Both the reader, and our new arrivals, need a bit of a briefing...
"Challenges," Carl Edlund said, "are the heart of Arena political maneuvering."
The entire group was gathered in one of Humanity's briefing rooms. Well, DuQuesne thought to himself, everyone except Tom and Laila, who're on the Sphere because someone's got to stay there, and Simon, who thinks he's close to finishing his design so he's not letting anyone interrupt. Something else was bothering the physicist, DuQuesne could tell, but he hadn't said anything about it and DuQuesne was reluctant to pry. Not like I never had secrets.
Carl was giving the lecture – mostly targeted towards the newcomers – because he'd spent a lot of time while they were gone learning about the mechanisms and approaches of common Challenges.
Carl nodded at them. "Those of us who were here understand that in our gut. There is nothing more important in the Arena than someone issuing a Challenge to another faction, and you newcomers need to really get that through your heads. Almost everything of importance either gets triggered by, or settled with, a Challenge. There's some exceptions, but not very many."
"My general impression of these Challenges seems… rather primitive for a civilization so advanced," Oscar said slowly. "Trial by combat as a – even, perhaps, the dominant – negotiation tool?"
Carl laughed. "Combat and physical prowess did seem to feature highly in our experiences, yes. But there are plenty of Challenges which turn out to be focused on things a lot less flashy. Admittedly, those are the type of Challenge that don't get very many spectators unless the spectators are involved in the outcome – I'd be pretty riveted watching the equivalent of a game of chess if our homeworld was in the balance, but otherwise I don't think I'd be much into it.
"The big, flashy Challenges serve multiple purposes, and a smart Faction understands that your Challenge performance isn't just important for that particular Challenge – it's important for how everyone else views you, it draws attention to your Faction, it gives you good, or bad, publicity, all sorts of things. This part should be familiar to most of us; that's not all that different from things back home. We all know how the Interest vector's one of the most tradeable – and volatile – units of value, and how even a single spectacular event can drive interest sky-high – or drop it in the toilet, if the spectacular involved failure."
Images materialized over the table; DuQuesne and Carl facing the Molothos, Ariane in the Skylark, Sivvis with Tunuvun dangling from one arm, and Amas-Garao towering over a stunned Ariane. "The Challenges we saw – either by being a part of them, or watching them – in our first time here actually provide us with a good introduction. " The first image swelled. "The very first Challenge we faced actually is one of the rare ones that the Arena calls a Class Two Challenge. Class One Challenges are initiated by mutual agreement in the Arena, and are basically more-or-less formal affairs. In effect, one way or another an authorized member of a Faction says 'I challenge you!' and another authorized member of the Challenged faction accepts the Challenge." He nodded to DuQuesne, who was assisting him in the presentation.
"Class Two Challenges are a whole different can of worms," DuQuesne said. "They're events that take place outside of Nexus Arena but that have a major impact on a Faction or Factions, and that stem from a direct conflict between the Factions in one way or another. In this case, we humans were newcomers who just happened to have the bad luck to have the Molothos land a survey and initial colonization party on our Upper Sphere. In a sense, of course, that was also bad luck for the Molothos; normally they either wouldn't encounter any significant resistance landing on an Upper Sphere, or the Sphere would be inhabited and there'd be obvious civilized presence there.
"For a big Faction, the Molothos landing on one Sphere wouldn't be a big deal – potential interstellar incident, yes, but nothing of great import to the Faction as a whole. But for us it was absolutely crucial we get them off our Sphere pronto. If the Molothos controlled our Upper Sphere, we'd be pretty much crippled until we managed, somehow, to get another Sphere of our own and thus access to Sky Gates and Straits that wouldn't be watched and guarded by our enemies. So from the Arena's point of view, that was a Challenge, and by our managing to defeat the entire invading force and prevent a direct counterstrike by Blessing of Fire, we won the Challenge. Other examples of Class Two Challenges might be an actual war, or simultaneous landings on an uninhabited Upper Sphere, things of that sort."
"So these… impromptu external Challenges would be triggered only by events of considerable importance to the relevant Factions, then?" Oscar asked.
Carl nodded. "As far as I can tell, yes." He grinned nastily. "That's not the case for Class One Challenges. You can issue Challenge for an awful lot of things if you're authorized to do so."
"Hold on, Carl," Ariane said. "I don't remember authorizing people to issue Challenge, exactly, and it seemed to me that any of us were in danger of getting Challenged or inadvertently issuing one."
