Back in the guest quarters, McQueen collapsed in a chair, taking the glass of rum Ross offered him. He took a reviving swallow then leaned back in the chair, rolling the glass between his palms thoughtfully, staring into the amber liquid.
Ross leaned back against a table, watching his friend brood. "You're seriously considering it, aren't you?" He finally asked.
McQueen threw him a surprised look. "Wouldn't you?"
Ross frowned. "Yes, yes, I guess I would. But can you trust them?"
"I don't know." McQueen half-whispered, eyes faraway. "I just don't know."
Ross studied his friend for a very long moment before reaching down to grip his shoulder with a firm hand. "I think you need time to think. I'll talk to you later."
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks." McQueen didn't look up as Ross opened the hatch and slipped out. Instead, he sat staring sightless at the floor, his mind whirling. It was the chance of a lifetime, a chance to fly again, a chance to. . .to. . .
"Damn!" McQueen slammed the glass down on the table and pushed himself upright. Swinging open the hatch, he stepped through and headed back toward Landing Bay 5.
One of the two figures flanking the entrance into the bay stepped to the hatch and swung it open as he approached. He didn't even pause, just strolled through and turned to walk carefully down the stairs. Much to his surprise, Chaput was gone and the other three members of the Conclave were not in sight.
"I sent Chaput away." Khadaji said from where he lounged nearby. "And the others are in the shuttle." He nodded toward the alien shuttle. "I thought you might return."
"Perceptive, aren't you?" McQueen limped forward.
"Where you are concerned, yes." Khadaji shifted, patting a stretched-out forearm. "Come, sit down. Take off a leg."
McQueen glowered darkly at the Gryphip before limping forward to sink down on the offered seat. Leaning back against Khadaji's chest, he pulled up his pant leg and worked off the artificial leg, setting it next to him and peeling off the stocking, grimacing at the remaining stump. Raw and red. Leave it to him to be allergic to most of the materials in an artificial leg.
He looked up at Khadaji, who was peering at the leg. "This can be healed?"
"Oh, yes. Regrown actually. It'll take time, of course. We'll have to bring over the equipment and everything."
"And no matter what happens during these negotiation, it'll be done?"
"Again, yes. I want you to accept this offer because you want to. Not because you feel you have to."
"And I can trust the Timnor?" There was irony in McQueen's voice.
"Oh, yes. You can. Believe it or not. Does that ache?"
McQueen grimaced. "Yes."
"Wait...." A foot-square section of Khadaji's chest slid aside and the Gryphip used a claw to point inside. "See that jar there? Yes, that one. The green one. That's a salve we call kuta. It should help."
"It works on humans?"
"It works on most mammalian species." He caught the look on McQueen's face and laughed. "Yes, it works on humans."
Twisting off the top, McQueen peered at the off-white cream within then sniffed it cautiously. It had an almost minty smell to it. Dipping out a couple finger fulls out, he smoothed the cream over the stump. Almost immediately, the ache began to ease.
"Nice." He said, stretching his legs out in front of him and setting the jar down next to him. "How long will it take to regrow my leg?"
"Depends on the method used. Maybe a year. Maybe a month."
"Excuse me?" McQueen was sure he hadn't the last bit correctly.
"You heard me."
"Well, there's this nice little self-replicating bacterial virus that the Timnor developed some centuries ago they call QuickHeal. How it works is rather hard to explain but it essentially rebuilds the body according to the original genetic specifications. Now, if we simply give you the QuickHeal, it will rebuild your leg but do it slowly, maybe take a year, and, if you were a InUtero, we would have no choice but to do that. But InVitros work differently. Because of the way InVitros are grown, we are able to accelerate the healing process. The downside is that you'll have to be out of circulation. . .complete circulation. . .for maybe a month."
McQueen absently rubbed behind his ear, at the old scar there then paused, eyes narrowing. "Wait a minute. How do you know all this? There aren't any humans in the Conclave. . ."
Khadaji suddenly found the ceiling very interesting.
". . .are there?"
Khadaji looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "Well, actually, there are. Y'see, we've been observing Earth for many millennia and, on occasion, have had reason to take groups of humans from Earth and transplant them to other planets. . ."
McQueen leaned forward slowly, staring at the Gryphip. "Why?" He demanded.
"Well, sometimes to save them. If a village is wiped out or perhaps a people, we tried to save the survivors. Transport them to worlds where they could survive. Among other reasons. And then, about nineteen years, when the Timnor discovered that Earth was sending InVitros to mining worlds as slave labor. . .well, to say they were pissed would be an understatement. They started raiding mines and transports to steal away InVitros. So now there is a substantial InVitro population in the Conclave as well."
