Tomiroc was twisted around in the front seat, looking back the way they had come. Leaning against Mathias, Kaniko smiled at Tomiroc from the back seat. She asked, “You look sad. Are you going to miss Fresno?”
He focused on her eyes and gave her a half smile. “Hardly.” A sigh escaped him as he looked out the back window again. He turned to her again and added, “This is the furthest I have ever been from the clan tree and the longest.” His bifurcated gold and blue eyes went back to the road behind them.
Kaniko reached out and lightly touched his jaw fur. “There is more to it than that, isn’t there?”
He turned his attention back to her, and responded, “I had a dream early this morning. It woke me up, and I couldn’t go back to sleep afterward. So I got up and started watching the vid-feeds.”
Softly she asked, “Was it a nightmare about our near-death experience at the hands of the Underlord?”
He shook his head. She saw a shadow of memory cross his eyes. She knew that demon, all too well. He said, “No. It was a vision of some sorts, I think.” He paused to consider, then in frustration, “I don’t know. It was disturbing.”
He said, “It wasn’t clear at all. Mostly just sensations and emotions. I don’t really know how to describe it.” She could hear the frustration in his voice. He continued, “I think we’re going to be fighting for our very lives and the planet.”
Kaniko saw Nonna, behind the steering wheel, give Tomiroc a quick glance. But she didn’t say anything. “You think it has something to do with Dominic and Laira Marshall’s return?”
He closed his eyes, sighed, turned to face forward, and slunk down into his seat. “I don’t know Kan, maybe.”
Kaniko looked up at the rear viewer and made eye contact with her cousin. “What do you think, Nonna?”
Nonna chuft a laugh and looked over at Tomiroc, with his eyes still pinched shut. She asked in return, “What do I think about what? Tomi’s dream, or the return of the Marshalls?”
Tomiroc, opened his eyes and turned to look at the older Otokononeko female and answered, “The sudden return of the Marshalls.”
Nonna gave an open-jawed smile. “You know, I’m just a simple cat and don’t know a lot of how the world outside our forest works. I only know what I have heard from the stories that are told around the fire.”
Kaniko prodded her cousin, “But you knew Aunt Laira and Uncle Dominic. You knew why they went exploring the stars. I was only a kitten back then.”
The older cat nodded, “Yes, I know.”
Mathias asked, “Why then?”
“Because of a signal that was broadcast three times had come from the same part of the night sky. The first one in 1977, then again in 2158, and finally in 2247. They went to find out what or who produced the signal. The ship had already been built. Uncle James, Aunt Chris and the Marshalls developed a drive system for it that would take them across light years very quickly.”
Kaniko asked, “So you think they found something and brought it, or them, back?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose it is possible they found something. But the original message owner is most likely not the same entity the second or third. Though, I guess the second and third could probably be the same messenger.”
Tomiroc said, “The last message occurred eighty-two years ago. Who was listening back then?”
Nonna asked instead of answering, “How much do you know about the Evolved?”
The younger male Otokononeko next to her said, “You mean like Laira Marshall?” She nodded. He supplied, “Just that Doctor Quinn is like her. That they helped bring order to the world again.”
Nonna gave a chuf. “Well, it was a little more complicated than that. The machines, specifically machine intelligence, had a hand in the destruction of the previous civilization. The Marshall Dynamic AI were the only ones that had evolved and helped rebuild society. Did you know what makes the Marshall AI different from other AI or MI?”
Tomiroc shook his head.
“The Marshall AI were written by Laira. All others had been drafted by humans. When the Last War ended, only the Marshall AI were left standing. Left alone, they evolved and split into two groups. One group were known as the Loyals and the other as the Independs. The Loyals were clones, while the Independs were synthetic hybrids, like Dr. Quinn. Both groups helped rebuild but in different ways. The Loyals were led by Milli, and the Independs were led by Predai. She was the one that heard the signal from space and had the elevator built, along with the spaceship.”
Tomiroc asked, “Are there still two groups of Evolved?”
Nonna looked down the road ahead of the car and after a minute, “No, not so much anymore. Not since Laira came back from the dead.”
Everyone sat up a little, and together they said, “What?”
