Well, Our Heroes had arrived back in the Arena; it was time to head to the Embassy and meet up with the rest of the group...
That's Wu, DuQuesne thought with a fond smile, even as he and the other three followed the impulsive Monkey King through. Even when he's on-duty, he's still a kid in so many ways.
As they arrived, he heard Wu give an exclamation that meant roughly "wonderful!" . In a single flurry of motion Wu Kung streaked up the Gateway, reached the very crest of the arch and stood there, bouncing and glancing in all directions like a child at an amusement park. "There's so many different kinds of people here, DuQuesne!" he shouted. "No immediate threats I can see. Hey, Captain, don't go too far! Stay in sight! Oh, look over there, those are Molothos, right?"
Oh, blasted HELL. DuQuesne looked in the direction indicated by the crimson-and-gold staff. Sure enough, Dajzail – DuQuesne could recognize him now, by a handsome almost geometric pattern on his fighting claws – and four other Molothos were crossing Transition. He heard Ariane draw in her breath.
Fortunately, although he could see the Molothos' gaze swivel, taking in their presence (and pausing momentarily in obvious bemusement at the tiny out-of-place figure atop the Gateway), the jack-knife clawed aliens apparently weren't prepared for or interested in a confrontation at this time; they moved on and out of sight. Just as well; I've got to figure out how to rein Wu in while still leaving him free to act the way he has to. We don't want him being a convenient lever for someone to Challenge with simply because he's got the Monkey King's curiosity and sometimes low sense of humor.
He realized the others were now staring up at Wu Kung. Arian looked at DuQuesne incredulously. "How the hell did he get UP there?" Wu had of course come through before her, but he'd apparently moved slightly aside on entry, so his leap-and-scramble had happened out of her sight.
"Monkey, remember. Give him something to climb, he'll climb it."
Ariane shook her head and gave a slight gasp as Wu came down by sliding down the side until he departed from the curve about 12 meters up, somersaulted twice, and landed with the same casual grace of a gymnast dismounting from a one-meter horse. DuQuesne heard Simon mutter something disbelieving. I'll also have to give him a reminder about subtlety. Not that it's likely to do any good; his idea of subtle was generally to sneak up behind you before going "boo!".
Wu bounced back in front of the group, leading them towards the entrance of Nexus Arena, staring wide-eyed at everything and everyone around him, exclaiming in wonder and excitement. A never-ending flow of questions streamed over his shoulder, leaving Ariane – the target of most of those questions – looking both amused and bemused.
"Marc," Simon said, watching Wu, "far be it from me to question your judgment – given your record – but… I have a hard time believing that our new friend is quite as attentive as a bodyguard ought to be; honestly, he's acting almost like a child."
He grinned. "Does kinda look that way, doesn't it? But let me tell you, that hyperactive overgrown toddler is absolutely and completely aware of anything that might be a threat to Ariane; when it comes down to the ugly, Wu's sharper than a cutting laser and about a thousand numbers Brinnell harder than a diamond drill. Anyone thinks Ariane's unprotected because her bodyguard's distracted…" He shook his head. "Believe you me, that's the very last mistake they'll ever make."
Simon smiled faintly. "You speak from experience, so I will take your word for it," he said, as Wu suddenly pointed with childlike excitement to one of the blue-green Chiroflekir as it half-floated across Transition's floor, "but you must admit it's hard to imagine." He tilted his head, obviously listening. "Great kami, I thought my blending of languages was an abomination, but I swear I hear –"
"Yeah, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, and a smattering of others including English."
"In the name of … well, sanity, why?"
DuQuesne sighed. "Thought it was obvious. That version of Sun Wu Kung isn't from any one source. Like I told Ariane, they took every major version of Journey to the West and of the Monkey King and … put them in a blender, everything from the legends of Hanuman to ancient cartoons, the original Journey to the West, Manak's epic virtual world adventure Seven Worlds of Wu Kung, all of them.
"You see, the Hyperion SFG wouldn't allow multiple versions of the same character to be made, so people either had to select one particular version, or make a combined one. Whoever was running that sim, well, they decided to really go to town. That mangled language actually sorta hangs together, but it's a bitch to learn. Good thing he speaks our version of English pretty well." DuQuesne managed a faint smile, though the subject hurt, like picking at an open wound. "I can't really laugh at him over it, though; same thing's true of me."
"You? I thought – from what Ariane said – that there really was a character named Marc C. DuQuesne." They were now approaching the immense array of elevators that served Transition and brought people to the main levels of Nexus Arena.
"Yeah, but… not exactly. See, my… designer, he was a real big fan of the guy who wrote those books, and the same guy – called Doc Smith – had written another really popular series back in the day. The people running the Hyperion SFG were adamant that my designer could only have one character from Smith's writings, so he ended up combining both Smith's Lensman and Skylark series, and making me a combination of a couple of the heroes from both. Admittedly, I'm more Marc C. DuQuesne than I am any of the others, but if you read the books, I sure as hell am not that DuQuesne – and thank all the gods – and my designer – for that." And I hope my note got to you, old man; I owed you that much thanks, and if she never caught up with you, you're safe now.
"My main worry," Gabrielle said quietly, "is just what that Maria-Susanna's up to. Do you think she'll be at the Embassy?"
"I'd think there's a good chance of it," Simon said. "After all, it's been only a day or so since she left."
