And now, it's time to meet up again with another Faction we haven't seen in a while...
"May the Minds show favor on this meeting," Sethrik said formally, as he seated himself before the conference table in one of the split-back seats designed for his species. "It is a pleasure to meet more of your people, Captain Austin."
"It is a pleasure to meet with you as well, Sethrik of the Blessed," Oscar Naraj said, and Michelle Ni Deng echoed the sentiment. Oasis Abrams was not present; the two diplomats had given her leave to spend a day out on her own, and the energetic redhead had instantly disappeared out the door.
Sethrik turned, to indicate one of his companions; this Blessed's exoskeleton had a distinctive pattern, dark green for the crests and lighter green for the face. "I present to you Vantak, currently my second in command."
Vantak performed the pushup-bow which was one of the few things shared between the Blessed and the Liberated. "I greet you, newcomers to the Arena. I hope the meeting in peace will become one of many."
Ariane remembered Vantak without much warmth – her clearest memory of the other Blessed was of him assisting in the humiliation of Gabrielle to sucker her into the challenge of Amas-Garao – but to be fair, he had simply been following his own Faction's directives. "Our hope as well."
"It is in fact that very subject which caused me to have Captain Austin invite you here, Leader Sethrik," Naraj said warmly. "I find it very gratifying and hopeful that you accepted so quickly."
Sethrik glanced at him, and then back to Ariane. "Clarify, please, what this newcomer's status is?"
"Ambassador Naraj and Deputy Ambassador Ni Deng are emissaries from the governing body of our solar system. They have been sent to assist us in establishing better relations with the various Factions, among other things."
"Ah." Sethrik gave a slightly deeper pushup-bow. "It is more of an honor, then. I greet you in the name of the Minds, Ambassadors." He looked to Ariane. "Have they… your authority, Captain?"
"If you mean, have I ceded the leadership of our Faction to them, no. Decisions of any import will still have to be cleared through me in the end. However, they are certainly empowered to discuss many things and may arrive at tentative arrangements pending my final approval." Ariane had given a lot of thought to the situation in the last few days, and the fact was that she had to concede some level of power to the Ambassador, give him some amount of authority, or his reports would – rightly – lead inevitably to the conclusion that Ariane was a potential tin-pot dictator trying to keep all power to herself.
Still, in a sense that conclusion would be entirely correct; Ariane had no intention of giving away Humanity's current advantage just for the sake of making things more comfortable back home. Thus she retained full authority over any final agreements. If this worked well, she'd have extended her negotiating reach via proxies who understood negotiation better than she did, while not losing the basic power of decision.
Sethrik's wingcases relaxed fractionally. "Ah, very wise. I would advise against any sudden changes in leadership." He addressed himself to Oscar and Michelle. "Captain Ariane Austin is an extremely formidable person, and the Arena and its Factions hold great respect for her. Delegation of authority from her shows great trust – and puts a grave burden upon you all to honor her properly."
Naraj nodded. "I have been learning of this since my arrival, Leader Sethrik. Our initial impressions at home had … failed to grasp the entirety of the situation, but I am coming to understand the magnitude of the… challenges before us."
"Good. What was it you wished to discuss?"
"First – do you require any refreshment?" the Ambassador inquired, and made sure that appropriate materials were provided; Sethrik took a drinking sphere such as Orphan often favored, while Vantak sucked or nibbled on a sticklike confection which Ariane thought was his equivalent of potato chips or similar snack foods. "Excellent. Now, from what I have heard of you, Leader Sethrik –"
"No need of the honorific. You may call me Sethrik, if I may address you by one of your names."
"But of course, Sethrik. Call me Oscar or Naraj, as you would." Oscar did an excellent bob-bow, showing he had studied the movement and probably practiced it multiple times. "As I was saying, from what I have heard you would appreciate directness, so I shall try to be as direct as possible.
"You must of course be aware that we have already managed to offend the Molothos sufficiently that we are at war with their faction."
A whistling sound overlaid with a chuckle showed the Blessed Leader's amusement. "Easily accomplished."
"So I have learned. But I am also aware that Humanity has – sometimes inadvertently – offended the Blessed To Serve, and I would like to present apologies for any such offenses, and hope that we can move forward to a common ground and perhaps partnership." The Ambassador smiled. "After all, we are a new, and small, faction and could use all the friends we can get."
Sethrik leaned back , then bowed. "Your apology is accepted. As Leader of the Blessed to Serve, I in fact declare that any prior offenses are forgiven – if our own are forgiven as well."
Sethrik was, of course, referring to that setup which had not only injured Gabrielle but nearly gotten Ariane killed, and which had not reflected well on the Blessed. Oscar looked at her with a raised eyebrow. Ariane smiled. "We spoke at a certain party afterwards, but I suppose it was not a formal forgiveness. So yes, Sethrik, any offense both personal and Factional is forgiven."
"Excellent," Sethrik said, and she thought there was a note of genuine gratification in his voice. "Your approach, Oscar, is well-timed. For you should know that the Minds themselves, upon reviewing our encounters with Humanity, directed that we seek to lay aside even the natural opposition due to your alliance with the Liberated, and instead try to convince Humanity that the Blessed are worthy allies."
That was something of a surprise. The super-AIs which ran the entire civilization of the Blessed were one of the more frightening things they had yet learned about, especially from the point of view of a humanity which had yet to give AIs the full rights of living people. I wonder what they've seen in those interactions that makes them willing to even ignore the fact that we're obviously pretty much committed to our alliance with Orphan and the Liberated, their archenemy?
