I will begin the snippeting of Spheres of Influence pretty soon -- about two months before the eARC release on August 15th. So here's a teaser and preparation (which is, in fact, at the front of Spheres of Influence as well)
Previously in Grand Central Arena:
The solar system of 2375, population fifty-five billion, approaches utopia as closely as most of humanity could imagine. The advent of efficient power harvesting, storage, and transmission of all kinds combined with nanoassembler systems called "AIWish" units has allowed even the poorest people to be assured of plenty of food, comfortable shelter, access to the immense interconnected webwork of information, entertainments, and heathcare sufficient to extend human youth and lifespan greatly; this has also assisted other advances in material and engineering sciences to produce a fully-flowered Space Age, with huge colonies on Mars, orbiting Earth, and elsewhere. Artificial intelligences assist human beings in their daily lives, with most people having a built-in "AISage" who serves as one of their closest friends and a secretary, memory aid, research partner, or almost anything else.
Because of these things, and because of a short but bitter electronic conflict a few centuries past called the Anonymity War, governments as we know them are almost a thing of the past and human individual rights and privacy are nearly unbounded; only the shadow of the horrific "Hyperion Project" has caused any sort of effective central government to arise in the last 50 years, comprised of the Space Security Council (SSC) and Combined Space Forces (CSF) which basically intervene when and if there are conflicts beyond the ability of the ordinary people to address – and ordinary people can have truly staggering resources to their name in 2375.
Work, as we know it in the 21st century, is also effectively a thing of the past. People do not need to work to survive, and the closest equivalents of "money" are called "interest credits" or vectors, where additional resources are given by people to someone that interests them in some way. People now entertain themselves at whatever they wish, ranging from mountain climbing to adventures in full-immersive virtual realities called simgames.
Only one of the great dreams of humanity seems to have been truly elusive: that of reaching the stars.
At the beginning of Grand Central Arena, Doctor Simon Sandrisson believed he had solved that great riddle, and for various reasons assembled a crew for a manned vehicle, the Holy Grail, to test this "Sandrisson Drive"; the crew included power engineer Dr. Marc C. DuQuesne, controls specialist Dr. Carl Edlund, systems integration and conceptual engineer Dr. Steve Franceschetti, medical specialist Dr. Gabrielle Wolfe, nanomaintenance engineer Dr. Thomas Cussler, biologist Dr. Laila Canning, and – as a last-ditch backup – Ariane Stephanie Austin, top pilot in the Unlimited Space Racing league.
With this crew, Dr. Sandrisson plans a simple demonstration jump into "Kanzaki-Locke-Sandrisson space" which will allow the Holy Grail to effectively travel many times faster than light; they will jump, wait for the onboard fusion generator to recharge the Sandrisson Coils, and then jump back, having traveled perhaps a third of a light year in a few days' time.
But as soon as the Holy Grail makes the first jump, everything goes wrong; the nuclear reactor shuts down, and all automation – including the AISages on which most of the crew rely – crashes. Only Ariane Austin's skill at manual piloting saves Holy Grail from crashing into some impossible, unimaginable wall that appeared before them.
Nothing they can do will restart the nuclear reactor, or bring the artificial intelligences back online, and if they can't find a source of very considerable power, they will be stranded forever in what appears to be a spherical space twenty thousand kilometers in diameter. With most of the crew still suffering from the trauma of losing their AISages, and having their own specific responsibilities, it is decided that for the interim Ariane Austin will be the acting Captain and leader of the stranded Holy Grail crew.
Scanning the interior of this spherical space shows that there is a way into the surrounding structure, and they begin exploring for something that may offer them a way home – and explain where they actually are, and what this structure is. During that exploration, it is revealed that Marc DuQuesne is one of the few survivors of the infamous Hyperion Project, product of a terribly misguided attempt to replicate various heroes of myth and fiction which, so to speak, "Went Horribly Right". DuQuesne has spent the last fifty years trying to play the part of a normal human and really only wants to live a relatively ordinary life.
On a deeper probe of the interior of this mysterious location, Ariane Austin, Marc DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson encounter alien lifeforms. Shocked to be able to actually understand what the aliens are saying, they nonetheless intervene – for reasons they do not entirely understand at the time – to prevent what appears to be a lynching or kidnapping of one semi-insectoid alien by others; another, mysterious figure in dark robe-like clothing simply watches and then disappears.
The rescued alien calls himself "Orphan", and seems friendly enough… until DuQuesne notices a suspicious tenseness and prevents him from actually entering the area of the installation (which Orphan calls a "Sphere") that the humans have set up camp in.
