The outer edges of the Galactic Embassy's conference room were shrouded entirely in darkness, and the only light came from powerful hanging lamps that lit the table at the center of the room and very little else. At the far edge of the table sat the Grand Councilwoman of the Galactic Alliance, Cowal Ze'elld. There was one available seat, directly across from her. Greg walked uncertainly though the darkness and sat himself at the table.

"Gregory Namanarra," she said. "Do you know why you are here today?"

"Yes," said Greg. "I'm here to testify about the Treivalli incident."

The Grand Councilwoman tapped the desk, and digital documents flew to its surface, surrounding her. They were upside down and far away, so Greg couldn't make out what they said, but he did recognize a few photos in the mix; one of a busted Andarian pod, a still of the Prosperity's security footage, and one of fresh surgical cuts that he assumed were his.

His palms began to sweat, so he wiped them on the pants of his technician uniform.

Ze'elld did not notice or comment. She made some small gesture, and a holographic orb appeared in the center of the table, bathed in green light.

"Do you know what this is?" she said, pointing to the floating ball.

"It's a lie detector, right?" said Greg. At his words, glowing script appeared, surrounding the orb. He watched with interest as the words flickered from recognizable English letters to different alien alphabets before vanishing into the center of the ball.

"A little more than that," she said. "It does not just detect falsehoods, but will also compel you to tell the truth as you know it. Are you prepared?"

He shifted in his seat, then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I am."

"Good." She pressed the button, and the orb started to spin lazily in place. "Then begin. With as much detail as possible, please."

He took a deep breath.

"It all started with the message. . ."

* * * * *

I didn't think anything odd of it when I received X'melborp's message, "come to the hangar bay. We can watch the Treivalli take off. --X'melborp."

X'melborp often sends me messages via assorted comms lines and social media-- we tend to have five different conversations going on at once. I didn't even question the fact that this message came from a comms device mine hadn't registered yet; sometimes X'melborp just gets new devices. He loses the old, or he finds a shiny new one he likes better, or someone else gets a new one and he takes the old one off their hands-- that sort of thing. I just took it for granted that it was him messaging me. After all, who else would it be?

The ship docking bay is huge, though there's typically not a lot going on there. The Prosperity has a few regulatory smaller ships parked there-- not emergency evacs or anything, just ones in case we need to send people places. All those were parked on the sides, in their own stations. The Treivalli ship was the only one out in the middle of the place, looking like it was going to take off soon. The joint was pretty empty; nobody was at the observer decks, which was unusual because, well, a ship was leaving soon, wasn't it? And X'melborp was nowhere in sight. I idled a bit, wondering if he'd got stuck somewhere, or was waiting where I couldn't see him, and I was just about to shoot him a message when someone tapped my shoulder.

I turned, yelped, and nearly fell over. The person who'd tapped me was one of the Treivalli.

Now, I hadn't actually come that close to the Treivalli before that. For the time they were on the ship, they'd spent most of their time watching me from afar, and I'd spent most of my time trying to avoid them. I knew he was big, but I didn't really realize until he was in front of me how big he was. Parthas was big. Like, I'm not exactly a little guy. I mean, I'm not exactly super tall, either, but still. Parthas towered over me-- he had to be about seven and a half, maybe eight feet tall, and way broader than I'd thought he was. That kinda threw me. Granted, I was used to being around the Tangalorians, but that's just it-- I'm used to them being giants. I'm used to Torvald and Alria and Tennie being jumbo sized linebacker cat people, not this walking, talking, robe-wearing alligator person, who had teeth poking out of the sides of his mouth and claws that looked like they could probably shred through my skin like paper.

So, uh. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was feeling a little intimidated.

"Hello, Human Greg," he said.

I backed up and turned to go. I didn't even want to look at the guy, much less talk to him.

"I understand we have not gotten off on the best foot," he said, following me. "But I feel there is something important I must tell you."

"What?" I snarled, whirling on him. "What could you possibly have to say?"

"I am sorry," he said.

That gave me a little bit of pause. "What?" I said. Then, remembering how outraged I was, I said, "So what?"

"So, I am sorry. I apologize." He clasped his hands penitently. Another Treivalli came up beside him; the littler one-- Asha. She was only a few inches taller than me. "We apologize," Parthas said. "We are sorry for frightening you. We are sorry for causing you distress. That was not our intent."

"No," I said, my skin crawling. "Your intent was to buy me."

"I am sorry," he said again.

"Tough luck," I said. "You're apologizing for the wrong thing."

I turned to go, but ran into what felt like cloth draped over a solid brick wall. I stumbled back and found myself face-to-chest with the third Treivalli, Marthax.

"Hello," he said.

I wanted to tell him to watch it, but there was a blur of movement and a sudden, sharp pain in my neck. I yelped and tried to move away, but the three had closed in on me.

"What did you do?" I said, rubbing the spot where it hurt.

"It's alright," Asha said, making little placating gestures. "You'll be alright."

Which of course made me freak out. I staggered backwards.

"Go! Get. . . Get away!" I said. My tongue felt thick, and my head was full of cotton. When I tried to move, my arms and legs didn't want to go the way I told them to-- which was as far away from those three as possible.

One of them came up behind me and caught me before I fell.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Everything hurt when I woke up, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. I was on my side, resting on something hard, and my head was killing me. When I moved, my arms felt like they were on fire, like I'd slept on them wrong and the muscles and joints were straining. You know that thing when you sleep with your arm straight out, but at a bad angle, and the joints lock? Well, maybe you don't. But it hurts, I assure you. I groaned and rolled and tried to push myself up, but found I couldn't. When I tried, my shoulders screamed in pain, and I just gave up for a bit, just lying with my face on the ground, breathing and trying to figure out what was going on through the molasses in my brain.

I was on the floor of what looked like a really cramped ship. One of the really small transport kind that's only made to hold a handful of people. There were exposed pipes and wires on the ceiling and on the walls, and old metal plates on the walls and floor that were mixed with newer metal siding where repairs had been made in pieces. The controls were visible to my left; even from the distance and the angle I was at, I could tell the controls were old fashioned. All the stuff on the Prosperity is super modern, with holographic screens and touch pads and sensors and stuff. The controls on that ship had actual knobs and buttons and levers.

With a grunt and some probably pathetic looking worming around, I managed to get myself into a sitting position

The three Treivalli from the ship stood a little ways away, watching me.

I froze up for half a second. Then said, "Where am I?"

"You're on our ship," said Parthas. "How do you feel?"

"I feel like crap," I said. "What--?"

I was going to ask them what happened, but before the words were out, I remembered.

"What did you do?" I said. I might've shouted.

"Shh, shh," said Marthax. He moved forward, to me, and knelt down. To my absolute disgust, he started trying to pet my head.

I shook him off and tried to scramble away. "Don't touch me!" I shouted. "What the hell is going on?"

Asha came up beside him. She bent down and reached towards me. I tried to get back, but bumped against the wall and got myself cornered between the wall and a large metal pipes coming out of the floor

"Oh, he's frightened," she said. "Poor little guy!"

"There's no need to be afraid," said Parthas. "We have no intention of harming you. We have relieved you from the Prosperity and brought you aboard our ship. At this moment, we are heading home."

"We're going to keep you!" said Marthax.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"What he means is that we are adopting you," Parthas said, like it fixed anything.

"For how long?"

In retrospect, it was kind of a dumb question, but it was the only thing my brain could come up with.

"Forever," said Asha.

"Perhaps literally," said Parthas. "I understand humans are typically short lived, but we have been experimenting with Earth mice, which are genetically similar, and I believe we may have developed a way to drastically increase--"

"But I have to go to work tomorrow!" I said, apparently shooting for ten-for-ten on the stupid response scale. "I can't be here!"

They laughed raspy, hissing sounding laughs.

"Human Greg," said Parthas, kneeling down near me. "You will not have to go to work ever again. We will take care of you." He reached over to touch me, and I shied back.

"Let me go," I said, trying not to panic. "This is kidnapping. This is illegal."

"That is the cutest thing!" said Asha. She brought out her portable tablet from her pocket, extended it to full size, and took a picture.

Marthax grabbed my arm and dragged me towards him. "Get a picture of me holding him," he said. He scooped me into his lap like a doll.

"Put me down!" I shouted. "Let me go!"

Asha took more pictures while I tried to get away.

"Alright, you two," said Parthas, shooing them away. "You're upsetting him. Leave him alone, put him down."

Marthax plopped me back onto the floor, and I scooted as far and as fast away as I could.

"I swear to God, I am gonna fucking kill you!" I screamed. "I'm gonna to set your entire planet on fire!"

