There was a little promise DuQuesne and Wu made to Orphan earlier...
Ariane rose slowly to her feet, favoring her side. "Okay, I think I know when I'm beaten," she said, bowing to her opponent, Orphan.
Wu Kung had been expecting her to yield earlier. But she's a real fighter, he thought with admiration. Won't give up even in a play fight without showing what she's got in guts.
Orphan leaned back on his tail with a buzzing chuckle. "Oh, now that I doubt in the extreme, Captain Austin. If you had the capacity to even believe you were beaten, how then could you have faced a Shadeweaver – and won?" He bowed to her. "Still, it is a wise tactician who recognizes they no longer need stay in the battle. And you did quite well."
"You managed to hit him a few times," DuQuesne said with a grin. "Take that as a compliment. Orphan's good."
"So I see. If I ever have to fight you for real, Orphan, you'll pardon me if I cheat."
The chuckle turned to a full, rich laugh – though still with that buzzing undertone. "Oh, Captain Austin, I would expect you to cheat. Of course," he said, with a lean forward and tilt that somehow conveyed the impression of a roguish grin, "if ever I must fight any of you, rest assured I will cheat as well!"
"I sure don't doubt that," DuQuesne said.
Gabrielle checked the signals from Ariane's medical nanos using a handheld scanner. "No serious damage, Arrie."
"Of course not," Wu said defensively, wondering if they thought he'd let her get hurt. "If I thought Orphan was actually going to hurt her – past a few broken bones or something like that – I'd have stopped him!"
"I'd much rather you stopped it before any bones got broken, thank you kindly," Gabrielle said with a sigh. "But in this kind of sparring I suppose that's a forlorn hope."
Wu was going to protest that if you were going to let things like that stop you, you weren't ready to learn serious fighting… but he remembered that a lot of other people didn't think that way.
Ariane seated herself on one of the benches set around the large exercise and practice area that Steve had figured out how to create inside their Embassy. Wu looked around admiringly. It's not anywhere as big as what they showed me for some of the Great Factions, but it's still a great sparring and exercise place!
Currently, the room was configured in something that more than hinted at some of the Arena's combat challenge areas: different levels of the floor, upright and sideways obstacles like tree trunks and branches, irregular obstacles like rocks, and so on. In this first contest – which, Wu understood, was partly a way of strengthening ties with the Liberated – Ariane had tried to use her smaller size and maneuverability against Orphan, but he was lightning fast and very strong. Fast and strong, and he hasn't shown what he can do for real, not yet.
"That was indeed a fine warmup," Orphan said. "But you have been stretching yourself on the sidelines long enough, Doctor DuQuesne. Or perhaps you, Sun Wu Kung, would care to give me the instruction Dr. DuQuesne promised me?"
Wu grinned a fanged smile but didn't take the bait. This part of the contest DuQuesne and he had talked out in detail. DuQuesne wasn't going to push himself past the point Orphan had already seen, in the battle against Amas-Garao, so Wu could push past that point, up to roughly where he knew DuQuesne would be if he started to push himself, which would be somewhere around Tunuvun's skill and strength. "I think DuQuesne wants to try you first."
The door opened, and K – no, he reminded himself, Oasis Abrams, have to remember who she's pretending to be – came in. "Sparring with aliens and no one invited me?"
Despite the lighthearted comment, Wu sensed unusual tension from her – and a whiff from DuQuesne, too. There was something going on there, but neither of them had said anything to him. No one does if they think it will upset me. And that upsets me. But then, maybe that proves they're right. If something upsets me not to know, maybe it would be even more upsetting if I knew… He stopped there, realizing he was about to really get confused.
"Oasis!" Ariane said, obviously surprised. "Aren't you –"
"Ambassador Ni Deng and Vantak are at the Arcade, meeting with some of the Blessed's allies, and the Ambassador said she didn't need me." She shrugged. "I suppose they could try something, but being too reluctant would probably be insulting too, so it's her judgment call." She grinned, and Wu could sense more honest relaxation. "And this looks a lot more fun than watching their discussions, anyway."
