McQueen unfastened the harness holding him securely into the chair and stood gingerly, stretching as best he could. All around him, panels slid over display screens as the chair moved to one side, giving him access to the ladder leading from the cockpit. McQueen eyed it and sighed.
"I won't be able to do this too much. . ."
"Until your leg is healed. Yes, I know. But we did make our point."
McQueen grinned at that. Pulling off his helmet, he secured it in itís alcove and carefully made his way up the ladder until he could sit between Khadaji's shoulder blades. He sat there for a long moment, legs dangling into the cockpit, catching his breath and taking a moment to look around.
The flight deck may be large but was no competition for six Gryphips. Four of the Gryphips were greeting the four smaller aliens with such enthusiasm that McQueen was surprised the floor was still intact. The fifth Gryphip. . .the shining white one. . .reclined nearby, looking oddly pleased with herself. She grinned at him in the now-familiar Gryphip grin and he smiled back.
"Your mate?" He asked Khadaji and the Gryphip chortled.
"You could say that."
"I think he just did." Juete said pleasantly. "I know a few people who are going to be very glad you accepted the role of Komeesee."
"Because if you hadnít," Juete said smugly. "They would have had to."
"You talk too much, Juete." Skratheís voice came from next to Khadaji and McQueen looked down to see the alien below him. "Donít let her faze you, McQueen. There are very few beings we would trust with the role of Komeesee. Of the others, only one was an Earther. . .or rather, still an Earther. . .and he would have been too old to take the strain of being a Gryphip Pilot. Of the remainder, some are human but no longer of Earth and we thought it best to have an Earther as Komeesee. But I can explain that more fully later."
"Iím going to insist on it. Now step back or I may fall on you."
Skrathe snorted but moved back slightly, watching as McQueen slid down Khadajiís side. The alienís hands twitched as McQueen landed lightly on his good leg but made no move to help once he saw McQueen was keeping his balance. The InVitro carefully put his weight on his bad leg. To his relief, it held and he straightened just as the hatch opened and a group of men stepped in. McQueen barely got a glimpse of them when Khadajiís wing swept around him.
"Guns." The Gryphip growled and McQueen clenched his teeth, wondering why he was surprised. He stepped to one side so he could see the intruders more clearly. The other four Gryphips were covering their Pilots while Skrathe stood where he had been; apparently he figured his armor a match for any Earth weaponry and McQueen wouldnít have been surprised if it was.
The men stood hesitantly at the top of the stairs, obviously uncertain at the sight of the Gryphips.
Didnít anyone warn them?
McQueen could guess who had sent the men. They wore no distinguishable insignias but he could bet they were the Generalís own hand-picked men. No doubt the General wished to speak to him. Well, there was no way in hell he was going to see anyone under armed escort. If the General wished to speak to him, he could come here.
A subtle whisper of sound and the other Komees were near him, their Gryphips forming a wedge with Khadaji as the head. Juete remained where she was but she had gained a Komees. A figure dressed in the same uniform as he was but silver and gold in color stood on the white Gryphipís shoulders. Though she definitely filled that uniform out better. She retained her helmet, keeping her features hidden and watched from her perch.
The men murmured back and forth for a moment then one of them, obviously the one in charge, stepped forward. "McQueen!"
"Yes?" He said back pleasantly enough.
The man scowled. "General Panzer wants to speak to you."
"He knows where I am." Khadajiís beak appeared over his shoulder and he reached up to rub it absently. "I have to take care of my Gryphip."
"The flight crew can take care of that. . ."
"I donít think so!" Khadaji rumbled, making the newcomers jump. "My flight crew is back on Stormís Eye. Though thatís not a bad idea. Shall we go back to Stormís Eye?"
McQueen threw him an admonishing look. "Tell the General that if he wishes to speak to me, Iíll be here. If for some reason Iím not here, Iíll leave my whereabouts with Khad."
A look remarkably like satisfaction crossed the manís face then the scowl was back. "We have our orders, McQueen. . ." Several of the men started down the stairs only to freeze as Khadaji jumped to his feet, making the whole flight deck and quite possibly most of the ship shake.
