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We Few: Section Three

       Last updated: Friday, December 31, 2004 03:59 EST



    "Engaging phase drive --" Theresa Rallo drew a deep breath and pressed a button "-- now."

    At first, the image of the planet below seemed unchanged on the bridge view screens. It was just the same slowly circling, blue-and-white ball it had always been. But then the ship began to accelerate, and the ball began to dwindle.

    "All systems nominal," one of her few surviving engineering techs said. "Acel is about twenty percent below max, but that's right on the numbers, given our counter-grav field status. Runs one, four, and nine are still out. And charge rate on the tunnel capacitors is still nominal. Nine hours to full tunnel drive power."

    "And eleven hours to the Tsukayama Limit," Rallo said, with a sigh. "Looks like it’s holding. We'll find out when we try to form a singularity."

    "Eleven hours?" Roger asked. He'd been standing by in the control room. Not because he felt he could do anything, but because he thought his place was here, at this time.

    "Yeah," Rallo said. "If everything holds together."

    "It will," Roger replied. "I'll be back then."

    "Okay." Rallo waved a hand almost absently as she concentrated on her control board. "See ya."



    "I've just had a suspicion I don't much care for," Roger said to Julian. He'd called the sergeant into his office, the former captain's office, once the phase drive had turned out to work after all.

    "What kind of suspicion?" Julian crinkled his brow.

    "How in the hell do we know Rallo is headed for Alphane space instead of Saint space? Yes, she seems to have burned her bridges. But if she pops out in a Saint system with the ship -- and me -- they're going to be somewhat forgiving of any minor lapses on her part. Especially given conditions on Old Earth."

    "Ack." Julian shook his head. "You've picked a fine time to think about that, O My Lord and Master!"

    "I'm serious, Ju," Roger said. "Do we have anyone left who knows anything about astrogation?"

    "Maybe Doc Dobrescu," Julian suggested. "But if we put somebody on the bridge to watch Rallo, she's going to know damn well what we suspect. And I submit that pissing her off would be the worst possible thing we could do right now. Without her, we're really up the creek and the damncrocs are closing in."

    "Agreed, and it's something I've already considered. But beyond that, my mind is a blank. Suggestions?"

    Julian thought about it for a moment, then shrugged.

    "Jin," he said. "Temu Jin," he clarified. Gunnery Sergeant Jin, who’d made the entire crossing of the planet with them, had died in the assault on the ship.

    "Why Jin?" Roger asked, then he nodded. "Oh. He's got the whole ship wired, doesn't he?"

    "He's in the computers," Julian said, nodding in turn in agreement. "You don't have to be on the bridge to tell what the commands are, where the ship is pointed. If Dobrescu can figure out the stellar positions, and where we're supposed to be, then we'll know. And none the wiser."



    "So now you want me to be a star-pilot?"

    Chief Warrant Officer Mike Dobrescu glowered at the prince in exasperation. Dobrescu liked being a shuttle pilot. It was a damned sight better job than being a Raider medic, which was what he'd been before applying for flight school. And he'd also been damned good at the job. As a chief warrant with thousands of hours of no-accident time, despite surviving several occasions where accidents really had been called for, he'd been accepted as a shuttle pilot for the small fleet that served the Imperial Palace.

    Not too shortly afterwards, he’d been loaded aboard the assault ship Charles DeGlopper and sent off to support one nebbish prince. Okay, he could adjust to being back on an assault ship. At least this time he was in officer's country, instead of four to a closet, like the rest of the Marines. And when they got to the planet they were headed to, he'd be flying shuttles again, which he loved.

    Lo and behold, though, he'd flown exactly once more. One hairy damned ride, with internal hydrogen tanks and a long damned ballistic course, and then landed -- damned nearly out of fuel -- in a deadstick landing on that incomparable pleasure planet, Marduk.

    But wait, things got worse! There being no functional shuttles left, and him being the only trained medic, he was stuck back in the Raider medic business, making bricks out of straw. Over the next eight months, he'd been called upon to be doctor, vet, science officer, xenobiologist, herbalist, pharmacologist, and anything else that smacked of having two brain cells to rub together. And after all that, he’d found out he was a wanted man back home.

    It really sucked. But at least he was back to having shuttles under his fingertips, and he was damned if he was going to get shoved into another pigeonhole for which he had no training and less aptitude.

    "I cannot astrogate a starship," he said, quietly but very, very definitely. "You don't have to do the equations for it -- that's what the damned computers are for -- but you do have to understand them. And I don't. We're talking high-level calculus, here. Do it wrong, and you end up in the middle of a star."