"Hmph." DuQuesne couldn't quite repress the snort. "Maybe, but remember, she thought this out. And she's one hell of a high-powered thinker when she's trying."
"But she knew the schedule," Simon pointed out, stepping inside the elevator with the others. Ariane and Wu Kung turned their heads, listening to the conversation. "She'd know she had at least a few days."
"She'd know the schedule gave her at least a few days," DuQuesne corrected him. "But if you could detect her jumping out, she'd assume I'd break every speed limit there was to catch up with her."
"But Simon just invented the detection device," Ariane protested. "Why would she assume anything like that?"
"You tell me, Simon; if you were in her position, just as smart as you, knowing what she'd know about the Drive – would she be able to reasonably guess that it was practically possible to detect?"
Simon frowned. The doors opened and they walked out into the main floor of Nexus Arena,on which were located all of the Embassies, the Powerbrokers, and the entrances to the actual Arena Challenge levels. After another few moments, he grimaced. "Yes, I'm afraid she would. The capability is implicit in the way the system works, if you understand it sufficiently. The light-signature from the drive is very distinctive, even leaving aside the spacetime effects."
Gabrielle shrugged. "All right. So she'll only be there if she's planned on meeting us, then."
"That's the way I'd bet."
Ariane waved over one of the "taxis", the automated public transports that looked like open-roofed and flexibly configured maglev transit cars. Wu Kung stepped smoothly between Ariane and the vehicle, leaped into it and ran from one end to the other, eyes covering every square centimeter of the taxi in seconds. "Okay," he said, and stood watchfully as the others boarded.
"Is that really necessary?" Ariane asked.
"Yes," Wu said without hesitation. "Sure, there's only a very small chance someone might be trying to kill you in any given place, but if I ignore all the small chances they add up to a big chance. There's some I have to ignore, because we just don't have time. There's others I don't know about yet. And there's some I'll miss because you're in private, or because I get sent somewhere else. But the ones I can, I'll watch for. Okay?"
She smiled and DuQuesne couldn't help but grin with her. "Yes, okay. If I have to have a bodyguard, I suppose I have to let him do his job."
The taxi, having been instructed by Ariane, quickly pulled up to the broad, simply-ornamented front of the Embassy of Humanity. DuQuesne noted a bystander – a Milluk, a gray-black spherical body on jointed spidery legs – turn as they approached, and a small green-glowing sphere appeared nearby. An observer, roving reporter, something like that, now letting someone know that there's activity at the Embassy. If he's got good data or observing skills, he also knows that the Captain's back, which will kick everything into high gear.
The door opened as they approached – DuQuesne in front this time as Wu Kung covered the rear – and they entered the foyer.
DuQuesne felt his eyebrows climb. The entranceway had been transformed in their absence. A series of well-spaced statues – of people, animals, symbols – circled the entire room, while artworks ranging from what appeared to be duplicates of Old Masters to the recent Inversion-Projection period concept light-sculptures hung from or were projected near the walls. The walls and floor themselves had changed from the default concrete and metal appearance; there was carefully selected panelling that looked like natural wood and the floor was a polished marble-like substance. "That's… quite a change."
"DuQuesne? ARIANE? Holy crap, you're back!" Carl Edlund's voice echoed around the room from the door that had suddenly opened at the far end of the foyer. He ran forward; DuQuesne could see Wu tense momentarily, but he'd apparently decided not to do any more blocking when old friends met up. "Why the hell didn't you call?" Carl hugged Ariane, shook DuQuesne's and Simon's hands, and gave Gabrielle a longer hug and a kiss that echoed the one she'd given him on departure. "And who’s your new friend?"
"Sun Wu Kung, meet Carl Edlund."
"Pleased to meet you, Carl! Call me Wu, since you are obviously friends with my friends."
"Glad to meet you. So what's your line? You sure don't look like SSC standard issue to me."
Wu laughed. "Ha! No, I am not at all!"
"We'll talk about Wu a little later," Ariane cut in. "Carl, where's Dr. Shoshana?"
"Dr. who?" Carl looked genuinely confused. At the same time, Laila Canning entered from one of the rear doors and glanced around the little group.
Marc felt grimly vindicated. "She had no intention of making contact here. She's gone somewhere else – and unless someone volunteers the information, we haven't a chance of finding her."
"Oh, come on, Marc," Ariane said. "There's no other human beings in the entire Arena. How's she going to hide?"
"In plain sight, so to speak. All she's got to do is convince a faction – big one, small one, doesn't matter – that she's got something good enough to trade, and get into their Embassy. Then she's got access to the Arena, allies, and secrecy."
Laila's brown eyes studied them curiously, and DuQuesne had to once more fight off the lingering suspicion he'd had -- since Laila had been brought back from apparent brain-death by the Faith – that Laila was not really Laila Canning at all any more. "Who, precisely, is this person you're worried about?" she asked.
"Her current alias is Marilyn Shoshana, supposedly an agent for the SSC; her real name is Maria-Susanna and she's the renegade Hyperion that's been at the top of the wanted lists for the past fifty years."
Laila just stared narrowly; Carl winced. "Holy crap. That's … not good."
"We've got a whole lot of 'not good' for you right now," Ariane said, gesturing for the others to follow her to one of the Embassy's conference rooms, "and you'd better let us fill you in." She ran one hand through her deep blue hair. "And I'd hoped we'd solve some problems before we came back."