I admit, I might have been panicking. They were unfazed, though.

"Aww, look at him!" said Marthax.

"Take me back to the Prosperity or I will kill you all!"

"Now that is the cutest thing." Asha took more pictures. "He's so grouchy. I love him. He's a little angry man."

"He's chatty," said Marthax. "I wonder what he'll sound like when the translator's out?"

"I will slit your fucking throats!"

Asha and Mathax "aww"ed in unison.

"Like this, but less threatening, I'd imagine," said Parthas dryly. "He's not angry, you dolts. He's frightened. Humans can act aggressively when scared. You're upsetting him."

I stopped and took a deep breath, trying to compose myself. "Listen," I said, getting up on my knees and trying to look dignified. "Take me back to the Prosperity. They're going to be looking for me, and you've already broken Galactic Code by kidnapping me, so just take me back before you make it worse for yourselves."

"You don't know anything about the Galactic Code," said Marthax. "Your species isn't even Uplifted yet. Oh!" he said to the others. "I've just got an idea! What if we give him a little set of Treivalli robes? Wouldn't that be neat?"

Parthas laughed. "Yes!" he said. "We'll have Lathas fix him a tiny chestplate, as well! Get him a little hood--"

"You're not listening!" I said. "I'm not an animal, I'm a person! I'm a citizen of Earth! I'm a Prosperity Technician! I repair space ships! I went to college!"

The three watched me, all smiling widely. Asha lifted the tablet and took another picture, and I exploded.

"I'm going to kick your scaly asses!" I screamed. "I'm going to fuck your shit! I will fuck all of your shit! I will crash this ship into a planet if I have to!"

Asha and Marthax laughed, but Parthas watched me coolly, like he was thinking about something that I probably wasn't going to like. Then he bent down and grabbed my head in both hands. I tried to struggle, to pull myself away, but his hands were like a vise, and I was stuck.

"What are you doing?" I said.

Parthas turned my head and twisted me around, examining my skull. His bony fingers and long claws searched until he found a raised scar on the back of my neck, at the base of my skull, covered by hair.

"There it is," Parthas murmured. A little more loudly, he said, "when we get home, we'll have to surgically remove his translator. Having him constantly threatening us might be funny at first, but it's going to get old fast." He scratched the back of my head, then released me.

"Stop touching me!" I snarled.

He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me towards him to give me one more defiant scratch before standing. "In any case, we don't want it attempting to contact its allies for help."

"Oh yeah," said Asha. "Can't have him actually talking to anyone."

It took me a second to understand what they'd said. Like, really really understand it. It sounds strange to say, but until that point, I hadn't actually been afraid of them. I think I was more angry than anything. They'd already made it clear that they weren't going to hurt me, and I think I was still certain that the Andarians would be after me soon. I didn't think they could actually hold onto me-- they'd change their mind, or they'd be stopped, and it would be done. But at that moment, when their words and the implications of those words finally sank in, for the first time an honest, cold fear clawed through my chest.

"You can't," I said.

"Don't worry," said Asha soothingly. "You'll like our home. Our sector is very nice. We even have water as you do on your planet. You like water, don't you?"

"Don't take my translator," I said. My voice sounded far away. My entire head was spinning. The thought of being unable to speak, of being unable to understand, or be understood on an alien world consumed me. Even if I got away from them, even if I found a comms device, or wound up at some space port or something, I wouldn't be able to call for help. I'd never be able to get back to the Prosperity. I'd never be able to get back to Earth. Nobody would understand me-- at best I'd be some kind of space vagrant. At worst--

I remembered the Ga'arish and felt bile rise in my throat.

"Let me go," I said again, pulling on the wrist binds.

"Maybe once you're used to our place, first," said Marthax.

"Yes," said Asha. "I've read you have to leave them locked in a room for a cycle or two before they get their smell on things and know it's home. We'll have to lock him up for a bit first."

Marthax patted me on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, little one. We will take good care of you. You'll see."

"And eventually we'll find you a female," said Asha. "Then you can have babies. Oh my gods!" she squealed. "Babies! I bet the babies are adorable!"

Parthas grinned. "I've seen pictures. The juveniles are even more endearing than the adults."

"We have to keep the first batch," Marthax said. "I have to have one. How many in a human clutch again?"

"Just one, unfortunately," said Parthas. "Any more than that is unusual."

"No wonder they're almost extinct!" said Asha. She bent down and pet my head again. "Don't worry, we can clone you to keep you company until we find you a mate. Then there will still be more humys around."

"If we have clones, we're selling them," said Parthas firmly. "We'll use that money to buy more Earth-born ones. We'll make it a market and have clones cost less than purebreds."

"You can't," I said uselessly again. This was too much. The room was too hot. It was too hard to breathe. I had to get out.

I didn't realize what I was doing until I was halfway done. I didn't notice myself springing up, or launching myself at Parthas, but I must have. I remember screaming, "Let me out! Let me out!" over and over. I remember driving my head into the Treivallian's belly. Parthas' stomach was hard enough to hurt my head, but the two of us went toppling over. I tried to get up so I could do something-- stomp on Parthas' face, maybe, but scaly arms grabbed me from behind.

"Let me go!" I kept screaming. "Take me back!" I lashed out wildly, trying to kick whoever was holding me.

Whoever-it-was adjusted their arm and left it within biting reach, so that's what I did. I bit down hard and tasted odd, snake-like skin. The Treivalli holding me cried out and clawed at my face, trying to tear me off, but I closed my eyes and held.

Someone hit me. Hard. My grip loosened. Someone beat me on the head again, knocking me to the floor. I fell and curled, still half blind with panic. All I could see through the stars in my eyes were reptilian feet and the hems of robes.

"Augh," said Asha. "What is this red stuff?"

"Blood," said Parthas. It was hard to hear him through the throbbing, thumping noise in my head. He knelt down beside me and started touching my face. I pulled away, which made the throbbing worse. He said, "It's injured."

"They heal though, yeah?" said Marthax. He sounded worried. "Saw that in the video. They get better, right?"

"Yes," said Parthas, "But we must refrain from harming it further."

"I didn't know they bit," said Asha. I was still on the ground, head reeling, but her tone told me that she'd been the one who'd grabbed me.

"What do you expect?" said Parthas, still trying to examine my head without actually touching me. Then he was thrust aside, and Asha suddenly filled my vision. She started nuzzling her snout against my face and neck.

"I'm sorry!" she said. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you!"

Parthas pulled her off. "Stop!" he snapped. "You're crowding him! You're going to frighten him more!"

"You guys are a bunch of dicks," I said, wriggling myself upright. I rubbed my face against my shoulder and saw splotches of blood leftover. "Your plan is stupid and it's going to fail. You don't know what you're doing. You don't know what you've done."

"I know a lot about you," said Parthas.

"You don't know anything."

"I've seen your videos. Your entire collection of them. I know about humans. I studied them before we picked you up. I know what you eat and drink, and how you can't be too cold or too hot, and how you need to go for walks. I know a lot."

"You know nothing," I said with more feeling. "If you knew anything, you'd know we don't appreciate being kidnapped and tied up and beaten."

"I'm sorry!" said Asha again. She sounded like she was on the verge of tears.

"You should be!" said Marthax. "This is all your fault!"

"No it's not!" said Asha, still sounding like she was going to cry.

"Will you two stop it?" snapped Parthas.

Something was off here. I mean, the entire situation was insane, obviously, but the way they were acting was sending alarms off in my head. In fact, since we'd left the Prosperity, any airs of formality, the whole "mysterious ancient species" shtick had been tossed aside. It wasn't just the way they spoke, though there was a shift there, as well, but the way they acted and interacted. As insane as the situation was, it seemed familiar. Very familiar.

"Are you brothers and sisters?" I said.

They all three looked at me. "How did you know?" said Marthax.

"Experience," I said.

"Yes," said Asha. "I mean, all of the Treivalli are Siblings of the Path, but us three were clutch mates."

Before I could ask them what that meant, red lights started flashing overhead, and the ship jerked suddenly. The three picked themselves up and went to the command console at the front. Parthas took the chair while Marthax and Asha went to the controls at the side. One of them pulled a lever, and the metal panes in front of us receded, revealing a window looking outside. The flashing lights did not stop.

"Is that bad?" I said. I shoved myself up to my feet and crept up behind them.

"Nope!" said Asha. "That just means we're almost there."

"Look," said Marthax, pointing at the screen. "You can see it from here! Go ahead, look."

I moved closer and took a look out the window, and my jaw dropped.

The Treivalli ship was colossal. So mind-bogglingly large, I could only process it in pieces.

