Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 08

Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 08

Chapter 8.

“Boy, Tunuvun,” Wu Kung said, “This is going to be fun!” He couldn’t keep from bouncing up and down on his feet, staring out at what Ariane had pronounced in disbelief to be “a triathlon on full enhancers!”

He and Tunuvun stood at the top of a mountain — that ended abruptly at a wall behind them! — and looked out upon a racecourse that could only be possible in a place like the Arena. Or, he noted with a momentary pang of sadness, at home. The bittersweet news DuQuesne had given him resonated with that thought. Sanzo is alive, but it’s the Sanzo I first met. And my firstborn, Jing… gone. Fury started to rise, but he controlled it. Jai and Gen, at least, are still there. Sha Wujing. Cho Hakkai. Liu Yan. Not all is lost, not all are gone. And that was better news, far better, than he had feared. He looked out again, and gazed upon that wondrous course, imagined his friends with him, and finally smiled again, feeling the bounce returning to his step.

The cool, pine-scented forest below extended down the mountainside for a kilometer or two; then a sheer cliff descended — for a distance he couldn’t see on this side, but guessed it had to be several hundred meters — to a relatively level, grassy plain another couple of kilometers; without transition, there was suddenly empty space, filled with drifting rocks and moving dots that Wu’s more-than-human eyes could resolve into flying creatures he remembered from his prior adventure in the Arena. No-gravity space, then. On the other side, a vast forest, a jungle of massive and alien-looking trees, followed by a strip of gray-gold desert sands, a glittering stretch of water, another wide gap of no-gravity, shining white of polar ice with the dull green-gray of tundra interspersed, a mass of tumbled terrain like some of the worst badlands Wu had ever seen with tangled forest sandwiched in between, and finally a massive building of some sort.

He couldn’t be sure without being able to see into the building, but he thought that if everything else was the way it looked, he could probably traverse the whole thing in less than an hour if DuQuesne let him go all-out, but DuQuesne had taken him aside just before they came:

“Listen, Wu. We’re going to try to run this race — and win it — without showing off. That means you can show everything you let Orphan see, and not one bit more. That’ll be more than enough to impress the hell out of them, and it’s better than anything Tunuvun should have — right?”

“Right. I don’t think he was holding anything back that time on the docks, and I was.” He still felt a little guilty about that — not doing his best in a fight was hard.

“Okay. That means we should be able to do this straight. But if — and I mean ‘if’, Wu — I decide we do need to go all-out, then I will tell you. You understand? No matter how bad you think things are going, you wait for me to call it.”

He’d nodded. There weren’t many people he’d take that kind of talk from, but DuQuesne was one. “My word on it, DuQuesne. I’ll play the game exactly your way.”

So it looked like this course was going to take a lot longer than an hour. A lot longer. Still, it would be fun. He’d also stuffed himself last night, causing the others to stare incredulously at the amount of food he put away, which meant that the special reserves the Hyperion designers had built into him were now topped off; if DuQuesne did ask him to go all-out, he would be ready to match what he’d done the day Hyperion fell, but for a much brighter cause.

Tunuvun looked over to him; he could smell an effort to be cheerful. “Indeed, it seems to be a very entertaining course. Forgive me if I cannot quite enjoy it as I should.”

I’m so stupid sometimes. He can’t have fun with this with his people’s freedom and rights at stake. Wu bowed and extended a hand. “I am sorry, Tunuvun. Of course you can’t. But we will both do our best, and — Heavens willing — I will win for you.”

“See that you do. But …” Tunuvun took his hand and shook it in human fashion. “… enjoy the course for both of us, then.”

He laughed, showing his fangs. “I will, I promise!”

“Racers,” the quiet yet powerful voice of the Arena said, “your attention please. The rules of this race are simple, but it is important that you adhere to them.

“Your two courses will often be closely parallel; upon occasion, the courses will cross or temporarily become one. The course for each is indicated by the green sparks for Sun Wu Kung of Humanity,” a line of brilliant emerald points of light suddenly appeared and streaked away down the mountain, a dotted line of pinpoint suns, “and by red sparks for Tunuvun of the Genasi.” The second line blazed its way down the mountain, a trail of ruby fires.

