Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 23
DuQuesne stared narrowly at the man before him. He knew the patrician, lined face, the graying hair that had once been brown, the sharp brown eyes looking levelly into his own, the half-smile of the lecturer and scientist so familiar to him.
“I had expected to end up talking with myself,” he said finally. “Not you, Professor Bryson.”
Clearly this couldn’t be the man he looked like; this had to be one of Vindatri’s guises. At the same time, it was almost impossible to think of him as anyone else, when the man lit up a cigarette and took a swift puff, raising one eyebrow. “Indeed, Mr. DuQuesne? And why would you expect to have a conversation with yourself? Admittedly, this would allow you to have a conversation with someone on your intellectual level, but I would expect a rather boring one.”
DuQuesne moved forward a bit closer — warily, because he had no idea what this… manifestation of Vindatri’s was supposed to accomplish or what might trigger a less innocuous reaction. “Oh, I’ve had some pretty interesting arguments with myself, whenever I’ve of two minds on a subject. As for why, Orphan’s story ended up with him facing himself.”
“Ahh, Orphan. It was exactly as appropriate that you meet me as it was for Orphan to confront himself. And I hope you are aware that Orphan neglected to tell you various details of that encounter.”
“Suspected it, yeah. He’s been a stand-up ally in some ways, but I don’t think that guy even tells himself everything that’s going on.”
Bryson, or the image of him, chuckled in the same dry-leaf way DuQuesne remembered. “A particularly apt characterization, I am forced to admit. The question remains, then, why are you speaking to me, in particular?”
“Technically, I’m speaking to Vindatri, and don’t think I’m forgetting that,” DuQuesne said. “And I bet you’re not going to trick either of my companions, either.”
“As another acquaintance of yours might say, do not indulge in such loose and muddy thinking. Tricking is not the point of this interview, not in the sense you mean it.”
“Hm. So it’s an interview, is it? A way for you to… what, examine our reactions to some particular stimulus? Interesting that you’d need to do that when you can obviously read our minds in detail.”
“What is obvious, Mr. DuQuesne, is quite often not the truth — something I believe I mentioned more than once in class, yes?”
Damn, he’s got that “superior professor” attitude down perfect. “That your doppelganger’s doppelganger mentioned, yeah. The Hyperion Bryson never got old enough to go all gray. So, you want me to answer the riddle here? Fine.” He thought a moment. “Okay, I think I’ve got a line on it. Orphan’s more self-defined than just about anyone else you’ll ever meet. He was built to be a weapon against a faction that he then personally converted to; in a pretty short time after that, he was the only member of the Faction, and he’s been defining his Faction as himself, and himself by being his Faction, for so damn long that he’s pretty much the only, let along biggest, influence on his life. So who else was going to be used to play mind games with him, but himself?”
“Full marks, Mr. DuQuesne,” said the fake-Bryson. “And why me?”
“That’s a lot more interesting question,” he muttered, looking at Bryson carefully. I’m impressed. Every detail’s just as I remember it. “You… you were the nexus. You were the point that brought me and Rich Seaton together, the guy who got both of us pissed off about the same thing enough that we clicked and teamed up to humiliate you. And then you helped make us grow up enough to become the people we were supposed to be.”
Bryson nodded slowly.
“Key influences. What made us who we are. And Bryson… you’re the real Bryson. Well, a reflection or image of the real Bryson, the Hyperion researcher that… designed me. So you represent what shaped me on both sides of the glass.”
“And,” he said with sudden conviction, “you didn’t even know why, not right off. Because what you — Vindatri — did is to trigger a reaction in us that generates the illusion. That’s why you implied you don’t read minds; you can find the right way to trigger a memory or a reaction, but until we live it, see it, experience it, you don’t get the details; we make those for you.”
“Oh, excellent, Marc,” Bryson said, with the rare, broad smile he remembered well. “Truly, you live up to your designer’s intent, and then some.”
“And from that, you start to get a real, personal handle on who we are, what we think is important, what we’re really like.” DuQuesne nodded, then frowned. “Not that I like it, or approve of the method. I’ve had a bellyful of being manipulated before.”
“Understandable,” Bryson said. “Yet you would, I think, agree that actual mind-reading is much more of an intrusion, and disapprove even more, while I think you would also understand that a being such as Vindatri has good reason to be cautious.”
“Maybe. I don’t need to be cautious around babies, and power-wise you sure seem to have that level of divide on us.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps. Yet in the Arena things are rarely what they seem, Mr. DuQuesne.”
DuQuesne suddenly became aware that his surroundings had slowly, subtly, but completely shifted; he was now in what appeared to be Professor Bryson’s office, complete with stacks of papers waiting to be graded and the same slightly-battered wooden chairs with green leather-cushioned seats for students looking for additional help. “That’s impressive. Don’t know if I like it, but it’s impressive.”
“You don’t find a familiar setting comforting? Interesting, Mr. DuQuesne.” Bryson seated himself in the larger swivel-chair behind the desk, and stubbed out the cigarette which was now burned almost to the filter.
“Okay, that actually counts as evidence you don’t read minds, unless you’re just playing a really deep game. Because if you read minds, you’d know that this stopped being a comforting setting for me about fifty or so years ago.”
“Yet these images are also what you produced under the stimulus you theorized I have created. Even more interesting.”