At the distance we were at, I could barely make out smooth metal plates, exposed pipes, docking ports where other ships were landing, blinking lights, and other parts of a ship exterior. But in other parts, instead of metal, there were broad swathes of what I assumed was a kind of glass. In fact, huge chunks of the ship seemed to be comprised of window. Through the window were lights. Thousands of yellow lights-- the entire ship seemed to be burning with an internal golden glow.

As we grew closer and closer, the Treivalli home ship grew more and more massive. Ports that I had assumed could fit one or two ships were shown to have room for five or six to enter easily. Through the glass planes, I could make out structures inside on the outer layer of the ship: clean lines that grew into roads as we approached, light sources that turned out to be strange brass-looking buildings shaped like, of all things, weird car mufflers-- complete with oval bases and pipe-like towers sticking out.

Attached to the main ship were hovering offshoots, looking like ball-and-chains, but the chains were actually enormous clear-topped tunnels that, as we passed, I saw each held hundreds and hundreds of people walking from destination to destination, with plenty of space for more. The tertiary ships ranged from being a little larger than the Prosperity to being a little smaller than the moon. They floated around the main ship, which itself seemed to be just floating there; there was no sign of any kind of propulsion system, though I'm sure there was one built in. The whole place was just. . . satisfied hanging out in the void.

"It's like a planet," I said, awestruck.

"Yep!" said Asha. "Artificial planet-ship, complete with accessible moons. You're going to love it."

Parthas guided us towards one of the many docking stations. The little junker ship entered a massive tunnel-- you could have dropped a skyscraper inside and lost it. Along the sides were other parked ships and, jeez, if I had thought the one Parthas was driving looked old, the ones parked were positively ancient.

"Most of the interesting stuff is on the outer layer," Asha was saying. "We all live there because it's nice to see the sky. Inside is all the stuff that keeps the place running. But there's other stuff in here too, like the old temples and pieces of the old planet where we used to live, way back when time started. I wasn't there, but Mother was, and before the planet broke, she saved some chunks of it. They take us down there on field trips sometimes."

I nodded dumbly, still staring at the massive artificial tunnel and the ships inside. For a people who didn't get out much, there seemed to be enough ships for every individual on the planet. Parthas found the single empty parking spot and pulled us in.

Marthax got up and stepped behind me. "Alright, Human Greg," he said. "We're going to do a quick switch."

I wanted to ask what he meant, but before the words could make it out, there was a click and sudden release as my wrists were freed-- or rather, the cuffs were still on, but they were no longer connected to each other. I immediately tried to pull back, but Marthax whirled me around and triggered the cuffs again. They flew together as if drawn by a powerful magnetic force so that my hands were now bound in front of me.

"There," he said. "That better?"

"Not as good as taking them off."

He laughed and walked off, and Parthas swept forward in his place. "Here," he said, tossing a cloak around my shoulders and adjusting it before I could shake it off. "We don't want anyone else seeing you yet. We have to convince Mother first. I've no doubt the Andarians have contacted her already--"

"Wait, Mother?" I said, pulling up the hood.

"Yes," said Asha, adjusting the belt on her cuirass. "Mother. She's in charge of all of Treival."

"We are all Mother's children," said Marthax in a sing-song voice. "Well, eventually," he added. "I mean, you have to go back quite a ways these days to make the connection, but if you go far enough, Mother is at the end of it."

"Her official title is Supreme Matriarch, Mother of Mothers, but nobody calls her that unless they're sucking up," said Asha.

Parthas came by and pulled my hood down again, obscuring my face. "And she does not like it when we bring home strangers."

A thought occurred to me. "Are you. . . Are you three children? "

Marthax and Asha jolted and looked at Parthas guiltily. Parthas drew himself up to his full height so that he towered over me.

"We each are older than your entire species," he said. "You're the child here."

"But you're children," I said more certainly. "To the Treivalli, you guys are kids."

"Shhh," said Asha.

"We're all Mother's children," said Marthax defensively.

"I'm old enough to drive this ship," said Parthas.

Suddenly, the entire situation became a little clearer.

"Your Mom doesn't know you did this," I said. "She didn't give you permission to leave the planet. She didn't give you permission to take the ship, and she didn't give you permission to kidnap me."

"Adopt," said Asha. "We're adopting you."

"Kidnapping," I said.

"We're just going to have to convince her," said Parthas, working the landing controls. "Once she sees how well we care for you, she's bound to change her mind."

"We just have to prove we're responsible," said Asha. She pressed a button and the door leading outside slid up and open.

There was a Treivalli waiting for us at the bottom of the ship's exit ramp.

"Oh great," said Parthas. He covered his face with his free hand. The other hand was planted firmly on my shoulder.

"Parthas!" the newcomer hissed. "Where were you all? You've been gone for ages! Mother is furious! She--" She stopped and looked at me. "What is that?"

"Our new pet," said Asha proudly. "We got him from the Andarians! Greg, this is Drida. Drida, Greg."

"My name is Gregory Namanarra, and I have been kidnapped!" I said, rushing forward. "Please, call the Andarians and let them know I'm here!"

Parthas hastily pulled me back and wrapped an enormous, clawed hand over my mouth.

"He's not happy being here," he said sheepishly.

"It can talk," Drida said.

"Not for long," Parthas said.

"I do not think Mother will approve." Looking uncertain, she crouched down and looked me in the eyes, and for a second I had hope. But then she said, "can I pet him?"

"Yes," said Mathax, "but be gentle. He's a little edgy."

I wanted to scream. I bit Parthas' hand, and he quickly pulled away.

"I'm not a pet, I'm a prisoner!" I said. "I'm a technician of the Andarian ship Prosperity! I have to go back, I have to--"

Both Marthax and Parthas this time grabbed me and covered my mouth. "Human, if you don't keep quiet, I'll drug you again," Parthas said.

"Parthas!" said Drida. "If he doesn't want to be here, then you can't just keep him."

"I don't see why not," Parthas said, clutching me a little more tightly.

"We got him far and square," said Asha.

"Yeah," said Marthax. "If they wanted to keep him so bad, then they shouldn't have made him so easy to steal."

Drida sighed. "We'll see what Mother has to say about this."

"Do not tell her!" Parthas said. "Not until we have gotten it situated!"

They started walking, Parthas and Drida arguing about whether or not she would tell their Mother. They pushed me into an enormous elevator that spat us out on the surface. Once there, I tried to look around, swiveling back and forth to try and look, but Parthas was quick to shove my head down.

"Stop moving around," he hissed in my ear. "We're trying to keep a low profile!"

"Look," Drida said. "You're not even letting him look around? How can you take care of him if you won't even let him have fresh air? Are you just going to keep him in your room all day?"

"No!" said Parthas. "I'll let him out! Just not now."

"They have to get their smell on a place first," Asha said sagely.

Drida looked like she wanted to argue, but instead she sighed and shook her head.

"I won't tell her," she said, "But she's going to find out."

"Are you kidding me?" I said. I stopped walking and, doing my best impersonation of my little cousins, I dropped to the ground. I didn't fight, didn't scream, I just let myself go limp. The four Treivalli lost balance and stumbled over me. Once they realized i wasn't actually injured, they grumbled and hefted me up like a sack of potatoes.

"Human Greg, you are being very immature," said Marthax disapprovingly.

"I'm being immature?" I half-shouted. "I'm the immature one?!"

Asha and Parthas shushed me while Drida followed along like a beleaguered sister-- which I guess is exactly what she was. They carried me down the road while I complained and Parthas threatened to drug me again to shut me up. We argued the entire way until we came up to the entrance of a large metal building.

"This is where you live?" I said. The place looked bigger than the other homes on the street, and unlike the others, this one didn't have any kind of blue garden in front.
"No," said Asha. "This is where they're going to do the surgery."

Upon hearing that, I jerked suddenly, falling off Marthax' shoulder and started shouting and biting again.

They had to drag me into the building.

I. . . I begged them not to. It's embarrassing to say now, but I begged them not to do it. I told them I'd stay, I'd do whatever they wanted if they just didn't take my translator away. I thought that maybe I could just wait it out until the Andarians showed up and got me. They didn't listen. I tried to run, but they caught me. Then I tried to fight. I kicked and shouted and drew a lot of attention, but they were bigger than me. They were stronger, and there were more of them than there was of me. Somewhere between the running and fighting, Parthas hit me in the neck with something, I don't know what. I don't think it was another needle; it made a noise like thunder and hurt too much, and it filled my nostrils with the smell of burning meat. Some kind of taser, I guess.

After that, everything gets blurry.

I remember someone picking me up, and a bunch of Treivalli cooing around me. I think some were yelling at Parthas for hurting me. Then they were carrying me through the doors, then through more doors.