"An artifact of our being a brand new faction with a tiny number of members in the Arena," Carl said. "Basically, those who are part of the main Embassy staff are the most subject to issuing or receiving Challenge. There's some complicated details – like how a Leader can partially reduce the exposure to Challenge while they're away, but how that reduction can be nullified, mostly to prevent a Faction like the Molothos from basically having their Leader go home and the rest be able to act like total… jerks to everyone else with impunity." He looked over at Oscar, Michelle, and Oasis. "That means you people are definitely in that class, and so you need to walk carefully."
"Hm. Yes, I understand," Oscar said slowly. "I recall the other complication – that you can refuse Challenge twice, but you must accept the third or immediately default, and defaulting is the same as losing a Challenge."
"Right." Ariane pointed to the racing image. "I was trying to second-guess that bit when I accepted the Challenge from what turned out to be a proxy for the Blessed To Serve. Now that turned out okay – because I figured out a way to win it at the last moment –"
"—because you're more than half crazy," put in Carl.
"Well, maybe." A grin flashed out.
"And you always have to remember the key point," Gabrielle spoke up. "Like in many old Earth duelling traditions, it's the one being Challenged who gets to set the conditions. So the other big tactic is to try to get someone to Challenge you when you've got a plan on how to beat them."
"And work through proxies is a big part of that, too." DuQuesne found himself, like Ariane, looking at the image of Amas-Garao. "That gives you a huge advantage. The other guy doesn't realize who he's really Challenging, and may even think he's trying to maneuver your proxy, rather than being played himself."
DuQuesne looked around, suddenly grimly serious. "But before you start thinking this sounds like some fun game to play, remember this: these guys are all Big Time Operators. Even the smaller Factions, the younger species, they've been here for thousands of years. We've been lucky as hell so far and we've managed to pull off a couple of honest-to-God miracles, but we can't expect that to keep going. Even the guys that seem nominally on our side, like the Analytic and the Faith, they're playing the game ten layers deep and we can't count on not being a pawn on their board."
"On the positive side," Carl said, pointing to the image of Sivvis and Tunuvun, "not all Challenges are the product of hostile takeover attitudes; for instance, the Powerbrokers' Challenges pretty much have to be accepted, but they don't actually care about the prize per se from winning the Challenge and so the general tradition there is that their chosen champion gets to take the prize home."
"I found that challenge very interesting," Oasis said seriously, pushing one of the long ponytails back out of her way. I have to get a chance to talk to her alone, but that's going to be a problem as long as they keep her nearby as a bodyguard. She went on, "I mean, the idea that we were already able to Challenge as soon as we showed up, but this native race gets nothing? That doesn't seem fair."
"Sure doesn't!" Wu agreed emphatically. "They were born here, they should have –"
DuQuesne laughed. "That's the other thing to keep in mind. It isn't fair, except by the rules of the Arena – and we still don't know all those rules. Maybe nobody knows all those rules except the Arena itself. It's not set up to be nice and even-handed to each and every person and species, it's set up by these Voidbuilders – whoever and whatever they were – to accomplish… something. And since we don't know what that 'something' is, plenty of what goes on here is going to look arbitrary, maybe even cruel, and sure as God made little green apples it's not going to look fair.
"We don't get to set the rules. We don't get to change the rules. We generally won't get to argue the rules. No one does. The Arena says how things get done, and we can either take it, or try to pick up our marbles and go home. But that won't stop the Arena's people from butting in on our turf eventually, so even that isn't really an option."
Wu Kung frowned rebelliously, and DuQuesne didn't need to be a mind reader to know what was going on in Wu's head. Arbitrary godlike rules chafe on the Monkey King, and I'm gonna have to sit down and try to pound sense into him real soon, before he tries to do something perfectly in character but disastrous.
"So," Michelle Ni Deng said after a moment, "You're basically warning us that all of us here are in the line of fire, and we need to be careful."
"And open to opportunities," Carl emphasized. "We want to avoid getting screwed… but we also can use the Challenges to our advantage. You can't, in general, Challenge away your home Sphere; the closest I know of would've been if the Molothos had kicked our asses and taken the Upper Sphere, but even then we'd still have the Inner Sphere and Gateways."
"I see. And the prizes of a Challenge are proportional to the resources of the participants," Oscar said.
"Exactly. Which means that as a new, tiny faction, we can generally stand to gain a hell of a lot more than larger factions can from us." He grinned. "And politically we've gained a lot from the Challenges. Yeah, okay, we're at war with the Molothos, but –"
Oscar bowed from his seat. "—But I have conceded that, given the circumstances, there was indeed no way to avoid that outcome, based on what I now have seen of those enemies. I hope to find the Blessed at least somewhat more amenable to discussion."