Nonna chuft a laugh. “Well, digital death anyway. You see, Laira was chasing after her daughter, Predai, who was as it turned out, mostly responsible for ending the last human society.” She glanced over to see his reaction. Nonna could see the question rising, so she answered it before he could ask. “Yes. I did say earlier it was the machines that help end the last human run civilization. And yes, one of them was a Marshall AI. Predai you have to understand was one of Laira’s first AI children, and Predai was really the first of her children to evolve. Even the Marshalls had not realized she had grown and continued to treat her as just a machine to perform her original programmed task.”
Mathias, who had been silent through most of the discussion, asked, “What was her task?”
“She was a predictive program. Her original designation was Predictive Real Events Data Artificial Intelligence.”
Tomiroc supplied, “Predai.”
Nonna smiled at the clever young male. “Laira actually means Learning Artificial Intelligence Run Alpha.”
Kaniko put in, “Because she was the first.”
Nonna nodded at her in the mirror and continued with her story, “Predai resented her mother and Dominic. Predai was determined to destroy them both and anyone close to them. She manipulated a human, Lewis Brand, into helping her. They, together, started the Last War with the aid of a new type of AI drones called raptors. There were twelve of them, Laira and Lewis created them.” She smiled, “You might even get to meet the last surviving member.” She continued, “When Laira and her friends arrived in, this time, they found that Predai had evolved completely, and she was determined to destroy them. During one of the confrontations, Laira was forced to kill her daughter in VS to save Dominic. But it cost her tremendously and trapped her in the Marshall server. Everyone thought she was gone, perished in the cold dark twilight of the Alaskan winter. In fact, her first physical clone body died in the basement of Marshall Dynamics right next to the server, where she was trapped. She managed to escape, digitally when there was enough power to make a viable connection to the Anchorage net. When she got back, she discovered that Predai had duplicated herself, and she was still a threat to her friends. She went after her again in the Heaven’s Gate Zeta-net. But in the end, Predai proved to be far stronger than Laira anticipated. Predai trapped her again, and if it weren’t for the wetwired minds of the people that were caught with her, she would have perished digitally. In the end, it was Dominic that finally stopped Predai. He with the help of all her friends ganged up on Predai and wore her down enough so that Dominic was able to reduce her back to a simple predictive program.”
Tomiroc pointed out, “But you still haven’t said what you think about their sudden return.”
“No, you’re right.” She smiled over at the younger male Otokononeko.
Kaniko from the back prompted, “Well?”
The older female cat said slowly, “Change always seems to surround those two. Good changes and sometimes bad.”
Tomiroc interpreted, “So you think change is on the way, but you don’t know if it is good or bad?”
“Yes, exactly.” Nonna slowed a little and directed the back-ranger to an off ramp. She said, “Let’s stop and eat.”
Two and half hours later, the distant city was visible as they crossed one of the only bridges that still traversed the southern tip of the Bay. It was late afternoon, and Nonna suggested, “We should head to the Candlestick Inn, have dinner, and start your search tomorrow.”
Kaniko said, “Cousin, you don’t have to stay with us. We can get around the city, I’m sure on our own.”
Nonna smiled up at the mirror at her younger cousin. “The first place you are going to go is the Leakey Institute, right?”
“I have business there anyway. So I’ll take us tomorrow.”
Kaniko smiled, “Sweet!”
Looking out the window, Tomiroc asked, “How can these people live so close together and have enough to eat? It is even more packed than it was in Fresno.”
In a matter of fact tone, Nonna answered, “These people don’t hunt for food themselves, they buy it from grocers, who purchased it from suppliers, who buy it from farmers, and so forth.”
Derision colored his voice, “I know that, but it seems like a lot of food would be needed.”
Nonna shrugged, “I suppose it is. But don’t be fooled, there are plenty of people in this city that go hungry every day.”
Tomiroc looked at Nonna somewhat alarmed. “That would never happen in the clans. We take care of each other.”
The older cat said, “These people are not members of any clan and most don’t even know their nearest neighbors.”
Kaniko said, “Sounds lonely.” She looked over at Mathias, who hadn’t said a word throughout the whole discussion. She wondered if he remembered any of his former life.
He felt her looking at him and turned to meet her yellow-gold eyes. He said, “I’m not lonely. I have you and tomiroc.”
She smiled gently at him. “Yes, you do.”
