The Thayan Empire, Kafela System
Planet Cottonwood, three Earth years ago:
A speaker was thrust under the tractor.
“Hur’in is on the way with a new rescuee.”
“Details?” Rick asked, wiping a drop of lubricant from his cheek. The swipe only made it worse. The green, scaled paw holding the speaker pressed the unit open for his question.
“One adult female,” Hur’in’s commander responded. “Earth Human.”
“They come screamin’ out of that hole?” Rick asked, squinting for that leak.
“Yes, they did. Only this time the hunted turned the game around; the lady jumped those damned things and took over the ship. Made a pretty good landing, too. We got two live Udug out of it.”
Rick paused. He couldn’t remember the last time they caught a live Udug. “Really? Officially impressed. What does Thane say?”
“Ka’ma is coming out for an interview.”
Rick chuckled as he changed out a section of hose. “Got Thane’s attention, did it?”
“Enough to leave pirate chasing to Jarlaith.”
“Like that’s going to happen,” Rick snorted; Jarlaith was probably supplying the escape routes. “Tell Thane he owes me a case of Wamfu ale.” He ratcheted the new hose into place. “I assume you would say if medical is needed?”
“Cuts and scrapes,” Ardiss said from the comm. “Ka’ma is picking up Evan from Thaya on the way.”
“Good,” He hit a stubborn bolt with the wrench. “Tell Thane to play nice or Evan’ll kick his furry butt.” Thane was the most accepting of diverse cultures and peoples but he had a blind spot when it concerned humans taking on the ancient Thayan role of imirtu. The Enimirtu herself confirmed Evan’s place. Thane didn’t.
He wheeled himself out from under the tractor and got to his feet, wiping his hands on his already filthy shirt. He gave his head a scratch and decided that a shower was in order.
“Start ‘er up, Clark,” he told his assistant.
Clark blinked. “Why don’t you just use a digger like everyone else?”
“Because those creatures won’t tell me what the soil is like; the equipment will. Come on, hop up.”
His assistant wrinkled a prissy green nose and stepped gingerly onto the tractor. He touched the motor button with a dark claw and jumped when it sparked. Rick smacked the front end with his wrench.
“Try it again,” he said.
Clark quickly exited the seat. “You don’t pay me enough,” he informed Rick.
“Where’s the loyalty?” Rick whined as Clark strode away.
“Self-preservation!” Clark called back. Rick chuckled and then scowled when he caught sight of his tractor. He puffed noisily and stuck his head into the motor housing.
He knew he was recreating the wheel, but he just didn’t trust those bio-diggers to know what they were talking about when it came to the soil. What if they were wrong? What if they needed repairs? How was he to know? He wasn’t going to trust food he put into the stomachs of his children to the questionable sensors of diggers. Thankfully there were colony worlds that still used machinery in their fields, so he was able to get most of the equipment he needed to build a good old-fashioned tractor.
Rick took his head out a while later and looked at the twins, not fooled by their identical innocent expressions.
“Who did what?” Rick asked suspiciously.
“The horse did,” Pavel informed him. His brother nodded in earnest agreement. Their black hair and green eyes glowed against their pale skin, sun-kissed by their time on the planet. Their small Thayan kilts were practically destroyed from their play-time, though.
“What horse?” Rick asked.
“The Maynard’s horse,” Pavel explained.
Rick set the wrench down and sat on a bale of hay as he felt impending mental gymnastics on the way.
“What did the horse do?”
“Had a baby.”
“I see. Is this a problem?”
“No. We want to see it.”
The fog cleared. That was easier than he expected.
“Ah! Ask an adult at the house before you go into the barn.”
The boys scrambled out of the yard while Rick sent a quick prayer to the horses. Not that the boys were bad, they simply had a curiosity about things that could not be quashed. Not that Rick had any intention of quashing the little devils.
Pavel and Ivan had been rescued two years earlier at the approximate age of two years old. Rick had pulled them from a crashed ship and the boys had immediately clung to him, refusing to allow anyone else to see to their needs. They weren’t tagged, no DNA matches, no bulletins on missing twin human male toddlers, and no one had come forward to claim them. Not all colonies were required to code their children, so it was probable that the boys were from an outpost far from the center of the empire.
If people didn’t get their kids coded with the empire’s databanks, how could the authorities be expected to return lost children to their parents, or even, gods forbid, return unidentified bodies? Most of the empire’s citizens had their DNA listed for identification purposes; it wasn’t a law, just a good idea. Odds were the boys were from the pirate sector, which meant they would get a better life with an adopted family in the mainstream empire.
Against his will, Rick adopted the twins. Against his will, he fell in love with them. Rick needed quiet time, so he left the service and took the boys home to his ranch house on Cottonwood. Farming and being the part-time sheriff of their community was certainly less of a drama than being warrior command on the flagship.
