Of course, our OTHER Heroes have no idea that there could be a Problem...
Ariane found DuQuesne's departure upsetting – something that surprised her, as he was clearly doing it just to cool off, and mainly because he'd been… well, speaking honestly, something of a jerk. Of all the people present, he should have known what he was doing when he made her Captain.
Because, looking back on it, it really had been DuQuesne's doing. He could have taken that position any time, and he hadn't wanted it, and he'd made sure that his pick for the job got stuck into it. Without making it obvious that he was the real driving force.
Well, what do you expect? He's a superman. Best of breed, too, if the story is halfway accurate.
Which did make it all the more ridiculous that he'd screwed up so badly in this little argument. But enough of the musing – everyone was looking at each other with sort of deer-in-the-headlights stares. "Okay, Marc's gone to get some air, and we've settled that argument, right?" Ariane caught everyone's gaze. "Right? No more doubts about my being in charge?" Well, none but my own, but that's my problem, not theirs.
"None whatsoever, Ariane." Simon said, speaking for the others. "I'm quite sure that Steve and Tom will agree. Steve has, of course, worked for you for years, like Carl here, and Tom trusts your judgment."
"Well, in that case," she said, deliberately injecting more energy into her voice, "I think a celebration is in order!"
Carl leaped up with a grin. "Now there is an order I can get behind!"
"Well, before we get too far, might I have a word with you, Ariane?" Simon asked.
"As long as it's not another emergency. I don't want any of those for a while."
Simon laughed. "Oh, I would hope we've exhausted our quota for the week, at least. Actually, I was going to invite you to join me for dinner, unless you were dead-set on a party here. I've found a restaurant on the Arcade which is excellent at catering to biologies like ours, and as Steve generously donated a large chunk of his winnings to permit us to receive our pay here in actually useful form, I wanted to spend a bit of that doing something entertaining."
Ariane almost missed the real point of Simon's invitation; she was on the verge of asking the others if they wanted to come along when she remembered certain prior exchanges. I think Simon's asking me out on a date.
Why do some men have such terrible timing? Right now I'm in the mood for a rowdy celebration, if I'm going to do anything at all. After that race and this argument, I'm sure not in a romantic mood… but I sure don't want to just shoot him down.
She was saved by the door rolling slightly open. "Captain Austin?" came the rough voice of Relgof. "We saw Doctor DuQuesne leave in what seemed something of a hurry, and wondered if there was a problem."
She held up a hand to Simon as if to say "hold on", and then turned to the door. "Come in, Doctor. And Orphan, and Mandallon, as I presume you all were waiting in the guest conference room to see what happened."
"She seems to know us well, my friends," Orphan said, striding in as the door finished opening.
"It is true, Orphan. I am afraid that I am revealed to be insufferably curious." Mandallon conceded. "But it is the way of a priest to be concerned with the doings of the world."
"Don't worry about it; we've all done the same kind of thing, I'm sure." Ariane said. "Excuse me a second, would you?"
She moved over to Simon. "Simon… I don’t think the schedule's good for that right now. Given the circumstances. But that's not a no, okay?"
"You are a master of it, Doctor Sandrisson. The first time you flirted with me, we ended up here. The second time, we were still in emergency mode. And whenever I win a race – or get in an argument – I want something rowdy with lots of people to blow off steam."
The elegant, long-fingered hand came up and brushed the snow-white hair from Simon's face, and he smiled. "Then I hereby resolve not to wait until the next emergency, but to wait for the very next quiet moment and ask again."
"Thanks. Now, if your restaurant can handle an actual party we might still benefit from your explorations!"
"I can certainly check. Mairakag Achan!" he called to the air. A green ball appeared, but surrounded by a sparkle of red that showed that the call was inconvenient at the moment – the equivalent of letting one's phone signal occasionally but not answering. As it was a restauraunt, Simon simply waited. A few moments later the sparkle disappeared. "The voice and cadence… if memory serves me correctly, this is Doctor Simon Sandrisson of Humanity! What can my kitchen do for you, Doctor?"
"Well, I won't be needing the special we discussed quite yet; however, we have a celebration for our recent Challenge win starting, and the question was asked whether your establishment would accommodate a perhaps noisy group of celebrants?"
The unseen alien's translated voice was rich and deep, as was his chuckle. "While I enjoy such celebrations myself as well, my own establishment is designed to focus on the experience of dining as only Nexus Arena can make possible. But I can recommend several excellent alternatives, Doctor Sandrisson."
"I believe I know a perfect choice," Relgof said.
"Dr. Relgof! Of course, you would indeed, as a patron of many of our establishments. Follow the Analytic's advice, Dr. Sandrisson, for they do indeed perform their research!" The green ball vanished.
