Orphan had a problem...
DuQuesne studied Orphan carefully. He's good at playing the game. But I don't think he's doing much of that right now. He means it. "You can't do this yourself? A one-man ship or something like that?"
As Orphan's hands flicked outward, Ariane answered. "I don't think that would be practical – not if he's going into the, what did they call it, Deeps, the areas away from settled Spheres."
"Alas, exactly correct, Captain Austin." Orphan's tone held sincere regret. "For a number of reasons I would be extremely pleased if I could take this and similar journeys alone, but it is not possible."
DuQuesne wasn't really surprised. If you thought about it, given that the Arena-space was filled with air, debris, water, and so on (from the hundreds of billions of Spheres floating in it as well as from whatever unknown source the material and power of the Arena actually originated from), sailing through those mostly uncharted and perhaps almost unchartable areas would be something like a cross between an Age-of-Sail crossing of the Pacific combined with an 1800's explorer expedition into Africa. Some of the lifeforms that flew or drifted between the Spheres were capable of attacking full-size ships, and keeping track of your course and location would be critical. Get turned off course by an unexpected assault and the one-man expedition could easily become an interstellar Flying Dutchman. "That was a pretty big ship; how much of a crew does it need?"
"That, my friend, depends on the quality of the crew. Not very many indeed, if I can both trust them and rely on their capabilities. In addition to myself, a minimum of three, no more than ten."
He glanced over at Ariane, who opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, her eyebrows drawing together. Yep, she's seen it.
She confirmed it by her next words. "Unfortunately, Orphan… I'm not sure we can help you."
The twin-crested head turned towards her, and the wingcases tightened in the subconscious signal of concern or worry that DuQuesne had learned to read. "Indeed? Have I somehow given you offense? I certainly have not intended –"
The blue-haired Captain waved off that protest. "No, no, Orphan, nothing like that. But… look, you know – none better – how thin we were stretched before. I'd like to say that now that we've gotten back home and returned that we'd be in better shape… but I'm not sure we are. In fact, being honest, we're not, yet."
The green-black alien sat still for a moment, stroking one crest absently while thinking. DuQuesne was silent, waiting to see if Orphan picked up on things as fast as he usually did.
The sole member of the Liberated did not disappoint. "Ahhh, I see. Your people are, perhaps, not yet united in their vision of how to best emerge into the Arena … and possibly, I would venture, not entirely happy with your position in all this, Captain Ariane Austin."
Ariane laughed. "You're a fast study, Orphan. They don't know everything about that last point yet, but… yes. Which means –"
"—that you have few, if any, more members of your Faction that you could, with your typical honesty and forthrightness, recommend to me unreservedly in this matter." He bob-bowed slightly. "And perhaps … yes, almost certainly… you have political issues that make it impractical, if not impossible, for three of you to journey with me, let alone four or five."
"You got it. The group that's coming after us, led by a guy named Oscar Naraj and his main sidekick Michelle Ni Deng – like Ariane said, they don't quite know the whole score yet, but they've already told us they don't think we're the right people for the job, and that we screwed up while we were here."
"They believe you made serious misjudgments?" Orphan's stance was disbelieving. "While you certainly seemed… highly risk-prone, I cannot see anything you did that would be a misjudgment."
"Well," Ariane said, "the biggest single thing that bothered them was that we're effectively at war with the Molothos, one of the Five Great Factions, when we haven't got more than one Sphere to our names."
Orphan gave a buzz that was translated as a contemptuous snort. "And would they prefer you had left them in control of your Upper Sphere? I admit that perhaps Doctor DuQuesne needn't have taunted them directly by throwing one of the bodies of their fallen in front of them, but I assure you there was truly no way of avoiding that war. As for the situation with the Blessed, which I presume also disturbed them, there was little chance you could evade the confrontation, unless you were willing to… what was the expression… throw me to the wolves, yes."
"Which would've had a whole bunch of other negative consequences anyway," DuQuesne said. "Right. And believe you me, they're not going to be at all pleased when they find out that the Captain's basically in charge of the Faction unless she steps down – which she is not doing unless and until we're sure the right person's going to step up and take the job for her."
Orphan stood and began pacing in a rather human-like way. "Oh, no, certainly not. And given your extraordinary successes early on, I would be most loath to change the leadership at this stage, even if –" he held up a hand towards Ariane, "—as I suspect from the way the Captain was about to speak, you were to protest that it was as much luck as skill." For a moment he stood still, gazing intensely at them both, and DuQuesne found his stance curiously hard to interpret; there was something more behind his words. Then Orphan continued pacing. "I can, of course, put off this journey for some time… given where I wish to go, one day or even month more or less probably makes little difference. But I cannot put it off indefinitely, or even for much longer."
