In answer to those who will undoubtedly proclaim "That can't possibly work!" I answer "Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So there!
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Let's talk alliance.....
And that was the first official contact with the alien organization that Earth would come to call the Conclave. Not much was known of the Conclave. . .this time, Earth was not jumping the gun. This time, Earth's population knew only that there were more alien races out there and only that an alliance was being discussed. This time. . .
T.C. McQueen stared out of the portal of the shuttle, thinking of the last time. The talks that, thanks to Wayne, rapidly unraveled, the Chig leaping through the security glass, the explosion. . .
Involuntarily, McQueen looked down at his right leg, wincing at the memory of seeing that bloody mess for the first time. He was surprised he hadn't bled to death in the time it took for the medics to arrive but apparently the force of the explosion had managed to cauterize the wound. And, despite the advances in prosthesis technology, had made it impossible for him to remain in the Marine Corp.
He could still remember that fateful day when the medical discharge was given to him. A missing leg that apparently could not be replaced, an inner ear imbalance that permanently grounded him despite the Chiggie Von Richthofen incident, shoulder injuries. . .all had added up to a medical discharge. It didn't matter that he knew nothing else. He was out of the Marine Corps. A civilian.
It had taken a year for the doctors to finally find a leg that would work for him, finally settling on an unattached prosthesis. A year of physical therapy. A year of getting used to being a civilian. A year of trying to find a job, a crippled InVitro with few skills not concerned with the military. There had been one interested nibble, somewhere in Australia but before he could follow up on it, there had been a knock at the door of his small apartment.
He had opened it to a pair of expressionless Marines who had requested that he accompany them. McQueen had been in the military long enough to know when a ‘request' was actually an order so he had grabbed his jacket and locked the door on his way out.
An hour later, he was on the Australian battle cruiser, the New Minyaka, in a secure conference room with Diane Hayden, the Commander of Earth forces and several assorted top military people. And thrust into a situation he could barely comprehend. Or maybe didn't want to comprehend.
Earth was losing the war.
That truly didn't surprise him. Being pragmatic, he had rather expected it. He'd seen the Chigs and their technology and he knew what Earth had. And he knew how important the Conclave could be to the war effort. If they were legitimate. What surprised him was what the U.N. Secretary told him in that secure room..
The alien refused to start serious negotiations until representatives of the Conclave meet with someone. A certain someone.
To say McQueen was dumbfounded would have been an understatement.
The New Minyaka had left Earth as quickly as possible, not giving McQueen a chance to even get clothing. Commodore Tobias Brown loaned McQueen some of his civilian clothing and he was quartered in the guest quarters. Very nice quarters, actually but restlessness kept him out of them. To be on a spaceship again ate at his nerves. To be on one as a civilian. . .
So he spent his days wandering where he could. The crew of the New Minyaka was remarkably friendly but then Australians never did seem to have the problem with InVitros that most of the world did. That had been one of the reason he had finally started job inquiries there. He had wandered the ship until his leg ached then returned to his quarters to study what little was known of the Conclave or read or stare out of the portal. He rarely spoke to the delegation, a situation not entirely his decision. For some reason they seemed to want him totally in the dark. Or maybe they were totally in the dark.
He shook that thought off. Most of the delegation was InVitro-phobic and those who weren't couldn't understand where he fit into the situation. Diana Hayden had left the New Minyaka, she could not come along but the Under secretary could. And Chaput did not like InVitros. It was just as well Hayden hadn't come along. Once, he thought they were friends or at least allies but after the events shortly after the assassination of the former Secretary General he wasn't so sure. In fact, he didn't trust her in the least. Not anymore.
The shuttle shuddered and McQueen came back to the present with a start. The shuttle was being lowered into the landing bay. The Saratoga's landing bay. For the first time in a year, he was. . .was home?
The shuttle door opened and McQueen rose stiffly. His leg threatened to buckle but he forced it to stay straight. He waited for the delegation to exit then followed slowly, pausing at the top of the ramp to look around.
The welcoming party consisted of one person. Commodore Glen Van Ross stood at the foot of the ramp. McQueen's eyes meet his for a long moment then both men smiled slightly at each other.
