Spheres of Influence: Deleted Chapter 1

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For health and other reasons, I haven't been able to write up a bunch of my usual posts. However, with Spheres about to go for main snippets, I realized I had a few other pieces which can be posted.

These deleted chapters are basically what the "What Has Come After" section of the intro were drawn from. The editors felt -- quite correctly -- that these slowed up the opening of the book before getting to some Neat New Stuff. However, they also have a lot of deetail which is now no longer in the book. Some of you may find this stuff interesting. Thus -- I will post them.

Ariane and the others had returned from the Arena not long ago...

 

 

-----

 

Chapter 1.

     The conference room was silent for a long moment. Most of the humans present had incredulous, shell-shocked expressions, something you might expect to see on the face of a normally calm, rational adult who abruptly found themselves sitting at the Mad Tea Party. The silence from the artificial intelligences was, perhaps, even more telling, for some of those present were vastly capable intellects, supposedly capable of thinking at speeds far above human – yet still, apparently, not above being overwhelmed by the impossible.

 

     I can't blame them, either, DuQuesne thought, unable to keep a cynical smile from his face.

 

     Saul Maginot, Commander of the Combined Space Forces and current head of the Space Security Council, finally cleared his throat. "I… must admit that it is rare that I find someone speaks accurately when they say something like 'you won't believe this', Ms. Au—"

 

     DuQuesne opened his mouth and found that he was interrupting in precise synchrony with Simon Sandrisson, both of them saying, "Captain Austin."

 

     He saw Saul's startled look, and felt some of the same surprise himself. I haven't accepted anyone's command like that… since Hyperion, maybe. If I ever did. But it's right. She earned that title, earned it every which way she could have, and by God people will remember that.

 

     Thank you both, Ariane said through the encrypted link that connected the Holy Grail crew who were at this top-security meeting. But if someone needs smacking down, I'll do it. Mentor's watching and advising me, based on our plan.

 

     The "plan" wasn't terribly complex – couldn't have been, as they'd only had a couple days to work on it after returning from the impossible other-world of the Arena. But that had been long enough to figure out the points they needed to emphasize, the points to downplay… and the few cards they really needed to palm.

 

     And we really don't want anyone to see the combination ace and joker up our sleeves.

 

Saul Maginot gave a seated bow. "Of course, my apologies. Captain Austin, in this case you were quite correct. Despite the mass of data you have transferred to us and the detailed narrative – and the alien biological samples which are currently undergoing testing in our own labs – I do, I confess, find this very, very hard to grasp."

 

     "I can't blame you," the dark-blue haired woman – almost a girl, actually, she's barely twenty-seven – answered with a brilliant smile. "There are days I get up and I still  can't believe it. And I was there."

 

     "Allow me to summarize, just to see if I've grasped the essence of the situation correctly… and, I suppose, to help me finish absorbing it too." Saul paused a moment, obviously arranging his thoughts.

 

     DuQuesne found himself nodding occasionally as Saul summarized the whole unbelievable sequence of events, starting from the activation of the Holy Grail's experimental "Sandrisson Drive", through their discovery that the monstrous spherical construct they emerged in was merely one of uncounted billions in a lightyears-wide artificial creation called, simply, The Arena. Saul's summary then touched on their encounters with the various species and factions, ranging from the omnicidal Molothos to the Analytic, the Vengeance, the Blessed to Serve, and the Faith and Shadeweavers, both wielders of powers that seemed nothing short of magic, and then proceeded through the various "Challenges" that they had been forced to meet in their quest to return home – including obliterating a small invasion force of Molothos and Ariane's last-minute defeat of the Shadeweaver Amas-Garao.

 

"At that point," Saul said, "Dr. DuQuesne informed Captain Austin that he had made a 'side bet' for the energy required to return home. This allowed Captain Austin to demand a different price from the Shadeweavers – restricting them from ever again using their mental influence on any member of the faction of Humanity or our direct and close allies.

 

"This accomplished, they now had the energy needed, gathered the proof and data which was provided to us a few days ago, and finally returned home to the Solar System. And that brings us current as of three days ago."