"Listen to me very carefully, boys because I will not repeat myself." The Gryphip rumbled. "Those peashooters youíre carrying wonít do anything more then make me mad and you would not like me when Iím mad. In fact, Iíve been known to do an IshíKirin version of an Irish jig on beings who make me mad. Now, unless you wish to be ground into this floor so hard that they will be digging chunks of you from it a decade from now, I recommend you go back to the gentleman who sent you and give him Tyís message. Now."
The men going down the stairs slowly made their way back up them, their eyes fixed on the Gryphip. Their weapons were still held at ready and McQueen found himself wishing heíd retained his helmet. According to Skrathe, the outfit he wore was proof against most hand-held Earth weapons and a few non-hand-held as well. Apparently, much of the armor the smaller aliens wore were just for show; the true protection came from the body suits under the armor. However, in Skratheís case, the armor was what it looked like. The tall alien had told McQueen that his people were unable to wear the close-fitting bodysuits that kept other humanoids safe, at least not comfortably.
The men finally retreated back to the top of the stairs and held a muttered conference. Apparently reaching a decision, they turned back them froze, their eyes on something McQueen couldnít see without turning around. Almost simultaneously, those who could paled and they all hurriedly back out the door. McQueen waited until the door shut then turned to see what drove the men away.
Juete looked innocent enough and McQueen was about to look elsewhere when he realized that the Gryphip was quite casually chewing her way through a piece of Hammerhead, grinding the metal between her beak delicately.
Khadaji snorted. "Be glad she did something. I was getting ready to tear out a piece of floor and chew on that."
McQueen took a deep breath then let it out. "What were they planning on doing?" He knew the Gryphip would have no scruples about listening to the conversation at the top of the stairs and apparently neither did Juete.
"Letís just say if you had left here with them, I highly doubt you would have reached the General alive. I suspect they planned on you having an accident." Khadaji eyed him. "Youíre not surprised."
"Not really. The last thing Panzer wants is for an InVitro to be in a position of such power."
Khadaji looked worried. "I shouldnít have said what I did to Crougar then."
"Donít worry about it. All I have to do is stay alive. Iíve managed that for twenty years."
"Well, youíll have help. You can stay here. . .the shuttleís comfortable enough and sleeps ten in a pinch. And, if you must leave, you can take Pen with you." Pen being one of Khadajiís mini-spies. "And Skrathe as well."
McQueen threw him a bemused look. "I am not hiding myself away. . ."
"Of course not! Iím hiding you away. The original nervous Nellie, thatís me. Over-protective as hell and donít you forget it!"
McQueen threw up his hands in surrender. "All right, all right! I concede. But only because I donít want you tearing this ship apart if something should happened to me. And tell Juete to stop eating that plane!" This brought hooting laughter from both Gryphips and aliens.
It was almost thirty minutes later before anyone else showed up at the hatch. Skrathe and Jueteís Komees showed McQueen the procedures of basic Gryphip care, including the finding and removal of space parasites. The first time Skrathe pointed one out to him, heíd almost been ill. It was a fist-sized grayish blob wedged into Khadajiís neck fur, obviously attached in some manner. Skrathe gave him an ivory-bladed knife and showed him how to work it under the blob and pry it loose. The parasite was even less attractive from the bottom and he tossed it to Khadaji willingly. The Gryphip crunched it in his beak and swallowed with every appearance of being well served.
"Space lice." Juete's Komees said in a pleasantly-warm tenor. She still wore her helmet and showed no inclination to take it off. "They're fond of Ish'Kiri metal, will chew on it at the drop of a hat. Be sure to wear gloves when you take them off and use a non-metal blade."
"I've never heard of anything like them before." McQueen ran his fingers through Khadajiís fur until it hit an obstacle.
"They're indigenous to Ish'Kiri territory. And these are nothing. Just wait until you see your first space lamprey."
McQueen grimaced. "I donít think I want to. Ahhh. Here they come. Wonder what took them so long."
"They" were General Panzer and two of the men who had come earlier, followed by Ross and Chaput. Both of the latter had looks on their faces that suggested they really would have preferred to be somewhere else.
