Well, they now knew they had another urgent reason to go back... so it's back to the Arena!
"Final countdown to Transition," Ariane Austin said,and Wu finally felt a tingle of anticipation. To a new world…
The hours spent preparing the ship for departure had been… a combination of depressing and confusing. He knew he couldn't help with any of the preparations – this was not like any ship he had ever been aboard before – and he hated having to sit still, let everyone else do work around him. Actually, I just hate having to sit still at all. Moving, always moving, that's life, it never sits in one place, but dances like a butterfly you can never quite catch.
Worse, though, was Maria-Susanna. I don't understand. Even with their explanations. She was … always so nice. She stood with us, fought with us, learned the ways of the enemy and found how we could turn their weapons against them… she was a friend, a warrior-brother. Or sister.
Wu glanced around. The strange control room was not very large; he sat next to Ariane, as was fitting for her bodyguard. Behind her was Simon Sandrisson. The wise one who found the way to go beyond the sky.
Ariane spoke, her voice strong and cheerful. "All crew verify readiness."
DuQuesne's familiar deep voice responded over the sound-thing they called an intercom. "Power, Maintenance and Controls, all secure. Ready when you are, Captain."
"Drive and System Oversight, all secure." Simon's dry, oddly-accented voice replied.
"Medical all ready,and as usual here's hoping I won't be needed."
There was a pause, then he remembered it was his turn. "Oh! Sun Wu Kung, Security, ready," he said proudly. Saying 'security, all secure' would have sounded silly, I think.
He knew there had been four others in the crew when the Holy Grail first left, so Simon and DuQuesne were each doing the jobs of more than one person. Ariane, he remembered proudly, had assigned him his new position. "Right now it's a division of one," she'd said, "but if DuQuesne's right – and he usually is – I guess we'll need more sooner or later."
He looked to his other side, where there was nothing but smooth bulkhead. I wish the others were here. He suddenly smiled, and the smile hurt, because it was a smile of memory of loss as much as of fondness. Sha Wujing, Zhu Wuneng, Liu Yan… they could not come, because their world… was not real. The bright golden one, Maria-Susanna, was no longer bright, but dark. And Sanzo was not here.
"Prepare for Transition in ten seconds," Ariane said. He looked at her and heard her voice, and for a moment he wondered if, perhaps, Sanzo was here, in a way.
"Good luck, all of you." Saul's voice carried all his concern somehow just below the words. "Take care."
"We will. Thank you, Saul," DuQuesne said quietly.
"In four… three… two… one… Transition!"
Sun Wu Kung gasped at a sudden, indescribable sensation of twisting compression, of expansion beyond measure and crushing force pushing him down into nothingness. It ended, and it seemed to Wu almost as though a curtain had been drawn aside, a storm had passed and cleansed the air, for suddenly the ship seemed brighter, the smells sharper and clearer, the sounds of humming machines and even the breath of his companions stronger, as they passed into a new universe.
"Wow!" he heard himself say. "That was fun! That is one of the strangest things I have ever felt! That was new!"
Ariane laughed. "Strange, yes, though I admit I wouldn't think of it as… fun." She also seemed… distracted, just for a moment; he noticed a similar odd expression on Simon's face. Maybe the Transition-thing affects them a little differently. I am… a Hyperion, after all.
He didn't exactly like thinking of himself as "a Hyperion" – he'd never been anyone or anything except himself. But it was what he was here, and it made him something like DuQuesne's brother, and that was a fun thought.
"This new world… is very dark," he finally observed, noticing that there was no sign of light on the forward screen, which had shown many stars and other lights a few moments before.
"Ha!" DuQuesne's voice came, amused. "Here, yeah. The inside of the Sphere's darker than a whole sackful of black cats. But you'll see plenty of light later on, don't worry." A more serious tone. "Ariane, anything on radar?"
"I'm not getting anything new. The model solar system, the Dock, nothing else. I suppose her ship could be in the radar shadow of the Sun equivalent, or maybe Jupiter at this angle, but as far as I can tell we are – right now – the only ship here." He could hear the frown in Ariane's voice. "How about the Dock? Can you tell if she's locked on one of the ports?"
"Hold on, let me see if I can get a visual… the Dock emits some light of its own." Wu remembered that it would take a little time to get from the Transition location to the Dock area. "Damn. No, no sign of her at all." The muttered curse DuQuesne muttered was barely audible to Wu – he guessed the others wouldn't hear it at all. "Where the living hell is her ship –"
"The Straits," Simon said with sudden conviction. Wu Kung remembered that term; it meant the large ports in the side of the Sphere that could be opened from the "harbor" area they were in now, to let ships go outside.