She made a mental note to go over this with DuQuesne at first opportunity. And maybe Orphan himself, too. Aloud, she said, "That's wonderful news, Sethrik."
"I am glad you accept this news in the spirit it is given, Captain Austin –"
"You can call me Ariane, if you'd rather."
Sethrik laughed. "Indeed. Then I am glad, Ariane. And in that spirit, Ambassadors, I would encourage negotiations of trade and knowledge. As any agreements will of course be subject to the ratification of the Leader of each faction, allow me to suggest that such negotiations be carried out by you with Vantak, who – while not given precisely the same title – holds a position of power very similar to your own." He turned to Ariane. "I have a few things to discuss which are, however, only the business of the Leaders."
Oscar stood immediately. "Then – if it is agreeable to you, Vantak – I would continue our discussions outside, perhaps while travelling about the Grand Arcade. I must confess," he said with a more open smile than his usual controlled expressions, "I am still enjoying the spectacle of Nexus Arena enough that I prefer being outside of the Embassy." Left unsaid was the fact that Ariane would not leave the Embassy without Wu Kung.
"I have no objection, Ambassador," Vantak said, sounding slightly nervous – second in command suddenly stuck with what could be a delicate duty, I'll bet – but not reluctant.
After the other three had left, Sethrik vented air with a whistle that was overlaid with a sigh of relief – exactly in time with her own sigh.
The two looked at each other and burst out laughing. "What the heck have you got to be nervous about, Sethrik?"
Even though his face was virtually immobile, something in his posture, the way he leaned forward, gave her the impression of someone grinning. "Captain… that is, Ariane Austin… I was not exaggerating about the Minds' directives. While I believed you held no grudge directly, you are of course still allied with Orphan and the Liberated, and we had performed a … quite offensive set of actions in order to entrap you at Amas-Garao's direction." He looked towards the door. "And I suspect you have had additional pressures since last we talked."
He is very good. "You guessed, did you?"
The same assenting handtap that Orphan also used was the reply. "Your people were… an interesting assortment. But not one of you intended for a first contact of any type. Yours, then, was not a vehicle intended for long travel, but a single jump, a test of a drive system and a return. Common enough in history, but it meant that if your people had leaders that – almost certainly – none of them were represented in your little group. While the Blessed have… a rather unique position in that sense, we are of course not at all unable to understand what might follow in that situation."
"So we'll talk as Leaders, and you've shuffled my problems off onto your second in command."
"I see you understand perfectly!"
She laughed again, then grew serious. "What did you want to talk about with me?"
"I am unsure as to how much you know about a particular… individual who has recently arrived –"
"I know a fair bit about her – in some ways much more than you, I'm sure – but we don't have much information as to what she is up to right now."
Sethrik paused, obviously considering what to tell her – information being, naturally, the greatest source of value in the Arena. "Well, I can tell you how she has been living thus far. She is… shopping, I suppose you might say… for an appropriate faction. This allows her to go in and out of various Faction Houses or Embassies and avail herself of various conveniences as she does so. She has also sold some valuable items of Human workmanship and has thus sufficient vals to keep herself comfortable for, I would surmise, a considerable time."
"Did she approach you?"
"No, she has made no overtures at all to the Blessed."
Not surprising, thought Ariane. Product of the Hyperion Project that she was, Maria-Susanna would almost certainly have an aversion to AIs that controlled other people's lives.
Sethrik went on, "I know for a fact she has visited at least four other Factions and possibly as many as twice that. What can you tell me about her? I am curious, as she is obviously a human being, yet is clearly operating separately from you."
Now it was Ariane's turn to consider what she could afford to tell – and possibly what she should tell for the sake of political advantage. "She is an extremely capable and wanted criminal in our solar system, responsible for murdering dozens of people."
"By the Minds!" murmured Sethrik. "And you have been unable to catch her?"
"As I said, extremely capable. She is also apparently very good at giving a good impression – she's demonstrated the ability to convince other people of almost anything, according to what I've been told."
"Most disturbing." Sethrik paused a moment, then gave a handtap of decision. "I had occasion to exchange information with the Minds just a short time before our meeting – Vantak travelled directly to the home system and back to convey the situation and their directives, in fact – and they provided their own evaluation of her behavior.
"In their opinion, this 'Maria-Susanna' has a specific faction already in mind; she is negotiating with other factions both as a backup and as a confusing tactic, and also to give her time in negotiations with the target faction." He looked at her, dark eyes difficult to read in the nearly-human face. "They do not say which faction is her target, but it is clear that she had this intent from the beginning – which, I would suspect, would strongly limit the likely targets."
It certainly would, Ariane thought grimly. There wouldn't be enough information to make a decision like that on anything except… the five Great Factions, the Shadeweavers, the Powerbrokers, and maybe a couple of the minor factions we had gotten good info on. With the Blessed and the Liberated out of the picture, the choices are pretty narrow… and none of them would be good for us. "I thank you for this information, Sethrik."
"You are welcome, Ariane," he said, "And – I mean this without any trace of irony – we are extremely familiar with the potential damage a single renegade can eventually produce. I hope that this will not be the case for you."
He's talking about the Liberated… and yeah, something like that would be a disaster. "So do I, Sethrik. So do I."
Abruptly a green sphere of light shimmered into existence above the table. "Ariane Austin of Humanity!"
The voice was Mandallon's, the young Initiate Guide. His tone was tense.
"What is it, Mandallon?"
"I am unsure exactly what his purpose is," Mandallon said, with a tone that sounded nearly apologetic, "but… your new member, Sun Wu Kung… I believe he has somehow gotten himself into a duel!"