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We Few: Section Two

       Last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 13:00 EST



    "Hello, Rallo," Roger said.

    "I cannot believe what your guys did to my ship!" the former Saint officer said angrily. She had soot all over her hands and face and was just withdrawing her head and shoulders from a hole in a portside bulkhead.

    Theresa Rallo had never been a Saint true-believer. Far too much of the Saint philosophy, especially as practiced by the current leadership, was, in her opinion, so much bullshit.

    The Cavazan Empire had been a vigorous, growing political unit, shortly after the Dagger Years, when Pierpaelo Cavaza succeeded to its throne. And Pierpaelo, unfortunately, had been a devotee of the Church of Rybak, an organization dedicated to removing "humanocentric" damage from the universe. Its creed called for the return of all humans to the Sol System, and the rebuilding -- in original form -- of all "damaged" worlds.

    Pierpaelo had recognized this to be an impossibility, but he believed it was possible to reduce the damage humans did, and to prevent them from continuing to seek new frontiers and damaging still more "unspoiled" worlds. He had, therefore, started his "New Program" soon after ascending to the throne. The New Program had called for a sharp curtailment of "unnecessary" resource use via ruthless rationing and restrictions, and a simultaneous aggressively expansionist foreign policy to prevent the "unholy" from further damaging the worlds they held by taking those worlds away from them and transferring them to the hands of more responsible stewards.

    For some peculiar reason, a substantial number of his subjects had felt this was a less than ideal policy initiative. Their disagreement with his platform had led to a short, but unpleasant, civil war. Which Pierpaelo won, proving along the way that his particular form of lunacy didn't keep him from being just as ruthless as any of his ancestors.

    From that time on, the Saints, as they were called by everyone else in the galaxy, had been a scourge, constantly preaching "universal harmony" and "ecological enlightenment" while attacking any and all of their neighbors at the slightest opportunity.

    Rallo, in her rise through the ranks of the Saint merchant marine, had had more than enough opportunities to see the other side of the Saint philosophy. What it amounted to was: "The little people deserve nothing, but the leaders can live as kings." The higher-ups in the Saint military and government lived in virtual palaces, while their subjects were regulated in every mundane need or pleasure of life. While extravagant parties went on in the "holy centers," the people outside those centers had their power turned off promptly at 9 PM, or whatever local equivalent. While the people subsisted on "minimum necessity" rationing, the powers-that-were had feasts. The people lived in uniform blocks of concrete and steel towers, living their lives day in and day out at the very edge of survival; the leaders lived in mansions and had pleasant little houses for "study and observation" in the wilderness. Always in the most charming possible locations in the wilderness.

    For that matter, she'd long ago decided, the whole philosophy was cockeyed. "Minimum resource use." All well and good, but who belled the cat? Who decided that this man, who needed a new heart, deserved one or did not? That this child -- one too many -- had to die? Who decided that this person could or could not have a house?

    The answer was the bureaucracy of the Cavazan Empire. The bureaucracy which insured that its leadership had heart transplants. That its leadership had as many children as they liked, and houses on pristine streams, while everyone else could go suck eggs.

    And she'd poked around the peripheries of enough other societies to see the real black side of Rybak. The Saints had the highest population growth of any human society of the Six Polities, despite a supposedly strictly enforced "one child only" program. Another of what she thought of as the "real" reasons they were so expansionist. They also had the lowest standard of living and -- not too surprisingly; it usually went hand-in-hand -- the lowest individual productivity. If there was nothing to work towards, there was no reason to put out more work than the bare minimum. If all you saw at the end of a long life was a couple of children who were doomed to slave away their lives, as well, what was the point? For that matter, Cavazan cities were notorious for their pollution problems. Most of them were running at the bare minimum for survival, mainly due to their shitty productivity, and at that level, no one who could do anything about it cared about pollution or the inherent inefficiency of pollution controls.

    She'd visited Old Earth during her time in the merchant service, and been amazed at the planet. Everyone seemed so rosy . So well fed, so happy -- so smugly complacent, really. The streets were remarkably clean, and there were hardly any bums on them. No bums who'd lost hands or arms because of industrial accidents and been left out to die. A chemical spill was major news, and nobody seemed to be working very hard. They just did, beavering away and getting tons of work done in practically no time.

