Beginning One

Commodore Glen Ross carefully folded the clothing, storing them away in the boxes provided. Heíd already sorted the various personal items, packing some away, putting the rest aside to be given to those they had been willed to. They were meager but rife with meaning to their previous owner and, hopefully, to their new ones.

Sealing the last box, he turned to sweep one last look around the near-empty cabin. Only one item remained out of a box, the item he had reserved for himself. He picked the picture up, studying it sadly before setting it on top of the open box. Tucking the box under an arm, he walked from the cabin, closing the hatch firmly behind him. By tomorrow, the sealed boxes would be in storage, the name removed from the hatch and, within a week, the cabin would be occupied by the new squadron leader of the 58th.

Lt. Col. McQueen no longer needed it.


T.C. McQueen cursed mentally as he walked across the sands toward the distant mountains. The middle of a desert . . . the bastard had to leave him stranded in the middle of a damn desert. No food, no water, his only weapon a knife stolen off a dead Chig. He had to have at least a mild concussion, plus numerous bruises and cuts. Everything of use Barker had taken or destroyed. Protective clothing, weapons, first aid kit. Everything.

But why? Why didnít Barker just kill him and be done with it? Undoubtedly, he had already informed Commodore Ross of his death, presenting his bloodied dogtags as proof. What the hell was going on?

Well, for one thing, he was about to tumble into a crevasse. He stumbled to a halt, staring dumbly into the hole before him. He wasnít even sure what he was doing. The secret mission he and Jenkins were on had been a bust, there was no secret Chig installation. By now the Saratoga was long gone and even if it wasnít, he had no way to contact them. He was alone on a Chig-controlled world with no food and no water. And no hope. So what kept him going?

Just too damn stubborn to quit.

He started to follow the crevasse, looking for a way to cross. He had to reach those mountains. There should at least be water there and maybe edible plants. But it would be daylight soon and now he had to find shelter. Heíd probably end up burying himself in the sand again.

When was the last time heíd slept?

He almost walked into the middle of a Chig patrol. Stumbling to a halt, he stared dumbly at the cluster of Chigs, who were staring right back at him.

Thatís it, McQueen thought to himself. Iím dead.

But the Chigs werenít actually looking at him. They were looking above him. Slowly, trying to keep an eye on the Chigs, he looked up.

Okay, Iím already dead. And in a really weird version of Hell.

Hovering above him was some kind of. . .creature? Ship? Whatever it was, it was covered with metallic fur and feathers that starlight gleamed off dully and had wings that flapped lazily, making that odd whooshing noise he had barely registered earlier. Gleaming eyes scanned them, fixing on the gaping human below him. That wickedly sharp beak opened and the voice that came from it was surprisingly deep and accented with a. . .a Scots accent!?!?

"You must be McQueen."

Oh man, oh man. . ..maybe he wasnít dead. Maybe lack of sleep, food and water coupled with injuries had finally driven him mad.

The huge. . .to be on the safe side, McQueen elected to think of it as a creature and, from the sound of its voice, male. . .creature seemed to be waiting for an answer. His throat was too dry for him to attempt to speak so he finally just nodded.

"Good. Iíve been looking for you." With that, the creature raised up a foreleg. Encircling the lower part of the legs were what appeared to be wristlets. Weapons, actually. . .powerful ones that fired projectiles that pretty much shredded every Chig behind him then the creature was landing beside him. "Iím Khadaji." He dropped to his belly and then rolled partially on his side. As McQueen watched, a circular opening appeared on the creatureís shoulders, between those broad wings. "Get in. Quickly." McQueen hesitated, blinking uncertainly and feeling incredibly muzzy-headed. Khadajiís tone turned impatient. "Come, come! There are more patrols out there and Chigs fighters to boot."

McQueen stepped closer, peering into the portal. There was a small cockpit with a chair. . .a very comfortable-looking chair. . .within. Slowly, awkwardly, he climbed inside and to the chair. By the time he got settled into it, Khadaji had straightened. A restraint lowered and locked into place, holding him firmly in the chair. And, since the chair was as comfortable as it looked, McQueen found he didnít mind a bit. Of course, the way he felt, he would have been comfortable on a bed of rocks. He looked around at the featureless walls surrounding him.

"Hang tight." Khadajiís voice now came from all around him and McQueen clenched the arms of the chair as the creature leapt into the air. He could feel the wings flapping as they angled upward then Khadaji leveled into a glide. "Iím going to get us somewhere safe where you can rest and we can talk. Look to your right."