"I'll show you to your quarters." Ross said to the delegation. "This way." And he turned on his heel to lead the way through the Saratoga and to the guest quarters. Several of the delegation members made small talk with the Commodore as they walked. McQueen remained silent as Ross directed delegate after delegate into their rooms until, at last, they reached the last room.
Ross swung the hatch open and stepped aside, waving for McQueen to enter. McQueen took two steps inside then froze at the sight of the foursome scattered around the room. For a long moment, he was certain his heart had stopped then Shane Vansen launched herself from the chair she had been sprawled in and he suddenly found himself with an armful of Wild Card.
Automatically, he caught her then he was being very enthusiastically hugged by the young woman. Vanessa Damphousse appeared next to him and McQueen freed an arm to include her. To his surprise, he found himself laughing as Cooper Hawkes and Nathan West joined the group hug then everyone was talking at once, laughing and crying. Ross stood at the sidelines, smiling broadly at the sight of his normally stoic friend acting. . .well, acting like anyone who was seeing old friends for the first time in a year.
Ross drifted to a nearby table and the bottle of rum waiting there. A half-dozen glasses were there also and he began to fill them. When he next looked up, McQueen was next to him, smiling broadly as he took the offered glass. The Wild Cards moved to join them.
"Colonel..." Vansen started and McQueen flinched.
"No, not Colonel. Not anymore." Not ever again, he thought.
This time, Vansen flinched but before she could apologize or continue, there was a pounding at the hatch. Ross swore as he set down the glass and stalked to the hatch, swinging it open with a fierce look that did little to cower the woman on the other side.
"I gave orders. . .!"
"Yes, sir!" The woman interrupted smoothly and McQueen turned to stare at her in surprise. Not many people could get away with that. "But, sir, the Conclave representatives wish to see McQueen, sir!"
Ross' face went totally expressionless though his eyes were blazing with anger. "And how did they find out he was here?"
"Sir! No idea, sir!"
Ross glanced back at his friend. "Ready to meet the Conclave?"
McQueen emptied the glass he held then nodded. "How about the delegation?"
Ross looked back at the woman still standing at attention, all 5-foot-nothing of her. "Sir! They said nothing about the delegation, sir!"
Ross sighed, thinking hard. "We better let them know or there will be trouble. Lt. Wolfe, go let Under secretary General Chaput. . ." He made no comment of the sudden look of disgust that crossed the young woman's face, a look that vanished as quickly as it came. ". . .know of the meeting. Then let the Conclave know we'll be there. In an hour."
"Yes, sir!" The woman spun on her heel and disappeared down the corridor.
Ross turned back to the group within. "I hate to break this up, especially since we really haven't started, but McQueen had better meet with the Conclave. I recommend re-meeting at the Tun Tavern at. . ." He paused, his eyes thoughtful. ". . .19:00."
Both McQueen and the 58th stiffened at the memories that time brought back to them.
"Yes, sir." Vansen set down her glass and led the other Wild Cards from the room. Hawkes paused to glance back at their former commanding officer and McQueen smiled at him. Hawkes smiled back tentatively then turned to follow the others. Ross closed the hatch behind them and turned back to his friend.
"How's the leg?" Was his first question.
McQueen grimaced as he sat down, taking the weight from the leg in question. "Usable." He admitted. "But not well. Not well enough to remain in the Marines." And then, to change the subject. "That Lt. Wolfe....."
Ross startled his friend by laughing. "...is a number and a half. Do you know she's managed to teach one of the ship's cats to salute? The first time he did it, I almost lost it."
McQueen laughed also. "I wish I'd been here to see it."
"Me, too. Anyway, she's one of the new members of the 58th. The Lady of Lances. Don't look at me like that. She chose it." He grinned, shaking his head. "She kept ending up at Landing Bay 5, where the Conclave is so I finally gave her the job of liaison with them just to keep her out of trouble."
"What about the Conclave, Glen?" McQueen asked abruptly, unable to contain himself any longer. "What are they? How. . .?"
"You know about their first message to us?" Ross smiled grimly at his friend's slow nod. "'The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Let's talk alliance. . .'. Hell of a beginning. Well, the Conclave sent a delegation aboard but the top delegate refuses to meet with anyone until he. . .or she or it. . .meets with you."
"Why?" McQueen demanded.
