Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 11
Even as Wu crossed the finish line, he was suddenly there in front of Ariane, skidding to a halt not three meters from the table at which DuQuesne and his opponent were seated, surrounded by rank upon rank of spectators, silent, staring, frozen in disbelief and shock. Even though she had been warned, Ariane was herself still in a state of utter awe. DuQuesne had said Wu was better than him. But this…
And then the silence broke and a roar of applause, of furious curses and mighty cheers, broke over the Arena like a wave. Tunuvun caught up Wu Kung in an embrace that must have made even ring-carbon supported ribs creak, and his words were incoherent but needed no translation to hear the joy and gratitude.
Orphan was moving forward along with Ariane, and she saw his body’s pose echoed a new emotion: vindication.
Wu escaped Tunuvun’s grasp only to be swept into a bear-hug of victory by DuQuesne. “Dammit, Wu, you scared the crap out of me! Don’t ever cut it that fine again!”
The Hyperion Monkey King was grinning, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. “Those Adjudicators were not playing, DuQuesne! I really had to work! It was fun! Lots of fun!”
“It was a most… artistic finish, Sun Wu Kung,” Orphan said, with a full pushup-bow. “Such a victory will be remembered long indeed.”
That strange expression remained clear on the alien’s face and form, and Ariane wondered what it meant. You learned something there. You were looking utterly disappointed before, almost crushed really. Now you’re riding high. “Did you have a bet on this match?”
“Ahh, Captain Austin, I think you have come to know me well. Yes, a most interesting result, and most profitable as well.” His black eyes seemed to twinkle at her. “But we shall speak of this later. It is time for the victor to receive his prize.”
The crowd which had begun to flood the center of the ring fell back — or was gently shoved back by the glittering golden light of the Arena. “Sun Wu Kung,” the calm, quiet yet thunderous voice of the Arena began, “Step –”
The voice was the rough bass of Byto, echoed by the higher-pitched precision of none other than Selpa’A’At, who had reached the side of his selected champion. “Arena, we object!”
The entire crowd went deathly silent, and Ariane looked around nervously. “What’s going on?”
Orphan was studying the Leader of the Vengeance with a clinical air. “While it is rare, it is possible for a Challenger, or Challenged, to object that some aspect of a Challenge was unfair or that somehow the result was rigged against them. These objections are rarely sustained — the Arena is, after all, the overseer of the Challenges — but it is their right and it has been known to work.”
After a moment’s silence, the Arena spoke. “Your objection will be heard. However, only the relevant parties shall be involved in the discussion.”
Without even a blink, Ariane found herself in a smaller — but still huge — room with only DuQuesne, Wu Kung, Tunuvun, Byto, and Selpa. Even the far more experienced Leader of the Vengeance looked startled and disoriented. “State your objection, Selpa’A’At of the Vengeance.”
Recovering from his startlement, Selpa lifted his manipulators and pointed to Wu Kung. “He has been enhanced to a degree that reveals malfeasance in this contest. Either a Shadeweaver or an Initiate Guide has provided him with capabilities beyond those allowed any of us in the Arena.”
“You are saying I cheated?” Wu Kung began to lunge forward, tearing free of even DuQuesne’s attempt to restrain him; without warning he was pinned to the ground by a force beyond even the Monkey King’s ability to oppose.
“Violence will not be tolerated,” the Arena said dispassionately. “There was no cheating or manipulation, Leader of the Vengeance.”
“Do you think I would have tolerated cheating?” Tunuvun demanded. “I do not know how my brother Wu Kung did what he did, but you –”
“Is it not true that the Shadeweavers and Initiate Guides have powers to sometimes conceal their work from even you, Arena?” Selpa said, ignoring Tunuvun’s anger.
“It is,” the Arena conceded calmly. “But this is irrelevant to the current instance.”
“We know the rules, Arena! Any species may enhance its individuals only so far beyond their natural level! We have seen what the other humans can do, and there is no possible way in which this –”
DuQuesne raised his hand. “Hold on. Arena, there are… elements of our security here that may be relevant.”
Tunuvun stopped and gave a narrow stare at DuQuesne, and then at Wu Kung, who met his gaze with a swift nod.
Ariane thought she was finally getting an inkling of what was going on — of what DuQuesne was implying — and it sent a chill down her spine… whether of fear or excitement, though, she wasn’t sure.
Everyone suddenly stared at Wu Kung as he rose, slowly, from the floor, glaring furiously at Selpa and Byto. “Wu, are you sure –” DuQuesne began.
“SHOW THEM!” shouted Wu Kung. “Show them and bind them to never speak of it, but show them, so they will know that my honor remains!”
“Ariane Austin, do you give permission?”
Ariane looked from Wu to DuQuesne. “Marc? What am I giving permission for?”
Marc’s brows were drawn down, but not in anger; in pained sympathy. “To show these two why Wu’s so far beyond everyone. Why it’s right that he is. To show them… Hyperion.”
“What?” Ariane was stunned. “Arena? You could do that?”
