So, our expected... guests... from Earth system had arrived...
DuQuesne grinned as he saw the three figures crowding together – just as he, Ariane, and Simon had the first time they'd stepped through to Transition. Nothing really prepares you for that. Not when it's real. Oh, sure, simgames have stuff just as impressive in its own way, but you always know in the back of your head it's just a game. Somehow I even knew, in the end, about Hyperion.
But this is no game.
Ariane led the way; Wu flanked her just to the left, DuQuesne on her right, and she was moving fast. The crowds of Transition, however, parted before her; Kekka was not the only one who recognized Ariane Austin.
He kept his eyes on the three figures. Naraj was already straightening to his full height of well over six feet, stepping slightly forward, his deep blue and gold outfit contrasting well with his mahogany-brown skin and black hair. Michelle Ni Deng was a contrast herself; a woman of sharp angles and light-boned body, her resemblance to a wading bird emphasized by the biomod of featherlike hair that bobbed in white and blue waves over her head. Just emerging from behind her was–
For just a split second even the speed of his Hyperion-born thoughts was not enough to cope. That red hair… done in that style… those eyes, I can see them from here…
But he was lucky twice. First, she was emerging to the right side, which meant that he got the first glimpse one tiny fraction of a second before Wu Kung; and second, the two of them were behind Ariane, and not in front. His hand lashed out and he gripped Wu's arm in an unmistakable warning.
The Monkey King's emerald-touched golden eyes glanced at him, surprise and joy fading to puzzlement, then understanding. He nodded, just enough for DuQuesne to see, and DuQuesne let go.
Of all the … He looked at Naraj, remembering, judging. No, there's no way he could know. He set his jaw. Focus. You can't afford to let Naraj's lucky break distract you from the main event.
Ariane reached the base of the ramp and started up. "Ambassador Naraj! A pleasure to see you here so soon."
Good move. Acknowledge his title – in fact, give him the title in public. He'll have to accept it at this point.
Naraj's smile was, possibly, just a fraction off, but only for a moment. "Captain Austin, good of you to meet me so promptly. I suppose I have Doctor Wolfe to thank for that?"
"She did pop over here briefly to make sure you got a good reception," Ariane said, shaking his hand.
Michelle laughed; it was, DuQuesne admitted, a very nice laugh, gentle and lilting. "I did think she seemed a little out of breath; now I know why! Walking all that way… she must have run in both directions." She turned. "We all know each other, but I should introduce our own security expert –"
"We've met," DuQuesne interrupted, stepping forward. He could feel Ariane's curious gaze. "Hello, Commander Abrams."
"Doctor DuQuesne." They shook hands, hers gripping as strong as he remembered, and he waited, wondering…
And the pixie-cute face suddenly broke out in a broad smile and she threw her arms around him. "Long time, sir, a long time!"
He relaxed fractionally, hugged back. "Has been, hasn't it?" Releasing her, he turned. "Ariane, this is Commander Oasis Abrams."
A grin returned to his face as Ariane shook hands with the newcomer, trying to size her up. He knew what she saw; a young woman who didn't look any older than Ariane herself, with flaming red hair so long that, even done up in four separate ponytails, it trailed well past her waist, whose military accoutrements were distributed in such a way as to make her appear to be dressed for some sort of exotic masquerade. Not exactly what I'd expected, he heard on their private frequency.
DuQuesne gave a silent laugh. Don't be fooled by that perky can-do exterior, he replied via the same frequency. That's former Ensign Oasis Abrams of the Third Recon Platoon of the First Combined Battalion under Commander Saul Maginot. He sensed her sudden understanding. Exactly. And she's tough. She's the only trooper who took out one of us pretty much by herself, the only survivor of her entire company, and she was about the age then she looks like she is now. She's a friend and someone you can count on… but she's also got some goals of her own right now, and she's hired on to work for Oscar and Michelle, which isn't good.