Then I was on a table, and there were bright lights.

Then it was dark.

When I woke up, My translator was gone.

* * * *

Greg had to stop there for a moment. It was hard to breathe and harder to speak; his throat and mouth were suddenly impossibly dry.

"Can I have some water?" he said.

The Grand Councilwoman said nothing, but she nodded, and a second later, an elongated glass appeared on a tray beside him.

"Oh, thank you," he said to whatever unseen person had brought it. He downed the entire glass in one go.

"Are you prepared to continue?" said the Grand Councilwoman.

Greg cleared his throat. "Yeah. I am."

"Then begin."

* * * * *

I think I fell asleep. Not just once, either, but a few times, on and off. Each time I did, my head hurt less when I woke up. I didn't know how much time was passing, just that each time I woke, there was a growing batch of Treivalli standing in the doorway of the room I was in. At first, it was just the usual three, but that number grew until, when I was finally feeling well enough to sit up, there was about a dozen of them hovering nearby. The cuffs were off, which was nice. Or rather, they were still on my wrists, but they were no longer glowing and no longer pulled towards each other, meaning I could use my hands freely.

I didn't know my translator was gone at first. If my head had hurt earlier, then that was nothing compared to after waking up the second time. I couldn't sit up, I couldn't do anything. I felt like i was dying. I was lying down somewhere, and I just turned over and tried not to throw up or cry. It wasn't even that anything specific hurt, it was just everything was bad.

I must have looked pretty pathetic, because there were suddenly a bunch of Treivalli hovering around me, touching me, clicking at me and making unfamiliar gurgling and hissing noises. Someone picked me up and put me someplace soft, but everything was a blur, like my eyes weren't focusing right. The noise washed over me without any kind of meaning.

"What?" I said, still groggy.

They spoke to each other in those same garbled noises, and it finally hit me what had happened.

"No," I said, crawling back. My hands flew to my head, feeling around, and found a shaved spot right on top of where my old surgical scar was. I didn't feel anything unusual-- which was itself unusual. I'd let the scar heal naturally the first time, so there was always that little bump. Now, the skin was flat and smooth; the Treivalli had healed it completely after they'd removed my translator.

"No," I kept saying over and over. "No, no, no."

Parthas was watching me, smiling. He looked proud.

I completely lost it. I ran at him, howling and kicking, trying my best to knock his goddamn teeth in. They tried to talk to me, they were trying to calm me down, I knew it, but I didn't understand them. I didn't understand any of it-- it sounded like random gargling and hissing, and the fact that I couldn't understand made me freak out even more. Someone lifted me up, and I caught Parthas in the face with my knee. There was a satisfying crunch, and I sincerely hoped I had broken his jaw.

The other Treivalli present immediately went to his side. They clucked and cooed at him, and while there were a few in the doorway, their attention wasn't on me until I was already sliding between their legs. The sound of Treivalli shouts followed me as I ran out of the building, onto the weird spaceship street.

The buildings on Treival flew by in a copper blur. The streets were like giant chunks of smooth rock, like cut cobblestone enlarged by a million and colored red-orange. In fact, red, orange, coppers, and brass appeared to be the main color scheme, occasionally cut by shades of blue-- deep blue plants that grew in the dividers in the middle of the road, light blue blossoms coming from the plants, ocean-blue tiles patterned on the walls, blue signs and blue benches.

I briefly wondered if Treivalli saw colors the same way humans did. Then I focused on running.

As I ran, Treivalli I passed stared after me. Some of them just watched me go, some of them tried to stop me. At one point, a Treivalli playing around with a comms device walked out of one of the metal buildings and stepped directly in my path. He wasn't watching, and I couldn't stop; I hit him like a bowling ball hits pins. We both fell, but while he was stunned for a number of reasons, I hopped up immediately, snagging his comms device off the ground while I did.

"Thanks pal," I shouted over my shoulder as I tore down the street, comms in hand.

I ran and ran and ran and when I couldn't run anymore, when I was certain my entire chest was going to explode and my throat would split itself open, I ducked behind a building, crawled under a hollow place in its massive back steps, and hid.

The comms device looked like the ones we used in the Prosperity. I thought, this is fine. I can do this.

But the controls were different. The layout was different, and the icons on the screen meant nothing. It was just weird, alien scrawl.

"Come on," I kept saying. "Come on, come on." I was looking for any kind of familiar icon, anything that might let me call out to the Andarians and let them know where I was. Our devices on the Prosperity have an emergency beacon, distress signal, and I was hoping this one had something similar.

If it did, I couldn't figure it out. All of the icons looked the same except for the alien writing that I couldn't decipher.

Every so often, a group of Treivalli would pass by, calling out for me, and I'd huddle further and further into the crawl space. As time passed, those groups grew less and less frequent. I wasn't sure if this was because they were losing interest in finding me, or if it was because they thought they'd scoured the area already. It got to the point that I stopped noticing when they did pass; I was too engrossed in trying to make the damn comms device work.

Time passed. I don't know how much, but I guess it must have been a lot because, eventually, it got dark, and it got cold. I didn't notice it exactly at first. I was too busy trying to get the comms device working. But then the device's touch screen stopped recognizing my fingers and I had to keep warming them up, keep breathing on them and rubbing them to get the blood circulating. Then I noticed how my breath was coming out in fog-- not just little puffs, either, but long-lasting trails of fog that told me how cold the air really was. I touched my face and felt nothing; even with the Treivalli hood pulled around my face, I'd gone numb without noticing it.

Despite the fact that it was cold, it had to be cold, I felt warm. Really, oddly warm. I wanted to take off my uniform shirt, but thought that a bad idea, so I settled for rolling up the sleeves instead. Then, I realized what I was doing and what that was a sign of and stopped.

It occurred to me that freezing to death was, at that moment, a more immediate threat than Parthas.

I poked my head out from under the steps. Nobody there. I crept around to the front of the building I'd been squatting under, making sure to keep low and stick behind the shrubs. The street was empty, and almost all of the metal homes had lights on inside. Realizing the risk I was taking, and desperate enough not to care, I stalked down the street like a thief, looking for someplace to stay. Several times I thought I heard someone and had to dive into a garden, or behind some pipes sticking up from the ground, but it was never anything serious, and eventually I found a spot: a building that looked the same as any of the others, but with no lights shining through its circular windows.

The cold was making me feel both frozen and feverish, and my hands shook so badly I could barely open the door. It was unlocked. I'm not sure if that was just lucky, or if Treivalli don't worry about crime the same way humans do. Quietly as I could, I pushed the door open and snuck inside, hoping that nobody was home.

Inside was empty. Entirely empty; no furniture, no people, nothing except a layer of odd white dust. I held up the comms device, tapping on it to make the screen light up. Even if I couldn't understand it yet, at least I could still do that. The light it provided barely helped, but I managed to find another room that I think was supposed to be the kitchen. Unlike the room I'd just been in, it at least had a metal table and metal counter tops built into the walls-- though no actual counter cabinets. Just the tops, giving the illusion that they were floating. In any case, this room also had windows, but their angle meant that if I stayed beneath the counter tops, nobody outside would be able to see me.

The faucet worked, and I wished I had some means to boil the bluer-than-normal water it produced, but I had nothing. Given the cold outside, I had expected the water to be freezing, but to my surprise it was actually lukewarm. I spent a good ten minutes talking myself into drinking it. The fact that Treivalli were able to survive on the Prosperity, and that I was able to survive on their ship, meant they-- like a surprising number of non-Earthly life forms-- were built roughly along the same lines as humans, so their water meets were probably similar, right? And I had eaten alien food before, hadn't I? That had been fine. And Parthas had been convinced that I'd be able to survive here, and he wouldn't be if his planet's water was poison, right? And so on and so on until I finally took a sip.

It tasted slightly metallic, like water from bad pipes, but it was normal enough for comfort, and I gorged myself on it. When I'd finished, I crawled under the counter and curled up with the cloak, trying to keep warm. The inside of the house wasn't nearly as bad as outside had been, but resting on cold clay flooring with your back to cold metal isn't the most pleasant experience in the world.

I stayed up with the comms device, trying over and over and over again to get it to work, trying any number of different pattern combinations just to make it do something useful, until the running, hiding, and general craziness of the past day finally hit me all at once, and I fell asleep.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I don't know how long days actually are on Treival. Hell, I don't even actually know what makes a day a day there; it's not like there was a sun anywhere in sight. As far as I know, the lights are artificial and are probably connected to the beams keeping the sky-window together. In any case, I slept for however long it took for the lights to come back on again. It was unnerving; the ground where we were at was fully lit, like daylight, but the sky still revealed nothing but void and stars.