McQueen obeyed. A panel slid open next to him and a shelf holding a variety of items rose into view. "The first sphere is. . .oh." There was amusement in that deep voice as McQueen, having already guess the contents of the clear sphere, had snatched it up and brought it to his lips. It was, he was surprised to note, a zero-gee container. He wasnít surprised to find it held cool, fresh water that he drank greedily. "The next sphere holds a broth. . .drink it a little more slowly. The syringe is a wide spectrum of medicines, including antibiotics and pain-killers. Just press it into your inner wrist."

McQueen took the two items, frowning at the latter before finally pressing it against his wrist with a shrug. If Khadaji wanted him dead, he could have done it easily enough. He dropped the syringe back on the shelf next to the empty water-sphere before looking at the last sphere. Even through the heavy plastic, he could feel the warmth of its thick, brown contents. The liquid within was unfamiliar to him yet very tasty with a hint of meat. He drank it slowly and when heíd finished, another sphere of water was on the shelf next to him.

"Easy." McQueen stopped in mid-reach with an almost guilty start. "Hang tight. Iím going down."

"Oh." McQueen finished his reach for the water-sphere, dropping the empty broth-sphere in its place. The shelf descended and the panel slid back over it as Khadaji angled downward. "Where?"

"Uhn? Oh, right." Panels slid back on the walls, revealing screens all around him and McQueen got an external view of a morning-lit ocean rising to meet them then the creature was slipping into the water and swimming downward with powerful strokes. "The water will help hide us. . .of course the Shakitu donít even now Iím here and they probably donít know youíre here either but why take chances? Thereís a series of hot rocks not too far away. Iíll settle in next to them and theyíll never detect us. Then you can sleep. Would you prefer the chair or the bed?"

"Bed?" McQueen yawned, suddenly very tired.

"I forgot to mention there was a sleeping agent in that syringe, didnít I? Not that I think you needed the help. Thereís a bed in. . .oh, well." Khadaji sighed and slipped the panels back over the screens, dimming the lights in the cockpit as he settled onto a ledge for a long wait.

The next two days were a blur to McQueen. The first time he woke up, he managed to stumble his way into the small room behind the chair. It was claustrophobically small but still managed to hold a small zero-gee-type toilet and a narrow bed complete with restraints for zero-gee sleeping. Coached gently by Khadaji, he had stripped naked and managed to take care of immediate needs, including a sketchy bath with wet towelettes before falling into the surprisingly comfortable bed to fall asleep again. After that, he woke only to eat or drink or use the small toilet until finally, 29 hours later, he woke clear-headed and refreshed.

Khadaji must have noticed he was awake because his interior was getting lighter by degrees. McQueen sat up slowly, looking around for the first time with clear eyes. His clothes were gone and he remembered dimly during one of his more lucid moments Khadaji asking him to put the filthy items in a sealed bin. Throwing back the blankets covering him, he swung his legs off the bed and stood, ducking to keep his head from banging the ceiling and took a half-step to the small toilet. Once finished there, he took another half-step to the meager wash area. He eyed the stream of water filling the basin doubtfully.

"I donít suppose youíve a shower tucked away anywhere?"

"Ha! Right. Be happy with what you get. Some of us Gryphips donít even have this, just a slide-in sleeping cubicle that gives new meaning to the term claustrophobic." The water stopped flowing and a panel slipped aside, revealing a number of toilet articles.


"Gryphon ships. . .you look like youíve had a revelation."

"I have. . .I just realized what the hell you look like." McQueen returned to his sponge bath. "But why would something alien be based on a mythical Earth creature?"

This time, Khadaji did laugh. "Maybe it isnít mythical. Or an Earth creature." Then, before McQueen could say anything else, he added. "What I have to say is going to take a very long time. Wash up and get dressed. . .thereís clothes in that locker next to you. . .and come to the cockpit. And then weíll talk."

Though he was loath to admit it, McQueen was crawling with curiosity. The locker revealed an array of surprisingly Earth-like clothing and he chose jeans and a tank top to pull on then vaulted into the chair. The now-familiar spheres had been joined by a package he tore open, revealing a long, hot roll with a meaty center. Behind him, panels slid down; concealing the bed, the toilet, the wash area then sealing the room from the cockpit.

"Do you know why Barker tried to kill me?" He asked after finishing one sphere.

"Yes, actually I do. And itís a very complicated story. And I donít think youíll want to return immediately to Earth after hearing it."

McQueen was surprised. "You mean I have a choice?"

"Oh, yes. I shanít hold you against your will. If, after hearing everything I have to say, you still wish to go to Earth. . .or to the Saratoga. . .then arrangements will be made. My word on it."