"So the Chig ambassador was telling the truth. Aerotech did know about them."
"But of course. We told them."
McQueen stared at him, his mind whirling. "Damn them. . .why?"
"Ohhhhh, undoubtedly the usual reason. Greed."
McQueen closed his eyes, feeling sick. Khadaji was right, of course. But the cost!
"Please don't tell me you're surprised."
"No, not really, damnit." Absently, McQueen leaned back against the Gryphip, marveling at how soft the metallic fur was. "So. . .what exactly is an Ish'Kiri?"
"As I said, the Ish'Kiri are a race of sentient machines, such as myself. We come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, up to a couple years ago, I was part of one of the largest libraries of Ish'Kiri. And before that, some millennia ago, I was one of original fighting ships. . .the Dragips. And between now and then, I have spent centuries as an exploring scout, military specialist, etc., etc. . ."
McQueen blinked as it occurred to him that getting to really know Khadaji was going to take a very long time.
"But who built the Ish'Kiri? And if you tell me you don't know, I may scream and beat you with a leg."
"Ahhhhh, but. . ." Khadaji paused and glared at McQueen as the man's words sank in then continue in a half-snarl. "But we do know. It was the beings once known as the Shanir." Khadaji grinned at the expression on McQueen's face. "They created us as a repository of their knowledge and gatherers of new knowledge then they. . .transcended."
"Transcended? Into what?"
Khadaji chuckled. "You may just find out."
McQueen eyed him for a long moment then decided the Gryphip would say nothing more on that subject. He opened his mouth to ask another question then caught sight of his watch and swore. "I'm meeting the 58th in ten minutes." He said, reaching first for the stocking and then the leg. "I'll be back after."
"Bah." Khadaji said cheerfully. "Get some sleep. We'll talk in the morning. Here, take the salve with you."
McQueen picked up the jar, bouncing it on the palm of his hand before dropping it into a pocket. Almost absently, he reached out to rub Khadaji's beak before turning to walk to the stairs and up them.
"Good night, Ty."
McQueen paused at the top of the stairs, looking at the huge Gryphip lounging in the center of the bay. Sleek and handsome. Gleaming silver feathers and fur and gray-blue eyes. Something told him that the Gryphip would be the fastest ship he'd ever fly and the best as well. And, with a single word, it could be his. All his.
Khadaji watched as McQueen left the bay and one of the warriors closed the hatch firmly behind him. He grinned as only a Gryphip could.
"Mine." He said lovingly to the empty bay. "All mine."
Fifteen minutes later, McQueen stepped into the Tun Tavern for the first time in a year.
He paused in the doorway, looking around the gloomy interior of the tavern. A couple of the tables were full, a scattering of the bar stools were occupied. Near one of the large portals looking out to the stars was the 58th, the four he knew, young Wolfe and two young men he did not know. Undoubtedly a couple new Wild Carders.
Vansen looked up and spotted him, waving for him to join them. He smiled and strolled over to join them, pulling out a chair to sink down between Vansen and Wolfe.
"Colonel. . ." Vansen caught his grimace and grimaced herself. "Sorry sir but. . ."
"It's all right." He glanced at the new people and Vansen took the hint.
"Jason Spotted Pony." A sturdy-built Native American with short black hair and bright green eyes nodded at McQueen.
"Eldon Beacon." This one was taller then Spotted Pony with brown hair and hazel eyes, for too slender for his own good. He grinned broadly.
"And I think you've already meet Tristram Wolfe." The young woman smiled and waved a gray-striped paw at him. McQueen blinked then leaned over to peer at the gray-striped tabby laying on its back in her lap. It purred back at him with an odd broken sound.
"And this must be the famous saluting cat."
Wolfe's grin broadened and lifted the cat up to stand on the table. It blinked sleepily.
The tabby promptly sat up, forepaws tucked against its chest.
Right paw came up to rest perfectly over a sleepy yellow-green eye and McQueen burst out laughing.
"He'll stay like that until you salute back."
McQueen shook his head but saluted smoothly back. The cat promptly tumbled onto its side and stretched.
"That isn't part of the trick. He just does that." Hawkes reached over to rub the cat's stomach and it wrapped paws around his hand and bit at his fingers.
"He just does that too." Vansen laughed then stiffened, glancing over at the door as group of people entered. McQueen followed her gaze and frowned.
