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We Few: Section Six

       Last updated: Monday, January 10, 2005 23:14 EST



    Humans are descended from an essentially arboreal species. As a consequence, human homes, whenever it's economically possible, tend to have trees near them, and growing plants. They also tend to rise up a bit, but not very far -- just about the height of a tree.

    The Altharis, for all that they looked like koala bears, were anything but arboreal-descended. That much became abundantly evident to Roger when he first saw the admiral's "halls."

    Althari homes were almost entirely underground, and when economics permitted, they were grouped in quantities related to kinship. The admiral's "halls" were a series of low mounds, each about a kilometer across and topped with a small blockhouse of locally quarried limestone… and with clear fields of fire stretching out over a four-kilometer radius. There were paved roads for ground cars between them, and several landing areas, including one nearly two hundred meters long, for aircars and shuttles. But the big surprise came when they entered their first blockhouse.

    Ramps sloped downward into high-ceilinged rooms. And then downward, and downward… and downward. Among Althari, rank was indicated by the depth of one's personal quarters, and Roger found himself ushered into a room about twenty meters across and six meters high, buried under nearly three hundred meters of earth.

    He was glad he didn't have a trace of claustrophobia.

    Below the surface, all of the standard homes were linked through a system of tunnels. There were stores in the warren, escape routes, weapons -- it was a vast underground fortress, and the Altharis living in it were a highly trained militia. And it was only one of thousands on the planet. Altharis who didn't live in their own clan homes lived in similar local communities, some of which, from what the visiting Imperials had been told, were far more extensive, virtually underground cities. No wonder the Altharis were considered unconquerable.

    The Imperials had arrived the night before, more or less surreptitiously, and been shown to their quarters. Those quarters had been modified to some extent for humans, so there were at least human lavatory facilities, built to human sizes. But the bed had been Althari, and Roger had been forced to actually jump to get into it. All in all, they weren't bad quarters -- as long as you ignored the weight of rock, concrete, and dirt sitting overhead. Nonetheless, Roger still preferredbeing up on the surface, as they were now.

    The sky above was a blue so deep it was right on the edge of violet. Althar IV's atmosphere was a bit thinner than Old Earth's, although its higher partial pressure of oxygen made for a slightly heady feeling, and the humidity was very low. At the moment, there were no clouds, and after the eternal cloud cover of Marduk, Roger found himself drinking in the clear sky greedily.

    Tchock Ral's halls were placed in the approximate center of a long, wide valley on a bit of a plateau. To the east, north, and south, high mountains sparkled with snow; to the west, it opened out. The majority of the valley was given over to other warrens, farms, and a small, primarily Althari city. The city could be seen right on the western horizon, where a few slightly higher bumps marked low multi-story buildings.

    About a thousand Altharis, all the Marines, and half the Mardukans were either watching the competitions the admiral had decreed in honor of her visitors, preparing an outdoor feast, or just roaming around talking.

    The day had started with a simple breakfast of prepared, dried human foods. Since then, for the last couple of hours, they'd been watching Althari sparring matches -- mostly, Roger suspected, so that the humans and Mardukans could see the traditional Althari fighting methods. After the sparring matches were done, it had been time for the humans and Mardukans to show their stuff.

    Rastar was sparring with a young Althari female. They were of about the same ages, and similarly armed. Instead of whetted steel, each was armed with weighted training blades with blunted edges. The Althari held two, one in either bear-like paw, while Rastar held four of them. Rastar was the only Mardukan Roger had met who was truly quaddexterous. Whereas most Mardukans settled for fighting with two hands on only one side, if not a single hand, Rastar could fight with all four hands simultaneously. At the moment, each of his hands held a knife which would have been a short broadsword to a human, and they flickered in and out like lightning.

    Each contestant wore a harness which noted strikes and managed scoring. In addition, Rastar wore an environmental suit that left only his face exposed, for Marduk was an intensely hot world, whereas Althar IV was on the cool side of the temperature range even humans would have found acceptable. It was the equivalent of an ice-planet for the cold-blooded Mardukans, and they found it necessary to wear the environment suits everywhere, except in the specially heated rooms set aside for them.

    Climatological considerations didn't seem to be slowing him down, however, as all four arms licked in and out. The Althari was good, no question, but Rastar was able to block with both upper hands while his lower hands -- the much more powerful pair -- flicked in to strike, and he was outscoring her handily.

    "Score!" Tchock Ral called as Rastar's lower left-hand blade tapped the Althari's midsection yet again. "Adain!"

    Adain was the command to separate and prepare for the next round, but instead of lowering her weapons and stepping back, the Althari female let out a hoarse bellow and charged, just as Rastar was stepping back. Roger had seen the same Althari win two other fights hands down, so he could imagine why she was so chagrined, and as Sreeetoth has warned him aboard the Muir, no Althari had ever been noted for her calm disposition.