 

"That's not a bad summary. Did it help you any?" Ariane Austin's voice was both amused and sympathetic. She clearly realized how hard the situation was going to be –– first to believe, and second to deal with.

 

"Actually, yes, thank you," Saul said. "While I know I glossed over all sorts of fascinating – and difficult to grasp – detail, I think it's brought the main situation into clear focus. And the first thing that strikes me is that you were all entirely correct to insist that we keep this as secret as possible – even with the protection of the Anonymity War Conventions."

 

And I'll bet that was a doozy to pull off. It was sobering to realize that every single person in this room on the orbiting station Kanazaki-III was in fact physically present, not attending by remote transmission or represented by a temporary AISage instantiation.

 

"I'm afraid that we're not going to be able to keep it secret for long," said Oscar Naraj. DuQuesne knew Naraj – Director of Fleet Maintenance for the Combined Space Forces – and didn't trust him one little bit. Born politician… and this is the kind of situation he's been dreaming of, I'll bet.

 

But Naraj was still speaking. "Even if no one here decides to talk about it – and my own personal guess is that we'll all hear a defector ping within hours of this meeting's conclusion – there are those outside who will put a lot of it together, and of course your crew have their own contacts who will learn something." His deep voice carried a sad conviction; his dark skin and silver eyes, combined with a sweep of glossy black hair touched with white gave him a tremendous gravitas which DuQuesne suspected was the result of careful design. "What concerns me most, Saul, is that – meaning no insult or disparagement to our guests, who I am sure did the best they could – if I understand the sequence of events correctly, we have managed to alienate no fewer than three major, er, Factions of these aliens already. To the point of essentially declaring war on these 'Molothos'. Am I correct?"

 

"In essence." Ariane's voice was very carefully held neutral, but DuQuesne could sense her annoyance at the diplomatically phrased implication of blame and incompetence. He could also hear, on a sideband, Ariane's AISage Mentor advising her.

 

Don't let him bait you, Captain, DuQuesne sent. This guy's a big time operator in his own way; don't give him any leverage.

 

Don't worry, I know what we need to do. Aloud, she continued, looking steadily at Naraj. "However, I assure you we didn't set out to do it that way."

 

Oscar spread his hands. "As I said, I mean no criticism. I was not there, I did not have the decisions to make at the time and, of course, you aren't a military officer or even a politician. I don't expect a former racing pilot to be aware of the implications of such situations, no matter how marvelous her instincts turn out to be."

 

Oh, nice condescension there, Naraj. He glanced around, noticed something. New faces since the last time I checked out the SSC roster. A lot of new faces. Oh, that's not good. A lot of the Old Guard are gone, and the way the new faces are looking at Naraj, I'll bet he was choosing the replacements. He watched the way Naraj's glance swept the table and saw the confirmation. You're playing to an audience that knows your script.

 

"But," Naraj went on, "the bare facts are that we have a lot of damage control to do here, Saul. My people are going to have to go over the technology and after-action reports in a lot more detail, but it seems that in many ways much of the base technology they have in this… Arena isn't terribly far ahead of us, so we're not in the position I had feared when I thought about encountering alien species – they being thousands of years more advanced, with technologies that made ours look the way those of our medieval ancestors look to us.

 

"Still, we have one solar system and these larger Factions control many. They are established for centuries in the Arena, we have just arrived. We need to get back there quickly, figure out a way to negotiate with these people. Perhaps we can avert a war, make enemies into friends."

 

DuQuesne saw Saul wince as DuQuesne gave his best cynical laugh. "Yeah, good luck with that. The Molothos aren't friends with anyone. We'd have been at war with them sooner or later anyway. Read up on them, but first I want you to very, very carefully understand the word xenomisoic. Every nuance and implication. Because that word pretty much encapsulates the Molothos. They hate everything that isn't them, and there's enough of them, and they're tough and mean enough, that they've managed to keep that attitude for a few millennia in the Arena without anyone being able to smack them around bad enough to make them reconsider."

