So Ariane has to come home in triumph...
The area before the Gate of Challenges was crowded. "Is it like this after every Challenge, Mandallon?" DuQuesne asked.
"Oh, certainly not after every Challenge, Doctor DuQuesne!" the young Initiate Guide assured him. "Now, give room, all of you!" He muttered something in what sounded like the supposed Voidbuilder language, and from nowhere a miniature whirlwind manifested, irresistably yet harmlessly shoving back the crowd, making a space around the gathered party of humans and the associated Blessed. Unlike us, DuQuesne observed with a wry grin, the Blessed To Serve don't look particularly eager. Given how they lost, that's not surprising.
The Gate of Challenges was the entrance to most of the third level of Nexus Arena, and in fact so far DuQuesne and the others hadn't seen much else of the third level. It was a huge, elaborately carved entryway which did have ceremonial gates – on actual hinges – but which was, according to Mandallon, never closed. Through the entryway was a truly stupendous, curved hall with dozens of corridors leading off from it, radiating out like the spokes of half a wheel; set back from these corridors, and about one for every three corridors, were Gateways similar to the Inner Gateways seen on the Spheres and in Transition, Nexus Arena's foyer area.
"Most challenges are actually held here, inside of Nexus Arena." Mandallon continued. "And there is often quite a bit of competition for seats to observe the Challenge live, when it involves any sort of exciting action. The next time such a Challenge occurs – which does not involve your people, of course –" he gave the flip-flop filter gesture that served his people for a smile, "— ask First Guide Nyanthus to assure you seats. It is very worth attending if you enjoy watching competitive contests."
"So in that case we'd be seeing a lot of people trooping out of one or more of those corridors," Laila said, pointing, "And possibly, if they were waiting to greet contestants or something of that nature, they would have done so in the sub-Arena where the contest took place. Yes?"
"That's right, Doctor C—"
"Mandallon, I've told you, please call me Laila."
"I'm sorry, Laila. It is a habit, to retain titles – believe me, if one is training to become an Initiate Guide, it is exceedingly poor form to address your own instructors in too familiar a manner!"
"Sounds rather like some professors I knew," Laila said. "Still, after you brought me back from what might as well have been the dead, you have the right to address me by my own name, and 'Doctor Canning'… just sounds too coldly formal."
DuQuesne was still not sure what to make of Laila Canning. She certainly wasn't the same as she'd been prior to their arrival in the Arena, but no one had really known her that well; it was certainly possible that some of the difference was due to change of circumstances. And as she herself noted, going through the trauma she had could definitely rearrange your priorities and views. And in many ways she was the same; the same quick mind, the lack of concern with appearances (though always terribly neat and precise), the same fascination with scientific opportunities.
"But now," Simon said, returning to the original conversation, "as the contestants here left through one of those teleportation-style gateways, everyone has to wait for them to come back through here."
"And by tradition and practicality," Relgof put in from his place next to Simon, "the crowds are excluded from congregating in the hallway before the corridors; this prevents such traffic from too badly impeding the activities of other Challenges."
There was a pearlescent flash, and suddenly six figures stood before the central teleport-Gateway.
"Ariane!" Gabrielle and Simon shouted simultaneously. DuQuesne started forward, but the others were actually running; he saw Simon catch up Ariane and spin her around in a bearhug that almost caused them both to fall on the floor. "You did it, you crazy woman, you are utterly completely insane, do you know that, baka!" Simon laughed. Gabrielle hugged Ariane without waiting for Simon to detach, and snagged Carl into the scrum. DuQuesne felt a momentary pang of isolation, but ignored it. Best that way. Even Laila beat him to the group, although by then they were separating a bit.
"Well flown, Captain. Though I may have to agree with Simon's evaluation of your mental stability."
"Why, Marc, you say the sweetest things!" Ariane's smile was bright, but… there was something slightly off about it. He doubted anyone else could spot it… but in the following babble of people rehashing the race, of Ariane recounting events from her point of view, exclamations of surprise, and other such predictable interactions as they made their way back to the second level of Nexus Arena and the Embassy, he only became more certain. She was certainly proud of her victory, and she was enjoying the verbal celebration, but Ariane Austin was hiding something unpleasant… which really worried him. Following such a victory, there shouldn't be anything unpleasant, or at least nothing new, to put a damper on her spirits.
The mysterious appearance of a Shadeweaver – a Molothos Shadeweaver – certainly focused everyone's attention. But despite the detail of the encounter that Ariane recounted, DuQuesne became more and more certain that she was leaving something out. Subtle – she was damn good at that when she was prepared.