“These markers are not visible to any creatures who might be on the course, only to the participants and those observing this Challenge,” the Arena continued. “The racers may not directly interfere in each other’s performance: that is, there may be no physical contact between the racers, they may not throw, kick, or otherwise propel any materials, objects, or other interfering phenomena directly at their opponent.

“Racers may, however, indirectly interfere in the performance of their opponents, by creating obstacles ahead of them or otherwise causing something to indirectly interfere in the racer’s performance.”

So I can’t throw sticks at Tunuvun, but I could drop a tree on the path in front of him.

“If an obstacle causes a racer to leave the path, they must return to the path as near as practically possible to the point of departure. This return shall not cause a racer to have to repeat a given obstacle; for example, if a racer falls into a river and is swept downstream, they may return to their path on the opposite side of the river so that they do not need to cross the river again.”

A line of white dots appeared next to each racer’s path. “These white sparks will appear if a racer is significantly off their course, and will lead them back to the appropriate point to rejoin the race. The other racer cannot see these sparks.

“From the racers’ points of view, the race — and the Challenge — is completed when either one racer crosses the finish line, housed in the building visible to the west, or one racer is unable to continue the race for any reason. Are these rules understood, racers?”

“Yes, Arena,” he responded, hearing the words echoed by Tunuvun. “Unable to continue” covers the fact that some of the obstacles could break legs… or necks. This isn’t a safe little game. He smiled to himself. Which is what makes it really fun!

“We proceed to the rules pertaining to the Players. Players of Chance, please verify that you can communicate with your racers.”

Seemingly from right next to his ear, DuQuesne’s voice spoke. “You hearing me, Wu?”

“Loud and clear, DuQuesne!” Nearby, he heard a muttered response from Tunuvun to his unseen handler.

“The Players are allowed to communicate with their racers at will. They may give encouragement, and general guidance, but may make no specific suggestions — for example, they could suggest ‘You are ahead, try to slow the other person down’, but not ‘See that tree ahead? The branch is rotten, drop it down behind you.’ They may, however, give specific warning of an obstacle that they are deploying, to allow their racer to avoid it while the competitor does not.”

“Got it,” DuQuesne said; Byto Kalan, the Dujuin player for the Vengeance, said something similar.

“You will each begin with ten Obstacle points to be used for wagering or for placing obstacles in the way of the other side’s racer. The use of Obstacle Points is only allowed on the player’s turn. Additional Obstacle points will accrue from random chance of the Draw die, for particular combinations of cards, and of course from winning a play, which gives the winner all points bet on that play. Prices for specific Obstacles will be instantly provided to the Player upon consideration of the Obstacle; neither the other Player nor any spectators will be able to see the contemplated Obstacle or the price.

“If at any time a Player has no Obstacle Points, they may request a Stake; there are three Stakes available to each player, each for ten Obstacle Points. If a Player has no Obstacle points, no bets can be made on a given play; if that Player has no remaining Stake opportunities, they will forfeit the game regardless of the condition of the race at that time.”

Wu did not like that one. Sure, DuQuesne wasn’t likely to have luck that bad, but bad luck could strike anyone, and the idea that Wu could run the best race ever and still lose the Challenge… sucked.

“Each Player also has three Freezes — the ability to put the race on hold while they think about an option, plan a strategy, and so on. Each Freeze lasts one minute and fourteen seconds of Player time; the Racers will not notice anything.”

It was hard to imagine being frozen in time like that, but it wasn’t his problem. He just had to race.

“Do both Players understand the selected version of Arena Chance, or should the rules be reviewed?”

Please don’t do that now, I will end up going to sleep.

“I’m good,” DuQuesne said.

“I am thoroughly familiar with this variant of Arena Chance,” Byto Kalan said.

Wu couldn’t have said he was entirely familiar with it, even though he’d played a bit. It really was rather like one of the variants of poker that DuQuesne and Giles had taught him, with the various unusual combinations of cards being ranked mainly due to how rare they were, and two chances to add or discard cards in between betting, but there was also the Draw die, which could have a lot of random effects on play, and he had no idea how that changed proper play. But as long as DuQuesne had it firmly in mind, that was another thing that didn’t matter.