"What? Oh hell. Could she have… she couldn't have… could she?" Wu understood the conflict in DuQuesne's voice. If she gets away from us… and if she's … really bad now… well, that could be a very not-good thing for everyone. But it's so hard to think of her that way.
"I don't know, Marc. It wouldn't have occurred to me to even think of it." Ariane glanced curiously at Simon. "I'm surprised you thought of it."
By his expression and scent, so was Simon. "I confess I'm not sure why I did, but as soon as it occurred to me I was quite certain."
"How can we check it?" Ariane asked.
"Oh, I think that's just plain simple, Arrie," Gabrielle's voice answered. "Gimme an outside transmission line, DuQuesne, please?"
"You got it."
"Strait doors, open," Gabrielle said.
A blaze of light appeared in the pitch blackness, a brilliant line of undifferentiated white that slowly widened, grew into a perfect defined circle larger than the full moon, slightly oval from their current point of view.
Ariane groaned. "Of course. We secured the Sphere from intrusion, but I've never specified who could operate anything internally. And the Sphere – probably through the Arena itself – is always completely helpful that way." She sighed. "Strait doors, close and lock." The distant circle of light slowly dwindled away to nothing.
"Better fix that right quick, then," Gabrielle said.
"Not right this minute," said DuQuesne, "we'll want to think about the exact wording; we don't want to limit it in a way we'll regret later. But Gabrielle's right; we'd better fix that, and any other unexamined assumptions, too."
"Even the simple things can trip us up." Ariane glanced at Wu. "You understand what just happened?"
"I think so," he said. "I read the very simplified account of your adventures that DuQuesne and his friend Isaac made. The Sphere does what … what was the word? Citizens, citizens of its faction tell it to do, unless the leader of the Faction's told it otherwise. So since you hadn't told it to restrict who could unlock the Straits, anyone could open them."
"You got it," DuQuesne said.
"The other alternative," Ariane said, "is that she didn't take much in the way of equipment, just extra power coils, and once she was here, she sent it back out and had it transition home on a vector way out at the edge of the system, where no one's likely to find it."
"Maybe," DuQuesne said reluctantly, and Wu saw Simon's head shake at the same time. "But going through the records of available satellites and other ships we could access back during that period of time, we did get a couple images that were probably of her ship, and it's built streamlined – like, for atmosphere. Which pretty much tells me what she meant to do with it. Even stupid automation could make the ship follow some pretty broad rules of performance, get it to go somewhere near enough that she could retrieve it later."
Wu could see Ariane take a deep breath, force herself to relax. "Well, there's no point in worrying about it now. She's here. We'll catch up with her, or we won't, but for now we just have to dock and see how everyone else is doing."
A few hours later, something immense loomed up in the powerful lights of Holy Grail; ridged at intervals, shining like polished black bone, gleaming, organic in its shape, with gold-shining circles showing at intervals. A great Dragon's skeleton, turned into a mighty building, with golden coins between its polished ribs! "Amazing! DuQuesne, what a monster that must have been!"
"Don't play the idiot too much, Wu," the good-humored voice answered.
"I was joking, oh most dour and humorless of philosophers!" he retorted. Though that is still what I feel, yes. "I know it is this 'spacedock' that you mentioned, but surely it looks like something else!"
"Yes," agreed Ariane. "Creepy. Which has generally been the word I use whenever the Arena does something."
The skeletal black projection loomed ever closer, as the Holy Grail drifted towards it, Ariane lining the ship's docking port up with the matching golden circle. The circle grew, was eclipsed by the hull, as Holy Grail moved ever slower… and then a vibration of gentle impact echoed through the ship. "Holy Grail docked to Sphere, all secure," Ariane said. "Free to unstrap. Still in microgravity at this time."
He unsnapped immediately and flipped out of his chair, landing on the ceiling; his toe-claws extended and anchored him and he looked at Ariane upside-down as she unstrapped. "I love this floating!"
She grinned. "I see you do. Just be careful." She spoke in a slightly louder tone that had the undefinable sound of the 'official' Ariane. "Do we have any more preparations to make, or are we ready to disembark?"
"Not for me, Captain," said DuQuesne.
"I think we should just move," Gabrielle agreed. "When we've checked on our friends, then we can move the cargo over, but right now I'm too darn nervous to want to waste the time."
Ariane glanced at Simon, who nodded; for Wu's part, his job was making sure Ariane stayed safe, so he left when she did.
"Okay, then, let's move out." She led the way towards the airlock. "Remember the briefing, Wu," she said, looking at him. "You'll have gravity inside, so get oriented correctly when passing through."