Orphan admits that entrance to that portion of the "Sphere" would have given him considerable opportunity to control entry and exit from the Sphere – and by implication, to humanity's solar system. Despite this, Ariane and the others decide that Orphan could be useful in at least allowing them to understand what they've gotten themselves into.
Orphan agrees to be their guide and instructor, and reveals the truth; that the huge structure they are in are just one of uncountable billions of "Spheres", each of which represents a single solar system – and there is one Sphere for every solar system in every galaxy throughout the universe, floating in a lightyears-wide space called simply "The Arena". Outside the shell of the Sphere is not vacuum, but air, light, and even gravity on the "top" of the Sphere, called the Upper Sphere – a place which provides living space similar to that found on a Sphere owner's native world.
But to gain access to the Upper Sphere, the humans must first traverse the "Inner Gateway" which will take them to a location called Nexus Arena, and then – if they wish to gain the power needed to activate the Sandrisson Drive and return home – establish themselves as citizens of the Arena.
Ariane asks, naturally, how such citizenship is established; the answer startles and worries the entire crew. Everything in the Arena, it seems, revolves around "Challenges" between various groups, or "Factions". A "Challenge" can be almost any sort of contest, but the essential character of a Challenge is that the stakes are significant on the scale of the Faction itself; for larger factions, that can mean, in essence, bets with literal worlds in the balance. There are over five thousand Factions and all of them have been in existence for thousands of years. Newcomers or "First Emergents" such as humanity haven't been seen for over three thousand years.
In their first encounter with aliens, they turned out to have met no fewer than three Factions: Orphan, who is the leader – and sole member, currently – of the Faction of the Liberated; the Blessed To Serve, of the same species as Orphan but his major enemies; and the Shadeweavers, mysterious and reputed to have nigh-supernatural powers. Their initial venture to Nexus Arena introduces them to the factions of the Faith, who apparently see the Arena as a holy artifact or site, the Analytic who are an alliance of scientists and engineers, the Molothos who are a species of creatures inherently hostile to all others, and the quasi-faction of the Powerbrokers, who could sell enough energy to the humans to let them return home… if they had something to trade.
Having made this initial foray, Simon and Ariane stay behind while DuQuesne travels back to update the others on what they've discovered – and to lead an expedition to the Upper Sphere to see what resources they might have on top of their own Sphere.
It turns out that the Molothos have just recently discovered Humanity's Sphere, as they send ships to travel through the airy spaces of the Arena and find other Spheres. The Molothos pursue and harry both DuQuesne and Carl Edlund, who accompanied him on this expedition, until trapping the two humans in the Molothos' main encampment.
The stress and desperation of the moment causes DuQuesne to release all of the restraints he had placed on himself, and unleashes the full capabilities of a Hyperion on the terrified Molothos, defeating six Molothos in a few seconds and then interrogating the surviving officer, Maizas. A combination of careful planning, improvisation, and luck allows DuQuesne and Edlund to destroy the Molothos' main vessel, Blessing of Fire, before it can reinforce the ground troops and take possession of Humanity's Upper Sphere.
This turns out to be sufficient to count as winning a Challenge from the Arena's point of view, and Humanity suddenly is a full-fledged Faction, with its own embassy building… and a new set of problems. Everyone wants to pal around with the new kids on the block, it seems… but they all have their own agendas. The humans also notice some odd characteristics of all Arena inhabitants; they seem more risk-averse than humanity, with odds of 100:1 being viewed in a similar light to those of a million to one by most human beings.
Ariane is invited by the Faith to observe the induction of a new priest, called an Initiate Guide, as part of a ritual that is conducted whenever a new Faction appears. During this ritual, she hears and sees things that seem magical, beyond any science that humanity understands, including a staggering display of power at the "awakening" of the new Initiate Guide's abilities. It is clear that the Faith – including their leader, First Guide Nyanthus, and the new priest, Initiate Guide Mandallon, firmly believe there is a mystical, numinous power far beyond that of mortality that guides or watches over the Arena. Ariane is impressed, though not at all convinced, and on her way back is more disturbed when Amas-Garao, one of the Shadeweavers, appears from nowhere and has a short discussion with her that reveals that he did influence her to intervene on Orphan's behalf, somehow. He is unimpressed, even amused, by her confronting him with this, and when pressed, disappears – at the same time somehow teleporting Ariane all the way from where she stands back to Humanity's Embassy.
The faction of the Vengeance visits Humanity shortly thereafter – a faction who believe that, rather than a benevolent deific-like force, the Arena is a weapon, a tool to keep all other species imprisoned and controlled, and who are dedicated to discovering the secrets of the creators of the Arena, called the Voidbuilders, and wresting from them controll of the universes.