The issue the next morning was finding food. I was starving. Uh. Not literally, that is. But it would be literally soon if I didn't find something quick.

I peeked out the window and saw some Treivalli walking around in the street, but nobody was paying any attention to my hiding spot. There weren't many people out and about, and I wondered if they had jobs to do, schedules to keep. I know some species dedicate themselves to the pursuit of leisure, but from what X'mel had told me, these guys didn't seem like one of those.

So I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Every so often, my stomach would send sharp pangs to remind me that it was still hungry.

I don't know why I decided to try the house across the street. It was a matter of convenience, I guess. I found myself watching it closely, looking for any signs of movement past the windows, waiting for someone to go in or out.

Finally, after what felt like forever, two Treivalli left. I watched them as they went down the little path, talking to one another. After a few more minutes, with no sign of anyone going in or out, I bit the bullet, waited a little longer for the street to clear, and ran out. The door across the street was unlocked, just like the abandoned one I'd been squatting in. The interior layout was much the same as my empty house, except that unlike mine, this one was fully furnished. The furnishings looked mostly to be an odd combination of carved rock, metal, and dyed wicker that was presumably made with the blue plants. I went to the kitchen, which was in the same place as the fitted kitchen back at my squat. Unlike mine, this one's storage units were all intact: metal boxes attached to the walls that had odd levers that, when pulled, revealed multiple drawers of meticulously organized food stuffs-- drawers within drawers with extra little containers keeping everything separate. I didn't know what any of it was, and while part of me was afraid I'd poison myself, the rest of me was desperately hungry. After all, I reasoned, I'd already thrown caution to the wind with the water. In for a penny, in for a pound, and all that.

Among the contents of the drawers, there were black rectangles that looked like peat and had the texture of grain. I shoved one into my face and found it tasted like rice cakes. I didn't even bother with anything else after that. I meant to keep going through the little drawers, but instead I sat there, crouched on the counter, stuffing myself with those weird black not-rice blocks. I was just finishing off the last of them and was about to hightail out of there when the front door flew open.

In walked the two homeowners from earlier, and they'd brought a friend with them. They were laughing and talking in that guttural language, and they froze when they saw me.

I froze too. We stared at each other for a good long minute, and I had to wonder what I must've looked like to them. Then one of the snacks I'd piled onto the counter fell and went clattering to the floor. The noise broke the spell, and suddenly all three were grabbing for me. I made for the exit, but one blocked the way. We scrambled around the room, but it didn't take long for them to catch me.

I take it as a point of pride that it took two of them to get me down; I dunno if that's because I was getting better or if these ones were weaker than Parthas was. The third one did something to the cuffs in my wrists, and they sprung back together, binding in front of me.

"Not again!" I said.

They didn't respond to me, but spoke to each other, gesturing wildly and occasionally pointing at me.

"If I'm causing such a problem for you guys, you could just let me go. . ."

They, of course, didn't understand me. Eventually one of them left. The one sitting on me stayed put, and the one who'd activated my cuffs stuck around, sitting by the door-- probably in case I managed to make a break for it. We were there long enough for my ribs to start creaking and my back to start hurting from the weight before the front door flew open again.

Parthas, Marthax, and Asha, as well as a few others and the Treivalli who'd caught me, all burst into the room.

My three-- Er, that is, the three I'd been exposed to the most. Asha and Parthas and Marthax. Those three took one look at me and then ran for us. They shoved the one holding me off and I was swept up suddenly in a rush of hugs and weepy eyed Treivalli shoving their snouts in my face. The others there gathered around and were watching like it was some kind of happy reunion. Some of them took pictures.

I complained loudly, with lots of swearing and biting, but they were not dissuaded. Parthas tore himself from the group hug long enough to talk to the ones who'd caught me, presumably thanking them, and then Marthax and Asha were hauling to my feet and leading me away. I made it difficult for them. I can make myself a real pain in the ass, and I would not stop kicking and screaming. Twice, Marthax dropped me onto the road, and the second time I managed to pull him down with me. After that, Parthas got sick of my shenanigans and stuck me with a needle full of something unpleasant. I wasn't out again, not really all the way out, like I had been before, but enough that I couldn't move, or talk, or think properly.

They carried me to some house. They put me someplace warm and soft and someone was holding onto me, but I didn't know who. I didn't care. Even in the state I was in, where everything was foggy and thinking was like trying to swim through molasses, I was hoping they'd leave me alone, but they didn't. The stream of Treivalli was constant. None of them would shut up. People were cooing at me in that gobbledygook language and people were touching my hair and back and someone was holding my hand, and I wanted to say, 'cut that out.'

But my eyelids were feeling heavy, and it was getting harder and harder to keep them open. In the end, I don't even remember closing them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I was alone when I woke up, which in and of itself seemed like a freaking miracle.

I sat up and found myself in the same room as before. Only this time, I had the chance to actually get a better look at it.

The room was small, more like a glorified closet. It was big enough that I could lie down in, but not enough so that I could do it if I stretched my arms out above me. Much of it was taken up by a pile of furs-- like literal animal furs. No idea what kind of animals they came from, or where the animals were at; I hadn't seen any when I was running around. There was a tray of litter which I really really really hoped wasn't for what I thought it was for, and what I thought was a window looking outside, but was upon closer inspection revealed to be just a screen built into the wall that was projecting the image of outside.

I heard a noise behind me and turned in time to see Parthas slowly opening to door. When he saw I was awake, his whole face lit up, and he gestured wildly to someone in the hall.

It actually turned out to be a load of someones. Several Treivalli I didn't recognize, along with the ones I did, were suddenly there crowding the doorway.

"Oh my gaaawd," I said, throwing myself onto the blankets. "Just get a fucking hamster! Jeez."

I covered myself with the blankets and hoped that they'd go away, but for some reason that just made them excited and louder.

At one point, they shoved a crate into the room and parked it in front of me. Like, a big, wooden, Earthly packing crate. A Treivalli I didn't know helped Parthas pry it open, and then the two hurriedly stepped back. With a sigh, I pulled myself up and went to investigate.

It turned out to be full of oatmeal boxes. Probably a hundred boxes of dry instant-oatmeal packets-- the kind with different flavors that you heat up in the microwave.

They stood around me like they were waiting for something to happen. A lot of them had their tablet cameras up, like they were recording.

"What do you want me to do with this?" I said. I picked up one of the boxes and dropped it to the floor.

Parthas, who was the closest one, made a little 'go on, go ahead' kind of gesture.

"Are you kidding me?" I said.

Parthas crouched down on his haunches so we were more or less eye-level. Slowly, he reached out and pushed the box closer to me. Then, when I didn't move, he nudged it again.

"I'm not eating that," I told him.

He, of course, had no idea what I said and nudged the box again, until it was entirely out of his reach.

"I said I'm not eating that," I said again. I knew he wouldn't understand the words, but maybe my tone and expression would clue him in.

It didn't. He and the others just stayed there, all of them watching. I sighed and picked up the box. There was some excited hissing from the crowd. Parthas smiled and nodded encouragingly.

He was still smiling when I drew back my arm and threw the box straight at his stupid face and hit him in the snout. Parthas fell back in surprise and all the others were a cacophony of noise-- I think some of it was laughing. A lot of it was chattering. Parthas sat back up, rubbing his nose and looking at me with obvious confusion.

"Did you think I'd stop being a person if you couldn't understand me?" I said. I sat back against the wall and crossed my arms. "Did you think I'd go along with whatever you wanted just because I wouldn't be able to argue with you? You couldn't be that stupid. X'mel thinks you guys are brilliant. You couldn't be that dumb."

When he didn't respond, I got up, grabbed another box out of the crate, and chucked it at his head. Then another, and another. Oatmeal packets scattered across the floor as some of the boxes burst open.

They got the message that I wasn't exactly in a sociable mood, because next thing that happened was that Parthas said something to the others and got up. There was some grumbling and what I imagined was complaining, but at his urging, they all cleared out, and I was left locked in that little room alone. Finally.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It, of course, didn't last. A while later, Parthas came in by himself. I took one look at him, told him to fuck off, and buried myself further into the furs, putting my back to him. He apparently took that as an invitation, because the next thing I know, I feel his hand touching my freaking back again.

"Get off!" I snarled, turning and kicking. My movements were limited by the blankets, and I doubt I could've actually done anything to him, but he backed off. I scrambled backwards to the corner and faced him.

"Don't touch me," I said.

