So Ariane had won the race, but how do our alien friends see it?
"Why? WHY?" Sethrik's translated voice echoed the clear shakiness of his posture. "Ariane Austin of Humanity, if ever I or any of the Blessed gave you reason to believe our price would be so high, so great and terrible, I apologize, in the name of the Six I abjectly and completely apologize!" He dropped to the formal bow-pushup posture and remained there for a long moment.
Ariane was taken aback. She was sure that Sethrik's reaction was genuine, his regret as real as it was confusing. "But…"
The chosen of the Blessed leapt upright. "Only one thing would we have demanded, Captain Austin, only that you abandon your relationship with this… traitor." He gestured contemptuously at Orphan, whose posture somehow conveyed a mocking smile. "Nothing worth the death of the leader of a faction!"
"Sethrik, please…" she was touched by the alien's concern. Though this reaction more than ever showed her the horror of the Blessed To Serve, for she had no doubt now that Sethrik really was just as much a person as any other in the Arena, yet he served the Minds, who had also beyond doubt efficiently, effectively, and deliberately enslaved his entire species. "… please, think no more of it. Really."
She suddenly realized that she had to be very careful what she said here. The advantage they had deduced… Sethrik's reaction confirmed it, in spades, and there was no reason to tell them about it. "I… I admit to being influenced by what I knew, and as Orphan has been our friend since our arrival… I did rather expect some terrible price."
Carl glanced at her oddly, but his face abruptly cleared in understanding. "You were still crazy to take it to that level, Ariane," he said, playing along.
"Then my apologies as well, Captain Austin," Orphan said quickly, in a somewhat shaken voice. "If my tales of the Blessed caused you to take risks to such extremes, truly I apologize for painting so terribly black a picture. Sethrik and I are enemies, yes, but he is no monster in truth."
Their reactions – with Nyanthus still almost frozen in sympathetic shock over the sequence of events – simply confirmed everything she'd suspected. They seriously – for some reason she didn't yet understand – did not take large risks unless forced into it. The times she'd been catching up to Sethrik or passing him were when she was making maneuvers which were, to her, acceptably risky, but were well outside of his comfort zone. So from their point of view… if they had realized that she had simply taken the risk because she refused to LOSE, they'd think her a total lunatic, the sort of person who'd randomly tapdance through a field of landmines because someone dared them to. And this was the sort of person leading a faction? She barely restrained a giggle, which would probably not have gone over well, but it was pretty funny, trying to see this from their point of view. "Apologies accepted, and accept mine as well, for frightening you so for what was clearly no adequate reason save that in my mind."
Orphan sighed, relaxing his posture. "Well, then, no matter what choices or reasons, it is clear that the Challenge was won, and won fairly, by Humanity. Are there any dissenting voices to be heard?"
Nyanthus' translated voice was somewhat faint at first, but soon returned to its strong baritone. "I… I cannot dissent, Orphan. Clearly she landed well in advance of Sethrik's vessel, and just as clearly she complied with all rules and all requirements of the course."
"So I can claim our prize now?" Ariane asked, tensely. This could be it!
"There is no doubt of it." Sethrik said reluctantly. "Though depending on your claim, it may require more or less time to grant, though never too long – such, as I believe you know, is enforced by the Arena."
She grinned. "Then, in that case, I know what I – what we all want. Ever since we arrived, in fact, we –"
Orphan was suddenly at her side, cutting her off. "I beg your indulgence for a moment; allow me to speak with the Captain in private."
She stared at him through narrowed eyes, remembering the most recent revelation. "Can't you wait a couple seconds?"
"We need to talk immediately, Captain," he whispered. "I promise you, it is desperately important."
Interrupting me NOW? Fine. "Very well. Is the launch bay still available and private enough for my Advocate," she allowed a certain ironic emphasis to come through on the title, "to speak with me there?"
Sethrik looked mildly annoyed at the interruption, having evidently steeled himself to accept whatever – probably high – price Ariane had been about to demand, and now having to wait around for it. "I believe so. Be quick about it, if you may."
Nyanthus agreed that the launch bay should be sufficient, and so she allowed Orphan to lead her there.
