Four months later. . .
Perhaps for the first time since the war with the Chigs started, an Earth
shuttle was landing on an alien planet with peaceful intentions.
Shane Vansen looked out the portal at alien skies. It look very much
like the skies of Earth and after a long moment, she turned back to the
other occupants of the shuttle. Nathan West and Paul Wang were seated in
the same row as she with Cooper Hawkes, Vanessa Damphousse and their new.
. .well, it had been four months but she still thought of her as new. .
.squad commander, Lt. Col. Suzanne Newport, behind them. Sitting in the
row in front of the entire group, was Commodore Ross, General P.C.
Fletcher and two Aerotech employees. Mark Jenkins was someone that looked
suave but came across to the rather jaded 58th as sleazy. The other was a
first contact specialist, Jessica Alcott.
Vansen really couldn’t help but wonder exactly how much experience
Ms. Alcott had with first contacts.
Well, she was going to get a chance now, though, truthfully, it
wouldn’t actually be a first contact. Apparently, Earth had been in
negotiations with a confederation of alien races for the past several
months in an attempt to forge an alliance against the Chigs. It seemed
they were now in the final stages of the alliance. Of course, they were
being very close-mouthed about everything but from what Vansen had managed
to glean from conversations and rumors, the Confederation had insisted
that the last bit of negotiations take place on one of their worlds. In a
mixture of checking-it-out and goodwill gesture, Earth had first sent the
Saratoga to the planet with instructions to be on their best behavior and
to get ready for the arrival of the Earth delegation.
On their way to the planet, they had been meet by an Aerotech ship and,
later, by an alien escort. The former had brought the last two additions
to the landing party, the latter a lot of speculation about the aliens.
"Oh, wow. Look at that." Hawkes’ voice drew Vansen’s
attention to the portal next to her and she turned to peer out. The planet
was fast rising to meet them. Even now, they could see the lush green of
the grass below them, dotted with the darker green of trees and brush and
the blue of lakes and seas. "Looks a lot like Earth."
"Yeah, it does." West this time.
"Buckle up, everyone." The pilot’s voice came back to them.
"We’re going down."
Too much time spent in combat situations caused the 58th flinched at
the pilot’s unfortunate choice of words but quickly checked their
restraints. Moments later, the shuttle touched down without so much as a
thump and everyone was rising from their seats, reaching up to pull down
duffle bags and other cases. Nathan West cracked the hatch and remarkably
pure air rushed in to replace the customary ship-bottled air of the
Vansen couldn’t help but breathe deeply of it. She could hear the
others do the same and grinned at her fellow squad members as they stepped
from the shuttle. The ground around them was hard-packed dirt, obviously
used frequently as a landing pad. The landing pad was encircled by posts
strung with white chains and topped by what appeared to be skulls, human
skulls. Wang stepped closer to one for a hard study before stepping back
to rejoin his friends, a vague look of relief on his face.
"Plaster copies, it looks like." Wang said.
"Why would they have skulls hung out like that?" West this
time, in a disturbed tone of voice.
"A warning." The voice that came from in front of them was
deep and possessed a Scots accent. Everyone turned to stare in surprise at
the tall human with salt-and-pepper hair standing at the start of a
cobble-stoned path leading away from the landing pad. He smiled at the
dumbfounded looks on their faces and reached down to unhooked a section of
chain, moving to rehook it on the opposite post. "Welcome to Rathorn.
I’m Bruce Ffolkes."
General Fletcher was the first to recover, stepping forward with a
surprisingly warm smile and an extended hand. She was a lovely woman in
her early 60s with auburn hair and Irish green eyes. Vansen reflected that
the General was the type of woman she would have loved to have as a
grandmother; a sweet woman with laughter in her eyes and a quick smile for
everyone. But that sweetness hid a steel interior that commanded
battleships and a quick mind that designed winning strategies. She had
managed to very sweetly bully her way into the landing party.
Of course, now that Vansen thought about it, so had Ross. Not sweetly,
of course. More like a charging bull.
I’m-going-on-that-shuttle-and-just-try-to-stop-me was more his approach.
"How do you do? I’m Patricia Fletcher." She proceeded to
introduce everyone, starting with Ross and finishing with the Aerotech
people. Vansen reflected that the General’s opinion of Aerotech seemed
to match theirs.
"A human." Mark Jenkins said, his eyes narrowing in
suspicion. "What’s a human doing here?"