He looked so fucking disappointed. He held up his hands in the usual 'no harm meant' way and went to the far wall. He sat there one his side of the room and just . . . Looked at me. I hated it. I wanted to scream at him, to punch him in his stupid face, but I couldn't. He'd already shown that they were all miles stronger than I was, and that they'd have no problem finding me if I got away.

I tried to think of it relatively. If I got a new cat that hated being touched, what would that be like? The answer came easy; I'd had a cat who hated being touched. Charmander had been a rescue who had not appreciated being rescued. I'd waited him out. Kept leaving food, kept announcing my presence and letting him choose whether or not to come out. I'd built up that trust patiently until he was ready, and when he was done with affection, when he wanted his space, I'd given it to him.

It hit me then that Parthas was trying clumsily to do the same thing. Right then, at that instant. Hanging out in the room with me quietly, doing nothing but being there. He was doing the same thing I did to Charmander, trying to wait me out, trying to get me used to him.

The difference was I wasn't a fucking psychopath, and as much as I loved Char, he wasn't a person.

"You're not changing my mind," I said. "I don't care how soulful and sad you look. I want to go back to the Prosperity."

He didn't say anything.

My stomach gurgled just then. Parthas jolted upright, concern plastered all over his face.

"I'm hungry," I said. My stomach gurgled again. It had been a while since the black not-rice blocks, and I had no idea if those things actually had any dietary substance to them.

It must have clicked, because Parthas got up and left the room for a moment. When he returned, he had a freaking oatmeal box from earlier.

He thrust the box at me.

"I'm not eating that," I said. "That stuff's gross even when you make it right. I'm not eating it dry."

He shook the box, trying to get me to take it. I sighed and grabbed it.

"Look," I said, tearing it open and pulling out one of the packets. "See this?" I opened the packet and poured its contents into my hand. "This doesn't look anything like this." I pointed to the picture of the properly prepared bowl of oatmeal on the box. "Get it?" I said.

He didn't. I dusted the oatmeal and powder off my hand --to his visible concern-- and snugged myself back in the covers.

"I really hope that wasn't the only food you got me," I said. "Because I am not looking forward to being hungry enough to have to eat that."

There was a knock on the door. Then, a voice called out something in Treivalli. Parthas responded. The Treivalli on the other side said something back. Parthas got up and answered the door. I scuttled across the floor to get a better angle to see who it was.

It turned out to be that girl from earlier, Drida. She chattered at him, and he grumbled at her, and their speech grew louder and louder until they were practically yelling at each other. Drida pointed at me and made some snarling noises-- though she didn't look mad. Parthas slammed the door shut on her.

"Trouble?" I said. Then a thought struck, and I grinned. "Did mama finally catch wind of what you've been doing?"

He ignored me and paced the room for a few minutes, clearly agitated. I stayed in my corner and tried not to piss him off, though I was still grinning like a loon. Eventually, he stopped. With a sigh, he snapped his fingers and my wrists suddenly flew together; the magnetic cuffs began to glow again, and I was once again stuck with my hands in front of me.

"Hey!" I said. "What's the deal?"

In answer, Parthas came over and pulled me to my feet. Before I could question him, he tugged my hood down to conceal most of my face, which I immediately shook off. He gave me an exasperated look, then apparently figuring it wasn't worth arguing about, he wound his arm through mine. Once he was satisfied I wasn't going to be able to run off on him, he half dragged, half led me out of the room.

Outside, leaning on the wall, Drida was waiting for us. She opened her mouth to speak, but Parthas snapped at her, and she stopped. He strode forward, pulling me along, and both Drida and I had to jog a little to keep up. We left the building.

The two of them walked me down the street, to the whispers and looks of other Treivalli out and about. Nobody stopped us or anything, but they slowed down as we passed, even though Parthas was clearly trying to shield me from sight. They led me to a massive white-stone arch built into the side of some kind of giant faux-mountain made from metal plating, wires, pipes, and other miscellaneous ship stuff. The arches led into an enormous tunnel, big enough to fit an entire space cruiser through, that slanted downward.

"Uh, down there?" I said, taking a step back.

Parthas tugged me forward and made some clucking noises that I think were supposed to be comforting. He and Drida seemed pretty confident, and I didn't really have much choice in the matter, so I allowed them to pull me along without too much fuss.

The tunnel was. . . surreal. It was like what I imagined being dropped inside a machine would be like. Some massive belly of technical looking garbage-- because that's what it appeared to be. The parts comprising the tunnel walls were old, like most of the Treival ship appeared to be. Parts were rusted, or dented, wires were frayed and cut, and while the path was lit by blue lights built sporadically into the walls, some of the lights were cracked, or dim, or broken altogether.

Eventually, the tunnel spat us out into an enormous cavern, one whose ceiling was shrouded in darkness from the distance, despite the lights, and whose far wall I could not see. Scattered around the area were floating globes that looked like intricately cut lanterns, except the light they gave off was unnaturally bright, and there was nothing visibly holding them in the air. Ahead of us, surrounded by twisting white-stone arches and pools of that too-blue water was a temple. Unlike the other buildings I'd seen, it had layers of bubble-like domed roofs with crystalline structures and spires and towers coming out in different places. I stopped to gawk without realizing, and Parthas pulled me forward, up the steps and through the enormous double doors.

Inside the entry room, standing by white stone pillars, were Marthax and Asha. They both looked on edge, twitching and slightly hunched. When they saw us enter, their heads shot up, and both rushed to Parthas, chattering urgently at him. He said something back, and Drida chimed in, and the three all started talking to her.

I don't know what they actually said, but everything in their body language rang really familiar: 'Is mom mad? Are we in trouble? What did you tell her?'

Like I said, I've got siblings.

"Alrighty, ladies and gents," I said, heading for the temple door. "Come on, let's go, chop chop!"

I know they couldn't understand me, but they got my tone, because all of them except Drida were glaring at me. I flashed them a winning smile. "Oh come on! Not my fault you're all in trouble! Let's get a move on, can't keep mom waiting!"

They grumbled and followed me in.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Inside, past the entry hall and in the temple sanctuary, the Treivalli Matriarch was waiting.

All bravado I'd had about meeting the Matriarch vanished in an instant.

Back home, we have stories about dragons. Enormous reptiles of immense power. They vary place to place-- sometimes they have wings, sometimes they don't, sometimes they're wise and sometimes they're not. Always, though, they are giant, immensely powerful beings. It sounds . . . Superstitious, I guess. Humans have a reputation for being weirdly superstitious, I know. But being there in her presence, just occupying the same space as her. . . It felt sharing the room with a god. It felt like a well of gravity. The air felt heavy. It felt like the edge in the air before an electric storm. Being there, looking at her, I understood why people once believed in dragons.

In appearance, she was Treivalli, just multiplied by a hundred. She was enormous. If the cavern had been big enough to drop a mountain in, then she was the mountain they'd dropped. She wore loose robes similar to the ones the rest of the Treivalli wore, but without the cuirass, instead having some kind of layered sash. Though she didn't actually reach the ornate domed ceiling of the temple, she gave the impression that she did. She was huge, yes, but she still could easily maneuver in the even-larger building. But when I first saw her, I was legitimately confused how a creature so large could even fit inside the cavern-- that's how discombobulated her presence made me.

She didn't say anything to us as we entered. The hood she wore was large and loose and covered her eyes, and I wondered for a moment if she could even see us. But then she turned her head slightly in our direction, and then tilted it in a "come hither" way. The whole pack of us came forward, Parthas in the lead, with Asha and Marthax both trying to hide behind each other. Even Drida looked a little anxious. When we grew close, they stopped. I craned my neck up to look at her while the others all dropped to one knee. They bowed their heads to her, and she nodded in return.

That's when she decided to introduce herself to me.

I've spoken with telepaths before. I mean, I don't have a lot of experience with them or anything, but after the Ga'arish incident, all of us were required to see a telepathic therapist in case we were having issues processing what had happened. The ones I had dealt with before were fine. I always thought that telepaths were just naturally able to put themselves in people's heads, just able to speak mind-to-mind directly without filters.

It never occurred to me that my translator might have been acting as a filter for telepathy, too.

Because the Treivalli Matriarch's telepathy wasn't fine. The Treivalli Matriarch's telepathy hurt. It felt like animals were clawing through my brain, like someone was driving ice picks into my skull. Someone had drilled a hole at the top of my head and was pouring acid inside. Someone was stirring my brain into liquid the way they did for mummies. Raw, ancient power moved through my mind and scoured where it touched as if it were made of sandpaper.

I didn't know I was screaming until the pain finally stopped, and I found myself out of breath, my throat ragged and burning.