“Boss!” came the summons again, a couple more hours later. “Ships are here. Do you want to meet them in town?”
“Why?” Rick asked, tossing a piece of hose over his shoulder. “Tell them to come out here. New colt across the way.”
There was a pause. “Thane says he’ll come out, but you can keep the colt.” Clark was being polite in his message taking; the umi didn’t hold back when it concerned his long-time friend and battle-mate.
Speaking of colts, “Where are the boys?”
While Clark was rounding up the twins and checking on the welfare of the neighbors’ animals, Rick measured out new connection wires for his sick tractor. He jumped when a spark struck his hand.
“Why don’t you use diggers?” he was once more asked. This time, the voice had a furry quality about it, instead of Clark’s clipped staccato.
“I will not be defeated,” he retorted. He picked up a mud can and put a dab on the back of his hand. The stuff smelled worse than week old cat food, but it worked; the cooling began immediately. Rick turned to look at the woman standing between the two commanders. Her chin was slightly airborne, giving away her defensive inner battle. Her ragged uniform, though… he understood why the commanders brought her to him instead of the usual channels. And her pride probably kept her from giving up her uniform for something a little more put-together.
“At ease, Captain,” he said as he wrapped a cloth around his hand. “What’s your name, airman?”
He waved down the hesitant hand that automatically went up in salute.
“Rick Myles, formerly of Wyoming,” he said, and then jabbed a thumb toward Thane. “I work with him, now. Well… used to. I retired.”
She cast a suspicious glance at the furred being standing next to her. So far, she had counted five distinct alien races, not including the race which kidnapped her and others from Earth. These, though, seemed to be friendlier. And she did like those aquatic creatures that rescued her upon splash-down….
“Can’t tell you how the Cubs are doing,” Rick was saying. “It’s been a long time. I predict ‘badly,’ though.”
The corners of her mouth involuntarily twitched.
“They won the Series last year,” she commented. Rick’s eyebrows went up in surprise.
“Really? Invaded by pod-people, were they? This calls for a celebration. Thane….”
“I’m out of ale,” came a soft rumble. The Thayan commander was in his usual black saga, with the name of his ship, the Ka’ma, spelled out in Thayan script down the right side. His dark gold mane was neatly coiffed, and the two ears sticking up through the mane each had a single earring, showing his conservative nature.
“I know your hiding places,” Rick reminded him with a shake of a finger. “Never mind.” He waved them to follow. Two small tornadoes whirled past, ducking around legs as they rushed into the house. An even smaller body, covered in the same russet colored fur as Thane, was close behind. Clark came from around the side of the house, huffing and puffing from his chase.
“I… need… a raise,” he declared between deep, gulping breaths. Rick gave a scaled shoulder a pat. It had taken him some time to get used to the hard, cool— and green— hide.
“Come on, Clark, you’ve got four hands; that’s two for each kid.”
The newcomer edged closer to the humans in the room. Commander Ardiss was a little older than Rick by just a couple of years, and had been his share of battle, as evidenced by the scars on his arms and the left side of his jaw. He was human, though, not an unknown as the aliens were to the woman.
Rick couldn’t blame her; he was used to Clark’s people. It was those creepy, snout-nosed weasels in the marshes of Lachses 4 still did it to him after twenty years of residency in the empire.
“Clark is a local,” Rick told her as he got cups and saucers out for drinks. “Reptilian ancestry. They make good nannies.” Four green, long-fingered, webbed hands made quick work of getting refreshments together and poured.
“So.” Rick indicated seats and sat on a Thayan pillow on the floor. When he had first gotten to the empire, getting up and down from the pillows had made his thighs and knees ache; he was used to them, now, and found them comfortable. “You piloted an Udug ship? Start at the beginning.”
*Has she been given a physical?*
*Refused,* Thane said. *Too scared, I believe. She seems unharmed except for some cuts and scrapes. She was unaware of the scans she walked through, though; the healers feel that she is well enough.*
One of the twins draped himself across Rick’s back. He knew it had to be Ivan, the more sensitive of the two. “Hey.” He poked the boy on a hand dangling over his shoulder. “How do you meet someone new?”
The boy popped up, looked at the lady, and ran off. The cub leapt over Rick’s head and followed the boys.
“That was Ivan,” he said with a chuckle. “His brother is Pavel. They’re four.”
“Earth names?” she asked. “Why do people have Earth names here?”
“Lots of humans have Earth names here because Earth is their ancestral home and their ancestors brought the names with them. The boys were two when we found them,” he said, waiting on the rest of her question. “They didn’t remember much. I ran through all the boy names I could think of until they decided which names they wanted. Do you have a name? Captain?”
