Spheres Of Influence – Chapter 19
One Sky Gate located, DuQuesne thought in satisfaction. And if we didn’t just get lucky at the opening gun, we might have quite a few Sky Gates leading to a bunch of places.
It was true that there was some danger inherent in that, but overall it was probably a good thing; more options, more possible places to explore. As long as one of them doesn’t lead to the Molothos homeworld or something like that.
He caught one of the elevators without anyone in it. What do you know, a few seconds of silence in the Arena. In that quiet pause, a thought suddenly struck him about the events of the afternoon, and he almost reversed the elevator. No, I’m going to get there ahead of him anyway. I’ll just make sure Wu talks to me before he tells Ariane anything. I think… there’s some strategy to play through here.
The doors opened and he jogged out, looking for one of the floating open-air taxis. But really, do I need to take one? I can walk.
Then one of the taxis went by in the middle distance, and on board…
He wasn’t even conscious of his actions; he just found himself following, having flagged down another of the transports and leaped aboard practically in a single motion. “Come on, hurry up!”
The destination was clear enough, and unsurprising: the Grand Arcade. Anyone new to the Arena would probably go here soon enough. And she hasn’t had a chance to get on her own since she arrived.
His target still hadn’t noticed him, and it was almost impossible to miss her even in the alien crowd with that spectacular head of hair. He came up behind her as she was glancing over the sparkling wares of an Arena weaponsmith.
“Hello, K,” he said quietly.
She jumped a tiny bit — honest-to-God surprised her. Not often that happens. “M… Marc.”
For a moment he just looked at her, remembering how she used to look when ready for action; the straight red hair full and flowing back, down to her waist (damn, she’s grown it out), black shirt tight and smooth, pants with a multiplicity of pockets both visible and hidden for holding almost anything she might need in an emergency — from chewing gum to grenades. That much hasn’t changed, he thought, noting the military gear that she’d somehow re-styled to look … cute, but still retained pouches and bandoliers galore.
And those green eyes haven’t changed a bit. It was startlingly painful to realize that, because he’d thought a certain pair of dark-blue eyes had finally replaced them in his heart. Maybe I was just … giving up.
She hadn’t said anything either, looking back at him almost sadly. And he couldn’t bear that look.
She sighed. “As Seaton would’ve said, that’s a dilly of a question. Or a lot of questions, all rolled up into one. Right?” The redheaded woman looked around, gestured. He followed her to one of many side booths where people might sit to rest, eat something bought, or otherwise escape while in the heart of the Grand Arcade.
“Why did I come here, when I wouldn’t come when you called?” she said, picking up the thread of conversation. “Why did I come with Naraj? Why did I just hide away for fifty years? Those whys, or something else?”
He was puzzled, and — honestly — a little hurt by her phrasing. “Dammit, K! Yes, all those, and all the rest, too! I gave you space, I knew how much it hurt — but by Tarell’s own favorite stars, it hurt me too!” He tried to rein himself in. “It… hurt us all. More than some of us could bear.” He remembered the day he said goodbye, and hugged her, and watched her leave… and suddenly he didn’t want to even try holding back. “I loved you, K. I still do, I think, and the biggest why is why you didn’t think we could survive better together than we could apart and alone!” He heard his voice near to breaking, and the clinical part of him raised an eyebrow. Dr. Marc C. DuQuesne, about to lose control over a woman he hasn’t really spoken to in half a century.
Her eyes had widened, and her hand went to her mouth as though to cover up her shock. Then her face crumpled and her head dropped, and he saw two tears drop to the table in front of her, glittering diamonds that spattered and were gone. “Oh, Marc,” she said, and her voice trembled. “Oh, Marc, I’m sorry. I really, really am. I… loved you too. But…”
“But? What possible but could there be, K?” Now that he’d opened the floodgates he couldn’t stop himself. He needed the answers he’d denied himself all those years ago.
“But…” She hesitated again. “Oh, darn, darn, darn…” she dropped her head into her hands and gave a huge, heaving sigh, then straightened and looked directly into his eyes with the air of someone preparing to face an execution. “But… I’m not really K.”