She saw DuQuesne start to speak, then close his mouth with a visible effort. He wants to say something more, but he’s not. He’s letting me figure it out on my own. “Can and will you do as Wu asked? Show them, but not allow them to tell anyone else of secrets learned here, in any fashion?”
Great. Now I just have to decide what to do. “What happens if I say no? Selpa, you have the Arena’s word that there was no cheating. You have Tunuvun, your selected champion, saying there was no cheating. You also have my word, if you care to take it, that there was none, and that the reason for Wu’s abilities is a secret of Humanity’s that just knowing is more valuable than I can easily imagine. Can you let it go at that?”
The Leader of the Vengeance swayed uncertainly on his spidery legs, looking even more like a harvestman than usual. “I wish I could, Captain Austin,” he said finally, and the regret in his voice sounded genuine. “But this is an entire Sphere that hangs in the balance.”
“One Sphere of many, which would go to a species that deserves one. You of all people should understand and sympathize with these people, the worst victims of the Arena’s usual rules!” At her words, Tunuvun gave a complex look — both grateful and pained. He hates having to have others stand up for his people… but also is grateful if anyone does.
“I do.” There was actual pain in Selpa’s voice. “And were the Sphere truly mine to do with as I please, it would be different. But I am the Vengeance and I must do as the Vengeance requires. I cannot simply let this go on the word of the force that is — as it well knows — an agent of our Adversaries, and that of a still-new species which is not even fully understood. You must understand this, Captain Austin. I am sure you do.”
She sighed. “I wish I didn’t. But yes, I understand.” She looked up — even though that was silly, the Arena wasn’t really in any particular location. “Arena, if I refuse, what happens?”
“The results of the race will stand and the awarding of the prize will commence. There will be political and personal issues that you will be forced to confront due to this unusual event.”
Translated: there’d be a lot of people who suspected some kind of underhanded trickery, maybe even, now that she thought of it, believe she had somehow managed to do it using the powers that were still locked away inside her. And Wu Kung, who was now staring at her with pleading emerald eyes wide, would forever be under a shadow of suspicion.
And for him, honor’s one of the most important things in the universe.
It was that — and, possibly, a tiny bit of her own curiosity — that decided her. “All right, Wu. Arena, I give permission. With the restrictions mentioned, show us all the truth that Sun Wu Kung wants us to see.”
“By your command.”
Suddenly she floated in an omniscient void, looking down and through, as seven young people sat around a table, and joked and laughed, and one had an idea, and the others started discussing it…
… the same seven, and more people, both virtually and physically present, and the talk becoming something more serious, examining possibilities, designs which could be made, what could never be achieved, and what might be possible.
A shimmering tracery of girders, nanoassemblers and automated machines spinning a web, girdling it with cables and reinforcing ring-carbon, steel and aluminum and titanium, an immense shining colony…
And now images, so fast she could barely grasp them, yet could sense the emotions, the impressions, the gestalt that each image represented: a blond man in a gold uniform, stripes meaning “Captain” on his sleeve; the ebon skin and flowing indigo hair of Erision, facing the Unreality Effect for the first time; a familiar red-headed girl leaping from a building and gliding to safety on a parasail; DuQuesne staring up at the Skylark with his friend Richard Seaton; a tall, dark-haired figure in red and blue, streaking into the sky with a thought; her old virtual friend and first crush Tarellimade, staring through greenery at the woman he would one day marry; a blonde girl facing a monstrous vampire, wooden stake in her hand; Wu Kung, emerging from his sealed stone prison, startled to see a woman’s face beneath the hat of a monk; and dozens, hundreds more, each a figure of legend large or small.
Then the impression of rage, of betrayal, and shadow was cast over the brilliance, and the sound was of screaming and fighting, guns and swords and fists in the dark, and more flashes of single scenes: the red and blue standing back-to-back with one wearing red, white, and blue and holding a shield; the gold-uniformed man standing straight, holding a salute, as in the screen before him a woman, dark-haired, wearing a beret and eyepatch, saluted him, and then Maria-Susanna, screaming as she held the gold-uniformed man’s body; eighteen men, all different yet, somehow, all the same, poised for combat around a strange blue box.
And still more; four children in strange costumes fighting alongside an assortment of gray-skinned, orange-horned creatures that were, themselves, children, and the blood all around was purple, blue, green, brown, and even red; Wu Kung staggering forward, drugged and slow, to be beaten down to the ground; a tall, slender man sitting in a Victorian dressing-gown, immobile, waiting in a cluttered apartment with a strange pattern of bullet-holes on the wall, an apartment that suddenly disappeared, and in that moment the man raised a pistol he held in one hand…
Without warning they were back, the room now too bright, sterile and cold, and the glory and madness and anguish of those two decades compressed into moments almost brought her to her knees; she swayed and was caught by DuQuesne, whose face was white, with tears leaving shining streaks behind. “Not again,” he was murmuring. “Not again.” Nearby, Tunuvun was half-collapsed, his gaze flickering incredulously between Wu Kung and DuQuesne.
