Scene Two

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

Several months ago, the message had come from a confederation of alien races, offering an alliance against the species Earth called Chigs and these new aliens called the Shikuti. A mutual enemy, they claimed and offered a chance to win. Of course, the top brass had to spend two months searching for the catch. Apparently there wasn’t an obvious one and the careful negotiations had started. That had been three months ago. Now the talks were reaching their completion and the aliens requested that, since the major part of the negotiations were done on Earth and on Earth vessels, the final stages be completed on a planet of their choosing. A planet they called Rathorn, on the outskirts of their combined space.

The Saratoga had been dispatched from the nearest armada to, hopefully, smooth the way for the Earth delegation that would arrive forty-three hours later. Before leaving the armada, the Saratoga had received a member of the Alien Linguists Unit from the Nebraska and a General from the Melbourne. Now the Earth vessel was orbiting a large planet which, according to the information supplied by the aliens, was remarkably like Earth’s.

Commodore Glen Van Ross stared out the portal of the descending shuttle and into an alien sky. It looked very much like the skies over Earth and for a long moment, Ross entertained the fantasy it was. But it wasn’t and he knew it. With a sigh, Ross turned his attention to the other occupants of the shuttle.

Beside him was General P.C. Fletcher of the Australian Forces. A slender woman, she had short auburn hair and green eyes with laughter in her eyes and a quick smile for everyone. But that sweetness hid a steel interior that commanded battleships and a quick mind that designed strategies that rarely lost.

Across the aisle was an Aerotech first contact specialist named Jessica Alcott, a tall, slender woman with long blond hair and greenish eyes. Beside her was Major Mark Jenkins, a dark, slender man who, quite frankly, grated on Ross’ nerves. He had been presented as alien language experts though ALU did admit there wasn’t much known of these alien languages. All the Conclave aliens they had meet so far spoke excellent English.

Behind them was the 58th; Nathan West, Shane Vansen, Paul Wang, Vanessa Damphousse and Cooper Hawkes, along with their new squad commander, Elizabeth Newport. Even after four months, Ross still thought of her as new, to him, those kids were still McQueen’s kids and most likely always would.

"Oh, wow. Look at that." Hawkes’ voice drew everyone’s attention to him. The planet was fast rising to meet them. Even now, they could see the lush green of the grass below them, dotted with the darker green of trees and brush and the blue of lakes and seas. "Looks a lot like Earth."

"Yeah, it does." West this time.

"Buckle up, everyone." The pilot’s voice came back to them. "We’re going down."

Too much time spent in combat situations caused the 58th flinched at the pilot’s unfortunate choice of words. Moments later, the shuttle touched down without so much as a thump and everyone was rising from their seats, reaching up to pull down duffle bags and other cases. Nathan West cracked the hatch and remarkably pure air rushed in to replace the customary ship-bottled air of the shuttle.

Ross couldn’t help but breathe deeply of it. He could hear the others do the same and he smiled slightly as they stepped from the shuttle. The ground around them was hard-packed dirt, obviously used frequently as a landing pad. The landing pad was encircled by posts strung with white chains and topped by what appeared to be skulls, human skulls. Frowning, Ross set his duffle down and stepped over to examine one. The others followed suit.

"Plaster copies, it looks like." Wang said, turning a skull he had lifted from a post over in his hands.

"Yes ." General Fletcher frowned. She looked around at the other skull-topped posts. "Not too terribly friendly, I’d say. I wonder why they’re here. . ."

"A warning." The voice that came from in front of them was deep and possessed a Scots accent. Everyone turned to stare in surprise at the tall human with salt-and-pepper hair standing at the start of a cobble-stoned path leading away from the landing pad. He smiled at the dumbfounded looks on their faces and reached down to unhooked a section of chain, moving to rehook it on the opposite post. "Welcome to Rathorn. I’m Bruce Ffolkes."

General Fletcher was the first to recover, stepping forward with a surprisingly warm smile and an extended hand. "How do you do? I’m Patricia Fletcher." She proceeded to introduce everyone, starting with Ross and finishing with the Aerotech woman. Ross reflected that the General’s opinion of Aerotech seemed to match his.

"A human." Major Jenkins said, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "What’s a human doing here?"

