Finally, Orphan gets to show off one of his favorite toys...
"And finally," Orphan said, with a dramatic bow and sweeping gesture, "I shall complete the introduction so rudely interrupted these many months ago. My friends and allies, the flagship of the Liberated, the Zounin-Ginjou."
Compared to the many kilometers-long dock extending from Nexus Arena, the Zounin-Ginjou might have seemed small, but at this range Ariane realized that the ship was huge – and beautiful. The size and massive presence of what was obviously a warship was both accentuated and mitigated by its construction – deep, rich browns and mahogany colors of polished wood, shining gold trim, silver highlights, sparkling crystal ports. Zounin-Ginjou was a gigantic yet streamlined spindle-cigar shape, with recessed rotating jets, bulges of hidden equipment and obvious viewports, and sculpted ridges symmetric around her long axis, ridges that ran straight down or curved gently, to meet and dovetail and curve away again before the hull tapered to a four-vaned tail.
"She's gorgeous, Orphan. Did I get a … sense of meaning from that name?"
The crested head tilted comically. "What you may have sensed I cannot say. What was this meaning you thought you sensed?"
"Something… a brilliant star in the depths of utter blackness." She glanced at DuQuesne, Laila, and Wu, who all nodded.
"Yes, indeed. The Arena continues to amuse us, does it not? Sometimes a translation, sometimes an equivalent name, sometimes a hint of meaning." He laughed. "But that is indeed the essence of it. Final Light, the Sentry in the Dark, Point of Light? All of these, and more."
That makes sense, given his position as the last of the Liberated. She frowned at the hull. Something bothered her. Hmm. Those strange ridges make a pattern… The hull seems thicker there… "Orphan, are those… sails?"
"Sails, air-brakes, turning-vanes, yes. And the thicker ones to the sides can be wings, for gliding within a stronger gravity field." Orphan nodded. "I had forgotten; you are just now coming to understand the Arena's… odd constraints in such travel."
"We're learning," DuQuesne said. "But it's gonna take a while. For us, if you're in atmosphere, you've got gravity, if you don't have atmosphere, you might or might not have gravity – but usually not, in practice."
"Here, atmosphere of some sort is a constant, but gravity is a fickle master," Orphan said, leading them aboard along an extended ramp.
The ramp brought them onboard and was longer than it seemed – meaning that Zounin-Ginjou loomed even larger as they approached. This ship really is huge, Ariane thought. Well over a kilometer long.
Orphan continued, "You already know that each Sphere is surrounded by a wide band of gravity – although Nexus Arena rather breaks that rule, since off the Docks the gravity goes to effectively zero for some distance." When they nodded, he went on, activating the external door, "So. In between Spheres, there is usually gravity, though quite weak, and it varies depending on where in the Spherepool you are. You will have a tendency to be drawn inward – towards the center of the Spherepool – and planeward, towards the ideal plane which passes through the Spherepool from side to side. "
DuQuesne grunted. "So, like the overall gravity of a galaxy, then."
"In essence, yes."
The door swung wide, and Ariane saw a wide, well-lit corridor with what seemed hand-rubbed wood panelling, engraved in alien yet generally pleasing patterns, lining the walls. The walls themselves had strange traces of alien design, neither circular nor square but with curves just slightly greater than a normal human designer would feel comfortable with. Still… "This seems… almost normal."
"If I understand the implied question, indeed. In the days following your departure, I considered a number of things, and decided that as it was very likely you would remain some of my most valuable allies, it would be wise to adjust my ship to allow you some comfort." He extended wings and arms a moment in a walking bow. "I am, of course, well used to adjusting to change."
"It's beautifully done," Laila said. "I can see where you must have done the modifications – these curves are part of the essential structure, but other areas are obviously modified. What's left still is quite interesting from a biological point of view."
Orphan looked at her with mock concern. "By the Minds, you will discern my uttermost secrets in my architecture! What an error I have made!"
Ariane laughed, as did the others. "You'd already learned more than that from our stay in your Embassy. And here you've put that to good use."
They entered what proved to be an elevator – one that seemed to have a minimal number of stops. Probably a quick travel mechanism for the crucial areas of the vessel.
The door of the elevator slid up, rather than sideways, revealing a gigantic control room so filled with gleaming consoles, levers, solidly-placed viewscreens, and padded, anchored chairs that Ariane found herself irresistably reminded of something from the Age of Steam. "These are all hand controls!" she said.
"Well, some by foot. And normally one or two for the tail, but I've redesigned that. But yes, all manual. Trusting automation in the Arena is a game for the newly-hatched. Some automation works, as you have discovered, but it is rarely as good as a living person at doing anything. Does this bother you?"
Ariane was already examining the controls. "Oh, no, not one little bit. I just need to learn how all this works."
"And that is of course why you, in particular, are here, Captain Austin," Orphan said. "No better student to learn the basics of piloting this vessel and pass on what you have learned."
"Hold on," DuQuesne said. "You're not giving us this one, are you?"
Orphan flicked his hands out in the no gesture. "Oh, my apologies. I did indeed mis-speak. This vessel shall remain mine, of course. But the others have all had their controls modeled in the same way, allowing for difference in size and particular mission, so if you learn the ways of Zounin-Ginjou you will be prepared for any of our vessels."
"Why the big window?" Wu Kung asked. "This is a warship. Why weaken it?"