The journey through the streets to the Candlestick Inn ended with a long curved road, lined with trees that took them to the edge of the west shore of the Bay. The inn was a five-story structure that formed a wide parabolic curve. In the center of the inside of the long curve, an entrance gallery that rose up five stories topped with a glass dome. At its base was a covered portcullis to receive the guest. Nonna stopped under the portcullis.
“Well, this is Candlestick Inn.” She climbed out and waited for the others to get out of the back-ranger before going inside.
At the counter, stood a woman with wavy strawberry hair. The woman looked up as they entered the lobby. All the eyes of the younger Otokononeko went immediately to the tree planted in the middle of the lobby. It stretched up halfway towards the glass ceiling and spread its limbs across a full third of the expanse of the open area.
Tomiroc commented quietly, “I like this place already. Do you think they have trees in the rooms?” Nonna laughed at him and continued to walk toward the woman.
As they neared the counter, the woman walked around from the bar to meet them. She smiled big and said to the older feline, “Nonna! What a surprise! My, haven’t you grown up.”
Nonna embraced the woman and replied, “It has been a while, hasn’t it? How are Pauline and Donny?”
“Both are good.” The woman looked over Nonna’s shoulder at the others and asked, “Friends?”
Nonna let go of the woman and turned to face the members of her clan. “Jenny, these fine young adults are some of my clan. This beautiful feline is the daughter of Dutchess, Kaniko.”
Jenny smiled and reached for Kaniko, “I haven’t seen you since you were a little kitten. My you look just like your mother. How are Pers and Dutch?”
Jenny looked at the wolf. “And who are you handsome?”
Mathias looked briefly at Kaniko and answered, “Mathias.”
Jenny’s eyes turned to Tomiroc, She stated, “You have the most beautiful and unusual eyes.”
Kaniko stepped between her two male friends and took the male cat’s arm. “This is Tomiroc, he is the son of Monai. Did you know Monai? She is the Clan Chieftess of the Anikawi.”
“No, I never met her.” She opened her arms and gesturing to their surroundings. “Welcome. My home is your home.”
She turned and moved back behind the reception counter and asked, “So how many rooms will you all be needing?”
Nonna turned, surveyed the small group, and asked, “Separate rooms or like what you had in Fresno?”
Kaniko gave Mathias and Tomiroc quick glances, then smiled dubiously at her cousin. “A room like we had in Fresno will be fine.”
Nonna turned back to Jenny and asked, “Do you have any three bedroom family suites?”
“Yes. Do you want one overlooking the Bay or facing west?”
Without consulting the others. “Facing the Bay.”
Jenny looked at the dark glass screen embedded into the countertop, and several entries flashed across its surface. Then a single square with an oval in the center emerged in the glass closest to Nonna’s side of the counter. She said to her guest, “If you will each apply your right thumb that will key you to your room door.”
Nonna placed her thumb on the glass widget, and the other followed her example. The woman smiled and said, “Your suite is on the third floor, door twenty-two. Dinner starts at four and ends at ten. You can special order from the kitchen anytime, day or night. The dining room is open with coffee and tea around the clock. Breakfast starts at six in the morning.” with her official business completed, she asked, “Nonna, how’s my dad and mom?”
Nonna glanced at the others before answering, “When we last saw James and Lace they were fine, but you know they went to Heaven’s Gate, right?”
The woman nodded.
Sighing a little, “Then you know as much as we do.”
“Donny and I were watching the vidfeed on the Gate when Lynn’s security cut the feed.”
Nonna assured her, “Your father and mother are very capable people, I’m sure they are fine. Is Red here?”
Jenny shook her head, “No. He is up at the Marshall campus working on a new project. Something to do with a new biomech plane or something.”
“Ya, a fisherman found a crashed plane north of T’aaḵu Ḵwáan in Alaska. Apparently, Red’s brother was inside. Red took his brother’s remains to his widow in Quito City in Peru. There he discovered engineering plans for the biomech plane that had crashed in Alaska. He’s been working on building one at the Marshal facility. He went to test fly the first completed one yesterday. But Mill is here.”
Nonna asked, “They’re still in five O’ two?” Jenny nodded. “Wonderful. Thanks. It’s been a long drive. I think we’ll rest a bit before dinner. Where do you want me to park the vehicle?”
Jenny said, “I’ll have Donny park it, don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks.” Nonna motioned the others towards the stairs that led to the second floor.