Simon looked slightly disappointed, but cheered up visibly when Ariane leaned over to him. "Never mind, Simon; this way you can treat me to a place I won't have seen before."
"So desu," he agreed with a smile.
The entire group headed en masse toward the doors. It struck Ariane suddenly how she was actually getting used to this – which immediately made her recognize how strange the picture before her was: Carl, Gabrielle, herself, Simon, and Laila, walking in a group with and talking to two tall, slender six-fingered creatures with beardlike filters and an even taller, massive, insectoid creature with black beetleish wingcases, two curved crests at the sides of its head, and a disquietingly nearly-human face. How quickly we adapt, if we're only willing to be open to the possibilities. Maybe we will make it here in the Arena.
The place Relgof picked was closer to a nightclub than a simple restaurant… and the easy familiarity with which he walked them through and picked out a subdivision of the club which had tolerable ambience and food for all in the party indicated that, indeed, the alien scientist was familiar with the establishment. There were a fair variety of alien species present, including some of Relgof and Mandallon's people. It seemed that at least some other species enjoyed very similar entertainments to humanity, which was another reassuring part of this venture.
Carl caught her eye. "Hey, Cap'n. Let's enjoy ourselves, but not like we did at Hanover Station."
"What happened at Hanover Station?" asked Simon quickly.
"Oh, the same thing that happened after the Mars Cup when we stopped off at Phobos Hab, and that happened at Kanzaki-Two after the Photon Limited, and –"
"CARL!" The tone in her voice brought him up short. Dammit, I have to even watch out for people joking around. I sure hope he gets it… She saw him wince and settle back.
"Don't be a spoilsport, Arrie. And what was it that happened, Carl? Stop with the suspense, don't taunt your medic."
"Um… never mind." Carl had clearly realized that talking about her… tradition of ending up in a post-race brawl would end up possibly giving away more about Humanity's risk-taking habits.
The others, especially the aliens, stared in curiosity for a moment, but then realized that, whatever they'd been talking about, it wasn't going to be discussed further. She saw Laila raise an eyebrow, then nod to herself, and Simon showed a similar expression. I think they've got it too.
A waiter came by and managed to get orders from all of them – though it took the humans some time to figure out what was and was not safe. Ariane studied the crowd. If she had understood things right, this was the sort of establishment, back home, that would be pretty rowdy. And – for the aliens she'd met – it did seem somewhat rougher. But compared to the way a human bar would be, this was a genteel drawing room. It's got to be that risk thing again. There's a chance of being really hurt in a brawl, and they just won't take that kind of chance if they aren't forced to.
Simon was seated next to Mandallon, across from her and Relgof; this seemed to spark something in his mind, because he suddenly turned to the young Initiate Guide. "Mandallon, it just occurred to me that there is something we keep meaning to ask you."
Oh yes. "Thanks for remembering, Simon. It's been weeks now and I still kept forgetting it."
Mandallon gave a fluttering gesture. "So tell me of this thing you keep forgetting."
"When the First Guide Nyanthus greeted us upon our arrival," Simon began, "he was very courteous, as usual, but he did say one thing that was quite odd. He said…" there was a pause, as Simon obviously was consulting his headware to make sure he got the wording exactly right, "… 'in the seventh turning of yesterday's light that I saw this place, and knew you would come. Perhaps they are the ones?'
"So naturally, we have wondered exactly who 'the ones' are."
"Who… oh, but of course, you would not know, would you?" Mandallon laughed, then took a breath and brushed his fingers back and forth contemplatively across the filter-beard. "I suppose you still know little of the beliefs of the Faith, really."
Ariane smiled. "I have to presume your religion is at least as complex as one of ours, and it would take me a lot longer than a few weeks of casual contact to understand one of those. I know that you see the Arena itself as a manifestation of the Divine."
Mandallon chuckled, a sound in translation that was rather like his mentor Nyanthus'. "As Simon might say of my understanding of physics, that is… at best a vast oversimplification. But true enough.
"As with many other religions I have studied, from a hundred different worlds, we have our own … prophecies? Foretellings? Beliefs, in any case, in things that are to come. One of the most important – perhaps the most important – is that one day we shall pass the tests of faith and skill and will that the Arena presents us, and come to the Canajara."
Ariane blinked. "That word didn't translate."
"No more did my name," Relgof pointed out, "save perhaps only to become pronounceable. Word concepts that are specific yet have no direct equivalent are translated only as names are. The names of foods or creatures, for instance."
"And a few which have many equivalent meanings, such as 'Sandrisson Drive'," Mandallon continued, with the multiplicity of subliminal words underneath the last phrase emphasizing his point, "are translated as many-in-one. The Canajara is… the Meeting of the Ultimate, the Choice of Path, the End and Beginning that may be. It is the time we strive for, and also what we fear most."
