Well, they weren't on board Zounin-Ginjou just as travellers; they had somewhere to *go*...
Impressive, DuQuesne thought. Not quite up to the standards Seaton and I set, but then, this is real.
As he'd guessed, Zounin-Ginjou was a luxuriously-appointed battleship, a warship with an admittedly thick coat of ocean-liner paint. The fact that Orphan was the lone member of the Liberated had obviously driven him to push the limits of automation in the Arena – and had drastically reduced normal requirements for crew quarters. Because of this, the cabins remaining were quite fancy, and he'd still sacrificed nothing in the way of warship readiness.
There were missile batteries, and hypersonic cannon, and very powerful energy weapons, point-defense rotating cannon that would shred any approaching missile, chaff and reflective cloud dispensers to confuse attackers or even blunt energy attacks. Multiple, widely dispersed yet massive superconductor storage cells stored immense amounts of energy for the ship. Stowage for spare components for every system. And …
The hull of this thing … I think it's multilayered, and judging from things he's almost said, it might have reinforcement from decidedly non-standard sources. This wasn't a terrible surprise; Orphan had worked with the Shadeweavers for a long time, and while he now was out of debt to them, he'd obviously taken great advantage of the affiliation in the past several centuries. I wonder if any of those extra features will be on the ones he's lending us.
The surprising part was that Orphan had let such information drop, even in an indirect fashion. He glanced at Laila as Orphan was describing one of the arrow-shaped shuttles and its operation to a fascinated Ariane.
She nodded. "I don't think I've seen anyone so lonely, Marc," she murmured.
She read me real well, there. It was things like that which could trigger Hyperion paranoia, and he hammered the suspicions down. Ariane made the decision on how we were going to treat her, and she was right. "Wondered if you'd caught that."
The brown eyes were both analytical and sympathetic, gazing at the tall semi-insectoid figure. "He is almost unable to stop talking. For the first time in… perhaps centuries… he has people aboard one of his own ships that he can call friends."
"Didn't realize you were a shrink as well as a biologist."
Laila chuckled. "There are relationships. I am interested in the behavior of life as well as its structure." She shook her head with an amazed air. "Centuries. Marc, we live a long time now, but are even we able to live for as long as he has?"
"I don't know. Hell, we haven't had the chance to find out." Marc didn't mention that, as far as he could tell, he hadn't actually aged significantly since he reached the age of about twenty-five – which was fifty years ago. Which is going some several steps past what the current longevity treatments expect.
"So," he said, raising his voice, "we'll take one of those down to the surface when we get to our Sphere?"
"To drop off Captain Austin and Sun Wu Kung at least, yes," Orphan said.
"And me," Laila said. "I'm going to be doing some sampling and studies on our Upper Sphere; it's fascinating how there's so much very Earthlike life on it that is, at the same time, utterly alien."
"Undoubtedly," Orphan agreed, and turned to lead them back up to the control room or bridge of the ship. "The questions as to exactly how – not to mention why – the Arena accomplishes all this are ages old, as I am sure you know."
He looked at DuQuesne. "Might I ask, then, if Doctor Sandrisson will be able to accompany us?"
DuQuesne grinned. "My guess? You'd have to try to keep him out with a ninety-meter fence charged with a few thousand volts. This will be his first chance to look at what another civilization's actually done with the Sandrisson Drive, since you use that for these Sky Gate transitions."
Orphan's buzz-chortle rang out. "Indeed! I had not thought of it that way, but of course you are correct. I will need at least some assistance in bringing the fleet across, even with the very finest automation and remote control, and I am sure you agree that we do not want to invite just anyone on this trip."
"That's for damn sure," DuQuesne agreed, and both Ariane and Wu nodded emphatically. "But that's going to only be three of us. Will that be enough? We do have more people now – first group's settling in, and that's quite a few more."
Outward flick of the hands. "I am afraid the three of us will have to suffice. You recall our discussion in my embassy, some time back? I see you do. Well, I trust you, Doctor DuQuesne, and Captain Austin, and the rest of you," he bob-bowed in Laila's direction, "who were here in the beginning; and I will of course trust this most formidable warrior who guards your Captain," another bow, this one to Wu Kung.
