Scene Three

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

Shane Vansen looked out the portal at alien skies. It look very much like the skies of Earth and after a long moment, she turned back to the other occupants of the shuttle. Nathan West and Paul Wang were seated in the same row as she with Cooper Hawkes, Vanessa Damphousse and their new. . .well, it had been four months but she still thought of her as new. . .squad commander, Lt. Col. Suzanne Newport, behind them. Sitting in the row in front of the entire group, was Commodore Ross, General P.C. Fletcher and two Aerotech employees. Mark Jenkins was someone that looked suave but came across to the rather jaded 58th as sleazy. The other was a first contact specialist, Jessica Alcott.

Vansen really couldn’t help but wonder exactly how much experience Ms. Alcott had with first contacts.

Well, she was going to get a chance now, though, truthfully, it wouldn’t actually be a first contact. Apparently, Earth had been in negotiations with a confederation of alien races for the past several months in an attempt to forge an alliance against the Chigs. It seemed they were now in the final stages of the alliance. Of course, they were being very close-mouthed about everything but from what Vansen had managed to glean from conversations and rumors, the Confederation had insisted that the last bit of negotiations take place on one of their worlds. In a mixture of checking-it-out and goodwill gesture, Earth had first sent the Saratoga to the planet with instructions to be on their best behavior and to get ready for the arrival of the Earth delegation.

On their way to the planet, they had been meet by an Aerotech ship and, later, by an alien escort. The former had brought the last two additions to the landing party, the latter a lot of speculation about the aliens.

"Oh, wow. Look at that." Hawkes’ voice drew Vansen’s attention to the portal next to her and she turned to peer out. 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 but quickly checked their restraints. 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.

Vansen couldn’t help but breathe deeply of it. She could hear the others do the same and grinned at her fellow squad members 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. Wang stepped closer to one for a hard study before stepping back to rejoin his friends, a vague look of relief on his face.

"Plaster copies, it looks like." Wang said.

"Why would they have skulls hung out like that?" West this time, in a disturbed tone of voice.

"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. She was a lovely woman in her early 60s with auburn hair and Irish green eyes. Vansen reflected that the General was the type of woman she would have loved to have as a grandmother; a sweet woman 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 winning strategies. She had managed to very sweetly bully her way into the landing party.

Of course, now that Vansen thought about it, so had Ross. Not sweetly, of course. More like a charging bull. I’m-going-on-that-shuttle-and-just-try-to-stop-me was more his approach.

"How do you do? I’m Patricia Fletcher." She proceeded to introduce everyone, starting with Ross and finishing with the Aerotech people. Vansen reflected that the General’s opinion of Aerotech seemed to match theirs.

"A human." Mark 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 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, the two Aerotech employees amused the 58th by competing to walk on Ffolkes’ opposite side. Mark 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."

Vansen listened with half-an-ear as they walked along the path. She was occupied with studying the forest. Several months of combat had given her what she could only think of as an extra sense and right now it was telling her they were being followed. A glance at the others showed that they, too, felt it. Even Ross, for all his years out of ground combat, looked incredibly wary.

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, mane and tail were all pitch black. The rathorn eyed them with dark 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 Rathorns 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 that stopped where it meet with the house. The house itself appeared to be built directly into the hillside, what little of it extended from the hill was made of dark wood and glass.

Ffolkes continue toward the house, giving the visitors little chance of looking around but still they managed. To the right was a very large swimming pool, currently empty, surrounded by the type of patio equipment found around thousands of pools on Earth. A huge metal statue of some creature baring a remarkable resemblance to a gryphon was near it, laying down with wings folded tightly against its side and head raised to seemingly peer through the glass and into the house. More statues, also of gleaming metal, dotted the landscape. The clearing extended further to the left and there they could see fenced areas and equipment. And people. Some human, some alien. At the sight of them, Hellspawn snorted and trotted toward them. Ffolkes paused and gestured toward the gathering.

"Those tall, furry creatures. . .the ones who looked like humanoid wolves. . .they’re Timnor. Then there’s the Minotaur, they’re the ones who look like Greek Minotaurs. There’s only a couple of them on Rathorn. Those two races, plus the Ish’Kiri, form what we call the Inner Conclave. Of the other races, well, there’s a Treean. . .the furry fellow with the tail, they’re often mistaken for demons. . .and the small one floating above that mess is a Lumiax. You’ve meet a Rathorn and, of course, well, the humans. We also have a Hoag’tash somewhere around and a few other aliens species here. The Rathorn colony is a true mixed-species colony." There was pride in the man’s voice. "Now, if you’d like to meet the Komeesee. . ."

"The Komeesee?" Alcott asked, her eyes on the clusters of human and alien out in the fields. "Another alien race?"

"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."

The man resumed walking toward the house and everyone followed. Sliding aside a panel of glass, Ffolkes waved them into a large sitting room done in browns and tans. He swept a glance around as he entered, frowning.

"Hmmmmmm, he must be in the kitchen. . .his turn to cook, y’know. Wait here. I’ll fetch him." And 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. 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, were 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. They both knew him.

"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. . .an InVitro. . .a human. . .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 was 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." He looked outside and Ross followed his eyes to the patio area they had just passed through. There were people there now, human and alien. Some were in the pool, some scrambling over the huge statue, the rest clustered together in chatting groups.

"I had wondered." Ross glanced back at McQueen. "About Barker, I mean. The way he told it didn't ring true. Why didn't you contact us?" This time he glanced at the 58th, now drawn together in a tense, uncertain cluster. McQueen flinched.