 

Without warning, DuQuesne projected an image directly into the vidfeed, so that for a moment each and every other person in the conference room was suddenly face-to-face with a towering seven-foot monstrosity like a cross between a centaur, a giant spider, and a praying mantis, seven jointed legs supporting a central body with an upright torso that sported huge jack-knife fighting claws and a nightmarish crested head with a mouth like a meat grinder. The thing gave a step forward and a screech, and everyone jumped backwards – even the AISages twitched in a virtual momentary panic.

 

"That is a Molothos, and it is exactly, precisely, one hundred percent as nasty as it looks. Not all the aliens we ran into that looked mean turned out to be mean, but these guys look like exactly what they are." The immense, black-bearded Hyperion grinned, a humorless smile that had not a scrap of comfort behind it. "The only peace you can get with them… is resting in it."

 

You haven't lost your knack of shutting people up, Simon noted in tense amusement. Even Oscar Naraj had gone noticeably paler under his dark skin.

 

"I will concede that it may be possible that there is no negotiation to be had in this case," Oscar said. "But the fact does remain that none of you had any training or preparation for diplomacy, and perhaps it is possible you are wrong. Even if that is not the case for the Molothos, surely we can find a negotiating point with the Blessed."

 

Ariane shrugged. "You can certainly talk with them – Sethrik isn't a bad guy – but the real bosses there are the Minds."

 

"Quite, but we must be ready to find a way to minimize the damage from our initial … crude entry."

 

"Oscar," Dean Stout, one of the oldest regular members, spoke up. "You've made your point, so let's move on. Right now they're the only people who've been to this Arena place, and what I'm getting out of this is that we'd better get cracking on setting things up over there, and maybe preparing for an attack here."

 

"I am afraid so," Simon said. "But you need to understand that there are some very strong limitations that must be taken into account in both cases."

 

"Limitations?" Naraj blinked, then nodded, his own AISage clearly recalling the relevant data to mind. "Ah. The fact that only a small number of vessels can be present in the so-called Harbor area of a Sphere at one time."

 

"Exactly. We can make extensive use of the peculiar physics of the Arena for fortifying our own solar system, once we locate the regions called the "Sky Gates" around our Sphere. But we have not yet located the Sky Gates, which means that we have no way to travel from one point in the Arena to another except by going through the interior of our Sphere to the Inner Gateway, something effectively useless for either in-Arena or in-realspace defense."

 

"There's the openings called the Straits," said a woman that DuQuesne recognized as General Jill Esterhauer of Inner System Security. General Esterhaur continued, "We can use those to exit from the Harbor area of the Sphere and then patrol above the Upper Sphere. If I understand correctly, once you get above the nominal gravity area around the Sphere, you're effectively weightless and so patrol and stationkeeping should be relatively easy."

 

"You should be very careful about using the word 'easy' with respect to anything having to do with the Arena," Ariane said with a tinge of humor, "but yes, that's the way it works, at least as I've been given to understand it. We haven't actually had any chance to verify any of that."

 

"I'd think we will want to heavily fortify the area near the Inner Gateway." That was one of the people that DuQuesne didn't recognize, but through the group's links he heard Mentor identify him as Andrea Calderon, head of Sim Focus Group tracking.

 

"No doubt about it," Simon agreed. "Even though we are the only ones who currently have the ability to pass through the Inner Gateway to our Sphere, there is no saying whether this security will not become compromised later."

 

"Hold on," Saul Maginot said. "I was under the impression that the Arena itself enforced that security; you can't hack those controls, can you?"

 

"Oh," Gabrielle Wolfe said from DuQuesne's other side, "I don't think Simon was saying the Arena's going to give out our passcodes, but the more of us who travel to the Arena, the more chance there will be that one of us will invite someone over in a manner that gives them the authority to do so. Mistakes happen, no matter how hard we try to prevent them."

