HEART
Beginning Two

Tensions were running high on the Saratoga. Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen could feel it in the air as he walked the corridors of the ship. The vessel was filled to the brim and beyond with extra personnel. Why, he had no idea. It was need to know and he apparently didn’t need to know. All he did know was that there were several top brass aboard along with the representatives of various sections of the military, among them. . .McQueen grimaced involuntarily. . .Aerotech. At least he didn’t have to deal with them.

He paused outside the 58th’s rec area, looking in at the people clustered inside. Like everywhere else, the 58th was doubling up in both quarters and rec area. Several members of the 59th Reserve Squad were sprawled among the 58th. McQueen suppressed a smile at the sound of good-natured ribbing and rivalry taking place between the two squads. He just hoped the rivalry would stay friendly. It could turn ugly so easily. He started to turn only to pause at the shrill sound of an attention whistle through the intercom then Commodore Ross’ voice came through.

"Now hear this! We are now in a security alert. All personnel will clear the corridors and remain within quarters until further notice. That is all!"

McQueen frowned then stepped back into the rec area, swinging the hatch shut behind him. His quarters were too far away for him to make it within a reasonable amount of time. He would have to wait out the security alert here.

*********

Three hours later, he was still waiting.

McQueen sat on a couch, watching one of the youngest of the 59th, a Tristram Caulder, train one of the ship’s cats. She had apparently already taught the stout little gray tabby to ‘stand’ at attention. . .actually sit upright with paws tucked against his chest. Now she was patiently teaching him to ‘salute’ and getting pretty good results. McQueen was beginning to hope he was there when Ross first saw the saluting cat. He suspected Commodore Ross would not only take it in stride but most likely salute back.

The hatch unlocked and swung open, startling all inside. It was almost funny, how all the pilots froze gaping at the now-open hatch, all trying to think rather or not they had heard the ‘all-clear’. The master-in-arms stepped inside, ignoring the stares as he walked to McQueen, handing him a sealed envelope. McQueen took it but before he could open it, another figure stepped into the rec area.

McQueen’s first thought was ‘Chig!’ and the sudden intake of breath around the room told him the same thought had flashed through other minds as well. Then he got a better look at the newcomer. The figure was definitely humanoid and definitely female, dressed totally in black with flashes of silver. A dark-visored helmet covered her head, hiding any glimpse of her features.

McQueen tore his eyes away from the newcomer and down to the envelope. His name was printed firmly on the outside, just his last name, he saw. He tore it open, scanning the single page within then glanced up at the newcomer. He slipped the paper back into the envelope and handed it back to the master-in-arms before turning to follow the black-clad stranger from the room. On the way out, he was amused to see that the cat was still at attention. At the moment, his version of a salute consisted of looping his right paw behind his ear.

*********

Whoever this newcomer was, she wasn’t very talkative. Not a word passed between them as she lead him through the empty corridors to the Saratoga’s war room, moving with a familiarity that almost worried McQueen. Flanking the Naval guards outside the hatch were another pair of black-clad women. All four watched them approach but only the Naval guards stepped forward to block their way.

"I’m sorry, sir. No one. . ."

The helmeted woman didn’t even pause. She simply stepped in close enough to raise a foot and kick the hatch hard enough to make the corridor ring.

"What. . ?" The guard half-turned but the hatch was already swinging open. Yet another black-clad person stood there, this one male. The woman motioned for the man to step out, which he did, then gestured for McQueen to follow her inside. The other guard slipped between them and the hatch. "Our orders. . ."

"Stand down." The deep voice came from within the war room. "McQueen’s here on my orders."

The guard threw an uncertain look over his shoulder then stood aside. McQueen threw him a puzzled look as he stepped into the room, the woman entering behind him. The hatch swung shut behind them.

The room was as it had been the last few times he had been here. . .the large strategy table in the center of the room, the displays on the walls. There were a scattering of people in the room, most looking surprised at his entrance, some unpleasantly so. McQueen came to attention automatically, eyes scanning the occupants.