"There are approximately 3,000 humans on Rathorn and several more thousand humans scattered throughout the Conclave. I take it they didn’t see fit to tell you?" He looked at their frozen expressions and sighed. "Well, I guess they didn’t. As for. . ." He gestured at the skulls. "This planet has a native sentient species, the Rathorns. The Conclave has an agreement with the Rathorns. Members of the Conclave remain within the colony’s specific boundaries, the Rathorns enter only with peaceable intentions. And any being going outside the boundaries without express permission from either the Komeesee or the Rathorns end up dead."

"Just like that?" Jessica Alcott said.

"Just like that. That was the agreement made with the Rathorns when the colony was formed. These skulls are copies. The posts lining the boundaries are topped by real skulls; humans, Timnor, Treean, Rathorn, whatever." Ffolkes turned on his heel and started down the cobble-stoned path. The general fell in beside him. For a moment, Alcott and Jenkins amused the others by competing to walk on Ffolkes’ opposite side. Major Jenkins won and Alcott dropped back with a scowl that quickly vanished when Ffolkes looked her way. Commodore Ross walked with Newport and the 58th, listening intently while studying the forests lining the path. Here, too, were the white posts topped with rakishly tilted skulls.

"This particular piece of land is called the borderlands and are a fairly new addition to the agreement between the Conclave and the Rathorns." Ffolkes continued. "It’s shared with the Rathorns and the rules are a little different. Here, you do not go beyond the white chains. In fact, I suggest you do not go too near the chains. Rathorns tend to have a different definition of. . .errrrr. . .shall we say, legal take?. . .then we do."

Ross listened with half-an-ear as they walked along the path. Despite being out of actual ground combat for some time, he still retained that special sense that many combat veterans developed and right now he could feel that they were being followed. . .paced by something dangerous. A glance at the others showed that they, too, felt it.

Just went to prove that you never really lose combat instincts.

"Horses? They have horses here, too?" Newport said suddenly and the others followed her gaze to see an animal on the other side of the chain. It couldn’t be seen clearly but it did have the general shape of a horse. Newport stepped closer to the chain.

"That’s not a horse." West, ever the farm boy, said.

"You’re right. It’s not." Folkes snatched Newport’s collar and yanked her back just as the "horse’s" head came over the chain. Sharp teeth that would do a tiger proud clacked shut a bare inch from Newport’s face then the man’s open hand slapped the beast’s muzzle. "Knock it off, Hellspawn. You may not eat her." The man looked back at the woman he still held by the collar. "You don’t listen very well, do you?" He let her go and turned back to the animal. "You plan on behaving?"

The animal snorted then nodded its ivory-armored head.

"Fine. Everyone, let me introduce you to a rathorn." He stepped closer to the chain and unhooked it enough for the beast to enter. Ivory hooves clacked pleasantly on the ground as it pranced onto the cobblestones, giving everyone their first glimpse of the planet’s native sentient species. "This is Hellspawn."

It...no, now that the beast was out from the forest shadows they could see that it was female...was a great deal like a horse but with ivory armoring her body and a nasal horn with the upper edge and point sharpened. The coat 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."

Ffolkes snapped his head around to look at her in surprise. "Well, well. I’m surprised you do. She wasn’t very well-known even in her day."

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

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

"Oh, please don’t tell me. . ?"

"Yes, these rathorns have managed to acquire quite a taste for human flesh." Ffolkes laughed.

"They what?" Alcott gaped at him. "And you allow. . ?"

"This is their planet." Ffolkes cut her off firmly as he resumed walking, Hellspawn prancing at his side. "We’ve made an agreement with them. They do not attack any within the borders and anyone outside the borders without permission is fair game. Or, as the kids put it, Purina Rathorn Chow."

The path curved around a cluster of trees and into a clearing. Once in the clearing, the cobblestones continued for several feet before widening into a large half-circle 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.

Ffolkes 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. Ffolkes 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. He glanced around with a frown.

"Well, I had hoped to introduce you to the Komeesee but. . ."

"Komeesee?" Jessica Alcott interrupted. "You mentioned that name before. Is that. . .what? An alien species?"