"There are approximately 3,000 humans on Rathorn and several more
thousand humans scattered throughout the Conclave. I take it they didn’t
see fit to tell you?" He looked at their frozen expressions and
sighed. "Well, I guess they didn’t. As for. . ." He gestured
at the skulls. "This planet has a native sentient species, the
Rathorns. The Conclave has an agreement with the Rathorns. Members of the
Conclave remain within the colony’s specific boundaries, the Rathorns
enter only with peaceable intentions. And any being going outside the
boundaries without express permission from either the Komeesee or the
Rathorns end up dead."
"Just like that?" Jessica Alcott said.
"Just like that. That was the agreement made with the Rathorns
when the colony was formed. These are copies. The posts lining the
boundaries are topped by real skulls; humans, Timnor, Treean, Rathorn,
whatever." Ffolkes turned on his heel and started down the
cobble-stoned path. The general fell in beside him. For a moment, the two
Aerotech employees amused the 58th by competing to walk on Ffolkes’
opposite side. Mark Jenkins won and Alcott dropped back with a scowl that
quickly vanished when Ffolkes looked her way. Commodore Ross walked with
Newport and the 58th, listening intently while studying the forests lining
the path. Here, too, were the white posts topped with rakishly tilted
"This particular piece of land is called the borderlands and are a
fairly new addition to the agreement between the Conclave and the
Rathorns." Ffolkes continued. "It’s shared with the Rathorns
and the rules are a little different. Here, you do not go beyond the white
chains. In fact, I suggest you do not go too near the chains. Rathorns
tend to have a different definition of. . .errrrr. . .shall we say, legal
take?. . .then we do."
Vansen listened with half-an-ear as they walked along the path. She was
occupied with studying the forest. Several months of combat had given her
what she could only think of as an extra sense and right now it was
telling her they were being followed. A glance at the others showed that
they, too, felt it. Even Ross, for all his years out of ground combat,
looked incredibly wary.
Just went to prove that you never really lose combat instincts.
"Horses? They have horses here, too?" Newport said suddenly
and the others followed her gaze to see an animal on the other side of the
chain. It couldn’t be seen clearly but it did have the general shape of
a horse. Newport stepped closer to the chain.
"That’s not a horse." West, ever the farm boy, said.
"You’re right. It’s not." Folkes snatched Newport’s
collar and yanked her back just as the "horse’s" head came
over the chain. Sharp teeth that would do a tiger proud clacked shut a
bare inch from Newport’s face then the man’s open hand slapped the
beast’s muzzle. "Knock it off, Hellspawn. You may not eat
her." The man looked back at the woman he still held by the collar.
"You don’t listen very well, do you?" He let her go and turned
back to the animal. "You plan on behaving?"
The animal snorted then nodded its ivory-armored head.
"Fine. Everyone, let me introduce you to a rathorn." He
stepped closer to the chain and unhooked it enough for the beast to enter.
Ivory hooves clacked pleasantly on the ground as it pranced onto the
cobblestones, giving everyone their first glimpse of the planet’s native
sentient species. "This is Hellspawn."
It...no, now that the beast was out from the forest shadows they could
see that it was female...was a great deal like a horse but with ivory
armoring her body and a nasal horn with the upper edge and point
sharpened. The coat, mane and tail were all pitch black. The rathorn eyed
them with dark eyes and snorted, tossing her head.
"My God." Fletcher said, a look on her face that was a
combination of bemusement and shock. "Somebody reads P.C.
Ffolkes snapped his head around to look at her in surprise. "Well,
well. I’m surprised you do. She wasn’t very well-known even in her
"My grandmother was an avid reader. Or maybe I should say rabid.
Her books were a treasured heirloom. So these Rathorns were named after
"One of the first humans on Rathorn saw the resemblance and dubbed
them that. Quite appropriately, it turned out."
"Oh, please don’t tell me. . ?"
"Yes, these rathorns have managed to acquire quite a taste for
human flesh." Ffolkes laughed.
"They what?" Alcott gaped at him. "And you allow. .
"This is their planet." Ffolkes cut her off firmly as he
resumed walking, Hellspawn prancing at his side. "We’ve made an
agreement with them. They do not attack any within the borders and anyone
outside the borders without permission is fair game. Or, as the kids put
it, Purina Rathorn Chow."
The path curved around a cluster of trees and into a clearing. Once in
the clearing, the cobblestones continued for several feet before widening
into a large half-circle that stopped where it meet with the house. The
house itself appeared to be built directly into the hillside, what little
of it extended from the hill was made of dark wood and glass.
