Shadows of Hyperion

In this latest installment in the Grand Central Arena series, Ariane Austin and her friends find themselves unable to use their Arena-born powers—just as Humanity is menaced by dangers both alien and home-grown. Fifty years after Project Hyperion’s fall, the bill has come due, and everything —everything—is threatened by the long, dark shadows of Hyperion.

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The Bill is Coming Due…

… on Project Hyperion. Ariane Austin discovers she and her friends Marc, Simon, and Wu Kung are crippled after their battles in Challenges of the Deeps, unable to use their Arena-born powers. The newly-embodied Hyperion AI, Dr. Alexander Fairchild, is working with a Molothos officer to undermine the Faction of Humanity… while he also pulls deadly strings back home in the Solar System. The insane Hyperion Maria-Susanna is active at last, and someone has murdered one of the Champions of the Arena even as he was coming to meet with Marc DuQuesne. All of these events are related, and the collision of such forces will shake the entirety of the Arena, and beyond, as they find that everything, everything, is affected by the long, dark shadows of Hyperion.

“Ariane! Ariane, wake up!”

The voice was vaguely familiar, echoing out of the red-tinged blackness of pain.

“Ariane, can you hear me? Dammit, where’s Gabrielle?”

“You don’t look too well either, Marc. Sit down!”

That… that was Oasis. Marc?

She made an effort to open her eyes and say something; a vague moan was the result.

“My God, what happened?” Another voice… Gabrielle’s. That’s a little better. I couldn’t even recognize Marc‘s voice for a moment!

“We were starting a practice session,” Marc DuQuesne said. Ariane could hear his voice vibrate with an unaccustomed shake. “We had just started, and she suddenly screamed and fell down… like that.”

“Hmm. Vitals… recovering from some kind of traumatic shock. Brainscan patterns are… odd. But she should be conscious. Ariane, can you hear me? Open your eyes, or raise your hand, plese.”

A second try, and her eyes opened to slits; the practice room’s lights were dazzlingly bright, sending needles of luminance to jab her somewhere in the center of her skull. Hazily, she could make out Gabrielle Wolfe’s concerned face, golden hair haloing her head and partially obscuring the darker, concerned face of DuQuesne. “Gab…ri..elle,” she managed.

“Yes. That’s good. She’s seeing us and she’s conscious and responding.” A pause. “No sign of actual injury, aside from a bruise on her head from falling. No concussion. Let’s get her up off the floor a bit, get something softer under her.”

“I will lift her,” came Wu Kung’s voice. “I knew I should not have gone anywhere!”

Small but very strong arms slid under her body, raised her up and laid her down; yes, whatever she was on now was definitely softer, and raised at the end. She blinked and was able to focus better. She was on a floating gurney—one of the many little perks the Arena made possible in its Embassies. “What happened, DuQuesne?” she said, hearing her usual quick, authoritative tones reduced to a tired contralto whisper.

“That’s what we’d like to know, Captain,” he said, relief erasing temporary wrinkles of worry. “We were trying to spar, practicing what we’d learned. Then—”

“God, yes, I remember. You started towards me, so I was going to throw up a shield and suddenly something put an axe between my eyes, or that’s what it felt like.”

Wu Kung’s head suddenly appeared, the green eyes narrowed. “You were trying to use your magic powers? You and DuQuesne?”

“Well,” DuQuesne said, “I was just starting, and they’re not really magic, but … yeah.”

Wu shook his head and stepped back. For a moment, gold light flickered around his body, and a wrinkle of concentration mixed with pain showed on his face. “You were lucky,” he said, reaching out to grip Ariane’s hand tightly. “Do not do that again! You cannot use your powers for a while, not for anything other than what DuQuesne would call parlor tricks—moving water glasses or something.”

“What? Why?” Ariane asked, at the same time that Gabrielle said, “You know what happened?”

Wu Kung grimaced, then grinned with a cynical edge unusual for the Hyperion Monkey King. “I know what I see, but you will not like the explanation I will give of what I see and what it means.”

“Explain and we’ll decide whether we like it later,” DuQuesne said sharply.

