All eyes turned as Mi'Tree, catching scent of the new arrival, strode up, his tail twitching behind him in anger. "What are you doing here?"
The female appeared insouciant to the outburst. "Hello, Kith-Brother."
"Mi'Tree," Bneea cautioned him, clasping his partner's forearm.
Mi'Tree shook it off. "Don't you 'Kith-Brother' me! You have no business being here! Ma'Sala ordered you off the Clanlands after your perfidy!"
S'Graow bristled. "That was ancient history, Mi'Tree. And Ma'Sala is gone now. We need to move on, make amends."
He drew closer to S'Groaw, growling. "Oh, are we all friendly now? One big happy clan again? We should just forget your betrayal, your lies? Don't piss on me and call it rain!"
A steel emerged in her expression, as she growled back, "My pissing on you could only improve your scent, you miserable old libertine-"
"Stop it!" Bneea pleaded, aware of the rest of the clan in attendance watching, and his own emotions threatening to overwhelm him. "This is not the place to reopen old wounds!"
All turned to the top of the staircase, where Kami stood, Sreen in her arms, looking down on all, before she descended, nodding politely to others who offered greetings and condolences, before approaching the elder relatives.
Bneea calmed himself, knowing how much his daughter need him, needed them all. "Kami, you remember your Aunt S'Groaw?"
She nodded as she approached. "It's been too long." She drew in, not for a full hug, with the infant in Kami's arms, but close enough to take in the scent of the new arrival. "This is my daughter, Sreen."
S'Groaw drew in to rub her muzzle against the infant's, before straightening up again. "A lovely cub, Niece."
"You needn't bother faking interest," Mi'Tree muttered behind her. "The cub has no money for you to steal."
Bneea growled at him. "Enough!"
The older female made a visible effort to ignore Mi'Tree, in fact literally turning her back to him, to focus on Kami, offering a smile. "I remember last seeing you when you were setting off for Starfleet Academy. It's been a long time since then."
"It didn't have to be," Kami pointed out. "I had invited you to my son's wedding six years ago."
The smile dropped. As easily as it had been raised. "No... Ma'Sala would not have permitted my return."
"She would have, if you had responded to me. I would have convinced her."
S'Groaw drew back, looking offended... but then shook her head. "It's not that simple. You're too young to understand."
Kami grunted. "I'm an adult, not some cub that needs my snout and arse wiped, apparently. And I expect you -- all of you -- to keep your claws sheathed and put aside the past, because I'm really, really not in the mood for this." She looked to Bneea. "Where's Misha?"
"Out keeping Sasha company in her ship, while she continues to try and learn more about the situation."
She nodded at that. "I received a call from Esek. He's reached First City, and is headed for the Starfleet Offices to get an update from them."
"Will it be safe for him?" Mi'Tree asked, concerned. "With those damned Ferasans everywhere?"
"They're not 'everywhere', Papa; ours is a big planet, and there's only so many of them to go around. And my husband can handle himself... and gather intelligence along the way."
"Well, I look forward to meeting him later," S'Groaw remarked. "After the Memorial."
Kami nodded neutrally... and looked to Mi'Tree. "Papa, would you please go make me a shuris sandwich? You know the way I like them."
The male grunted. "Of course, my little Nova." He spared a final dirty look at S'Groaw and, "I'll take an inventory of the house silverware while I'm at it."
The black and gold Caitian flyer sat some metres away from the main house, in a large clearing, the starboard hatch open, letting in a warm afternoon breeze. Some of the visitors' cubs came out to walk around it, but none dared enter.
Inside, Sasha sat in the pilot's seat, running another attempt to access the outer perimeter satellites, failing and triggering a curse. She paused, waited for a reaction from the other occupant in the cockpit, and when it wasn't forthcoming, she swivelled in her seat. "Hey, Baby Brother, aren't you supposed to scold me now about Rude Words?"
Misha was curled up in the seat, staring as if hypnotised at a systems screen displaying fractal patterns of a systems diagnostic. "Don't wanna."
Sasha rose and approached, dropping to one knee and stroking the fur on the top of his head. "I know. I'm sad too."
He bared his teeth as if to chase away the bad thoughts, the emotions welling up inside him like a torrent. "Why the Fearies hurt her? Gramma good!"
