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We Few: Section Five

       Last updated: Monday, January 3, 2005 23:46 EST



    "This takes some getting used to."

    Julian fingered his chin. His hair was light brown, instead of black, and his chin was much more rounded. Other than that, he had generally European features, instead of the slightly Mediterranean ones he'd been born with.

    "Every day," Roger agreed, looking over at Temu Jin, the only human aboard Muir who hadn't been modified. The IBI agent had perfectly legitimate papers showing that he'd been discharged from his post on Marduk, with good references, and now was taking a somewhat roundabout route back to Old Earth.

    "Where are we at?" Roger asked.

    "One more jump, and we’ll be at Torallo," Jin said. "That's the waypoint the Saints normally use. The customs there have an understanding with them."

    "That's pretty unusual for the Alphanes," Roger observed.

    "One of the things we’re going to point out to them," Julian replied. "It's not the only point where they’ve got some border security issues, either. Not nearly as bad as the Empire's problems, maybe, but they're going to be surprised to find out that they have any."

    "Is the 'understanding' with humans?" Roger asked.

    "Some humans, yes," Jin said. "But the post commander and others who have to be aware are Althari."

    "I thought they were incorruptible," Roger said with a frown.

    "So, apparently, do the Altharis," Jin replied. "They're not, and neither are Phaenurs. Trust me, I've seen the classified reports. I'm going to have to avoid that particular point, and think Ghu I don't have any names of our agents. But we have agents among both the Altharis and the Phaenurs. Let's not go around making that obvious, though."

    "I won't," Roger said. "But while we go around not making that obvious, what else happens?"

    "Our initial cover is that we're entertainers, a traveling circus, to explain all the critters in the holds," Julian said. "We'll travel to Althar Four and then make contact. How we do that is going to have to wait until we arrive."

    "Aren't the Phaenurs there going to… sense that we're lying?"

    "Yes, they will," Jin said. "Which is going to be what has to wait. We have no contacts. We have to play this entirely by ear."



    The Alphanes were everything they'd been described as being.

    The Althari security officer at the transfer station -- a male -- wasn't as tall as a Mardukan, but he was at least twice as broad, not to mention being covered in long fur that was silky looking and striped along the sides. The Phaenur standing beside him was much smaller, so small it looked like some sort of pet that should be sitting on the Althar's shoulder. But it was the senior of the two.

    The entry into Alphane space had been smooth. The Saint-friendly customs officials at Torallo had taken their customary cut, and the ship had proceeded onward with nothing but a cursory inspection that didn't even note the obvious combat damage.

    Two jumps later, at the capital system of the Alphane Alliance, the same could not be said. Docking had been smooth, and they'd presented their quarantine and entry passes to the official, a human, sent aboard to collect them. But after that, they'd been confined to the ship for two nervewracking hours until "Mr. Chang" was summoned to speak to some "senior customs officials."

    They were meeting in the loading bay of the transfer station, a space station set out near the Tsukayama Limit of the G-class star of Althar. It looked like just about every other loading bay Roger had ever seen, scuffed along the sides and floor, marked with warning signs in multiple languages. The big difference was the reception committee which, besides the two "senior customs officials" included a group of Althari guards in combat armor.

    "Mr. Chang," the Althari said. "You do not know much of the Althari, do you?"

    "I know quite a lot, in fact," Roger replied.

    "One of the things you apparently don't know is that we take our security very seriously," the Althari continued, ignoring his response. "And that we do not let people lie to us. Your name is not Augustus Chang."

    "No, it's not. Nor is this ship the Emerald Isles."

    "Who are you?" the Althari demanded dangerously.

    "I can't tell you." Roger raised a hand to forestall any reply. "You don't have the need to know. But I need -- you need -- for me to speak to someone in your government on a policy level, and you need for that conversation to be very secure."

    "Truth," the Phaenur said in a sibilant hiss. "Absolute belief."