He recognized Anne Crougar even after ten years. She was, he had to admit, a real beauty with her long jet black hair and dark blue, almost violet eyes, eyes that threw hateful look at him. A cluster of people followed her inside and one of them paused to glare at the 58th.
"Colonel Jenkins." West said in response to McQueen's questioning look. "Our CO."
"Well, you're off-duty." McQueen grinned. "To hell with them." He took the glass of beer Damphousse offered him and lifted it in toast. "To old friends gone. . .Butts, Winslow, Wang."
Several glass clinked together and the reminiscences began. McQueen listened with half-an-ear, waiting for what he knew would come.
And it did.
The first insult seemed to be off-the-cuff but biting. An insult McQueen shrugged off easily though he saw more than one of the 58th flinch. He glanced at the 78th, noting, with some surprise, that two of them had drifted off from the others.
"Nyota M'Boya and Kevin Flannigan." Wolfe thumped Gambit's chest. "They're decent."
"Ahhhh." McQueen turned his attention back to what Vansen was saying.
All of the 58th were doing their best to ignore the 78th, as was McQueen but the insults were getting worse. McQueen was used to it or at least he told himself that, aware that his muscles were tightening and one hand was clenched into a tight fist while the other was threatening to shatter the glass he held.
And then. . .
Crougar's voice was high and mocking, a remark about one-legged Tanks that cut to the bone and beyond. McQueen sat perfectly still, his face expressionless, his eyes icy with barely suppressed fury. An odd noise was coming from the young woman to his left and he suddenly realized that Wolfe was growling. The realization snap the band of paralyses keeping him in place and he grabbed both Wolfe and Vansen before they could stand.
"Sit down." He said in a low, controlled voice to the rest of the 58th. They paused in mid-stand, looking at him before sinking back down.
"Sir. . .!" Hawkes started to protest but stopped at stern look from McQueen.
"It's not worth it, Cooper. Trust me." He smiled grimly. "Especially where a grand A bitch like Crougar is concerned."
The Wild Cards looked at each other then back at him. He could feel their stares as he looked broodingly into his glass of Scotch. "We served in the 147th together."
Vansen blinked. "That was your first squadron, wasn't it?"
McQueen surprised himself by laughing. "Figures you'd know that, Shane. Yes, it was. More importantly, it was my first time interacting with natural borns on daily basis. I didn't know much about. . .well, about anything. She was friendly." He caught their startled looks and smiled grimly. "I didn't find out until much later that it was a. . . a game. A challenge really. It seemed that the females of about three different squads had a bet going on. Who could bag a Tank first."
Wolfe was growling again and McQueen glanced at her. "Are you even aware that you're growling?"
The woman looked startled then flushed. "Actually, no. I take it she didn't. . .ahhhh. . .win?"
"No, she didn't. I may have been naive but I wasn't stupid and my instincts told me run, quickly, in any direction but hers. So. . ."
The remarks flying around the table behind them were getting louder and more taunting but the Wild Cards were too caught up in McQueen's words to pay much attention to them. Others in the bar were noticing though and many were quietly slipping from the tavern. The 58th's ability to defend their In Vitro CO's honor had been well-known and few wanted to be in the way when the Wild Cards exploded.
"So now she hates you." Damphousse said.
"Oh, she hated me before that. She hates me because I'm a Tank. Because I'm. . .I was a better flyer. A better fighter. In better control of myself. Her in that little game was just way for her to control me. . .prove in some way that she's better then I am." He glanced down at his leg. "I guess she's finally managed that. She's definitely the better flyer now."
Vansen snorted. "Like hell. She wouldn't have lasted against Chiggie Von Richthofen. Not two minutes."
McQueen smiled at the certainty in Vansen's voice, a smile that froze at the taunting voice behind them. He had missed the first part but he could guess at what it was. Something concerning the rumored sexual prowess. . .or lack thereof. . .in male InVitros. It was a remark that normally would just make him grit his teeth and let pass but this remark was not aimed at him. It had been aimed at the females of the 58th.
A red haze came down over his eyes and he set the glass down carefully, gripping the edge of the table in preparation of rising then stopped as a thought struck him. He stared sightlessly at the table, ignoring the sudden expectant silence behind him and the concerned looks of the 58th. He smiled slowly, an oddly unpleasant smile that made the Wild Cards worry about the safety of both Jenkins and the 78th then McQueen rose smoothly.
"Order me a pot of coffee. Very black. Very strong." Then he was turning on his heel and hurrying out the door, ignoring the puzzled looks following him.
