DuQuesne followed a short distance behind the alien, taking care not to tread on the tail. He suspected that Orphan was just as aware of the location of his tail, and how to not let it get stepped on, as DuQuesne was aware of his feet, but no point in taking chances.
As they approached the entrance to the prior section of the station, the one they'd left just moments before first seeing Orphan and the Blessed, he noticed something. The wingcases had tightened slightly, Orphan's tail seemed to have lifted up just a hair.
"Open door." Ariane said.
In the moment the door began to roll aside, DuQuesne saw Orphan's legs flex slightly, almost unnoticeably. I may be making a mistake… but to hell with it.
Kicking his combat capabilities into full gear (or as close to full gear as he ever allowed), the massive black-haired engineer lunged forward. In a single motion he grabbed hold of the alien's tail, just behind the stinger, yanked, and threw with every ounce of enhanced strength in his two hundred kilogram frame. At the same time he shouted "Close door and lock!"
Orphan, taken utterly unawares, was slung down the corridor from which they'd come, an almost comical look of shock on the alien face, landing a full eight meters away with a skidding thud that sent a faint vibration through the deck.
"DuQuesne? What the hell –"
"This clown was getting awfully eager, or tense, the closer we got. A lot more tense. I think there's something he isn't telling us."
The alien's stance, as he rose, was dramatically transformed. The tail arched up over one shoulder and the creature crouched low, in what was unmistakably a combat stance. It buzzed threateningly. "You attacked me, you unshelled monstrosity!"
"You were talking really nice back there before. Am I right? You just couldn't wait to get through that door. You were hoping for just the kind of opening we gave you." DuQuesne had his combat knife out. After seeing the Blessed in combat, and seeing that Orphan had been holding his own against them at several-to-one odds, he wasn't under any illusion that he could take out the alien by himself, but he wasn't planning on making it easy. "Let me guess: once you're inside, you can give access directives. It'd be really stupid of the designers, or at least it wouldn't make sense to me, but if that's true, you have every reason to try to get inside someone else's enclosure."
Ariane spoke up from behind him. "Orphan, if you truly feel you owe us anything, you'd better admit it if DuQuesne's right."
The alien hesitated for a moment, then with a clear effort straightened himself and let the tail drop. "Your eyes are sharp and your mind quick. Yet… I could not let such an opportunity pass. The calculated risks were acceptable in view of the immense gain."
"Why? What would you get out of being able to poke into our little section of this mausoleum? Like we said, there's no power there, just us and a ship that won't go without the power you claimed to have. Unless that was a lie too."
"A slight exaggeration. I would have to bargain to get the power for your vessel, or at the least have to sacrifice my own vessel's return capability temporarily." The alien's voice was less friendly, somewhat defiant. "It would have been worth it."
"For the second time," DuQuesne said, glaring at Orphan, "why?"
Orphan gave one of his short laughs. "Because with such access, I can designate myself the right to travel to your system, or through it."
"You mean… if we entered your area, we could authorize ourselves to travel to your system?"
"If I had no additional safeguards, yes. It takes specialized knowledge to arrange such safeguards and prevent a casual authorization." Orphan gave an almost human-like shrug and sat down on the deck, coiling his tail around him. "I am the last of my kind, Ariane Austin. I may be able to gain some new … recruits, might be the best word… but without some spectacular victory to show that despite being the last I am still a force within the Arena, they will be few, desperate, flawed,and likely killed off by the Blessed or any of a number of other factions before they can learn the strength of their selves."
DuQuesne didn't get all the details yet, though he could make guesses. The main point was clear. "And getting access to a brand new star system filled with, um, First Emergents?, that would be a spectacular victory, eh?"
"Oh, very much so, yes." Orphan agreed. "And one that would not have risked my sole and irreplaceable life in the Arena, as a challenge would."
"You don't share a star system with the Blessed?"
Whatever was doing the translating was good; the subtle overtones to Orphan's laugh clearly conveyed bitterness as well as dark amusement. "Oh, I could go there, but death as certainty does not appeal. We – the Mindkillers, as they like to call us – gained our own system years ago, but that cost us in the Challenge, and the Blessed have reduced our numbers since. Reduced them, as you see, to one."
DuQuesne saw Captain Austin frowning. "The problem is that after this, I'm not sure how much we can trust you, Orphan," she said finally. "Do you actually feel any obligation to us, or are you just looking for your own opportunity? Perhaps you are a simple criminal from the Blessed and I've made the mistake of intervening in an arrest."
"I regret to say that I can offer you no confidence at this time," Orphan replied. "Indeed I feel gratitude, which was I admit overcome by this opportunity. And despite Dr. DuQuesne's rather forceful manner of preventing my little triumph, I still owe you my life. So… I cannot enter your domain, not until we know and trust one another far better. And while I do have safegards, inviting you into my Sphere might not be wise either – for your sake and mine." He stood in a single smooth move like a rising motorized scaffold. "I therefore can only offer my services as a guide to the Arena, as an advisor in its customs. You shall need one, I assure you, for my little impulse was but a forthright and honest action compared to the intrigues you may find entwining you once you enter the Arena proper. First is forgiven, Second should be, Third may be; you have used your First already. Second and Third are not much protection."
"First, Second, and Third what?" Ariane asked.
"Transgression, is my guess." DuQuesne said, having been thinking about that ever since he first heard Orphan use it in conversation with Sethrik. "Newcomers get one free screwup, and as a general rule people are encouraged to let 'em get away with a second. Really generous people can forgive you a third. But after that, you mess up, you've got nothing to save you."
Orphan gave that assenting handtap. "Precisely correct, DuQuesne."
Ariane glanced at DuQuesne and Simon. "Well, Orphan, I think we need to go back and talk with our other people before we decide what to do. How will we be able to find you again?"
Orphan shifted, wingcases tightening. "Ah yes. As to that… I shall simply wait here."
"It might be a while."
"I can wait for some time." Orphan hunched the wingcases tighter, then dropped them open in what was clearly a sigh. "I… must confess one more thing."
DuQuesne glared at him. "Out with it."
"Well… the Blessed will likely be waiting for me in Nexus Arena, watching for me to attempt to return home. If I am alone that would be very dangerous. If I am with you, their concession of your victory will prevent them from acting against either of us, at least for some time yet."
Simon laughed. "I see. So right now, acting as our tour guide is also going to keep you alive."
"Then," Ariane said, "You'd better hope my crew decides to give you that much of a chance. Otherwise you're going to have to take your chances with the Blessed." She turned back to the door. "Orphan, stay WAY back from this door. When we come back out, you'd better not try anything." DuQuesne rather approved of the almost predatory grin she gave the alien. "Because before I open that door, I will have specifically instructed it to close on anyone trying to get in."
DuQuesne grinned to himself as he followed Ariane and Simon through the door. So aliens can shudder.
So now the Holy Grail crew has some decisions to make.