"But these newcomers are as yet untested, unknown to me, and I am quite aware that your 'Ambassadors' are not entirely happy with your position, Captain Austin. With that in mind, I cannot allow such people on board my vessel, for they may have goals and interests… not well synchronized with my own, shall we say."
"Got you." DuQuesne couldn't argue that. He was pretty sure that his old friend Molly wasn't on Naraj's payroll, but the rest, not really. And even if they weren't, there were things you trusted people with, and things you thought real hard about before you trusted anyone with them. "So we're going to see your home system?"
Orphan laughed, even as the door opened and they entered the control room again. "I must confess, Doctor DuQuesne, I am not quite that trusting. But even showing you how to reach the system in which I have placed your vessels would bring you quite close to my home, and that is itself not knowledge I would trust with many at all."
Ariane raised an eyebrow. "You now know where our Sphere is."
"Which, you would admit, is necessary if I am to know how to bring your vessels here," Orphan pointed out. "Really, Captain, are you expecting me to give up such a key advantage simply out of your sense of fair play?"
DuQuesne saw her shrug and grin. "No, I guess not. And if we don't know it, we can't accidentally blab to the Blessed."
"Precisely," Orphan said, and continued with just a touch of acid, "especially as you are currently engaged in extensive negotiations with them."
"Really, Orphan, are you expecting me to give up such a potentially wonderful ally merely out of your sense of fair play?"
Orphan did laugh loudly at that, as did DuQuesne and the others. "Well turned, Captain Austin. Well turned indeed."
Wu suddenly stiffened and bounded to the window, pressing his face against the glassy material. "Wow! What are those?"
What looked like a congregation of blue and red beachballs with tentacles waving from their surfaces was visible ahead and to the left. Zounin-Ginjou was rapidly overtaking the things, but they were clearly moving under their own power. As they drew nearer, DuQuesne could see multiple glittering eyes and other openings. They're big – tens of meters across, maybe more.
"Ahh! Those are virrin," answered Orphan, coming forward. "They are grazers, eating various native sky-plants such as yaolain. They must be looking for… ah, yes, over there." He pointed, and DuQuesne squinted, seeing what looked like a drifting green-blue cloud. "There is yaolain. Something to avoid when flying, especially if you're using an engine that sucks in air, like a jet; it will foul and damage your engine very easily in that case."
DuQuesne nodded. "Seems to grow in clumps like sargasso weed. Do you get large fields of it?"
"Indeed you do, Doctor DuQuesne. I have personally seen masses the diameter of a Sphere and kilometers thick."
"Ha!" said Ariane suddenly, pointing down and to the right. "Those look familiar. Zikki, right?"
The streamlined shapes were darting along in ragged formation, seemingly just ahead of Zounin-Ginjou. Which is really impressive when you remember that we're doing Mach 2 here. How the hell do living beings manage that?
"Close, Ariane Austin, but not quite. Those are tzchina. They are, as near we can tell, of some close relation to zikki, but very much different in most ways other than the superficial exterior. Much smarter, for one thing – they evade most hunters easily and seem able to learn from almost any experience. As you can see, they've learned to take advantage of compression waves near vessels, as well."
Laila was next to Wu Kung, and DuQuesne thought that she'd pushed her face up to the window even harder. "The virrin, they have panoramic vision and tentacles… are they also related to the zikki?"
"No, I do not believe so. The current belief, in fact, is that they are much more closely related to the vanthume."
"Really? That twenty-kilometer long filter feeder?"
"Correct. That is the biological concensus as far as I am aware. For details, I am afraid you should find another biologist."
They passed through a sparkling mist and DuQuesne heard faint tinkling sounds and possibly the slightest shift in engine noise. "That's… air plankton, right?"
"One of many varieties, yes."
He looked at Ariane, whose eyes showed the narrowing he expected. "I start to see even more differences for navigation and combat in the Arena."