Wu Kung was standing now, shaking, glaring at Selpa and Byto; the Leader of the Vengeance had sagged to the floor, his legs vibrating, and the rhinoceros-like Byto uttered a gasp of disbelief and pain. “What do you say now, Vengeance-ones? What of my honor now?”
Trembling still, Selpa rose and then bobbed before Sun Wu Kung. “I… retract the implication.” The translated voice was raw with horror, disbelief, revulsion. “You… your people… this was true?”
“Every last bit,” DuQuesne said, voice rough. “And you didn’t see the half of it.”
“Do you understand?” the Arena asked.
“Yes,” Byto spoke finally, with the same disbelieving horror in his voice. “These… people. They … those were their native worlds. So whatever enhancements were made to them… were natural. By the Arena’s own decrees, they retain all they were made with… for they did not know they were made, or even that there was another world in which they could have been made.”
“Then do you withdraw the objection?”
Selpa rocked so his eyes stared full at DuQuesne and Wu Kung, horror still writ large in that pose. “Yes. It is withdrawn.” The tilted gaze turned to her, and Selpa tightened with what had to be not merely horror but revulsion. Why?
Even as she asked the question, she understood. Because now he knows that we were capable of creating Hyperion. He knows just how far human beings can go even in their own system, against their own species.
“You will retain this knowledge, Selpa’A’At and Byto of the Vengeance, as well as you, Tunuvun of the Genasi, but you will be incapable of conveying this knowledge to any others. You will also recognize that none of those responsible for Hyperion are present, or likely to be present in the Arena.”
“Understood.” Selpa’s voice was finally dropping to its normal controlled register; Byto echoed the agreement. Tunuvun simply bowed.
Instantly they were back in the amphitheater. Once more the golden light cleared a path, and this time Ariane could see that a tall raised platform lay before them, with a stairway winding to the top. “Sun Wu Kung,” the Arena intoned, “the objection has been withdrawn, your victory untainted and uncontested; step forward, and receive the prize.”
That’s right, she remembered. The selected champion claims the prize first.
Since the prize was an entire Sphere, she wasn’t sure how this was going to be handed out; strong as Wu was, she suspected lifting twenty thousand kilometer-wide Spheres was a little out of his range.
The cheers had begun again as Wu Kung, once more proud and happy, stepped jauntily forward, barely keeping himself to a semi-dignified walk rather than the all-out sprint she could tell he would prefer. Strains of music echoed around them, a fanfare or tribute to a winner that while alien still managed to evoke a kinship with other, similar ceremonies on Earth, including her own experiences in the Winner’s Circle back home.
Finally the four of them — Wu Kung, DuQuesne, herself, and Tunuvun — reached the top of the platform. A beam of pure white light touched Wu Kung as he stretched out a hand, and something glittered within, a something that floated steadily downward, sparkling like a jewel, until she could see that it was a perfect crystal sphere, with a white-glowing symbol within.
“You have won Racing Chance in Challenge, Sun Wu Kung, and thus the prize is yours. This token is yours. Whoever presents it to the Vengeance, they shall be given a Sphere and all the privileges of the Arena that are the right of every Citizen of the Arena.”
Wu Kung caught the jewel and held it in wonder. “A Sphere…”
She saw DuQuesne stiffen.
“A Sphere that becomes a home,” Wu murmured, staring at the sparkling crystal, enraptured. “DuQuesne! It could be… it could be our home!”
Oh, no. No, Wu. But she understood exactly what Wu Kung was thinking: a home for the Hyperions. Perhaps, just possibly, a home for their friends, too, the friends locked away as patterns in quantum states. Wu came from a place that believed in such miracles, and with the power of the Arena… was it entirely impossible?
And could anyone in Wu’s position not be tempted — terribly tempted — by that possibility?
DuQuesne swallowed hard. “Yes. Yes, Wu. It could.” She could tell that Marc did not dare push Wu Kung one way or the other. The Arena had given Wu Kung this treasure, and it was his, and his alone… and pushing Sun Wu Kung would probably end poorly anyway.
Tunuvun stood, rigid as steel, staring in mute fear. The Monkey King is also known for his caprice…
And then Wu grinned. “We have to get one for ourselves!” he shouted, and then tossed the priceless gemstone into the air, so it came down perfectly into a stunned Tunuvun’s hands. “Now — we have a celebration!”
The cheers that erupted around them were nearly deafening, and a swarm of Genasi sprinted up the column and caught up Wu, lifting him high. “A celebration for our rights and our victory, Sun Wu Kung,” Tunuvun said, and his translated voice was thick with near-tears of joy, “and for you, who gave it to us when we thought all lost. And you, who I now know never had a true home… You were my brother before, now you are brother to us all. You are Genasi now and forever, no matter what else you may be, and forever will our home be your home as well!”
Wu Kung laughed as they flung him high and caught him again. “Then I have gained many brothers and sisters today! A wonderful thing to celebrate!” He grinned down at the rest of them. “Time for a party!”
“Yes, Wu,” she agreed, smiling her relief and echoing his excitement. “It is definitely time for a big party!”