    And Imperial ships! Efficiently designed to the point of insanity. When she'd asked one of their shipbuilders why, he'd simply explained -- slowly, in small words, as if to a child or a halfwit -- that if they were less efficient than their competitors, if their ships didn't get the maximum cargo moved for the minimum cost, both in power usage and in on/off loading speeds, than their customers would go to those competitors.

    Lovely rounded bulkheads and control panels, for safety reasons… which were considered part of overhead. Control runs that took the shortest possible route with the maximum possible functionality. Engines that were at least ten percent more efficient in energy use than any Saint design. Much less likely to simply blow up when you engaged the tunnel drive or got to max charge on the capacitors, for that matter. And cheap. Comparatively speaking, of course; no tunnel drive ship was anything but expensive.

    Saint ships, on the other hand, were built in government yards by workers who were half-drunk, most of the time, on rotgut bootleg, that being the only liquor available. Or stoned on any number of drugs. The ships took three times as long to build, with horrible quality control and lousy efficiency.

    The Francis Muir was, in fact, a converted Imperial freighter. And it had been converted by a quiet little Imperial yard that was happy for the work and more than willing to avoid unnecessary questions, given the money it was being paid. If the work had been done in one of the ham-handed Saint yards, the quality loss would have been noticeable.

    In fact, if the Muir had been a Saint ship, those idiot Mardukans would probably have blown it all the way to kingdom come, instead of only halfway.

    Theresa sometimes wondered how much of it was intentional. The official purpose of the Church of Rybak was to ensure the best possible environmental conditions. But if they actually succeeded in being as "clean" as the Imperials against whom they inveighed so savagely, would people see that level of "contamination" as that great a threat? Would the workers even care about the environment? Could the Church of Rybak sustain itself in conditions where the environment was clean and people went to bed hungry every night?

    Her commander in the Muir, Everette Beach, on the other hand, had been a real, honest, true-believer. Everette wasn't stupid; he'd seen the hypocrisy of the system, but he ignored it. Humans weren't perfect, and the "hypocritical" conditions didn't shake his belief in the core fundamentals of the Church. He'd been in command specifically because he was a true-believer despite his lack of stupidity; no one but a true-believer ever got to be in command of a ship. Certainly not of one that spent as much time poking around doing odd missions as the Muir. And when the Basik's Own's assault was clearly going to succeed, he'd engaged the auto-destruct sequence.

    Unfortunately for his readiness to embrace martyrdom, there'd been a slight flaw in the system. Only true-believers became ship commanders, true, but the CO wasn't the only person who could shut off the auto-destruct. So when Beach had been… removed by the ever-helpful Imperials, Rallo had been in nowise unwilling to turn it off.

    Beach himself was no longer a factor in anyone's equations, except perhaps God's.



    He and his senior noncommissioned officer had tried to murder Roger with "one-shots" -- specialized, contact-range anti-armor weapons -- after surrendering. The sergeant had died then, but only Armand Pahner's sacrifice of his own life had saved Roger from Beach's one-shot. Unfortunately for Everett Beach, the Muir's entire cruise had been an illegal act -- piracy, actually, since the Saints and the Empire were officially at peace -- and that was a capital offense. Then, too, the accepted rules of war made his attempt to assassinate Roger after surrendering a capital offense, as well. So after a scrupulously honest summary court martial, Beach had attained the martyrdom he'd sought after all.

    As for Theresa Rallo, she had no family in the Cavazan Empire. She'd been raised in a state creche and didn't even know who her mother was, much less her father. So when the only real choice became dying or burning her bridges with a vengeance, she'd burned them with a certain degree of glee.

    Only to discover what a hash the damned Empies and their scummy allies had made of her ship.

    "Six more centimeters," she said angrily, rounding on the prince and holding up her thumb and forefinger in emphasis of the distance. "Six. And one of your idiot Mardukans would have blown open a tunnel radius. As it is, the magnets are fried."

    "But he didn't blow it open," Roger noted. "So when are we going to have power?"

    "You want power!? This is a job for a major dockyard, damn it! All I've got is the few spaceport techs who were willing to sign on to this venture, some of your ham-handed soldiers, and me! And I'm an astrogator, not an engineer!"

    "So when are we going to have power?" Roger repeated calmly.