    Rastar was taken slightly off-balance, backing away from his opponent as the command required, but he spun nimbly to the side and let her charge past. All four of his blades flickered in and out in flashes of silver, painting the Althari's combat harness with purple holograms at each successful strike. The Althari roared in fury, wheeling and charging furiously after him. But Rastar faded away from her attack like smoke, his own blades flick, flick, flicking with a merciless precision that painted violet blotches across her sides, back, and neck.

    "Adain!" Ral shouted, and at the second bellow, Rastar's opponent stopped, quivering.

    "I apologize for that breach of protocol, Prince Rastar," the admiral said. "Toshok, go to the side and contemplate the dishonor you just brought upon our house!"

    "Perhaps it would be better for her to contemplate what real blades would have meant," Rastar suggested. The Mardukan spoke excellent Imperial by now, and the Althari, with their own equivalents of the Empire’s implanted toots, understood him perfectly. Not that it made things much better.

    "If you wish to face me with live blades --" Toshok ground out in the same language.

    "You would be a bleeding wreck on the ground," Ral said. "Look at the markers, you young fool!"

    Toshok clamped her mouth shut and glanced angrily at the holographic scoreboard beside the sparring area. Her eyes widened as she saw the numbers under her name and Rastar's, and then she rolled her ursine head from side to side, looking down at the glaring swatches of purple decorating her scoring harness.

    "These are nothing!” she snapped angrily. “He barely touched me!"

    "That's because in a knife fight, the object is to bleed your opponent out, not to get your knife stuck in his meat," Rastar told her. "Would you care to go another round with padding and use these --" he twitched all four blades simultaneously " -- as swords, instead?"

    "I think not," Ral said before Toshok could reply. "I don't want bones broken." The admiral gave a hum of laughter, then beckoned to another Althari. "Tshar! You're up."

    The Althari who rolled forward at Ral's summons was a massive juggernaut of muscle and fur, enormous even by Althari standards, and the admiral looked at Roger.

    "This is the daughter of my sister's cousin by marriage, Lieutenant Tshar Krot. She is our champion at weaponless combat. Choose your champion, Prince Roger."

    Roger shook his head as he contemplated the sheer size of the Althari, but he didn't hesitate. There was only one choice.

    "Sergeant Pol," he said.

    Erkum stepped forward at the sound of his name. Seeing that the Althari was naked, he removed his harness and kilt, but kept on his environment suit and stood waiting patiently.

    "What are the rules?" Roger asked.

    "There are rules in weaponless combat?" Ral replied with another hum of laughter.

    "No gouging, at least?"

    "Well, of course not," the admiral said.

    " I think we need to make sure Erkum knows that," Roger commented dryly, looking up at Krindi Fain's towering shadow. "Erkum," he said sternly in Diaspran, "no gouging."

    "No, Your Highness," the Diaspran said, pounding all four fists together as he sized up his opponent. The Althari was nearly as tall as he was, and even broader. "I'll try not to break any bones, either," Erkum promised.

    "Gatan!" the admiral barked, beginning the match, and all the Marines and Mardukans started shouting encouragement.

    "Break bones, Erkum! Break bones!"

    "Turn her into bear paste!"

    The two combatants circled each other for a moment, and then Tshar darted forward, grasping an upper wrist and rolling in for a hip-throw. But Erkum dropped his weight, and both of his lower hands grabbed the Althari by the thighs and picked her up. It was a massive lift, even for the big Mardukan, since the Althari must have weighed five hundred kilos, and she got one hand on the environment suit. But Erkum still managed to turn her upside down, then straightened explosively and sent her spinning through the air.

    Tshar hit on her back, rolled lithely, and dodged aside as the Mardukan stamped down. Then she was back on her feet. She charged forward again, this time lifting Erkum into the air, and threw him down in turn. But he got one hand on one of her knees as he fell, and twisted her off her feet.

    Both of them sprang back up, as if they were made of rubber, and, as if they'd planned it ahead of time, charged simultaneously. There was a strange, unpleasant sound as the Mardukan's horns met the Althari's forehead, and then Tshar was on her back, shaking her head dazedly. There was a trickle of blood from her muzzle.

    "Adain," the admiral said, just a bit unnecessarily, then moved her head in another complex gesture Roger's toot's analysis of Althari body language read as indicating wry amusement. "Important safety lesson, there," she observed. "Never try to head-butt a Mardukan."

    Erkum had a hand around the base of each horn, and was shaking his own head from side to side.

    "She got a hard head," he muttered, and sat down with a thump.

    "I suggest we call that a draw, then," Roger suggested as Doc Dobrescu and a male Althari darted forward.

    The Althari ran a scanner over Tshar and gave her an injection, then came over to the admiral.

    "Nothing broken, and no major hematoma," he said. "But she's got a slight concussion. No more fighting for at least two days."

    "And the Mardukan?" Ral asked.

    "He's got a headache, but that's about it," Doc Dobrescu said, and slapped the still-seated Pol on the upper shoulder as he stood. "They've got a spongy padding under the horns that absorbs blows like that. Still hurts, but he's fine."

    "In that case, Your Highness, I don't think we can call that a draw in honor," the admiral pointed out.

    "By all means, score it as you prefer," Roger replied.

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