As soon as he had entered the cockpit, Khadaji had slid the panels from the screens and McQueen stared out at the unusual water-bound life forms swimming by as he digested this latest bit of information. It startled him to realize he trusted the Gryphip more then he did most humans. Something about the Gryphip. . .

"All right." He said finally. "Iíll listen."

And Khadaji talked. Talked without a break for near twelve hours. He started with a summary of events that occurred over several tens of thousands of years ago and events that occurred fifteen hundred years ago and onward to events that occurred barely twenty years ago. The closer he came to present time, the more detailed the explanation became until, at last, he reached present day and to the events that lead to McQueenís abandonment six days ago and Khadajiís arrival.

Two hours later, a huge Gryphip, fur darkened to best blend with the night skies, surged from an alien ocean and winged his way upwards. Once free of atmosphere and gravity, he folded his wings, curving away from the planet and toward a nearby wormhole, toward home.


Seven months later

Perhaps for the first time since the war with the Chigs began, an Earth shuttle was landing on an alien planet with peaceable intentions.

Commodore Glen Van Ross stared out of a portal at an alien sky, marveling at itís likeness to Earth. Remarkably clear blue skies, rich green forage, rolling blue waters. But it wasnít Earth. It was an alien world called Rathorn, a world where, hopefully, a mutual defense alliance would be at last reached with an alien race. Not the Chigs, no. A new alien race. Or rather, several alien races, a league that Earth officials were calling the Conclave.

Ross didnít know that complete story of these new aliens but rumors flourished and he was pretty good at sorting what could be from what wasnít. The Conclave had made contact with Earth about seven months after the Operation Roundhammer fiasco, about, Ross realized with a pang of grief, one month after McQueen had been killed. The aliens became general knowledge just a month ago, revealed by a cleverly persistent news reporter. The aliens, Ross had heard, had been wildly amused by the general populationís reaction.

Since the revelation of the Conclave and the impending alliance had become public knowledge, Earth rushed to get the alliance finalized. The Conclave had been remarkably willing, working out the details of the alliance and bulking only at the finalizing of the treaty. The treaty would have to be signed by the Komeesee, they said, and he was on one of their border worlds. The delegation would have to go there to finish the wording of the treaty and the final signing. Only fair, as most of the negotiations had taken place in Earth space.

And Earth had agreed.

Not too surprisingly. Despite the reports given to the general population, Earth was barely holding its own, especially after the total failure of Operation Roundhammer. The alliance with the Conclave could turn the tide. The Saratoga had been dispatched with orders to smooth the way for the Earth delegation. At least, that was the official reason. Ross was positive that some of the group currently on the shuttle had other secret orders.

He was on the shuttle representing the Saratoga. It wasnít often he got a chance to set foot on an alien world and, frankly, he was looking forward to it.. He turned away from the portal to look over the others included in the group.

Also on the shuttle was an Australian Admiral, Admiral P.C. Fletcher. A handsome woman in her mid-60s, she was slender with short auburn hair and green eyes. She looked like, and probably was, someoneís grandmother but that sweet exterior hid a steel interior that commanded battleships and a quick mind that designed strategies that rarely lost. She had come over from the Australian battle cruiser, the New Minyaka, before the Saratoga left the armada.

The next two passenger had meet Saratoga in-route. One was from Aerotech, Colonel Hank Alcott. He was average height with a sturdy built, dark brown hair, almost-black eyes and a scientist to boot. Though Ross had never meet him, he did know of him. Alcott was currently married to the ex-wife of his best friend, T.C. McQueen. In fact, Kathleen was currently on the Saratoga, having arrived with her husband. Ross had no doubts that neither of them would have ever stepped foot on the Saratoga if McQueen had still been alive and assigned to it. Alcott was not a very big fan of InVitros. Ross couldnít help but wonder how Alcott felt about his current wife having been married to one.

And then there was Major Maria Jenkins. A member of the Alien Linguistic Unit, she was a broad-shouldered woman with gray-speckled black hair and hazel eyes. Ross couldnít help but think that the Major had a hidden agenda. He had made a point of checking everyoneís records before leaving the Saratoga and there was just too many gaps in Jenkinsí. And, for that matter, in Alcottís.

Last, but not least, there were the aliens.

Shortly after leaving the armada and the arrival of the last three passengers, three Conclave vessels had meet the Saratoga, giving them an escort through a wormhole and to Rathorn. An alien shuttle had come over to pick them up, giving Ross his first glimpse of an alien race other then the Chigs. He and, he suspected, the others had been surprised, in some cases pleasantly. These aliens, known as the Timnor, were nothing like the Chigs.