Mandallon, the new Initiate Guide, is obligated to perform some service for Humanity; while he cannot provide the energy needed to return home (apparently older Initiate Guides could, but he cannot), he will attempt anything else. After some discussion, Ariane decides to ask him to heal the one member of their crew who has never recovered from the "crashing" of her AISages (she had three): Dr. Laila Canning. He performs a ritual which shows no objective mechanism for functioning, but nonetheless awakens Laila to herself… although Ariane, and DuQuesne, wonder if perhaps Laila Canning is not exactly who she seems to be, now.
It isn't long before the Blessed to Serve trick Ariane into accepting a Challenge; the Blessed, and their leader Sethrik, come to regret this when Ariane specifies the Challenge mode as being deep-space racing, and manages to win the race with a final daredevil move that shocks all of the Arena natives.
Ariane originally intended to demand a full recharge for Holy Grail as the price for winning the Challenge, but Orphan – just in time – reveals that if all of the Holy Grail crew return home, leaving the Sphere empty, they forfeit all the progress they have made – they lose their Factionhood. The Sphere must always have at least one inhabitant from this point on. At the same time, Orphan admits that his meeting with the Holy Grail crew was not entirely accident; he was directed to go to a certain place, at a certain time, by the Shadeweavers, to whom he owed a debt. He admits that he still owes them at least one more service, meaning that he cannot yet be entirely trustworthy… even if he didn't have an agenda of his own. She agrees to keep Orphan's secret… but he owes her.
Ariane decides to have the Blessed foot the bill for having Humanity's Sphere secured by the Faith, something which is necessary for peace of mind if and when they leave someone behind. This choice, while sensible, causes considerable conflict when revealed, partly due to the disappointment that they are not yet going home, and partly due to the fact that Ariane made this decision on her own. Ariane points out – correctly – that it was her decision to make, and if they didn't want a Captain in charge they shouldn't have made her one.
DuQuesne is aware she is correct, and leaves to cool off so he doesn't argue any further. Amas-Garao takes this opportunity to contact DuQuesne, and shows him around the Shadeweaver headquarters in an attempt to recruit DuQuesne to join their ranks; during this tour, he witnesses part of the induction ritual for a new member of the Shadeweavers. When DuQuesne declines the invitation, Amas-Garao reveals that this was "an offer you can't refuse". The Shadeweaver is stunned to discover that he cannot control DuQuesne's mind (due to particular design work done by the Hyperion Project), but demonstrates vast, apparently supernatural power, eventually cornering DuQuesne before he can leave the Faction House.
But Ariane received a very short transmission from DuQuesne, enough to know he was in trouble, and has Orphan lead them to the Shadeweaver Faction House… just in time. In the subsequent battle, Orphan surprises everyone by first choosing not to abandon Humanity, despite his belief that they have no real chance against the Shadeweavers, and second by revealing that he has some sort of device that inhibits the Shadeweavers' powers.
The combination of Orphan with the humans' luck and skill allows the group to escape the Shadeweaver compound – at which point the Adjudicators – enforcers of Nexus Arena itself – show up to prevent pursuit by Amas-Garao.
However, the Shadeweaver faction itself then declares "Anathema" against the faction of Humanity, making most members of the Arena avoid doing business with them at all. Only the Analytic and the Faith stand with Humanity, which does at least allow them to continue to operate. During this time, Ariane and the others get to observe another Challenge, a maze-combat race that culminates with one contestant, Sivvis Lassituras, honorably ceding the Challenge to his opponent, Tunuvun, after Tunuvun prevents him from being injured or killed in a fall.
Shortly thereafter, Orphan mysteriously abandons Gabrielle Wolf during a shopping expedition to retrive basic supplies for the group, and she encounters a group of the Blessed to Serve who begin to systematically bully her in a strangely uncharacteristic way. By the time Ariane arrives, she sees Gabrielle injured and bleeding, and the exchange of heated words culminates in her issuing a Challenge to Sethrik, leader of the Blessed…
… who turns out to have been merely acting as the agent for Amas-Garao. The Shadeweaver accepts the Challenge and says the venue will be single combat… with the prize being either Marc DuQuesne or Ariane Austin herself joining the Shadeweavers. While DuQuesne is much more formidable, Ariane refuses to allow him to risk himself, feeling that he – as a full-functional Hyperion whose capabilities have saved them more than once – is much more valuable than she is. Also, by making herself both the prize and the opponent, she forces Amas-Garao to have to be careful to not kill the very thing he's fighting for.