    "I don't want you to pilot the ship," Roger said carefully. "I want you to figure out if Rallo is piloting it to Alphane space. Just that."

    "The ship determines its position in reference to a series of known stars every time it reenters normal-space between tunnel jumps," Jin said. "I can find the readouts, but it's a distance estimate to the stars based on something called magnitude -- I'm not familiar with most of the terms -- and it gives their angles and distance. From that, the astogrator determines where to go next. They tune the tunnel drive for a direction, charge it up, and they go. But without any better understanding of how they establish their starting position in the first place, I can’t begin to figure out where we are, or which direction we're going. For that matter, I only vaguely know which direction Old Earth and the Alphane Alliance -- or Saint space -- are from here."

    "Turn right at the first star, and straight on till morning," Dobrescu muttered, then shook his head. "I had a course in it -- one one-hour course -- in flight school, lo these many eons ago. I forgot it as fast as it was thrown at me. You just don't need it for shuttle piloting. We did a little of it on that ballistic to Marduk, but I was given the figures by DeGlopper's astrogator before we punched the shuttles. I don't think I can figure it out. I'm sorry."

    "You look sorry" Roger said, shaking his head, and gave another of those one-cheek grins. "Okay, go ask around. I know Julian and Kosutic don't know any of it. Ask the rest of the Marines if any of them even have a clue. Check with all of them, because we really, really need a crosscheck on her navigation. I want to trust her, but how far is the question."

    "Well, until we get to the Alphanes, at least," Julian said.

    "Oh?" Roger lifted one eyebrow at the sergeant. "And who, pray tell, is going to pilot the ship from Althar Four to Old Earth?"



    "Come!" Roger called, looking up from a hologram of ship's stores with a pronounced sense of relief.

    He hated paperwork, although he realized he had to get used to it. His "command" was now the size of a small regiment -- or, at least, an outsized battalion -- including shipboard personnel and noncombatants, and the administrative workload was one of some magnitude. Some of that, thankfully, could be handled by the computers. It was much easier now that they had all the automated systems up and running. But he still had to keep his finger on the pulse and make sure his subordinates were doing what he wanted them to do, not just what they wanted to do.

    He hadn't realized how much of that Captain Pahner had handled before his death, and eventually, he knew, he'd shuffle much of it off onto someone else. But before he could deputize and delegate any of it, he had to figure out what was important right now, in addition to racking his brain for every detail of the Imperial Palace he could recall. He knew exactly how essential all of that was, but that didn't make him enjoy it one bit more, and he tipped back his chair with alacrity as the cabin hatch opened.

    Julian and Jin stepped through it, followed by Mark St. John, the surviving member of the St. John twins. Mark still shaved the left side of his head, Roger noted with a pang. By now, it was long-ingrained habit, but it had grown out of an early order from a first sergeant who'd been unable to tell the two of them apart.

    The twins had been two of the more notable characters of the trek across the planet. They'd maintained a permanent, low-level sibling argument every step of the way -- whether it was who Mom liked more, or who'd done what to whom in some bygone day, they'd always found something to argue about. They'd also covered each other's backs, and made sure they got through each encounter alive. Right up until the assault on the ship, that was.

    The two of them had had more experience with zero-G combat than anyone else in the Company, and they’d found themselves detailed to take out the ship's gun emplacements.

    Mark St. John had come back, injured but alive. His brother John, had not.

    John had been a sergeant, a hard-working, smart, capable, NCO. Mark had always been more than willing to let his brother do the thinking and mental heavy-lifting. He was a good fighter, and that, as far as he was concerned, was enough. Roger would take any of the surviving Marines at his back in any sort of firefight, or with swords or assegais, come to that. But he wasn't sure he'd trust Mark's brains on a bet. Which was why he was surprised to see him with the other two.

    "Should I take it you found an astrogator?" Roger raised one eyebrow and waved at chairs.

    "Sir, I'm not an astrogator, but I know stars," St. John said, remaining at a position of parade rest as Jin and Julian sat down.

    "Tell me," Roger said, leaning further back.

    "Me and John," St. John said, with a swallow. "We was raised on a mining platform. We were shuttling around near the time we started walking. Stars're all you got to go by when you're out in the beyond. And later, we had astrogation in school. Miners don't always have beacon references to go by. I can pilot and steer by stellar location. Give me the basic astro files, and I can figure out where we are, at least. And which way we went to get there. I know the basics of tunnel navigation, and I can read angles."

    "We're entering the first jump in --" Roger consulted his computer implant "toot" and frowned. "About thirty minutes. Did Jin show you what he has?"

    "Yes, Your Highness. But I only had time to glance at it. I'm not saying I can tell you off the top of my head. But by the time we're ready for the next jump, I'll know if we're headed in the right direction."