“Racers, ready yourselves. This Challenge will begin in ten minutes.”

Wu Kung settled into a long-familiar stretching routine. Slowly prepare the body for the race or the war. Stretch the muscles in careful sequence, to the right degree, a carefully building progression…

As he stretched, a green comm-ball materialized. “Good luck, Wu,” said Maria-Susanna’s voice.

Just the voice hurt. He had read what she had done since the Fall of Hyperion, and Wu just could not understand it. She had been so kind, so gentle. She still sounded as kind and gentle. Yet she had killed so many. “You are with the Vengeance. Why wish me luck?”

The laugh was sad. “Oh, Wu. I don’t have anything against these poor people trying to get recognition — I applaud them. That’s really why I refused to take the Vengeance’s side — though the reason I told them was that I thought DuQuesne’s familiarity with me would give him an advantage, and that I was — honestly! — too fond of you to really want to go all out to defeat you. So good luck.”

“Thank you,” he said after a moment. It still hurt to talk to her, but it would hurt more to ignore her. Maybe she can still be saved. DuQuesne doesn’t think so, but… he’s been wrong before. Not often… but he has.

A few more comm-balls and well-wishers, the most emphatic being Ariane herself. “Run Tunuvun into the ground, Wu,” she said.

“Do the best I’m allowed,” he said, grinning widely. He stood up slowly. A few seconds more.

The Arena’s voice spoke again. “Racers, take your places. Players, prepare for first cards. The Challenge between the Genasi and the Vengeance begins in five… four… three… two… one… GO!”

Sun Wu Kung leapt from the starting line, a flying jump that would have cleared two meters in height on the level. Tunuvun, seized by the same impulse, gave a matching jump, and the two landed at the same moment, more than thirty meters downhill from the start point, and practically flew down the hill, Wu Kung’s longer legs moving just slightly less quickly than Tunuvun’s shorter strides, so the two racers remained neck-and-neck.

Match him for a while, make sure I know where I stand with him. I don’t think he was holding back in that fight, but I could be wrong. He might have wanted to hide some of what he could do from me.

Faintly, in his ear, he could hear, “First cards dealt. Dealing outer show cards.” Their game’s begun. Obstacles could start showing up at any time.

The pine woods were getting thicker, so Wu Kung took to the trees directly, bounding from one to the next, running along branches as though they were level ground. He heard and, from the corner of his eye, saw Tunuvun making similar maneuvers. He’s maybe not quite as good as me, or as the ‘me’ I’m being now, in the trees, but I’ll bet that’s because he evolved for no gravity. Those two null-g parts of the course will be his best.

Without warning, one of the branches beneath Tunuvun gave way, sending him dropping towards the forest floor. A grunt of distant satisfaction told him that had been DuQuesne’s doing. Time to start opening up a little distance. While he might have wanted to keep it closer for the sake of making the race look more exciting, Tunuvun wouldn’t thank him for the added worry.

The Hyperion Monkey King kicked off his current tree and practically flew through the next three, now moving at a speed that only his friends — and Orphan — had ever seen before. From all around he heard indrawn breaths and murmurs. Ha! They are letting us hear something of the crowd’s reactions! That is fun too!

He broke out of the woods, saw the edge of the cliff a hundred meters ahead. Behind him, Tunuvun’s swift movement was audible, trailing by several dozen meters. Wu Kung turned, back to the cliff, dug in his claws, and felt the ground disappear from under his feet just as he was stopping, letting his clawed hands drop securely to the edge.

The cliff below was solid basalt, rough but still vertical — a quite noticeable challenge for anyone. But with ring-carbon reinforced claws he rammed ten anchors home into the stone and began swiftly clambering down, a cat descending a four hundred meter scratching post.

Wow! Tunuvun’s just about keeping up! His claws must be like mine! He remembered the battle in the sky. Natural ring-carbon must be in a lot of Arena native species. No wonder he’s so tough!