 

"There's that," Ariane agreed. "But I'd also point out that the Shadeweavers themselves … how did Gona-Brashind put it? They can '…perhaps not trick the Arena, but bargain with it, convince it to avert its gaze or to allow a door to remain open, a connection to remain accessible…'. So if someone made an arrangement with the right Shadeweaver, they might be able to keep a connection to our Sphere open long enough for others to cross. Ms. Calderon is very much correct."

 

"To return to the prior question, you mentioned limitations, plural, Dr. Sandrisson," Oscar Naraj said. "What other limitations, besides the restricted number of ships in the Harbor area and the need to find the Sky Gates, as they are called?"

 

"Well, if we understand the information we gained from the Analytic, Orphan, and the Vengeance correctly," Simon said, "once outside of a relatively short radius from our home star, self-replicating nanoassembly will cease to function unless human beings – or, I suppose, any other intelligent species – are present to directly observe and supervise."

 

"That's ridiculous!" one of the other attendees said, with an almost offended tone. "If –"

 

"Everything about the Arena and the way it works is ridiculous," DuQuesne said, bluntly. "It's also damn terrifying and it's completely true. We already had evidence to support this, though we didn't know how to interpret it; the fact that our AI nanoprobes to other local systems never checked back in. Now we know why; they shut down." He saw the other open his mouth to argue, raised his voice and added just enough glare to make the representative fall silent, "Don't try to tell me that's impossible. We know how our physics describes this universe, but the Arena has technology that outstrips everything we have and everything that anyone except the most wild-eyed theorists ever dreamed. It can, and does, change the rules whenever it damned well feels like it. At first we thought those rule-changes were just inside the Arena itself, but the more we learned the more obvious it became that the Arena's involved in messing with things in this universe, too."

 

He looked over at Saul. "You people have reviewed what we turned over to the SSC. Do you think we faked all that?"

 

Saul took the opportunity to stand. "I am quite convinced that, preposterous though the story appears to be, it is all unfortunately – or fortunately – true. I would urge everyone here to accept it."

 

"I concur," Oscar Naraj said. "Moreover, I think that we need to proceed to concrete planning for our next steps. Dr. Sandrisson, I trust we can count upon you to release your designs?"

 

Simon glanced at Ariane, who nodded. "Certainly. Rather difficult to build even a small fleet if you don't know how."

 

"Then in that case, Saul, might I suggest that we allow the Grail crew to leave and take a bit of R&R? I'm sure we'll need to speak to them again before we select our mission crew and return to the Arena – and we need to do that quite soon, as we can't leave four scientists over there alone and unsupported – but they've given us quite extensive notes and I think we can make a good deal of progress without needing them to sit through hours of debate."

 

DuQuesne almost objected – damned if I'm going to let a bunch of armchair politicians decide how to deal with this! – but he caught Saul's almost-neutral expression and stopped himself dead. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, and he sensed both Simon and Ariane's AISages saying something urgent that prevented either of them from speaking either.

 

"I think that's an excellent idea, Oscar," Saul said blandly. "Captain Austin, Dr. Wolfe, Dr. Sandrisson, Dr. DuQuesne, thank you very much for your time. We will ask you to assist us additionally in the future, but for now and probably several days to come we will be busy debating policy. The SSC and CSF ask that you keep this as quiet as possible in the meantime."

 

Ariane stood. "Of course, Director."

 

The doors had barely shut behind them when Ariane turned to him. "Why in –"

 

He cut her off with a gesture. Nothing. Not even through links. Not secure enough.

 

The others followed him as he led them through Kanzaki-Three to the main docking area, along the circular core until he came to a docking ring showing an amber telltale. He concentrated, sending the recognition code, and a moment later the ring glowed green. The door opened at his direction.

 

Simon, Ariane, and Gabrielle followed into DuQuesne's private vessel, one he'd left here from the time he'd joined the Sandrisson Project; none of them said anything, seeing his upraised hand. Isaac?

 

Give me a moment. The AISage's projected persona – a spry older man with huge bushy sideburns, white hair, and a cheery smile – typed furiously on what appeared to be an ancient manual typewriter. No immediate signs of intrusion. There was contact with the outer hull twice in the past few months. One small object remains in contact.

