My eyes fluttered open and I gave a great yawn. As soon as I stretched out on the soft bed, I felt my side ache and I rolled onto my back to relieve the pressure on my tender chest. The thin blanket that once covered me had been kicked off. I stared at the ceiling for a moment before getting up with a groan.
Three days had passed since we left the planet. Xeenan still remained in his coma, even though he was continually showing signs of recovery. I always found Za'Becc at his side, watching over him and waiting for him to finally open his eyes. The rest of us had been recuperating as well. The bruises that covered my face and body had turned from a vibrant, reddish purple, to a light yellow–blue, half of the sclera of my eye remained red and although my sides were still sore, my fractured ribs were fully healed thanks to Nadar–ian'ah's care. All of us were steadily given more food to eat and I felt I had gained back some of the energy I had lost from slavery. Za'Becc and the children also appeared healthier, now that they were given proper food and water. However, because of their long life of hard labour and malnourishment, the damages to their body would remain permanent.
I felt a twinge in my stomach and it was not just because I was hungry—tomorrow the ship will arrive in Earth's solar system. I had spent many hours thinking over a safe plan for when I made contact with my people, and I had discussed it with Nadar–ian'ah. I told her we would most likely meet up with a military ship out on space training. She and I both agreed that the ship should not enter cloaked, I did not think they would take us kindly if we suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Once we were in range, Nadar–ian'ah’s ship will be hailed with several communication frequencies. Since I had no idea how to work the ship's controls, I decided to answer the vessel with the communicator on my watch. If all went well, we would be escorted to Earth.
I swung my legs over the bed, stood up and headed for the small washroom in my quarters, where I washed my face and relieved myself. I had barely stepped out when I heard a knock on my door. I waved my hand over a pad on the wall to open it and looked down to see Sor'an's happy face.
"Isha, can we play that hiding game again today?"
I laughed softly. During the three days in space I had taught him and Al some childhood games to relieve their stress. It was difficult to teach them simple games because they had never experienced play. At first I tried to teach them how to play tag, but Al and Sor'an did not react well to the activity. They disliked the idea of avoiding the one being "it", as if the person had been infected with a deadly disease. So I tried hide and seek, figuring Yautja had a natural instinct for concealment and much to my delight, they responded better to that game.
"Sure, but how about we eat something before we play."
Sor'an nodded his head as I scooped his light body into my arms, then turn down the corridor towards a lift that would take us to the eating area. Nadar–ian'ah had briefed me on how to use the food dispensers, however, the Yautja script was very hard to understand, so I limited my food selection to better memorise their spidery writing. When we reached the small Mess Hall, I saw a few tables and chairs set in the middle of the room, a wall covered with tiny doors and buttons and standing close to the same wall was a drink dispenser. Most of the selections were fruit and meat, there were very few vegetables or grains and there was no dairy. I set Sor'an down and stepped up to one of the small doors, tapping a button twice to see two naxa gently tumble down. I pushed my hand through the flap and gave one to Sor'an who immediately took a bite out of it. I turned to the meat section and closed my eyes for a moment to try and remember which meats the little boy was allowed to eat; our restrictions to certain foods still remained.
"That one," Sor'an said, pointing at a button with a long word beside it.
The young male nodded, his face smeared with naxa juice. I pressed the button, watching three strips of dry meat wrapped in thin, white paper, appear from behind a glass shutter. Steam filled the chamber and once it cleared, I opened the door and gave the moist meat to the boy. He took the wrapped strips from my hand and sat down at a table, where I joined him. Sor'an wiped his juicy face on the back of his hand before taking the meat out of its wrapper and tear off a huge chunks, chewing it with his mouth wide open. His feet dangled in the air on the high seat and he swung them back and forth while he ate. I took off my converter, bit into my fruit and leaned the side of my hand, feeling my thoughts begin to wander.