Ross would best describe them as humanoid wolves. Maybe seven feet tall and slender, they were covered with a fine layer of fur that thickened on the head and around the neck, forearms and lower legs. Their large eyes were canted, their ears pointed, their teeth sharp, each finger and toe tipped with a claw. They were dressed only in loincloths and the occasional piece jewelry. Both spoke remarkably good English with an odd accent.

The one in charge was named Skrathe and had pitch-black fur with golden eyes. He was seated in the cabin with them, sitting in a tall backed chair with his long legs stretched out before him. The other Timnor, Hern, was in the cockpit, piloting the alien shuttle. Ross had caught only a glimpse of the younger alien but if he remembered correctly, Hern had fur in varying shades of gray with light gray eyes.

"I havenít told you much about Rathorn, have I?" Skrathe said suddenly, apparently finished with his low-voiced conversation with Admiral Fletcher. "And Iíll bet you didnít get much information from Earth, either."

More then one person looked sheepish, none could hide their intense interest. Skrathe grinned. Or, at least, Ross hoped he was grinning. All those sharp teeth were making him nervous.

"Rathorn is a very unique planet. It is home to a sentient race incapable of technology. We. . ."

"If theyíre sentient, how can they not have technology?" Alcott interrupted, her eyes thoughtful.

Skrathe frowned, rather at the question or the interruption, Ross couldnít tell. "The Rathorns have no hands or any type of manipulating limbs. But they are intelligent." He steepled his fingers. "Perhaps twenty Rathorn years ago...maybe fourteen months longer then twenty Earth years...the Conclave made an agreement with the rathorns for a mixed-species colony on their planet. The rathorns. . ." And Skrathe smiled grimly. ". . .have their own for wishing the colony on Rathorn. You see, rathorns are carnivores and over the past several centuries, they have acquired a taste for the flesh of various species."

Most of the group gaped at him horrified surprise.

"And you let them. . .!" Col. Alcott burst out.

"It is their planet." Skrathe sounded amused. "And there are rules surrounding the colonyís status on the planet. As long as the colonists remain within the colony borders, they are fine. The Rathorns will not attack anyone in the colony itself. However, anyone traveling outside the borders without the permission of the rathorns or the Komeesee will never be found."

"And what is the Komeesee?" Col. Alcott demanded. "Another alien species.?"

"No." Skrathe paused, an odd smile on his face. "The Komeesee is rather hard to explain. He. . .or she or it, though this time around itís 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."

"When was the last time there was a Komeesee?" Ross asked.

"Oh, the last time there was a major war. Say, 900 years ago." He smiled at the looks on their faces then glanced at a panel that had suddenly lit up. "Ahhhh. . .we appear to be landing. Everyone secure?"

Automatically the passengers checked their restraints.

"Anyway, Rathorn is a planet much like Earth. The water is safe for humans as is most of the food. In fact, the most dangerous thing on the planet are the rathorns themselves. Watch out for them and youíll be okay."

"I thought you said that as long as we were in the colony boundaries, weíd be okay?" Jenkins asked.

"Ahhhhh, but we arenít going to Haven. We are going to whatís known as the Borderlands, at the foot of the Anarchies. That is where Rathorn Hall is. Where the Komeesee lives. Slightly different rules there."

"I canít help but notice. . ." Admiral Fletcher spoke up. ". . .that most of the places on Rathorn seem to have Earth names. Is that just the translations. . ?"

"Oh, no. Rathorn has Earth names because it was Earth humans that named them. That surprises you? Apparently your superiors did not see fit to tell you. There are several hundreds of thousands of  humans scattered about the Conclave, perhaps three thousand here on Rathorn. Ahhhh, here we are."

The shuttle had touched done so smoothly that they hadnít even felt it. Skrathe was on his feet before they could even remove the restraints.

"You may leave your things if you wish. They will be brought to the Hall."

"Yes, thank you." Admiral Fletcher stood, reaching for her briefcase. The others also rose, each picking up a briefcase or small carrying case.

"How is it there are humans in the Conclave?" Major Jenkins asked.

"Various reasons. Rescues mostly. For the past eighteen years, weíve been snatching InVitros from mines and transports. Yah! What? Did you honestly believe Earth officials didnít know there were other alien races? They knew about the Shakitu. . .the Chigs. . .for a good sixteen years."

"How?" Ross demanded and Skrathe looked at him in obvious surprise.

"Why, we told them, of course." And he stepped from the shuttle. The others stared after him in shock before scurrying to follow.