"Don't worry about me," he said confidently. "You can change your gravity whenever you like, and I'll always land on my feet. If I want to."
She smiled – a very nice smile, he thought. "I bet you will."
Wu inserted himself in front of Ariane as they reached the airlock, to her obvious surprise. "We don't know if anyone's waiting on the other side," he pointed out.
She blinked, then nodded. At least I don't have to remind her just who might be waiting there. After a moment, the inner lock opened, and he looked out cautiously, staff in guard position. No one was visible in either direction up or down the large docking area, so he stepped out; Ariane followed , with DuQuesne, Simon, and Gabrielle bringing up the rear.
"We'll have to walk from here," Ariane said. "Once we get a larger group established in the Arena we'll have to set up a shuttle, rail, something that allows quick transport."
"Maglev rail." DuQuesne said. "Perfect setup for it here. Limited access, linear, flat, need efficient transport; put a spur at each of the airlocks, and we've got more than enough space for several cyclic transport loops, and we'll need it eventually. In a gravity field, barring water transport, there's no better method."
"I suppose you're right," Simon said, with a bemused expression. "I must admit, however, I find it somewhat … odd to imagine this place being a bustling center of commerce."
"We'd better hope it becomes one, Simon -- soon," Ariane said.
Wu was impressed; the images from the outside had told him the Dock was huge, but you couldn't quite grasp that size in your mind until you were inside. It was kilometers long, although Holy Grail had chosen a docking point very near the entrance.
The entrance itself reminded him of the gates of Enma-Sama's fortress – a tremendous, massive portal that if closed would be almost impenetrable, but was always open. A line of lights showed the straight route deeper into the Sphere.
"Guess the others'll be at the Guardhouse," Gabrielle said.
Ariane smiled. "Gabrielle's name for the mini-settlement we've built near the real entrance to the Inner Sphere. I suppose it's not a bad name for it if it does become a settlement."
He led the way, following the line of lights, and the full scale of the interior of the Sphere hit him. It is like a world, a world of dead air and no light. He shivered suddenly, against his will. It is like … a tomb. A tomb of Hyperion.
Fear was not a common emotion for him – one so rare, in fact, that it took a moment for him to acknowledge it. But when I feel it, it's always over… this. DuQuesne promised me a shining new world, of gods and monsters and bright skies. I know he must be telling the truth… but here it is dark. It smells of death, of things long, long gone, the realm of the forgotten dead. He started to quicken his stride towards the brighter area in the far distance, noticed that he was starting to outpace the others, forced himself to slow. They are not as soft as most people, but they aren't nearly as fast as I am. Even so, he was impressed by how quickly Ariane was walking; he realized she was anxious to get to her other friends and find out what might have happened while they were gone.
Even though it seemed to take a long time, it was actually only a relatively few minutes before the brightly-illuminated area surrounding the Inner Door, hexagonal tiled floor now clean for probably the first time in millions of years, shining a brown-gold in the lights set up by the impromptu colonists. Wu found himself breathing a sigh of relief as he entered the lighted area and smelled ahead the scent of other living people, food; even the undertone of working machines was welcome after passing through that cavernous, silent, dead space.
A figure about his own height appeared in the doorway of one of the three buildings and suddenly sprinted towards them. "ARIANE!"
He stepped reflexively between Ariane and the newcomer, who skidded to a halt in confusion; another, much taller, man who had been emerging from the same doorway also paused.
"Wu!" Ariane's voice was reproving. "These are our other friends."
Their scents didn't seem hostile, and obviously Ariane knew them; DuQuesne also smelled happy to see the others, so he stepped back.
The smaller of the two unfamiliar people immediately embraced Ariane, giving Wu a curious glance in passing. "Good to see you back, Ariane!"
"Good to see both you and Tom, Steve," she answered, hugging the other, smaller man hard, and then giving a similar hug to Tom; she then turned to Wu. "Steve, Tom, this is Sun Wu Kung; Wu, these good friends of mine are Stephen Franceschetti and Thomas Cussler."
"I am honored to make your acquaintance," he said, and bowed low.
"Glad to meet you too… Wu Kung?"
Thomas Cussler shook his hand, studying him closely. Then his head snapped up and he stared at DuQuesne. "Is this --?"
"We'll talk about that later. We've got a lot to talk about, Steve."
Steve looked around at the others and then looked at his friend Tom. Scent… oh, they're that close. Important to remember. "I knew it. That Doctor Shoshana."
"She's here, then." DuQuesne made it a statement.
"Not here, not now, no," Tom answered. "She went on to Nexus Arena to meet with Carl and Laila."