    "Why?" the Althari asked, attention still focused on Roger.

    "Again, you don't have the need to know," Roger replied. "We shouldn't even be having this conversation in front of your troops, because one of the things I can tell you is that you have security penetrations. And time is very short. Well, it's important to me for us to get to the next level quickly, and it's of some importance to the Alphane Alliance. How much is up to someone well above your pay grade. Sorry."

    The Althari looked at the Phaenur, who made an odd head jab.

    "Truth again," the lizard-like alien said to its partner, then looked back at Roger. "We need to contact our supervisors,” it said. "Please return to your ship for the time being. Do you have any immediate needs?"

    "Not really," Roger said. "Except for some repairs. And they're not that important; we're not planning on leaving in this ship."



    "Mr. Chang," Despreaux said, cutting her image into the hologram of the Imperial Palace Roger and Eleonora O'Casey had been studying. "Phaenur Srall wishes to speak to you."

    The hologram dissolved into the face of a Phaenur. Roger wasn't certain if it was the same one he'd been speaking to. They hadn't been introduced, and they all looked at the same to him.

    "Mr. Chang," the Phaenur said, "your ship is cleared to move to Station Five. You will proceed there by the marked route. Any deviation from the prescribed course will cause your vessel to be fired upon by system defense units. You mentioned a need for repairs; is your vessel capable of making that trip without them?"

    "Yes," Roger said, smiling. "We'd just have a hard time getting out of the system."

    "Any attempt to approach the Tsukayama Limit will also cause your vessel to be fired upon," the Phaenur warned. "You will be met by senior representatives of my government."

    The screen cut off.

    "Not much given to pleasantries, are they?" Roger said.

    "Not if they don't like you," Eleanor replied. "They know it ticks us off. They can be very unsubtle about things like that."

    "Well, we'll just have to see how subtle we can convince them to be."



    Roger stood at the head of the wardroom table as the Alphane delegation filed in. There was a Phaenur who, again, was in charge, two Altharis, and a human. One of the Altharis was a guard -- a hulking brute in unpowered combat armor who took up a position against the rear bulkhead. The other wore an officer’s undress harness with the four planetary clusters of a fleet admiral.

    Roger's staff was gathered around the table, and as the visiting threesome sat, he waved the others to their chairs. This time Honal was missing; his out-sized seat was taken by the Althari admiral.

    "I am Sreeetoth," the Phaenur said. "I am head of customs enforcement for the Alphane Alliance, which is just below a Cabinet position. As such, I am as close to a 'policymaker' as you are going to see without more information. My companions are Admiral Tchock Ral, commander of the Althari Home Fleet, and Mr. Mordas Dren, chief of engineering for the Althar System. Now, who are you? Truthfully."

    "I am Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock," Roger answered formally. "For the last ten months, I have been on the planet Marduk or in transit to this star system, and I had nothing to do with any coup. My mother is being held captive, and I've come to you for help."

    The human rocked back in his chair, staring around at the group in wild surmise. The Althari looked… unreadable. Sreeetoth cocked its head in an oddly insect-like fashion and looked around the compartment.

    "Truth. All of it is truth," the Phaenur said after a moment. "Apprehension, fear so thick you could cut it with a blade… except off the Mardukans and the Prince. And great need. Great need."

    "And why, in your wildest dreams, do you believe we might put our necks on the block for you?" the Althari rumbled in a subterranean-deep voice.

    "For several reasons," Roger said. "First, we have information you need. Second, if we succeed in throwing out the usurpers who are using my mother as a puppet, your Alliance will be owed a debt by my house that they can draw upon to the limit. And third, the Alphane require truth. We will give you the truth. You'll find it hard to get one gram of it from anyone associated with Adoula."

    "Again, truth," the Phaenur said. "Some quibbling about the debt, but I expect that's a simple matter of recognizing that the needs of his empire may overrule his own desires. But I'm still not sure we'll choose to aid you, Prince Roger. You seek to overthrow your government?"