Still, Tunuvun was behind; he had to do more than just “keep up”, and since they both knew that the luck of obstacles could turn at any time, and that — at least as far as Tunuvun was concerned — they were nearly evenly matched, neither could afford to play too much of a long game. He’s probably not going to push it here on the cliff, but at the bottom…

As he thought that, a hundred meters from the bottom, an entire section of the cliff face suddenly cracked, and Wu Kung found himself flailing in midair, plummeting towards the ground below. Well, at least I’ll get there faster, he thought, even as he kicked off from one of the fragments, bouncing back towards the cliff face. His claws dug in, ripped free; he spun in midair, tried to reach the cliff again, I need to slow down —

WHAM!

To Wu’s groggy astonishment, he’d actually lost a second or two; he could hear Tunuvun’s feet dashing madly away across the plain. “Wu! Wu, you okay?”

“That hurt, DuQuesne. But I am all right,” he said, hearing murmurs of astonishment from the audience as he rose and sprinted after Tunuvun.

“Thank our Dujuin friend for that one.”

“I like Tunuvun, but could you drop him in a pit for me?”

“As soon as I get the points, I’ll slow him down, I guarantee it.” The plains were streaming by now, the green-gold waving grasslike plants hissing like a waterfall of sand as he tore through them.

It suddenly dawned on Wu that they were actually more handicapped than their opposition. We don’t want to hurt Tunuvun. Certainly don’t want to take a chance on crippling or killing him. But that obstacle showed that Byto and the Vengeance don’t have that problem with me.

Halfway across the plains now, and he’d closed the distance so that Tunuvun and he were once more even, racing up their lines of airborne sparks in arrow-straight paths.

It was then that a pack of scale-armored, fanged creatures like a cross between a small dragon, a lion, and an eagle erupted from the underbrush and attacked.

Even as he dodged, blocked, and flipped, he realized that Tunuvun was speeding away, unimpeded. Another obstacle!

There were only twelve of the creatures, so it didn’t take too long to deal with them, but even so, Tunuvun was a hundred and fifty meters ahead now.

Wu Kung gave vent to multiple curses and sprinted forward hard. He was very, very tempted to start letting himself really go, but he remembered DuQuesne’s emphatic instructions. I gave him my word. I can’t do that unless he gives permission.

But even at the level he was allowed, he was still faster. A hundred fifty meters was a long lead in a short race, but this was not a short race and most of it was still ahead.

First no-gravity section coming up, though. I’ll have to push what I’m allowed to make up distance there; that’s where Tunuvun’s got to be at his best.

They leapt from the plains into the void, Tunuvun first and Wu trailing by eighty-seven meters, and immediately Wu could tell he’d been right. The tiny white-and-purple Genasi bounded from one floating rock to the next, spun and smacked aside an encroaching zikki, and skittered around a hundred-meter-wide boulder at lightning speed, as effortlessly as ordinary people might walk through a light crowd.

Still, I am the Monkey King, and this is the kind of thing I do, too!

He laughed as he bounded weightlessly through space, ricocheting from stones and outraged inhabitants with reckless abandon. Have to keep closing the distance! He was only fifteen meters, more or less, behind Tunuvun now, three-quarters of the way across this weightless space, and –

He saw it out of the corner of his eye, rapid movement all down relative to the fixed parts of the course, and there it was, a waterfall of dust and rocks incalculably high, driving down to unguessable depths. “Hells of Boiling Souls!” he cursed, as the Skyfall roared towards him. “DuQuesne!”

“Hang on, Wu — it’s about four hundred meters thick!”

Even as the Skyfall reached Wu, he heard the Arena’s distant, dispassionate voice: “Warning to Player DuQuesne: do not provide precise guidance. First of three allowed warnings.”

Wu found himself scrambling for dear life, jumping from one tumbling fragment to the next, evading randomly crashing boulders, knowing that he was caught in the associated gravity field and thus dropping down, down, down even though he fought desperately to stay at least somewhat level.

He burst from the Skyfall finally, blood trickling from a dozen small wounds. “What in the name of… of Hyperion is going on?” he demanded plaintively. Tunuvun had disappeared over the edge into the forest, and with all the speed he dared muster Wu knew he was going to be at least three hundred fifty meters behind, maybe as much as five hundred — half a kilometer down.

Tunuvun was far in the lead of a race he must not win… and dared not lose.

 

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