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Authors: Ryk E. Spoor

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Spheres of Influence-eARC

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Spheres of Influence - eARC

Ryk E. Spoor

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Baen

Leader of the Faction of Humanity.
  It was a ridiculous title, but the Arena said that was what Captain Ariane Austin was since she'd led the crew of the Holy Grail in their discovery of the impossible, physics-violating place and their eventual return, and when the nigh-omnipotent Arena said something, it meant it.

Ariane must discover what it means to be the Leader of Humanity, both for herself and for humanity, before her enemies—at home or in the Arena—depose her, kill her, or worse. It will take all her luck, Marc DuQuesne's indomitable will, Simon Sandrisson's genius, and the peerless skill of a living legend. And, in the end, humanity’s fate in the galaxy and beyond will hinge on the choice of an uncertain ally who has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by aiding those neophyte upstarts, the humans.

Spheres of Influence

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Ryk E. Spoor

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN: 978-1-4516-3937-7

Cover art by Allan Pollack

First Baen printing, November 2013

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

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Pages by Joy Freeman (www.pagesbyjoy.com)

Printed in the United States of America

BAEN BOOKS by RYK E. SPOOR

Digital Knight

Phoenix Rising

GRAND CENTRAL ARENA SERIES:

Grand Central Arena

Spheres of Influence

BOUNDARY SERIES

RYK E. SPOOR AND ERIC FLINT:

Boundary

Threshold

Portal

What Has Gone Before (and a little bit that Has Come After!)

Previously in
Grand Central Arena
:

The solar system of 2375, population fifty-five billion, approaches utopia as closely as most of humanity could imagine. The advent of efficient power harvesting, storage, and transmission of all kinds combined with nanoassembler systems called “AIWish” units has allowed even the poorest people to be assured of plenty of food, comfortable shelter, access to the immense interconnected webwork of information, entertainments, and heathcare sufficient to extend human youth and lifespan greatly; this has also assisted other advances in material and engineering sciences to produce a fully-flowered Space Age, with huge colonies on Mars, orbiting Earth, and elsewhere. Artificial intelligences assist human beings in their daily lives, with most people having a built-in “AISage” who serves as one of their closest friends and a secretary, memory aid, research partner, or almost anything else.

Because of these things, and because of a short but bitter electronic conflict a few centuries past called the Anonymity War, governments as we know them are almost a thing of the past and human individual rights and privacy are nearly unbounded; only the shadow of the horrific “Hyperion Project” has caused any sort of effective central government to arise in the last fifty years, comprised of the Space Security Council (SSC) and Combined Space Forces (CSF) which basically intervene when and if there are conflicts beyond the ability of the ordinary people to address—and ordinary people can have truly staggering resources to their name in 2375.

Work, as we know it in the 21st century, is also effectively a thing of the past. People do not need to work to survive, and the closest equivalents of “money” are called “interest credits” or vectors, where additional resources are given by people to someone that interests them in some way. People now entertain themselves at whatever they wish, ranging from mountain climbing to adventures in full-immersive virtual realities called simgames.

Only
one
of the great dreams of humanity seems to have been truly elusive: that of reaching the stars.

At the beginning of
Grand Central Arena
, Doctor Simon Sandrisson believed he had solved that great riddle, and for various reasons assembled a crew for a manned vehicle, the
Holy Grail
, to test this “Sandrisson Drive”; the crew included power engineer Dr. Marc C. DuQuesne, controls specialist Dr. Carl Edlund, systems integration and conceptual engineer Dr. Steve Franceschetti, medical specialist Dr. Gabrielle Wolfe, nanomaintenance engineer Dr. Thomas Cussler, biologist Dr. Laila Canning, and—as a last-ditch backup—Ariane Stephanie Austin, top pilot in the Unlimited Space Racing league.

With this crew, Dr. Sandrisson plans a simple demonstration jump into “Kanzaki-Locke-Sandrisson space” which will allow the
Holy Grail
to effectively travel many times faster than light; they will jump, wait for the onboard fusion generator to recharge the Sandrisson Coils, and then jump back, having traveled perhaps a third of a light year in a few days’ time.

But as soon as the
Holy Grail
makes the first jump, everything goes wrong; the nuclear reactor shuts down, and all automation—including the AISages on which most of the crew rely—crashes. Only Ariane Austin’s skill at manual piloting saves
Holy Grail
from crashing into some impossible, unimaginable
wall
that appeared before them.

