They'd just sat down to discuss their problems...
"Well, that does seem to rather complicate things," Laila said, pushing her own bobbed brown hair back with a distracted air. Ariane noted that she seemed to have absorbed the data-dump more easily than Carl. Not surprising – she was used to having three fully-active AISages before we came here, and losing them nearly killed her. If anyone can handle immense amounts of data in one shot, it's Dr. Laila Canning.
"Yeah. Whoa." Carl blinked, shook his head. "Ouch! You know, Ariane, every time you go somewhere you seem to pick up more trouble along the way."
"Don't I know it." She looked at both of them. "Now you're up to speed on what happened with us – how have things been here?"
"Mostly fairly quiet, actually. Everyone knew you were gone for a while, and aside from the Molothos trying a couple of times to annoy one of us into initiating a Challenge, everyone seemed perfectly happy to wait for a while. Your friend Relgof," he nodded at Simon, "still drops by fairly often to check on things; the Analytic's clearly really interested in getting us to either join their faction or at least get some formal alliance going, maybe get some human members."
"Mandallon, our appointed Initiate Guide, is also a frequent visitor; he sometimes escorts me to view some of the Faith's rituals," Laila said. "Both he and Relgof volunteered information on how to customize our Embassy further, and Steve followed through on that – very well, I think."
"I thought I recognized Steve's touch. So you've been trading off duties here?"
"Yeah, just like you said; make sure we all keep in touch, cycle those on duty," Carl confirmed; then he grinned, the smile lighting up his narrow, sharp face. "We didn't just hide out in the Embassy, either. I did go to another Challenge – two minor factions contesting over some offense – with Selpa'a'At." She nodded; one couldn't easily forget the strange spidery Swordmaster First of the Vengeance. "There's more than a professional interest there – Selpa's obviously a fan of the Challenges as sport, so I learned a lot about Challenges listening to him. Recorded, of course – I'll give you all that."
"Good work, Carl," DuQuesne said. "We're walking a fine, fine line here, and anything that gives us better relationships with the other factions without giving away the store is great."
"Thanks, but honestly, I didn't need much arm-twisting to go. It's a dozen sports all in one, with real stuff at stake." He looked over at Ariane. "I wasn't your main mechanic in the Unlimited just for the tech challenge, after all."
"Can't blame you," Gabrielle said. "Though I could sure do without any more heart-in-my-mouth Challenges like the one that almost got Ariane killed."
"Yeah," agreed Carl. "So anyway, that's about it – we've talked with some of the others off and on but nothing of substance." He raised an eyebrow. "So… what now?"
Everyone was looking at her now. You're the Leader of the Faction, Captain Austin. You don't like it, you don't want it – even less now – but it's your job for now, so suck it up and get moving. Though she would much rather have left it to DuQuesne or someone else, Ariane straightened and tried to look properly Captain-like.
"Honestly, I had hoped to return with a lot more people to help us get things done here. Instead, as Carl points out, I seem to have managed to return with no more people but a lot more problems. We need to address all of those problems, and the others we already knew about." She looked at Simon. "Dr. Sandrisson, in your best estimation, how long will it be until the Duta and Mr. Naraj's people join us here in the Arena?"
Simon frowned, pushed the round-lensed glasses that were one of his affectations up his nose slightly, then leaned back, obviously thinking. "It's somewhat difficult to say; the Duta is a larger vessel and the design is quite different when compared to the Grail, and they will be getting their own cargo together. However, they have many more people working on this…" Another pause. "No less than three days, no more than a week, I would say."
Damn. I had hoped for more than that. "All right. So we need to decide how we'll deal with them when they arrive. Our other problems… Dr. DuQuesne, how would you rank them?"
"Hard to say, Captain. Leaving aside Naraj, Ni Deng, and whoever they bring with them – and let me just say that even if they only bring one or two, that's going to be a royal pain to watch with only eight of us – our other major problems are the Molothos, possibly the Blessed, getting ourselves ready to defend our Sphere, figuring out how to expand our territory – we have got to get at least one more Sphere – and of course our unexpected visitor Maria-Susanna." He paused, a brooding expression on his face, before continuing. "We've got to increase our ability to project our presence in the Arena, which means we have to get those Sky Gates they talk about up and running. We need ships that will work in the Arena proper; I think the Duta is being designed with that in mind, but…"
"But," Ariane finished, "we can't build or buy them here without resources." She looked around. "We may have to send one or two of us back to get some kind of ship built back home that we can use."
DuQuesne winced, and she shrugged. "I know, Marc. I hate the idea myself – we honestly can't spare any of us. If I have to I'd probably have to send Steve and Tom – Steve oversaw the Holy Grail's construction, Tom did the maintenance, the two would have all the right knowledge."
"But without them, work on our Sphere installations will slow way down," DuQuesne said. "I guess a lot will depend on how much we can get for the cargo you brought, Gabrielle."
"I'd guess, yes," Gabrielle said. "I'll go back shortly and get it unloaded and bring it back here. We want to get first on the market, before Duta gets here. I'm pretty much certain, Arrie, that some of the pieces I couldn't get were ones the SSC already had put an option on. But if we start selling ours first, we get the initial interest spike."