"So, when do we get to put the screws to old Sethrik?" Simon said, as they began to settle into comfortable chairs in one of the Embassy's meeting rooms.
This is it. DuQuesne could see the slight shift in her posture – and in Orphan's, now that he came to think of it. Something's gone wrong here.
"Already done." Ariane said after a moment.
"Already… You mean you were able to claim your prize right then and there?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "So are we going home?"
Ariane took a deep breath. "No."
The single word turned the air in the room to gray lead. For a moment, no one spoke. Finally, Simon said, "Ah. So the people we had spoken to prior to the actual race – like Mandallon – were over-optimistic when they said that such a challenge would be sufficient to win us the power we need?"
"Not… exactly," Ariane said reluctantly. "I could have gotten that, but…"
"It is entirely my fault," Orphan broke in. "Yet another minor detail I neglected to mention until I realized it was crucial."
"What 'minor detail' was this?" DuQuesne asked carefully, trying to keep the annoyance from his voice. True, he didn't entirely trust Orphan, but the alien had been accurate when previously he'd mentioned how difficult it was to figure out all of the different details that would be crucial to the newcomers and intuitively obvious and not even considered to those native to the Arena.
"You know, of course, that you must leave at least one of your own in your Sphere whenever you travel to the Arena. But it appears that I did not make it entirely clear that you must always have at least one person present in your Sphere, even when you are not in the Arena proper and are returning to the normal universe. If you do not – if you empty your Sphere for more than the most fleeting of moments – your attainments here are mostly for naught."
"Wait, wait," Gabrielle said in a scandalized voice, "you're saying that if all of us go home, we'll be right back to being First Emergents again?"
"In essence, yes, I am afraid so, Gabrielle. And in some ways worse off, as for those who have been here, yet retreated, there is no tradition protecting them as with true First Emergents."
"So none of the 'First is forgiven' business the second time around," DuQuesne said grimly. "Important thing to know. No exceptions?"
"Very few," Orphan responded. "You have one standing before you; as I am, myself, the entirety of my Faction – including the home solar system I can claim within our Sphere – it is clear that I would be physically prevented from participating in the Arena at all if I had to follow this ruling to the letter. Another exception is if, for example, you leave one person behind and that person dies. No consequences would accrue at that point, and you would have a reasonable amount of time – following your being apprised of the situation – to obtain a substitute."
"So instead of asking for the power to go home," Ariane continued, "after discussing the situation and options with Orphan I decided to have the Blessed pay – however they can – the Faith to secure our Sphere. That way if we leave two or more people behind, we can still maintain a presence in the Arena – since we have absolutely no idea, once we go back to Earth system, how long it will be before other people come back, and what they'll be looking to accomplish when they do – and we could also then safely have people like Dr. Relgof and Orphan and Nyanthus as guests."
"You decided this?" DuQuesne heard the question come out before he'd even realized he was going to say it, before he'd realized that there was considerable annoyance accompanying those words. "Without consulting us?"
"I'd already started to ask Sethrik for the prize, and Orphan stopped me just barely in time." Ariane looked annoyed by his tone. "Once it became clear to me that we had other issues to consider, I didn't see much point in forcing him to wait longer." She smiled faintly. "He was pretty shook up as it was."
"No offense, Ariane," Simon said slowly, "but Marc's surprise does have a bit of a point to it. This was a fairly important decision and if I understand you correctly you've made it already – that is, the wheels are already in motion and there would be no practical mechanism to reverse the decision, even if we were so inclined."
"That… is essentially the case, Doctor Sandrisson." Orphan answered, as Ariane was apparently trying to decide how to respond. "Mandallon, Dr. Relgof, perhaps we should leave our friends to discuss this matter."
The other aliens did not argue; with the translation facility of the Arena, the equivalent tones of expression had clearly made themselves heard. No one else wants to be present at a family squabble. The other humans were quiet until the three aliens had left.
"Carl, you're not saying anything," Gabrielle said.
The control engineer shrugged. "I was there, but … well, I never really thought about that angle. She made the decision, it was done, there it goes. But you're right she didn't spend much time consulting with me."
Ariane frowned at DuQuesne. "I think it's the right decision overall. And as you guys already said, it's no longer something we can change, so look on the positive side. We've been worried about that whole security issue ever since we arm-twisted Orphan into telling us what was going on when he tried to sneak in, so to speak. Now we don't need to worry so much."