I had learned more about the Yautja culture from Nadar–ian'ah. I inquired about the Yaujta's rite of passage. When a young Yautja came of age, they were sent to a planet seeded with Xenomorphs, where they had to hunt them to prove themselves worthy to be a part of society. New warriors were required to bring back the skull of a Bug and an Elder would use their acid blood to burn a “blooding mark” into their forehead. The mark represented the clan you belonged in and no two clans had the same one. Hundreds of years ago, a ritual like that was not uncommon with some human cultures. My thoughts came back to the Mess Hall when I noticed I had finished my breakfast, as had Sor'an. He jumped off the chair and ran out the door towards the medical bay, an eager look on his face.
"Come Isha, Althui'entci–uh is with Xeenan. I want her to play too!"
I chuckled, "Alright Sor'an, lead the way."
I followed behind the small child back to the lift and up another level, until we came through the large doors of the medical bay. Za'Becc, as always, was sitting beside the unconscious male, holding his hand, with Al situated on the other side of her brother. Xeenan's bandages had been completely removed and only the IV and heart monitor remained connected to his body. As I approached my friend she gave me a quick nod.
"Hello, Isha," she greeted.
"Hey, Becky," I replied, patting her thin back, "how are you?"
She shrugged, "Alright I suppose, the Elder says Xeenan is recovering well."
I nodded, "Yeah, that's good. He's fighting to come back."
Becky made a clicking noise as she stroked the male's hand again. I shook her shoulder for reassurance before turning to Al.
"How about you kiddo, you feeling okay?"
She looked up me with sad eyes and nodded.
"Have you had something to eat?"
She nodded again.
"Sor'an and I were going to play hide and seek. You wanna play too?"
Al shook her head, refusing to speak. The boy came up beside her.
"Come on Althui'entci–uh, it's fun when you play. You find the best hiding places!"
The small female shook her head again. I walked around the bed to her.
"Awe, don’t keep frowning. Where's that beautiful smile of yours?" I made a pouty, puppy face in the hopes of making her laugh, "can you smile for me? Please?"
Al did not bother to look up at me.
"Okay, fine, then we'll just stay grumpy all day."
I made an exaggerated frown and crossed my arms, making sure Al could see me. The little one glanced at my face and made a small grin.
"Hey, you can't smile. We're being grumpy, no smiling allowed," I teased.
I scrunched my face and saw that Al was making an unsuccessful attempt to keep her sad look.
"Hey, hey, I said no smiling...no smiling."
She turned her head away to hide her grin and I tickled her sides. She went right into a fit of laughter. I allowed myself to smile when she calmed down.
"There, that's better. How about we play one round of hide and seek and if you want, we can come back here. Deal?"
Sor'an tugged her arm. "Please, Althui'entci–uh?"
She finally gave in, "Alright."
"Great!" I lifted Al from her seat and she was lead out by Sor'an in a fast pace. I followed behind, feeling eager to begin the game myself.
The three of us ended up playing four rounds of hide and seek in the central room of the ship. Al was more relaxed and free of cares now that she had something to take her mind off her worries. Both of them were getting better and better at the game. During one of the rounds, I had to give up and when I called for them to come out, I was in for a surprise. Sor'an had hidden away behind a tight crevice in the wall and Al had managed to wiggle herself into an open vent near the floor. We were about to start the fifth round when Nadar–ian'ah's voice boomed through the ship.
"Dakota, make your way to the medical bay immediately!"
The children stared up at me with wide eyes and I had them follow me to the medical bay. The three of us came running through the door where I saw Becky and Nadar–ian'ah hovering over Xeenan's body.
"What's going on?"
The Elder turned to me, smiling with her eyes, "Quiet Dakota, come and see for yourself."
I felt hope rise in my chest as I approached the male's bed. Xeenan's bright eyes were open and gazing up at Becky, who was staring longingly back at him with a happiness I never thought I would see again. Al cried out his brother's name and jumped onto this chest, causing him to grunt as she nuzzled his neck. He held her tight with one arm, purring and clicking to her while Xeenan's free hand tightened over Becky's. I looked to Nadar–ian'ah, still gaping.