"What's the urgency? Where are you going?"
The seven-foot alien paused, studying them, then gave a buzzing-bob combined that DuQuesne thought was an ironic smile, confirmed by Orphan's translated tone in his response. "Ahh, now, I must take care. I had no intention of revealing any more until we were aboard the Zounin-Ginjou and out of all reach of Nexus Arena and her politics." He seemed to ponder for a moment, then brightened. "If I were to tell you that it has a connection with a certain… trinket which I once used to your benefit, would that be sufficient?"
"You mean… when you came back to help us against Amas-Garao," Ariane said slowly. Orphan gave a tiny handtap of assent. "Yes… that would be sufficient to explain why it's so important – and why you don't want to say any more about it."
DuQuesne grunted. "Yeah. And it also puts a different face on the whole question. The Arena's built on secrets, advantages, alliances, betrayals, aces in the hole. Getting any more information on something like that – something that isn't Shadeweaver or Faith but could play their kind of game… that's something you, personally, need badly, Captain, and as a Faction, Humanity needs any advantage it can get. Orphan's over a barrel here – he can't do it alone, and he's got almost no one he can trust with something that explosive."
Ariane looked thoughtful, then chuckled. "And it's another reason you couldn't take in Maria-Susanna. As things stand, you can go anywhere you want by yourself – as a Faction of One, you're not restricted by the rules about leaving people on your Sphere. But if she joined, you would be. Which could end up worse for you."
"Hmph.Not quite, though in essence true. That is, until I reach a certain number of members – which, I will reveal to you, is four – the Faction of the Liberated needs not remain in any location.
"The problem, as I am sure you see," Orphan continued, "would be that if I had accepted her as a true member of the Faction and left her behind, she would have full access to my Sphere, our Embassy, a fair amount of power to negotiate… or even trigger Challenges, as technically I would still be in the Arena, while if I brought her with me she would learn much of this secret. Either way, even with her capabilities and the information she could provide, it would be a considerable time before I could reasonably extend her such trust – yet if she is a member of a two-member Faction, I cannot reasonably not extend her such trust."
"Good call." DuQuesne said. "Knowing her, she'd have figured out some angle to make herself head of the Liberated by the time you got back."
"Dr. DuQuesne, I am hurt that you think so little of me."
"More that I know her all too well, and I wouldn't bet against her doing something like that to me."
"Then, knowing your own extremely formidable talents, I withdraw my complaint," Orphan conceded. He glanced at Wu Kung, who had been wandering around the room, studying the carvings and ornamentation, and looking restless. "You are rather silent, I notice."
Wu grinned and did a bounce-flip in the air to land closer to Orphan. "I'm just a bodyguard, they didn't choose me to do their talking. Though I hope we get out more, the Arena looks fascinating and all this talk-talk-talk is making me itchy, and no one's tried to kill the Captain yet!"
Orphan gave a subdued buzz-chuckle. "One would almost think you want her to be attacked."
"Well, of course! What use being a bodyguard if you never actually get to do any WORK?"
Orphan stared at Wu Kung for a moment, then looked at DuQuesne. "Is he… serious?"
DuQuesne snorted. "Yeah, that's Wu, all right. His idea of being a bodyguard is having top-rank assassins trying to kill his client every step of the way. We've given him a pretty damn boring job so far."
"And I'm just fine with that," Ariane said pointedly. "I'm sorry if you're bored, Wu, and we'll see if we can give you a break from time to time, but I'd much rather NO ONE has to get hurt over me. Right?"
Wu looked slightly abashed. "Sanzo always said the same thing. Said I thought too much with my fists. Sorry, Captain."
DuQuesne slapped him on the back. "Don't worry about it, Wu. You also think with your heart, and usually that doesn't take you too wrong."
The flashing, slightly-fanged smile was bright. "Okay, I won't. Thanks, DuQuesne!"
Orphan had watched the byplay, DuQuesne noted, with an analytical eye that the Hyperion remembered from prior interactions. The sole member of the Liberated had not survived three millennia without being able to learn an awful lot by just observing, and DuQuesne wondered exactly what Orphan was seeing now. The alien's face revealed little, and his body-language was quite controlled, but Marc C. DuQuesne was suddenly very sure that Orphan had come to some kind of important decision or realization, and it bothered DuQuesne that he hadn't the faintest idea what that important realization was.