    "And if we're not?" Roger asked.

    "Well, I think then some of us should have a talk with Lieutenant Commander Rallo, Sir," Julian said. "Hopefully, that talk will be unnecessary."



    "Preparing to engage tunnel drive," Rallo said. Normally, that announcement would have come from the Astrogator. Since she didn't have one, she was conning the ship from the astrogation station so she could handle it herself.

    "Engaging -- now," she said, and pressed a button.

    The background thrum of the engines rose in key, climbing higher and higher as a rumble sounded through the ship. Roger knew it had to be his imagination, given the meters upon meters of bulkheads and hatches between him and the cargo hold, but he was almost certain he could hear a distant trumpeting.

    "Somehow, I’m willing to bet Patty doesn’t much care for this bit," he said softly, and Rallo gave him a smile that looked slightly strained.

    The engine sound rose and entered a period of prolonged high-pitched vibration. Then it passed.

    "We're in tunnel-space," Rallo said. The external view screens had gone blank.

    "That didn't sound right, though," Roger observed.

    "No, it didn't," Rallo sighed. "We'll just have to find out if we come out in the wrong spot. If we do, and if no major damage's been done, we'll be able to compensate on the next jump."

    "How many jumps?" Roger asked lightly.

    "Eight to the edge of Alphane space," Rallo replied. "Two of them right on the edge of Saint territory."

    She didn't look particularly happy about that, which didn't surprise Roger a bit. Each of the jumps, which lasted six hours and took the ship eighteen light-years along its projected course, required a standard day and a half of charting and calibration -- not to mention charging the superconductor capacitors. In Muir's case, just charging the capacitors took a full forty-eight hours, although ships with better power generation, like the huge carriers of the Imperial Navy, could recharge in as little as thirty-six hours. But they all had to recalibrate and chart between jumps, and Rallo was the only qualified bridge officer they had to see to it that it was all done properly.

    "Fourteen?" Roger repeated with a sour chuckle. "Well, let's hope the drive holds together -- especially through the ones close to the Saints. And that we're in deep space."

    Ship's, especially merchant ships on their lonely sojourns, tended to move directly from system to system, as much as possible. They couldn't hyper into any star system inside its Tsukayama Limit, but as long as they popped back into normal-space no more than a few light-days out from their destination, someone would come out and tow them home in no more than a week or so if their TD failed.

    Warships, which more often than not traveled in squadrons and fleets, tended to move from deep space point to deep space point. In the Muir’s case, deciding exactly how to plan their course was an unpleasant balancing act. Too far out, and the failure of the tunnel drive -- a real possibility, given the cobbled-together nature of their repairs -- would maroon them, probably for all time, in the deeps of space. But too close in to a Saint star system, and there was the chance of a Saint cruiser's wandering out to look over the unexpected, unscheduled, and -- above all -- unauthorized tunnel drive footprint which had suddenly appeared on its stellar doorstep.

    "I'm in favor of deep space," Rallo said with a grimace. "And, yes, let's hope it holds together."

    Despreaux stepped onto the bridge and made a crooking gesture at Roger with one finger. Her smile, he noticed, had a definitely malicious edge.

    "My advisers tell me it's time to get my game face on," he said to Rallo. "So you won't have the pleasure of my company for a while."

    "We'll try to manage," Rallo said, with a grin of her own.



    Roger worked his jaw muscles and stared into the mirror. The face that stared back at him was utterly unfamiliar.



    Roger worked his jaw muscles and stared into the mirror. The face that stared back at him was utterly unfamiliar.

    The Saint mod-pods were liquid-filled capsules into which a patient was loaded for body sculpting. They doubled as autodocs, and two of the four Muir carried were still filled with Marine casualties from the assault. Roger had slipped into one of the other two and been hooked to a breathing apparatus. Then, as far as he was concerned, he’d simply gone to sleep… until he’d been reawakened in recovery by an unhappy-looking Despreaux.

    Her expression hadn’t been because of anything wrong with the ship -- they'd made the first two tunnel transfers while he was out, and everything was still functioning. It was because of his looks.

    The face looking back at him was wider than his "real" face, with high, broad cheekbones and far more pronounced epicanthic folds around eyes which had been transformed into a dark brown. He also had long, black hair, and his hands seemed shorter. They weren't, but they'd become broader in proportion, and he was markedly heavier in the body than he ought to have been. It felt wrong, like in ill-fitting suit.

    "Hello, Mr. Chang," he said in someone else's voice. "I see we're going to need a new tailor, as well."

