This is the last chapter that Ryk wants snippeted.
Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 29
A smell of caution and deviousness preceded the voice, so Wu was already turning in that direction when Oscar Naraj, dressed in one of his more conservative white suits, spoke. “Good morning, Captain Austin. You seem to be going out early.”
“Ambassador.” Ariane nodded to him. She smells a lot less cautious around him these days. I really have to remind her that he always smells like he has something planned! “And you’re looking rather dressed up. Going somewhere yourself?”
“In fact, I have what should be an all-day meeting with a number of moderate-sized factions, including the Tantimorcan, Dujuin, and Tensari. There will be considerable dancing… in the metaphorical sense. Perhaps in the actual sense, as well.”
Oasis joined them, looping one more hair-tie into place around the fourth of her ponytails. “That would be fun.”
“If you’re sure it won’t distract you from your duties,” Oscar said, but in a tone that was only half-serious. “Even the entertainment may be part of the business.”
“Oh, I understand that, Ambassador — and you have my word I’ll always be watching.”
She smiled at Wu, who smiled back, but felt a little uneasy. After DuQuesne explained what had happened… I am sad for them both. I know she still likes DuQuesne a lot. And it’s also sad for the real Miss Abrams; she’s herself… but not.
“Good luck,” Ariane said. “The Tantimorcan are apparently some of the best shipbuilders in the Arena.”
White teeth flashed in the dark face. “I was very much aware of that, and I hope to capitalize on their current alliance with Orphan to make closer ties. The Tensari are potentially more interesting in a cultural exchange sense, which is useful for establishing deeper connections to people throughout the Arena. What about you?”
“Sethrik is going to show me one of their ships today,” she answered. “I have to hand it to Ambassador Ni Deng,” she said, and bowed to the feathery-haired woman as she caught up with the other two. “I wasn’t sure we wanted to spill those beans to the Blessed, but she was right about the result.”
Oscar chuckled, and Ni Deng looked down modestly. She does smell pretty proud of herself. “I did tell you she was quite good at this sort of thing. After her talks — and a few of mine — with both Sethrik and Vantak, we were quite certain that the last thing the Blessed want is for our connection with Orphan to become much closer. Letting them ‘accidentally’ discover that the Liberated is giving us a small but significant number of vessels? I was certain it would push them to try to convince us that the Blessed could do much more for us.”
“And you were dead right,” Ariane said. “Thank you, Michelle.”
“My pleasure… Ariane.”
Ariane hesitated before moving, and Wu sensed she had made a decision. “Oscar, we really have accomplished a lot since we got here, I think, and despite the original… issues between us, we’ve been working well enough together. Do you think that we can simply keep what works, now?”
Oscar Naraj hesitated; Wu smelled a lot of conflicting emotions, finally firming into some kind of resolve. “May I speak entirely frankly, Captain Austin?”
“Captain, you are quite correct that we have accomplished a great deal so far. And I will certainly agree that one of your major points — that anyone who is to be the Leader of the Faction of Humanity must truly understand the Arena — was entirely valid. But –”
“Why did I know a ‘but’ was coming?”
“Because you are quite aware that this is a job for which you are utterly unsuited,” Oscar replied bluntly. “We have gotten this far to a great extent on luck — something you have admitted freely. The future of the human race cannot be left to luck, or to the fact that you have that charming ‘straight-shooting’ reputation, Captain. This sort of thing is a profession, and you need professionals in charge — for the sake of our entire species. I hope that you will agree to this and we can choose an appropriate successor.”
“I would certainly like to believe I am a prime candidate,” Naraj said. No, thought Wu as his posture and smell shifted a bit, you’re absolutely sure you’re the right guy. Phfah! “I have now had months in the Arena, I have come to understand a great deal about the political and social dynamics that drive it, and the Factions are beginning to recognize me and speak with me as a representative of Humanity.”
His voice and expression were sympathetic. “Captain — Ariane — I know how you must be terrified that the next person will mess up everything. And for an unprepared pilot, you have done extraordinarily well in taking on this immense challenge. But I think you need to accept that you don’t have to prove anything any more.”
“What?” Her voice was incredulous, but Wu caught a whiff of uncertainty. She… really isn’t sure she’s the right person. Which kinda makes me think she is, but that probably doesn’t make sense.