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I think I begin to see. When you reach the end of Faith, you believe that there is a great moment of choice, a potential for the greatest glory or complete defeat, as in my ancestors' Ragnarok."
"An end-of-the-world? Mmmm… or the attainment of all worlds. Yes. But the Faith will not reach the Canajara alone. It is said that there will one day be newcomers, First Emergents, who will lead the Arena's people to the Canajara, with the Faith but not always of it. They will have followed the path of the Creators even before they knew the Arena; they will be set amongst the Factions, though none will have Challenged them. The Blessing of the Arena will be upon them, and nothing to which they turn their hands – for good or evil – shall they fail at for long. And for good or evil none shall say, for the Sevenfold Path they tread in both directions, and they shall be exalted in light and terror." Mandallon's voice held a note of recitation, of speaking ancient words whose true meanings still were unknown.
"That doesn't sound all that fun. I hope it will be a long time before these people show up," Ariane said. "I suppose you might be able to shoehorn us into part of those prophecies, but other parts don't really fit, or are so vague that they'd fit anyone."
Mandallon's filter-beard flipflopped apologetically. "Alas, Captain Austin, is it not the way of prophecies to be difficult to understand? They are hints and warnings, not roadmaps of the future. Yet there is much, much more in the teachings, far more than the, hmmm, simple summary that I gave you, which is part of what all the followers know. As an Initiate, and now Initiate Guide, I studied the visions far more deeply as I progressed along the Sevenfold Path."
"What is the Sevenfold Path, by the way? Another little thing I never asked."
"At least that is something I can answer more clearly, Captain Austin!" Mandallon seemed pleased. "I have spoken at some length with Laila, of course, and found that your people have some related concepts – especially a listing of – what was it… ah, yes, the Seven Deadly Sins. We believe that there are seven basic facets of a true soul which exalt us – the Seven Keys of Creation – and seven opposing facets which debase us, make us less than we were, the Seven Keys of Destruction.
"So the Sevenfold Way, then, is the Faith's … ritual schooling, path of learning, to emphasize the Seven Keys of Creation within us, and to reduce or eliminate from us those of destruction. The Seven Keys of Creation, what you might call virtues I suppose, are Compassion, Wisdom, Courage, Trust, Dedication, Generosity, and Wonder. Their opposites, respectively, are Hatred, Prejudice, Fear, Betrayal, Apathy, Arrogance, and Cynicism."
"Wisdom the opposite of Prejudice?" Ariane took a sip of her new drink – noting with pleasure that it managed to burn its way down her throat while also echoing the scent and sweetness of exotic flowers – and thought about that. "I wouldn't have thought of that. But… yes, I suppose I can see it. Wisdom in the sense of looking for true understanding, versus prejudice in the sense of assuming you already know and can judge everything."
"Precisely so, Captain! And well worded, I will say, for one who had not thought of the Key-Pairing before." Mandallon seemed to beam at her.
"Be careful, Captain Austin," Relgof said warningly, but with a flutter and glance that implied a wide grin, "show too much insight of that level, and you may find yourself an Initiate as well!"
The others laughed, and this seemed to her a good time to move to a more pressing subject, while everyone was in a good mood. She turned to Dr. Relgof. "Doctor, there is something quite important I want to ask you. While I've had answers from other people, I think I'd like one more opinion from what may be the most unbiased source in the Arena."
The filter-beard flip-flopped as a rough chuckle resounded from behind it. "Ahh, Captain, a scientist does attempt to avoid bias, and yet I could not say there are none, either within my own mind nor those of the Analytic. Yet it may well be true that we are the least interested directly in the petty politics of the Arena. What is your question?"
"As you know – from our little discussion earlier, before you, Orphan, and Mandallon absented yourselves – I have requested that the Blessed pay the fee – whatever it may be – to have the Faith secure our Sphere. Meaning no offense to our good friend Mandallon… can we trust that this ritual, or whatever it is, will truly be secure?"
Mandallon did look somehow slightly hurt, but said nothing, as Relgof responded, "Indeed a wise question to ask, here in the Arena. How to answer it in a way that conveys the correct meaning, yet is precise… well, allow me to answer merely in the fashion of a true scientist. There is, as far as I am aware, no way to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are no, how might it be put…"
"…Backdoors?" suggested Simon.