Vansen ordered the pot of coffee but ended up sending it back as time passed. Fifteen minutes. A half hour. Jenkins and the 78th had fallen into a puzzled silence though an occasional taunting remark could be heard. Forty-five minutes. Then, just before a full hour had passed, McQueen returned. He was still smiling but now his eyes had joined into the act. They were positively merry as he rejoined the 58th, completely ignoring the 78th.
West got to his feet and stepped to the bar, returning with a steaming cup of coffee. McQueen looked surprised then smiled in thanks as he took it. With a nonchalance that Vansen couldn't help but admire, he asked her how her niece was doing. Soon they were once again chatting away. A few loud remarks came from the table behind them but McQueen ignored them completely and the 58th were too caught up in the war stories McQueen was telling to care.
It was halfway through the story of how he had meet Ross when McQueen caught the glimpse of someone coming into the tavern. Chaput. Nicholas Chaput. What was he doing here? Ahhhh. . .he was looking thoughtfully at the 78th. Breaking off the story, he rose and limped over to him. His leg was starting to hurt again.
"Thinking of telling them?" McQueen asked softly.
"Thinking about it." McQueen was startled to see a sudden glint of amusement spring into Chaput's dark eyes. "Then I imagine the sound I'd make as Khadaji ground me into the floor with his heel and the thought goes away." He waved a hand.
McQueen surprised himself by laughing. "Yes. He just might do that."
Chaput gave him a piercing look. "You've made up your mind, haven't you?"
"Yes." And McQueen had. "Believe it or not, Chaput, we are on the same side."
Chaput gave him a long, appraising look then turned, walking from the tavern. McQueen shook his head and rejoined the Wild Cards.
"I need some sleep. And medication. Not necessarily in that order. And tomorrow. . ." His eyes narrowed. ". . .I think I'll be busy. We'll all be busy. See you then."
"One question, Colo. . .ahhhh. . ." Wolfe floundered in confusion. McQueen gave her an encouraging smile and she rushed on in a low voice. "Is this likely to get any of us court-martialed?"
McQueen laughed and ruffled the young woman's short hair before walking from the tavern. Behind him, he could hear Wolfe's plaintive "That isn't very reassuring."
Twenty-seven hours later, the 58th sat in the briefing room, the 78th sitting nearby, watching as Commodore Ross entered the room and took a stance at the front of the room. His dark eyes skimmed over the gathered pilots and a slight smile curved his lips.
"As all of you know, we are in the process of forging an alliance with a collection of alien races known as the Conclave. Among the...resources they have offered us are fighting ships." A glint of amusement flared in his eyes then vanished. "These ships, these Gryphips, were built to be flown by a human pilot. Not only do we wish to test a Gryphip's ability of taking on Hammerhead. . .or, rather, seven Hammerheads, but we wish to test a human's ability to fly a Gryphip."
"In order to do this, the 78th will engage one of the Conclave's fighting ships in a war game. During this war game, the 78th's Hammerheads will have non-lethal ammo as we do not want any causalities. Due to the fact that the 78th will be unarmed, the 58th will give escort to and from the engagement site, plus keep an eye out for Chig patrols during the war game. The 58th will not involve themselves in any way in this engagement. The 78th will not involve the 58th in any way."
Ross turned toward the display behind him, tapping on a planet shown there then drawing circle around it and surrounding space. "This is where the war game will take place. You will be leaving within the hour. Any questions?"
"Sir?" Crougar stood to stand at ease. "Who will be flying the alien fighter?"
"I will be." T.C. McQueen stepped into view. He was dressed in an unfamiliar flight suit that fit his slender form like a glove, a flight suit of unrelieved black save for an odd silver emblem on the left breast. Calf-high black boots, black gloves, a black beret. The black helmet tucked under his right arm was worked in the shape of some bird of prey. A thick white bandage could be seen behind his right ear.
"He's had that thing removed again." Hawkes muttered to Vansen and she nodded, worry in her eyes. Once was bad enough. Twice? And with an artificial leg to boot.
"You?!" There was disbelief in Crougar's voice. "You can't even fly! Commodore, might I recommend someone else fly the alien ship?"
"Someone like you?" McQueen laughed. "Not in your lifetime, Crougar. I can still outfly you."
Crougar threw him a black look and opened her mouth to argue further.
"There will be no discussion, Colonel. McQueen will fly the Gryphip. 78th. 58th. Move out."
Crougar swallowed hard then spun on her heel and started from the room only to pause when McQueen called her name.
McQueen grinned at the sour expression on Crougar's face and winked at her. "My ship can beat up your ship." He said mockingly then blew her a kiss.