She nodded, drawing him into a hug. "Yes. Grandma was good." He made a mournful sound in her arms, and she held him more tightly, unwilling to let her own emotions be released. She couldn't. Because it wouldn't just be for Grandma, it would be for all of the Planetary Navy and the Militia killed in the last 48 hours.
Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
The numbers were inconceivable, and that wasn't even taking into account their present predicament with the Ferasans. It would break her utterly to face all of that in now.
So she focused on helping her little brother deal with the loss of the only person that mattered to him at this terrible time.
When he'd exhausted himself, and his eyes were drooping, she wiped the tears from his furred face and asked, "Do you want to nap in my cabin?"
He growled, shaking his head.
"My Kaetini sword's in there," she pointed out.
Now he stopped growling, and nodded.
She carried him inside, tucking him under the covers, and leaving the sword and scabbard mounted on the wall, in his eyesight. She gave him one of her worn shirts for scent comfort, turned off the lights and slid the door shut.
Kami walked in, Sreen in her arms, the infant eyeing the plate with a shuris sandwich stacked upon it. "Everything okay?"
Sasha smiled gently and approached, taking Sreen from her mother. "Misha had a good cry, it tuckered him out." She motioned for Kami to enter the cockpit and sit down opposite her, adjusting Sreen on her lap while the infant growled at the injustice of not having food in her grasp. "How are you doing, Mama?"
Kami set the plate on a flat panel, untouched. "Gathering up my reserves. I don't know if the family drama I'm getting back in the house is a good distraction or something that will set my hackles rising."
Sasha leaned back in her chair, letting Sreen reach up and tug at her strawberry-blonde locks. "Family drama? Someone you want me to beat up?"
Kami grunted, reaching for the sandwich. "My aunt S'Groaw, Mama's sister."
"Ma'Sala had a sister? Did I miss her at the last Clan Gathering?"
"No. She hasn't been back in about thirty years."
"Oh?" She frowned as Sreen tugged at her hair, before freeing herself. "Something bad happened?"
Kami took a bite, swallowing before replying. "S'Groaw would describe herself as an... 'entrepreneur'. There was always a new get rich quick scheme with her: real estate, asteroid mining, shuris ranches, colony transport contracts... she'd always breeze back to the household, bringing the cubs alien candies and tall tales of her adventures, before asking for more money. When Ma'Sala was made Matriarch of the Clan on her mother's death, that ended.
So S'Groaw contested Ma'Sala's leadership, and took her to the Matriarchs' Courts... telling lies, terrible lies, about Ma'Sala's unfitness for the responsibility."
"Claims of physical abuse of cubs, among other things." She grunted at the notion. "The Courts didn't believe her, and threw out her claim... and Ma'Sala advised her not to return or contact her or the clan again."
"I still sent her an invitation to Mirow and Ptera's wedding," Kami added. "Offering a chance at reconciliation. But she never responded. And now she's back, and my Papas look ready to throw her out on her tail again."
Sreen growled, raising her stubby paw towards the sandwich and making demanding sounds.
Kami sighed and drew out a strip of grilled shuris meat and handed it to her daughter, who took it and greedily began chewing on it.
Sasha raised her own hand to Kami and growled.
Kami grunted. "Greedy cubs." But she offered the young human a piece for herself. "Any word from outside? Starfleet? Surviving Caitian forces?"
"Nothing on the local military channels. The subspace frequencies are being flooded with interference, and attempts to open off-world transmissions through the government and private networks are getting put on hold, stating they are all 'upgrading their security protocols'."
She finished off the shuris strip and keyed in a display of various colourful networks. "They've left the news and social media channels fully active... but not as much condemnation of the Ferasan takeover as I expected. In fact, there's a lot of anger about both the Militia and Starfleet."
She brought up images of masses of Caitians in various city plazas and parks. "Demonstrations are forming in cities all over Cait, censuring Starfleet and Caitian Military, and supporting the Ferasans who 'saved' the planet from domination by the Eliminati."
Sasha nodded. "The alleged cabal of military and government that has been secretly running the planet for centuries now. I thought you'd know that, being a part of it like me." She shook her head. "How can people buy into that crap?"
"Caitians are cooperative and trusting, peaceful, by nature; they don't have much contact with the military, or off-worlders, and especially not Ferasans. We have cognitive biases, like most races, subjective influences in the way we process and interpret information, and for Caitians in particular, there is an Olfactoral Affiliation Bias; we will more likely identify with and believe those who smell like us, than we will with humans, Vulcans or other races."