“You—both of you, and me as well—went into battle against a god, and then a fleet.” The green eyes flecked with gold held Ariane’s gaze like iron. “You were not ready. Neither was DuQuesne. Me… I wasn’t, really, but not as badly as you.” Another flicker of concern washed across the gold-furred face. “Hm, I think I should check Simon as well; he may be in danger too. Maybe even Velocity.”

“I’ll buy that we weren’t really ready,” Ariane said, “but why did I collapse? I mean, ready or not, we did beat him, and we didn’t get permanently hurt.”

“You have injured your soul.” Seeing the stares, Wu gave an exasperated shrug and sigh. “See? I knew you would not like it! Then …” he wrinkled his face in concentration, then went on, “you have injured some part of you that my Hyperion senses call your soul, or think is your soul, if there really, truly is no such thing. Whatever it is, it is like your body in that it can be hurt or strained.”

“Oh,” DuQuesne said. “I think I get it. We did the equivalent of some lazy couch-bound simfan suddenly being forced to get up and spend a day at hard labor. It was hard, but it didn’t feel so bad when he did it… but the next day he can’t really even get up.”

“Exactly!” Wu Kung nodded for emphasis. “Except much worse. You did damage. You were desperate—we were desperate, and so we ignored the warnings, or maybe you couldn’t feel the warnings because you didn’t know what to look for, but you hurt yourself during that adventure, a lot. Now that the emergency is past… well, you still haven’t learned how to feel your soul’s injury, so it doesn’t hurt… until you try to make your soul bear a burden again.”

Gabrielle was nodding slowly. “Like being in a fight and adrenalin lets you move something heavier than you could normally lift. You don’t feel it at the time, but you tear something in your back anyway.”

“Very much like that! Adrenalin, that was a word I was looking for. Yes, when you fight for your life your soul is ready to bear the burden unto death, so you might not feel the pain. And after, very small things won’t bother you—like if you badly injured your back you might still be able to pick up a cup of water or something. But anything bigger…” Wu mimed something exploding.

Ariane gingerly sat up. “So, there’s nothing physically wrong with me?”

“Not that I can see,” Gabrielle said, glancing over her medical displays.

“If you insist everything in this magic world has a science explanation,” Wu Kung said with the air of humoring the unreasonable, “then there’s something physically wrong, but not in the… physical areas Dr. Gabrielle looks at.”

“Wu’s right,” DuQuesne said, and his brows were drawn down, showing his intense focus on the issue. “Given that nothing the Arena does is actually magic, it still pulls off tricks that sure look like magic, and now so do you. Stands to reason there’s some kind of structure—maybe made up of those ‘Plancktech’ spacetime constructs that Simon theorized about—that interacts with, supports, and maintains our apparently-supernatural skills. If it’s custom to each person—and I’d bet it is—makes sense it develops along with each person who gets the powers. And if you push it, it’s like driving a machine too hard; you get a breakdown, if not right away, then a lot sooner than you expected.”

She looked at Wu and stood up; her head pounded only slightly. “So, you can see this damage?”

“Oh, sure. Sensing ki and spirit, that was one of the things I did better than almost anyone except Sanzo.” He looked momentarily sad at the mention of his wife, now reverted to a state where she didn’t even remember meeting him. “If I focus, I can see souls now. That isn’t too hard, which is good, because my soul isn’t in good shape, either. Better than you or DuQuesne, but not all that much.”

“How bad is it? How long before it heals? Is there something we should do to help it along, like physical therapy?”

He squinted at her and DuQuesne again. “It’s… pretty bad. If you had kept pushing it, you’d kill yourself.”

Kill herself?” Gabrielle repeated. “Using a power she never needed before?”

“It is a part of her now,” Sun Wu Kung said with absolute certainty. “If she ruptures her soul, she could die without a mark on her. If you insist, that… Planck-whatever is woven through her whole body, and it’s connected to her mind and her nerves, her brain.”

“Makes too much sense,” DuQuesne said grimly. “What about me, Wu?”

“You’re about as bad as she is. I will have to look at Dr. Sandrisson and Velocity Celes soon.” A faint smile showed a hint of Wu’s fangs. “It is fortunate that Dr. Sandrisson does not want to use his power very often, and that Vel’s is much less… obvious. But even his does do some… oh, as one of our old friends would have put it, some very unreasonable things.”