He was glad to see that Wu had got the message, so he simply bounded up and gave her a hug. "I'm so glad you got out okay!"
As she returned the hug, Oscar nodded. "I had wondered if the implied events in her resume had happened. I see now they must have. Excellent."
The words reassured DuQuesne. If he knew the real score Naraj would either say nothing or he'd be asking questions – really pointed questions.
Oscar Naraj turned to Ariane. "Captain, since you have come all this way, I presume you're here to show us to the Embassy?"
"Exactly, Ambassador. I want to bring you up to speed on the current situation and see if we can arrange for you to meet some of the people you undoubtedly wish to speak to as soon as possible." She turned. "Please, follow me."
Naraj followed, trying to look confident and at ease. And could be you're fooling Ariane – though I doubt it – and maybe even yourself, but you sure ain't fooling me. The eyes darted to the sides just a bit too often, Naraj – and Ni Deng – turned subconsciously as creatures of bizarre and often frightening aspect approached.
But Naraj had viewed all the recorded data they'd turned over, as had Michelle Ni Deng, and the two adjusted almost frighteningly quickly. By the time they reached the elevators, Oscar Naraj's pretense of relaxation was fast becoming reality. They're both real, real good, DuQuesne thought grimly. I'd hoped he just wasn't really up to the challenge – God knows we haven't needed any real politicians much in the last couple of centuries – but I'd hoped wrong. He's a genuine Big Time Operator, and he's ready to start his operations real soon now.
This isn't good. Simon's private chat with Researcher Relgof had shown that Maria-Susanna was somehow managing to send out feelers to the various groups (after being rebuffed by Orphan), yet no one knew exactly where she was. She's the kind of spanner in the works we really don't need. Might not hear from her for years, or she might pop up tomorrow, but whenever she does make her move…
He shook his head. One thing at a time. Right now, it's our new guests who are the immediate problem.
With the help of one of the floating taxis the six of them soon arrived at the Embassy of Humanity. Michelle gave an approving nod as they entered. "Oh, very nice. I was afraid we'd still have the rather… utilitarian look that was visible in the recordings. My compliments to the designer."
"That would be mostly Steve; remember to tell him yourself the next time you see him."
"Oh, I certainly will, Captain."
"Now," Ariane said, "would you like me to show you to your rooms? I see you have only a small amount of luggage with you now, but –"
"Oh, no, no, Captain," Oscar said firmly. "I am quite rested, I assure you – it was early morning when the Duta departed from Kanzaki-Three and so I've only been up a few hours. Why don't we have lunch and I'll tell you how I would like to proceed?"
He could see Ariane stiffen and take a slow breath, like a diver nerving herself to take a plunge into murky water. "We can certainly do that, Ambassador."
"Don't look so nervous, Captain. I have no intention of just shoving you out of the limelight – or letting you run off, even if you prefer being out of it. Your advice and help will be invaluable initially," Naraj assured her. "And yours, Doctor DuQuesne. Indeed, I will be relying on the entire crew of Holy Grail initially, as we have a great deal to accomplish.
"The Space Security Council and the Combined Space Forces have empowered me to act as Ambassador for Humanity, at least in these initial months."
"A shame, that," DuQuesne said, cutting him off before he could continue.
Naraj looked disappointed. "I expect rather more than cheap shots from someone of your stature, Dr. DuQuesne."
"Not a cheap shot; honest assessment. It's a shame you wasted all that time ramming that authorization through when it's useless."
"I beg your pardon?" Oscar looked completely at sea.
"I'm afraid he's telling the truth," Ariane said; her voice was calm and businesslike, but she stood stiff, nervous, and she swallowed hard before straightening and continuing. "You see, neither the SSC nor the CSF – or both of them together – are empowered to make that appointment."
"I… see. And just who is? A vote of all the citizens of the Solar System?"