Orphan laughed. "An obvious and direct question, but one which makes too many assumptions, Sun Wu Kung. While it is true that the failure mode of the window is an abrupt shattering rather than the bending of ordinary metal, that window – and those of most warships – is composed of carefully layered carbon with reinforcement of the crystal structure via specific structural…" he apparently noticed Wu's expression. "Well, never mind. In short, while sufficient force can shatter the window, such a force would puncture the hull as well, and you will find such windows on many vessels throughout the Arena."
"Transparent ring-carbon composite," DuQuesne said. "Yeah, we use it too – and it is a pain to make a lot of it, compared to regular hull material. The microstructure needed to make it pass light is pretty complex – that's what makes it shatter instead of just bend and tear, also."
Orphan seated himself at the central control panel. "Observe carefully, Ariane Austin. By the time we arrive at your Sphere, I hope to make you a decent, if not yet expert, pilot of such a vessel."
I've got a lot to learn. Just the sheer size of the Liberated battleship was vastly different from anything she'd flown before; it was much bigger than Holy Grail even counting the Grail's drive spines, and Holy Grail had been by far the largest ship Ariane had ever flown. Adding into that the idea of sails – for purposes she could guess but had never actually had to address – variable gravity, and so on, it was going to be a great challenge.
Engines thrummed to life and lights blossomed across the board. "Have I got the lighting correct?" Orphan asked. "I deduced from the devices I have seen that the color green is for things in good condition, red for poor condition or emergencies."
"Pretty darn close," DuQuesne said with an impressed tone. "Given that your color receptors aren't ours and whatever your experience of green, it isn't ours either. I'd adjust the color a bit – these look more blue-ish than green to me."
"We shall do so once we are well under way." Orphan's long-fingered, slightly clawed hands danced over buttons, pulled levers, and she felt Zounin-Ginjou waking up, starting to shake off inaction, moving more and more swiftly up and away from the Docks. "Did you see what I did there?"
"Okay… those are for the side thrusters. Those are the angle… you can adjust them for side to side or up and down as you want. That was for the main engines, and the pedals are for the rudders and elevators."
"Excellent! I knew you would be a quick study given your background, and it is good to see my expectations confirmed."
"When we get to our Sphere," Ariane said, glancing to DuQuesne, "I think I'll sit down with Carl and Steve and work up a full emulation of one of these control rooms. Then we can get people practicing in virtual first."
"Now that we are well away," Orphan said, "would you tell me where your Gateway is?"
"Go vertical," DuQuesne said. "When Simon's probe popped through and got pics, we could tell he'd come out well above Nexus Arena."
As Zounin-Ginjou began to climb, Ariane suddenly blinked. "Holy sh… I mean, what the heck? Orphan, you haven't increased power since we left the docks and we just went vertical… so there isn't any gravity here, since we're still accelerating just the way we were before…"
"And so…?" She swore the nearly-human face wore a sly smile.
"So how come I'm still standing on the deck instead of floating around? Have you guys figured out how to generate gravity yourselves?"
DuQuesne shook his head. "I think I know the answer, and it starts with Shade and ends with weaver. Right?"
Orphan looked somehow slightly put out, as though he had been looking forward to a more convoluted explanation. "In essence, yes. When possible, most Factions will try to put such gravitic stability on their vessels through a bargain either with the Shadeweavers or Faith. In my case, the Shadeweavers. It makes things so much easier for most species."
They were now climbing well away from Nexus Arena. Ariane caught her breath. "My God."
DuQuesne, who had been studying the controls, glanced up, and mumbled one of his ancient anachronistic curses.
"Ahhh," Orphan said. "This is the first time you have truly seen Nexus Arena."
"I thought … it was just a larger Sphere," Ariane heard herself say.
Nexus Arena was not a sphere, but a gargantuan cylinder with slightly rounded ends, a hundred thousand kilometers high, perhaps half that across. It had no ecosystem on top, no emulation of some other world; it was a bare, perfect sweep of the invulnerable quark-latticework material Simon had named CQC, Coherent Quark Composite, fifty thousand gently curving kilometers of polished, shining armor which made ring-carbon composite look as soft and fragile as cotton candy. Layers of clouds and mistiness of atmosphere softened the distant bottom of Nexus Arena into near-invisibility against the endless multicolored abyss of the Arena. The Docks which had seemed so huge were now tiny things, of less consequence than the hairs on a man's arm, clustered around one tiny section of that incomprehensibly huge construct – which was itself not even a dust-mote within the indescribably larger construct which was the Arena itself.
Zounin-Ginjou's engines now roared with power, a keening thrum vibrating the deck; the vibrations rose and then suddenly diminuendoed away. Ariane realized that without significant gravity to hinder her, Zounin-Ginjou was climbing at the same rate she would move forward in level flight on Earth – and Zounin-Ginjou had just passed the sound barrier and was continuing to accelerate. They had been driving upward for many minutes now, yet still the top of Nexus Arena loomed beneath them like the Earth below an airplane, so huge that the mind could not grasp it.
To distract herself, she looked slightly up, studying Zounin-Ginjou in flight. She noticed suddenly that it looked somehow different than it had when they first took off. The hull had flattened out slightly and she saw the "sails" had puffed and curved subtly. "Oh, I see. They're also part of conformal aerodynamics."
"Precisely. The automatics to do much of that… are reliable enough, and you can adjust manually at the console. As we are not in a terrible hurry I do not think we need reconfigure for maximum speed. Still, since we will have to pass the gravity sheath at twenty thousand kilometers to reach the gateway area, some speed is advised. Even at this speed, it will be quite some hours before we reach the Sky Gate region." He flipped a control which was obviously for a simple autopilot and stood. "Let me give you a tour of this vessel – for you shall soon have some of your own!"