 

He looked back to Ariane. “As to what to do, Captain, use your power very little, but don’t stop using it at all. Little things, like lifting cups, making small sparks, that kind of thing, should not strain you much. If you pay attention to yourself, you should start to feel the strain already on your spirit. Listen to that sense, pay attention to it. You will not get a second chance like this very often; you could have killed yourself just now. Same to you, DuQuesne.”

Ariane frowned. “We can’t use our newest trump cards?”

“Not for a while,” Wu said. “Not if you want to live.”

Ariane considered the situation. Then she found herself smiling and shook her head. “All right, then, we won’t. I’m kind of surprised how much that bothers me, when I spent most of my life without any special powers other than good reflexes. But we never had any plans to use these abilities in public. Right?”

DuQuesne grinned wryly back. “Right on the beam, Captain. Oh, the Molothos must’ve guessed something of what you could do from that last confrontation, but for the most part those powers are still a secret, and we want to keep it that way. Even the people who know we have something special don’t know the details, and most of them will keep it mostly to themselves, I’d expect—tactical advantage in secrets applies on their side, too.”

The headache was almost gone, although—now that Wu Kung had called her attention to it—there was a feeling of some kind of internal tension, not even exactly pain, but tight, like the feeling of a scab over a wound; it could be torn open. “All right, then, we’ll follow Wu’s advice to the letter. Wu, find Simon and check him out and if he has the same problem, bring him here and we’ll brief him. Otherwise… it’s business as usual.”

She grinned at the others. “We got a long way without any special powers; we can do without them for a few months.”

Malvchait, Master of Forces, was in a black mood.

It was not merely the inexplicable, embarrassing defeat that the Molothos had suffered, although that was undeniably a part of it. Still, he had only followed the orders of his superior—Faction Leader Dajzail of the Molothos. The worst of the humiliation had landed squarely on his carapace, not Malvchait’s.

At the same time, it was certainly the human undercreatures who were to blame for Malvchait’s current slowly-boiling anger. Dajzail had chastised him—had placed him in the Hold of Correction and screamed at him—before the humans, for the sake of Dajzail’s pledge to the undercreature Ariane Austin.

A pledge made under duress is worthless! He bit off a segment of pluri worm and ground it, but he didn’t really taste it. Nonetheless, Leader Dajzail had Corrected him before their people and the humans’ leader and champion. It was a bitter mouthful to swallow, straining one’s grinder to the limits.

He could send to the Homeworld, point out Dajzail’s failure, try to convince the Nests Assembled to recall him. But for that to work, Malvchait would need some leverage of his own. Undoubtedly Dajzail’s own report had been sent and read. Unless Dajzail was a fool—and he most definitely was not—there would be no errors of fact in the report.

“He who arrives first, presents the truth,” he murmured, quoting Ralsmaza’s ancient and cynical proverb. It was always harder to change minds, especially ones that had made a difficult decision based on the information they had first received. Which the Nests Assembled obviously had, since Dajzail was still here. If they hadn’t liked the report… no, chop that. They undoubtedly had not liked the report, no one would. Take it then that if they had not agreed that Dajzail was not to blame for the disaster, then there would have been a new Leader of the Faction of the Molothos. Since Dajzail remained Leader, they had been convinced the failure was not of his doing.

Trying to convince the Nests that they had made a mistake? He wobbled his claws in unconscious negation. No, definitely not. Not without something to give them, some angle that was not obvious to convince them to shift their ground.

Malvchait cast the pluri aside in annoyance. If I cannot taste it, it is worthless. The blood-dripping, cylindrical body bounced off the legs of a passing Milluk, but neither it nor any of the others strolling the Grand Arcade dared glance his way. The undercreatures all knew the Molothos, and of the entire Arena assembled, not one in a thousand would confront one of the True People over such a trivial action.

But the brief satisfaction he felt from that was childish, a barely-hatched child’s pleasure at achieving a goal that any adult could reach without effort. It did nothing to relieve the real source of anger and pain, which was that despite the losses inflicted on the Molothos, Dajzail had made peace with the Faction of Humanity.