Nothing they can do will restart the nuclear reactor, or bring the artificial intelligences back online, and if they can’t find a source of very considerable power, they will be stranded forever in what appears to be a spherical space twenty thousand kilometers in diameter. With most of the crew still suffering from the trauma of losing their AISages, and having their own specific responsibilities, it is decided that for the interim Ariane Austin will be the acting captain and leader of the stranded
Holy Grail
crew.

Scanning the interior of this spherical space shows that there is a way into the surrounding structure, and they begin exploring for something that may offer them a way home—and explain where they actually are, and what this structure
is
. During that exploration, it is revealed that Marc DuQuesne is one of the few survivors of the infamous Hyperion Project, product of a terribly misguided attempt to replicate various heroes of myth and fiction which, so to speak, “Went Horribly Right.” DuQuesne has spent the last fifty years trying to play the part of a normal human and really only wants to live a relatively ordinary life.

On a deeper probe of the interior of this mysterious location, Ariane Austin, Marc DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson encounter alien lifeforms. Shocked to be able to understand what the aliens are saying, they nonetheless intervene—for reasons they do not entirely grasp at the time—to prevent what appears to be a lynching or kidnapping of one semi-insectoid alien by others; another, mysterious figure in dark robelike clothing simply watches and then disappears.

The rescued alien calls himself “Orphan,” and seems friendly enough…until DuQuesne notices a suspicious tenseness and prevents him from actually entering the area of the installation (which Orphan calls a “Sphere”) that the humans have set up camp in.

Orphan admits that entrance to that portion of the “Sphere” would have given him considerable opportunity to control entry and exit from the Sphere—and by implication, to humanity’s solar system. Despite this, Ariane and the others decide that Orphan could be useful in at least allowing them to understand what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Orphan agrees to be their guide and instructor, and reveals the truth; that the huge structure they are in are just one of uncountable billions of “Spheres,” each of which represents a single solar system—and there is one Sphere for every solar system in every galaxy throughout the universe, floating in a lightyears-wide space called simply “The Arena.” Outside the shell of the Sphere is not vacuum, but air, light, and even gravity on the “top” of the Sphere, called the Upper Sphere—a place which provides living space similar to that found on a Sphere owner’s native world.

But to gain access to the Upper Sphere, the humans must first traverse the “Inner Gateway” which will take them to a location called Nexus Arena, and then—if they wish to gain the power needed to activate the Sandrisson Drive and return home—establish themselves as citizens of the Arena.

Ariane asks, naturally, how such citizenship is established; the answer startles and worries the entire crew. Everything in the Arena, it seems, revolves around “Challenges” between various groups, or “Factions.” A “Challenge” can be almost any sort of contest, but the essential character of a Challenge is that the stakes are significant on the scale of the Faction itself; for larger factions, that can mean, in essence, bets with literal worlds in the balance. There are over five thousand Factions and all of them have been in existence for thousands of years. Newcomers or “First Emergents” such as humanity haven’t been seen for over three thousand years.

In their first encounter with aliens, they turned out to have met no fewer than
three
Factions: Orphan, who is the leader—and sole member, currently—of the Faction of the Liberated; the Blessed To Serve, of the same species as Orphan but his major enemies; and the Shadeweavers, mysterious and reputed to have nigh-supernatural powers. Their initial venture to Nexus Arena introduces them to the factions of the Faith, who apparently see the Arena as a holy artifact or site, the Analytic who are an alliance of scientists and engineers, the Molothos who are a species of creatures inherently hostile to all others, and the quasi-faction of the Powerbrokers, who could sell enough energy to the humans to let them return home…if they had something to trade.

Having made this initial foray, Simon and Ariane stay behind while DuQuesne travels back to update the others on what they’ve discovered—and to lead an expedition to the Upper Sphere to see what resources they might have on top of their own Sphere.

It turns out that the Molothos have just recently discovered Humanity’s Sphere, as they send ships to travel through the airy spaces of the Arena and find other Spheres. The Molothos pursue and harry both DuQuesne and Carl Edlund, who accompanied him on this expedition, until trapping the two humans in the Molothos’ main encampment.

The stress and desperation of the moment causes DuQuesne to release all of the restraints he had placed on himself, and unleashes the full capabilities of a Hyperion on the terrified Molothos, defeating six Molothos in a few seconds and then interrogating the surviving officer, Maizas. A combination of careful planning, improvisation, and luck allows DuQuesne and Edlund to destroy the Molothos’ main vessel,
Blessing of Fire
, before it can reinforce the ground troops and take possession of Humanity’s Upper Sphere.