Ross was the first out behind Skrathe. Pausing at the bottom of the ramp, he turned to offer Admiral Fletcher a hand walking down, a gesture she accepted with her usual good graces. The weather was remarkably nice, a cool spring day from all appearances.

"You told them?" Admiral Fletcher asked, though Ross couldnít help but notice she didnít seem as surprised as everyone else.

"Oh, yes. We told many of the people who remained behind that Earth was edging into Shakitu territory but, apparently, no one listened to them."

"Maybe they did and didnít care." Ross said, looking around. "Interesting decorations."

"Do you like them? Yes, theyíve turned into quite a tradition."

"What. . ?" Jenkins started then she gasped as she spotted what Ross had.

They had landed in the center of a clearing, a landing pad of hard-packed dirt surrounded by white and red posts with chains strung between them. Each post was perhaps five foot high and each post was topped by a skull. Some of the skulls were unfamiliar to them but some were human.

Ross, followed by most of the delegation, stepped over to a nearby post. Up close, he could see that the skulls werenít real but skillfully made imitations. He looked at Skrathe. "Warnings?"

"Yes. The no-go line. Past those chains is rathorn country. In fact, I would recommend staying away from the chains entirely. Rathorns tend to have a different definition of. . .errrrr. . .shall we say, legal take?. . .then most species do." Skrathe walked across the clearing, unhooking a chain from one of the posts and waving them through. On the other side was the start of a cobblestone path. Once everyone was through, Skrathe rehooked the chain and once again took the lead.

Lining the path were, once again, chains and posts, each topped with a rakishly tilted skull.

Skrathe patted one on his way by. "The skulls around Haven are real. The Rathorns bring them in and the colonists put them up."

"Horses? They have horses here, too?" Alcott said suddenly and the others followed his gaze to see an animal on the other side of the chain. It couldnít be seen clearly but it did have the general shape of a horse. Alcott stepped closer to the chain.

"Thatís not a horse." Admiral Fletcher said.

"Youíre right. Itís not." Skrathe snatched Alcottís collar and yanked him back just as the "horseís" head came over the chain. Alcott screamed as sharp teeth that would do a tiger proud clacked shut a bare inch from the manís face then the Timnorís open hand slapped the beastís muzzle. "Knock it off, Hellspawn. You may not eat him." Skrathe looked back at the man he still held by the collar. "You donít listen very well, do you?" He let him go and turned back to the animal. "You will behave?"

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 planetís 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 was pitch black, the mane and tail ivory white. The rathorn eyed them with gray 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. Hodgell."

Skrathe snapped his head around to look at her in surprise. "Well, well. Iím surprised you do. She wasnít very well-known even in her day."

"My grandmother was an avid reader. Or maybe I should say rabid. Her books were a treasured heirloom. So these rathorns were named after hers?"

"One of the first humans on Rathorn saw the resemblance and dubbed them that. Quite appropriately, it turned out."

"Yes." Admiral Fletcher nodded. "Man-eaters. So thatís where some of those names come from then? The Anarchies? Please donít tell me there are Cataracts here also?"

"Yes, in fact there is. Iíll show them to you some time. Along. . ." And he grinned widely. ". . .with the Higher and Lower Hurdles."

Admiral Fletcher smiled back. "Iíd like that."

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 Lying in the center of the half-circle was a massive statue, a gryphon forged of metal, wings folded tightly against the body, beak opened slightly. Several other smaller statues, also forged of metal, were scattered about, most in the shape of rathorns though one bore an undeniable resemblance to a unicorn.

Skrathe weaved himself around the statues and continued toward a large, rocky knoll. No, not just a knoll, Ross realized. It was some kind of dwelling, a house built directly into the knoll. Set in the hillside were panes of glass, tinted against the early afternoon sun. Skrathe made his way to one of these panes and opened it, leading them into the coolness of a large room, a combination library/sitting room from the look of it. The Timnor glanced around with a frown.

"The Komeesee must be somewhere else in the house. Please make yourselves comfortable and Iíll find him." Skrathe walked to double doors in the wall across from them and opened one, slipping through and closing it behind him.

The Earth delegation looked at each other then scattered to explore. Here they were, thinking they were visiting an alien world, expecting an alien dwelling. But 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. Set into the ceiling were panels of some kind of remarkably clear stone which seemed to radiate with a luminous glow. In the very center was a circular sunken area, complete with couches and a low table with the metal statue of a large bird in the center of it. 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."

