Well, they'd gotten a call from Orphan, who made a most interesting statement...
"Welcome back, Captain Austin, Dr. DuQuesne," Orphan said expansively as she and Marc entered, Wu Kung just behind her. Simon was visiting Relgof and the Analytic, starting discussions to find out about the Sky Gates, while Gabrielle and Carl were moving their merchandise from the Grail to the Embassy; Laila Canning was currently at the Embassy in case others came to call.
Orphan's hard, chitin-like exterior seemed glossier than ever, the deep green and black like an exotic uniform as he completed a deep push-bow, then turned to their third member. "And a first welcome to you…?"
"Sun Wu Kung. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Orphan!"
Ariane couldn't restrain another smile. Whatever else he can do well, he's made me smile more in the last few days than I'd ever have believed.
Orphan's translated voice, too, held a note of humor. "No honorific, please. Just Orphan. It is my name and my condition. I welcome you, Sun Wu Kung. And you? No title? No honorific?"
"None, or far too many," Wu Kung answered, staring around at the mysterious patterns ornamenting the entrance of the Liberated's Embassy. "I am the Captain's bodyguard, and for that I need no title at all; elsewhere I have many titles but they are of no matter here."
Orphan's face was not as mobile as a human's, and the twin crests of green-black on his head did not move. But Ariane had learned to interpret quite a bit of the semi-insectoid alien's body language, and the scissoring of the black wingcases and shift in posture showed his surprise. "A bodyguard, you say?" He glanced to DuQuesne, clearly trying to read him. "I hope you take no offense at my saying that I find it hard to think that you would be as … effective a bodyguard as she might need, if she fails to be able to protect herself – which failure, in itself, would be no small feat, as I have seen her in battle. Dr. DuQuesne, for instance, would be more what I would have envisioned."
Wu's smile showed his sharp canines, and DuQuesne chuckled. "Orphan, you remember back when we had to fight Amas-Garao together?"
The sole member of the Liberated vibrated in a way that even an untutored human would have recognized as a shudder. "I could hardly forget it," he said, with an uncharacteristic tension and nervousness in his tones, his hands making an abortive gesture outwards which would mean no.
"No, I would guess not. But you admit we worked well together."
The wingcases relaxed slightly and the richer tones of Orphan's voice showed that he was back to himself. "Indeed, I would. A terrifying battle, but a transcendant one in its own way, and ours was a marvelous dance with death."
"Then maybe, in a couple of days, you'll come over to our Embassy and we can do some sparring. With Wu."
Orphan bowed. "I would be honored. I sense that you will be showing me the error of such simplistic assessments. It should be… entertaining."
"It will be that."
The alien drew himself back up dramatically. "But I did not call you here merely to meet your mysterious new – and, I note, tailed, which does not appear to be the norm with your people – bodyguard."
"No, you said you had both some news and a proposition for us."
"Precisely so." Orphan led the way to one of his own embassy's meeting rooms, where human-style chairs were already extruded from the floor and one more suited for Orphan's tailed, winged form rose up as he approached. "As I said, that most charming renegade of yours, Maria-Susanna, approached me the second day of her presence here."
"Used that name, did she?" DuQuesne said.
"She did indeed."
"How did she approach you?"
"Oh, quite directly. She came to this Embassy and requested an audience, which I naturally granted her as I am always interested in those with a personal approach, and she was, apparently, a new member of your faction, and your people are still quite something of a novelty.
"She then got straight to business, as one might say, stating that she had a great deal of sympathy for the cause of the Liberated and that she was considering joining my Faction, if that were possible. A most… startling and emphatic opening move."
"And you turned her down?" Ariane was somewhat surprised.
"Oh, hardly so swiftly as that, I assure you. Indeed, I was most flattered and at first very much interested. The Liberated cannot afford to turn down any applicants unless there is truly an overriding reason to do so. And she offered a great deal of value."
DuQuesne grunted. "Like all of the secrets of humanity on a plate."