She had the grace to flush. “Katherine Lourdes. Kate. What do you m….?”
“Kate. Well, Kate, has your situation been explained to you? In the hierarchy of the Thayan Empire’s military, and this is the Thayan Empire, we three are among the top ten in the chain of command. Hard to believe, I know. Commander Thane has the Ka’ma, the flagship, Commander Ardiss has the Hur’in, the head of border patrol, and I’m warrior command on the Ka’ma. Retired.” He gave Thane a glare which Thane ignored. “The three of us are the people you need to debrief with. Begin.”
The laid-back rancher was gone, replaced by the military commander. Kate straightened. Used to military commanders being straight-laced and proper, she would never have pegged the man as a war commander.
“About two months ago, I woke up on one of those ships,” she began. “I don’t remember how I got there. I tried speaking to them, but they remained silent. In fact, I never heard them speak at all.”
“Can’t,” Thane said. “Telepathic. The mouths are remnants. No vocal cords. Continue.”
She put a tentative finger to the translator that was attached behind her ear as she looked at the three, deciphering the chain of command in front of her. Instinct told her to address the humans. She addressed Thane. The felinoid race was a little scary with their fangs and claws, but they had a graceful manner that she found interesting.
“Yes…. sir… I minded myself, they allowed me to clean, and I watched how they worked the controls whenever I was on the bridge. During a quiet moment, I knocked out two grays, and took over. I don’t know what I did, but we went into this slip stream and ended up here.”
Rick sat forward, wrapping an arm around a crooked knee as he rapidly calculated her words.
“What the hell are they doing?” he asked Thane and Ardiss. “My planet has legends, but this….”
Kate frowned at him, suspicious. “I need to go home,” she jumped in with a gulp, recognizing the panic that had her heart racing and ready to burst. “My planet is under attack. Are you going to help or not?”
“Problem,” Thane said, his tail giving a thoughtful twitch. “From our perspective, Earth does not exist.”
Stunned, Kate stared.
“I assure you, we exist.”
“Of course, you do,” he agreed, tipping his whiskers forward in acknowledgment. “But there is obviously something very wrong here because according to our instruments, the place where your planet is supposed to be is barren. It could have something to do with that bridge you came out of; it is unstable. If we go into it, we have no way of knowing where we would end up. If I cannot be assured that I can bring my troops home, I will not take the risk.”
Kate jumped to her feet.
“Captain,” Rick warned. She sucked it in and shoved her hands under her arms. Probably to keep from tearing the fur off the commander, Rick guessed. He recognized the urge.
“I will not commit my warriors to an unknown situation unless absolutely necessary,” Thane told her. “We….”
The man in the doorway took a few slow, purposeful steps into the house, his eyes far away while he took the thong from his hair, gave his brown locks a shake, and re-tied the leather. He gave a brush to his kilt and knelt on a pillow, hands resting easy on his thighs.
*That decision may need to be re-thought,* he said in their minds. *I had a visitation a short while ago.*
Rick poured more ale for the group while Ardiss gave a silent snarl and paced the back of the room.
*Tell us,* Thane said, not liking it, either. He may not like Evan taking on the role of imirtu, but he didn’t deny Evan’s visions.
*They showed me,* Evan said, not having to identify who They were. *We must go through the bridge. Earth is being harvested, and no, I don’t know why.*
He frowned in thought, something itching at his brain. *There’s something…. I need to work on it.*
“Hey.” They looked up at Kate’s snap. “Quit thinking at each other and tell me when we’re going in.” More than one eyebrow rose to a hairline.
An ear twitched against the dark gold mane. “I have a lot of latitude in decision making, but breaking a treaty isn’t within that scope. The queen needs to be informed, and she will probably bring it before the Assembly; if lives are going to be risked, there needs to be an informed populace.
“In the meantime, you will remain here on Cottonwood and begin your education.”
Thane unfolded his legs and got to his feet. “You need to become acquainted with your new home. There is a human colony on this planet; you will be fine.”
“Now wait a….!”
“Captain!” Rick snapped. Kate took a breath and held her tongue. “You are not the only Earth-human to find herself stranded here. I’m an Earther, there are a few others. No one is going to hold a pity-party for you, so get over it. Do your mourning and get on with life. It’s a good life, here; the empire is a fair and equitable place to live. Learn the laws and cultures. I’m sure you would be welcome on a ship, if you want to remain military. If not, find something to do. You need to earn a living, somehow, because the queen won’t support you for long. Is that plain enough?”
She swallowed hard, the chin once more in the air. “Yes, Sir. Thank you for the reality check, Sir.”
“You’re welcome. And don’t 'sir' me, I’m retired.”