Not merely a cessation of hostilities. Not merely a pause. Peace.

It was… not entirely unprecedented, no, but on the other claw it was. The Molothos had made peace with others, very rarely, but those others were Great Factions. The Blessed, the Analytic, the Faith, and—after the first disastrous confrontation back in the dim, dim reaches of the Molothos’ first emergence into the Arena—the Shadeweavers.

But to make peace with a Faction so new it had but one Sphere? Never. It was insulting. Malvchait gave a buzzsaw snarl that caused the others about him to retreat another meter, some crowding into store doorways or even behind the stalls of street vendors. It was inexplicable.

He knew Dajzail, or had thought he did. The Leader of the Faction for years now, Dajzail had a gentler touch to the claw than his predecessor, but that had never meant he was incapable of being hard as armor plate when necessary, and his youth had not limited his intellect or knowledge. He knew how to delegate, how to inspire, how to direct, how to act on his own. He was properly proud of his place and strong of will.

So how in the name of the Homeworld and the Nests had he come to this point of utter humiliation, perhaps even depravity, that he would lose a battle and make peace with a Faction whose first act had been to wipe out a Molothos scouting expedition?

He found himself standing before Halye’s Burrow—an inn, a place with temporary rooms for those without a permanent place on Nexus Arena. Such locations acted somewhat like miniature Embassies; inside a rented room the user was close to sovereign, including the right to physically defend themselves, although the ameneties were often vastly inferior to even the newest Embassy. There were many of them, but Halye’s was particularly good at catering to all, even Molothos.

And truth be told, he did not want to return to the Embassy tonight. He might say things that would have consequences he was unprepared for.

A brief exchange with the Tensari at the desk resulted in him receiving a key to a room tailored to Molothos needs. He settled into the resting cup, still brooding.

He was, he finally admitted to himself, being somewhat unfair to Dajzail. They had all been shown the summaries of that ill-fated battle, and the concatenation of absurdities was enough to daunt even the strongest will. And that last event…

He recalled the image of Zounin-Ginjou bursting from the exploding wreckage of Fireswarm, implacable, unstoppable, invincible. Yes, perhaps it was a temporary thing, a shield that would have failed in mere minutes more. But… “No,” he grated reluctantly. “No, I would have been loath to take that bet.”

Captain Ariane Austin, alien undercreature though she might be, had shown not the slightest sign of fear or doubt; she had delivered her ultimatum with the cold certainty of one who holds the absolute advantage.

Yes, perhaps Dajzail had been left with no choice but to yield… but to yield so much? He had barely argued with her. And then, he had insisted that his honor extended even to the agreement of peace. Peace with undercreatures barely out of their lowspace world.

It was unsupportable, intolerable… and yet he could see no way he could do anything but tolerate it. He would need a lever, an advantage… a personal victory, preferably over the Faction of Humanity, in a context that somehow did not violate the terms of the peace, or that forced them to violate the terms… and for the moment, he had not the faintest idea of how that could be achieved.

There was a knock at the door.

Malvchait tilted his head. Who could possibly be here? No one knew I was coming here; even I didn’t know I was coming here! He unlimbered his sidearm. “Enter.”

The only thing that kept him from firing was utter, disbelieving shock. He was frozen for a few seconds, as the tall, slender, human figure in white entered, nodded, and gestured to cause a chair, suited precisely to his measurements, to extend from the wall.

“Good afternoon, Master of Forces. So kind of you to invite me in.”

The paralysis had allowed his mind to catch up with his reflexes; having inadvertently invited the creature in, the peace required he not blast the impertinent thing to ashes. “I cannot imagine I have anything to say to you. Leave.”

The other laughed, and tilted back the hat—white also, with a single black band, revealing alien blue eyes and gold-colored hair. “Oh, you would be amazed at how much we have to talk about, Master Malvchait,” he said. “But I am remiss; allow me to introduce myself.” His eyes twinkled with completely unafraid humor.

“I am Doctor Alexander Fairchild.”

