We've mentioned Simon several times earlier, let's see what he's up to...
"Simon!" Laila Canning said, and there was honest surprise in her voice. "What in the world… or worlds, I suppose… are you doing here?"
Simon looked around at the soaring lines of the Faith's great hall, and the lines of people of all species filing in. "Well, partly I have never been here before,and I admit to a great curiosity as to the workings of a faith which is held by members of almost uncountable species." He smiled, though it took some effort to keep the expression natural. "After all, humanity has never managed to agree on one set of beliefs, and I would be – am – surprised that a single belief could draw people of such diversity to it."
"Hmph," she said, and the brown eyes were narrow and analytical. "You weren't at our meeting yesterday – I'm sure you heard about that little event?"
"About Sun Wu Kung managing to get himself in trouble the first time he wandered free? Yes, I did, when DuQuesne stopped by to take over the scanning this morning."
"Indeed. And that means you came here essentially directly from Transition, no stopover at the Embassy. What's the real reason you came, Simon?"
So much for subtle approaches. "Yes, well… I wanted to talk with you privately, away from our Embassy, and this seemed one of the better choices."
Her head did the quick, birdlike tilt he remembered from their first meeting. "I see." She glanced around. "Well, not out here, certainly, unless you want random passers-by to hear whatever secret you apparently wish to tell me. This way."
She led Simon through a low archway to one side, where they found Nyanthus, the leader of the Faith, apparently in the process of putting on ornamental garments for the ceremony. "Excuse my intrusion on your preparations, First Guide."
The warm, mellifluous voice rolled out from the First Guide's openwork candleflame top, and his symbiotic sensing-creatures flew out and circled them in greeting. "It is forgiven, Laila Canning,and I bid you welcome again to the house of the Faith. And to you, Simon Sandrisson, I bid a special welcome, on this, your first entry to our home."
"Thank you, First Guide Nyanthus," Simon said.
"First Guide," Laila said quickly, "Simon and I need to speak privately. Might we…"
The tendrils that made up the candle-flame flickered open for a moment. "Of course, Laila. You may use one of the private rooms in the Path of Trust; there should be several free, as these are the days of the Cycle of Wonder."
Laila thanked him and turned to go.
"Thank you very much, Nyanthus," Simon said, and quickly followed the brown-haired scientist.
Dr. Canning led him about three-quarters of the way around the circular walkway that went around the perimeter of the great worship hall; by the time she turned down a side passage, Simon could hear alien but very pretty music starting to rise from the great hall. "I suspect a symbolism in which rooms he offered to you."
Laila's smile was quick and bright. "I don't doubt it; Guide Nyanthus is very wise, and very smart, and always alert to what is going on. He signals both that he trusts me, and that if we have secret conversations then both of us must trust the other – with must being able to be read at least two ways."
Simon tried to smile, but the tension was too great. "Yes, I see."
Laila gestured and one of the doors opened slightly; she looked through, nodded, and waved again, causing the door to open fully.
Going through the door, Simon saw some human-style chairs and a desk. "Interesting. I suppose the Wagamia might use this, but is the design common?"
"I am not entirely sure," she admitted. "Given that we are in someone's embassy, I would not bet against the possibility that the furnishings rearrange themselves for each group that opens the doors." She chose a seat and sat down."Now, Simon, what is so secret and important that you leave the Embassy and come here – and that you don't even discuss with Ariane?"
He tried to sit, but he was too tense, and sprang up, began pacing. "Laila… it must be very difficult for you. I know that Ariane has always wondered…"
"Ah." She looked distant. "Simon, I won't lie. It is very difficult. The more so since I can't tell why Ariane is wary of me, other than just general caution, but I'm sure there's some quite clear reason that made her nervous about me.
"And I confess – quite freely – that I don't have any proof that I was not, in fact, modified by Mandallon in some way. I was nearly brain-dead after all, and it's quite possible his attempt to fix me involved putting a part of himself in – perhaps putting in much more of him than me." She sighed. "Honestly, I don't blame DuQuesne his suspicions; given what we now know is his past? I'd be paranoid too, and the Arena's given us more than enough reason to question everything we know."
Laila stood – exactly as Simon decided to sit. The two of them looked at each other for a moment and Simon could suddenly not keep himself from laughing. Fortunately, the same impulse had struck Laila, and for a few moments they laughed, fading to chuckles. Laila Canning sat back down, a smile still on her face. "Oh, that was good. Do you know… I don't think I've had a decent laugh since I came to this damned place, until now."
"I'm terribly sorry, Laila."
"Hardly your fault, Simon. True, you haven't done anything to argue against their suspicions that I know of, but really, there's nothing to argue." Her lips tightened and she looked down, smooth, straight brown hair momentarily shadowing her face. "I have… been seriously considering joining the Faith."
Not a surprise. "I did rather wonder about that. It would be the logical step if you felt you couldn't stay with us."
"Logical? Yes." She lifted her head, and her expression was like iron. "And perhaps all too human. But I'm not giving up on my own people – even if I have somehow been changed. Not yet, anyway." She tilted her head again. "So what is it that makes you think there's a parallel between us? Because that's the only rational reason I can think of for this line of conversation."
The question was like a splash of ice-water, making him blink. Yes, of course she'd see it. She's as smart as I am, and I wasn't being subtle. "You remember when Gona-Brashind and Nyanthus had us help in the sealing of Ariane's … powers?"