Ross shook his head. "No idea. We don't even have an idea as to what they look like. I've only seen five of them, all in full body-armor. . .no, nothing like the Chigs. When they arrived, their shuttles. . .there were two. . . were lowered into Landing Bay 5. They've been there ever since. The four shorter ones. . ." He laughed. "Actually, the shortest is maybe 5-foot-10 but Skrathe has got to be at least seven-foot-tall. Anyway, the four shorter ones switch off guard duty outside the bay hatch. The only one that's spoken is Skrathe. He's the one who said that the top delegate. . . Khadaji. . .wanted to speak to you. No reason as to why."
A knock came at the hatch and Ross half-turned toward it but paused before actually opening it. "I should tell you, Ty, Anne Crougar is stationed on board."
McQueen stiffened, old memories flooding his mind, a sick taste in his mouth.
"She's CO of the 78th."
"I. . .thanks, Glen." McQueen stood stiffly, working his leg to make sure he wouldn't stumble.
Ross nodded and swung the hatch open, revealing Lt. Wolfe standing at attention. Behind her was Chaput. "Back to your duties, Wolfe." Ross growled and the young woman turned and fled. Ross stepped from the room and McQueen followed. This time, instead of falling back to follow the group, he walked next to his friend, ignoring Chaput's dark look.
"Commodore. . ." Chaput spoke up, following closely on Ross' heels. "It might be best if we were to first meet the Conclave delegation without McQueen. . ."
"It might but it won't happen. The Conclave delegate refuses to do any negotiating until after he. . .or she or it. . .has spoken with McQueen." Ross fixed Chaput with a stern look. "I suggest you take it up with the delegate as to why. Frankly, I'm not even sure they'll want anyone else included in this talk."
Chaput began to protest but then they were turning a corner and before them was the closed hatch leading to Landing Bay 5. On each side of the hatch was a figure, humanoid in size and shape and, as they drew closer, they could see that they were wearing armor. But this armor was nothing like those of a Chig's. McQueen paused, eyes studying the figure from the boots up.
The calf-high boots and bodysuit were covered with tiny nonreflective black scales, the latter covering the wearer from throat to wrist to ankle. Over the bodysuit was a red cloth loincloth and a silver breastplate. Hands were covered with skin-close black gloves. The head was covered by a silver helmet in the shape of what appeared to be the head of a bird of prey, effectively hiding the features.
Ross paused in front of them. "Call Skrathe." Was all he said.
One of the figures turned to open the hatch just far enough to slip through it. A minute later, another figure stepped through. This one stood maybe seven-feet-tall and the armor covering him was total, no bodysuit here. It reminded McQueen of the armor of medieval knights, with the helmet looking vaguely doglike. . .no, wolflike.
"Commodore." The voice that came from the helmet was deep and spoke English with very little accent. The helmet turned toward McQueen. When the alien spoke again, there was undeniable satisfaction in his voice. "McQueen."
"Skrathe." Ross didn't seem surprised that Skrathe knew who McQueen was. "This is T.C. McQueen." He gestured toward the third man. "Under secretary Nicholas Chaput."
Skrathe waved a hand in dismissal. "We've wasted enough time, I think." He turned and swung the hatch fully open. "Shall we?"
McQueen swallowed, exchanged a look with Ross. They really had been waiting for him. Slowly, he walked forward, dimly aware that Ross was following. Behind him, he could heard Chaput protest.
"If you wish to come along, by all means, come along. I've no problem with that. I doubt Khadaji will mind either."
And then McQueen was stepping through the hatch and standing on the top of the stairs, looking down over the landing bay.
There were only two shuttles here. One was built very much like ones from Earth, though it was taller and more narrow. The other. . .
The other was shaped like. . .like, well, a gryphon. A giant gryphon as large as the shuttle. How one would fly it or how it flew, McQueen had no idea.
"Whew. . .that's one weird ship." He muttered to Ross, now standing next to him.
"I resent that!" The ‘ship' swung its head around to glare at him, its deep voice indignant. "I am not weird! I mean re. . .did he call me a ship?" The latter was directed at the armored figure next to him, the being who had originally come in to get Skrathe.
McQueen paled, eyes widening, realizing that he had just managed to insult the chief alien delegate. Chaput looked horrified, Ross was now swearing under his breath. Skrathe, on the other hand, appeared to be laughing hysterically.