“That is … unwelcome news,” Simon said, studying Wu Kung with a sour, sinking feeling in his gut. “You are certain?”

The Hyperion Monkey King grimaced. “Why do people always ask that? Would I say it that way if I were not? Yes, I am certain, as certain as you could tell me that I am wearing my robes! I can see your soul, and you have damaged it badly, about as badly as Ariane’s.” He raised both eyebrows. “Why are you upset, though? I thought you did not like this power?”

Simon heard his own laugh, more of a bitter snort. “Oh, far from it, Wu. I like it far too much. But if that were the only question, yes, this would be something of a relief, a powerful antidote to temptation. But… it is not, and I think you know it as well as I. Try not to pretend you are less perceptive than you are.”

Wu Kung looked at him with innocence in his eyes, then broke into a laugh. “But it is one of my best weapons, Doctor Sandrisson! Wu Kung, the heedless, the straightforward, the—oh, what was Jonny’s word… clueless, that was it.”

At Simon’s understanding nod, Wu went on. “There are times I do not understand, and truly so. But to be seen as understanding less, as missing more… this gives you hidden strength and wisdom.” He sighed. “But for you—yes. Your power has been tested in breadth and depth, and you now understand how strong a weapon and defense it is for Humanity. To know you dare not use it… well, all of us understand well. I am somewhat stronger than you three, but not nearly to my full strength, and it will be months before I am.”

“Well, I thank you. Losing that option is unpleasant, yes, but dying because I used that ability without thinking would be much more unpleasant, and humiliating in the bargain. Was that all you wanted?”

“No—it was just the first priority this morning. The Captain says we’re all to come to a breakfast meeting. Are you ready?”

“Certainly. Let’s go.”

Breakfast was laid out to the side of the conference table—and a wide variety of it, too, along with assorted coffee, tea, and juice options. Simon nodded to Ariane, who was talking to Laila; the two women nodded back as Simon collected a plate with sardines, toast, one hard-boiled egg, and what Gabrielle called a curl-waffle, a fluffy, semi-sweet breakfast bread with upturned edges that had become a fixture at the Embassy of Humanity after Ariane managed to worm the recipe out of Mairakag Achan at his restaurant. He sat a chair or so removed from the others, as he knew the smell of sardines might not mix well with other odors.

“Boy, you love your fish dishes, Simon,” Ariane said. “Sardines for breakfast?”

“Hardly unusual in some places,” he responded with a smile. “You should eat something more substantial than coffee and a pastry.”

“Gotcha! It’s not a pastry, or not the way you meant.” She held up what he had originally taken for a filled doughnut. “Meat bun!”

“Ha! You are right, you did catch me being inattentive.”

DuQuesne, as usual, had a large breakfast (multiple slices of ham, pancakes, eggs, and more), and Oasis (who plunked her plate down next to Simon and gave him a wink) had him matched, but Wu Kung had brought three plates stacked with just about everything the side tables had to offer. His metabolism is even faster than other Hyperions, I think.

Laila, Carl, and Gabrielle had less formidable breakfasts, and also rounded out the attendees. Which means that this is an inner circle meeting; no one not either of the original group, or deliberately added to that group.

After a few minutes of people eating and drinking, Ariane tapped on her glass. “Thanks for coming, everyone. I know some of us,” she looked at the heavy-lidded face of Carl Edlund, “are not very good in mornings, but some of us also have things we have to get to not long from now.”

“‘Sokay,” Carl said, “As long as I have my coffee.” He held the cup like a precious jewel.

“All you need. So. First the bad news.” She glanced at Wu, who gave a grave nod. “Four of the five of us with the Arena’s special abilities—Simon, DuQuesne, Wu, and myself—can’t make much use of them for a while. Apparently, we all strained ourselves in the various battles we had with Vindatri and the Molothos, and according to Wu, we could literally kill ourselves if we try to do anything of great magnitude with them. We can practice small stunts,” she gestured and brought herself another meat bun, her forehead very gently furrowing, “but we’re not usable trump cards now.”

She glanced to the cheerful redhead with her four-ponytail hairdo. “Oasis—K—looks like you’re the only special agent we’ll have on tap, and we know you don’t have anything as… flashy as the rest of us.”