    "No. To restore it; it's already been overthrown… to an extent. As things stand at this moment, Adoula is still constrained by our laws and Constitution. For the time being… but not for long. We believe we have until the birth of the child being gestated to save my mother; after that, she'll be an impediment to Adoula's plans. So she’ll undoubtedly name him Prime Minister and him or the Earl of New Madrid --“ Roger’s voice never wavered, despite the hardness in his eyes as he spoke his father’s title “-- will be named Regent for the child. And then she’ll die… and Adoula’s coup will be complete."

    "That is all surmise," Sreeetoth said.

    "Yes," Roger acknowledged. "But it's valid surmise. Mother would never ally herself with Adoula, and I was definitely not involved in the coup. In fact, I was totally incommunicado when it occurred. She also hates and reviles my biological father… who's now at her side at all times, and who is the biological father of her unborn child, as well. Given all that, psychological control is the only reasonable answer. Agreed?"

    "You believe it to be," the Phaenur said. "And I agree that the logic is internally valid. That doesn't prove it, but --"

    "It is true," Tchock Ral rumbled. "We are aware of it."

    "I’m in way over my head," Mordas Dren said fervently. "I know you guys thought you needed a human in the room, but this is so far out of my league I wish I could have a brain scrub and wash it out. Jesus!" His face worked for a moment, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Adoula is a snake. His fingers are in every corporation that's trying to kick in our doors. Him as Emperor… That's what you're talking about, right?"

    "Eventually," Roger said. "What's worse, we don't think it will work. More likely, the Empire will break up into competing factions. And without the Empress to stabilize it… "

    "And this would be bad how?" the Althari asked. Then she twitched her massive head in a human-style shake. "No. I agree, it would be bad. The Saints would snap up territory, increasing their already formidable resource base. If they managed to get some of your Navy, as well, we'd be looking at heavy defense commitments on another border. And it's my professional opinion that the Empire would indeed break up. In which case, chaos is too small a word."

    "The effect on trade would be… suboptimal," Sreeetoth said. "But if you try to place your mother back upon the Throne and fail, the results will be the same. Or possibly even worse."

    "Not… exactly." Roger looked back and forth between the three Alphane representatives. "If we try and fail, and are discovered to be who we are, then Adoula's tracks are fully covered. Obviously, it was me all along, in which case, he'd be much more likely to be able to hold things together. The reputation of House MacClintock would be severely damaged, and that reputation would have been one of the things that stood against him. If I'm formally saddled with responsibility for everything, he'll actually be in a better position to supplant my House in terms of legitimacy and public support."

    "Only if no word of where you really were at the time of the initial coup attempt ever gets out," the Phaenur pointed out.


    Tchock Ral leaned forward and looked at Roger for a long time.

    "You are telling us that if you fail, you intend to cover up the fact that you are not guilty of staging the first coup?" the Althari said. "That you would stain the reputation of your House for all time, rather than let that information be exposed."

    "Yes," Roger repeated. "Letting it out would shatter the Empire. I would rather that my House, with a thousand years of honorable service to mankind, be remembered only for my infamy, then allow that to happen. Furthermore, your Alliance -- you three individuals, and whoever else is let in on the secret -- will have to hold it, if not forever, then for a very long time. Otherwise… "

    "Chaos on the border," Dren said. "Jesus Christ, Your Highness."

    "I asked for senior policymakers," Roger said, shrugging at the engineer. "Welcome to the jungle."

    "How will you conceal the truth?" Sreeetoth asked. "If you're captured? Some of you, no matter what happens, will be captured if you fail."

    "It would require a concerted effort to get the information out in any form that would be believed, past the security screen Adoula will throw up if we fail," Roger captured. "We'll simply avoid the concerted effort."

    "And your people?" the Althari asked, gesturing at the staff. "You actually trust them to follow this insane order?"