 

A bug?

 

No monitoring potential – no nanotech activity, no electromagnetics. It appears to be a vacuum-paper note, in fact.

 

DuQuesne grimaced. And I'll bet it's like the others. He looked over Isaac's data, checked the interior himself, finally breathed out a long sigh. "Okay, people, we're secure."

 

"Why the hell did you let us get run out like that?" Ariane demanded, as he'd known she would. "I know they're the closest thing to a government the Solar System has, but they still don't get what they're dealing with!"

 

ON THE CONTRARY, a deep, resonant pseudo-voice replied from the wireless link the Holy Grail crew had established, MY VISUALIZATION SHOWS THAT SEVERAL OF THEM, INCLUDING THE ONE CALLED OSCAR NARAJ, UNDERSTAND VERY WELL WHAT THEY ARE DEALING WITH, AT LEAST WITHIN THE NARROW CONFINES OF THEIR OWN INTERESTS.

 

"You saw it too, huh, Mentor?" DuQuesne said. It wasn't surprising – Ariane's AISage, patterned after the nigh-omniscient Mentor of Arisia in the old Lensman novels, was Tayler-5 AI, the most advanced allowed in general private use and at least in theory more mentally capable than almost anything living.

 

I did indeed, Mentor replied, reducing the apparent volume. Computations and probability simulations indicate that sixty-nine percent of the SSC and fifty-two percent of the CSF personnel present were directly or indirectly influenced by Oscar Naraj. My Visualization is that there will be a contest of influence between Saul Maginot and Oscar Naraj, and the outcome will not be in our favor.

 

Simon nodded. "I saw the same thing," he said, pushing his long silver-white hair back absently. "I am also afraid that I have seen Mr. Naraj's type before. And so have most of us, but usually in simgames. But the Arena has made politics suddenly much more relevant."

 

DuQuesne had to admit he was startled. Simon was very far from stupid – a genius, in fact – but DuQuesne hadn't expected him to be able to interpret the dynamics of the inner council's politics so well. Then again, he did have to deal with them just to get the permission to do the Grail experiment, so maybe he understood them better than I thought.

 

Ariane's brow furrowed, and the dark-blue haired Captain and pilot of Holy Grail suddenly grunted. "Oh, damn. You mean, he's like those people in a club that just can't stand to let people do what they want but has to get everything organized – and just happens to be the guy in charge of the organization at the end?"

 

"You got it," DuQuesne said. "Naraj has been around for donkey's years, always jockying for position, even though if we're honest about it the SSC and CSF aren't there to do much. But he just never could leave things as they were. I'm not saying he's a bad guy – I think he honestly wants to do the right thing. But I don't think we'd agree with him most of the time on what the right thing is."

 

He looked over at Simon. "Remember that time back before we left? When we talked about why it was important to get FTL travel? Well, those bills I mentioned, the ones for getting backdoor codes into AISages and things like that, those came from Naraj. Not him directly, but people he appointed and got appointed or elected into other positions. I think he's one of the ones a little afraid of AIs – and now that he's heard about the Blessed, you can bet that's going to get worse."

 

"But he's not in charge of the SSC or the CSF," pointed out Gabrielle. "So even if he has a lot of influence, Director Maginot will make sure there's plenty of good people in the next expedition."

 

DuQuesne grimaced. "Yeah, maybe. If he doesn't get shoved out. Like Mentor says, Naraj's got a lot of appointees in both groups now. He might be able to finally get Saul bumped. Not because Saul is incompetent, but because other people see the value in shaking up that stability to get more influence themselves. Politics in the Arena means something, and for people who like that… it's like the difference between playing a sim and being there in life. A good sim is close… but it's still not the same."

 

"Well, you've got yourself a plan, Marc," Gabrielle said. "Leastwise, I'm pretty sure you do, or you wouldn't have brought us all here."

 

He smiled at her. "Part of one, anyway. I want you and Simon – with Mentor, if Ariane will spare him – to stay around Kanzaki-Three and start re-prepping Holy Grail."