"Well, then," Orphan said, "it seems we have a rather interesting problem."
"Sorry," Ariane said contritely. "Didn't mean to divert everything. Yes, we do. Can I ask… you must have actually quite a few allies you've gained over the years, even if never nearly enough to be able to take on the Blessed. Why us, the clueless newbies of the Arena so to speak."
"Ah, Captain Austin, it is in a way the fact that you are 'clueless newbies', if the meaning has been properly translated, that makes you the only candidates for this job. Or rather, the fact that you have that status and have proven yourselves honorable, courageous, and resourceful… and been willing to treat with one such as myself even when you had certainly some reason to mistrust me." He reached into an unobtrusive cabinet and brought out a bottle from which he filled three glasses. "I realize I have been remiss in providing refreshment for you as well."
Ariane reached for a glass; DuQuesne grinned as it was plucked smoothly from her hand by Wu Kung, who sniffed at it, ran a scanner over it, and poured a drop onto his tongue before he let her take it; DuQuesne raised an eyebrow as the Monkey King did the same with DuQuesne's glass.
"Oh, excellent." Orphan snapped his wingcases and buzzed in what was obviously something like applause. "Extend the hand of friendship… but watch where the tail lies carefully. I approve of your bodyguard, Captain. Though others might find this offensive."
"Let them." DuQuesne said at a glance from Ariane and Wu Kung. "In our own Embassy we'll relax a bit, but nowhere else."
Ariane, meanwhile, had taken a sip. "Oh, this is excellent, Orphan!"
DuQuesne agreed. It was some kind of juice, he suspected, with a tart, sweet taste something like gooseberries crossed with carrots and maybe a hint of ancho pepper in the background. No alcohol, but there was a faint, faint tang which made him suspect a mild caffeine-like stimulant. "I'll bet you got this from Mairakag."
"He and a few others advised me, and it was of course certified by your own Dr. Canning." Orphan bowed to them in his fashion and then raised his own drinking globe. "I believe this is an appropriate use of one of your customs when I say 'To alliances.'."
"To alliances," DuQuesne echoed with Ariane, and took another sip.
"Good! I had hoped I had that correct. To the subject at hand… Captain, you are new-come to the Arena. I have been present essentially throughout all of your most important events, save only," he glanced with undisguised curiosity at DuQuesne, "the impossible victory Dr. DuQuesne and Dr. Edlund managed against the Molothos."
DuQuesne grinned darkly but said nothing. That was in some ways one of the most private moments of his life – the moment that he and Carl had been cornered and faced with death or worse and he had been forced to unleash the Hyperion, the "Marc C. DuQuesne" that he'd buried inside himself half a century before so he could forget what had been, and become a part of the civilization around him. He'd saved Carl, but had to give up any hope of going back to being anything other than what he now was.
Orphan, after a miniscule pause, continued, "Because of this, I know all of your alliances. I know those you call friend, those who see you as enemies, I know how you treat with both friend and enemy and potential allies. Do you not see that I could not say the same about any of the other Factions? With their uncounted billions or even quadrillions of adherents, with their dozens, hundreds, thousands of Spheres and thousands of years of Challenge, negotiation, expedience, betrayal, secret friendships hidden within public animosities…" he flicked his hands outward emphatically. "Nowhere in the Arena could I possibly find allies whose only unknown motivations lay in their own Sphere, who could – to put it simply – be nothing more or less than exactly what they appeared to be." This time he did not bob-bow, but dropped to the floor in the full pushup-like pose that was a deep and formal bow. "In all the universe, in fact, there are none like you, and once your people have become established – a few fleeting decades, no more – there will be none like you again, until another species of First Emergents appears."
He sure knows how to speechify, as Rich Seaton might've said, DuQuesne thought cynically. And he knows how that's going to affect the Captain. But being fair, I think he means it.
Ariane had risen in surprise, and her smile looked somewhat sheepish. "That's… pretty extravagant praise, Orphan. But I understand where you're coming from." She frowned. "And the longer we wait, the more chances there are for the alliances to start tangling us up." She nodded decisively. "We'll figure it out. I don't know how, just yet," she admitted, "but you have my word we'll figure out some way to get you a crew you can trust."
Orphan bowed again. "Then, Captain Austin, our bargain is done; you shall have those vessels and you will one day soon find a way to give me a crew. I have no doubts on that score, for the very body of Amas-Garao can testify how well you keep your word… even when all possibility seems against you."