"Oh, shut up, Skrathe." Khadaji stood, long wings folded snugly against its. . .no, his, definitely his...sides. With long strides, claws clicking on the floor, he approached the group. Standing on the landing put them about even with the huge creature's head. "No insult meant, none taken. Hmmmmm?" He stretched out his neck, that wickedly sharp beak bare inches from McQueen.
McQueen eyed Khadaji warily. Yes, that was metal fur. And the feathers, they too were of dark metal. The eyes were gold in color, flashing with unmistakable merriment.
"None meant." He said finally.
"Good. Well, I am Khadaji. And you are McQueen." The head swung around to look first at Ross and then at Chaput. "Glen Van Ross. Nicholas Chaput. Interesting. Please, do come down." Khadaji stepped back. After a moment, McQueen started down the stairs. As he neared the bottom, his leg buckled and he would have fallen if a wing hadn't suddenly scooped around him, holding him steady as he regained his footing.
"Thanks." He muttered to the alien and Khadaji chuckled, using the wing to guide him toward a couple of chairs nearby.
"Fetch another chair, child." Khadaji said to an armored figure and it obeyed, adding another chair to the two already there. "McQueen. . ."
McQueen sank into the chair on the far left. Ross sat next to him and Chaput on the Commodore's right. Khadaji settled in front of them, lying down with forepaws crossed.
"I'm sure you're wondering exactly what's going on." He addressed this directly to McQueen and the man nodded.
"I'll try to explain." McQueen marveled at how expressive the alien machine's face was. Khadaji looked pained. "Rather, let me summarize. To explain totally would take days. . .weeks even and weeks we do not have. Earth doesn't have, I should say. To start with, there are seventeen sentient species within the Conclave. Some are not very numerous, others very numerous. Some very sentient, some not. Some very high in technology, others not."
Khadaji tended to use his hands when he talked and he was waving them now. "There is a. . .trinity, shall we say?. . .of species we now refer to as the Inner Conclave. One the most technically advanced, one the. . .wisest, for a better word, the last the eldest of all the races. The Timnor, the Minotaurs, the Ish'Kiri. I. . ." He rested a hand on his broad chest. ". . .am an Ish'Kiri."
"We are the oldest of all the species currently known. Definitely older then Humans and, yes, older then the Shakitu. . .the Chigs as you call them. We are a race of sentient machines. For various reason, which you will find out about later, I was chosen to represent the Conclave. We have decided to aid Earth. With conditions, of course."
"Why?" Chaput demanded.
"Why help Earth? Well, I could tell you that it was out of the goodness of our hearts but I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face and I suspect that all of you would die laughing. Rather hard to explain, that. No, we have our reasons for suggesting an alliance. And our own reasons for wishing to keep Earth intact. The main one. . .the most important one. . .is very simple. Earth and its surrounding space provides a buffer between Conclave territory and the Shakitu. We would like to retain that buffer."
"That. . .makes sense." McQueen said thoughtfully.
"Doesn't it?" Khadaji sounded pleased. "So, we are willing to negotiate. Technology. People. We'll help. On our conditions." Khadaji had shifted to where his beak was resting point-down on the ground, eyes level with McQueen's head.
"What conditions? What do you want?" McQueen managed to choke out, mesmerized by the Ish'Kiri's golden-eyed. . .no, how could he ever think those eyes were gold? They were bluish-gray. And the fur. . .the feathers. They had been dark. Now they had shifted in color until Khadaji was now silver.
"Want? Well, you for starters." And Khadaji smiled.
"Why?" Ross demanded and McQueen silently thanked him for that, for Ross' outburst had attracted Khadaji's attention, shifting it from McQueen and he was able to relax, to ponder what Khadaji had just said.
"Why? Why indeed." The Ish'Kiri rose to his feet and turned. It took a moment for McQueen to realize that the huge creature was pacing.
"You're trying to figure out whether to tell the truth or not, aren't you?" McQueen asked softly and Khadaji looked at him in some surprise.