He abruptly realized he must have been sitting, staring at her like a gaping fish for nearly a minute. “Uh… you’re what? Of course you’re K!”
“No, I’m not. Really, DuQuesne. It’s…” She suddenly looked more like a young girl than a woman, lost, confused, upset. “Darn. It all goes back to Hyperion… like everything else…”
Oasis looked down at the body, panting, holding the broken butt of her AX-12mm tensely.
But after a few moments it became clear that the dark-haired man in the formerly impeccably-tailored suit would never move again. I didn’t want to kill him! I wanted to help him!
But — like so many of the victims of this place — the sudden breakdown of the simulations had either driven him insane or fit somehow too well with whatever world he thought he lived in. He’d been certain this was some trick by an enemy — she hadn’t quite caught the name, Bluefield maybe, or Specter — and that she was an agent of the other side. And maybe a part of him knew things were much, much worse than he imagined, because he had grown increasingly irrational and paranoid when she tried to reason with him.
And he almost killed me anyway — him with just bare hands, me with my armor, my combat knife, my sidearms, my rifle. She was shaking, and so was Hyperion Station around her. Almost my entire kit’s wrecked. No comm working, no relays… don’t dare try to tie into this place’s automation…
She forced herself upright, feeling the grating of a rib, and she was pretty sure her collarbone was cracked. Maybe internal injuries, too, but I think my medical nanos are on it. No shock. Got to get out of here.
Hyperion Station was huge. When you travelled hundreds of millions of miles in patrol, ten or twenty miles sounded tiny, but in the chaos of its collapse she realized it was almost the size of a world, layer upon layer of secrets and dangers and mazes — some real, some illusion, all deadly.
She pitched a spent cartridge down the hall, noted the curve. Spin like that, so I need to head… this way.
Abruptly the floor tilted under her. She heard the distant moaning scream of metal and composite slowly giving way. This place isn’t going to stay together long, even if the Commander doesn’t give the bombardment order!
She still wasn’t clear on exactly what had happened, or what was happening now; but it was obvious that the internal war the Hyperion… subjects? victims? projects? had begun with their creators, and the creators and systems’ attempts to control them, was tearing the entire gigantic station apart.
A sputtering light caught her eye. A comm station. Maybe I can at least listen in on what’s happening, get an update.
She staggered to the comm station; as she did so, cables suddenly dropped from above and tightened around her. She cursed and tried to struggle, but in her current condition it was hopeless.
The figure of a man, appeared on the console, a fair-haired man in a perfect white suit… with a warm, casual smile that somehow gave her the creeps. “Good afternoon, Miss Abrams.”
“Of course, you are quite correct. I have failed to introduce myself.” He gave a little bow. “I am Doctor Alexander Fairchild,” he said, blue eyes practically twinkling with a good cheer that sent a chill down her spine from the incongruity of his manners with her situation. “One of the unfortunate… creations of the former masters of this station. I require your assistance to escape from here, Ensign Abrams.”
Maybe he’s just desperate. “You hardly needed to tie me up for that. Just tell me where you are and I’ll do my best to –”
He laughed. “Oh, dear. I am afraid you labor under a misapprehension, Ensign Abrams. I am as much… here as I am anywhere, if you understand me.”
Her gut knotted and felt as though doused with ice water. Shit. He’s a feral AI. A feral AI made by these people.
Still… there was no reason not to play along. “Still — I have plenty of storage in my logger unit. If you want to –”
The slight widening of the smile told her it was no use. “I suppose I cannot fault you for trying to carry out your no-doubt precise instructions for dealing with … artificial persons whose origin and intent are unknown. However, your suggestion is unacceptable. You will undoubtedly be scanned carefully and any storage media examined for additional, undesired content.” His smile broadened. “Any storage media but one, that is.”
Another mass of cable fell, shoving her against the comm unit — and the interface socket extruded, directly into her left neural port.
He wants to transfer to me? Even as the horrific idea struck her, she felt the presence of another mind, strong, cold, focused, trying to enter her own. She triggered her shielding protocols, but they were slow, and began to drop. He… he is figuring out the way through the defenses almost as if they weren’t there!