"Okay, Gabrielle." Ariane felt a quick, small spark of satisfaction; Gabrielle had remembered that Arena residents were interested in real, non-nanotech manufactured products from new worlds and had gathered a surprising cargo while they were away. One positive thing to do, anyway. "I think that's an obvious and necessary step and it's something we can get on right away." She looked back to Simon. "What about the Sky Gates? Those are supposed to be activated by Sandrission Drives somehow, correct?"
"As I understand it, yes. If you enter one of the Gates and activate the Drive as one would for a normal Transition, you are transported to the other side of the Gate instantaneously, whether that 'other side' is to the next Sphere over, to Nexus Arena, or even to a Sphere corresponding with a world halfway across the entire universe.
"If you invert the Sandrisson field, you are dropped back into the normal universe at some distance – I believe roughly a light-year – from the associated star system."
"How do we locate these Gates?"
"I… do not know, yet. I was intending to research this as one of my first projects after our return."
Another clear priority. "I think that's necessary. You should contact Dr. Relgof of the Analytic as soon as we're done here." Simon nodded, and she continued, "All right. Now, as to the imminent arrival of our SSC representatives…" Bite that bullet, Ariane. "I'll meet with them as soon as they arrive – I want them escorted here immediately. No chance for them to go somewhere else or get involved with anything until they've been brought to the Embassy and been briefed here. If possible, I'll escort them myself."
"I will be with you," Wu emphasized.
She smiled faintly. "You and Marc have already made that clear. But this does bring up something else – maybe not quite as important… but maybe so, in the long run." She glanced at DuQuesne. "Marc, a good bodyguard needs to understand the territory. I understand that I will have Wu with me essentially all the time when I am outside of the Embassy or other secure areas. However, if I am staying here in our Embassy, I want Wu to spend some time familiarizing himself with Nexus Arena, with some of the people we know, and with our Sphere – Inner and Upper. He needs to grasp this … place," she still didn't know what to call the Arena as a concept; world? Universe? "at least as well as we do. His instincts need to be adjusted to all the differences of the Arena." She smiled at Wu. "Plus, even the best bodyguard needs some time to himself, and in a place this amazing… can we really cage the Monkey King?"
"Ha!" Wu Kung laughed joyously. "Only the Buddha managed it before! Thank you, Ariane! I do want to see this place myself!"
"You're right, Ariane," DuQuesne said, echoing Wu's smile. "And I'll hammer some rules of behavior into him so he doesn't, hopefully, wreck our most delicate negotiations."
"Good," she said. "Getting back to the earlier discussion… I will also let them in on our joker in the pack when I meet with them."
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle asked. "I am certain they will be very unhappy with that little piece of information."
"Ariane's right," DuQuesne said. "No way do we want them finding out Ariane's the Faction Leader from anyone else. If we brief them right away, they'll be peeved but we'll keep them from making fools of themselves, or forcing themselves into a Challenge or something by making assumptions that aren't correct."
"Thank you, Marc." She thought a moment. "As for Maria-Susanna… we have to find out where she is, and what she is doing, but I'm not sure it's easily done. I could of course just try to use the Arena's abilities to contact her and ask what her intentions are, but she could refuse contact or lie, as it suited her."
"Yeah. If she didn't come to the Embassy in the first place, she has a plan that doesn't involve using us as intermediaries, for which I guess I should be grateful. We'll have to try to figure out how to ask around subtly. We might get the chance when our new friends arrive – they'll want to be introduced, and maybe we could drop hints then – or even earlier, if the Factions know we're here –"
A brilliant green ball of light popped into existence over the table; Ariane mostly repressed the startled jump. From it came a familiar, deep, somehow ironic and humorous voice. "Captain Ariane Austin, welcome back to the Arena."
She couldn't repress a smile at that voice. "Orphan! Nice to hear from the great Leader of the Liberated!"
As Orphan was the sole member of the Liberated, this would have been possibly risky humor from someone else; but as Orphan had, himself, used similar jests in her presence, he took it with good humor. "I did think of delegating the contact to my First Minister Orphan, but Ambassador Orphan reminded me that it is best to maintain good relations by personal interaction."
"Good that you have such sage advisors, Leader. What can we do for you, or was this simply a welcome call?" Somehow, she doubted it was so simple. Little in the Arena was, after all.
"Actually, I have a proposition for the Faction of Humanity… and some information I believe you would find useful."
"A proposition?" She glanced at the others. "We would be very happy to hear any offers you might have, Orphan. Despite certain… events, I still think of you as a friend and ally. So please, speak on."
"Ahh, Captain Austin, I would rather you – and the others, if they like – come visit me at my Embassy."
"Well… I'm sure I can arrange it sometime, but we have… a lot of things complicating matters at the moment."
"Oh, no doubt," Orphan answered. "A new-minted Faction with some most interesting… challenges, if you will, to deal with, and I am sure some additional matters from your own people." It was clear that Orphan understood the potential problems, even though he couldn't have specific knowledge of just what those problems were.
But now there was an unmistakable dramatic edge to his voice, and he continued, "But I did, also, mention information, I believe. Perhaps it would intrigue you sufficiently if I were to mention that, a full day before the news of your return spread throughout Nexus Arena, I had a most interesting visitor… a most interesting human visitor?"