    "A week." She shrugged. "Maybe ten days. Maybe sooner, but I doubt it. We'll have to reinstall about eighty percent of the control runs, and we're replacing all the damaged magnets. Well, the worst damaged ones. We're way too short on spares to replace all of them, so we're having to repair some of the ones that only got scorched, and I'm not happy about that, to say the least. You understand that if this had been a real freighter that wouldn't even be possible? Their control run molycircs are installed right into the ship's basic structure. We're at least modded to be able to rip 'em out to repair combat damage, but even in our wildest dreams, we never anticipated this much of it."

    "If it had been a real freighter," Roger said, somewhat less calmly, "we wouldn't have done this much damage. Or had our butcher's bill. So, a week. Is there anything we can do to speed that up?"

    "Not unless you can whistle up a team from the New Rotterdam shipyards," she said tiredly. "We've got every trained person working on it, and as many untrained as we can handle. We've nearly had some bad accidents as it is. Working with these power levels is no joke. You can't smell, hear, or see electricity, and every time we activate a run to check integrity, I'm certain we're going to fry some unthinking schlub, human or Mardukan, who doesn't know what 'going hot' means."

    "Okay, a week or ten days," Roger said. "Are you getting any rest?"

    "Rest?" she said, cranking up for a fresh tirade.

    "I'll take it that that means 'no.'" Roger quirked one side of his mouth again. "Rest. It's a simple concept. I want you to work no more than twelve hours per day. Figure out a way to do that, and the same for everyone else involved in the repairs. Over twelve hours a day, continuous, and people start making bad mistakes. Figure it out."

    "That's going to push it to the high end on time," she pointed out.

    "Fine," Roger replied. "We've got a new project we need to work out, anyway, and it's going to mean loading a lot of . . . specialized stores. Ten days is about right. And if you blow up the ship, we're going to have to start all over again. As you just noted, you're an astrogator, not an engineer. I don't want you making those sorts of mistakes just because you're too pocking tired to avoid them."

    "I've worked engineering," she said with a shrug. "I can hum the tune, even if I can't sing it. And Vincenzo is probably a better engineer than the late chief. At least partly because he's more than willing to do something that's not by the Book but works. Since the Book was written by the idiots back on Rybak's World, it's generally wrong anyway. We'll get it done."

    "Fine. But get it done after you get some rest. Figure out the schedule for the next day or so, and then tuck it in. Clear?"

    "Clear," she said, then grinned. "I'll follow anybody that tells me to knock off work."

    "I told you to cut back to twelve hours per day," Roger said with another cheek twitch, "not to knock off. But now, tonight, I want you to get some rest. Maybe even a beer. Don't make me send one of the guards."

    "Okay, okay. I get the point," the former Saint said, then shook her head. "Six more damned centimeters."

    "A miss is as good as a mile."

    "And just what," Rallo asked, "is a 'mile'?"

    "No idea," Roger answered. "But whatever it is, it's as good as a miss."




    Roger continued down the passageway, just generally looking around, talking to the occasional repair tech, until he noticed a cursing monotone which had become more of a continuous, blasphemous mutter.

    "Pock. Modderpocking Saint modderpocking equipment . . . "

    Two short legs extended into the passage, waving back and forth as a hand scrabbled after the toolbox floating just out of reach.

    "…get my pocking wrench, and t’en you gonna pocking work…"

    Sergeant Julio Poertena, Bravo Company's unit armorer when the company dropped on Marduk, was from Pinopa, a semi-tropical planet of archipelagoes, with one small continent, that had been settled primarily from Southeast Asia, and he represented something of an anomaly. Or perhaps a necessary evil; Roger was never quite certain how the Regiment had actually seen Portena.

    While the Empress' Own took only the best possible soldiers, in terms of both fighting ability and decorum, the Regiment did allow some room in its mental framework for slightly less decorum among its support staff, who could be kept more or less out of sight on public occasions. Staff such as the unit armorer. Which had been fortunate for Portena’s pre-Marduk career, since a man who couldn't get three words out without one of them being the curse word "pock" would never have been allowed, otherwise.

    Since their arrival on Marduk, however, Poertena had marched all the way across the world with the rest of them, conjuring miracles from his famed "big pocking pack" times beyond number. And, when miracles hadn't been in the offing, he’d produced serious changes of attitude with his equally infamous "big pocking wrench." More recently, as one of the Marines' few trained techs, he'd been assisting with the ship repairs… in, of course, his own, inimitable fashion.