"Just which truth to tell. There are. . .so many. So many. . ." Khadaji laid back down, eyes half-closed. "The last time. . .the last time we Ish'Kiri were involved in a war was centuries ago and I. . .well, I was the military commander then. When the decision was made to offer aid to Earth in their battle against the Shakitu, I was approached to help lead the forces we would be offering to Earth. In the last war we were involved in. . ." A faraway look appeared in Khadaji's eyes. "Our shapes were different then, our Komees. . .our pilots...were Minotaurs. Now, today . . ." He thumped himself on the chest. ". . .this is the shape we designed to fight the Shakitu. This time, our Komees will be human. And you are the man we wish to lead them. To lead us."
McQueen stared at him, speechless.
"I can't even fly!" He didn't bother to try and hide the anguish in his voice.
"Why? Because of your leg? Your shoulder injuries? Or the inner ear imbalance? Oh, yes, I know about all of that. We've been keeping an eye on you for some time now, Ty. And we'd never ask you to do something you could not do. The Timnor's medicine works very well on human InVitros. They can heal you."
McQueen stared at him, an odd hope flaring inside. If the Ish'Kiri was telling the truth, if he could be healed. . .he could fly! But could he trust the Conclave was the question. "Why me?"
"Why you? Because you are an exceptional being, Ty. Because there are so many reasons I cannot list them, not at this time."
"Wait a minute." Ross barked and both McQueen and Khadaji jumped, startled once again into remembering that others were here. "You're expecting him to accept this on faith. Asking him to trust you without giving a very good reason. Yes, he's exceptional. I've known that for years, even if he hasn't. But why is he exceptional to you? To the Conclave?"
Khadaji stood again, pacing this time in a tight circle, looking, for a moment, like an over-sized dog chasing his tail, then he abruptly sat down, his gray-blue eyes intense. For the first time, Ross realized that Khadaji's eyes were the same color as McQueen's then the Ish'Kiri began to speak softly.
"You are a great warrior, McQueen. Even grounded the way you are, out of the Service, you keep up your skills. The books you read, the philosophy you follow. They are mine also. We are very much alike. The team we would make...think of it!"
"Team. . .?"
"Of course." Khadaji looked surprised. "You will be my Komees. I, too, need one, you know."
InVitro and Ish'Kiri stared at each other, a long appraising look that was finally broken by Chaput.
"What exactly is the Conclave offering us?"
"Eleven rogues of Gryphips." He saw their puzzled looks and thumped his chest. "I'm a Gryphip. . .a gryphon ship. Best damn fighting ship known. And, no. That's not just bragging. A rage of Rathorns. . .our version of the Saratoga. An Aerie ship. Technology. Personnel. Knowledge. A chance to win."
McQueen stood abruptly, mildly amazed that his leg held. Ignoring the others, he limped forward, toward Khadaji. Without a word, Khadaji stood, standing perfectly still as the man, circling him slowly, looking him over with the same careful eye he once used to inspect his Hammerhead.
His head was that of an eagle's, noble and proud with a wicked beak that did look capable of tearing apart Chig fighters. His chest was deep and broad...ample room for a cockpit, McQueen couldn't help but think. The front legs ended in hands, each tipped with a sharp claw with wrists encircled by wide wristlets. The body was of some jungle cat, lean and mean with the wings broad and long. The hindpaws were also tipped with sharp claws. The tail was shorter then McQueen expected, obviously designed to help in flying.
The man stepped closer to touch the fur. It was surprisingly soft. "You were dark when we came in." He said thoughtfully. "You can change color?"
"Oh, yes. Wonderful for camouflage."
McQueen stepped back. "I need to think on this. I need. . ."
"Time? It's yours. Go, think it over. But I ask that the details of this conversation remain within these walls."
"You're kidding, right?" Ross laughed humorlessly. "No one would believe this. I'll go with McQueen, if you've no objections?"
"I will remain, if you don't mind." Chaput said in a distracted voice. "I would like to speak with Khadaji."
"Fine." Ross said then fixed a piercing look on Khadaji. "One question, though, Khadaji. You said the. . .the Timnor could heal Ty."
"If he decides to decline your offer, will they still heal him?"
Khadaji looked surprised. "Of course. And if he declines, the negotiations will continue...with modifications but they will continue."
"Fine. That's all I wanted to know." And Ross spun on his heel to follow his friend from the landing bay.
"Of course." The Gryphip laid back down, watching as McQueen walked to the stairs and up them, flanked by Ross.