Simon may be on his way, but Ariane has other problems to deal with...
"I shall not waste more of your time this day," Selpa said, and rose from the cradle-like seat that his species used. "And I will assuredly tell you of our decision when it is reached, so that you need not wonder what has happened. If you have not heard from us, then we have not yet decided."
"I guess I can't ask for more than that. Thank you, Selpa'a'At. May your course be ever your own."
"And yours as well. Until later, Captain Austin."
Oscar Naraj entered as Selpa left. "Any luck?" The Ambassador's face registered both concern and sympathy; she didn't think it was feigned, either. Naraj might believe she was the wrong choice for this job, might want to get rid of her in any way possible, but he had, as far as she could tell, no personal animosity towards her at all.
"I'm afraid not," she said. "He doesn't want to drive a wedge between us, but given the potential value of a human being actually joining your faction, Maria-Susanna's offer to join the Vengeance is just far too tempting for them to simply refuse outright. I can't really hold it against him. At least he told me about it as soon as it happened, so I can start thinking about what the consequences might be if they do decide to let her join." She looked around, feeling something was missing. "Oh. Where's Michelle?"
"Ah, yes. I have given Deputy Ambassador Ni Deng the responsibility of finding some useful common ground between ourselves and the Blessed."
"I thought you were… rather nervous about the Blessed, considering the fact that they're controlled by their AIs."
"I am, quite," he admitted. "But at the same time, I have to consider all factors and try, as much as is possible, to react from rational policy instead of personal prejudice. The Blessed To Serve are an immensely powerful faction, and despite some considerable humiliation and provocation on our part – not," he hastily added, "deliberate on your part, I know – they have chosen to let go of the past and offer us a chance for peaceful interchange."
He sat down, and for a moment – just an instant – she saw Oscar Naraj looking tired, uncertain, and worried. "I've researched the Molothos rather extensively since getting here, Captain Austin," he said slowly. "And… speaking entirely honestly… they terrify me. I had thought originally that there might be a way of negotiating with them. Then when that turned out… less well than I had hoped, I had thought there might be some political pressures or approaches which might be used.
"But there appear to be none, at least none that we can easily avail ourselves of. They are one of the oldest active factions, which is why they remain so powerful; they gained many Spheres on their own early, and – as we discovered ourselves – also expand by colonizing the Upper Sphere of uninhabited solar systems. No one can truly say how many of them there are, or what sort of force they could bring to bear in battle, except that it would be staggeringly huge. They are able to compromise just barely enough to keep the majority factions from uniting against them." He looked down. "You recall Dajzail mentioned another species, the Randaalar?"
"His statement was pure fact. The Randaalar refused to bow to the Molothos about thirty thousand years ago, and apparently the Molothos found their homeworld and destroyed it – not merely conquered, but obliterated the planet itself in some fashion, and hunted down every member of the species for the next several centuries. Against something like that… I truly am reluctant to shut out any possible allies, even if they are themselves frightening in another way."
"Ni Deng understands she can't –"
"Oh, we both understand that any final decisions are yours, Captain," Oscar assured her. He stood again. "But I wanted her to have some particular area to focus on, and this will likely be something that will take considerable time and delicacy to arrange. Michelle is extremely patient when the situation calls for it, and her attention to detail is what recommended her to me several years ago.
"In the meantime, I am seeking more allies in other areas. I have an appointment, in fact, with the Shadeweaver Gona-Brashind at their Faction House, so I had best be moving on."
"Just be careful, Ambassador," she said warningly. "Gona-Brashind didn't, as far as I can tell, mess around with us the way Amas-Garao did, but he's sure got his own agenda and we don't know what it is."
"Oh, I shall be careful," Oscar said, and turned as he was leaving. "But do give me a bit of credit, Captain; I have spent years arranging things according to my own agenda, so I am not at all unfamiliar with the idea."
Wu Kung looked in after the Ambassador was gone. "He's a devious one."
"You mean that in a specific way?" The last thing she needed was internal intrigues. She knew Naraj probably had some plans, but…
He wrinkled his nose as though he'd smelled something bad, and his little fangs projected momentarily; somehow, it made the little Hyperion look cute, a thought she had never expected to have. "Well… no. Maybe. He always smells like he has some idea underneath every idea, so I can't tell if he's planning anything. So you watch out, okay?"