    Roger leaned over and tapped the toolbox, gently, so that it drifted under the scrabbling hand on its counter-grav cushion, apparently all on its own. The hand darted into it and emerged dragging a wrench that was as long as an arm. Then, the hand -- with some difficulty, and accompanied by more monotone cursing -- hauled the giant wrench into the hole, and there was a series of clangs.

    "Get in t’ere, modderpocker! Gonna get you to pocking --"

    There was a loud zapping sound, and a yowl, followed by more cursing.

    "So, t’at's t’e way you gonna… !"

    Roger shook his head and moved on.



    "Get up there, you silly thing!" Roger shouted, and landed a solid kick behind the armored shield on the broad head.

    Patty was a flar-ta, an elephant-sized, six-legged Mardukan pack-beast, that looked something like a triceratops. Flar-ta had broad, armored shields on their heads and short horns, much shorter than those of the wild flar-ke from which they were clearly descended. Patty's horns, however, were just about twice normal flar-ta length, and she obviously had more than her share of "wild" genes. She was a handful for most mahouts, and the Bronze Barbarians had long ago decided that the only reason Roger could ride her was that he was just as bloody-minded as the big omnivore. Her sides were covered in scars, some of which she’d earned becoming "boss mare" of the herd of flar-ta the Marines had used for pack animals. But she’d attained most of those scars with Roger on her back, killing the things, Mardukan and animal, that put them there.

    Now she gave a low, hoarse bellow and backed away from the heavy cargo shuttle's ramp. She'd had one ride in a shuttle already, and that was all she was willing to go for. The long, sturdy rope attached to the harness on her head prevented her from drawing too far away from the hatch, but the massive shuttle shuddered and scraped on its landing skids as she threw all six-legs into stubborn reverse.

    "Look, Roger, try to keep her from dragging the shuttle back to Diaspra, okay?" Julian's request was just a little hard to understand, thanks to how hard he was laughing.

    "Okay, beast! If that's how you're gonna be about it," Roger said, ignoring the NCO’s unbecoming enjoyment.

    The prince slid down the side of the creature, jumped nimbly to the ground via a bound on a foreleg, and walked around her, ignoring the fact that she could squash him like a bug at any moment. He hiked up the ramp until he was near the front of the cargo compartment, then turned and faced her, hands on hips.

    "I'm going up to the ship in this thing," he told her. "You can either come along or not."

    The flar-ta gave a low, high-pitched sound, like a giant cat in distress, and shook her head.

    "Suit yourself."

    Roger turned his back and crossed his arms.

    Patty gazed at his back for a moment. Then she gave another squeal and set one massive forepaw on the shuttle ramp. She pressed down a couple of times, testing her footing, then slowly eased her way up.

    Roger gathered in the slack in the head rope, pulling it steadily through the ring on the compartment's forward bulkhead. When she was fully in the shuttle, he secured the rope, anchoring her (hopefully) as close to the centerline as possible. Then he came over to give her a good scratching.

    "I know I've got a kate fruit around here somewhere," he muttered, searching in a pocket until he came up with the astringent fruit. He held it up to her beak -- carefully, she could take his hand off in one nip -- and had it licked from his palm.

    "We're just going to take a little ride," he told her. "No problem. Just a short voyage." You could tell a flar-ta anything; they only knew the tone.

    While he was soothing her, Mardukan mahouts had gathered around, attaching chains to her legs and harness. She shifted a few times in irritation as the chains clicked tight against additional anchoring rings, but submitted to the indignity.

    "I know I haven't been spending much time with you, lately," Roger crooned, still scratching. "But we’ll have lots of time on the way to Althar Four."

    "What the hell are you going to do with her aboard ship?" Julian asked as he entered the compartment through the forward personnel hatch and picked up a big wicker basketful of barleyrice. He set it under Patty's nose, and she dipped in, scooping up a mouthful of the grain and then spraying half of it on the cargo deck.

    "Put her in hold two with Winston," Roger answered, using a stick to reach high enough to scratch the beast's neck behind the armored shield. The big, gelded flar-ta was even larger than Patty, but much more docile.

    "Let's hope she doesn't kick open the pressure door," Julian grumbled, but that, at least, was a false issue. The cargo bay pressure doors were made out of ChromSten, the densest, strongest, heaviest alloy known to man… or any other sentient species. Even the latches and seals were shielded by too much metal for Patty to demolish.