Kami studied the scenes, especially of images of Ferasan soldiers walking the streets, speaking with Caitians... even offering the cubs rides on their shoulders. "The bias disappears the more we associate with non-Caitians... but most Caitians never have that opportunity; they've never even been off-world. And the accounts of the threat, the atrocities of the Ferasans, are all historical, or second-paw."
"And all this talk about the Eliminati? Some secret conspiracy? How do so many people seem to accept that nonsense?"
"For some people, it fulfils a sense of epic poetry, or another cognitive bias to make connections with unconnected events and facts. For others, it's an ego stroke, making them feel smarter, more savvy than people around them, offering the illusion of control over the uncontrollable-" She sat up. "Your Dad checked in with me before I came out here. Is he safe?"
Sasha handed Sreen back to her mother before turning to use both hands at her station. "No disturbances reported in First City. I'd have taken him there myself, but Dad said he wanted the ship, and all of us, to avoid attention for now-" She stopped as an incoming signal flashed on her panel. "What the-"
Kami straightened up as well. "Is it Starfleet?"
"No, a planetbound signal, private channel-" She answered it, and on a smaller screen, the head of a young, cider-furred Caitian male with unusually-long pointed ears and amber eyes appeared, making her start. "M'Turis! I wasn't expecting to hear from you so soon-"
He cut her off with a raised paw. "We have to keep this short and untraceable, Sasha. Mistress Nvell has ordered the Sumishar." He paused and asked, "You remember what that means?"
Paling, she nodded. "When? Where?"
"Dusk, on Tamaniday. Inform your father. Keep checking your mail for disguised instructions."
The screen went blank. Sasha kept staring at the blackness.
Leaving Kami to break the silence. "Was he one of the Kaetini?"
"Yes; we met at the Temple the other day. He teaches Communications Engineering in Shanos Major. Decent fighter. Nice scent." She turned to Kami, looking stunned. "Mistress Nvell has ordered the Sumishar: The Call to Arms."
She was rubbing her hands together nervously. "Kaetini were never meant to be an army, an organised force, or have any real power or authority. We're here to serve, in whatever way we think is appropriate, and to inspire.
The Sumishar is called when some catastrophe would require as many Kaetini as possible to assemble, seeing each other in greater numbers than we ever might during occasional trips to the Temple, and to take orders. It's never been called before." She brought up another satellite image of the Ferasan and Jem'Hadar ships in orbit. "But I guess now is as good a time as any."
Civic Plaza, First City, M'Mirl Province:
Hrelle saw his Ferasan as he emerged from the subshuttle station and into the strong light. There was actually three of them, clad in their Klingon-like armour and furs, their short, thin tails hanging behind them, and carrying large, unfamiliar-looking black weapons slung behind them. They stood near some of the high-spouting Plaza fountains, a rainbow arc forming above.
And Caitian adults and cubs were swarming around them, speaking to them like they were guests instead of invaders.
He found himself standing there, staring in naked disbelief. Just a couple of days ago, half a million Caitians had been killed by these kussiks. But now, overwhelmed by an avalanche of propaganda, and by their own innate desire to cooperate, Caitians were welcoming them. Cautiously, in some instances, but nevertheless...
His personal dealings with the Ferasans had been uniformly hostile. From his early days in Starfleet, assisting the Caitian Planetary Navy in fighting them in the last War, to the numerous times after his escape from Orion slavery, when Ferasans sought him out, to challenge him and earn names for themselves... the last one threatening Kami and Sasha if Hrelle refused. That Rat-tail ended up regretting that-
Hrelle stopped, turning to face an older, broad-shouldered Caitian male, with stone-coloured fur, stocky body and a broad muzzle. "Excuse me?"
The other male reached out and guided Hrelle to face in another direction and walk, as if they had intended to meet all along. "Don't stare, especially with such obvious hostility. It attracts their attention, and I don't think you want their attention now, Captain."
Hrelle stiffened. "You know me?"
He nodded. "My son met you when you arrived at the Caitian Spaceport six years ago. He took your image and sent it to me, knowing how interested I would be in seeing it."
Hrelle stopped, glancing around. "Why? Who are you?"