Despite this, and considerable preparation for the battle, the duel is clearly one-sided; even when Ariane succeeds in striking Amas-Garao, the effect is temporary, and eventually Amas-Garao stops even playing with her and uses his powers to systematically smash her back and forth into the walls and floor of the Challenge ring until she is beaten nearly unconscious.
But just as she is about to collapse, her drifting mind makes connections between multiple events – the ritual of the Faith she observed, the fragments of Shadeweaver ritual DuQuesne saw, an injury Amas-Garao took during the fight to rescue DuQuesne, and other things said by Arena residents – and tries one last desperate throw of the dice by invoking the same ritual as awakened Mandallon's powers.
The energy detonates around her and Amas-Garao is barely able to defend himself, so shocked is he. It takes his concession, followed by assistance from six other Shadeweavers and Initiate Guides, to shut down the energy radiating from Ariane. Before Ariane can make her demand of the Shadeweavers, DuQuesne lets her know that he made a side bet that, now that she's won, will get them the energy they need to get home; Ariane then takes, as her prize for victory, the requirement that no Shadeweaver shall ever in any way use their mind-affecting powers on any member of Humanity or their immediate allies unless directly requested to by the leader of the Faction. Amas-Garao hesitates, but the Arena itself states that this is a fair and reasonable demand and that the Shadeweavers will accept it.
The Shadeweavers and Faith then visit Ariane, saying she is now one of them – either a Shadeweaver or an Initiate Guide. She refuses to join either, feeling her responsibility for Humanity outweighs their factional leanings, and not trusting the Shadeweavers at all in any case. They then say that her powers must be sealed more permanently, since if she will not join either one, she will not have proper instruction on how to control it – and Ariane, despite not wanting to believe, sees all too clearly a demonstration of how her own emotions trigger dangerous reactions.
The sealing ritual requires seven members of Humanity's faction. Ariane gets the Arena to allow them to temporarily empty Humanity's Sphere to perform the ritual. During that ritual, a momentary disruption causes all of the power – of Shadeweaver, Faith, and Ariane – to converge for an instant on Dr. Simon Sandrisson; it seems to have no lasting effect, but for a moment Dr. Sandrisson feels that he can see, and understand… everything.
Returning Steve Franceschetti and Thomas Cussler to Humanity's Sphere after the ritual, Steve, Tom, Ariane, and DuQuesne are suddenly confronted with all of the Gateways that would usually be available for the trip being occupied – thousands of Gateways all simultaneously in use…
… By the Molothos, who had deduced that Humanity's Sphere was temporarily abandoned, and knew that if they failed to return to their Sphere within a reasonable time they would forfeit their citizenship. This trick is not a Challenge, but is potentially worse. However, Steve Franceschetti figures out a way past the apparently-impossible blockade and is successfully returned to Humanity's Sphere.
Energy now provided, the Holy Grail preps to return, many months after departure, carrying Ariane, Marc DuQuesne, Simon Sandrisson, and Gabrielle Wolfe… and evidence of the impossible. "Kanzaki-Three, this is Experimental Vessel 2112FTL, Holy Grail, reporting back." She grinned at the others, as she continued, "Control, you will not believe where we’ve been!"
… What has Come After
The Space Security Council and Combined Space Forces have been forced to accept the reality of the preposterous story told by the Holy Grail crew. It becomes evident, however, that they feel the Holy Grail crew – and especially "Captain" Ariane Austin – are not the proper people to be representing Humanity going forward; the opposition to their ally Saul Maginot is led by Councillor Oscar Naraj, who has been maneuvering for the top spots in both the CSF and SSC for many, many years.
Ariane and the others have no intention of letting people who do not understand the Arena go charging in and trying to run things themselves… especially when there is one key factor they don't know: that the Arena itself has designated Captain Ariane Austin "Leader of the Faction of Humanity" – and that title is one that even all the governments of Earth cannot take from her. Only she can yield it – and she won't until she finds someone both willing to take it, and able to understand just what they'll be dealing with!
Simon and Gabrielle return to Holy Grail to prepare it for a return as fast as possible – with needed cargo and trading materials – while DuQuesne takes Ariane on a secretive but, he assures them, desperately important mission, one they have to complete before the SSC and CSF can construct their own Sandrisson Drive craft.
DuQuesne's mission turns out to be seeking out the few remaining Hyperions who might be willing to help them; some turn out to be dead, while one is revealed to be an old acquaintance of Ariane's as well – Velocity Celes, top driver for the Unlimited Ground Racing circuit.
But all their initial movements were also blinds, tricks to shake off a pursuit that DuQuesne would not name, but clearly fears, so they could arrive at one particular location…