    "I don't think that will be a problem," Roger said. "Feeding her now. That might be."

    "Not as much as feeding the civans," Julian muttered.



    "Quit that!" Honal slapped the civan on its muzzle as it tried to take a chunk out of his shoulder. It was never wise to allow one of the ill-tempered, aggressive riding beasts to forget who was in charge, but he understood why it was uneasy. The entire ship was vibrating.

    Cargo was being loaded -- lots of cargo. There were flash-frozen col fish from K'Vaern's Cove, kate-fruit and flax-silk from Mosul, barleyrice from Diaspra and Q'Nkok, and flar-ta, atul and basik -- both live examples and meat -- from Ran Tai, Diaspra, and Voitan. There were artifacts, for decoration and trade, from Krath, along with gems and worked metals from the Shin. All of it had been traded for, except the material from the Krath. In the Krath's case, Roger had made an exception to his belief that it was generally not a good idea to exact tribute and simply landed with a shuttle and ordered them to fill it to the deckhead. He was still bitterly angry over their attempt to use Despreaux as one of their "Servants of the God" -- sentient sacrifices to be butchered living and then eaten -- and it showed. As far as he was concerned, if all of their blood-splattered temple/slaughterhouses were stripped of statuary and gilding, so much the better.

    Honal couldn't have agreed more with his human Prince, except, perhaps, for that bit about "not a good idea" where tribute was concerned. But he understood perfectly how the continuous rumble of the loading, not to mention the strange smells of the damaged ship and the odd light from the overheads, combined to make the civan, never the most docile of beasts at any time, nervous. And when civan got nervous, they tended to want to spread it around. Generally by making anyone around them afraid for their lives.

    Civan were four-meter tall, bipedal riding beasts that looked something like small tyranosaurs. Despite their appearance, they were omnivorous, but they did best with a diet that included some meat. And they were often more than willing to add a rider's leg or arm to that diet. On the other hand, they were always willing to add an enemy's face or arm to the menu, which made them preeminent cavalry mounts. If you could get them to distinguish friend from foe, that was.

    The Vasin were experts at creating that distinction, which had made them the most feared cavalry on the Diaspran side of the main continent of Marduk. Up to the coming of the Boman, that was.

    The Boman had been a problem for generations, but it was only in the last few years that they’d organized and increased in numbers to the point of becoming a real threat. The Vasin lords, descendents of barbarians who had themselves swept down from the north only a few generations ahead of the Boman, had been established as a check on the fresh barbarian invasion from the northern Plains. They'd been paid in tribute from the more civilized areas -- city-states like Sindi, Diaspra, and K'Vaern's Cove -- to prevent people like the Boman from causing mischief to the south.

    But when the Boman had combined under their great Chief, Kny Camsan, they'd swept the severely outnumbered Vasin cavalry from the field in waves of infantry attacks. The fact that the Vasin cities' food supplies had been systematically sabotaged (for reasons which had, presumably, made sense to his own warped thinking) by the particularly megalomaniacal ruler of Sindi, one of the cities they were supposed to be defending, had effectively neutralized the Vasin's traditional strategy for dealing with that sort of situation. With their starving garrisons unable to stand the sieges which usually outlasted the Boman's ability to maintain their cohesion, the Vasin castles and fortified cities had been overwhelmed, their garrisons and citizens slaughtered to the last babe in arms. And after that, the Boman had continued on to conquer Sindi and put its miscalculating ruler and his various cronies to death in the approved, lingering Boman style.

    They undoubtedly would have destroyed K'Vaern's Cove and the ancient city of Diaspra, as well, but for the arrival of Roger's forces. The Marines' core of surviving high-tech gear and their thousands of years of military experience and "imported" technology -- pike formations, at first, and then rifles, muskets, artillery, and even black powder bombardment rockets -- had managed to hold together an alliance against the Boman and break them in the heart of their newly conquered citadel of Sindi.

    The entire occupied area had been recovered, with the Boman forces scattered after hideous casualties and either forced to resettle under local leadership or driven back across the northern borders. Even the Vasin castles, what was left of them, had been retaken. The last Boman remnants had been driven out as soon as the humans took the spaceport and, reassured that there were no Saints around, could use their combat shuttles and heavy weapons against the barbarians.