"My apologies," said the Matriarch. Behind the words in my head was feeling, waves and waves of it, like an ocean. She was sorry. She was mildly sorry. She was sorry the way you are when you're trying to feed a cat, and it keeps getting underfoot, and you accidentally step on them-- sorry, but not guilty about it. Sorry, but a little frustrated. "Your translator has been removed, but it is necessary for us to communicate. I have set up a temporary translation field so that we may all better understand one another."

"S'okay," I wheezed from the floor.

A clawed hand the size of a car reached down and plucked me from the ground and lifted me through the air. I stifled a shout and froze on instinct, terrified of being dropped. Mother brought me close to her face, then started turning me around, examining me. Her eyes were golden yellow, but they gave the impression of being deep, as though they were full of honey and if I just looked long enough, I'd be able to see something at the bottom. I stared, unable to look away, and not wanting to. While one hand held me, the other poked and prodded gingerly with the tip of one claw until she was satisfied. I yelped as she suddenly turned her hand so that it was flat, palm up.

"Please, sit," she said.

I did as she asked. The thought of not doing as she asked never crossed my mind.

"Speak, child," she said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Greg," I said, my voice faltering under her stare. "Gregory Namanarra, from Earth."

"Why are you on Treival?" she said. "I did not invite you."

"I was kidnapped," I said. "I work on the Andarian ship, Prosperity, and your kids grabbed me on their way out."

Mother turned her icy gaze on Parthas, Asha, and Marthax. "I see." In a louder voice, she said, "what have you to say in your defense, Parthas?"

Parthas stepped forward. I scooted closer to the edge of Mother's hand to get a better look-- but not too close. "Mother," he started. "I didn't--"

"It's no use lying to me, child," snapped the Matriarch. "I sense the truth, and I sense your lies, and even if I did not, this has your hand all over it. What was your intention in diverting the path and bringing this creature here?"

Again I felt the mental pressure of the Matriarch's telepathy, but it was not nearly so strong as it had been before. I realized that was because it wasn't for me this time; it was for Parthas. He dropped to his knees and clutched his head, clearly experiencing the same as I had a few minutes before.

"I just. . . wanted one!" he shouted. I felt the pressure ease off.

"Go on," said Mother.

Parthas spoke haltingly, as though struggling with the words. "I want a pet. I want something nice to take care of. Other people can have them, but we cannot. And I saw his kind, and they're cute, and they're smart, and I saw videos of them and of this one, and I just wanted one." He looked up at us. His eyes pleading. "I'd be happy with just one."

Mother was silent for an uncomfortably long minute. Then, she lowered me to the ground, and I slid out of her hand, back to the floor.

"Gregory Namanarra," she said. "I love my children. Even the difficult ones. I want them all to be happy."

I felt a little twinge in my head. It was like when my eyes crossed, but then uncrossed too quickly for to me really notice. You know that something happened, and that something probably caused it to happen, but you're not sure exactly what. I staggered and caught myself before I fell.

"What did you do?" I said to her.

She said nothing, but nodded her head behind me, where Parthas was. I turned to look at him and--

It was like my heart stopped. Everything stopped. I couldn't breathe.

He was perfect.

I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. He was the most perfect creature in the universe, bar none. I almost started to cry with how perfect he was. I choked on nothing. I loved him. Really, deeply adored him. It was the kind of love people have when they start religions. It was the kind of love mothers had for their new born babies. If I hadn't been so frozen, I would have thrown myself at his feet and begged him to let me stay. I loved him. Every single fiber of my being was flooded with love. Saturated and drowning in love.

But the thing is, it wasn't love. Not really, I don't think. Like, I've been in love before. I've fallen in love with people, and it's not like that. I love my family. I love my friends. And I've never felt the way Mother forced me to feel that day. It was this overwhelming, unnatural, obsessive, unrelenting adoration. There was a little bit of me screaming inside my head that it wasn't right, that it wasn't real, but the rest of me was looking at Parthas and wanting nothing more than to stay on that godforsaken planet for the rest of my life. I'd've been happy to follow him to the ends of the universe, then jump off it if he'd asked me to. It wasn't love. Not the way I've experienced it.

I think it was love the way a dog experiences it.

But then she sighed and undid it all, and I was back to myself. The only difference is that this time, I was terrified.

Like I said, I've been around telepaths before, but they were polite and professional and didn't go around messing up your head. Granted, they were doctors, so maybe they've all had special training about being sensitive to this sort of thing. But nobody's ever gone in my head and made me feel something. Mother didn't even lift a finger, she just willed me to be head over heels about her kid, and I was.

I'd already come to terms with the fact that these people could do pretty much anything to me. It hasn't occurred to me that they could make me want it. It took everything I had not to curl up into a little ball and cower.

"My son," she said to Parthas. "You have done an evil thing."

"But Mother--"

She held up a bony hand, and Parthas fell silent.

"To all things there is a purpose, and to all things sentient and sapient there is a path. You have interfered in the world outside our ship. In your selfishness, you have diverted your path, and the path of your siblings, and the path of all you have encountered."

"But mother--" started Asha.

Again, she held up her hand, and the room fell silent.

"This creature is the most recent fruit of a blooming species. And you have removed it from its place. You have removed it from its role. Your actions have a farther reach than you know. Do you think this will endear you to the Andarians? To the Galactic alliance? To the Earthians themselves? Do you think an infant species will not remember the abuses suffered by its elders? Do you think trust can be so easily gained once broken? If you continue this path, there will still be bad blood between us and Earth a thousand years from now."

"It's just one!" said Parthas.

"But it will not end at one!" said Mother. True force of her voice caused the room to shake. "I know your heart child, and there is greed there. You may want one now, but it won't be enough."

"You were talking about cloning," said Asha quietly

"And breeding them," added Marthax. "Selling them."

"Then I won't!" said Parthas. "I promise, I won't. Let me just keep the one we have now. Like you said, its path is diverted already. So let me keep it. I'll take good care of him!"

For a second, I was terrified Mother was concede. But she shook her head and said. "The Andarians are already on their way. I spoke to them before your arrival. You have done wrong, My son, but I will not further this wrong by allowing it to continue. Now, Gregory Namanarra." She turned her attention to me. "The Andarians are sending a ship to retrieve you. However, the path of a rogue element will arrive sooner. Yet another life drawn away from his Path by the actions of my son," she said with a small snap in her voice and a side eye at Parthas.

"Can. . . can you see the future?" I said.

"I can see many things," she said. "Potential futures are, I find, the least interesting of them. One can only watch waves break against the shore for so long before it becomes tiresome. But in this instance, it is useful."

Well, that didn't sound good. Didn't sound exactly bad, either. Kind of uncomfortable. I changed the subject. "What do you mean by rogue element?"

"The details are not clear," she said. "But I see a path diverted from its natural course that will soon be colliding with our own." She tilted her head. "Soon," she added. Then, after another second, she tilted her head in the other direction. "Literally."

I was about to ask her what she meant, but then I heard it too: a thrumming, buzzing, whining noise. I looked around and saw Parthas and the others also tilting their heads, listening. The whine grew louder and louder, closer and closer, growing until it was a metallic, churning roar above us. It took me a second to realize what it was: the sound of an engine. A ship engine.

"Oh dear," said the Matriarch. "Gregory Namanarra, I suggest you step back. Further back. A little more, please. With haste."

The ceiling of the temple exploded onward, raining down scraps of stone and metal and glass. I fell to the ground in a defensive ball, arms shielding my head and neck just as a small one-person Andarian pod ship landed on the temple flood with a heavy crunch, causing the ground to crumble up around it, like tectonic plates colliding into mountains.

An Andarian burst from the ruined ship. It didn't use the door, but jumped directly out of the windshield, shattering what was left of it on his way out. He wore a technician's uniform beneath a tactical coat that was loaded with weaponry held on with odd makeshift belts and holder-loops. Each of his four arms held a blaster, and his face was obscured by a helmet that covered the entirety of his head.

"Attention Treivalli kidnappers!" the Andarian said, the speakers on his helmet amplifying his voice. "Surrender to me Human Gregory Namanarra, and I will allow you to retain your extremities!"

"X'melborp?" I said. I got up and waved my arms. "X'mel! Hey! X'melborp? Is that you?"

The Andarian paused. It lifted its top left arm and pressed a button on the side of the helmet. The visor slid up, revealing X'melborp's face.

"Human Greg!" He immediately dropped all four blasters-- X'melborp is not someone who should be handling those things, I have to say-- and scrambled through the rubble towards me. I ran towards him. Just before we met in the middle, he tripped on a piece of ceiling and barreled into me. We both went tumbling to the floor, laughing.

"Human Greg! Are you well? Have they harmed you?"