Ross half-listened as he looked over the books in another bookshelf while keeping one eye on the pair at the desks. They were alien books, written in languages he could not understand. He continued along until he reached the massive fireplace. It was piled with wood, obviously ready to be lit should the weather turn cold. One the mantle were a number of small knickknacks and above them. . .above them was a painting. A painting whose subject matter hit him so hard he couldnít breathe for a long moment.

It was a painting of a human and a rathorn, perhaps even the rathorn they had already met who even now was wandering amidst the statues but it really wasnít the subject of the painting that caught her attention. It was the man astride the rathorn. He and the rathorn were a matched pair. . .silver hair, white mane, blue-gray eyes, fair skin and ivory armor, ice surrounding hidden flame. It was. . .

"May I introduce the Komeesee." Skratheís deep voice came from the now-opened double doors and everyone turned. Ross turned more slowly, an odd hope flaring in him.

The Komeesee stood in the doorway, a faint smile on his face. His silvery hair was longer then he'd ever seen, 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. And, he realized in shock, a silver and ivory earring.

Ross had known McQueen for years, from the AI wars through the conflicts that covered Earth and into space. He had seen his friend 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. . .a human. . .an InVitro. . .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 seven months ago, 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 next week.

McQueen had 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."

"I had wondered." Ross muttered. "About Barker, I mean. The way he told it didn't ring true."

"McQueen. . ." Col. Alcott muttered, obviously thinking of his wife.

McQueen stared at him for a long moment before turning to the Admiral.

"Admiral Fletcher. Itís nice to finally meet you."

"Komeesee. May I say the same? And may I introduce Col. Hank Alcott?"

Recognition of the name flared in McQueenís eyes and he nodded in stiff politeness. Alcott did the same.

"And this is Major Maria Jenkins."


"Why didnít you contact Earth to let them know you were alive?" Major Jenkins asked abruptly and the Komeesee smiled.

"Who says I didnít?" The Komeesee shook his head at the baffled look on the Majorís face. "How about we let everyone get settled into their rooms and then we can talk. Your bags should be in your rooms."

Admiral Fletcher glanced at the others, noticing the looks that ranged from shock to bafflement and nodded. "That sounds like a very good idea.

The Komeesee half-turned to lead the way out of the room then paused, staring at something they could not see. When he next spoke, his voice was incredibly gentle. "Hello, Gary. What are you doing wandering?"

A crooning sound answered him and a man wandered into sight. Ross swore softly and he heard more then one of the others gasp. The newcomer was virtually identical to McQueen. But his blue-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 tucked under one arm. McQueen reached over to gently touch the manís cheek.


Gary turned his head to stare at the man intently. "Tyyyy. . ." The man crooned, swaying slightly with a vague smile.

"Yes. Itís Ty." McQueen glanced over his shoulder. "This is my brother, Gary." He said calmly. "He did most of the paintings youíll see in this house. He did that one." He gestured at the painting above the fireplace before turning back to Gary. "Weíve people visiting, Gary."

Gary seemed to notice them for the first time. His expression turned anxious and he edged slowly behind his brother, peering at them uncertainly.

"Hello, Gary." Admiral Fletcher stepped closer, pitching her voice low.

Gary looked at her anxiously, glancing at the Komeesee for reassurance before answering. "Roooo. . ." He rocked slowly, clutching the raccoon protectively.

"Whereís Gwain, Gary?" McQueen asked.

Gary frowned in puzzlement, looking around.

"Iím here." The low voice came from behind Gary and another man stepped into view. No, not a man and more then one of the visitors stiffened involuntarily. It was an AI, one of those artificial intelligence creations humans had been at war with for the past several years. This one had been built to be an attractive male in his mid-thirties with brown hair. He was dressed in a pair of shorts and a loose t-shirt. "Sorry, Ty. He snuck away when my back was turned. Heís good at that, you know."

"I know." McQueen sighed.

Gwain stepped close to Gary, slipping an arm around the manís shoulders. Gary leaned against him trustingly, resting his cheek against the AIís shoulder and crooning to himself as he eyed the newcomers. "Heís been edgy all morning. I think thereís a storm coming."

"Storm? Damn." McQueen stepped into the hall and shouted. "Taz!"

A small figure hurtled into the room, overshooting McQueen and ending up skittering to a halt in front of Ross. With an angry chattering sound, it darted back to the Komeesee. Perhaps two feet tall, this alien was pasty white with large pale pink eyes. It was dressed in what appeared to be body armor and had a rifle slung across its back.

The alien chattered urgently at McQueen. Intermixed with the alien sounds were ones the Earthers recognized; Ty, storm, rathorns.