"Backdoors! An excellent word! Yes, no way to be absolutely certain that there are no backdoors within the rituals. Yet, this can be said for certain: that never have I heard, or read, or even heard rumor of, the security of a Sphere being violated once secured by Shadeweaver or Faith. I have heard, yes, of people who had specified incorrect conditions of security, which had ways that they could be exploited by others, but never of an actual failure of security," Relgof said, picking up one of his appetizers, a misty greenish liquid in a peculiar container that seemed like a cross between a soup bowl and a faceplate. As the Analytic scientist took a deep draft of the liquid, she understood the design; the soup or whatever it was – ocean water? she suddenly guessed – passed through the filter-beard and then poured back out, far clearer and lighter in color, to disappear downward through a tube attached to the container. Relgof's filter-beard then flip-flopped a few times, presumably allowing him to actually eat whatever had been strained from the liquid.
"So," the scientist continued, "I can offer to you only the fact that in many, many tens of thousands of years, there is no clear evidence of any failure ever occurring – even when such a failure might well have been to the benefit of the securing faction."
Well, that does relieve me some. It was clear we needed some kind of security on the Sphere, and we will have to have other people from the Arena travel to Earth, probably often, as time goes on. I'm sure we'll try to set up our own security, but without Arena-level security there was no telling what tricks or traps might be waiting for us.
I’ll just have to talk to DuQuesne when he gets back about just what conditions to arrange, so we don't have any of those loopholes Relgof mentioned.
As though summoned by her thought, a green ball abruptly materialized before her. "Ariane!" came DuQuesne's voice, filled with a grim urgency she had never heard before, not even at the worst times, and at the same time with a hard eagerness she'd also never imagined. "Ariane, I'm in –"
The green ball vanished.
She was on her feet now, as was Carl. "Heard his voice like that before," Carl said, answering her unspoken question. "When we were cornered by the Molothos."
"Marc!" she called. "Marc, answer me!"
But no green flickered. "Arena, connect me with Dr. Marc DuQuesne! Marc!" There was no response, no hint of a connection.
What's going on? This has worked everywhere in the Arena, and everyone I've talked to has said how reliable it is. The Arena simply doesn't fail…
… Unless someone is messing with it. And that means…
"Orphan." She gestured and the last of the Liberated stood – slowly, as though he suspected what she was about to say. "Orphan, I'm collecting on that debt you owe me. In full."
The black eyes, touched behind with ruby-red, studied her a moment. "What do you ask of me?"
"Help me get DuQuesne. I know where he is… except I bet I can't find it. But you can. Because you know exactly where he is."
Orphan took a step backwards. "W… what do you mean?" His hands almost unconsciously flicked outward, again and again. No. No. No.
"Only two groups could possibly be shutting off the Arena's little network: the Faith, who have no reason to do this, and the Shadeweavers, who might very well." She dragged him to the side, keeping the others from following with a savage cutting gesture that needed no translation even for Relgof and Mandallon. "You worked for the Shadeweavers. You know where their Faction House is. Don't you?"
"You are truly, utterly mad. You intend to go to the Shadeweaver Faction House and think you can somehow… argue? Compel? them to yield up DuQuesne? It will not work! You have no conception of these beings! What they can do!"
"You're three thousand years old, Orphan. You have to have some trick, something to help bring the odds down, even if they still suck."
"Even if I do… Please, Captain Austin, do not do this! They will not kill your friend, I am sure! Just wait –"
"I am not waiting. He called me because he is in trouble, and as his Captain – as well as his friend – I'm going. The only question, Orphan, is whether you're going to back out on what you agreed you owed me, or not."
The green-black coloration was definitely paler, faded by the stress. Orphan looked genuinely panicked, like a man trapped between two raging fires. "Please! Captain Austin, I cannot do such a thing!"
"Then your word is worthless?"
Orphan's mouth closed. His wingcases snapped shut. He stood for a moment, staring into her eyes.
Then he slowly forced his body to unbend, to stand upright. "No, Captain Austin. If this is your requirement, then I shall fulfill my promise. You will accept that if I can offer you any assistance in this matter, then my debt is paid in full?"
Orphan closed his eyes; she heard a whoosh as his breathing organs took in a huge breath. Then the eyes opened, and his posture shifted. It was still stiff… but it was much more the Orphan she knew. "Then let us be off; if Dr. DuQuesne was indeed in trouble, we cannot afford to wait."
"Carl, you're coming with us. So's Gabrielle – but you stay in the back, understand? Simon, you get yourself and Laila back to the Embassy right away. Relgof, Mandallon, I'm sorry –"
The two simply stared at her. "You cannot go against the Shadeweavers. They will destroy you – or more likely simply humiliate you, then demand a price for your continued survival."
"Maybe," Ariane said, heading for the door. "But they'll also learn that you don't attack one of us without having to deal with all of us."
Hold on, Marc! We're coming!
Well, NOW they do.