down for a while), past the Skyfall again, and so around. Three loops, each probably taking a couple hours, for a six hour race. She was in her space and crash suit, which had adequate sanitary prep, and quite sufficient water and concentrated nourishment.
The inclusion of the zikkis had rather bothered her at first. It was one thing to put rocks in the way, but living creatures? However, Orphan had found her concern somewhat … amusing. "You will find that it is not a matter of using them as… how might I say it… disposable speed bumps, Captain Austin," he'd said, with his little buzzing chuckle. "The zikki is a terribly formidable creature in many ways, a pack-predator which hunts flying creatures capable of very similar speeds – if not armored nearly so well as your flyers -- and which can also dig out other creatures that lair within solid rock and ice. You may injure one or two, I admit, but they will recover." She still didn't like it, but the Arena had selected that obstacle and refused to change it, so she had to live with it.
Recharging the ships in flight was done by matching alignment with a sort of "pit stop" through which the flyer would drag a superconducting charging loop connected to the main batteries. Part of their crew's duties was to make sure that the "pit stop" matched straight-flight vector with the ship (since they did have to divert from the main course to use them, and the longer it took to perform the more time they would lose) and that a full charge would be delivered. Carl had been practicing with that for the past couple of days. The energy demands of the course were such that at least one such refuelling would be necessary.
She began to go over the course in her mind, scaling the threats according to time. The first –
"Pardon me, Captain Austin."
The voice had come from behind her, space that should have been completely empty, and accompanying the voice was a buzzing undertone that sent shivers up her spine. She whirled.
Standing no more than ten meters from her was a shape in the black robes of a Shadeweaver. But unlike the vaguely humanoid Shadeweaver she had encountered before, even the loose-fitting robes here could not conceal the crablike body and upright torso beneath, the seven leg-ridges and bulges in the upper area leaving no doubt that the thing in front of her was a Molothos. "What the hell are you doing here? I thought –"
"—That the Arena excluded all others besides the racers, their support, and Advocates from this area. Yes. But the powers of the Shadeweavers are not so easily set aside, not even for the Arena." The creature made no move towards her, but she shuddered again at the underlying sound and the semi-arachnoid outline she could make out under the curiously weightless cloak. "We can… perhaps not trick the Arena, but bargain with it, convince it to avert its gaze or to allow a door to remain open, a connection to remain accessible." Something in her posture must have finally become recognizable to it, for as it began to step forward it suddenly stopped and then stepped back.
"My apologies for upsetting you. It was not my intent to do so; indeed, I came to wish you good fortune."
What the hell are you up to? she wondered. "Well… that's very nice, but why here and now? For that matter, why at all?"
"Here and now, because the Shadeweavers do not, of course, publicly take sides in most conflicts, either Challenges or other. Therefore, only in privacy may I express these sentiments."
The fighting-claws emerged from under the cloak through unseen slits, made a strange crossing gesture that rocked back and forth. "Also, because I wish to both… apologize and warn you."
"As far as I know," she said warily, "I haven't encountered you at all before. And I have to say that I thought the Molothos were… a lot less polite overall than you."
A buzz translated as a chuckle. "It is even so, that my people do not speak kindly or well to others. Indeed, I am by their standards utterly mad, lacking the attachment to our people that most possess; from their point of view, I am a sociopath. Odd, is it not, that empathy and concern for other species is, to my people, what a lack of empathy and concern is to most others? Yet this is the price I have paid for the power of a Shadeweaver. In my mind, when I took the Oaths, their mutterings of leaving others behind were just that, mutterings of a deluded and inferior kind who simply had access to a power I did not; and with that power in my claws, I would then bring it to my people.
"Others with similar plans usually fail in their deception, or cannot complete the training; some simply die upon attempting their first… manifestation of power. Why I did not is unclear, even to many meditations of vision. But survive I did, though not as I was; instead the universe opened before me, and I saw my people through other eyes, and my own eye was shamed for the sights it had seen, and nearly I tore it from my head; but instead I opened it wide to see all that had never been seen by my people."
The Molothos Shadeweaver crabstepped sidewise. "But I waste your time in this. True, you have not met me; but others of my Guild you have, and they have an … interest in your people. I do not know all that they intend, for while there are basic rules that guide our actions, we are not a faction in the same sense as many. We can act independently for many reasons, and even within the Guild may be webs within webs. Amas-Garao and his clique have some plan involving your people, perhaps even more focused upon one or two of you."
"That's the name of the one who spoke with me?"
"Yes. So I offer an apology, for those who have already attempted to channel you through a canyon of their own, and a warning that such will continue. I know little of what they intend, but I do know that we have long sensed turmoil approaching; portents have been clouded and difficult to read, and even charts of probability have been confused. The direction of the Survivor was one of the few clear indicia, yet its results… were unknown until the very event."
Ariane blinked. "The direction of the Survivor… you mean that Orphan was sent to us?"
"Did you not know… but I see, of course you did not. Yes, it is clear. Now I understand. Good luck again, Ariane Austin. You shall be in need of it."
"Wait a minute!" she said, stepping forward despite her inherent squeamishness. But even as the creature stepped backward, the shadows seemed to simply grow heavier, obscuring, blending with the black robes… and then the light strengthened, and there was nothing but shadow under Skylark's rearmost wing.
Dammit but I hate that! And right before the race? And what the hell is going on with Orphan?
A quick thought showed she had only two minutes left. And with all this crap, I'm going to have a hard time getting in the groove. I wonder if that was the real point, and all the rest was just smoke and mirrors?
"Fine," she said to the empty room. "I'm still going to win this race!"
And even here, the plot can thicken.