"She had all the right credentials," Steve said. "Here taking a firsthand look for the SSC and CSF. Staff scientist assigned to the new Arena task force, verifying some of your material."
"I'm sure she did, Steve," DuQuesne said. "If you were even a little suspicious of her, you got farther than most people. But we'll have to get after her as soon as we can."
"Who is she, then?"
"Open up for a data dump?" Ariane asked. "Simon, you've got it all arranged in your head."
"Yes, that would be the fastest way."
Wu wasn't quite sure what they meant, but it was probably something like a spiritual transfer; that could be pretty rough.
By Steve's reaction, the same applied here. "Whoa, hold on, let me get ready for something like that." There was a pause, and he could tell by sight and smell that both Steve and Tom were bracing for some kind of shock. "Okay, dump it."
Simon's brow furrowed, and the other two grunted, eyes unfocused as they attempted to make sense of a huge amount of data delivered all at once. A few moments passed, and both men sat down hard. "Oh, crap. Not good."
"Very not-good," agreed DuQuesne, "and we've got a lot of work ahead of us. What else did she do? Was she carrying anything?"
"She did quick interviews on us," Tom said, "but it was clear she was just confirming whatever she'd gotten from you guys earlier, when you reported to the SSC. Then she said her instructions were to at least get to the Arena proper, talk to the other members of the Grail crew, maybe ask a few other questions and then head back with her info."
"She was carrying a shoulder slung carryall," Steve said. "It seemed pretty full, now that I think about it."
Ariane's mouth tightened, and Wu smelled a wash of annoyance. "Damn. We have no idea what she's brought with her, but I'm sure she's thought it out very well. Bargaining chips of some kind, I'll bet."
"Run that bet across the board for me, too," agreed DuQuesne grimly. "She means to put herself in a position to accomplish something, and I don't think she has any interest in going back to the Solar System."
"Not immediately, no," said Simon. "But Marc, she may have reason to return here."
DuQuesne thought about it, then cursed again. "You're right, and she's almost certainly covered that base." He looked at Tom. "You guys gave her the ability to open that door, didn't you?" he asked, pointing at the large portal that was currently closed behind them.
Steve nodded reluctantly. "Yeah. I mean, we had no way of knowing when she was coming back and it didn't seem like a problem –"
"You don't have to apologize, Steve. She's spent a long lifetime fooling people. Damnation!"
"No huge problem, Marc," Ariane said. "We'll just re-instruct the Sphere on the admission priorities."
"Hmph. Might work, but if you don't think she's thought of that, you're dumber than I think you are. She's real good at giving instructions to machines – like all us Hyperions were. Even if you give it explicit instructions, don't be sure for a minute that she didn't figure out a way to keep those instructions from applying to her."
"We'll worry about that later. For now, I think we'd better go on, see how things are with Carl and Laila."
Steve nodded. "You guys get moving; come back here for an update on everything we've done – DuQuesne, we'll definitely want you to take a look at the work we've got going on the Upper Sphere."
The next door rolled open for them, and Wu saw a blaze of white light from the interior. Nothing appeared to be a threat, but he once more took up a forward position.
Someone – probably, he guessed, Dr. Franceschetti, who seemed the thinking-ahead sort – had marked the path to the thing they called the Inner Gateway, marked it clearly with strips of bright red reflective material. That made it easy for him to stay in front without having to ask everyone where they were going.
He stopped, then ran forward as they reached the final room. "Wow! That's cool!"
The Inner Gateway swirled with darkness and light, and he thought he heard something singing, like crystal thinking thoughts of stars. He reached out without thinking, even as Ariane shouted, "Hold on, Wu!"
The Inner Gateway enveloped him in an embrace of cold like the Winter Hells, as lightning-scent filled his nostrils and sparks of the sky-fire rippled through his fur, falling, falling past vistas in dark-flowing light that moved too fast, were far too mighty in scope, filled with shapes too improbable for even the Monkey King to grasp all in a moment; even as he tried to understand he burst through into brilliant golden light.
He stumbled to a halt, momentarily in awe. He stood atop one of many platforms in a room as large as the Dragon King's palace, huge as Hyperion, with a thousand great Gateways seething with dark power and pearlescent promise. And there were people!
There, a pair of flowing shapes, like animated water filled with strange globules and translucent complex shapes; there, a massive creature, like a many-legged lizard with an upright, four-armed torso; birdlike things that made him think of tengu; and so many more. "Oh, suGOI!" he exclaimed.
The others were just emerging from the Gateway as he looked above, then bounded up, an easy leap to the mid-point of the carven metal circle of the Gateway a mere ten meters above, flipped himself up and around to land atop the great ring, to survey a room filled with wonders.