    Augustus Chang was a citizen of the United Outer Worlds. The UOW was even older than the Empire of Man, having been a brief competitor for stellar dominance against the old Solarian Union. It still maintained "ownership" of Mars, some of the more habitable of the Sol System's moons, and several outworlds in Sol's vicinity -- enough to retain its independence from the Empire and be officially considered the sixth interstellar polity. It's territory, however, was entirely surrounded by Imperial star systems.

    The UOW survived mainly because of its value as an area where deals which weren't strictly legal among Imperial worlds could be transacted. And citizens of the UOW did not fall under normal Imperial law. Furthermore, it would be difficult for the Imperials to look up much data on Augustus Chang, because UOW personal data was not readily available to Imperial investigators. In fact, it would take a formal finding of guilt in an Imperial court to pry any information about him out of the UOW. And if things got that far, it wouldn't matter.

    Augustus Chang was a businessman. That was what his documents said, anyway -- founder, president, and CEO of 'Chang Interstellar Exotic Imports Brokerage, LLC.' He'd been a purser on various small merchant vessels before going into the 'import/export brokerage' business. His sole fixed business address was a post office box on Mars, and Roger wondered what was in it. Probably stuffed with ads for herbal remedies.

    Chang was, in other words, a covert agent identity which had been "stockpiled" by the Saints. In fact, over a hundred such identities were available on the ship, which must've taken considerable work to set up. Given the logistics involved, Chang probably had just enough "reality" to survive a light scrutiny. It was a very nice cover… and one the Imperial Bureau of Investigation would recognize as such the instant anything attracted its attention and it ran a real check.

    "A tailor? Is that all you can say?" Despreaux demanded, looking into the mirror beside him.

    "Well, that… and that I'm looking forward to seeing what Doc comes up with for you," he said. He smiled at her in the mirror, and, after a moment, she smiled back and shrugged.

    "All he told me is that I’m going to be a blonde."

    "Well, we'll make a pretty pair," Roger replied, turning and feeling his footing, carefully. Chang's body was just as muscular as his normal one and, if anything, a tad more powerful. Higher weight, mostly muscle. Broad chest, heavy pectorals, massive shoulders, flat abdominals. He looked like an underweight sumo wrestler. "Assuming I can find a good tent-maker," he added.

    "It looks… good." Despreaux shrugged again. "Not you, but… good. I can get used to it. He's not as pretty as you are, but he's not exactly ugly."

    "Darling, with all due respect, you're not the girl I'm worried about."

    Roger smiled broadly. It felt strange these days, but Chang was a smiler.

    "What?" Despreaux sounded confused.

    "Patty is not going to like this."



    Neither did Dogzard.

    The Mardukan dog-lizard was defending the middle of Roger's stateroom, hissing and spitting at the intruder into her master's territory.

    "Dogzard, it's me," Roger said, pitching his voice as close to normal as he could.

    "Not to her, you're not," Julian said, watching carefully. He'd seen Dogzard rip a full-grown Mardukan to shreds in battle, and he was not at all happy about seeing Roger down on one knee with the dog-lizard in its present state. "You don't even smell the same, Boss; entirely different genetic basis on your skin."

    "It's me," Roger said again, holding out his hand. "Shoo, doma fleel," he added in the language of the X'Intai. It meant something like "little dog," or "puppy." When Roger had picked up the stray in Cord's village, it had been less than little more than a quarter of its current six hundred-kilo size, and the runt of the village.

    He continued talking to the dog-lizard in low tones, half in Mardukan, half in Imperial, until he had a hand on her head and was scratching her behind the ears. Dogzard gave a low, hissing whine, then lapped at his arm.

    "She is having a moment of existential uncertainty," Cord said, leaning on his spear. "You are acting as if you were her God, but you neither sound nor smell like her God."

    "Well, she's going to have to get used to it," Roger replied. Patty had been, if anything, worse. But when he’d climbed onto her back, despite her hissing and spitting, and slapped her on the neck with his sword, she'd gotten the message.

    "Okay, Dogzard. That's enough," he added sternly, standing up and waving at the door. "Come on. There's work to do."

    The beast looked at him uncertainly, but followed him out of the room. She'd gotten used to life being strange. She didn’t always like it, but the good news was that, sooner or later, whenever she followed her God, she eventually got to kill something.



    "Despreaux?" Pedi Karuse said.

    "Yes?" The tall, blonde sergeant walking down the passage stopped, her expression surprised. "How could you tell?"

    "The way you walk," the Shin warrior-maid said, falling in beside her. "It's changed a little, but not much.

    "Great," Despreaux said. "I thought all us humans looked alike to you?"