Commodore Ross was there, hands clasped behind his back and his expression unreadable.

Three Generals and two Admirals from as many different Fleets stood around the table, looking as if his arrival was very unwelcome. Colonel Hank Jenkins was there also, as were three other people he did not recognize but suspected were from various sections of the military. They didn’t look very happy about him being present either. Another man, his dark brown hair bound back in a ponytail, stood with his back toward McQueen, studying the table’s layout. It was, apparently, he who had spoken, he who had sent this black-clad woman to fetch him.

McQueen started to look over his shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mystery woman but then the man turned and McQueen’s already precisely correct military posture straightened even further, stiffened this time with sheer respect. The man now facing him was General Richard Helms, the man created with developing some of the most successful campaigns known and the first natural-born man to ever treat a young McQueen the same as he treated any other man in his command.

Helms had been the squad commander of the 42nd for only three months before his promotion and subsequent transfer had left McQueen with a squad commander that openly despised him but those three months had helped give his life direction. Helms had been the first person to ever truly listen to him and it had been Helms that first loaned him a battered series of books known as the Matador series. Fictional, true, but rife with ideas new to a young InVitro, ideas that sent him to the nearest library and to the books that now graced his living quarters. And to the values that now shaped his life.

Helms looked much the same as he had the last time McQueen had seen him. Granted, his hair was graying but, McQueen thought wryly of his own silvering hair, whose wasn’t? Other then that, Helms didn’t look as if he’d lost a muscle or gained an ounce. He was dressed in civilian clothes; blue jeans and open-necked shirt and amusement danced in his dark eyes.

"At ease, McQueen." Helms made a motion with his hand and McQueen relaxed into an ‘at ease’ posture. The InVitro’s face remained impassive, despite the curiosity raging inside him.

"General Helms." General Siraj’s voice was cool. "May I asked why you had Colonel McQueen summoned?"

Helms looked across the table at the other man then back down at the table. "Sheraniksher." The general motioned McQueen forward and the man obeyed, stepping to the man’s side to look down at the table.

"General Helms!" McQueen wasn’t sure who had spoken, just that there was outrage in that voice. He ignored it as he studied the table. Long practice kept his face expressionless but his eyes narrowed. He hadn’t known what to expect. . .a lot less Earth ships then expected maybe or perhaps a lot more Chigs ships but this. . .

Plastic tokens engraved with the Fleet’s symbol marked Earth ship or planet locations. More plastic tokens, these with a rather whimsical character representing the Chigs, marked the enemy’s locations. These he had seen before. But now there was other tokens on the table, most clustered in a largely unexplored area of space, some scattered among the other tokens.

McQueen reached down to gingerly picked up one of the new tokens. It was heavier then he expected, not made of plastic but of some sort of ivory, he would guess. It was carved delicately into the form of a horse. . .well, into something like a horse if a horse was covered with what appeared to be armor and had a nasal horn.

McQueen stared at it for a long moment then looked abruptly at Helms, forgetting for a moment the difference in their ranks and seeing only the man who he had once had hours of discussion with and who had listened to a young McQueen as he would any other man. "There’s another alien race." Sudden realization made him dropped the token and spin on his heel. He barely heard the heavy ivory piece hit the table as his eyes searched the shadows clinging to the walls.

He only knew where the woman was by the glint of lighting off her visor. The alien was harder to spot. Harder, that is, until he stepped from the shadows and into the meager light around the table. His thick, black fur and dark gray eyes had blended in the darkness perfectly. McQueen didn’t bother wondering why he had automatically thought of the alien as a he. If any creature oozed male, it was this one. Then again, the only thing he wore was brief black loincloth that left little to the imagination. Standing maybe seven-foot-tall, the alien reminded McQueen of a humanoid wolf. He even had the sharp teeth, which he bared in a what McQueen hoped was a smile.

