Now Ariane has some difficult questions...
"Arena," Ariane said to the empty air of her own room in the Embassy of Humanity, "I have serious questions with respect to the operation of a new Faction, and it would seem unwise to trust other Factions for the answers. Will you speak?"
She knew from experience that the Arena – or whatever intelligence controlled it – would rarely speak on its own, and even if addressed directly would only speak if the request fit whatever unknown, mysterious set of rules that guided its behavior. She waited, tensely, for an answer that might not come.
A moment passed. Two.
"Speak." The voice was quiet, yet something about it echoed and resonated like a shout.
Well, at least I know it heard me. Aloud, she said, "Is it possible for my people to force me to abandon the position of Leader – I mean, in the sense that they could pass a law or something?" She winced. What a marvelously well-spoken leader Humanity has! 'Pass a law or something'? What are you, ten?
The Arena's voice did not show any particular reaction, neither of annoyance nor of amusement, to her clumsy phrasing. "No. If you do not wish to relinquish leadership of the Faction, no political mechanism may remove you from that position unless you, personally, have agreed to that mechanism."
"Besides my deliberately relinquishing my leadership, what general ways are there which could remove me from that position?"
"Death," the Arena replied immediately. "The leader of a Faction must be a living being; no symbolic leaders, no religious symbols with no living manifestation, or other substitutes for an individual are permitted."
"You mean that each Faction has to have a single person in charge? Not a, say, committee?"
"That is correct. They may be selected by various means, but at any given time there is a single leader." As she digested that and its implications, the Arena continued. "Besides death, any event which makes the leader effectively dead; brain-death, for example. Joining another Faction automatically negates leadership. If a specific procedure has been established for a Faction, there may be mechanisms to remove the Leader from power."
"Can I designate an… heir, so to speak, if I get killed or as good as dead?"
Ariane froze, mouth open in what would undoubtedly have been a hysterically funny double-take if anyone else had been there to see it. She had been so certain the answer would be yes… "No? I can't? But I thought I could step down for anyone I chose?"
"You may make your final act as the Leader of the Faction to be the selection of your successor," the Arena said, "but if you are already dead your orders have no force. Nor do the orders of others."
"So DuQuesne was right," she muttered. "It'll chose the new leader, and we have no way of knowing who that is." She sighed. So much for the easy route. I'm stuck with this position until we can actually get a method for picking a new Leader of the Faction in place! "Arena, I –"
A green comm-ball popped into existence. "Ariane! DuQuesne!" came Gabrielle's voice, a little breathless. "They're coming! You've got maybe half an hour at the outside!"
"What?" Dammit! "I thought we'd have hours of notice!" We set the Holy Grail to detect the flare of entry, and the radio relays should have let us know –
"So did I, Ariane." Gabrielle's voice was chagrined. "The Duta transitioned in moving faster than we were on our first trip. I left while it was still en-route, but Steve's guess was it'd take about fifteen minutes to reach the dock." Ariane knew that Gabrielle would have had to run from the Guardhouse, all the way down the corridors to the Inner Gateway and take it through before she could make the call. Which would have taken about fifteen minutes, meaning that Naraj and his party were already getting out of their ship…
Gabrielle was continuing, "Now, Steve and Tom might be able to delay them a little –"
"But Naraj obviously wants to catch us off-guard," came DuQuesne's voice. "He's a hell of a lot of things, but as my friend Seaton would've said, stupid sure ain't one of them."
"On my way! I'll meet them at Transition!"
"Got it. I'm going back." The ball disappeared.
She leapt up from the desk, which folded up and vanished into the wall, and yanked on her most Captain-like jacket.
Sun Wu Kung leapt to his feet as she charged out the door. "What's wrong, Captain?"
"They're on their way. We want to get to Transition before they do."
Wu didn't ask questions; he followed like a shadow.
DuQuesne joined them as they exited the Embassy. "Carl and Laila will hold the fort here," he said. "Simon's gone over to the Analytic to talk with Relgof and a couple of the other Researchers – hopefully we get good news there."
"Four days, Marc. It only took them four days."
"Yeah, and they must've spent a day or more doing some quick mods."
She glanced up at the olive-skinned face; DuQuesne's expression was not comforting. "Why?"
"The Duta's design. I glanced over what we had on it, and it didn't have the bunkerage for the reaction mass necessary to brake down from what must be around ten kilometers per second." He shook his head. "They must have done calculations for modified Sandrisson coils that let them take disposable reaction tanks; it's the only explanation that fits."
Ariane gestured and one of the hovering taxis slowed to a halt near them; Wu leapt in to do his quick survey. "But you can't change the shape of your ship and still use your Sandrisson coils! I know that – we had to chase down the broken drive spine because of that, back when we first got here." She got in at Wu's gesture and ordered the vehicle to head for the Elevators to Transition.