    "Not friends," Pedi answered, working her back in discomfort, and eyed the sergeant thoughtfully. "You look as if you were four months pregnant, but on the wrong side. And you lost two of your litter. I'm sorry."

    "They're not pregnancy blisters," Despreaux said tightly. "They're tits."

    "You had them before, but they were… smaller."

    "I know."

    "And your hair’s changed color. It's even lighter than my horns."

    "I know."

    "And it's longer."

    "I know!"

    "This is bad?" Pedi asked. "Is this ugly to humans?"

    "No," Despreaux said, just a tad absently. She was busy staring hard at one of the passing civilian volunteers… who didn't notice for quite some time because he was not looking at her eyes. When he did notice, he had the decency to look either ashamed or worried.

    "So what's the problem?" Pedi asked as the civilian scurried off a bit more rapidly than he'd appeared.

    "Oh… damn." Despreaux's nostrils flared, and then she gave her head a brisk shake.

    "Okay," she said then, pointing at her chest, "these are like baby basik to an atul. Men can not seem to get enough of them. I was… medium to small before. Probably a little too pretty, too, honestly, but I could work with that. These, however," her finger jabbed at her chest again, "are not medium to small, and the problems I've got now go way beyond 'a little too pretty.' Just getting a guy to look me in the eye is damned hard. And the hair color --! There are jokes about girls with this kind of hair. About how stupid they are. I've made them myself, God help me. I had a fit when Dobrescu showed me the body profile, but he swore this was the best personality available. The bastard. I look like… God, it's too hard to explain."

    Pedi considered this as they walked down the passage, then shrugged.

    "Well, there’s really only one thing that matters," she finally said.


    "What Roger thinks of it."



    "Oh, good God."

    Roger's eyes looked downwards -- once -- and then fixed resolutely on her face.

    "What do you think?" Despreaux asked angrily.

    She looked like she could have posed as a centerfold. Long legs were a given, too hard to change. Small hips and waist rising to… a really broad rib cage and shoulders. Slim neck, gorgeous face -- if anything, even more beautiful than she had been. Bright, nearly purple eyes. Hair that was probably better than his had been. Nice ears. And --

    "Christ, those are huge," was what he blurted out.

    "They're already killing my back," Despreaux told him.

    "It's… as good as you were before, just entirely different…" Roger said, then paused. "Christ, those are huge."

    "And all this time I thought you were a leg man," Despreaux said bitingly.

    "I'm sorry. I'm trying not to look." He shook his head. "They've gotta hurt. The whole package is fantastic, though."

    "You don't want me to stay this way, do you?" Despreaux said desperately.

    "Errrr…" Roger had grown up with an almost passionate inability to communicate with women, which more than once had landed him in very hot water. And whatever he felt at the moment, he realized this was one of those times when he should be very careful about what he said.

    "No," he said finally and firmly. "No, definitely not. For one thing, the package doesn't matter. I fell in love with you for who you are, not what you look like."

    "Right." Despreaux chuckled sarcastically. "But the package wasn't bad."

    "Not bad," Roger admitted. "Not bad at all. I don't think I would have been nearly as attracted if you'd been severely overweight and out of shape. But I love you for you. Whatever package you come in."

    "So, you're saying I should keep this package?"

    Roger started to say no, wondered if he should say yes, and then stopped, shaking his head.

    "Is this a 'does this dress make me look fat' thing?"

    "No," Despreaux said. "It's an honest question."

    "In that case, I like them both," he confessed. "They're totally different, and I like them both. I've always been partial to brunettes, especially leggy ones, so the hair is a wash. But I like a decent-sized chest as much as any straight guy. Those are, honestly, a bit too large." Okay, so it was a little white lie. "On the other hand, whether you marry me or not, your body is your body, and I'm not going to tell you -- or ask you -- to do anything with it. Which do you prefer?"

    "Which do you think?" she asked sarcastically.

    "It was an honest question," Roger replied calmly.

    "My real body. Of course. The thing is… I guess the question I'd ask if I were trying to trap you is: Does this body make me look fat?"

    "No," Roger said, and it was his turn to chuckle. "But you know the old joke, right?"

    "No," Despreaux said dangerously. "I don't know the old joke."

    "How do you get guys to find a kilo of fat attractive?" he said, risking her wrath. She glared at him, and he grinned. "Put a nipple on it. Trust me, you don't look fat. You do look damned good. I suppose I do, too, but I'll be glad to get my old body back. This one feels like I'm maneuvering a grav-tank."

    "This one feels like I'm maneuvering two blimps in front of me," she said, and smiled at last. "Okay, when this is over, we go back to our own bodies."

    "Agreed. And you marry me."

    "No," she said. But she smiled when she said it.

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