    Roger flexed a jaw muscle, and was rewarded by a heel landing on either foot. Despreaux's came down quite a bit harder than O'Casey's, but they landed virtually simultaneously. He closed his eyes and breathed for a moment, then reached back and pulled every strand of hair into line.

    "Admiral Tchock Ral," he said, looking the Althari in the eye. "You are a warrior, yes?"

    Eleonora was too experienced a diplomat to wince; Despreaux and Julian weren't.

    "Yes," the Admiral growled. "Be aware, human, that even asking that question is an insult."

    "Admiral," Roger said levelly, meeting her anger glare for glare, "compared to the lowest ranking Marine I've got, you don't know the meaning of the word."

    The enormous Althari came up out of her chair with a snarl like crumbling granite boulders, and the guard in the corner straightened. But Roger just pointed a finger at Sreeetoth.

    "Tell her!" he snapped, and the Phaenur jabbed one hand in an abrupt, imperative gesture that cut off the Althari's furious response like a guillotine.

    "Truth," it hissed. "Truth, and a belief in that truth so strong it is like a fire in the room."

    The lizard-like being turned fully to the bear-like Althari and waved the same small hand at its far larger companion.

    "Sit, Tchock Ral. Sit. The Prince burns with the truth. His soldiers -- even the woman who hates to be one -- all of them burn with the truth of that statement." It looked back at Roger. "You tread a dangerous path, human. Altharis have been known to go what you call berserk at that sort of insult."

    "It wasn't an insult," Roger said. He looked at the trio of visitors steadily. "Would you like to know why it wasn't?"

    "Yes," the Phaenur said. "And I think that Tchock Ral's desire to know burns even more strongly than my own."

    "It's going to take a while."



    In fact, it took a bit over four hours.

    Roger had never really sat down and told the story, even to himself, until they'd worked out the presentation, and he'd been amazed when he truly realized for the first time all they'd done. He'd known, in an intellectual way, all along. But he'd been so submerged in the doing, so focused on every terrible step of the March as they actually took it, that he’d truly never considered its entirety. Not until they'd sat down to put it all together.

    Even at four hours, it was the bare-bones, only the highlights -- or low-lights, as Julian put it -- of the entire trip.

    There was data from the toombie attack on the DeGlopper; downloaded sensor data from the transport's ferocious, sacrificial battle with the Saint cruisers and her final self-destruction after she'd been boarded, to take the second cruiser with her. There were recorded helmet views of battles and screaming waves of barbarians, of Mardukan carnivores and swamps and mud and eternal, torrential rain until the delicate helmet systems succumbed to the rot of the jungle. There were maps of battles, descriptions of weapons, analyses of tactics, data on the battle for the Muir from the Saints' tactical systems, enemy body counts… and the soul-crushing roll call of their own dead.

    It was the after-action report from Hell.

    And when it was done, they showed the Alphane delegation around the ship. The admiral and her guard noted the combat damage and fingered Patty's scars. The engineer clucked at the damage, stuck his head in holes which still hadn't been patched over, and exclaimed at the fact that the ship ran it all. The admiral nearly had a hand taken off by a civan -- which she apparently thought was delightful -- and they were shown the atul and the basik in cages. Afterward, Rastar, stony-faced as only a Mardukan could be, showed them the battle-stained flag of the Basik's Own. The admiral and her guard thought it was a grand flag, and, having seen an actual basik, got the joke immediately.

    Finally, they ended up back in the wardroom. Everyone in the command group had had a part in the presentation, just as every one of them had had a part in their survival. But there was one last recorded visual sequence to show.

    The Althari admiral leaned back in the big station chair and made a clucking sound and a weird atonal croon that sent a shiver through every listener as Roger ran the file footage from the bridge's internal visual pickups and they watched the final actions of Armand Pahner. The Prince watched it with them, and his brown eyes were dark, like barriers guarding his soul, as the last embers of life flickered out of the shattered, armored body clasped in his arms.

    And then it was done. All of it.