"Hm?" Orphan's wingcases scissored for a moment, and abruptly he gave a handtap. "Oh, indeed, Doctor DuQuesne. In an ordinary atmosphere and gravity, such materials would not remain long suspended. Here, with air currents upwelling and descending, gravity shifting, the air of the Arena is often filled with everything from ordinary mists to clouds of silica-armored chimemotes." He laughed. "Oh, yes, much different from what you will encounter on either a normal-space world or the deepness of space."
"Eliminates one of the most basic principles of space combat," murmured Ariane. "The idea that you can run, but you can't hide."
"And without AI-level automation, the old Mark I Eyeball plus telescopes is back to being important," DuQuesne agreed. "Radar's got limits in atmosphere – back home, you couldn't get a straight line through significant atmosphere longer than a hundred kilometers or so, unless you were trying to transmit through a gas giant. Add in random wandering animals, floating silica-covered plankton, drifting water-ponds like the one you saw in your race with Sethrik? No one modality will be very good at any great distance, and because the Arena seems to give us some kind of cheat to see longer distances, visible light seems to be the best bet. And," he grinned as a pale green-tinted mist streamed by, "with all this crap around, hiding gets a lot easier."
"You grasp the issues well. Yes, battles in the skies of the Arena are often matters of stealth, ambush, and quick response to surprises."
"I do recall wondering about things I had heard in Nexus Arena about what sounded like… pirates," Laila said. "Is that common?"
"In some areas, I am afraid, yes. Much commerce of various types travels through Sky Gates, but many areas do not have direct connections to Nexus Arena; so there are shipping lanes of various convenience and distance… and safety… and travellers from one point to another may have to be wary of those who might seek to relieve them of their valuables, including their ships." Orphan looked over to DuQuesne and Ariane. "Now, we do have some hours left to fly, even after the tour – and I thank you for your patience on that tour."
"No need to thank us," Ariane said quickly. "It was fascinating."
"Thank you. In any event – I would suggest that we get some rest and then eat, and return here when we are nearing the proper area. I am sure we all want to be fully alert during the transition and arrival."
"Sounds reasonable to me," DuQuesne said, and the others agreed. Orphan had already shown them the cabins prepared for human use, so DuQuesne was able to find one and lie down on the prepared bed – slightly harder than he was used to.
Practiced as he was at resting when time allowed, he simply fell to sleep and woke up a few hours later, and made his way to the dining area Orphan had also shown them on the tour.
Orphan was already there, with several variously-shaped fruits which were the food he obviously preferred. "Ah, Doctor DuQuesne. I expected you would be the first."
"Yeah, I didn't feel like that much sleep." He saw a fair assortment of human-compatible food on a side table, including what appeared to be a loaf of bread. Not a type we usually stock. Wonder where that came from? "How much longer?"
"Until we reach the rough area, you mean? About an hour and a half." He sipped from one of the fruits with the extensible tube that was usually concealed in his mouth. "Now that you have brought up the subject, I was wondering – how will we pinpoint the Sky Gate? I presume you did not leave a marker."
"Nope," DuQuesne said. "Don't worry, I'll be able to guide you."
Orphan sighed, but the impression was more of a distinct smile. "Ahh, you will reveal the secret at the appropriate time."
The others filtered in over the next several minutes, and most of the food disappeared rapidly. Shortly, they were all back on the bridge of Zounin-Ginjou.
"All right, Doctor DuQuesne," Orphan said. "We are now well outside of the gravity band and in the region I would expect Sky Gates to be found."
"First, I want you to check real well to see if anyone's followed us."
"An excellent thought. Direct your attention to the main window." The window shimmered, became a display screen. "There. Now, we will scan. All of us should watch – automation is well and good, but living eyes are vastly better."
Orphan used radar, visible light, and infrared to make multiple scans of the area; DuQuesne studied every readout carefully, but saw nothing that tripped his paranoia, and for the most part neither did anyone else. Aside from a few false alarms which Orphan identified positively as living creatures, not vessels, there was no sign of anything in their area or within sensing range. "And I will say that I have spared no expense in the scanning equipment on Zounin-Ginjou, so I am confident we are not at present being watched – save, perhaps, by Shadeweavers or Faith, but for that there is little remedy."