"Isn't that your job?"
He made as though to slap her head gently. "You like to take risks like me! And sometimes I am not there! So it may be my job, but it's your job too!"
He turned smoothly away, obviously having heard something; a second later she picked up the sound of a pair of people walking through the entryway to her office.
"I beg your pardon, Ariane," Simon said, with Laila Canning next to him. "But … could I speak with you in private, please?"
Oh, thank God. He's got to be coming to me to talk about whatever's bothering him, and I was absolutely dreading having to try to pry it out of him. "Of course, Simon."
"And," Laila said, "I will want the same opportunity afterwards. If you can spare the time."
They came together… why? Did he talk to Laila first? Why? "I can spare the time, Laila. It's not as though you demand much of it in the first place. Wu, just wait outside. I'm safe enough with Simon."
The door shut, and Simon looked at her for a long moment before sitting down slowly, sweeping his sword around and out of the way in a now-practiced, elegant gesture. "I don't know if you've noticed –"
"I think most of us have. Something's been bothering you for a while, and none of us know what it is."
"Hm." A weak smile. "Concealing secrets has never been my strong point, I must confess. But this one… was personally frightening. And I think you will understand my reluctance."
Simon launched into his explanation. She was first struck with a feeling of self-reproach – why didn't I recognize something had happened that time? – even as she realized she'd been in no position to really pay much attention to anything during the ritual that had sealed away the strange Arena-born powers she'd gained in that last desperate gamble against Amas-Garao.
Then he described what had happened in the Archives, and she felt the same cold chill she often got when dealing with the mysteries of the Arena. "Creepy, once again."
"Oh, very much so," Simon agreed, no longer smiling.
"But why keep it a secret, Simon? It's scary, yes, but –"
"You really don't understand?" He shook his head. "Oh, of course. Because it happened to me well afterwards, when we knew each other well, and –"
Then it suddenly burst in on her what he meant, what he'd been afraid of, and why he would have had to talk first to Laila before anyone else. "Oh, God. Simon, I'm sorry, that was very dense of me."
Even as she said it, she felt – almost involuntarily – the calm, cold discipline she'd cultivated as "Captain Austin" coming forward. "You're right, it is a concern. But – if I'm completely honest – it's one that you should all have about me, too."
Simon blinked, and then laughed, a chagrined expression on his face. "Oh, great kami, of course, of course. And I suppose DuQuesne…?"
"… confronted me with that question immediately afterwards. And I told him what happened and basically threw myself on his mercy." Another thought struck her. "And you know, what you described… that was exactly what I saw, what I felt, when the change happened, and it sounds like what happened to Mandallon."
"Yes, I see. But at the same time, that can't be what happened to me. I haven't shown the slightest trace of abilities such as Mandallon or yourself, and – if we're right about when this happened – I have been living with this for months. You needed to be contained within a day of gaining the power, and I was given the strong impression that Initiate Guides are both carefully trained before the day, and are assisted afterwards for some time by other trained Guides. Based on what we know, if I had gained that power, I should have become a walking disaster within days or weeks at most."
She nodded. Makes sense. "Then the only thing I can think of is that you somehow… retained a connection to what you saw. Not of power, but of information. And sometimes you can open that connection."
Simon's green eyes widened slightly. "That does make a great deal of sense, yes! Alas," he continued, "it doesn't actually answer my current questions, though."
"Simon, the fact is we're not going to get clear-cut answers to that kind of thing, at least not any time soon. All we can do us use our best judgment. And in mine you are still the Doctor Simon Sandrisson who brought all of us here in the first place. If you want a second opinion, ask DuQuesne. He's the expert in seeing through phonies. He saw through Hyperion's near-perfect illusions and survived breaking them. He'll tell you if he thinks there's anything wrong with you." She smiled. "Simon, we wouldn't have come here without you. We wouldn't have gotten home without you. We might be able to do the rest without you, but I'm damn glad we don't have to. I think you're you, and that's the end of the subject as far as I'm concerned."
She could see the tension evaporate. "Then… thank you, Ariane. Arigatou gozaimasu, thank you very much. I'm sorry for not having come to you sooner –"
"Don't apologize, Simon. With our worry about Laila and the way I behaved, you had every reason to wonder about my reaction. And that said, I'd better let Laila in and talk this out with her, too."