“I’m just your basic, average girl,” she agreed with a grin, “but I’m still here to save the world.” She winked at Simon.

Simon winked back. While he hadn’t entirely let go of his interest in Ariane Austin, Oasis and he were close to being an item, which still amazed him at times; despite using (mostly) the name of a CSF officer, she was actually a Hyperion, created to be a super-spy teen from media a century or three old. The real “Oasis” had been nearly murdered by the Hyperion AI named Dr. Alexander Fairchild, and “K” had done the only thing she could to save Oasis: transferred Oasis’ mind into her own, and let Oasis live her life using K’s body.

By now, the two were not entirely separate; K had enjoyed Oasis’ life, and Oasis enjoyed the capabilities and skills of a Hyperion. But that just meant that Oasis/K was someone well over twice Simon’s age and with experiences in a literal other world that had made her different. Not to mention her superhuman strength, reflexes, and intelligence. Simon often thought he was getting far the better deal in the relationship, and wondered what it was that he offered her that made it worthwhile. Best not to look that gift horse in the mouth, so to speak.

“Still, that is a considerable blow to our resources. However…” Laila’s brow furrowed. “Is there not a sixth? Velocity Celes is a Hyperion as well, correct?”

“Yes,” Wu Kung answered. “I checked him, too. The battle strained him about the way I was. But even if he wasn’t, Velocity’s not really a good substitute for the rest of us. He can fight—believe me, he can!” The Monkey King flashed a grin showing he had personal knowledge of that. “But it’s not what he does. He drives. Or flies, or whatever. We want him piloting things. He’s not anything like DuQuesne or Ariane or K or me.”

Laila nodded, accepting Wu’s evaluation; Simon also agreed with it, remembering his few interactions with the enthusiastic, young-looking Hyperion.

“How long will you be effectively out of commission, then?” Laila asked. Ariane again looked to Wu Kung.

“For me, I think three to six months; same for Vel. Ariane and DuQuesne, more like six months to a year. Simon…” the fur-covered face screwed up comically. “I can’t tell, because what his power is, is something I never saw before. I will have to watch him doing very small things and study it. But at a first guess, the same as Ariane and DuQuesne.”

“That’s not good,” Carl said. “Up to half a year without any of you able to work at max?”

“But it’s not that bad,” DuQuesne said. “After all, no one knows much about our special abilities. Even the ones who can guess at some of them haven’t got a clue as to their extent or limitations. We just want to keep out of major situations drastic enough to need that kind of firepower on hand. And that’s a good idea in general.”

Oasis cast a wry grin in his direction. “Oh, and of course the Arena’s going to cooperate and make sure nothing drastic happens.”

Oasis had a point. Since they’d first come to the impossible space called The Arena, they had constantly been in what one could call “drastic” situations. First stranded and without power in an alien universe; then two of them up against a small alien invasion; another Challenged to a race that might cost them everything; another Challenge from Amas-Garao, who might as well be called a wizard and have done with it; and it just went on, through this final war against the Molothos.

“All right, we’ll all have to keep our heads down, as much as we can. What’s the good news?”

“Well, diplomatically we’re having a lot of new and positive contacts. Oscar reports that the vast majority of them are coming from Factions extremely impressed by our having managed to somehow get the Molothos to back down.” Ariane looked (justifiably, Simon thought) proud of that. “Also, the Genasi elected Tunuvun their permanent Faction Leader, and he went on a direct Ambassadorial trip to our homeworld.”

“Good!” Wu said, his fanged smile lighting the room momentarily. “Tunuvun is a good friend! He will be a strong ally.”

“Yes. I haven’t heard details on the visit, yet, but—”

A green sphere popped into existence in front of Ariane. “Courier Davia Ditmeyer from Saul Maginot—urgent request to speak to you immediately!” The voice was young, and nearly out of breath.

From Saul? A courier runner? That does not sound promising.

From the expression on Ariane’s face, she agreed with Simon. “Captain Ariane Austin here—go on, Courier.”

“I am instructed to deliver the message to you, and anyone else in your close group, in person,” the Courier replied.