It was interesting, and DuQuesne found he had to stop and consider the situation. If he was right, this was a sort of self-generated illusion; “Vindatri”, whatever and whoever he really was, just sort of poked your brain and then gave it the tools to generate one hell of a hallucination that Vindatri could participate in — but much of it was provided and directed by DuQuesne’s brain, not Vindatri’s. So why, exactly, was he seeing this particular setting?
He found himself involuntarily glancing over his shoulder, and the answer was obvious. “Blast it. Because seeing you, talking with you… thinking about all of that… I keep thinking Rich is going to walk through that door. Part of me would like nothing more. Except I don’t want a shadow play of him, I’d want the real thing, and he’s gone.”
Bryson nodded slowly, pulling out his cigarette pack again absently and proffering it to DuQuesne in the same gesture DuQuesne had seen a thousand times and more. He saw his arm, almost against his will, reach out and take one of the white cylinders; Bryson lit his first and then handed the shining metal lighter to DuQuesne.
The sharp, warm taste of the smoke was the same, too. DuQuesne felt a sting in his eyes that wasn’t from smoke. My aunt’s cat’s kittens’ pants buttons, as Rich might’ve said, this is just too damn good an illusion.
“Why are you here, DuQuesne?” Bryson-Vindatri finally asked.
“Here-your office, or here-Vindatri’s home?”
“Oh, Vindatri’s home, I meant.”
“Orphan needed someone to help him run his ship; from what he told us later, we’re also sort of exhibits to help him fulfill an obligation to you to tell him about any true newcomers to the Arena.” DuQuesne figured Vindatri would know the details; if he didn’t, his questions might tell DuQuesne something about the things Orphan might be hiding.
“That is… a rather surface explanation, Mr. DuQuesne –”
“If you’re going to keep being all formal, I’ve been Doctor DuQuesne for fifty years and more now.”
“Humph,” Bryson snorted, but then shook his head and smiled. “Old habits, eh, Doctor? You were my students and then adventurers for a while before you ever officially finished that degree. But in any event, Doctor DuQuesne, that was a surface explanation. I asked why you were here, not why Orphan would want you here.”
Interesting question. Let’s see how this dance goes. “Pain in the ass or not, we owed Orphan a lot, and so we’re fulfilling a debt.” He debated internally for a moment, but realized that holding back the next piece of information would be pointless; it was in fact one of the major reasons they’d come. “And since we know about Orphan’s little toy, we wanted to come here to find out what you know about the powers of the Shadeweavers and the Faith.”
Bryson’s façade cracked for an instant; the brown eyes were suddenly strange, unreadable, and the figure was rigid and motionless. Almost instantly, however, it resumed the more natural motion. “Does that mean that Orphan has had occasion to use my gift? Interesting. I had reached a tentative conclusion that he would likely never use it as he did not know its limits and would always argue with himself that there would be a moment of greater need… later.”
“Used it and maybe burned it out. Might want to give it a maintenance check and replace it if it’s still in warranty.”
The Bryson-illusion smiled. “I may have to do that, yes. Now… somehow it does not seem to me that you have any direct interest in these powers, other than the quite natural curiosity of a scientist trying to understand a power that seems to violate some of the basic principles of science.”
“Ha! That’s the whole of the Arena in a nutshell. But until we’re all together, I don’t think I want to discuss the rest of it. You want to talk about other things, hey, great, but our mission and my purpose or lack thereof? Wait until me and my friends are all together, and you’ve taken off all your masks.”
“An interesting requirement,” he said, and the tone was not quite Bryson’s any more. “How, precisely, would you know I had, as you say, taken off all of my masks, when you do not know the truth of what I am?”
“Trust me, I’d know,” DuQuesne said. “I’m real, real good at telling real from fake. You might say it’s one of my absolute defining characteristics.”
“Still, I would very much like you to tell me a bit more about your interest in the powers of Shadeweaver and Faith.”
DuQuesne had been tense and waiting for it, and so he sensed it instantly; a disturbance in his mind, a sudden awareness that part of him was not thinking in the direction that it should. He shot to his feet and slammed his fist down on the desk so hard that the illusory wood cracked from one side to the other. “Stop it right now. Understand this, Vindatri or whatever your name is, I’m giving you one chance, and one only, to back off. You don’t touch our minds. It’s one thing to do what you did here — and I still don’t like it — but the microsecond I catch you poking around trying to change my mind, or anyone else’s, again, that’s the microsecond I’ll make you regret it.”
The sensation vanished instantaneously, and the figure across from him only looked like Bryson the way a doll of Bryson would have. “You sensed that. You resisted. Extraordinary. Utterly unheard-of. Yet you do not truly think you can threaten me here, do you?”
The last thing DuQuesne wanted to do was trigger a conflict here and now; yes, he had his trump card in the form of the fiction-made-real powers the Arena was granting him… but he had no idea what Vindatri’s real power level was, and even back on Hyperion DuQuesne had known there were people out of his league. Still… You gotta double down on stuff like this. Can’t let him get the complete upper hand, think he can push us around. “Maybe. Maybe not. But sure as God made little green apples you’ll find out if you ever try messing with any of our heads again. Do you follow me?”
Slowly animation returned to the figure; Bryson stood and bowed slowly. “You are a fearsomely interesting arrival, Doctor Marc DuQuesne. So be it. I will refrain from testing your capabilities in so dangerous a fashion.”
He gestured, and the door of the office opened, showing — instead of the brick corridor of the school — a long, well-lit passageway of metal. “I thank you for a most instructive meeting, Doctor. Please proceed.” The smile was neither human nor comforting. “There will be much to talk about… later.”