Ffolkes continue toward the house, giving the visitors little chance of
looking around but still they managed. To the right was a very large
swimming pool, currently empty, surrounded by the type of patio equipment
found around thousands of pools on Earth. A huge metal statue of some
creature baring a remarkable resemblance to a gryphon was near it, laying
down with wings folded tightly against its side and head raised to
seemingly peer through the glass and into the house. More statues, also of
gleaming metal, dotted the landscape. The clearing extended further to the
left and there they could see fenced areas and equipment. And people. Some
human, some alien. At the sight of them, Hellspawn snorted and trotted
toward them. Ffolkes paused and gestured toward the gathering.
"Those tall, furry creatures. . .the ones who looked like humanoid
wolves. . .they’re Timnor. Then there’s the Minotaur, they’re the
ones who look like Greek Minotaurs. There’s only a couple of them on
Rathorn. Those two races, plus the Ish’Kiri, form what we call the Inner
Conclave. Of the other races, well, there’s a Treean. . .the furry
fellow with the tail, they’re often mistaken for demons. . .and the
small one floating above that mess is a Lumiax. You’ve meet a Rathorn
and, of course, well, the humans. We also have a Hoag’tash somewhere
around and a few other aliens species here. The Rathorn colony is a true
mixed-species colony." There was pride in the man’s voice.
"Now, if you’d like to meet the Komeesee. . ."
"The Komeesee?" Alcott asked, her eyes on the clusters of
human and alien out in the fields. "Another alien race?"
"No." Ffolkes paused, an odd smile on his face. "The
Komeesee is rather hard to explain. He. . .or she or it, though this time
around it’s a he. . .is war chief, colony administrator, liaison with
the rathorns, etc, etc. The job description tends to change with every
re-instatement of the position. In fact, part of the problem with the
earlier negotiations with Earth was that the Komeesee had not yet been
chosen. Once he was chosen, well, everything sort of fell into place,
shall we say."
The man resumed walking toward the house and everyone followed. Sliding
aside a panel of glass, Ffolkes waved them into a large sitting room done
in browns and tans. He swept a glance around as he entered, frowning.
"Hmmmmmm, he must be in the kitchen. . .his turn to cook,
y’know. Wait here. I’ll fetch him." And he walked across the room
to double doors and swung one open enough to slip through, closing it
firmly behind him.
The 58th looked at each other then simultaneously set their bags down
and spread out to explore the room. Some of it was old habits but mostly
it was sheer curiosity. Here they were, thinking they were visiting an
alien world, expecting to meet aliens and they meet humans. And this was
no alien dwelling. This house could have been lifted right off of Earth.
It was, actually, a very homey room. Very large with glass covering
almost the entire wall behind them. In the very center was a circular
sunken area, complete with couches and a low table. Bookshelves covered
most of the walls, save for the double doors and a fireplace to the left.
A polished wooden desk was tucked in a corner, positioned to look out the
glass wall. Several items were scattered about the desktop and both Alcott
and Jenkins headed for them purposely. Ross drifted along behind them.
General Fletcher moved to the bookcases, walking along studying titles
and musing out loud. "Well, well. Quite a collection. All of these
books are from here. . ." She waved a hand at the wall before her.
". . .are from Earth. Mostly science fiction and fantasy. And here. .
." She tapped on the door of a locked cabinet set in the middle of
the bookshelves. ". . .are the Hodgell books."
Vansen was looking at bookshelves across the room. These were alien
books, written in languages she couldn’t even begin to understand. She
moved along toward the fireplace, were Damphousse stood.
"Shane. . ." Damphousse's voice was strained and Vansen
looked at her in surprise. The other woman was standing immobile, staring
at a painting above the fireplace. Puzzled, Vansen moved to her side.
It was a very well done painting, better then most Vansen had ever
seen. The subject was of a man riding one of those fierce rathorns,
perhaps even the rathorn they had meet. But it wasn’t the subject that
had caught Damphousse's attention, it was the man astride the rathorn.
They both knew him.
"McQueen!" There was incredulous joy in Hawkes’ voice and
the women turned in surprise. The young In Vitro was clear across the room
and not even looking at the painting. No, he was looking at the now open
double doors where Ffolkes stood with an oh-so-familiar man.
"McQueen? Oh, no." Ffolkes said, amusement dancing in his
voice despite the innocent look on his face. "McQueen’s dead.