"Right. What that means is that we've got great publicity and public image – and recognition – right now. The shiny new coolness will wear off eventually, but not yet, and right now we're the brand new kids on the block who managed to outfox the two scariest Factions when we first showed up, then whip the biggest bullies around as an encore. That's the advantage of the spectacular Challenges. "
"And – pardon me for asking you to repeat yourself," Ni Deng said, "there is no actual limit on what the Challenged party can put forth as a Challenge?"
"Well… there are some. You can't for instance Challenge someone to a water-breathing contest when you're a natural water resident and they're only an air-breather, so to speak. There has to be some reasonable way that both of you can participate in the Challenge, and the Challenge itself can't assume proxy use by either side. Other than that… no." Carl grinned. "And they can be all sorts of mixed-mode kinds of things. For instance, the one I was watching with Selpa a while back? That one was called 'Racing Chance', and it combined a sort of combat maze-race with a gambling game."
DuQuesne raised an eyebrow. "How'd that work?"
"Pretty neat, actually. Each side had a racing individual and they ran through a mostly parallel but sometimes intersecting maze. The contestants couldn't directly interact with each other but they could try to mess up the course for the guy behind them, and they each had to deal with combat threats along the way. Meanwhile, each side also had a couple people playing a game that was sorta like poker, and you could spend the points you won in the game to up the challenges put in front of the opposing guy's racer."
Ariane nodded, smiling. "That would be… pretty exciting. Strategy, luck, and combat all in one package; let your chips ride so you could put down a devastating opposition toward the end, or spend them right away so that you can't lose them to a bad hand, things like that – plus choosing the right racer. And I'd guess they might have something to do with agreeing on the racecourse, too."
"Probably." Carl looked around. "That's mostly it, I think. The thing to remember is that Challenges aren't casual. We can't back out of them without forfeit, and they will cost us to lose or to forfeit – but at the same time, we can gain a hell of a lot if we take and win them." He looked seriously at the three newcomers. "We can't keep you out of that part of the game, Oscar, Michelle, Oasis – not and let you guys do anything useful around Nexus Arena. So you may find yourselves in the position of having to decide whether to accept a Challenge – or, if someone's clearly pushing on you, whether you need to issue one. We can't reject them all, but we sure can't afford to just accept them or issue them blindly… because what we do here could affect everyone."
Oscar nodded, and so did Michelle and Oasis. "Understood, and this little session has helped make this clear to me."
"One more thing," Steve said. "Carl mentioned that almost everything of importance gets settled by Challenge – but that almost is important. The last maneuver that the Molothos tried on us was deliberately not a Challenge; they learned stuff about us, made some guesses, and set up a plan that was in no way directly confrontational which would – if they guessed right – deprive us of our Arena citizenship and negate the victories we'd already achieved."
"Worse than that," DuQuesne said. "I thought about that scenario right after you," he pointedly indicated Steve, who gave a slightly embarrassed but proud grin, "saved our asses at the last minute, and I got cold chills. If we were deprived of our citizenship like that – we might not have been able to go back to our Sphere at all. We'd have become like the natives of Arenaspace, at least until someone else from Earth came through and re-started the whole thing. I'm not sure exactly what would have happened, but given what we already know, I'd have to guess it would've been worse than just being sent back to square one, at least for those of us stuck on this side."
"So," Wu said, "that means that there's real Challenges, and then little challenges – that might not be so little – and we have to look out for both."
"Exactly right, Wu. The 'real' Challenges may be the usual way of doing business, but as Steve and the Molothos showed, the stakes can get plenty high without being in an official face-off."
The meeting broke up then, and people filed mostly out of the room; Ariane, along with Wu, hung back. "So… do you think they understand, Marc?"
"Oscar sure as hell does," he answered. "Ni Deng… yeah, probably. She's maybe not as experienced as Oscar Naraj, but she's probably smarter. You can bet Oasis gets it – and she'll be real careful." He frowned to himself.
"What is it, Marc?"
He knew there were at least two levels of inquiry there… and he wasn't ready to address the second, at least not until he got a chance to talk to Oasis privately. "I… dunno, really. We had to tell them about Challenges, they've got to understand how much rides on them… but that also makes them real players in the Arena now, and there's no way to stop it." He looked at the now-empty doorway. "I just hope I'm worried over nothing."