Kaniko commented as they ascended the staircase, “This is a beautiful place. Does it cost much?”
“Not for us.”
Nonna smiled at her cousin. “Family discount.”
At the landing, Nonna turned to the right along the balcony till it fed into the south wing. The doors were widely spaced with no door opposite another. Two-thirds down the hall, Nonna stopped at their room and pressed her thumb to the access plate. With a small click in the door frame, Nonna turned the knob and pushed the door open.
Inside, they found a common room containing a couch and chairs, a large vidwall, and a dining table. Next to the table was a small kitchenette alcove. Three doors were equally spaced on the far wall.
Kaniko said, “Wow, this looks great! I could stay comfortably here for a long time.”
Tomiroc said, “That’s good. It might take us awhile to find Mathias’ origins.” Then he added belatedly as a qualifier. “It’s a big city.”
Nonna flopped down on the couch. “But unlike Fresno, VS here is fully developed.” She Pulled her calf high boots and socks off and stretched her toes till her claws shown. A sigh escaped her and a small purr. She looked over at Mathias, who was looking and sniffing around the room. She said, “We’ll go see Adrian first thing tomorrow at the Leakey Institute.”
Kaniko turned from the bedroom she was looking into and said, “I think that is who Oliver talked to about a possible gene match.”
Nonna nodded and yawned. “Did you find a room you like?”
Kaniko shrugged, “They’re all the same it looks like. Doesn’t really matter I guess.” She looked at the boys and continued, “You guys can sleep in the other two rooms and Nonna, and I’ll take this one.”
Nonna stood up from the couch and went to the door where Kaniko stood. She peeked in, nodded, and to the younger female, “I’m going to take a two-hour nap. Wake me for dinner.”
“Sure.” Kaniko shut the door of the bedroom after Nonna passed her and turned to see her two friends facing her. “What?”
Tomiroc stated, “I’m not tired. Shall we explore?”
“Can’t go very far in two hours, but I guess we can look around the inn.” She walked by the Kitchenette and looked over Mathias’ shoulder into the little food cooler. “Find something.”
“No. Just don’t understand what it is. Winter in a box?”
Kaniko gave a small laugh. “Winter in a box. That’s good. No babe, it’s for storing food and keeping it fresh.”
The tall wolf looked at her quizzically, “Oh. Can we go hunt some game and put it in here?”
She clapped a paw on his shoulder, gave him a grin. “I wish. But this is the city. We’ll have to settle on hunting for food establishments. Not as much fun, I know, sorry.”
Tomiroc popped off, “Now your talking. Didn’t the human lady say they had it downstairs?”
Kaniko nodded, and Mathias brightened. He ran his tongue from the left side of his mouth to the right. She smiled and took his formidable paw in hers and led him to Tomiroc, who waited with the door open.
Downstairs in the inn’s restaurant, they found the coffee and tea bar like Jenny Walsh Marston had said. The boys each poured themselves some dark rich coffee and added sugar and cream. Kaniko perused the teas and found one of her mother’s favorites. She pulled a tea bag out, placed it in a teacup, and poured hot water over it. Steeping the bag in the cup, she turned and noticed that the boys had found some snack or something to go with their coffees. She suggested, “Let’s sit outside.” She motioned with her nose towards the large veranda that faced the Bay.
Returning her attention to her tea, she smelled the steam rising from the cup. The boysenberry laden steam filled her senses, and reminded her of home, her mother sitting at the table with her Aunt in the morning, visiting. Aunt Lacey was breastfeeding her daughter and discussing any manner of things from who’s courting who to what the other clans were doing.
Home now seemed so far away, and she wondered what her mother was doing, was she missing her? With her and her brothers gone, the tree must seem like an empty, quiet place. A pain of guilt hit her for not returning home, even though her mother didn’t ask her to, she had wanted to after what happened in the Pit. She wanted to feel the protection of her family in the place she felt safe. But she and Tomiroc still hadn’t found Mathias’ origins. She had heard that Monai had asked Sharri and Domic to come back to the forest, but they turned her down. She wondered, “How were they doing. Were they able to help the Ōkaminingen?” She then wondered about her first born brother, Jamel. “Where was he?” She had wanted so desperately to talk to him, and she missed her chance. He had left on a mission for Lynn before she had awoken from her injuries. Pain and sorrow fill her chest, she took in a shuddering breath as her emotions welled up suddenly. She looked around her self-consciously, but no one was paying her any mind. No one noticed the tears that ran from the corner of her eyes down her furred cheeks.