"A few moments ago. He requested for you."
I turned back to the male when Al had finally let her brother go. Xeenan looked up at me with half lidded eyes and it seemed like a long time before I managed to find my voice.
"Hello," he said, his voice sounding grizzled and dry.
I felt a great wave of relief and joy wash through my body. My hero was finally awake, I could finally tell him how grateful I was to be alive because of his selflessness. But all my words came out as a garbled mess.
"Xeenan—I...what you did...the waterfall...how can I ever—"
I heard a soft hiss from the male and his hand rose slightly. I took it and noticed his eyes were full of empathy. Xeenan nodded at Al and spoke slowly.
"I owed you my sister's life. My vow has been fulfilled, there is no need for you to do anything more for me."
I nodded in response, feeling my eyes grow wet. Nothing more needed to be said.
I continued to sit on the high stool beside Xeenan's bed. His slow, constant breathing told me he was still in a deep slumber and I turned my head to gaze at the passing stars through the small window, waiting for Becky's return. I had convinced her to take regular breaks so she could eat, use the bathroom and sleep. Right now, she was getting her supper.
My thoughts began to drift away from the ship and the cold ball in my stomach began to form again. I had not felt this nervous since the night before the escape. Even gazing at the beautiful stars did not warm the tightness in my stomach. I tried to tell myself that everything was going to be alright. Maybe hope that the commander of the military vessel will be reasonable, but deep down, I knew it was not going to go well. This was the military, the ones who had put the Yautja on their "dangerous life forms" list.
I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I jumped when I felt a large, taloned hand slip over mine. I saw Xeenan had woken up, his eyes giving off a glint from the open window.
"I'm sorry to startle you," he said in a low voice.
I sighed, "No need to be sorry, I was just, thinking."
"From what Za'Becc has told me, you have been doing that quite a lot."
There was a long pause before Xeenan spoke again.
"I want to thank you."
"For giving us our freedom, reviving me, taking care of everyone," he paused and gave my hand a squeeze, "even warriors would have found it impossible to accomplish what you did. I am honoured to have lived long enough to meet you."
I felt myself blush, flattered by his words.
"Well, there's still one more “impossible” thing I have to accomplish."
"You will do well."
I sighed, "I pray you're right."
I turned to the window again, spotting the yellow mist of a faraway nebula. I heard Xeenan speak again.
"There’s something else I wanted to tell you."
I looked back at the male and he gave a hissing sigh.
"In my unconsciousness I...I am almost certain I heard you singing."
I blinked in shock, "You really did?"
Xeenan nodded, "Yes. When I first awoke, I thought that maybe I had been dreaming. But, Za'Becc told me that you sang frequently while you were here," he looked up at me, "I know it doesn't sound possible, but I don't know how else to explain it."
I smiled and Xeenan and placed my other hand over his.
"You don’t have to explain it, you’re awake and that’s what matters. You know we’ll be arriving on Earth soon tomorrow?"
Xeenan nodded and made a low growl. I knew he was not happy about meeting humans again. I was slightly glad he his mobility was still limited, I was worried that he might become hostile to the soldiers. After all, it was the military who caused hi, to lose his honour. A swishing noise reached my ears and I saw that Becky had come back. I bid both of them good night and headed back for my quarters, laying down on the large bed and pulling up the thin blanket. I needed all the sleep I could get for tomorrow.
I stood on the bridge, fed, cleaned and ready. My old, tattered clothes had been placed close by so I could carry them later. I had hidden the translator in the pockets of my shorts since there was no need for it, but I kept the converter on my face. Nadar–ian'ah sat in one of the large chairs at the front of the bridge, guiding the ship slowly and carefully through the solar system. Becky, Xeenan and the children remained in the med room. I previously told the Elder that she should drive the ship towards Saturn, it would give us a better chance of being detected. I shifted back and forth on my feet impatiently, feeling the ice ball in my stomach grow colder and colder, when I heard a beeping noise. I looked to the consol and saw a brigh,t hologram of a space vessel appear beyond the great rings.