"Right," DuQuesne said as he sat down. "My guess? They'll have to spend some time fixing up the coils to make them work to go back, but they probably designed them to make that as easy as possible. Worth it to get the advantage of surprise."
Calm, she reminded herself. If I let this agitate me, they've really got the advantage. This isn't a race, it's not that time critical. A few seconds here or there make no difference. "Is it really that much of an advantage?"
"From their point of view? Probably." DuQuesne's head turned, watching the Embassy area streaming by. "Naraj's been playing these games for a long time. Keep the other guy off-balance, distract him, really get him worked up and he'll make a mistake."
She smiled wryly up at him. "Then you'd better make sure I don't make any mistakes."
As they got into the elevator, she focused on the task at hand. Time seems to crawl by with this much urgency; so make use of that. Remember all the contingencies we discussed. Remember what you know about Naraj. Be ready to adjust depending on who and what's around when they come through.
Transition loomed up before them, a kilometers-wide room filled with almost uncountable numbers of Gateways. "Great. Which one?" she heard herself mutter.
DuQuesne shrugged. "No telling. If someone isn't maintaining a connection, they go inert and wake up for whichever is the next incoming or outgoing signal. They could come through that one in front of us, or one of the ones in the far corners."
"All right, there's three of us," she said. "I'll watch the center area, you watch to the right, DuQuesne, and Wu, keep an eye on the gates off to the left, okay?"
Once more time seemed to crawl by. Other creatures of a hundred different species moved around them, sometimes glancing curiously at the three humans just standing still in the midst of Transition.
"Apologies for distracting you?" came a buzzing voice, accompanied by just a hint of a sharp chemical smell.
The voice sounded… very young, and she looked down to see a small Milluk – the same species as Swordmaster First Selpa'a'at – looking up at her from the glittering eyes set slightly above the midline of the spherical body. The creature was very small compared to the others she had seen, about half the height or less of Selpa and far less massive, with smaller defensive spines and less decoration. A child?
She realized now that Wu had already watched its approach and had his staff casually ready, but he, also, did not seem terribly worried. "Apology accepted. What can I do for you?"
"I must inquire – are you the human Captain Ariane Austin?"
"I am," she said. Still no sign of Naraj.
The voice shifted slightly, to a more exited tone. "Oh, wonderful! Builders be praised!"
A member of the Faith? She wondered for a moment why that seemed wrong, then realized the answer was obvious: Selpa, the only Milluk they'd had any real contact with, was the head of the Vengeance and didn't trust or like the Faith.
But the little creature was continuing, harvestman-like set of legs rising and falling, making the spherical body bob like a beachball in a choppy sea. "I am Kekka'a'shi,Captain Ariane Austin! I have wanted to meet you for many days!" Kekka'a'shi produced a strange triangular object; Wu stiffened slightly, then relaxed as the creature pulled on one point and the object folded back, revealing itself to be some kind of a three-sided book. "I was hoping… would you possibly…?"
She was puzzled. "Would I…?
Suddenly she was aware that DuQuesne was chuckling. "What are you laughing at?"
"You don't know what he's asking, do you?"
"No, I—" she froze, then looked down. "You… want my autograph?"
"Your personal mark identifier, as signifying I have met and spoken with you! Yes!"
She laughed. Hardly the first time I've been asked, but I had actually thought I'd left that behind. "If you'll explain to me how this little thing works so I know how, yes. But why me?"
"Oh, you're famous already in the Challenges, Captain!" Kekka said enthusiastically, the translation making him sound so very like a young sports fan meeting one of his idols that Ariane had a momentary pang of longing for her days as a racing pilot. It's only been… not even a year, but it seems three lifetimes ago. "You beat the Blessed in a sky-race, and then you beat Amas-Garao. No one's beaten a Shadeweaver for centuries." He held up a sticklike object. "How it works? Some will touch it with their manipulators and generate a unique scent, others impress their nose-prints on them material… the pages are made to accept all sorts of impressions. You can use the stylus to make marks, too."
She took the stylus and smiled. "I'll do it the way we do at home." She thought a moment, then wrote quickly and handed the book back.
Even though the creature was almost completely alien, of armored legs and spherical body, with manipulative tendrils and lacking anything ordinarily considered a face, there was somehow something about the young Milluk's posture and movement as he took the signed book and studied it that conveyed the same awed excitement she'd seen in thousands of human fans. "What… does it say? It is language, yes?"
"Yes, it is," she answered with another smile. "It says , 'To Kekka'a'shi – My first fan in the Arena, where I didn't know I had fans. Thank you! – Ariane Austin.'"
"Wow," he said. What the original expression, or even sound, was, it didn't matter; the Arena's translation had perfectly conveyed the reaction. "Your first fan here?"
"You are indeed," she said. "And –"
She looked where DuQuesne pointed, and saw three clearly human figures standing on one of the Gateway platforms about three hundred yards distant.
The real game's begun.