A few moments later, Laila Canning entered and closed the door.
"Sit down, Laila. After what Simon talked to me about, I have a fairly good idea of what you needed to talk about."
The brown-haired scientist smiled quickly. "I don't doubt it. Mainly, I had one quite specific question, though."
A specific question? Puzzled, Ariane asked, "All right, what is it?"
Laila leaned forward. "You've been suspicious of me since I awakened – and it's always seemed to me that you felt you had a reason for it, not just reasonable caution. I can't say exactly why I felt this, but …" she looked apologetic, "but I just kept getting the feeling you didn't trust me for some actual reason."
God, I feel like such an idiot. "Not… not really a reason, Laila. Actually, after my conversation with Simon, I was just reminded of how stupid I sometimes can be. It was just a silly impression."
She deserves to at least hear how silly I was being. "Right after our first talk – after you woke up – I was leaving, and when I looked back…" she sighed, smiled with embarrassment. "This is really stupid. It will completely ruin my reputation as any sort of bright commander, I warn you."
"All right. I looked back, and for just an instant – just a split second – I thought I saw you looking back at me with a completely different expression."
Laila raised an eyebrow. "What sort of expression?"
She thought back to that moment, and that same chill went down her spine again. "Sort of the expression I've seen used when you're studying something under a microscope, but at the same time almost as though you found me … funny? Amusing?" She shivered. "It was probably just the stress of the moment, but that impression was pretty creepy and it stayed with me."
Laila looked at her for a long moment. "Interesting. That is what you saw?"
"That's what I thought I saw," Ariane said, feeling even more embarrassed. "I probably invented it."
Laila smiled slowly. "Possibly not. You have shown an … impressive ability to observe and act on your observations in the past; a combat or racing pilot who doesn't notice things fast is likely dead thereafter.
"Your reaction isn't scientific, no, and I deplore the idea that a simple emotional reaction would determine the level of trust… but I also have to recall that your 'gut-level' instinct has managed to get us all through this in prior conflicts, so I would be rather ill-advised to just dismiss it. I will say that I don't even recall looking at you as you left – but I also have other scattered moments in which I am not entirely clear what I was doing. So… perhaps I am not, in fact, Laila Canning." She looked steadily at Ariane. "But I would like to resolve how I'll be treated from now on."
"You aren't giving me much of a break, are you?"
She snorted. "No. I'll admit to an emotional reaction of my own, and that is that I resent the idea that you've been wondering if I'm not myself because you thought you saw something. But in any case, I cannot give you a 'break', Captain. This is your decision, and it should be made with full knowledge of what you might be doing."
I wish DuQuesne was here!
She squelched that thought. DuQuesne wasn't there, and if he was, he'd almost certainly just repeat Laila's advice. That's why they'd chosen her Captain.
She probably only sat there for a few moments, but to Ariane it felt like hours. Judging from the well-hidden tension in Laila's face, it wasn't a short wait for her, either.
"All right, Laila," she said finally. "I'll be just as honest, then. I owe you that.
"We don't know if you're yourself or not. You could be an agent of the Faith, or something else. Or you could be exactly who you always were. I think you're a little changed – you don't want to go back to who you were, with three AISages in your head, practically running your body while you studied. But honestly? First, I can't afford to lose any of the people who've been here with me. Second, I really think you are you, or mostly you. Third… I can't afford paranoia. If there is something not-you there, it's never shown any sign of being anything other than helpful. Mandallon brought you back from what was basically brain-dead and gave you back to us, and I should be simply grateful for that. If the Faith did anything to you, well, they've already got all the information you have, and they haven't shown any sign of it. So no matter what, I think you're one of us, and you mean to stay one of us.
"So as of now, I'm going to assume you are the exact same Doctor Laila Canning who made that trip, and I will inform DuQuesne of this decision. I don't have time for this kind of worry. If I'm giving Simon – with a lot more evidence of something funny going on – the benefit of the doubt, I have to give it to you. Especially," she smiled, "since I'm asking you to give the same benefit to me."
As with Simon, she saw tension seep away from Laila. "Thank you, Ariane," she said. "I … did not want to leave here, but if I had to be always suspected –"
"I know. It's over." She reached out and gripped the other woman's hand. "I'm sorry. Welcome back. Welcome really back."
And Laila gripped back with a smile.