"There's the ship," said Nadar–ian'ah, "We will be coming up to it very soon."
I gave a nod, noticing one of the moons pass by. I could feel the ship slow down. I took a glance outside and saw an elongated, grey shape coming out from behind the gas planet. The military ship became larger as it moved to intercept. Any minute the vessel will be hailing us.
"Nadar–ian'ah, be prepared for anything.”
"I appreciate your concern, but you must stay focused on your task. You leave me to worry about the safety of this ship."
I gave a sigh and nodded, rubbing my hands together with apprehension. The military vessel was now right in front of us and had slowed to a stop, but nothing happened. There was not even a single detection of activity, it was like staring at a ghost ship. After several minutes, there was still no communication and when I was beginning to think something was wrong, when an orange light flashed on the panel and an alarm sounded.
"Is that the hail?" I asked.
"No, the other ship is scanning us and I am detecting an increase of power," the Elder tapped a few buttons and read over a small screen, "it seems they are preparing their weapons."
I made myself calm down. I should not be surprised, this was to be expected. I dearly hoped they would not shoot and ask questions later.
"Dakota, I'm now receiving several hailing frequencies from the vessel." Nadar–ian'ah turned to me, "good fortune, my friend."
I gave a quick nod, crossed myself for luck, then activated the communicator on my watch. A tiny green light flashed on the top, right corner, indicating that there was no interference and I was connected with the other ship. I pressed a silver button on the side and spoke loud and clear.
"This is Dakota C. Evens, registered Assistant Technician to the Weyland–Yutani Space Station. Identification number 10568225. Requesting military ship to stand down."
I stayed silent and waited for them to answer. I repeated my message and this time I received and answer from a man with a deep voice.
"This is Commander Graham Melnyk of the U.S. TURAIS. Your request has been denied. Stand by and await further instructions."
I was about to protest, but a red light flashed on my watch and that meant the line was cut. I rubbed my forehead, seeing Nadar–ian'ah staring at me.
"Was that to be expected?"
"Probably. I think they are checking to make sure I am who I say I am."
My watch suddenly buzzed and I looked to see the green light come back on. I pressed the button again.
"Dakota Evens, here."
"This is Commander Melnyk, Miss Evens. Your identification number checks out, but your file says that you have been missing from the station for nearly a month."
"This is true, Commander."
"Are you in any danger, Miss Evens?"
"Then would you care to explain why you are aboard an unidentified spacecraft?"
His voice sounded unnaturally calm, but I pushed away my uneasiness for the moment and continued with the conversation.
"Commander, it will take too long to explain. I request that—"
"Before you continue, Miss Evens," Melnyk interrupted, "are you alone? Your safety is a concern."
I sighed and took a glance at Nadar–ian'ah before forcing myself to go on.
"There are five beings on the ship with me, are what you would call...the Predators."
I expected a negative reaction from the Commander, but I still flinched.
"What? You are at the mercy of those savage brutes?!"
I heard Nadar–ian'ah grunt at that remark and before I could explain myself, my worst fear became a reality.
"We are going to use short blasts to disable the ship and send cruisers to board it! Brace yourself Miss Evens, it'll be a little bumpy."
"No, no!" I spoke rapidly into the communicator while from the corner of my eye I could see Nadar–ian'ah preparing to raise the shields, "no conflict Commander! I'm not in any danger! The Predators have come to you with their shields down and weapons deactivated. They mean no harm!"
There was a very long, nerve wracking pause and practically every alarm went off on the bridge. I could see the ship's blasters move to their firing positions, blinking in white and red lights as they powered up; but nothing happened. Then suddenly, the alarms shut right off. I heard the Commander's voice through my watch.
