We continue with these postings. In this one... we get to learn more about where Ariane is going... and where DuQuesne was, once.
"So where, exactly, are we going, Marc?"
She saw DuQuesne give a tiny start at her words, the first either of them had spoken in the little spaceship since they'd left Kanzaki-Three several hours before. She'd been able to tell he needed to think for a while, but after this much time she felt she needed to say something.
"We're actually going several places," he said after a pause. "At least, we'll get to several places before we actually arrive where I really want to go… and then we'll go to a couple more."
She blinked. "You mean, we're going to go to point A, then point B, then point C, all so we can end up at point D, rather than going to point D directly? Why?"
"Yes," he said with a humorless grin, "that's exactly what I mean, and the reason is that I want to make damn sure we aren't followed. And no, believe me, all the privacy and misinformation software in the System isn't enough to convince me to take the straight path. Not with who might be following us."
That confirms it. "So this is something to do with Hyperion."
He didn't say anything more, which was very uncharacteristic of him. She realized something about the situation upset him more than she'd even imagined possible. "Okay, you don't want to explain that. Since I'm going to learn all about at least some of this once we get whereever we're going, is there anything you do want to explain to me, or are you going to play Mister Grim and Silent all the way to wherever the hell we're going?"
That got a small, tense chuckle out of him. "Sorry, Ariane. I'm going to… talk to my old friends from Hyperion."
A light dawned. "You want to recruit them."
"Bingo. The Arena… it's just as alien to everyone else as this world was to most of us Hyperions. But it's more… more like us, in a way. Bigger, stranger, something out of the ordinary. I think we – at least some of us – belong there, not here."
"So what's the problem?"
He shook his head. "It's… well, in the end we're going to see one old friend in particular. And hope he'll see me."
"Why wouldn't he? Or are you using 'friend' in the sarcastic sense?"
"No, no; we were good friends, back then. But… you'll understand when we get there."
"You know, I didn't like that kind of phrase when my Grandpa used it when I was a kid, and I like it even less now."
He winced; she knew that his soft spot for her also meant she was one of the few people that could manage to get under his skin that way. "I know. But … blast it, I never thought it would be this hard to talk about it!"
He's really having serious problems. It's always so hard to remember that he does have his own issues; Marc's usually so omnicompetent and together that you never really think about what he went through.
She didn't want to drop the whole subject, but a different tactic was definitely indicated. "You know, Marc, one thing that's always puzzled me about Hyperion, ever since you and Gabrielle gave a sort of bare-bones summary, was… how the hell did you end up making friends with other Hyperions? My impression was that most of you were raised in literally your own little worlds, enclosures on Hyperion a couple hundred meters on a side with the latest in sense-input control to make them all seem limitless in extent. How could one of you meet the others, let alone make friends and… well…"
"… plan to bring the whole house of cards down like Samson?" DuQuesne gazed off into the distance again, and for a few minutes she thought he wasn't going to answer her. But then he sighed and looked back at her.
"Look… the details don't really matter, and to be honest it really hurts to think about it too much. But I can give you a general idea.
"The people and AIs who built Hyperion tried their best to make those worlds real to us. When the souce material they based us off of wasn't consistent, they figured out ways to resolve every inconsistency. The world might not work like this one, but by God it worked, it made sense – just like this one, if you saw something that didn't make sense, you could bet there was a reason behind it. The amount of computational power put into those designs, and then maintaining those worlds… isn't easy to comprehend. The Minds that the Blessed talk about could probably have handled Hyperion's demands, but I'm not even sure of that; there's physical limits to what kind of device you can build and still think in anything like real-time; speed of light lag'll get you every time, even with quantum computation." He paused. "Wonder if that's one of the Arena's other advantages; can you use Arenaspace as a computational shortcut? I'll have to follow up with Simon on that."
He smiled briefly at Ariane. "Sorry for the diversion. Anyway, running the simulation was a terribly complex operation for each Hyperion; you had to administer the stimuli, track the subject's reaction, adjust the output to fit what you wanted, and sometimes adjust it for the subject's expectations, especially in a world where they might be trying things counter-intuitive to the real world. It's like all the simgames you ever played concentrated into perfection… and the player never knowing anything else.
"But like I said back when we were discussing whether the Arena was real or just an illusion, eventually some of us somehow caught on to the scam. Maybe we really were smarter even than the AIs running the place, or just were thinking differently than they'd expected. In any case, those few of us who reached that conclusion were able to confirm it with some real subtle tests – biasing our reactions in certain directions and observing how the world followed the bias."
Ariane frowned. "But… why didn't they pick up on your thinking?"