    Silence hovered for endless seconds that felt like hours. And then Tchock Ral's face and palms were lifted upward.

    "They will march beyond the Crystal Mountains," she said in low, almost musical tones. "They will be lifted up upon the shoulders of giants. Their songs will be sung in their homesteads, and they shall rest in peace, served by the tally of their slain. Tchrorr Kai Herself will stand beside them in battle for all eternity, for they have entered the realm of the Warrior, indeed."

    She lowered her face and looked at Roger, swinging her head in a circle which was neither nod nor headshake, but something else, something purely Althari.

    "I wipe the stain of insult from our relationship. You have been given a great honor to have known such warriors, and to have led them. They are most worthy. I would gladly have them as foes."

    "Yes," Roger said, looking at the freeze-frame in the hologram. Himself, holding his father-mentor's body in his arms, the armored arms which, for all their strength, had been unable to hold life within that mangled flesh. "Yes, but I'd give it all for one more chewing out from the Old Man. I'd give it all for one more chance to watch Gronningen being used as a straight man. To see Damdin grin in the morning light, with the air of the mountains around us. To hear Ima's weird laugh."

    "Ima didn't laugh, much," Julian pointed out quietly. The retelling had put all the humans in a somber mood.

    "She did that first time I fell off Patty," Roger reminded him.

    "Yes. Yes, she did," Julian agreed.

    "Prince, I do not know what the actions of my government will be," Tchock Ral said. "What you ask would place the Alphane Alliance in no little jeopardy, and the good of the clan must be balanced against that. But you and your soldiers may rest in my halls until such time as a decision is made. In my halls, we can hide you, even under your true-name, for my people are trustworthy. And if the decision goes against you, you may rest in them for all eternity, if you choose. To shelter the doers of such deeds would bring honor upon my House forever," she ended, placing both paws on her chest and bowing low across them.

    "I thank you," Roger said. "Not for myself, but for the honor you do my dead."

    "You'll probably have to make this presentation again," Sreeetoth said with another head bob. "I’ll need copies of all your raw data. And if you stay at Tchock Ral's house, you'll be forced to tell your stories all day and night, so be warned."

    "And whatever happens, you're not taking this ship to Sol," Mordas Dren put in. The engineer shook his head. "It won't make it through the Empire's scans, for sure and certain. And even if it would, I wouldn't want to trust that TD drive for one jump. For one thing, I saw a place where some feeble-minded primitive had been beating on one of the capacitors."

    "No," Roger agreed. "For this to work, we’re going to need another freighter -- a clean one -- some crew, and quite a bit of money. Also, access to current intelligence," he added. He'd been fascinated by the fact that the admiral knew his mother was being controlled.

    "If we choose to support you, all of that can be arranged," the Phaenur hissed. "But for the time being, we must report this to our superiors. That is, to some of our superiors," he added, looking at the engineer.

    "The Minister's going to want to know what it's all about," Dren said uncomfortably.

    "This is now bound by security," the admiral replied. "Tell her that. And only that. No outside technicians in the ship until the determination is made, either! And any who finally do get aboard her will be from the Navy Design Bureau. I think, Mordas, that you're going to be left to idle speculation."

    "No," the Phaenur said. "Other arrangements will be made. Such conditions are difficult for humans, and more so for one like Mordas. Mordas, would you go to the Navy?"

    "I'm in charge of maintenance for the entire star system, Sreeetoth," Dren pointed out, "and I'm a bit too old to hold a wrench. I enjoy holding a wrench, you understand, but I'm sure not going to take the cut in pay."

    "We'll arrange tings," the admiral said, standing up. "Young Prince, Mr. Chang, I hope to see you soon in my House. I will send your chief of staff the invitation as soon as determinations are made."

    "I look forward to it," Roger said, and realized it was the truth.

    "And, by all means, bring your sword," Tchock Ral said, with the low hum Roger had learned was Althari laughter.

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