McQueen sighed. "Get everything locked down. Hopefully itíll pass quickly. Skrathe, go with her." The two aliens darted off as he hurried past the group and to the desk. Sliding back a panel on the wall, he worked the hidden controls. With a smooth hum, metal panels slid down over the glass walls. "Some storms can come quickly here, without warning. Oneís coming now so weíre locking down to wait it out." Despite the daylight being cut off, it was still fairly light in the room. The glow on the ceiling had brightened. Admiral Fletcher eyed them for a long moment.

"Iím not going to ask." She muttered before turning to McQueen. "Please tell me this isnít a weirdling storm. I may have to running screaming from the house as it is." General Fletcher grimaced at the surprised look on McQueenís face.

"Oh! Let me tell her!" Gwain waved his hand like a schoolboy. "Me, me!!"

"Shut up, Gwain and get Gary to his room." He smiled fondly at his brother, ruffling the manís hair. "Go with Gwain." McQueen urged gently.

"Gwaaaiiiiiiiinnnn." Gary didnít protest as the AI gently guided Gary toward the double doors behind them, talking to him in soft tones.

"Yes, we call them. . ." There was a sudden crash of thunder that made the windows shake, despite the steel shutters now covering them. A sudden howl came from another portion of the house, a sound that seemed incapable of coming from a human throat. McQueen flinched. "Gary gets wild during a wierdling storm. Gwainís pretty good at keeping him under control though. "

"An AI?" Col. Alcott said in an outraged voice.. "Whatís an AI doing here?"

"He was already here when I came. And he is one of the few people who can handle Gary. And. . .well, thatís part of a very long story." Another crash of thunder. "Come on, Iíll show you to your rooms." McQueen turned to lead the way out of the room and into a wide corridor, turning left. "I recommend that you close your stuff up into the closets and drawers. Gary likes to explore. He knows not to go into closed doors and drawers but his definition of closed sometimes differs from the norm."

The hallway was carpeted in light colors and the ceiling set with more of those glowing panels. Doors were set at regular intervals both left and right and the Komeesee stopped at the first one to the left, swinging it open.

"Admiral Fletcher, this will be your room. Next down, Major Jenkins." He swung that door open then moved to the next. "Col. Alcott." He walked down further. "And Glen." He smiled at his old friend and added in lower tones. "Weíll talk later, Glen."

He turned and walked down the corridor, back toward the sitting room.

Ross watched him go before stepping into the room. Yes, his bags were here, resting on a low chest at the foot of a wide bed. Setting the briefcase on the bed, he unzipped the biggest bag, running an eye over the contents. Nothing looked touched and. . .oh hell. He yanked out a loose shirt and jeans, changing hastily. Long ingrained habit made him hang his dress grays up neatly before zipping the bag firmly close and shoving it and the smaller bag into a closet whose door slid into the wall. The briefcase he hesitated about then finally shoving it under the bed. Someone really determined could find it, or even someone not so determined. Or even, he thought wryly, Gary.

That done, he stepped from the room, hurrying down the hall. Both Alcotts and Major Jenkinsí door was closed firmly, the Admiralís wide open and inside he could see her, now dressed in a blouse and jeans, putting clothing away in the drawers underneath the closet. She glanced up as he passed and smiled.

Once past her, Ross broke into a run, heading back toward the large room where they first meet the Komeesee. And there he was, standing before a now-blazing fire. Ross slowed, walking up to stand behind his old friend. His eyes went to the painting above the fireplace.


"The painting? Or the subject?"

"Both really. Your brother has talent."

"He does, doesnít he?" There was sadness in McQueenís voice. "Doesnít seem like a fair exchange though."

"What happened?"

"Mining accident." McQueen turned to look at him. "If theyíd gotten him out right away, he probably would have been okay but the mine boss didnít want to waste time. . .money. . .labor to dig out an injured In Vitro who would cost more to heal then it would to grow a new one. Three days later, the Timnor arrived to rescue the In Vitros. They dug him out but it was already too late. Head injuries. Lack of oxygen."

He turned to walk toward the couches, trotting down the stairs. Ross was amused to see a bottle of rum resting on the low table, two glasses next to it. McQueen reached for the already opened bottle, pouring as he continued talking. "The Timnor bought him here. He was comatose for about three years and it took another ten years to get him to the level heís at now. And the major reason for that is Gwain." He caught Ross grimace and grinned. "Funny, thatís how I first felt."

"And now?" Ross took the offered glass.