Ariane nodded, smiling. "I suppose so. But if she's making good progress – and Ambassador Naraj thinks she is – she could be helping get us a major support in our coming war. If we get enough support, the Molothos may even back down."
"Yeah, good luck with that," DuQuesne said. He rose to his feet. "Okay, Orphan, time for us to find out what you've really got." Then he paused. "Unless you want first dibs, Oasis?"
"Hand to hand only?"
"Well, appendage to appendage," Orphan said, wagging his tail obviously. "I have no intention of handicapping myself to that extent."
"Oh, of course not."
The redheaded woman faced off with the tall, massive green and black patterned Orphan. For a few moments, the two stood still, measuring each others' stances. Then Orphan exploded into motion.
But Oasis was not there; she was above the two meters and more of alien, flipping effortlessly from projection to projection.
Orphan gave a surprised laugh and then bounded up in pursuit, his chitinous armor and leaping motion combining with his occasionally flaring wing-cases to give him the aspect of an immense locust.
The two figures came together in a looping motion, and suddenly the red-haired figure was plummeting downward, barely saving herself from impact with the ground; she leapt aside desperately as Orphan followed her. But she should be doing a lot better than that! What…
Even as he thought that, he remembered. She's pretending to be human, ordinary human. Very good, very trained – better than Ariane – but not like she really is. So…
The end came quickly, as she evaded two ordinary strikes only to be caught by a brutal tail-strike. Gabrielle was sprinting quickly to Oasis' side even as she came to rest. "Okay, that's hard enough! Good Lord, do you people want to kill each other?"
But Oasis was slowly trying to get up already. "We're… just doing some … friendly sparring," she managed to say.
"Friendly … well, maybe, but that's enough for you."
"All right," DuQuesne said, as Oasis sat down heavily on the bench next to Ariane, "Now it's my turn."
Orphan bowed to DuQuesne, and the two came directly at each other.
Wu laughed and clapped his hands. This was much more like it! For moments the two stood nearly toe-to-toe, blocking each other's blows, evading strikes, delivering others of their own. Simultaneously a kick from a shining-black foot hammered home even as the strike of a massive fist smashed into a crested head, and both combatants staggered backwards, instantly coming back on guard. DuQuesne and Orphan circled each other, and then DuQuesne charged in, shrugging off a glancing blow but taking his opponent down with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu grapple. The bodies slammed to the floor, DuQuesne on top and driving hard, trying to control Orphan, render him helpless.
But human martial arts were generally intended for human opponents, and Orphan's flexible, sting-equipped tail made that approach far too dangerous. DuQuesne was kicked away, bleeding from his nose, but grinning a savage warrior's grin. Orphan rolled to his feet, crouching now with tail raised like a scorpion's, and he was giving a buzz of warlike amusement.
The two made several more passes; Orphan used a lightning-fast wing strike that took down DuQuesne like an axe, but couldn't capitalize on it; DuQuesne caught Orphan off-guard and almost battered him to his knees, but instead got taken down himself; for a few seconds the two even locked arms in a contest of strength that seemed likely to go on for a long time.
Finally DuQuesne bowed out. "I think," he said, breathing a little hard – and exaggerating it, too, Wu thought, "that we could go on doing that for quite a while. Now, like I promised – you get to try Wu."
Wu stepped forward, knowing just by the other's posture that he was having a hard time taking such a tiny opponent as seriously as he should… but he was going on guard anyway. "This looks like fun!" he said, and bowed to Orphan.
"We shall see," Orphan said, and did a pushup-bow.
Wu waited for Orphan to get prepared.
Then he leaped up, grabbed one of the branchlike supports, and scrambled up and around as though he were back in the jungles of the Mountain. He heard Orphan already coming after him. He's moving in… coming from that direction… he'll be arcing up, trying to get the height on me. Ha!