"I'm fine! I'm fine! Get off!"

We clambered to our feet, tripping on the rubble and using each other to stay balanced. "What are you doing here?" I said. "Did you steal a pod?"

"I was concerned!" X'mel said. "Nobody was telling me how the negotiations were going, or if there would be a rescue mission dispatched, or anything of use! I asked to be part of the retrieval team, and Commander Te'Falar said I was to remain on the Prosperity! Can you imagine?"

"Wait, so you broke orders to get here?"

He waved the question away with his two left hands. "No, no. She told me as my mother, not my commander. She said it might be dangerous, which of course is the reason I should be here to get you! If it is dangerous, then you will need a friendly face." He looked around, his eyes glazing right past the Matriarch and stopping at the cluster of Treivalli a little ways away.

"Parthas!" he shouted. "Marthax! Asha! How dare you!" He strode towards them, fists clenched, and I hurried to keep up with him.

"Wait, X'mel! X'mel, hold up."

X'melborp isn't a violent person, but I really thought he was going to deck Parthas, and while I'd spent the past however-many-days it was also wanting to beat the snot out of him, I thought it a bad idea for X'mel to go for it just then because one: Parthas or any one of the Treivalli could wipe the floor with us if they really wanted to, and two: because the kid's mom was towering right behind us.

Despite looking like a blue plushie, X'melborp has some pretty solid muscle, and he plowed forward, even has I grabbed his arm and tried to hold him back. "What have you to say for yourself?" X'melborp said, stopping short of Parthas and the crew.

Drida lifted her hands and backed away from the group. "I am not part of this," she said.

"I'm already in trouble," said Parthas miserably. "You want to yell at me, too?"

"We're sorry," said Asha, stepping forward.

"Sorry," said Marthax. "It was Parthas' idea."

"I didn't hear you saying no!" said Parthas.

X'melborp blinked. His antennae sprang up, then tilted thoughtfully. "Human Greg, are they--?"

"Kids? Yeah. Siblings? Also yeah."

"That both clarifies and muddies the situation," X'melborp said.

"Gregory Namanarra," boomed the Matriarch. "Andarian Technician X'melborp Brill-Vorblax."

We turned around to see the Matriarch picking up the pod as easily as a mother picks up a child's toy car. She shook it a bit, knocking off some broken parts and dirt.

"Greg," squeaked X'melborp. "What is that?"

"I am the Matriarch of Treival, and you have crashed a ship through the roof of my temple." She extended her neck, revealing it to be far longer than I had thought, and craned her head to look up through the hole X'mel had made. "Did you break though the cavern as well?"

X'melborp coughed and took a second to speak. "No, ma'am," he managed. "I went around the ship and found an exposed pipe on the surface that was big enough to fit the pod. I had Human Greg's DNA coded into the navigation, so I followed the red dot until it spat me out here."

"You have my DNA on file?" I said.

"I have all my friends' DNA on file."

"The exhaust and ventilation system doesn't have a direct path here," said the Matriarch. She brought the podship close to her face, and poked at a small piece at the front. Then she shook her head and put the pod ship down gently. "There is an excavation beam at the front. You melted your way through?"

"A little," said X'melborp emphatically. "Very minor meltings, I'm certain. Easily repaired, I'm sure!"

"Those systems were over fifty thousand years old," she said with a sigh.

"So they were overdue for replacements?" I said hopefully.

Mother covered her face with a hand. With the other, she flicked at us, gesturing us to go. "The official Andarian retrieval ship will be here shortly. Drida, please guide our guests to the Northern Port to be collected by their companions."

"Yes, Mother," said Drida. She turned on her heel and hurried to the exit. X'melborp and I exchanged a look.

"Uh. . . " I said.

"You are dismissed," said the Matriarch.

"Us too?" said Asha hopefully.

"You are not dismissed," said the Matriarch. She swiveled her massive head to look at them. "You three arranged an intergalactic kidnapping while acting under the auspices of the Treivalli Matriarch. I am very disappointed." She reached a massive hand out and easily scooped up the three Treivalli. "You all need a stern talking to."

"Come one," said Drida, tugging at my sleeve. "Let's get out of here!"

X'mel and I followed her out of the sanctuary. The second the doors clanged shut, Drida sighed loudly in relief and leaned against the wall. "I would not want to be them," she told us. "Did you hear that? Mother is disappointed. That's way worse than if she were mad." She took another breathe, then said, "Okay, come on."

Drida led us out of the temple, and into the tunnel. The moment we left the cavern, a slight pressure in my head that I hadn't even noticed suddenly lifted. I stumbled and leaned against a pillar for support. The others stopped walking, and X'mel went to check on me, making gurgling, cooing, thrumming noises. It took me a moment to realize what happened. My jaw dropped.

"Oh wow," I said. "I've never actually heard you speak unfiltered Andarian before."

His eyes widened and his ears flared open like a cat's. He chattered urgently, his voice high and keening.

"I can't understand you!" I said. "They took my translator." I bent slightly and pointed to the back of my head.

X'melborp prodded there gently, making concerned noises. Then, Drida came over and spoke to him, presumably to tell him about the communication issue.

I've heard recordings of animal snarls before--don't ask me why. You look up weird things when you're bored. The noise that came out of X'melborp was somewhere between wolf snarl and tiger snarl. It's not just one sound, either. He does that thing some animals do where it's like their throats catch, so it's a big snarl and then a few littler snarls stringing along after, and even if you know they're coming, they still make your monkey brain want to go screaming for the hills.

I jumped a little, and X'melborp immediately clamped two hands over his mouth and snout. He made some apologetic looking gestures at me, then turned and started heading back towards the Matriarch's temple, and I knew, just knew he was going to go in there and yell at them all.

"Whoa, whoa! X'mel! Hey!" I said, grabbing his arm. "Come on, don't. Let's get this first intergalactic incident done before we start another one, huh?"

He looked at me for a long time. I half expected him to brush me off and go storm the Matriarch's temple, but he relented. With a sigh, he turned and started walking towards the exit. As we walked, he grabbed my arm and clung on, like he was afraid we'd somehow get separated between point A and B. Drida led us to the port, where we waited until the Andarian rescue team came and retrieved us. They got me to a doc, who put in another translator, I called my folks and told them I was okay, and then Central Command had me write it all down, and now I'm here saying it all again.

So, uh. That's what happened.

* * * * *

As Greg finished his account of events, the last of his words circled around the glowing orb at the table's center and vanished inside of it. Cowal Ze'elld made a small gesture, and the orb vanished. Once it was gone, she leaned forward laced her fingers together, resting her hands on the table.

"In your opinion, do you believe Technician X'melborp Brill-Vorblix's actions were justifiable under the circumstances?"

The question caught Greg entirely off guard. "Yes!" he said, a little too loudly.

"He violated his orders to stay aboard the Prosperity, destroyed an emergency pod, lost four weapon shooters on Treival, and in the end had to be escorted home with you. His entire 'rescue attempt' was a waste of resources and effort."

"Wait, are you telling me X'mel's in trouble for trying to help me? Are you kidding?"

The Grand Councilwoman's 's face was entirely expressionless. "His plan was ill-conceived, and his actions on the Prosperity, as well as his broadcasts of information relating to humans are what made you a target--"

"Bullshit!" Greg snapped. "How about we blame the people who actually did it instead of blaming the one person who tried to come get me?"

The Grand Councilwoman tilted her head. "So in your opinion, X'melborp should not be reported for obstructing interplanetary negotiations?"

"No! Why would you even think about that? I told you about how the Treivalli kidnap me, perform invasive surgery, try to Stockholm-syndrome me, and you want to get X'mel into trouble? I can't believe that you'd--"

"Enough, Gregory," she said, holding up a hand. "Nobody here is seriously considering charging X'melborp. I wanted to know if you did. Disrupting kidnapping negotiations is a serious breach of conduct, and had things turned dire due to X'melborp's unwarranted presence, then he would be held responsible for any consequences of his presence along with the Treivalli themselves. Asking such questions of the wronged party is protocol."

"Oh," said Greg, calming down a bit. "No. No, please don't do that."

She nodded once. "I will make sure your feelings are taken into consideration." She stood. Greg took that as his cue to do likewise.

"There may be more debriefings needed to verify the contents of your testimony," said Ze'elld. "Other Council members and those with vested interests in Intergalactic cooperation may visit you. You are under no obligation to entertain any who are not officiated by me. And Gregory?"

"Yes, Grand Councilwoman?"

Her face was expressionless. "Welcome back."

Greg nodded, then turned to go. The conference room doors thudded closed behind him.

Many thanks to silverai_me and stasik for their help.

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