Ariane swept the room with her gaze, saw no one making an objection. “Join us in Briefing 3. All of us are here currently.”

Well, Simon thought, all of us who are in Nexus Arena. Steve and Thomas are on the Sphere. Thomas Cussler had his hands full trying to ride herd on the still rapidly-expanding city within the Sphere, and his husband Steve Franceschetti was in charge of conceptual design and director of construction for the entire Earth Sphere—Inner Sphere, Upper Sphere, and even the area of space surrounding the Sphere that included the Sky Gates. Neither of them could spend much time in Nexus Arena—or in the original Solar System, either.

A few moments later, the door slid open. Breathing only a touch faster than one might expect, Courier Davia was a slender young woman in a loose-fitting red T-shirt, dark jeans, and running shoes, her brown hair pulled back in a slightly untidy ponytail. A choker collar held a golden disc which Simon thought was probably a Courier ID badge.

As she straightened before Ariane, Simon noticed that the courier’s breathing was already slowing. “Courier Davia Ditmeyer reporting, Captain!”

“At ease, Courier. What’s the urgency?”

“Ma’am, a few days ago Commander Maginot and Ambassador Tunuvun were severely injured by a hostile nanoswarm attack.”

“By Klono’s—” DuQuesne bit off the Hyperion oath. “Are they all right?”

“Prognosis is good for both,” Davia answered. “Ambassador Tunuvun rescued the Commander through his extremely quick reactions. While the nanoswarm did badly injure him, it was not tailored for alien species and this slowed its progress somewhat.” She looked around uncertainly. “All of these people are cleared for… anything, correct, Captain?”

“Yes,” Ariane said.

Simon studied Davia. Interesting. She is now breathing quite normally. If, as I must presume, she ran here at full speed… Yes, interesting. He also thought he saw a glint in DuQuesne’s eye. Doubly interesting. And there’s something familiar about her, as well.

Davia nodded sharply. “Then—Commander Maginot instructed me to deliver you a very precise message:” Simon saw her forehead wrinkle in concentration. “Visualization gives a ninety-nine point seven percent probability that this was a Hyperion-directed assault. In addition, the probability approaches unity that this is not the work of Dr. Fairchild. A second enemy exists.”

Ariane paled visibly, and Simon felt his own lips tighten. The word “Visualization” told him that the message actually came from Ariane’s own AISage, Mentor, a Tayler-5 AI who was likely smarter than anyone—or perhaps everyone—in the room combined, with the possible exception of DuQuesne and Oasis.

After a moment, Ariane spoke. “Is there anything more?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Commander Maginot adds that they do not yet have an identity for the second adversary, and that there is a significant though not tremendously high possibility that there is a third Hyperion-origin enemy as well. They are increasing vigilance and security against such enemies. Tunuvun will be providing Genasi security to assist, as they will have capabilities not so well known as those of our standard defenses. Trading arrangements are being finalized. The attack,” a momentary smile flickered on Davia’s face, “helped cement the negotiations. Not, in the Commander’s opinion and that of his advisor, on purpose.”

“All right,” Ariane said after a moment. “That wasn’t the news I was hoping for, but it’s a lot better than it could have been.” She glanced at DuQuesne with the expression that showed that the huge Hyperion had sent her something over their link. “Courier… do you know who the… advisor is?”

Davia nodded.

“Please verify by identifying them.”

“Ma’am, he is an AI by the name of Mentor.” After a moment, she took a breath and went on, “A… an independent AI, Ma’am.”

Independent, Simon thought. A daring term, since the legal term would be feral, and means that by concealing his existence, Davia is, like Saul Maginot, risking herself. The solution of how to integrate AIs into our society without making them, effectively, slaves, is underway… but not yet close to deployment.

“Well. If you know that, I suppose Saul trusts you implicitly. Did he have any further instructions for you or me?”

“Only that I was to await your orders, Ma’am.” Davia did not manage to conceal some nervousness; only natural, in the presence of the literal Leader of the Faction of Humanity.

What do you think, Simon? The question came from his headware, encrypted and—aside from by the Arena itself—virtually impossible to intercept.

You are considering adding to our circle? Someone you have just met?