"Okay, then." Marc took out a camera and plugged it into his headware data feed. "Gimme the window view back, and point us down at Nexus Arena."
"Oh, most clever. Of course, the simplest ways are still best."
"Motion-based triangulation," Ariane said approvingly, showing she understood. DuQuesne had loaded the image recordings from the probe into his headware, and using a similar view and the movement of Zounin-Ginjou he was quickly able to zero in on where their ship would have to move to in order to duplicate that view.
A few minutes later, he unplugged the camera and put it away. He could keep the calculations updating internally now. "Over that way. Lemme see…" he looked at the controls again. "Turn the ship… I make it a quarter-circle to the starboard side, and come up three point six degrees – that's a hundredth of a circle."
"And how far?"
"How large are these Sky Gates? That is, how close do you have to be to their center to use them?"
"Quite close – they are perhaps two hundred meters across – although objects of effectively any size may pass through."
"Okay. Then… about four hundred kilometers."
"Very close. Excellent. We shall be there in twenty minutes or so."
The bow of Zounin-Ginjou was now no longer pointing towards Nexus Arena, which made the view less interesting in the sense that you couldn't actually be sure you were moving except when something drifting in the sky went by you. Laila was off at a side port, staring at something, but other than that everyone waited mostly quietly.
Abruptly Orphan leaned forward. "Ah! There it is, I can detect it now. Prepare for activation."
The huge ship slowed drastically; Marc noted that while they could feel acceleration, deceleration, and turns, it was not nearly as strong as those sensations should be. And that's a major advantage in piloting such a ship. You get the tactile feedback without the possibility of being immobilized or injured by acceleration and turns.
"Activating in three… two… one…"
The swift burn of light streaked down Zounin-Ginjou, seeming to erase the ship as it came, then blotting out everything else.
The light of a Sandrisson Jump faded, and before them was…
Marc C. DuQuesne found himself slowly stepping forward, staring. Every time I think I'm getting used to the Arena, I realize I haven't even started down that road.
Humanity's Sphere lay ahead and below, covering a sixth of the entire sky even from twenty thousand kilometers away. The Upper Sphere looked almost like Earth, with swirling clouds, land of green and brown, and sparkling blue of oceans. The central point – where, Marc knew, the Outer Gateway was located – was high on one continent, roughly oval-shaped, which was bracketed by two others in what would equate to the north and south. All of them were surrounded by the gleaming blue sea, with white areas in the effective pole regions.
At this range, it was just the merest sparkling at the edge, but he could see that along the bulwark that marked the effective end of the Upper Sphere, the great ocean did in fact overflow its bounds; a mighty cataract – perhaps more than one – leapt from the edge of the world and plunged down, to douse part of the Sphere or simply vanish into endless space.
But all of that – the entirety of a world's surface – was merely the top, a skullcap on a Sphere large enough to house the entire Earth easily within, and above it floated a huge, blazing sphere of light.
Orphan was nodding at their expressions. "Nexus Arena is impressive in its size; but to see a living world, continents spread out like a page on a book, held atop a Sphere larger than your home planet… truly, there are no words, are there?"
Ariane looked up at him. "Does it still… touch you, to see it?"
An emphatic handtap. "My friends, it is true that we can grow used to most things. But on any day that I truly think about what I see, I cannot help but be both awed and overjoyed – and, perhaps, sometimes, terrified – by what the Arena shows me. And when I see the wonder on your faces, I see it once more in the way I did when I, too, first looked down upon the Arena's majesty, and I am humbled and challenged by it as well."
For a few moments they stared. Then Zounin-Ginjou quivered and lurched downward.
"Ah! We enter the gravity field. Take your seats, if you will," Orphan said. "Now that we have arrived – now that I know your home – we shall allow those who cannot remain to return, and bring aboard the good Doctor Sandrisson." The huge ship rumbled to full life and came around, pointing directly at the Outer Gateway, hidden on the peaks of the world. "In but a week or two, my friends, these skies will no longer be so empty!"