Ni Deng started to say something, then closed her mouth, let Naraj continue. “You brought us into the Arena, Captain. You pulled off several miracles to get back. You’ve come back, you’ve solidified our relations with multiple factions — with my help, and that of your original crew. And I know that every day you’re worried you, or someone under you, will do something to ruin it all. And you don’t have to have those worries any more.”
His voice was gentle, earnest, and Wu felt that at least some of that was honest. “You don’t have anything more to prove to the world, to the Arena, or for yourself. You have done the job, and done it much better than anyone could ever have expected. Now let someone else pick up that burden. We will need you, Ariane, in your original field, as a pilot. Unless a faction like the Blessed truly allies with us — and possibly even then — we will be at war with the Molothos soon enough. We will need commanders, pilots, people to help us fight that war. People like you could be the Admirals and Captains of our fleet, the fleet that is being delivered right now.” He glanced up. “I’m not pressing you to do anything now, Captain. Just… think about it, please. Don’t shut out the truth because we started out on a poor footing — partly my fault, I admit.”
“I… I will think about it, Ambassador.”
“Then that is all I can ask for now.” He bowed and the three headed out the Embassy doors; the quick glance Oasis gave over her shoulder told Wu that she wasn’t buying the whole speech either.
Ariane stood still for a moment, and Wu could sense the conflict in her. He touched her arm. “Hey.”
She jumped. “What… sorry.”
“Don’t let him bother you.”
“He might be completely right,” she said, and headed for the door. He followed. “But … thanks. And I’m sure not making any decision like that by myself. If I did… he would be right.”
Once out in the bustling crowds of the Arena, she cheered up, and that made him happier too.
Having been there twice already, Wu knew the way to the Docks, which made it a lot easier to watch the crowd around them. This was always the hardest part of watching over someone; being in large crowded areas you couldn’t control. But scanning the crowd, he saw nothing suspicious. Now that he’d been here a while, he recognized a lot of alien body language and could sort out most basic moods from scents easily. Lots of people notice Ariane, but I’m not seeing anyone that looks hostile.
Suddenly Ariane shifted direction slightly, and he followed her to one of the big Powerbroker areas. “Powerbroker Ghondas! Nice to see you again!”
The images he’d seen hadn’t gotten across the sluglike creature’s full size and mass; Ghondas probably weighed close to a ton.
The four-pointed head sagged and rose in acknowledgement. “Ariane Austin of Humanity. It is well to see you again also.”
“I wanted to introduce you to my bodyguard, Sun Wu Kung. Wu, this is Ghondas, one of the most senior Powerbrokers.”
He bowed deeply. “It is an honor!”
“Greetings and welcome to you, Sun Wu Kung.” The head sank and rose again, and turned back to Ariane. “Do you have need for our services this day?”
“Not today. I was wondering if you have seen Orphan of late.”
“About five days ago, the Survivor stopped to re-charge Zounin-Ginjou and left immediately. He has not been back since.”
That fits, thought Wu. That would be when they headed back for the second half of the fleet. That means they should be back here any day now!
“Thank you, Ghondas. Well, we have an appointment, so we’d better get moving.”
“Good day to you, then.”
The Docks were busy — dozens of ships being serviced, thousands of tons of cargo being moved, and hundreds of species of people running, jumping, oozing, or otherwise moving around. I don’t even recognize a lot of these! Wow! There’s so many new things to learn!
Ahead, the tall green and black form of Sethrik became obvious. “Captain Austin, Sun Wu Kung, thank you very much for coming. I greet you in the name of the Minds and the Blessed.” He gave a pushup-bow and leapt easily to his feet. “Please, follow me.”
They walked nearly a mile down the Docks; Sethrik was obviously not rushing them and would often point out details of the vessels they were passing, and Wu realized that the Blessed leader was enjoying himself. He smells… pretty much relaxed. Happy. He’s been slowly getting more like that for the last few weeks.
“I am truly glad that we have this opportunity,” Sethrik was saying to Ariane. “It is … often difficult to guess what the Minds will do under given circumstances. Not, of course, because they are themselves unpredictable or arbitrary, but because they tend to think so much farther ahead, and take into consideration so very many factors that even one such as myself simply cannot grasp the whole of their strategy. Thus it is quite gratifying that they have responded to the situation as I hoped.”