The other male straightened up, though age diminished his physical capacities, and lowered his voice. "Lieutenant Commander Aris Tshal, Retired. Former Second Engineer of the USS Calpurnia. You and the Furyk once saved us from destruction by the Orions." He held out his paw. "I'm glad I have the chance to thank you personally, Captain."
Hrelle felt astonished, recalling not only the original incident, but the one where the male's son had taken the image and showered Hrelle with such praise, making him feel like a celebrity. He accepted the paw. "I'm glad to have had the opportunity to help, Lieutenant Commander."
Tshal raised a paw to him as they continued walking. "No ranks. We need to keep a low profile. The Enemy are among us. As are those they are duping into seeing us as the Enemy."
Hrelle bristled at the very notion. "Understood. Can I ask what you're doing here? It seems a coincidence that we'd meet like this."
"I suspect you're here for the same reason I am: to find out why the Starfleet Offices aren't taking any incoming calls, and to get some answers."
Hrelle nodded and proceeded. The Offices weren't something he had visited before in person; most of the time, whenever he registered himself and his family as being back home as per Regulations, he did it electronically. But he knew where it was, and what it looked like.
At least, before the vandalism.
The tinted transparent walls had been damaged, and sprawled across several panels, in big crimson letters, was the word KILLERS. Hrelle exchanged a shocked look with Tshal before proceeding.
A young Caitian male with chestnut-tinted fur and clad in a red-based Starfleet uniform was outside with an abstergent tool, trying to remove the lettering, his tail giving away the anxiety he was feeling. His feelings became clearer as he spun at the approach of the older males, eyeing them suspiciously. "What do you want?"
Hrelle held up a reassuring paw, keeping his voice low as he noted the insignia on the cub's collar. "It's okay, Lieutenant, we're on your side. I'm Captain Esek Hrelle, Active Service, USS Surefoot. This is Lieutenant Commander Tshal, Retired."
The Lieutenant nodded, relaxing a little. "Lieutenant Mru Mori, Starfleet Administration. Sorry, Sirs, it's been... eventful, as you'll already be aware."
"Yes." He moved to the open maintenance tool box near the Lieutenant, picking up similar devices, handing on to Tshal as they joined Mori at removing the graffiti. "Are you on your own here, Mr Mori?"
The cub nodded, trying to stay focused on his work. "There's just the two of us stationed here, Sir. My C.O., Commander Phelps, had been summoned to the Capitol when this emergency rose.
He's... not come back, or responded to my hails. I've queried the Capitol staff repeatedly, but each time they're saying he's being held for questioning. There's no response from the Federation Office either. And any messages and calls we've been getting that aren't abusive have been Starfleet personnel or families, looking for answers."
Tshal held up a paw to the damage on the walls. "And this?"
Mori grunted. "Last night, as more so-called information about our 'atrocities' are being spread in the media. I reported it to the local Constabulary... but I doubt if that'll yield any results."
He gritted his teeth as he increased the frequency on his tool to quicken the work, and glanced at Hrelle. "Sir, I have a subspace communicator in the office, but I can't get any messages in or out. What in the Seven Hells is going on? Where's Starfleet? I'd have expected them to come in by now to repel the invaders?"
Hrelle looked around, making sure there was no one nearby. "They could be out there right now, at the edge of the system, and we wouldn't know it. We're not likely to hear anything on the public communications networks; they've certainly been compromised." He paused and added, "But I don't know if we can just sit around and wait to be rescued."
"And the Caitian Militia and Planetary Navy, Sir? Are they really... gone?"
Hrelle breathed in, thinking of the terrible losses of life... and in particular, one life, one he loved. "Yes. Our military forces have been all but wiped out completely."
Mori's arm dropped, and he stared at the wall, aghast, his scent tinted with fear. "Mother's Cubs... Sir, this is my first posting after the Academy. My clan... my mother... she was so glad that I'd be back here on the Motherworld... where I can come home each night... where I'd be safe." He looked to Hrelle. "Sir, in the absence of my commanding officer, I have to turn to you. What are we going to do?"
Hrelle looked to him, and then Tshal. Was Hrelle really the one the cub had to turn to? What was their responsibility now, under these circumstances? What would he do, if he were one of the Ferasans?
He dropped his tool paw. Idiot, you should have thought of this sooner... "Get inside, now."