"The idea was to make us who we were supposed to be 'naturally', if you can keep a straight face when you hear that word." DuQuesne stared sourly downward at his hands. "A lot of us weren't from high-tech sources, though a lot of us were. Integrating technology into us might not be a good idea from a number of standpoints, and they didn't install direct neural interfaces and controls specifically to force them to not directly program our personalities. They wanted us to have developed based on how we were raised, on what we encountered, rather than just fed a set of parameters like a simgame's NPCs. So they had to deduce what we thought, rather than read it directly.
"They could have arranged it if they got suspicious, of course, and in some cases they did – when the poor bastard in question was good enough to figure out the scam but not good enough or controlled enough to hide what he'd figured out. Where was I?" He paused, thinking. "Oh, yeah. Anyway, once we'd determined that something was way off-kilter with the universe, we started trying to find ways of extending our control – real carefully."
He turned away from her; his face, dimly reflected back to her from the port he was looking out, was a mask of rage and pain that he clearly didn't want her to see. "I remember finally getting a data feed good enough to really understand where I was – that the world I was in was a six-hundred-foot stage, and me the only player that mattered, that the Skylark that Rich and I had sweated blood and tears over hadn't been any more real than a daydream, that all my friends weren't even who they thought they were… hell, even my enemies weren't.
"I really, honestly don't know exactly how I hid that, Ariane. I just can't figure out how I managed to keep from losing it completely. But I did, and so did a couple others.
"That was the really dangerous part, you see; when we'd figured out the scam, but didn't have any control over the scammers. We had to work through the system like ghosts, like mice, like a disease invading the cells, and always, always so afraid that one of the electronic brains would notice something wrong, set off an alarm, and we'd all be erased, set back to happy little simulations without so much as an apology."
"Five of us got that far on our own. When we realized that we weren't alone – that there were dozens, hundreds of people like us – we knew we had to do something about the monsters that were holding us here." He stopped there, looking sad, saying nothing.
After a while, she asked, gently, "So… what did you do? How could you work together? Surely that would set off all the alarms."
He suddenly threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, you'd think so, wouldn't you? That was the biggest trick of all, and I'm not sure if I'm proud or ashamed that the basic idea was all mine.
"See, almost all of us were based on fictional characters. We were creations of drama, of adventure, of spectacle. So the people making us, what were they like? It didn't take many brains to figure that out. Some of us were in worlds where fan-types existed.
"I realized that this project had been already going on… a long time. Long enough that most, if not all, of us must be pretty much 'done' in the sense that we were now the heroes, or villains, that the Hyperion Project was trying to design. So what do you do with a hero when he's done with his heroing? If it's a book, you close the book, but this project was something the people involved had put decades of work into. They didn't want to just fold it up, they didn't know what to do with us… and so I gave them a hint."
"Sure." DuQuesne smiled, a twisted smile made up of amusement, self-loathing, horror, a terrible mixture that sent a shudder down her spine. "What do you do with a hero? Give him a new adventure. I was able to put little clues in their data, hints – comments by us as our 'characters', pointers to related stories in their databases that looked like pointers from other researchers, and so on – so that finally one of the researchers had the idea I wanted him to have: 'crossover!'. Create an adventure involving some terrible threat that seemed cross-dimensional, thus letting all the special heroes meet each other and work together to resolve it. What a wonderful final adventure!"
Ariane swallowed. "So…"
"So us super-scientist types found 'clues', or our worlds suffered disasters to give us the hint of potential trans-dimensional evil. Characters who were supposed to be magicians, same kind of thing. We started meeting directly – and those of us who knew what was really going on could talk to each other in person. By now we could modify the returned data feeds, make it so they didn't get the true conversations in their databases. We started picking our next set of allies, people we were going to tell the truth, started preparing for war – against this terrible trans-dimensional evil, the Hyperion Project designers thought, but of course in truth against the Project itself." He rubbed his temples. "Of course, eventually one of the designers, running a check with one of the main overseeing AIs, caught a hint of something not quite right, and we saw our cover about to be blown… and then it all came apart."
She watched two crystal tears slide down his face and reached out, and hugged him. How can he feel almost like a small child when he outweighs me by at least three to one? she wondered. But this is a ghost I think he's never survived confronting.
She let him cry silently for a few moments; he pulled away suddenly, floated himself to the far end of the little craft, and didn't speak for a long time. Then he turned.
"Thanks," he said quietly. "I… needed to tell you that. But I couldn't make myself start." He looked out the window again. "Can you wait to learn the rest until we get there?"
I'm not sure I could take learning any more right now. Oh, poor Marc! "Yes. I can." She unsnapped and floated over to him, and put her hand on his arm. "Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me about it."
He gripped her hand so hard it hurt for a moment, a grip that said more clearly than any words could, No. Thank you for being there to tell.
They floated there before the port, quietly watching the unmoving stars.