Ross thought Crougar was going to explode. With an obvious effort, the woman brought herself under control and turned to storm from the room. Her squadron followed. McQueen smiled reassuringly at the 58th as they filed out behind the 78th..
Once everyone was gone, Ross turned to his friend, not bothering to hide the worry in his eyes. "You sure you can do this?"
McQueen smiled. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life, Glen."
Ross nodded toward the bandage. "How's your balance?"
"Lousy, especially with this leg. But once I'm in Khadaji, it won't matter."
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, letting their shared silence say what needed to be said and what would never be said outloud.
"Come on." Ross said finally. "I'll go with you to the bay...catch you if you fall."
The Wild Cards held their Hammerheads in a hovering formation, watching as the 78th faked a patrol pattern. The other squadron wasn't bothering to hide their scorn of this assignment and laughing over the thought of a single ship piloted by a crippled Tank beating them. Vansen could practically hear the sound of grinding teeth from the others or maybe it was just the sound of her teeth amplified.
"Man." Hawkes muttered. "Where the hell is McQueen? If he doesn't get here soon, I'm gonna blow those bastards to hell myself!"
"What? And ruin the game?" The deep voice was totally unfamiliar to the 58th and they all jerked in startlement. "Now, now. That's not very nice."
"Shit!" Hawkes spotted the alien ship first. Not hard as it was currently floating upside above his canopy, peering in at him.
"Such language." The voice chided and the alien ship shook a finger at him.
"Knock it off, Khadaji!" McQueen barked. "We're here to engage the 78th, not the 58th."
"Oh, right. The 78th. They're the ones I can beat up, right? Oh, goody, goody!" The alien ship clapped its hands together in delight and flipped itself around to look in the direction of the 78th. "But we have three hours, silverhair. If we engage them now, what will we do for the next two hours and fifty-nine minutes? And thirty-plus seconds?"
"You've no sense of humor, Ty. Later, fledglings!" Laughing, Khadaji winged away.
"Did you see that?" There was awe in Hawkes' voice.
"Can the chatter!" Vansen barked, though her own thoughts were swirling uncontrollably. "Keep an eye out for Chigs." Despite her words, Vansen found herself keeping an eye on the upcoming dogfight. . .make that gryphon fight.
Despite their scorn at the thought of fighting McQueen, the 78th was as alert as they would have been on any real patrol. Even so, Khadaji's first swoop took them completely by surprise. One minute they were flying in formation, the next, Nelson and M'Boya were spinning out of control, swearing in surprise as the Gryphip swooped between them.
"Two down!" McQueen's voice came over their speakers. "Nelson! M'Boya! You each just lost a wing!"
"Two down! Five to go!" Another voice boomed. "Come on, 78th! Cally-cally-cally catch us if you can!"
And the Gryphip swooped back, catching the nose of Peterson's Hammerhead in a wicked uppercut that sent him spinning.
"And Peterson just lost the nose of his Hammerhead. You're out of this, Peterson." McQueen couldn't keep the triumph from his voice.
McQueen had to give Crougar credit. She had recovered quickly and she and the four remaining members of the 78th were regrouping. Khadaji flared his wings then swooped downward, heading for the planet.
"Time to change our strategy, Ty. Shall we play a game of tag-you're-dead?"
"Sounds good to me." McQueen's eyes flitted over the screens on the cockpit's walls, evaluating their options. The 78th was good, he had to give them that but a Hammerhead was just a machine. A Gryphip was more, a Gryphip was a partner and McQueen grinned as Khadaji came to an abrupt halt, spinning in place and dropping to ‘claw' open the belly of the lead Hammerhead as it flew overhead. "Martin, you're dead!" Then, in private mode to Khadaji. "Let's head for the planet now."
"Gotcha." Khadaji folded his wings and dove toward the planet, ignoring the firing of the remaining Hammerheads as they plummeted downward.
McQueen gripped the arms of the chair, aware that he was grinning maniacally and not giving a damn. After the chip had been removed from his ear, he had awoken in the landing bay with Khadaji. . .Skrathe had insisted he be taken there rather then his quarters. The next several hours had been taken up with talking and exploring, familiarizing himself with what Khadaji could do and what he could do with Khadaji. Well, here was one thing.
Khadaji hadn't bothered to slow down at all as they raced the Hammerheads to the planet's surface. The alien ocean rushed toward them and the Gryphip folded his wings and ducked his head as they sliced cleanly into the water. Immediately, Khadaji began to swim powerfully downward, deeper into the water. McQueen looked over the display screens at the alien life forms swimming frantically away and reflected that this would be lot more fun if Khadaji would stop singing "Yellow Submarine".