"McQueen, this is Skrathe. He is a Timnor, representing a group of aliens we refer to as the Conclave. Skrathe, TC McQueen."

The alien extended a slender-fingered hand and McQueen automatically reached out to shake it. Each finger, he saw, was tipped with a thick claw. With his other hand, Skrathe reached down to pick up the token McQueen had dropped. "A rathorn." The alien’s voice was as deep as Helms and accented oddly. "A sentient being and member of the Conclave. They are undeniably the deadliest creatures known. It seemed fitting we name our war ships after them." He returned the token to its place on the table.

McQueen looked back at the table, reaching down to touch another marker, this one, he realized, resting next to the Saratoga’s token. It was of what appeared to be silver and of some odd creature he couldn’t recognize. There were two more tokens, these of varying colors of gold and in the shape of birds set further away from known space.

"That," Helms indicated the silver token, ". . .is the Storm’s Eye, destined, hopefully, to the first mixed-species ship. Those two. . ." The man frowned and threw an oddly-amused Skrathe a stern look. "I’m beginning to think those two are there to mess with our minds."

The alien made an odd barking sound that McQueen suddenly realized was laughter and reached down to pick up a golden token, dropping it elsewhere on the table without even looking where it landed. Helms threw him a nasty look. Skrathe dropped a hand onto McQueen’s shoulder with a familiarity that startled the man. "I’m puzzled, Richard. Is there a problem?" He indicated the cluster of officers.

"Yes and no. Apparently there are those who do not agree with with the choice of McQueen for Komeesee." The general’s face was totally expressionless but McQueen could feel the amusement radiating from the man.

The alien blinked at him then reached out his free hand to pick up rathorn tokens and drop them again, seemingly at random. "And what. . ." thunk! ". . .gives them. . ." thunk! ". . .the idea. . ." thunk! ". . .that they. . ." thunk! ". . .have any. . ." thunk! ". . .choice. . ." thunk! ". . .in the matter?" thunk, thunk!

"Because they are reacting to the situation as if they were dealing with humans. And the Conclave are not human."

"Sheraniksher." Skrathe said and McQueen wondered briefly if that was an alien swear word then the tall alien added, "Circles within circles."

"General Helms." General Panzer’s voice was acid. "We’ve already discussed this. . ."

Helms closed his eyes, a pained look on his face. "Skrathe is right, Panzer. Part of the agreement we made with the Conclave was that the Conclave would choose the Komeesee. You. . .we. . .have no say in the matter. And no valid reason as to way McQueen can’t take the role."

McQueen stood next to the table, a feeling of bemusement sweeping over him. It wasn’t the first time he’d been used as a pawn against someone. . .the incident concerning Ixion came to immediate mind. . .but that didn’t mean he liked it any better. He meet Ross’ eyes across the table and had the sudden uncomfortable feeling they were both pawns.

"What. . ." He asked suddenly ". . .is a Komeesee?"

All eyes turned toward him, startled. The dead has risen on his pyre, McQueen thought grimly. Hooyah.

"Explain it to him." Skrathe boomed. "Or I will."

Helms’ lips quirked. "I’ll make this short. The Conclave have reason to hate the Shikuti. . .the Chigs. . .as much as we do and pretty close to the same reason. Being rather firm believers in the old adage ‘The enemy of my enemy are my friends’, the Conclave started negotiations with Earth to form an alliance. Part of the agreement was for a mixed-species ship." He touched the silver token. "The Storm’s Eye. For this ship, the Ish’Kiri. . .one of the alien species in the Inner Conclave. . .developed a special fighting ship called a Gryphip."

Helms paused and shook his head in admiration. "I’ve seen those fighting ships. They are, literally, the best fighters ever conceived. At this time, there are only eleven squads of them and they will all be assigned to the Storm’s Eye. As part of the agreement with Earth, the Conclave retained the right to select the overall squadron commander. . .the Komeesee. . .and the pilots or the Komees." He grinned at McQueen. "The trouble began when the Conclave announced they wanted you to be the Komeesee."