"On a plate… yes, I grasp your idiom, and it's quite a useful one." Orphan looked momentarily pensive. "You know, this once more gives me pause to wonder how it is that the Arena will decide to translate versus transliterate. There are clearly times it translates one concept to another, while at other times it appears to merely translate the words into the nearest reasonable equivalent." He gave the wing-snap which signified a shrug, and continued. "Yes, but then again, not nearly all, at least not to begin with. Clearly she was far from foolish; she wanted to offer the minimum of information which would be worth admission to my Faction, and hold the rest for later bargaining – with me, or with others outside of the Faction."
"So," Ariane said when he paused, "what made you turn her down?"
Orphan stroked one of his headcrests thoughtfully. "A number of things, really. She – quite wisely – was forthcoming about her legal status in your home system. This of course presented me with a problem which is, alas, vastly more important for me than it would be for Selpa, Nyanthus, or most other leaders of other factions."
"Got it," DuQuesne said, nodding. "With your role as gadfly to the Blessed, you've got damn few allies, even personal ones. Selpa hasn't had to rely on humanity to bail the Vengeance out, old Nyanthus doesn't need us to support him in a pinch, the Analytic don't have to worry that we might dump them, and it's hard to imagine any of them ever would. You've had to rely on us, and might have to again."
Orphan's wingcases scissored in the pendulum-like motion that indicated either reluctant agreement or a "yes and no" state. "I would perhaps not have put it quite so bluntly. Yet… yes, I suppose there is no better simple way to say it. Despite certain temporary conflicts of interest, I have, I hope, been of signal service to Humanity, and in return you have assisted me in regaining much… face, would be the correct way to put it, as well as in truth showing me much of myself. While these debts are mostly even, still I am not so unwise as to sacrifice one alliance for another single individual. At the same time, that was not all."
"Oh, really?" DuQuesne looked interested.
"Quite so. You see, I of course conducted quite a long interview with her. There is a phrase the Faith often uses, todai miriola in the language of their current leader, which is best translated as 'the Way of Spoken Warfare'…" he paused, chuckled. "And there again is that question of translation! Ahh, I have not thought about these things in centuries! But where was I? Ahh, yes. For the Initiate Guides who travel to new worlds, meet new species, this is meant as the description of how you defend and advance the Faith's belief in the face of ideological opposition, but todai miriola is more often simply a reference to a conversation which is a genteel battle between two who seek to gain the better of the other in the discussion. And indeed was my interview with Maria-Susanna such a battle. I sought to discover more of her, her motivations, her long-term goals, her relationship with all of you, her history, as well as information about Humanity. She was after more information about me, of course, my resources, my goals, and so on." The wingcases tightened and released. "I pride myself on being a master of this form of warfare, but I found that in this woman I had met my equal. I am honestly unsure if she learned more of me than I did of her.
"But I did learn some interesting facts; that she has some connection to you, Doctor DuQuesne, and that she is very reluctant to reveal more of this background, which still disturbs her; that she is a criminal of your people, apparently sufficiently so that there is no real safe haven for her in Humanity's home system; and that she has spent a long time operating alone.
"The latter, combined with other indications, was what finally decided me. Someone with her advantages – and, if my assessment of human behavior and appearance is anything close to correct, she has many advantages – who could not, or dared not, have any aides, allies, or close friends, is someone with a secret I cannot afford to bring into my faction, not in my current position."
DuQuesne nodded, as did Ariane. Once more she was impressed by the way Orphan operated. He had reached an accurate conclusion about Maria-Susanna with minimal information, deducing from what he knew about a species he'd only met for the first time a few months ago. "Well, I have to say I'm very, very glad you turned her down. Not that I'm happy to, once more, have no idea where she's gone, but…" She paused, not quite sure how to say what she wanted.
"I think what the Captain wants to say is that despite knowing you're generally an opportunistic bastard out for your own goals, we like you way too much to want to have that kind of wedge driven between us."
Orphan laughed, translated as a deep booming laugh but with the buzzing undertone of the actual sound. "Ahh, Doctor DuQuesne, truly you know how to make me feel appreciated! And I for my part simply did not trust her. I trust all of you, more in fact than I do many other long-standing residents of the Arena. And that," he said, picking up a drinking globe from a nearby table, "is why I have a proposition for your Faction."
"What kind of proposition?"
