Let's get out and about in the Arena, shall we?
"I thank you for being so open-minded, Captain," Oscar Naraj said to her with a more genuine smile than he had given in the first few hours after learning the truth. A couple of days to look at things and mull it over has at least given him some perspective… I hope.
"I won't say I'm open-minded on this subject, Ambassador – actually, I'm pretty certain I know exactly what's going to happen – but I'm willing to let you and Deputy Ambassador Ni Deng try anything as long as one of us is there to keep anything Arena-related from going wrong."
The Grand Arcade was the one truly neutral location in the Arena – and thus the only place Ariane would let them try to meet the Molothos. All the Factions traded here and no matter their attitude towards other creatures, that included the Molothos – perhaps even more than many, since as a Great Faction they had a huge need for trade.
This also allowed her new guests more chances to become used to the strangeness of the Arena and see the thousands of other species that Humanity would have to interact with in one way or another.
Ambassador Naraj stared in wonder at the immense expanse of open-air and enclosed markets, stalls, restaurants, amusement centers, and other things possibly less identifiable. Ni Deng's expression was awed, perhaps a touch frightened at first, but it swiftly became more chagrined. "I admit… this is somewhat overwhelming, Captain," she said finally. Her eyes tracked a large, multi-legged lizard-like creature with an upright torso – a Daelmokhan, Ariane thought, One of Sivvis' people – walking alongside a Daalasan and carrying on an animated conversation, while another creature of unfamiliar species – some sort of strange floating gasbag – drifted next to them, occasionally flickering and gesturing.
"That's an understatement," she said with a smile.
"I think it's exciting!" Wu said, then looked somewhat contrite. He really was trying to manage the silent stoic bodyguard approach, but sometimes…
"Oh, it is certainly that, Wu Kung," Naraj agreed. "But overwhelming… yes. I admit I have had relatively little experience in more fantastic simulation areas – not my preferred sort of game – and perhaps that might have prepared me a bit better. I understand you, Captain Austin, were quite the aficionado in such games."
She nodded, grinning. And that saved my ass in ways you can't imagine. "True enough – but believe me, you two are doing humanity proud, as Gabrielle might say. We were still pretty much gobsmacked after this long, and we'd at least spent time working our way through our Sphere before we got here. You're doing just fine." She pointed. "Here, let's get a little something to eat. Hi, Olthalis!"
The blue-green jellyfish-like alien was behind his usual stall near one of the main thoroughfares of the Arcade, moving on tendrils too delicate to support him in Earthly gravity; Ariane knew that the Arena provided each visitor to Nexus Arena with its own proper environment so that all were on equal footing here. Olthalis waved a pair of tendrils in a complex pattern. "A pleasing sight always, that of a customer and leader! Ariane Austin of Humanity! The currents flow well today?"
"Well enough, Olthalis. Ambassador Naraj, Deputy Ambassador Ni Deng, this is Olthalis of the … Dispersants, is that correct?" At Olthalis' back-and-forth affirmative gesture, she continued, "of the Dispersants of the Chiroflekir. Olthalis was the first merchant with whom we dealt and he's been very helpful in helping us get supplies and learn what we can and can't eat or drink here, along with Mairakag Achan – you'll meet him later."
"It is an honor and pleasure to meet you, Olthalis," Oscar Naraj said cheerfully. "We very much appreciate your assistance. 'Dispersants'… would that be a particular, oh, political group of your species, then?"
The same affirmative gesture, followed by a negative one. Yes and no? "The Dispersants travel the currents, journey to the far reaches, return to the seas and join the Contemplative. Within the Contemplative there are political groups."
"Ah!" Ni Deng said, brightening. "An intelligent species with at least two lifecycle stages, then?"
"Exactly," Olthalis agreed. "The Contemplative remain in one place but are much larger, much wiser as they learn and exchange thoughts with many others. But not all agree on all things, so where their Dispersants go, this varies much."