Barker said so. Saw him die, didn’t he and brought back his dogtags. No,
this is, let us say, McQueen’s twin. This is the Komeesee."
The Komeesee stood in the doorway, a faint smile on his face. His
silvery hair was longer then they'd ever seen McQueen's, his eyes more
relaxed and a smile seemed to come easily to him. He was dressed totally
in black; open-necked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, calf-high
leather boots, set off with an occasional flash of white and silver. A
necklace, bracers that encircled wrists and hands, metallic feathers
decorating the boots.
Ross had known McQueen for years, from the AI wars through the
conflicts that covered Earth and into space. He had seen McQueen fight
years of hate and prejudice to become the highest ranked InVitro in any
branch of the military and he had known that, despite the
"advances" in InVitro rights, that his friend would never get
any higher. Now he looked at a man. . .an InVitro. . .a human. . .who had
somehow managed to attain what was obviously a very important position
amidst an alien people and he knew without a doubt that, despite what
Barker had claimed four months ago and what Ffolkes claimed now, this was
the T.C. McQueen he had known for so long.
He just wasn't sure if he should shake the man's hand or slug him into
McQueen was always good at reading his commanding officer's moods and
the Komeesee had apparently not lost that knack. He grinned at Ross and
spread his open hands, shrugging.
"Free shot, Glen." There was no hesitation in using Ross'
given name, this was an equal greeting an equal. "And I wouldn't
blame you a bit."
Ross glowered at him then shook his head. "Dammit, Ty!!! How did
you survive. . ?" He let the sentence drift off, having a nasty
suspicion as to what had happened already floating in his head.
"Survive what? The planet? The Chigs? Or Barker?" McQueen
grimaced. "Well, luckily, Barker makes a clumsy murderer. And as for
the others, I had help." He looked outside and Ross followed his eyes
to the patio area they had just passed through. There were people there
now, human and alien. Some were in the pool, some scrambling over the huge
statue, the rest clustered together in chatting groups.
"I had wondered." Ross glanced back at McQueen. "About
Barker, I mean. The way he told it didn't ring true. Why didn't you
contact us?" This time he glanced at the 58th, now drawn together in
a tense, uncertain cluster. McQueen flinched.
"It's a very long story, Glen. Me being dead on the books served a
purpose and, for that matter, still does." He gestured out the
windows. "Here I'm the Komeesee and nothing will ever prove
"Wait a minute." Mark Jenkins spoke up for the first time, a
speculative look in his eyes. "If what you're saying is true, then
you're still a member of the Marine Corp. And that means. . ."
"Nothing." McQueen was gone. The icy-eyed man that spoke now
left no doubt that he was the Komeesee. "You can't prove I'm T.C.
McQueen and if you push too hard, the Conclave will withdraw from the
negotiations. And probably come down on you like a ton of bricks, as well.
Earth can't last much longer against the Chigs. . ."
"McQueen!" Jenkin's voice was sharp.
"Earth is losing!" McQueen's voice was ruthless. "The
Chigs are playing with the planet like they play with ejected pilots. The
Conclave is offering Earth a chance to win. Don't blow it over a no-win
"What makes you think it's a no-win situation?" Jessica
Alcott said thoughtfully. "It occurs to me that all InVitros have
their genetic profiles on record. It would be simple to. . ." Her
voice faded at the sight of the smirk on McQueen's face and the bark of
laughter from Ffolkes.
"Trust me, missy. That won't work." Ffolkes said, eyes
dancing with laughter.
Alcott blinked at him, a blink that turned into a glower. "There
is always a way to prove it. McQueen. . .you. . .has scars and an
inner-ear replace. . ." Alcott’s voice trailed off as the Komeesee
calmly unbuttoned and slipped off his shirt, spreading his arms.
"What scars?" And there were no scars. Not one. He tapped
behind his ear. "No device. I swear. Oh, damn, there they go
again." The last bit was in reference to the group outside the house.
Most of the females were now clustered together outside the window,
hooting and cheering at the bare-chested Komeesee. He smiled in
resignation and bowed in their direction before slipping the shirt back
on. "I’ve got to stop taking my shirt off in public."
"You should just get sword-bound to Shard. She’ll protect
you." Ffolkes laughed.
"Right. Who’ll protect me from Shard? Oh, hello, Shard."
A woman had stepped through the double doors, pausing briefly to smile
brightly at McQueen, who eyed her warily. She was quite lovely with dark
skin, short white hair and green eyes. She held a baby, perhaps a year old
and, as she passed McQueen, she handed it to him without missing a step. A
moment later, she was out the doors and strolling toward the pool.