A smile. Not quite so arbitrary. Saul didn’t send this woman by accident.

No, he didn’t. That was DuQuesne. K?

Definitely. “K” looked up. “Long time no see, Dav!”

The young woman flashed a brilliant grin. “You do recognize me!”

“How could we not?” Wu Kung burst out, and he was the first of the Hyperions to reach Davia—catching her up and swinging her into the air with the exuberance of his greeting. “I just didn’t say anything because I didn’t know if you wanted us to!”

DuQuesne and Oasis were scarcely less enthusiastic. “I thought you weren’t coming!” DuQuesne said, laughing. “Glad you did, but what changed your mind?”

She must be another Hyperion.

Must be, agreed Ariane. I don’t recognize her offhand, though.

DuQuesne turned back to them as Oasis hugged the courier. “Captain, Davia’s one of ours—I figure you already all guessed that. She’s kinda like me, in a way—her source material’s almost completely forgotten. Early Second Media Explosion interactive show called—”

“Aww, no, DuQuesne—”

“—Davia the Dynamo.” DuQuesne completed the statement with a broad grin, as Davia covered her face.

“Oh… oh, my,” Simon breathed, staring at the young woman and seeing her not in casual dress but an electric blue-and-gold costume, face partially concealed behind a white and red mask, lightning playing about her fists. “You are! My father had the entire collection, I played through it so many times! I can’t believe it, Davia the…” he trailed off, aware of everyone now staring at him in disbelief.

“Ah. Ahem, yes, my apologies, Davia. I know that I should in no way project the show, or my childhood, onto you.”

There was a touch of red on her cheeks, but she smiled. “Well… no harm done, Simon. I guess… I guess it’s kind of nice to know someone remembers. Just that I got used to not being in that world, and now it seems there’s a use for the old Dynamo, if what Saul hinted at is right?”

“You,” Ariane said more seriously, “are in need of a serious debrief and update. But I suspect the answer is yes. If Saul trusted you enough… well, now that I know you’re a Hyperion, I guess that makes sense. He was the one who made sure you all got regular lives afterward.”

“Right. Most of the survivors, even if we didn’t trust any other… outsider, we’d trust Saul Maginot.” She looked back at DuQuesne, and her face was grave—the same expression, now that Simon was thinking of it, that Davia the Dynamo always wore during a briefing before she and her team went out. “As for what changed my mind? Knowing there was another enemy out there hunting us besides Maria-Susanna. Did I hear right? They got Jonny, D’Arbignal, Telzey, and poor funny Giles?”

DuQuesne looked down. “Yeah. I was… just a little too late to save them.”

“Okay, then, that’s why. Not sitting around waiting for them to get to me.”

“For formality’s sake,” Ariane said, “DuQuesne? You vouch for her? And vouch that she is her?”

The quick glance between Ariane and DuQuesne confirmed Simon’s guess as to what that last question meant. DuQuesne’s brow furrowed for a moment, and a hint of pain flickered across his face. But then it relaxed, and he grinned. “By those proverbial ninety-seven rows of little green apple trees, Captain. Davia’s as straight an arrow as you’ll ever get.”

“Oasis?”

“Seconded, Captain.”

She looked to Wu. “And I presume you agree?”

Wu laughed, his sharp canines glinting in the light. “By the Seven Pearls, yes! I’m so happy Davia decided to come! And she is Davia—” he tapped his nose. “Can’t fool this!”

“All right, then.” Ariane extended her hand. “Welcome to the inner circle—what we still call the crew of the Holy Grail.”

“Thanks!” Davia took the extended hand and shook it enthusiastically. “Saul hoped you’d take me in, but I didn’t think it’d be this fast!”

“If you stay around for long,” Simon said, “you will find that our Captain doesn’t waste time before jumping headlong into the next problem… or opportunity. Welcome, Davia.”

“Glad to be here. Now you said something about a debriefing?”

“Oh, yes,” Ariane said with a grin. “The biggest you’ve ever had, I think—at least since the time you left Hyperion.”

“Ooo!” Davia leaned forward eagerly—again echoing a pose Simon had seen a hundred times in his youth. “Then fill me in, Captain!”

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