"No." Ffolkes paused, an odd smile on his face. "The Komeesee is rather hard to explain. He. . .or she or it, though this time around it’s a he. . .is war chief, colony administrator, liaison with the rathorns, etc, etc. The job description tends to change with every re-instatement of the position. In fact, part of the problem with the earlier negotiations with Earth was that the Komeesee had not yet been chosen. Once he was chosen, well, everything sort of fell into place, shall we say. He might be in the kitchen. Just a minute. . ." He walked across the room to double doors and swung one open enough to slip through, closing it firmly behind him.

The 58th looked at each other then simultaneously set their bags down and spread out to explore the room. Some of it was old habits but mostly it was sheer curiosity. Here they were, thinking they were visiting an alien world, expecting to meet aliens and they meet humans. And this was no alien dwelling. This house could have been lifted right off of Earth.

It was, actually, a very homey room. Very large with glass covering almost the entire wall behind them. In the very center was a circular sunken area, complete with couches and a low table 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."

Vansen was looking at bookshelves across the room. These were alien books, written in languages she couldn’t even begin to understand. She moved along toward the fireplace, where Damphousse stood.

"Shane. . ." Damphousse's voice was strained and Vansen looked at her in surprise. The other woman was standing immobile, staring at a painting above the fireplace. Puzzled, Vansen moved to her side.

It was a very well done painting, better then most Vansen had ever seen. The subject was of a man riding one of those fierce rathorns, perhaps even the rathorn they had meet. But it wasn’t the subject that had caught Damphousse's attention, it was the man astride the rathorn. He and the rathorn were a matched pair. . .silver hair, white mane, light blue eyes and gray eyes, fair skin and ivory armor, ice surrounding hidden flame. It was. . .

"McQueen!" There was incredulous joy in Hawkes’ voice and the women turned in surprise. The young In Vitro was clear across the room and not even looking at the painting. No, he was looking at the now open double doors where Ffolkes stood with an oh-so-familiar man.

"McQueen? Oh, no." Ffolkes said, amusement dancing in his voice despite the innocent look on his face. "McQueen’s dead. Barker said so. Saw him die, didn’t he and brought back his dogtags. No, this is, let us say, McQueen’s twin. This is the Komeesee."

The Komeesee stood in the doorway, a faint smile on his face. His silvery hair was longer then they'd ever seen McQueen's, his eyes more relaxed and a smile seemed to come easily to him. He was dressed totally in black; open-necked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, calf-high leather boots, set off with an occasional flash of white and silver. A necklace, bracers that encircled wrists and hands, metallic feathers decorating the boots.

Ross had known McQueen for years, from the AI wars through the conflicts that covered Earth and into space. He had seen McQueen fight years of hate and prejudice to become the highest ranked InVitro in any branch of the military and he had known that, despite the "advances" in InVitro rights, that his friend would never get any higher. Now he looked at a man. . .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 four months ago and what Ffolkes claimed now, this was the T.C. McQueen he had known for so long.

He just wasn't sure if he should shake the man's hand or slug him into 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."

"Colonel. . ." Vansen stepped forward but froze at Ffolkes’ chiding voice.

"Komeesee." The man corrected and Vansen looked flustered.

"It is the correct title, Shane." The Komeesee said gently. "Colonel McQueen is dead. No matter what you may see now."

"Why?" Hawkes said, his voice very close to shrill. "Why didn’t you let us know you were still alive?"

"It’s a long story, Cooper." There was pain in McQueen’s eyes and Ross knew how much it had hurt his friend to let the 58th think he was dead. "A very long story. I’ll explain more. . .later. Right now, I think. . ." A crooning sound came from behind him and McQueen stiffened, looking over his shoulder. When next he spoke, his voice was incredibly gentle. "Hello, Gary. What’s wrong?"

A man wandered into sight and the 58th gaped at him, as did Ross. The newcomer was virtually identical to McQueen. But his gray-blue eyes were disturbingly blank, his face vague in expression. Dressed in paint-splotched cut-offs and sleeveless denim shirt, he carried what appeared to be a toy stuffed raccoon tucked under one arm. McQueen reached over to gently touch the man’s cheek.


"Tyyyy. . ." The man crooned, swaying slightly with a vague smile.