On the other hand, he was very glad he couldn't see Khadaji...he rather suspected the Gryphip was now brilliant yellow.
"Can you tell where they are?" He asked finally as Khadaji finally leveled off.
"Yep." The display screens changed and McQueen was studying another display, this one from above the three Hammerheads. He grinned in satisfaction. Khadaji's larger ‘spy-eye', the large metallic gyre-falcon named Sleen, was circling unnoticed above the Hammerheads.
"Let's take out Flannigan."
"Riiiiggghhhtt!" And Khadaji re-angled himself upward, wings spreading as he surged from the water, erupting directly under Flannigan's passing ship. He grabbed a wing and heaved, sending the Hammerhead spinning. "Oh, look! Flannigan just crashed into the ocean. Boomboomboom! Crash!" Khadaji produced suitable sound effects.
"You're out of it, Flannigan." McQueen chuckled.
"Here, Smithy, Smithy, Smithy!!!" Khadaji chanted as he swooped after the remaining ships. The two Hammerheads swept apart.
"Khadaji, follow Smith."
"You know this is a trap. And here she comes. Hang on!"
McQueen did as the Gryphip began to swoop and whirl, still on Smith's tail. Behind them, Crougar started firing.
"Khadaji, up!" And Khadaji's wings cupped air as the Gryphip angled upward. The projectiles meant for him stitched Smith's machine. They all could hear the man curse as he left the game but neither Khadaji or McQueen paid any attention as Khadaji continued the loop. Crougar tried to follow but while a Hammerhead was designed to do many things, a Gryphip was designed to dance. Khadaji landed with gentle ease on the woman's Hammerhead, claws curling around the canopy.
"I told you my ship could beat up your ship." McQueen said in a smug voice and Khadaji howled with laughter.
"Well, that was fun. Shall we do it again? Hey, hey, hey?" Khadaji flipped over to fly upside down over Crougar's ship, peering into the canopy.
Crougar gritted her teeth and did her best to ignore the Gryphip.
"Awwwwww. Annie don't like me none." Khadaji rolled around the Hammerhead before winging off to chase Hawkes' ship.
"Khad! Calm down, damnit!" McQueen's voice cut across the space chatter and Khadaji veered away, humming to himself as he looped around Hammerheads and chased his own tail. McQueen sighed. "Life with you isn't going to be dull, is it?"
"Never, never, never!" The Gryphip chanted. "Does that mean you accept the position of Komeesee?"
"Was there ever any doubt?"
"Could you be a little more. . ?"
"Yes, yes, yes! I accept, damnit."
"Oh, goodygoodygoody!" The Gryphip clapped his hands together then took up a new chant. "I've got a Komees! I've got a Komees! I've go. . ."
"What does Komees mean anyway?" Damphousse asked abruptly, more to stop the chanting then anything else.
"Uhhh? Oh." Khadaji swooped back to wing along next the young woman's Hammerhead. "Well, Komees means heart. Komeesee translates roughly into heart of. Heart of what really isn't too clear. Some scholars think it means Heart of Hearts and others think it means Heart of All. Some argue that it simply means Heart of Conclave but that doesn't work too well considering . . .well, considering."
"Sounds like a big title for a little job." Crougar said snidely and Khadaji laughed.
"What little job? I suspect that Ty may just regret accepting this position once he realizes what it entails."
"What does it entail?" McQueen asked slowly, already beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into.
"Well, to be honest, it hasn't been hammered down yet. The job description tends to change with every reincarnation but I can tell you one of the Komeesee's other titles." Khadaji paused then continued smugly. "War Chief."
"Real original, Crougar. Let me make it easy for you. At this very moment, there is no one currently on the Saratoga that outranks McQueen."
Utter silence reigned for a long moment then. . .
"Wait a minute! That's. . !"
"What? Ridiculous? Impossible? Guess again. The agreement we have so far with Earth is that military officers will be treated according to their rank, whether Conclave or Earth. Now, by accepting the role of Komeesee, Ty has moved, at least partially. . .I'll explain that later. . .maybe. . .into the Conclave military. Kinda. Sorta. Hell, it's a bitch to explain." The Gryphip heaved a sigh. "Well, let's just say that, in certain instances, no one ranks the Komeesee."
McQueen found himself staring blankly at the display screens and reminded himself to breath. The Gryphip continued.