"That isn't the issue here, Ariane. Leaving aside how well we can trust the security we get – and no, I'm not saying I think the Faith would screw us over, but it's still worth at least considering – the point is that you made a decision that affects us all without even giving us a chance to discuss it, put it to a vote." Without even consulting me, which for some reason really rankles. "We don't even know how a vote would've gone. Do any of us not want to go home?"
"Well," Laila said, "I wouldn't say never, but I have so much to learn here that I really wouldn't be particularly upset to be staying here a few years."
"Fine for you," Gabrielle said, "but frankly, I got myself plenty of reasons to want to get back. Doesn't mean I don't want to come back here right quick, but we've been gone and people that care about us must be worried sick, or even going through our funerals about now."
"Yeah." Carl scratched his head. "I hadn't really thought about that side for a while, but yeah, my family's probably real upset and so's Ashlyn, I'll bet." Ashlyn was Carl's on-again, off-again girlfriend; he'd mentioned her a couple of times but it was apparently a pretty relaxed relationship. "And you know, with Steve and Tom not even here, we should've waited until could go back and let them in on the talk."
"Well," Ariane said finally, with a tone that sounded like a person either picking their way through a field of landmines, or deciding whether to set one off, "I am sorry that you're all miffed over my making the decision, but that really is pretty much your fault, you know."
"What?" DuQuesne was caught off-guard by this statement.
"You stepped out of making the decisions about the whole party – all of you, remember? I've been Captain Austin ever since we ended up in this insane place, and you've all been telling me what a great job I've been doing – which at least half of you have made clear means, in part, 'boy, am I glad I don't have to do that stuff'."
She glared at DuQuesne. "It was made pretty damn clear that I don't make engineering decisions, because I'm no engineer, and I don't do any of your science work because I'm not a scientist. You people – not just one, not just two, but all of you – decided to call me Captain and put me in this position.
"Well, fine, then, I've gone ahead and been the Captain And until now you all seemed real happy with that. But if you didn't want me making the goddamn command decisions, you shouldn't have made me the goddamn Captain!"
DuQuesne wanted to immediately retort, but he stopped himself. He abruptly realized that part of the anger was simply selfish stupid pride; he should have been consulted, even if anyone else wasn't.
There was a tense silence following Ariane's outburst. Simon, characteristically, spoke first. "You… have a definite point, Ariane. If we aren't going to trust you to make such decisions, we shouldn't have let you think you should. And if that's the case, we shouldn't have a captain at all."
Gabrielle sighed. "And I don't think that would've worked out well before, so I'm not all that comfortable thinking we should do it that way now."
Ariane glanced around. "Maybe I should have asked you what choice to make. God knows I'm not saying I'm perfect. But the question is do I have the right and the authority to be the Captain, the boss, the chief, or not? And if not, we cut this farce out right now, and I kick back and let all you brains run things unless you need a pilot, because I sure as HELL am not going to get stuck with all the responsibility and the blame otherwise!"
"As far as I'm concerned," Carl said after a moment, "You're the Captain, and you had every right to make that decision. Even if some of us might disagree with it. And I want to go on record as saying we need someone to be Captain, and I don't know who else could do the job."
"I concur." Simon's nod was emphatic. "None of the rest of us – with the possible exception of Marc – are qualified for the position. So you were right, we were wrong to argue about it. Register our preferences, perhaps, but not argue after the fact."
"Like I said, I don't think we can afford to not have a Captain. A committee's a good way to end up with a lot of talk and no action." Gabrielle smiled, and Ariane smiled back.
DuQuesne realized that now everyone was looking at him. Laila seemed to be exempting herself from the proceedings, mostly because she'd only been conscious a short time and probably didn't feel qualified to judge. He shifted slightly, then grunted. "We… do need someone who can make decisions. Not someone who's going to be second-guessed and blamed for anything that comes afterwards. You were right, I was wrong." And I can't believe how hard it is to say that! The original DuQuesne had no trouble admitting his mistakes, and I thought I was better than him. I HOPED I was better.
But even as he thought that, he knew the truth. The "real" DuQuesne wasn't a human being, really, didn't have someone that he cared about so much that their opinion of him actually mattered. Someone that it hurt to admit that he'd wronged.
He stood up, hammering emotion back and feeling the sour taste of swallowed pride. "No offense, Captain. I… need to step out for a bit. But you are the Captain, and you had the right to make that decision, and I… I had no right to protest in the manner that I did."
He turned and walked out swiftly.
Well, at least certain issues got settled, even if it was somewhat less than harmonious...