"So," Ariane said, "You'll have to return eventually to your home planet and become one of the Contemplative?" She seemed to remember there were some creatures on earth, maybe a kind of jellyfish itself, that went through a similar lifecycle. Have to mention this to Laila, if she hasn't heard about it herself; she'll be fascinated.
"Eventually," Olthalis agreed, while opening one of the panels of his shop-stall. "But enjoying this time and not ready to go; a Dispersant does not have to return until they feel ready, and I have much to see yet!" The creature flickered with cheerful bioluminescence. "Especially with your people to provide more entertainment."
The two ambassadors chose something from Olthalis' collection of human-certified foodstuffs; Ariane got one of the red nidii for herself. Wu Kung bounced forward, sniffed at the various offerings, and grabbed a pair of things that looked like blue cinnamon sticks coated in a rippled glaze. "How much?"
"Three point seven vals, Captain," Olthalis said.
Gabrielle's foresight is paying off big time, Ariane thought as she reached into the pouch to get out Olthalis' payment. She caught sight of the blonde doctor just entering one of the larger shops, carrying several wrapped packages with her. Gabrielle had already exchanged several pieces of unique human artwork and cultural pieces for a lot of "vals" – short for simply "value units" – which were the common currency in Nexus Arena. Until now we'd been relying on Steve's big winnings from our early days here. Now… now we all have money for regular outings and reserves in case we need to buy bigger things. Such as recharges; we could afford to just buy a recharge from the Powerbrokers now, if we had to.
After the incredible lengths they'd had to go through to get that recharge the first time, that thought felt extremely good.
"How is Dr. Sandrisson's work coming?" Naraj asked, even as he continued watching everything around him.
"He thinks the designs he's working on now, with Steve, Carl, and Marc, should allow us to locate the Sky Gates," she answered.
It was good news – great news, really – but Simon had been astonishingly quiet about it, almost withdrawn, and she didn't understand why; obviously his negotiations with Dr. Relgof had gone spectacularly well, as Simon had informed them that he was now able to visit the Analytic's Archives any time he wished for the next year and a half; yet he'd come back seeming… disturbed about something. If this keeps up I'll have to try to yank whatever it is out of him, but I just haven't had the time yet.
Naraj was continuing. "As I understand it, that will give us a direct route to Nexus Arena from our own Sphere, correct?"
"That's not guaranteed," she said cautiously. "According to what we've been told, it's a very good chance that one of the Sky Gates from our Sphere will lead here, but there is a small minority which don't have a direct connection. While the latter might be preferable for some security applications, overall I'd much rather we had such a connection."
"As would I," Naraj agreed.
"Hey, over there!" Wu Kung broke in.
Following his pointed finger, they saw a group of four Molothos, the crowds giving the all-hostile aliens a very wide berth. Ariane squinted, bringing up vision enhancements. Yep, that's the pattern. "Well, here's your chance, Ambassador. That's Dajzail himself, Leader of the Faction."
She allowed Naraj and Ni Deng to lead the way, though she and Wu Kung stayed close. She wasn't sure whether to smile or tense up; violence rarely went very far in Nexus Arena, as the Adjudicators would show up out of nowhere to intervene (barring direct interference by the Shadeweavers or, she presumed, the Faith), but with the Molothos you could never quite be sure…
Oscar Naraj placed himself directly in front of the advancing Moloths, but at a considerable distance, so that it became clear that he was waiting for them when he remained still and the rest of the crowd began moving away. "Dajzail of the Great Faction of the Molothos, might we speak for a moment?"
Dajzail slowed and halted, tilting the crested, lamprey-mouthed head slightly; its wraparound yellow eye glowed faintly. "Ariane Austin of Humanity, is this one of yours?" he rasped, ignoring Naraj for the moment.
"He is an ambassador of my people, though I remain Faction Leader. Dajzail, this is Oscar –"
"I care not for your names," Dajzail said, cutting her off. "Nor for 'ambassadors' from enemies of the Molothos. What words would matter?"
"I was hoping, perhaps," Naraj said, unfazed, "that we could recognize that while our initial contact has been unfortunately hostile, the crew here was not intended to speak with and establish relationships with other species."