"Listen up ‘cause this is complicated. Now, once we're on the Saratoga then the Commodore does outrank him ‘cause he commands the ship. Same with any ship, actually. The master of a vessel is considered exactly that. But no one else would, no matter how high ranking they may be. And even then there's a line drawn. Y'see, the Komeesee has sole authority over the Gryphips. And I do mean sole. Where the Gryphips are concerned, nobody outranks the Komeesee." Yes, Khadaji was definitely smug.
"Aren't you taking a chance choosing a Komeesee outside of the Conclave?" Crougar asked.
"Oh, the Komeesee always comes from outside the Conclave. That way he, she, it has no particular loyalty to any one species of the Conclave. And, to answer that little unspoken question rattling around in your head, the Komeesee is always chosen with the utmost care. We checked literally millions of possibilities before settling on McQueen. Mainly because his name kept appearing in the top ten. Actually, top three. And his younkers," Khadaji swooped around the 58th's Hammerheads. "In the top twenty choices for Komees. And then, of course, the final choice was mine."
"Because I am the lead Gryphip. The head honcho. The big kahona." He thumped his chest and McQueen winced. "Sorry, Ty. My komees is always the Komeesee. Has been for eons now. Way back to the beginning of the Ish'Kiri when I was but a mere speck in some those-who-were-once-called-Shanir's thought processes."
"Those-who-were-once-called-Shanir." Khadaji corrected. "They are Shanir no longer. Wanna take a look at the Storm's Eye, Ty?"
McQueen, who had been speculatively silent for much of this exchange, blinked at the sudden chance of subject. "Storm's Eye?"
"The Conclave ship. Didn't get a chance to show it off on the way out." Khadaji swooped around the Saratoga, the Hammerheads following, revealing the alien vessel tucked on her far side. "Thar she be."
The Storm's Eye was noticeably smaller then the Saratoga though still huge by any standards. Where the Earth ship was blocky and ungainly, the Storm's Eye was sleek and graceful, an Arabian next to a Clydesdale, light to the Saratoga's darkness.
"She's an Aerie Ship." Khadaji explained as he flew her length. "A ship designed to carry Gryphips and their Komees comfortably. Better then trying to convert existing vessels." The Gryphip's wings scooped, slowing him as he pointed out a large hatch in the side. "That's a Gryphip landing bay. One of Blue Squadron's. Speaking of which..."
The hatch had opened and a Gryphip was peering out inquiringly. Another head appeared then a third, each about as unlike as they can get. Khadaji waved at them and, one by one, they leapt from the hatchway, swooping out to join them until nine more Gryphips were doing loops around the Hammerheads and chasing each others tails.
"Might as well get used to them, 58th. They're going to be your Gryphips. What? Surprised? You weren't listening then. I said that Ty's protégées were among the top twenty for Komees."
"Earth Force may have something to say about that." Crougar said sharply.
"Undoubtedly they will. But the Gryphips have already chosen their Komees. If they don't get them, well, then they won't be able to fight, will they? Which means Earth will get fewer fighting ships. And to what purpose? After all, the Komees will be composed of both Earth and Conclave military."
"But the Commodore said the Gryphips were created for human pilots." Vansen said slowly.
"Oh-ho! She's a quick one!" Khadaji sounded pleased.
"Why when she guesses it, you're pleased but when I did, you got upset?" McQueen asked in obvious amusement.
"Did not!" The Gryphip sounded indignant. "Just a little thrown was all. And to answer your unspoken question, m'dear, they were created for human. . .or rather humanoid. . .pilots. The majority of their pilots will be human. Now isn't that cute?" He clasped his hands together and assumed an expression similar to that of someone looking over a litter of kittens. "They've found their chosen pilots."
Four of the Gryphips were now pacing four of the Hammerheads, the four belonging to the original Wild Cards.
"Should I be jealous?" Wolfe's plaintive voice came over the speaker. "Make that we." And McQueen knew she meant the other two newer Wild Cards.
"Oh, no. We want to keep the squads divided more or less evenly between Earth and Conclave pilots so you three will be in another squadron. Red, I believe. That's one of the things we have to discuss later, Ty. For now. . ."
He swooped over to where a Gryphip just a little smaller then he winged next to Vansen's Hammerhead. Where Khadaji resembled more of an eagle/lion mixture, this one leaned more toward hawk/panther.
"Vansen, may I introduce Veil. He is the. . .what you say?. . ."honcho" for the Blue Squad. His first time being honcho, actually. He's decided to be a team player this time." Veil glared at him over his shoulder and Khadaji grinned back. "Veil has taken his name from a character that appeared in a series of Earth books in the late 1900's. And then we have. . ."