McQueen glanced over his shoulder. "This is my brother, Gary." He said calmly. "He did most of the paintings you’ll see in this house. He did that one." He gestured at the painting above the fireplace. "We’ve 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." General Fletcher smiled at the man gently.

"Roooo. . ." He rocked slowly, clutching the raccoon protectively.

"Where’s Gwain, Gary?" McQueen asked.

Gary frowned in puzzlement, looking around.

"I’m here." The low voice came from behind Gary and another man stepped into view. No, not a man and Vansen stiffened involuntarily. It was an AI, of a series she recognized. In fact, she had played a mean game of pool against on of them not too very long ago. His name was. . .was Alvin. Alvin something. This one was dressed in holey jeans and sleeveless t-shirt.

Gwain slipped an arm around Gary’s shoulders and the man leaned against him trustingly, crooning to himself as he eyed the newcomers. "He’s been edgy all morning. I think there’s a storm coming."

"Storm? Damn. Taz!"

A small figure hurled down the hallway, skittering to a halt in front of McQueen. Perhaps two feet tall, this alien, the first they’d seen other then a Chig, was pasty white with large pale pink eyes. The arms were longer in proportion to its body then a human’s, or maybe it was just that the legs seemed shorter, coming almost to the ground and ending in four-fingered hands. It was dressed in body armor and had a rifle slung across its back. It chattered at McQueen. Intermixed with the alien sounds were ones the Earthers recognized; Ty, storm, rathorns.

McQueen sighed. "Get everything locked down. Hopefully it’ll pass quickly." The alien darted off as he walked past the group and to the desk. Sliding back a panel on the wall, he worked the controls. With a smooth hum, metal panels slid down over the glass walls. "Some storms can come quickly here, without warning. One’s coming now so we’re locking down to wait it out."

"Please tell me this isn’t a weirdling storm. I may have to running screaming from the house as it is." General Fletcher grimaced at the surprised look on McQueen’s face.

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

"Shut up, Gwain and go get Gary cleaned up." He smiled fondly at his brother, ruffling the man’s hair. "Go with Gwain."

"Gwaaaiiiiiiiinnnn." Gary didn’t 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 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. Gwain’s pretty good at keeping him under control though. "

"An AI?" Vansen couldn’t contain herself any longer. "Why an AI?"

"He was already here when I came. And he is one of the few people who can handle Gary. And. . .well, that’s part of the long story." Another crash of thunder. "Come on, I’ll show you to your rooms." McQueen turned to lead the way out of the room and into a wide corridor. "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."

McQueen turned left to walk down the corridor, giving the group a brief glimpse of huge kitchen across the hall before leading them deeper into the house. Like the ceiling in the sitting room, this high ceiling, set at regular intervals with odd slabs of some kind of clear stone, glowed with light, illuminating the occasional painting and doorway.

"The bedrooms are upstairs." McQueen lead the way up the gently inclined ramp. "Going down are the workshops, gyms, etc, etc. That. . ." He gestured toward a pair of double doors at the end of the hallway. ". . .leads to Gary’s rooms. Otherwise known as the no-go zone." He turned the corner and continued up the corridor and then up another level. And another until, at last, he paused at the first door to the left. "This is your room, General. Next down, Ms. Alcott." He continued to indicate doors to the left, ignoring the ones on the right. "Major Jenkins. Col. Newport. And Commodore Ross."

They had reached the end of the hallway and run out of ramps. Before them was another double doors and McQueen indicated them. "These are my rooms, another no-go zone. And there. . ." McQueen pointed toward the door on the right and for the first time, they noticed that there were only two double doors as compared the right to the five doors on the left. ". . .is the 58th’s room." He stepped over to slide the doors open, revealing a large oval room. There were nine beds set into the walls at shoulder level, five on one side, four on the other. Under each one were sliding doors and between the beds was a niche with a vaguely human metal frame in it. The last wall, directly across from them, appeared to normally be open but was now covered with metal shutters. A round table was in the center of the room, another of those metal statues in the center. Chairs were scattered around.

"Get settled in and come on down to the sitting room. I’ll try explain some of what’s going on." With that, McQueen turned and walked back down the corridor.

end scene two

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