As soon as the doors were fully shut, she whirled. "You lying son of a bitch!"
The Survivor was totally taken aback by her vehemence. "No, Ariane Austin, I assure you, I really do have something important –"
"I'm not talking about whatever bug you've got up your ass right now, Orphan! I'm talking about our first – our very first – encounter. That was a goddamn setup from the word go. You came to us deliberately – you were sent to us. Weren't you?"
She saw Orphan freeze, like a man emerging into a lethal crossfire. "H… how…?" he finally managed.
"I had a visitor. A Shadeweaver. A Molothos Shadeweaver. And he said that you had been directed."
"Minds and Manipulation!" was the translation of the obvious curse Orphan gave. He was silent for a moment, then with a humanlike sigh he seemed to give up, slumped down on the deck. "It … is true. But not exactly as you envision it, Ariane Austin. I have never… precisely… lied to you."
"What you told us was true… 'from a certain point of view', then?" she said, quoting the ancient line.
"Hm? Yes, I suppose that is an excellently sarcastic… yet I will admit, accurate… way to phrase it. From a certain point of view." Orphan's wings scissored halfheartedly. "Captain… Ariane… you must understand, please. I am indeed a formidable individual in my own way, as are many of you; perhaps more so than many. But I am alone. I have been alone for a very, very long time, and though I have – through a myriad of little tricks, subterfuges, carefully chosen alliances, and such – managed to stay a few steps ahead of the Blessed, no being can fight hundreds of billions alone forever.
"The Shadeweavers and I… have had dealings in the past. Generally good ones, for mutual benefit. But I owed them something from favors granted… well, some centuries back. A few of them came to me, some time ago, and offered me what seemed a marvelous deal; they would consider all my debts squared, and themselves even slightly in my debt, if I would permit them to perform a particular, shall we say, ritual upon me. They said that it would allow them a 'glimpse of the patterns of destiny', by which I suspect they mean probable future events, and that doing it around my specific person was of especial value because I am, and have been, the only faction of note to ever be composed of a single and singular individual."
"I don't believe in magic, Orphan."
"Oh, no more do I. Or I would prefer not to. Still, what they do, it has much of the air of magic about it." Orphan rose slowly, still without his usual jauntily assured air. "At the end of the ritual, they told me that my fortunes were nearing an end, and that the Blessed would soon catch me. But that there was one path that would possibly offer the Liberated salvation, if I had the courage to attempt it, and if I was strong enough to survive what it would demand of me. Part of that was to follow their direction at a specific time."
Ariane nodded. "Go on."
"There is, I am afraid, little more of substance to tell. They told me, at the appropriate time, that I was to flee to Transition when next the Blessed were close upon me with sufficient justification to capture, and to trust to the random fall of chance as I passed through the Gateway. Their advice seemed foolish, though perhaps no worse than desperation might suggest to me, but I had agreed to follow their direction, and follow it I did."
On a hunch, Ariane said, "But that wasn't the last of what they told you, was it?"
Orphan spread his hands and looked apologetic, somehow. "You have the measure of me, I see. There is… a small amount more. But I may not tell you, at this time."
"And you don't want me to tell anyone else, do you? Especially Marc."
"I think it would be most inconvenient for me, and perhaps others, yes."
She studied him for a long moment, and she could see that her silent, motionless gaze unnerved him almost as much as the equivalent did for her. "All right," she said finally. "But you owe me, Orphan, and one day – maybe real soon – I'm going to demand you pay up."
Orphan gave a bob-bow. "Understood, Captain Austin."
She sighed. I hate this tapdancing. And I really wish I hadn't learned this about Orphan, because I was getting to trust him. Like him, actually.
Of course, maybe that was the whole point of the Shadeweaver's visit. Not a slip of the tongue at all, but the entire purpose of his visit.
Damn, I'm starting to sound as paranoid as Marc. "Now… I almost forgot. Did you really have something to say to me about the payment?"
"Oh, very much so, Captain Austin. I believe you were about to make a mistake – one founded, I expect, in yet another failure of my own in communicating certain complexities to you."
As he explained, Ariane felt her face get tighter and grimmer. Makes sense. And boy, is everyone not going to like this one.
And what could be the problem here...?