One of the other Molothos started forward. "You waste our time on –"
To Ariane's surprise, Dajzail flicked a claw backwards, silencing the other instantly. "Go on."
Naraj glanced at her with a raised eyebrow, then turned back. "While our emergence into the Arena has been quite successful, we are still a small and new faction; I was hoping there is some way we can find to eliminate what, as I understand it, is a virtual declaration of war from one of the most powerful factions."
"Not virtual. There is no such thing. Either it is war, or it is not. Molothos have declared war on Humanity," Dajzail corrected, "and even now our ships seek your Sphere. Perhaps have already found it." He groomed his claws in a manner similar to a praying mantis. "Still," he said finally, "we have many wars and goals to pursue, and much effort may be wasted in this search. As Leader of the Faction of the Molothos, I am empowered to make peace when necessary, even with inferior species."
Which includes everyone who isn't a Molothos, of course. She could sense Wu Kung standing,tense as a bowstring, at her side.
"Of course you are, sir. So I ask you if there is in fact anything we might be able to do in order to make peace with your people?"
Dajzail groomed again. "I can see three such paths before us, Ambassador," he said, and Ariane did not like the suddenly-silky tones. "The first, and simplest, is that your Faction voluntarily ceases to be, by becoming a vassal of the Molothos. We do not make war on our own, and even lesser species can be of great use. As few join voluntarily, you would be accorded greater status among the slave species."
Oscar Naraj maintained a pleasant smile, though Ariane thought it must have been something of a strain. "I… see. The second?"
"In the interests of being reasonable," the Molothos leader went on, and something about the tone and posture was like a mocking grin, "we could also be satisfied with your ceding your Upper Sphere to us. Our people had landed upon your Sphere and claimed it, so I would be… willing to end the declaration of war if you were to give us that which we had fairly claimed."
"I can understand that position," Naraj said, still with a pleasant, neutral tone. "And your third offer?"
"While my prior offers are most generous for the Molothos, we are often … accused of being both hostile and unreasonable," Dajzail answered, and his tone was almost unctuous. "So, in the interests of … fostering a more cooperative atmosphere with others and showing how … willing we are to enter the greater Arena community, we will be satisfied with a much less expensive act – even, I would say, a mere symbolic trifle, given the injuries we have suffered." His voice suddenly shifted back to the rasping screech she expected from Molothos. "Give us Marc C. DuQuesne and Stephen Franceschetti. Let us kill them with our best executioners over a period of two weeks. We will even allow you to take back the bodies when we are done." He spread his claws in a grotesque parody of open-armed welcome. "A fair bargain indeed, would you not agree?"
DuQuesne threw one of their bodies down right in front of them; Steve … Steve was the one who figured out how to get past Dajzail's blockade of Transition, when we were about to lose our Sphere by default.
"Certainly a vastly more… diplomatic and reasonable offer than the others, Dajzail," Oscar said slowly. "I will… think about these offers."
"Yes, do that, Ambassador," Dajzail hissed silkily. "And while you do, ask of news of the Randaalar, who rejected similar generosity a thousand years ago. The head of the last survivor is mounted in my council-chamber."
The Molothos swept forward, and Oscar and the others drew back, letting them pass. After a few moments, Naraj spoke again. "I shall think about these offers, and how they show that there truly exist monsters with whom negotiation is not possible. My apologies, Captain; if that is what they have chosen as the leader of their entire species – which if I understand aright will have thousands or tens of thousands of Spheres… well," he smiled wryly, "we have no use for diplomats in that particular case. I will so report as soon as possible."
"Will you have to go back for that report?" It'd be nice if they'd be leaving the Arena periodically.
"Oh, not at all," Naraj said. "A message … torpedo, I suppose you could call it – supplied with Sandrisson coils and sufficient charge to travel back and forth – will allow two-way communication. The first of these should be ready by now, in fact, and I would expect more ships will follow very soon." He smiled broadly. "You did say we would have to establish a larger presence, didn't you?"