"Very well, Miss Evens. Since you speak so highly of your so called friends, I'll stop the assault."
I sighed with relief, "Thank–you, Commander. I humbly request that you allow this ship to dock with the TURAIS. My friends will be unarmed. You must promise that no harm will come to them."
For a moment, there was no answer.
"Agreed, Miss Evens. You are granted safe passage. Head for docking bay 773. I will be waiting for you."
The communication was closed and I was left with a sinking feeling. I had suspicions about the Commander, but there was little I could do about it. I was so close to finally getting home and it was too late to turn back now. I felt the ship move towards the spacecraft and I stepped near Nadar–ian'ah. She clattered her mandibles together as she guided the vessel closer.
"Where are the docking bays?"
I pointed, "See those thick, yellow lines, they're right under them."
The Elder pulled a switch that caused the ship to accelerate towards the bays. One of them was open and had flashing red lights around it. Even as Nadar–ian'ah guided the craft gently into the vacant bay, I could see three lines of soldiers behind an airtight window, each one armed with an automatic rifle. My stomach clenched, not a good start. I felt a large clawed hand on my shoulder and turned to the aged face of the Elder.
"Dakota, keep your thoughts in focus. This is not the time to be cluttered up in worries."
I nodded softly as Nadar–ian'ah settled the ship softly on the ground. The docking bay doors slid shut and once the all clear was given, the soldiers filed out and surrounded the ship. But I could not see anyone who appeared to be Commander Melnyk. Maybe he was waiting on the other side of the ship. Nadar–ian'ah whipped on her gold cloak, placed her wrist computer on her arm and took her hunting mask before looking down at me.
I gathered my belongings, took a deep breath and removed the converter, "No, but here we go anyway."
The Elder put a confident hand on my back and directed me into the corridor, towards the ramp at the back of the ship. As we walked I gazed at weaving designs of the walls, memorising their beauty; this would be the last time I would see such wonderful artistry. Both of us turned a corner and we suddenly bumped into Becky, Xeenan and the children. Za'Becc was holding the male securely around his shoulders, while he leaned against her for support as he limped along the floor.
"What are—" I gasped, but realised my translator was not attached to my ear and I fumbled through my clothing to get it out. I turned it on and held it to my ear, "What are your doing? You’re supposed to stay on the ship!
"I refuse to stay in bed while there are oomans surrounding the ship!"
"You think facing them in your condition will be better? I know you don't want to admit it, but you're still too weak. If something goes wrong you won't be able to protect yourself."
Xeenan started to growl, "I am not going out there to prove my strength! This is my chance to finally face the beings who have tortured my past for many decades! Neither of you can stop me from achieving my goal!"
I cringed when I heard Nadar–ian'ah make a threatening growl from being yelled at, but Becky quickly stepped in.
"Elder, Xeenan meant no disrespect. But he is right. If you had the chance to face your past, would not you do so?"
Nadar–ian'ah actually remained silent, but her furrowed brow indicated that she was still miffed about the outburst. I waited anxiously for her to answer and I touched her arm to get her attention.
"Nadar–ian'ah, we don't have time for this. We have to hurry."
She finally relented, "Very well, but you are all to stay absolutely quiet and remain behind me. Is that understood?"
Xeenan clicked his agreement and the Elder brushed passed him to a door on the wall, hissing with annoyance. Shoving the translator back into a pocket, I heard the click of a lock opening and I looked to see Nadar–ian'ah take out four atmosphere converters from a panel in the wall. She gave one each to my friends and they immediately placed them over their mouths. Xeenan gave a nod to Becky and slowly slipped away from her hold, standing to his full height; but she remained close by in case he needed assistance. Nadar–ian'ah placed her mask over her face and turned to me.
"Once we are outside, the ramp will close and the ship will go into lock down. No one will be able to get in without my authorization."
"Good," I nodded at the Elder, "lower the ramp."