    Honal and Rastar could have returned to their homes. But one look at the ruined fortifications, the homes they’d grown up in and in which their parents, families, and friends had died, was enough. They’d returned to the spaceport with Roger and turned their backs upon the past. The Vasin -- not only the force Honal and Rastar had led out of the ruins of Therdan to cover the evacuation of the only women and children to survive the city's fall, but all that had been gathered from all of their scattered people’s cities -- were now surrogates of Prince Roger MacClintock, heir apparent to the Throne of Man. Most of the survivors remained on Marduk, relocated to new homes near Voitan and provided with locally produced Imperial technology to ensure their survival and well being. But Rastar's personal troops were committed to the personal service of the human who had made their survival as a people possible. Where Roger went, they went. Which currently meant to another planet.

    Honal had to admit that if it weren't for the circumstances which made leaving possible -- his entire family was dead, as well as Rastar's -- he would have felt only pleased anticipation at the prospect of following Roger. He'd always had a bit of the wanderlust, probably inherited from his nomadic forefathers', not to mention his Boman tribute-bride mother. And the chance to see another planet was one very few Mardukans had been given.

    On the other hand, it meant getting the civan settled aboard a starship. It had been bad enough on those cockleshell boats they'd used to cross the Western Ocean, but starships were even worse, in a way.

    For one thing, there was that constant background thrum. He was told it was from the fusion plants -- whatever they were -- that fed power to the ship, and that they'd been charging the "capacitors" for the "tunnel drive" (more odd words) for the last two days. And the gravity was different from Marduk's. It was lighter, if anything, which allowed for some interesting new variations on combat training. And, like most of the Mardukans, Honal had developed a positive passion for the game of “basketball.” The humans, on the other hand, had insisted that the Mardukans had to use baskets which were mounted at two and a half times regulation height the instant they saw the Mardukan players soaring effortlessly through two-meter jump shots in the reduced gravity. But if the Mardukans enjoyed it, the civan didn't like it -- not at all, at all. And they were taking out their dislike on their grooms and riders.

    Honal looked around the big hold at the other riders settling the civan in their stalls. Those stalls had been custom-made by the "Class One Manufacturing Plant" which had been shipped from the spaceport to Voitan. They were large enough for the civan to pace around in, or lie down to sleep, and strongly made from something called "composite fibers." And there were attachment points on the floor -- the deck -- of the hold, to which the structures had been carefully secured.

    The stalls were also roofed, and much of the material the civan were going to be eating on the voyage was stuffed into the vast area above them. Huge containers of barleyrice and beans had been hoisted into the area and stacked in tiers. There was water on tap in several spots, and arrangements had been made to dispose of the civan's waste. He'd been told that human ships occasionally had to move live cargo, and from the looks of things, they'd figured out how to do it with the normal infernal human ingenuity.

    An open area on the inner side of the hold had been fenced off to provide space in which they could work the civan. It was big enough for only a few of the beasts to be exercised or trained at once, but it was better than they'd managed on the ships of the Crossing, where the only exercise choice had been to let them swim alongside the ships for short periods. Still, with only one working area available, the grooms and riders were going to be working around the clock to keep them in decent shape.

    The clock. That was another thing that took getting used to. The Terran day, which the ship maintained, was only two-thirds as long as Marduk's day. So just about the time it felt like early afternoon, the ship lights dimmed to "nighttime" mode. He'd already noticed the way it affected his own sleep, and he was worried about how the civan would react.



    Well, they'd make it, or they wouldn't. He loved civan, but he’d come to the conclusion that there were even more marvelous transportation options waiting beyond Marduk’s eternal overcast. He’d lusted after the humans' shuttles from the instant he'd seen them in flight, and he'd been told about, and seen pictures of, the "light-flyers" and the "stingships" available on Old Earth. He wondered just how much they cost . . . and what he was going to be earning as a senior aide to the Prince. A lot, he hoped, because assuming they survived for him to collect his pay, he was bound and determined to get himself a light-flyer.

    "How's it going?" a voice asked, and he looked up as Rastar appeared at his shoulder.

    "Not bad," Honal replied, raising a warning hand to the civan as he sensed the lips drawing back from its fangs and its crest folding down. "About as well as can be expected, in fact."

    "Good." Rastar nodded, a human gesture he'd picked up. "Good. They think they'll finish loading in a few hours. Then we'll find out if the engines really work."

    "Won't that be fun," Honal said dryly.

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