McQueen hesitated then sat down, rolling the glass between his palms. "If youíd told me a year ago that an AI could. . .feel, Iídíve thought you were nuts." He looked at Ross, his blue-blue eyes earnest. "But Iíve seen him with Gary. Iíve seen the way he handles him. Heís incredibly. . .gentle. Patient. He takes care of Gary better then anyone else ever could and. . .I think, in his own way, he honestly loves him." McQueen suddenly laughed. "If In Vitros can learn to love, why not AIs?"

"But theyíre machines. . !" He stopped when McQueen stiffened. Ross eyed him warily but the other man relaxed just as quickly, reaching for the bottle to refill his glass.

"The Conclave. . ." His said in a bland tone. ". . .have managed to turn the AIs."

"What? When? How?" Ross leaned forward.

McQueen didnít answer. Instead he glanced at the open door. "You could hear better if you came in, Jenkins."

After a long moment, Jenkins stepped into the room, his face unreadable. McQueen waved the bottle at him. "Join us?" He invited and Jenkins did. Shortly after, Alcott and Admiral Fletcher also joined them.

Admiral Fletcher waved away the offered drink. "Komeesee. . ."

"Ty, please. The Havenites insists on the titles and frankly, it can get rather. . .overwhelming."

"Titles?" Alcott asked and McQueen glanced at her then exchanged a wry look with the Admiral.

"As Bane would say ĎThat is the least of your titlesí. Itís a very long story and you were about to ask. . ?"

"If I have figured this out correctly, the Conclave approached with this alliance offer after you vanished. Did you have something to do with that?"

"Yes and no. It was already in the works when I arrived. I just helped it along, shall we say?"

"Why you?" Alcott demanded.

McQueen grinned. "I was. . ." His eyes shifted toward the door as Gary suddenly catapulted in, dressed only in shorts. Hooting enthusiastically, the man dropped to the floor behind McQueen, reaching for the glass in his brotherís hand. McQueen caught the questing hand gently but firmly. "No."

"Noooooo. . ." Gary echoed, rolling over onto his back to stare at the ceiling, still clutching McQueenís hand.

"Did you lose Gwain again?"

Gary laughed and pointed toward the door. "Gwaaaiiinnnn. . ."

"Damn." Came from the doorway and Gwain stepped in. He, too, was now dressed only in the shorts. "Heís a quick one, Ty."

"Ever think of a leash?" Alcott asked coldly.

Gwain flopped down next to Gwain. "Sure. Even tried it. . .wasnít much fun." Ignoring the sudden aghast look on Alcottís face, and for that matter Jenkinsí, the AI looked back at McQueen. "From the way heís acting, Iíd say the stormíll run maybe another a couple hours."

McQueen frowned thoughtfully, his eyes faraway. "No." He said with finality. "No, itís almost over. Isnít it, Gary?"

"Wooooooooo. . ." Gary slapped at McQueenís hand then drew himself closer to bite at it.

"Hey, hey, hey." Gwain said softly, taking Garyís shoulders and pulling him away. "Come on, Gary. Here."

Gary released his brotherís hand and rolled to over to curl tightly against the AI, so close he was almost in Gwainís lap. Gwain slipped an arm around the manís shoulders, holding him close and rocking him gently. McQueen watched them both for a long moment, that distant look still in his eyes then he stood, strolling over to the panel set in the wall. Folding back the door, he worked the controls and the panels covering the glass walls slid back.

Rain dripped from the trees and gleamed on grass and statues, running in riverlets from the mountain-side.

"Itís over." McQueen murmured then glanced at his brother and Gwain. He could see that the visitors were finally getting the idea, realizing that Gwain wasnít just Garyís caretaker.

There was disgust on Alcottís face and Jenkins as well. Fletcher was expressionless and Ross obviously puzzled. Not by the fact that Gwain and Gary were lovers. . .AIs were created to be sexually capable, after all. . .but by McQueenís acceptance of it. Ross knew of McQueenís hatred of AIs, brought on by the torture at their hands during the wars. What had happened. . ?

"Come on, all of you. I want to introduce you with someone." McQueen said abruptly, walking to the glass walls and sliding one aside.

"Well, there goes that plan." Gwain muttered and Gary hooted, scrambling to his feet and darting past everyone and out the door, running through the wet grass. Gwain swore and leapt to his feet to follow.

"Yeah, well. My damn choice." McQueen lead the visitors outside, walking toward one of the statues, the huge gryphon-like creature. Ross frowned as he eyed it. He could have sworn. That the beak was open when they had passed it earlier. "Everyone, Iíd like you to meet Khadaji." McQueen reached up to slapped at the statueís neck. In reply, the Ďstatueí yawned, and stretched.

end beginning one

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