Nadar–ian'ah pulled a switch and the ramp descended. I went down first and immediately felt goosebumps form on my skin from the immense drop in temperature. The Elder followed behind me, while Xeenan held his head high and walked as steadily as he could. Becky travelled behind the male and took frequent glances at him to make sure he was alright. Sor'an and Al huddled very close to Becky's legs, staring at their surroundings with wide, frightful eyes. Directly in front of me was another group of twenty soldiers, each one pointing their weapons at us. At the front of the score, I saw the man that had to be Commander Melnyk. He was dressed in a navy blue officer's uniform, appeared to be middle aged, wore five gold stars over his left breast and stood six feet tall with his hands behind his back. His groomed hair had a salt and pepper look, his eyes were a sharp brown and his broad shoulders made him look like he had a considerable amount of strength. The Commander seemed tense at our presence, but his square face was cool and stern. I did not like the way he was staring at us, especially when the ramp retracted and locked down the ship. Melnyk gave me a nod and spoke in an even voice.
"Welcome to the TURAIS, Miss Evens," he moved his eyes to look behind me, "so these are your Predator friends."
I looked over my shoulder and took a quick glance at the group. Al and Sor'an remained very quiet and still near Becky, Xeenan's strong stance remained, though I could tell it was a struggle for him and Nadar–ian'ah stood in between me and the others.
"In all my years as an officer, I never thought I would see such a sight."
I snapped my head back, noticing that the soldiers had not lowered their weapons.
"Commander, as you have seen, these people have come before you willingly unarmed. If you could please tell your men to lower—"
"Miss Evens, this will be dealt with properly, I give you my word."
Your word, my ass! I thought bitterly.
"Take these creatures to the holding cells!" bellowed the Commander.
Hesitantly, but obediently, the armed men began to surround my friends, one of them pulling me out of the way. Nadar–ian'ah, and shockingly Xeenan, crouched, ready for a battle, while Becky held the freighted little ones closer to her, hissing at the oncomers.
"No! What are you doing?!" I tried to get myself back into the middle, but the soldier pushed me back. I whirled to the Commander, "you granted us safe passage!"
"First of all," Melnyk had not moved from his spot, "my exact words were, 'I grant you safe passage.' not these savages. Second of all, we made no agreements to allow them to roam freely on my ship," he peered down at me, "and from the looks of it, I'm glad we got you away from them."
"They were not the ones who hurt me!" I shouted. "You can't do this! Look at them, they're defenseless!"
"Miss Evens, please try to remain calm. I do this only for the safety of my ship and crew. Your word in this matter, is of little use. However, I did agree that no harm will come to them and I will follow that."
I just stared at the Commander, dumbstruck and feeling like a complete idiot. He glanced at his men.
"What are you idiots gawking at? Take them to the cells!"
The soldiers jumped into action and closed in, some of them yelling at my friends to move. Nadar–ian'ah and Xeena snarled back, positioning themselves to fight, even as the soldiers raised their weapons higher to shoot.
"Stop!" I stared desperately at Nadar–ian'ah, "please do as they say!"
I could not see the aged female's expression because of her mask. After what seemed like a long time, she relaxed and clicked at the rest of the group. It took a while, but they too surrendered and allowed the armed men to escort them away. I lowered my head, feeling so sick with shame. A large hand grabbed my arm a little too tightly and I found myself staring into the face of the Commander.
"Now, Miss Evens, I shall personally arrange the best doctors to give you a thorough examination. After that, I'll show to your quarters where you can eat, rest and find suitable clothing to wear. I have already taken the liberty of contacting your family, I'm sure they'll be anxious to hear about your adventures with your new found friends," he gave a smile of glee, "as am I."
I glared at Melnyk, "I won't tell you anything, you dishonourable coward!"
The Commander stared down at me in such a way that would scare a child, but I was not afraid. I had seen far worse glares.
"We shall see, Miss Evens."