"No, Ambassador," she said, and he felt a tiny bit of relief, because that tone was returning to her voice, the tone that she got when she'd made up her mind and was ready to take whatever bull was in front of her by the horns and throw it. "No, Ambassador, even that won't work.
"That decision and appointment can only be made by the Leader of the Faction of Humanity… which just happens to be me."
DuQuesne caught a flash of mirth from Oasis Abrams – just a moment of a crinkle of laugh-lines around the emerald eyes, a quirking upward of the corner of the perfect lips.
The other two did not seem so amused; in fact, it was nearly a minute before – to his surprise – Michelle Ni Deng spoke. "You are the Leader of … the Faction of Humanity."
"I am." Ariane managed a sour smile. "I didn't ask for the job, I didn't know I was in line for it, but I've got it – and before either of you says anything, I am not handing that authority over to anyone unless I believe my successor understands what he or she is dealing with, and can handle it well enough so I don't need to worry about it any more."
Oscar Naraj had an expression of equal parts outrage, puzzlement, and sympathy – an impressive combination, DuQuesne had to admit. "I do not mean to sound… stupid, Captain Austin, but, just to clarify… from the Arena's point of view, you, personally, are the leader of the entire human species?"
Naraj muttered something in an Indian dialect that DuQuesne couldn't quite catch. "And would you mind," he said, and now his voice was hard, edged with annoyance and some lingering disbelief, "explaining to me, then, why you did not include this – I would think absolutely crucial – piece of information in your summaries?"
"Do you want the truth, or the excuse?"
Naraj blinked. Then he smiled briefly. "I think I will take the truth, even if you think it so unpalatable."
"All right, then." Ariane looked up and away for a moment, as though seeking support from the very cause of the problem. "Simply? What would you people have done if I had told you?"
"Well, we certainly wouldn't have just come charging out here without having the authority to negotiate!" Ni Deng said frostily.
"Right," Ariane agreed, and her tone brought Michelle Ni Deng up short. Full-blown Captain mode, "look of eagles" and all. "You would have insisted I – and perhaps my entire crew – stay back home unless and until I turned the leadership over to someone more suited, or at the least until I delegated authority to you. As I stated,I have no intention whatsoever of doing that until I'm sure the person taking the job has, as DuQuesne would say, the jets to swing that load, and no one will have that who hasn't already been here, and learned the ins and outs.
"So we would have been stuck arguing for weeks, maybe months longer, while the Molothos methodically search for our only Sphere so they can put a whole invasion force on the surface instead of a scouting party. Not happening while I am in charge, Ambassador. And I am in charge here, and I will do my best to make sure that we don't get blindsided by those monsters – or," she looked pointedly at both of them, "anyone else."
"Are you –"
Oscar Naraj gestured and Michelle Ni Deng cut her outraged protest short. "I … see." He frowned, obviously thinking. And that's dangerous, but other than just shooting him there's no stopping him from thinking. "Then should I simply take my people and leave?"
Ariane sighed, and looked – just slightly – less intimidating. "I'm not saying that, no. You both have skills and experience no one on Holy Grail had. And I don't have any objection to you talking to people – as long as I know about it, and as long as you're willing to listen when someone who's experienced explains the pitfalls – especially how you might get goaded or tricked into a Challenge. Understand, we cannot afford a Challenge we have not extensively planned for – and even then, it could really go completely wrong.
"And obviously if I want to ever get rid of this ridiculous position as Leader of Humanity, I need people who come here and become familiar enough with it to replace me. So no, Ambassador." She gave a professional smile, but there was some warmth behind it. "I would very much like you to stay and help. All of you." The smile turned rueful. "God knows we'll need all the help we can get!"
Naraj allowed a chuckle. "Very well. Then shall we have lunch, and you shall tell us how you would like to proceed?"
Ariane's smile grew more natural. "I think that is an excellent suggestion, Ambassador."
Not bad, Ariane, DuQuesne thought as she led them to one of the dining areas. But don't you start relaxing now.
Because they sure aren't.