She smiled briefly. "Rather hard to forget. That's the sort of event that even the natives of the Arena don't see often, and we had never seen at all."
"Well… just at the end, when things almost went completely wrong… something happened to me. The energies converged all on me, rather than around the circle or through Ariane, for just a moment. Mandallon was afraid it had injured me."
"Yes, I vaguely remember that part. I was recovering myself; the … ritual, I suppose we must call it… was mentally and physically taxing for all of us."
"I can't really remember much of it directly," Simon went on, "but I did take a few – very disjointed – notes and in essence they say that I 'saw everything', and a few other cryptic notations, like being noticed, and not everything being good or bad, but power beyond belief."
Laila nodded slowly. "Hm. So Shadeweaver and Faith powers converging at once on you, and you suddenly have an epiphany or something of that sort?"
"Shadeweaver and Faith and whatever power Ariane held, as well," Simon said. "I didn't give much thought to it afterwards – I think, honestly, because it frightened me in a way I just wasn't accustomed to, and once I stopped thinking about it, it faded away. I felt something… odd when we went through Transition, but again it wasn't anything to think much about. But then…" He told her about the Archives and what had happened there. "Laila, I knew what I was looking for. It was as though that moment of frustration and anger and need made something click into place, and suddenly I just knew, as though I'd already had the entire index in my head. I could operate that floating device instantly, even though I'd never seen the inside of one before. I could read texts in a language no one in the Arena has known for ten thousand years, read them as though they'd been written in English all along."
He leapt to his feet again, pacing in agitation; thinking of the events brought the worry and, yes, fear back to the foreground. "And I could understand it all, Laila. Not just read the words, but the principles, the diagrams, they all were just absolutely clear, as though I'd already studied them. I could see exactly how these new principles could be applied, and I sat down and started sketching the sensing coils right there, with no machine backup, no second guessing, it was just all there, and I … I don't exactly remember all of it, either."
He found he was shaking. Why? I know this is a frightening thing, but why do I feel so much terror?
"Oh, good Lord, Simon. How … terrifying." Her voice was as gentle as he had ever heard it.
"You understand, then?" He tried to sound light, humorous, and knew he was failing. "Because I'm not entirely sure I do."
"Of course." She smiled wryly. "Same problem I have – how do I know whether what my mind does is because I want it to, or because someone else made me want to? You can't remember, yet you actually finished designing something in that time you can't recall. That would be frightening for anyone. For you? For me? Utter horror. We make our livings with… we are… our minds, even more than most people, and to not even know what we ourselves were doing? Terrifying. The more so because of what you think it might mean."
"That I… am not entirely myself any more."
Not for the first time, he desperately wished Mio could be there to help and advise him. She would know if I was truly me. But no AISage could make that journey, and he wondered if this uncertainty, this being alone in his own head, was one of the things the Arena specifically desired or required. "Yet I don't feel any different in my self, if you know what I mean."
"All too well. Then again," she said with the same wry smile, "how do I actually know what my self felt like before?"
That was the key question, Simon admitted to himself. If you were facing something that could change natural law, could it not change you in a way that you could not detect? That you would believe was completely natural and consistent with the you that had existed before?
He suddenly laughed. "Well, now, I do understand DuQuesne more. It's rather an inverse of his problem, isn't it?"
Laila thought a moment, then laughed herself. "You're right, of course. He remained himself, but the entire world he thought was real turned out to be false. And he probably can't help but occasionally wonder if this world is real or just another layer of arranged fantasy."
Simon remembered the time, shortly after they arrived, when Steve Franceschetti had proposed exactly that. "Yes… I'm sure he does. When the subject came up he was terrified. The only time I've ever seen him look really frightened, actually, and the only reason for that is not just that the idea repels him, but that it could be true but, this time, so well done that even Marc C. DuQuesne of Hyperion can't tell. So now here we are, sure that the world is the same, but not knowing if we are the people we think we are."
She looked at him levelly. "So what are you going to do about it?"
The talk with Laila had clarified a lot of things – not the least of which being his priorities. "Well, I suppose the only thing I can do. Talk to Ariane about it and let her decide what she wants to do. It's not up to me to make decisions on whether to risk having me part of the active crew, that's Ariane's decision, and I've been avoiding telling her because I'm afraid of what that decision will be."
Laila brushed absently at her bangs, the straight-shining brown hair shimmering slightly in the pale-gold light from the ceiling. "And I've been avoiding confronting the issue… which also isn't the right way to go, now that I really let myself think about it. If I'm thinking of going to the Faith, I should at least talk it over with someone else, shouldn't I?"
"I would say so – assuming you don't feel an inherent hostility towards us, that is."
"No," she said quickly. "Not at all. A bit of pain over the fact that there's some mistrust that isn't my fault… but I can't blame them, as I said."
Simon rose slowly. "Then… why don't we do this together? Might be a little easier than doing it separately?"
This smile was more genuine, with a tinge of gratitude. "I think that's a good idea, Simon," Laila said; her smile then sharpened, just a hair. "It almost sounds romantic, in a facing-execution-together sort of way. And here I thought your eyes were only for Ariane Austin."
He returned the smile and offered his arm. "I would never deny my interest in that direction, but I am not yet committed, and certainly not blind to beauty in any direction."
She took his arm and stood. "Then let's go see what the firing squad has in store for us, shall we?"