McQueen frowned. "There has to be more to this, sir. I’m not much more then a squadron commander now."

"Quick." Skrathe murmured and Helms threw the alien a grimace.

"When Earth agreed to the conditions attached to the Komeesee position, they didn’t realize exactly it meant. You see, the Komeesee is not in the Earth-accepted chain of command. Oh, you’d still have the same duties as you do now but. . .where the Gryphip Squads are concerned. . .you’d be outside the the chain of command. Essentially the equal of any being in this room. Or outside this room, for that matter. Of course, that’s only with the squads."

McQueen stared at him in mute astonishment. The implications shook him but so did the possibilities.

"Of course, there are those who are unhappy with the possibilities." Helms continued, watching as Skrathe once again shifted pieces on the table. "They’d rather have Col. Jenkins be the Komeesee. What they want doesn’t matter, though."

"There most be a way to convince the Conclave. . !" General Panzer started only to be interrupted by Skrathe.

"It’s not the Conclave you have to convince." The alien dropped one of the golden tokens on yet another location. Watching him, McQueen began to suspect that his repositioning of the tokens were not as random as it appeared. "It’s Khadaji."

"Khadaji?" That name floated in McQueen’s mind, strangely familiar.

Helms threw the oblivious Skrathe a sharp look. "The Ish’Kiri who designed the Gryphips. The Conclave, y’see, are very protective of these new ships and with good reason. That’s why they insisted on selecting the Komeesee and why they are insisting you lead them. They believe you to be the best being for the job."

"He’s at the Storm’s Eye. You will have to go there if you wish to speak to him." Skrathe continued as if Helms had not spoken. "You haven’t been there yet, have you? It would give Commodore Ross a chance to see his new command."

McQueen looked up at Ross, startled. His friend meet his eyes with a wry look and shrugged.

*********

An hour later, McQueen found himself entering an alien ship behind General Helms. Skrathe had insisted he, as the new Komeesee, be included in the group to go over to the Storm’s Eye. McQueen saw little use for his inclusion. He suspected that, despite Skrathe’s certainty that he would become Komeesee, General Panzer would find a way to disqualify him. Panzer had even insisted that Col. Jenkins be included in the party, just in case and seemed smugly certain of his chances.

McQueen looked around the bay as they exited the shuttle. It seemed larger than the Saratoga’s, even with another half-dozen identical shuttles inside. Both humans and Timnor were scattered in the bay, doing work McQueen had seen done in dozens of bays before this one.

Skrathe lead them from the bay and into the corridor, turning left to follow it. Unlike Earth ships, this vessel had fairly wide, tall corridors done in light colors and bright murals. A variety of species walked the corridor, mostly human or Timnor but with a sudden inclusion of an unidentified species. One such species looked surprisingly human until you saw the dark pupiless eyes and realized he/she/it was floating at ceiling-level. Another stood perhaps two feet taller then the Timnor and looked much like the Greek version of a minotaur. McQueen wasn’t too surprised to discover that the latter was, indeed, called a Minotaur.

Skrathe paused before a door and somehow, McQueen couldn’t see how being in the back of the group, keyed it open. He vanished inside and everyone dutifully followed.

The room they entered was obviously living quarters and McQueen found himself looking around with envy. It was round in shape with the center area sunken. In that sunken area was a sitting area complete with couch and table. To the left was a sleeping area with a double bed and what appeared to be storage areas, to the right kitchenette and dining area. There were two other doors; a small one on the far side of the bed and a larger one straight across from the entrance.

"The Komeesee’s quarters." Skrathe said and Ross’ eyebrows arched.

"I wonder what the commander’s quarters’ll be like." He murmured to McQueen. "I could get to like this."

end beginning two


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