"It's a very long story, Glen. Me being dead on the books served a purpose and, for that matter, still does." He gestured out the windows. "Here I'm the Komeesee and nothing will ever prove otherwise."

"Wait a minute." Mark Jenkins spoke up for the first time, a speculative look in his eyes. "If what you're saying is true, then you're still a member of the Marine Corp. And that means. . ."

"Nothing." McQueen was gone. The icy-eyed man that spoke now left no doubt that he was the Komeesee. "You can't prove I'm T.C. McQueen and if you push too hard, the Conclave will withdraw from the negotiations. And probably come down on you like a ton of bricks, as well. Earth can't last much longer against the Chigs. . ."

"McQueen!" Jenkin's voice was sharp.

"Earth is losing!" McQueen's voice was ruthless. "The Chigs are playing with the planet like they play with ejected pilots. The Conclave is offering Earth a chance to win. Don't blow it over a no-win situation."

"What makes you think it's a no-win situation?" Jessica Alcott said thoughtfully. "It occurs to me that all InVitros have their genetic profiles on record. It would be simple to. . ." Her voice faded at the sight of the smirk on McQueen's face and the bark of laughter from Ffolkes.

"Trust me, missy. That won't work." Ffolkes said, eyes dancing with laughter.

Alcott blinked at him, a blink that turned into a glower. "There is always a way to prove it. McQueen. . .you. . .has scars and an inner-ear replace. . ." Alcott’s voice trailed off as the Komeesee calmly unbuttoned and slipped off his shirt, spreading his arms.

"What scars?" And there were no scars. Not one. He tapped behind his ear. "No device. I swear. Oh, damn, there they go again." The last bit was in reference to the group outside the house. Most of the females were now clustered together outside the window, hooting and cheering at the bare-chested Komeesee. He smiled in resignation and bowed in their direction before slipping the shirt back on. "I’ve got to stop taking my shirt off in public."

"You should just get sword-bound to Shard. She’ll protect you." Ffolkes laughed.

"Right. Who’ll protect me from Shard? Oh, hello, Shard."

A woman had stepped through the double doors, pausing briefly to smile brightly at McQueen, who eyed her warily. She was quite lovely with dark skin, short white hair and green eyes. She held a baby, perhaps a year old and, as she passed McQueen, she handed it to him without missing a step. A moment later, she was out the doors and strolling toward the pool.

"Why is it. . ." McQueen eyed the squirming baby he held at arms length. ". . .every time she goes by she hands me a baby?"

"Revenge?" Ffolkes suggested, not bothering to hide his amused grin.

"Yeah, right. Like it's my fault." The man muttered finally tucking the baby close. "So, how about I show you to your rooms and you can get settled in? Then I’ll show you around."

"That would be fine, Komeesee." General Fletcher stepped forward, taking the situation firmly in hand once more. "I would like a chance to change clothes."

"This way." He turned and walked out, the general behind him and the others following. He 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. The 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, et. . . ." Halfway around the corner, McQueen stopped abruptly then turned, speaking more rapidly then before. "I’m sure you wondered why we are so sure genetic testing wouldn’t work in identifying me as McQueen. Well, you’re about to find out." Then he turned back. This time his voice was soft and incredibly gentle. "H’lo, Gary."

A crooning sound answered him and a man stepped into sight. 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 under one arm. McQueen reached over to gently cup the side of the man’s head and draw his attention back to him.

"Hey, Gary."

"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. I think he just finished a painting." He shook his head, stroking a blue paint smear on the man’s face. "We’ve people visiting, Gary."

Gary looked at them with interest.

"Hello, Gary." General Fletcher smiled at the man gently and he smiled uncertainly back.

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

"Where’s Gwain, Gary?"

Gary frowned in puzzlement.

"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. "He just finished a painting. You know how he is."

"Yes. Get him cleaned up, will you?" McQueen smiled at his brother fondly.

"Sure. Come on, Gary." The AI gently guided Gary toward the double doors behind them, talking to him in soft tones.

McQueen watched them until they finally vanished into the double doors at the end of the hallway, Gwain closing the doors behind them then he turned to continue down the corridor, the others following.

"It was a mining accident." McQueen said without preamble. "He would have been okay if they dug him out right away but the mine boss didn’t want to waste money and equipment and time digging him out. Why bother rescuing an In Vitro that may require lots of expensive medical treatment when you can get another? The Timnor arrived three days later to rescue the In Vitro slaves." He smiled grimly at the sudden shocked looks on the visitors faces. "Oh, yes. The Timnor have been rescuing InVitros for maybe 18 years now. They dug Gary out but the damage was down. Severe brain damage caused by injuries and lack of oxygen. Actually, there’s been a lot of improvement over the past few years."

Alcott stepped forward. Her eyes were as cold as her voice. "InVitros were never slaves."

McQueen opened his mouth but it was General Fletcher who spoke up. "That’s a matter of opinion. Apparently, the Timnor have a different opinion then you do."

"Yes, they do. General Fletcher, this will be your room. Ms. Alcott, you’re across the hall there. A little further down. . .here is your room, Glen. Jenkins, there. Col. Newport, you can either have this room or stay with the 58th. Your choice."

Newport glowered at him. "I’ll take this room." She gritted and McQueen nodded.

"58th." McQueen turned, leading the cluster of five young people deeper into the house, upward to another floor.

end scene three

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