"As your people are just emerging into the Arena, and have, shall we say, had some unfortunate encounters that add a bit of urgency to your next few months, it occurred to me that the Liberated happen to have some resources which are going quite unused, and barring a miracle will remain unused for a long time to come, and which we would be willing to loan to Humanity. Specifically, a number of Arena-capable vessels."
Ariane sat forward involuntarily. "You'd lend us spaceships? Arena-tailored ones? What type? How many?"
"Ahh, Captain, I see that your friend and advisor Dr. DuQuesne wishes you had kept something more of … oh, what was that phrase Dr. Franceschetti once used… ah, yes, more of a poker face. Too much enthusiasm and I know my bargaining position."
Ariane blushed, but DuQuesne grinned. "Yeah, well, she's a pilot, not a professional politician – which we thank the Gods for every day. Since she's gone and made it obvious we like the idea, let's move on. We're working on building our own Arena vessels, but I'm pretty damn sure that our first efforts are going to be not even close to optimal, no matter how many SFGs they get involved; there's just too many little things we probably don't know.
"On the other hand, ships made for your people aren't going to be optimal for us to use, so there's that little issue."
Orphan bob-bowed but with an energy and tilt to his body that implied he'd already thought of that. "Which is why these vessels would already be modified for Humanity's needs."
Ariane raised an eyebrow. "How would you – "
DuQuesne snorted and shook his head, looking chagrined. "Of course. Another reason Maria-Susanna couldn't tempt you so much."
"Precisely correct, Dr. DuQuesne. Humanity spent some not inconsiderable time as guests of my own Embassy, prior to obtaining your own, and I naturally gave you permission to modify the quarters as you saw fit. Equally naturally, while I did not directly spy on you, I was able to examine, observe, and record every change you made or requested of the automation. Thus I know, I believe, far more about Humanity than any other native of the Arena – in some ways, I would expect I will still do so even after your renegade finds some safe haven, as your Maria-Susanna is of course going to dole out information very carefully indeed."
"And you can refit them on your own?"
"Recall that nanotechnology works, at least to some considerable extent, within one's own Sphere. Yes, I can bring the vessels into my Harbor and have them refitted. I have in fact done so in anticipation of this time." He gestured and an image appeared of multiple vessels – two, three dozen of them – arranged in a conical formation. "Several of these are warships, which may at least give you some peace of mind against accidental discovery – although they will be utterly inadequate if and when a major force finds your Sphere."
"But how will we GET them there?" Wu Kung put in. "Sorry for jumping in, but if I remember the briefing we don't know anything about where your Sphere is compared to ours, or compared to the Nexus, so we could be next-door neighbors or light-years apart even here in the Arena."
"That is a slight problem," Orphan conceded, "but one that – I would hope – may be remedied shortly. If your negotiations with the Analytic proceeed well, they should be able to offer you the technology or designs necessary to locate your Sky Gates, and there is a very good chance that one of those Gates leads here, to Nexus Arena. One of the Liberated's Sky Gates leads here as well, so if you are not terribly unfortunate, all that will need to be done is to bring the fleet here, and then send it to your Sphere. Even if negotiations with the Analytic fail for some reason, I would not be surprised if your Dr. Sandrisson could determine the basic nature of a Gate Location analysis machine on his own."
"Well," Ariane said after a moment, "I have to say it's a very attractive and generous offer, Orphan. So what's the catch?"
"The … catch? Ah, yes. What do I get out of the bargain that I have not yet stated. You recall, Dr. DuQuesne, the time I very nearly showed you over my favorite ship, the Zounin-Ginjou, which I keep docked at Nexus Arena?"
"Heh. Yeah, you'd just gotten us up to its berth when Gabrielle called to let us know that the Captain had just challenged the Blessed. Pretty ship, from what I could see."
"Pretty? Yes, I would agree; a pleasing symmetry and color-pattern; and also one of the most advanced we own. I have just recently had it overhauled by my Tantimorcan allies." Now it was Orphan who leaned forward, a startlingly humanlike gesture. "The catch, my friends, is that I want you to provide me with a crew. For I have somewhere I must go, and no other way to reach my destination… and no others anywhere in the universe that I dare trust."