Khadaji dropped back to Damphousse's Hammerhead and the Gryphip pacing it. This one was female, smaller and more slender then either of the males. "Serene. Serene was a very important component of the main Ish'Kiri library before she volunteered to be a Gryphip. She worked mainly with the Pegasoi, who are yet another very long story which shan't be told at this time."
"Over here we have Celestial." He indicated the Gryphip by West. Also female, this one was almost as large as Veil but golden in color. "Celes was one of top space explorers before choosing to become a Gryphip."
"I was drafted." Celes corrected.
"A little difference of opinion there." Khadaji continued, unperturbed. "And, last but not least, we have Peregrine." The Gryphip pacing Hawkes' ship was by far the smallest of the group, slender and almost delicate in appearance. "She's our swiftstriker. Sniper, I believe you may call her."
McQueen studied this tableau for a long moment then reached out to touch the panel that indicated he wished to speak in private mode with Khadaji. The speaker light went dim and Khadaji's voice said, "Yes?"
"What aren't you telling us?"
"Who, me?" Khadaji sounded injured. "Not tell you something? Whatever do you think of me? Why, I. . ."
"Veil is normally a lone wolf, literally, but he has the makings of an excellent team leader. However, he's not the type to volunteer to lead so we've pushed him into it. Celestial's remarkably level-headed, very smart, very quick, very much like West but, again, we had to push her into it. The Pegasoi are psionics so Selene has a lot of experience dealing with that type of ability, which I understand ‘Phoose has. And dear Peregrine is flighty as hell. . .in order to give her the speed and agility she needed, we had to sacrifice intelligence. Hopefully keeping her in line will help Hawkes settled down."
"You have thought all of this out, haven't you?"
"Yes and no. All we have are the reports gleaned from Earth's databases about the chosen pilots. We know little about the pilots themselves. We are going to have to work all that out together, I think. For example, that extra threesome behind us. . .should we put them together in a single squadron or dole the little dears out? And some who have been working together in a squadron will have to be separate. And. . .errr. . .the Saratoga's hailing us."
"How long have they been hailing us?"
"Ohhhh....about three minutes."
"Damnit!!! Patch them through."
"...e hell is going on out there???" A voice snarled and McQueen winced, recognizing General Panzer's voice. Panzer was a good General, excellent in every way, but he was noted for hating InVitros. What was he doing on the ‘Toga?
"Saratoga, this is. . ." He threw a wry look around the cockpit. "This is Komeesee McQueen." Khadaji rippled lights around the panels in a manner denoting approval. "We're taking the scenic route around the Storm's Eye and are on our way in now. With company."
"Like hell!" Panzer was mad. "McQueen, get that ship back to. . ."
McQueen cut him off, a move that undoubtedly left the man flabbergasted.
"Khadaji and I will be back in few minutes. I want to check out the Storm's Eye better. And. . ." He glanced over a message Khadaji was printing onto a nearby panel. "Four of the Gryphips will be accompanying us." But not, he noted, the ones who chose the Wild Cards. Even as he watched, those four and two of the others swept away to dance and play tag between the two ships.
No. The three ships. For the first time, he saw that another Earth ship was not far away. A special government courier. So that's how Panzer got here.
"McQueen! Bring that ship in alone. That's an order!"
McQueen felt his jaw clench but he still managed to answer normally. "I'm no longer in Earth's military, General Panzer. I don't take orders from you. Khadaji and I can come in with these four Gryphips or not at all!!"
It was a risk. If negotiations broke off with Earth, would the Conclave still want or need a Komeesee? But then Khadaji was talking.
"Commodore, I don't know who this fool is but if he doesn't stop referring to me as a ship, I'm going to get upset. And you don't want to see me upset. In fact, you might like to keep in mind that we Gryphips were designed to tear through and destroy warships up close and personal and, at this moment, there are more then enough flying around out here to do the job proper. Now, for the record, Ty has accepted the position of Komeesee, which does move him into the hierarchy of the Concave and gives him a rather, shall we say, unique status. For safety's sake, I recommend that you pass along the. . .suggestion that he be treated as one of the Conclave delegation. Keeping in mind, of course, that, unlike them, Ty has a roughly nineteen-ton backup quite capable of, and very willing to, grind anyone who pisses him off into a messy grease spot on the floor."
"Pisses you off or pisses me off?" McQueen asked, bemused.
"Either or. We're very protective of our pilots. Ahhhh, here's Juete. Shall we head in?"
Another Gryphip had appeared on the scene, this one a dazzling white in color. She looped around Khadaji and he matched her, rolling over with her before turning to wing lazily toward the Saratoga, Juete next to him and the others following.