This turns out to be sufficient to count as winning a Challenge from the Arena’s point of view, and Humanity suddenly is a full-fledged Faction, with its own embassy building…and a new set of problems. Everyone wants to pal around with the new kids on the block, it seems…but they all have their own agendas. The humans also notice some odd characteristics of all Arena inhabitants; they seem more risk-averse than humanity, with odds of 100:1 being viewed in a similar light to those of a million to one by most human beings.

Ariane is invited by the Faith to observe the induction of a new priest, called an Initiate Guide, as part of a ritual that is conducted whenever a new Faction appears. During this ritual, she hears and sees things that seem magical, beyond any science that humanity understands, including a staggering display of power at the “awakening” of the new Initiate Guide’s abilities. It is clear that the Faith—including their leader, First Guide Nyanthus, and the new priest, Initiate Guide Mandallon, firmly believe there is a mystical, numinous power far beyond that of mortality that guides or watches over the Arena. Ariane is impressed, though not at all convinced, and on her way back is more disturbed when Amas-Garao, one of the Shadeweavers, appears from nowhere and has a short discussion with her that reveals that he did influence her to intervene on Orphan’s behalf, somehow. He is unimpressed, even amused, by her confronting him with this, and when pressed, disappears—at the same time somehow teleporting Ariane all the way from where she stands back to Humanity’s Embassy.

The faction of the Vengeance visits Humanity shortly thereafter—a faction who believe that, rather than a benevolent deific-like force, the Arena is a weapon, a tool to keep all other species imprisoned and controlled, and who are dedicated to discovering the secrets of the creators of the Arena, called the Voidbuilders, and wresting from them control of the universes.

Mandallon, the new Initiate Guide, is obligated to perform some service for Humanity; while he cannot provide the energy needed to return home (apparently older Initiate Guides could, but he cannot), he will attempt anything else. After some discussion, Ariane decides to ask him to heal the one member of their crew who has never recovered from the “crashing” of her AISages (she had three): Dr. Laila Canning. He performs a ritual which shows no objective mechanism for functioning, but nonetheless awakens Laila to herself…although Ariane, and DuQuesne, wonder if perhaps Laila Canning is not exactly who she seems to be, now.

It isn’t long before the Blessed to Serve trick Ariane into accepting a Challenge; the Blessed, and their leader Sethrik, come to regret this when Ariane specifies the Challenge mode as being deep-space racing, and manages to win the race with a final daredevil move that shocks all of the Arena natives.

Ariane originally intended to demand a full recharge for
Holy Grail
as the price for winning the Challenge, but Orphan—just in time—reveals that if
all
of the
Holy Grail
crew return home, leaving the Sphere empty, they forfeit all the progress they have made—they lose their Factionhood. The Sphere must always have at least one inhabitant from this point on. At the same time, Orphan admits that his meeting with the
Holy Grail
crew was not entirely accidental; he was directed to go to a certain place, at a certain time, by the Shadeweavers, to whom he owed a debt. He admits that he still owes them at least one more service, meaning that he cannot yet be entirely trustworthy…even if he didn’t have an agenda of his own. She agrees to keep Orphan’s secret…but he owes her.

Ariane decides to have the Blessed foot the bill for having Humanity’s Sphere secured by the Faith, something which is necessary for peace of mind if and when they leave someone behind. This choice, while sensible, causes considerable conflict when revealed, partly due to the disappointment that they are not yet going home, and partly due to the fact that Ariane made this decision on her own. Ariane points out—correctly—that it was her decision to make, and if they didn’t want a captain in charge they shouldn’t have made her one.

DuQuesne is aware that she is correct, and leaves to cool off so he doesn’t argue any further. Amas-Garao takes this opportunity to contact DuQuesne, and shows him around the Shadeweaver headquarters in an attempt to recruit DuQuesne to join their ranks; during this tour, he witnesses part of the induction ritual for a new member of the Shadeweavers. When DuQuesne declines the invitation, Amas-Garao reveals that this was “an offer you can’t refuse.” The Shadeweaver is stunned to discover that he cannot control DuQuesne’s mind (due to particular design work done by the Hyperion Project), but demonstrates vast, apparently supernatural power, eventually cornering DuQuesne before he can leave the Faction House.

But Ariane received a very short transmission from DuQuesne, enough to know he was in trouble, and has Orphan lead them to the Shadeweaver Faction House…just in time. In the subsequent battle, Orphan surprises everyone by first choosing not to abandon Humanity, despite his belief that they have no real chance against the Shadeweavers, and second by revealing that he has some sort of device that inhibits the Shadeweavers’ powers.

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