"Why is it. . ." McQueen eyed the squirming baby he held at
arms length. ". . .every time she goes by she hands me a baby?"
"Revenge?" Ffolkes suggested, not bothering to hide his
"Yeah, right. Like it's my fault." The man muttered finally
tucking the baby close. "So, how about I show you to your rooms and
you can get settled in? Then I’ll show you around."
"That would be fine, Komeesee." General Fletcher stepped
forward, taking the situation firmly in hand once more. "I would like
a chance to change clothes."
"This way." He turned and walked out, the general behind him
and the others following. He turned left to walk down the corridor, giving
the group a brief glimpse of huge kitchen across the hall before leading
them deeper into the house. The high ceiling, set at regular intervals
with odd slabs of some kind of clear stone, glowed with light,
illuminating the occasional painting and doorway.
"The bedrooms are upstairs." McQueen lead the way up the
gently inclined ramp. "Going down are the workshops, gyms, etc, et. .
. ." Halfway around the corner, McQueen stopped abruptly then turned,
speaking more rapidly then before. "I’m sure you wondered why we
are so sure genetic testing wouldn’t work in identifying me as McQueen.
Well, you’re about to find out." Then he turned back. This time his
voice was soft and incredibly gentle. "H’lo, Gary."
A crooning sound answered him and a man stepped into sight. The 58th
gaped at him, as did Ross. The newcomer was virtually identical to
McQueen. But his gray-blue eyes were disturbingly blank, his face vague in
expression. Dressed in paint-splotched cut-offs and sleeveless denim
shirt, he carried what appeared to be a toy stuffed raccoon under one arm.
McQueen reached over to gently cup the side of the man’s head and draw
his attention back to him.
"Tyyyy. . ." The man crooned, swaying slightly with a vague
McQueen glanced over his shoulder. "This is my brother,
Gary." He said calmly. "He did most of the paintings you’ll
see in this house. I think he just finished a painting." He shook his
head, stroking a blue paint smear on the man’s face. "We’ve
people visiting, Gary."
Gary looked at them with interest.
"Hello, Gary." General Fletcher smiled at the man gently and
he smiled uncertainly back.
"Roooo. . ." He rocked slowly, clutching the raccoon
"Where’s Gwain, Gary?"
Gary frowned in puzzlement.
"I’m here." The low voice came from behind Gary and another
man stepped into view. No, not a man and Vansen stiffened involuntarily.
It was an AI, of a series she recognized. In fact, she had played a mean
game of pool against on of them not too very long ago. His name was. .
.was Alvin. Alvin something. This one was dressed in holey jeans and
Gwain slipped an arm around Gary’s shoulders and the man leaned
against him trustingly, crooning to himself. "He just finished a
painting. You know how he is."
"Yes. Get him cleaned up, will you?" McQueen smiled at his
"Sure. Come on, Gary." The AI gently guided Gary toward the
double doors behind them, talking to him in soft tones.
McQueen watched them until they finally vanished into the double doors
at the end of the hallway, Gwain closing the doors behind them then he
turned to continue down the corridor, the others following.
"It was a mining accident." McQueen said without preamble.
"He would have been okay if they dug him out right away but the mine
boss didn’t want to waste money and equipment and time digging him out.
Why bother rescuing an In Vitro that may require lots of expensive medical
treatment when you can get another? The Timnor arrived three days later to
rescue the In Vitro slaves." He smiled grimly at the sudden shocked
looks on the visitors faces. "Oh, yes. The Timnor have been rescuing
InVitros for maybe 18 years now. They dug Gary out but the damage was
down. Severe brain damage caused by injuries and lack of oxygen. Actually,
there’s been a lot of improvement over the past few years."
Alcott stepped forward. Her eyes were as cold as her voice.
"InVitros were never slaves."
McQueen opened his mouth but it was General Fletcher who spoke up.
"That’s a matter of opinion. Apparently, the Timnor have a
different opinion then you do."
"Yes, they do. General Fletcher, this will be your room. Ms.
Alcott, you’re across the hall there. A little further down. . .here is
your room, Glen. Jenkins, there. Col. Newport, you can either have this
room or stay with the 58th. Your choice."
Newport glowered at him. "I’ll take this room." She gritted
and McQueen nodded.
"58th." McQueen turned, leading the cluster of five young
people deeper into the house, upward to another floor.
end scene three