Ariane smiled, and her mood had clearly lifted as well. “You really hated the way we ended up in conflict, didn’t you?”
“Absolutely detested it, Captain.” His smell reinforced the statement.
Finally Sethrik stopped and gestured. “Allow me to present to you Thilomon, one of the Minds’ finest flagships in the Arena.”
To Wu’s eye, Thilomon was not as pretty as Zounin-Ginjou. Thilomon was a ship of lines, angles, few smooth curves. But he had to admit the lines were clean, sweeping forward and back like the shaft and head of an arrow, with symmetrical lines here and there indicating weapons emplacements, defenses, hatches, and very different rippling lines for the guidance sails. He thought that Zounin-Ginjou was also somewhat larger, but it was really hard to tell; both ships were very big.
For a few minutes, Ariane and Sethrik stood looking at Thilomon, Sethrik narrating a long list of features which, honestly speaking, Wu didn’t really care about. He spent his time surveying the crowd. A Tomekeir caught his eye; the tall, three-legged creature looked very like the one he thought had orchestrated the duel he’d gotten caught in. Wonder if he’s up to anything now…?
“But come, let me show you the inside. We have of course not yet refurbished it for human needs, but I am sure that from the point of view of your researchers there is much to learn from seeing our construction.” Sethrik began to lead the way up the boarding ramp, Ariane following. Wu followed closely; Thilomon was a nice bulwark behind his back, so any real threat, if any, would be on the Dock.
The Tomekeir seemed to be looking at him, but then shifted gait and continued up the Dock.
The distraction was almost fatal. Wu caught the motion from the very corner of his eye — high up, one of the loading cranes on the other side, flash of light —
He lunged backward, shoving Ariane — and with her, Sethrik — inside Thilomon‘s airlock entry, outside of which they had just been standing.
Something blazed off the edge of the hatchway, leaving afterimages, a scent of heated metal and burned composite, and a black scar. That might have gone straight through Ariane if I hadn’t…
“Stay hidden, Captain!” he shouted, and bounded down the rampway. Another streak of light, this one aimed at him, scorched the deck. Behind him, he heard Sethrik say “Close the doors! They cannot shoot through the hatch!” and heard the sound of the lock door sliding shut.
Good. One less thing to worry about.
The sniper was trying to take aim, and Wu’s eyes could make out that it was a Genasi, same species as Tunuvun. But it’s not Tunuvun, I can tell that.
The energy rifle fired and missed again; Wu had read the posture, seen the faintest tensing, jumped just as the trigger was pulled. Ha! he thought, now to the base of the crane, grabbing, scrambling up. Take more than that to —
The Genasi threw away the rifle into the empty space beyond the Dock and flipped something else down with his other hand.
Net! Spun as he threw it, opening just as it’s reaching me —
But if you reached and twisted and spun just right, you could catch a net like that, and he did, and threw it back up.
The Genasi, who had been preparing to leap down, was suddenly taken aback, tried to shift direction, but the net caught him, tangled his legs and tail, and then Wu was on him.
Wu rammed the alien up against the reinforced metal of the crane. “Who are you working for?” he demanded.
The eyes shifted slightly over his shoulder, and then the creature laughed.
He whirled, dropped fifteen meters down the crane, caught himself, jumped the rest of the way to the Dock, even as Thilomon‘s umbilicals let go and her engines roared to life, shoving the great ship away from the Dock.
A trap. A sucker-bait trap, with something to pull me away from her! I’m so stupid! So very, very stupid! DuQuesne should never have trusted me, I’m an idiot, a monkey who should never have come down from the trees!
Even as he was berating himself, he was streaking across the Dock, bowling aside others in his haste, then clear, running up the gangway, faster, watching the huge ship moving away, no time, too far, but I can’t give up —
With a final desperate lunge, Sun Wu Kung launched himself into space off the end of the gangway.
I’ve missed. I’m too late, he thought, as he began to curve down, his forward momentum not enough to reach the huge ship before the tug of gravity pulled him below Thilomon.
But then gravity disappeared. He was streaking forward, still moving slightly down from the gravity around the Dock, and the wind was whistling around him, slowing him, but Thilomon was getting closer, closer —
— He reached, his claws stretching out, out —
— And closing tight on the hard, tough metal of one of the rearmost guide fins of Thilomon.