 

Ariane looked at him. "You're planning on us going back ourselves?"

 

"You better believe it, Ariane. Unless you feel comfortable letting them take the wheel from now on?"

 

She grimaced. "I really, really want to say I do. I mean, I like Saul. And I'm sure Mr. Naraj is competent at what he does. And God knows I sure don't want to run things.But…" She trailed off, then sighed. "No. They can look at all the data they want, view all the recordings, but none of that's going to make them understand the Arena." She laughed suddenly. "As if I understand the Arena."

 

Simon smiled at that. "I suppose none of us could really claim to understand the Arena, true, but the other point I don't think they'll really grasp is that much of Arena politics seems to rely on personal honor and knowledge. A whole new group of people will be throwing away all the… credit, I suppose… that we built up in our time there."

 

They nodded, and everyone looked at Ariane again. She doesn't want to think about it right now, but the real point is that Saul and Oscar can create the best team ever made and it won't do them one microscopic bit of good if they don't have Ariane with them… because as far as the Arena is concerned, Captain Ariane Austin is the Leader of the Faction of Humanity.

 

"I have some ideas of what 'prepping' we need to do," Simon said, continuing the original conversation, "but what about you and Ariane?"

 

"I've got some … unfinished business that just might get finished now," he said, and it was startling how hard it was to even say that. Holy jumping cats, as Rich Seaton used to say, I've still got some issues. "You don't need to know the details – and I think you'll understand why afterwards. But I just need one other person to come with me."

 

Simon looked at him, and the brilliant green, slightly slanted eyes behind the round, cosmetic glasses met his gaze. And for just one moment, DuQuesne had the eerie and utterly ridiculous feeling that Simon knew everything that wasn't being said. Then he nodded. "Of course. And it's probably best that Ariane's hard to catch up with for a bit."

 

Gabrielle and Ariane looked at them both curiously. Ariane shrugged. "Well, at least I get to come along on the mysterious journey. And I won't argue against dodging the interviews."

 

"All right, then," Simon said. "Gabrielle, I suppose we'd best go back to the Grail Project admin quarters and secure them again, since this is obviously DuQuesne's own yacht."

 

"Starting already?" Gabrielle asked, mildly startled.

 

"Damn well better," DuQuesne answered, and started the pre-flight checks. "Whether Saul manages a miracle, or Oscar pulls off a coup, it won't take 'em long to decide – and just how long will it be for someone to make a new Sandrisson Drive vehicle with your data, Simon?"

 

Sandrission frowned. "Honestly? Not terribly long, not with the CSF's resources. It's best to tailor them, modifying a standard hull would take almost as long as making a new one, so… eight weeks. Six, at a minumum."

 

"Then," DuQuesne said, as the internal power began to come up, "we've got less than two months to get back. The initial meeting today probably is adjourned for the next few hours, but they'll wrap it up in a few more days, and then –"

 

An electronic ping reached his consciousness, and he saw the others twitch slightly as they, too, received it and realized what it was: a "defector ping", a signal that someone had decided to abrogate the SSC/CSF agreement to secrecy. There was no way to identify which of the hundred-odd attendees had made this decision, of course… but the "defector ping" let all involved in a secret proceeding know that their secrets were no longer entirely secure.

 

Oh hell, DuQuesne thought. Couldn't they have waited one multiply-qualified and obscenity-laced DAY?

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Doug Smith says:

    Finally. I thoroughly enjoyed Grand Central Arena. I’m glad we are now getting another look at this universe after such a long wait.

  2. About time! You need to write and publish faster so we can get our next hit of book-crack!

    When can we expect the E-ARC?

    • Alas, unless I start making *REAL* money off these books, I still have a day job, which severely limits how much time I have to write (in general about 1.5 days a week, total).

      eARC should be out mid-August.

      • Josh S. says:

        Ah, thanks for the timing info — planning to buy both e-ARC and paper. Just reread Grand Central Arena in anticipation — not a lot of books can get me to do that!

        And going to keep recommending GCA to any space opera fans I know, of course.

Your comments or questions welcomed!