McQueen turned to run his fingers through Khadajiís fur again, frowning. "Any more?" He asked and the Gryphip shook his head. "Good." And he turned to face the new arrivals, only half-aware of Jueteís Komees retreating to her Gryphipís side.
McQueen leaned against Khadajiís side, frowning at the fact that the two men still carried their sidearms. A very bad judgment call, carrying weapons into a room with alien diplomats but then Panzer wasnít a diplomat. He was, in fact, rapidly coming across as a bully. Was he going to be in charge of alien relations? He sincerely hoped Earth was smarter then that.
He grew aware of a presence at his back and knew that Skrathe was there, providing support. Odd how he trusted an alien more then his own people.
General Panzer stopped in front of McQueen, his eyes flicking first to Khadaji then to Skrathe. "McQueen. . ." He started in a hard tone.
"Panzer." McQueen said pleasantly back and he heard Skrathee make a sound remarkably like a laugh. Panzerís face darkened but before he could say another word, Skrathe spoke up.
"McQueen has a title now, General. Komeesee. He is Komeesee of the Gryphip Squads."
"That hasnít been confirmed as yet. . ."
"Yes, it has." Khadaji said in a voice hard as diamonds. "He is my Komees. That makes him Komeesee. And automatically a citizen of the Conclave with full rights and privileges. Wait until you see the retirement benefits, Ty. And, also as Komeesee, he receives the same diplomatic immunity as Skrathee does. Which means, General, you cannot give him orders. Skrathee cannot give him orders. Not even I can give him orders. Of course," He continued smugly. "I expect to get what I want by cajoling, begging and threatening to hold my breath."
McQueen closed his eyes in pain then opened them, looking at the Gryphip. Khadaji looked back out of the corner of his eye.
"What am I going to do with you?" He sighed. The Gryphip promptly rolled over onto his back.
"Rub my belly." Khadaji said smugly.
McQueen glared at the Gryphip, neither of them noticing that Juete had risen and was now stalking Khadaji. Her forepaw suddenly flashed out and Khadaji squawked, rolling to box at her with his backpaws. Humans and aliens hastily got out of the way as the two Gryphips wrestled in the center of the flight deck.
"Thereís got to be a safer. . .more sedate. . .place to talk." Chaput said, watching with interested eyes as the two Gryphips fought and boxed like overgrown house cats.
"The Anarchies come to mind." Skrathe said.
"Youíre just saying that because Rathorns donít eat Timnor." Jueteís Komees reappeared at McQueenís side.
"Weíll go to a conference room." Panzer glared at McQueen.
"Too formal." Skrathe said. "Isnít there a tavern or something?"
"We donít do business that way." Panzer snarled.
"We do. Yes, the tavern should do fine. General, why donít you send one of your men to clear it? Shall we bring the fledglings?" Skrathe directed the last to Jueteís Komees.
"No. Not yet. Let me fetch some wine." And the woman darted into the shuttle, returning with two oddly-shaped bottles and a long burgundy cloak over one shoulder. "You canít drink like that, Skrathe. Ditch the armor. Youíll be more comfortable besides."
"True." Before McQueen could even blinked, Skrathe had removed his helmet and was unbuckling the armor briskly. Within a minute, there was a pile of metal and leather on the ground and McQueen was realizing what the alien had meant when he said his people couldnít wear the close-fitting armor the others did. All that fur would get in the way.
McQueen ran an eye over the alien, from the slender foot obviously meant for toe-walking to the pointed ears that jutted gracefully through the thick head fur. Inbetween Skrathe was whippet-thin, covered totally with a fine layer of tawny fur. The fur thickened on the forearms and lower legs and in a ruff around the neck. His face was surprisingly human; with lupine eyes and sharp, white teeth that he bared in what McQueen hoped was a grin. He wore nothing but a loincloth that left nothing to the imagination. Nice to know theyíd been right about the "he" part.
Skrathe drew long, slender fingers through his fur and shook hard to settle it before reaching for the cloak the woman offered. Sweeping it on and hooking the clasp, he snatched one of the bottles of wine and grinned down at McQueen. "Shall we go get plastered and decide the fate of the universe?"
"Hell, why not? Canít do any worse then whatís already been done.
to be continued