The green-black figure spun in from above, Orphan's tail allowing him to grab and shift direction in motion while leaving arms and legs free. But Wu Kung ducked and ran right up Orphan's back, caught the tail as it started to unwind, anchored himself with his own tail, and pulled.
Caught in midair, with nothing to catch hold of, Orphan was slung up and over, somersaulting through space. He twisted, flared his wingcases to catch air and guide his fall, blunted the impact, but his posture now showed he had full respect for Wu's abilities. "Well done!" Orphan shouted, even as he moved back in, this time more cautiously. "I should recall that you and I share certain anatomical advantages."
"You should, because now is the time for us to see which of us is better! Let us not run and dance!"
"As you wish."
Orphan dropped lightly to the ground and waited. Sun Wu Kung evaluated his position, landed several meters ahead, paused, and then met Orphan's charge with his own.
A charge which he evaded at the last second, ducking aside and kicking Orphan just between the wingcases. The leader (and sole member) of the Liberated was smashed unceremoniously to the slightly-yielding floor, skidding and tumbling for a few meters before managing to turn the fall into a roll. Orphan was up almost immediately, but the turn was slightly … off, not quite as quick and precise as his prior moves. Is he faking? … no, he is stunned for a moment.
Wu didn't hesitate. He bounded in, blocked a kick, a tail strike, and one punch, got in a double-footed kick that sent Orphan staggering back – and made his wings flare.
There! From Ariane's first encounter with the Blessed!
The pinkish tympani were exposed for that brief moment, and Wu delivered a lightning fast slap to each, one with each hand.
Orphan gave a coughing buzz of pain and collapsed. "Enough!"
Immediately Wu stepped back and bowed; a spatter of applause came from the watchers. Orphan slowly pulled himself to his feet, and did a push-bow to both Wu and DuQuesne. "I am… adequately instructed for my doubts, Doctor DuQuesne." He turned to Wu. "You are truly a master of combat, Sun Wu Kung. I would venture to say you might match… or even slightly surpass… the best of the Arena's warriors." He looked at DuQuesne and Ariane. "I thank you for your trust in this."
Ariane smiled. "I thought you would understand. Is it true?"
"That there are limits on how capable one might make oneself, using technological enhancement? Most certainly. But it is, admittedly, at least partially determined based on what you are to begin with. The Molothos and some others, such as the Daelmokhan, began their emergence into the Arena already extremely formidable, and thus their enhancements can reach somewhat greater levels. The Genasi, of course, are native to the Arena, so what rules THEY follow… is not yet entirely clear. What is clear is that your people obviously must have started from most formidable stock indeed, if this is the result."
Orphan seemed now fully recovered. He's tough! Very good! "I now regret, even more, not happening to be present for your impromptu challenge, Sun Wu Kung; that battle must have been magnificent, with you alongside one of the great Champions."
Wu let himself smile broadly. "It was fun, yes. A lot of fun."
The important thing – the real reason this sparring match had happened – seemed to have worked. DuQuesne had implied that Wu was better – but at the same time he really wanted both him and Wu to have some reserve, something no one knew about. So this battle was to convince Orphan that he knew what even DuQuesne and Wu Kung were capable of – and maybe get some information from him about how all these abilities worked compared to what you could do in the normal universe. He sure seems to believe he's seen the truth. Doesn't smell terribly suspicious – no more than he was coming in, anyway.
The door suddenly burst open, and Simon Sandrisson stood there, white coat flowing down, with a smile on the face framed by brilliant white hair. "Ariane! DuQuesne!"
Ariane jumped slightly – the door had opened right next to her. "Simon? I thought you were –"
"On the Upper Sphere, yes, I was." Wu heard the scientist's breathing. Boy, he was running fast! "And I suppose I could have called, but…"
He drew himself up. "But this was something I wanted to tell you in person. We have a direct Sky Gate link to Nexus Arena!"