Naturally, Fairchild’s voice echoed through her head. You’re not at all stupid, nor untalented, but I was able to stay a few steps ahead of even DuQuesne, and I am very much afraid you are nowhere near him, child.
Her head felt near to splitting; she tried to scream, managed a sob. He’s… trying to … shove me out!
Suddenly there was another presence, and a voice. “Fairchild! Get the hell out of her!”
A sense of consternation and anger. “Walk along, my dear Kimberly. If you move, you may just live through this.”
Sudden movement — a sense of slashing, of darting speed and edged metal — and agony ripped through her head. But at the same time she felt the pressure on her brain fade, the other presence fleeing in fury and fear.
She opened her eyes, to see another woman looking down at her… one whose hair was her own shade of red, with green eyes not much different from her own. But there was something wrong with her vision… it was blurring…
“Damn him. If he can’t win, he has to poison the bloody well.” The newcomer was kneeling. “Oh, blast it. You’re hurt worse than I thought. And he shut down your medical nanos…”
“I… don’t want to die…” she heard herself murmur.”
“Shit.” The other woman — almost a girl, Oasis thought vaguely, maybe younger than me — looked torn.
Then her face smoothed out with firm decisiveness. “Then you won’t die. Not today.”
“So,” Oasis said quietly, “she… transferred me into the only healthy body available. Hers.”
He looked at her in dawning horror. “You mean … K is dead?”
“No, no… Not exactly. She… we’re both here, Marc. But… Oh, damn, this is so hard to do.” Now that he knew what to look for, he could hear faint shifts in cadence, in accent, in the way words were said, and abruptly it sounded much more like K. “Marc, I couldn’t let her die. She’d done everything she could, and it just wasn’t fair. So I let her take her own life back. You knew that Saul helped me fit in…”
He still couldn’t quite believe it. “I didn’t realize … he was helping one of his own soldiers, with the worst case of shellshock ever. He must have convinced her family she had some face and bodyshaping done.”
“With my help,” she said. “And… Marc, we’re not entirely separate any more, either. There’s… a gap, sort of, but we’ve been in the same brain for fifty years. I’m not the woman you knew, exactly… and she isn’t the girl she was, either.”
DuQuesne was, for once, utterly at a loss. What was there to say to this? Who was the woman in front of him — Oasis Abrams, K, or … someone new? How should he think of her?
He didn’t doubt the story. It was so utterly K’s personality that if someone had told him the situation he’d have been able to predict what she would do — save the helpless victim, no matter what it would cost her. Because she could always afford more than anyone else.
With an effort, he smiled. “Yeah, that’s you, all right, K. You could’ve had a clone made, though, given her own body back.”
She shuddered. “You know we wouldn’t do that. Would you?”
He shook his head.
“See? Anyway, Oasis’ original body was destroyed when Hyperion went up, and there was no way I’d be letting people play with my DNA.”
“No, that wouldn’t be good.” He looked up, studying the branching-leafed tree idly. “I have to say this is a lot more awkward than I thought it was going to be.”
She smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Marc. I… probably should have found a way to tell you, but…”
“Nah, you were probably right. I don’t think I’d have been rational about it. Not sure I am now.”
Oasis touched his hand. “I don’t think any of us were rational… then.”
Just as he was about to answer, emerald light glowed from the air. “Marc, get back here now,” said Ariane, and the tone of her voice was chilled steel.
“What’s up?” he asked, unable to keep his own tension from his voice.
“Sun Wu Kung, that’s what’s up. Mandallon just told me, and he just confirmed, that he’s gotten into a fight — on the Docks.”
Klono and Noshabkeming! Only the old curses were adequate for the moment. I should have known!
Aloud he said “On my way, Captain.”
He stood, looking down at the redheaded enigma before him. “We’ll talk later?”
She did, at least, give him one of her sunny smiles, driving away a little of his confusion and gloom with the force of her personality. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, no matter what. Of course.”
Better than nothing, he thought. “Then I’d better get moving.”
He headed straight for the Embassy. One way or another that fight will be over soon… and the coal-raking will be happening at home.