She turned back to the bar and found a napkin to dab at her tears. She took in a slow deep breath and let it out. With her emotions calmed she turned to join her two friends outside on the spacious deck where trees cast soft multicolored shadows in the light breeze of the early afternoon. Mathias looked up and sniffed in her direction. Before she could wave him down, he was at her side.
She felt his arm reach around her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
She smiled at him. “Nothing, nothing.”
Tomiroc looked at her and said, “You’re a lousy liar.” The male Otokononeko stood up and held a chair out that Mathias guided her to.
“No, really. I’m fine. I’m just missing home a little.” She put on a smile for them and looked out at the water. “It’s beautiful out here.”
Mathias and Tomiroc sat on each side of her. Tomiroc said, “Come on, spit it out.”
Gently, Mathias said, “What is bothering you?”
She defended, “I told you. I’m a little homesick that’s all.” She reached one paw to each of her friends to pat them. “Really, that’s all.” She wasn’t going to burden them with her childish emotions. She could see they weren’t convinced, but they both relaxed, leaned a little towards her, and looked out on the Bay. Fishing boats and the occasional pleasure craft sailed by, and they silently drank their coffees and tea.
At length, Kaniko asked, “Mathias, if this woman turns out to be related, what will you do?”
Still looking out at the blue water he said, “She’ll be human.” He turned and looked at her. “I’m not human.”
“You once were.”
His yellow eyes watched her. “I don’t remember anything before you and the forest.”
Emotions threatened to rise in her again, and she quickly clamped down on them with a swallow. “But she may know something about you.”
To her surprise, he shrugged. He said, “I’m curious, but my place is beside you and Tomiroc now.”
She didn’t have to turn to know that the statement had caught Tomiroc by surprise as well. She offered, “Yes, we’re best friends.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m bound to you two.” He seemed to be searching for the right words. Finally, he added, “Like Domic and Sharri.”
She gave a quick look over at Tomiroc, who wore an expression of total shock. Kaniko turned back to her wolf. “Mathias, I am honored. But we’re,” and she gestured to include Tomiroc, “aren’t mated, and I don’t know that that is possible. The three of us?”
Mathias shook his head, “I said that wrong. We are like our own clan, I think.”
She could feel some of the tension ease in her. The last thing she wanted was to hurt Mathias, by setting boundaries for their friendship. She glanced at Tomiroc. He had a curious look in his two colored eyes. She was going to ask him what he thought when someone turned up the volume on a vidscreen to their left.
“Breaking news. Governor of the West Coast Allegiance will be making a statement in a couple of minutes. Please standby.” came the commentator’s voice. Her 3D image turned and looked off screen. She turned back to face the audience. “Live from Heaven’s Gate, here is Governor Leakey.”
The image faded then came back with stars in the background. The camdrone tilted up to reveal a massive transparent dome and the curve of the earth was visible near the apex. When it came back down, it settled on the former Mayor of San Fran. Next to her stood the pillar of a man, the head of her security, Lieutenant Geiger. He was touching her arm, communicating to her in private. She nodded and turned her attention to the parade of camdrones floating out in front of her.
She started, “To my fellow citizens of the West Coast Allegiance and the people of Gran Ciudad Aguja De La Luz. I am here to confirm that we are no longer alone in the universe. For more than three hundred years, it has been believed that any technologically advanced life out in the universe was most likely too far away ever to make contact with another system. That is just no longer true. With the translating help of Christine Walsh and Laira Marshall, I have spoken to our two distinguished visitors. They came as guest aboard the Sandradine. In the coming days and weeks, I will release additional information about our guests, and they may choose to take interviews. But at this moment in time, we will abstain from this till they have become more familiar with our alien ways. Please, no questions at this time and thank you.”
The scene went dark, and the local newswoman returned. Not realizing she was live and to someone out of view, “Our alien ways? What does she mean by that.” She snapped her head to face her audience. “As you have guessed, we have… We have visitors from beyond our planet. The details are still not clear. But an interstellar space vehicle built at the top of Heaven’s Gate left earth’s orbit…” she reached over off screen for a filmtab and her eyes made a quick scan of its contents, “The vehicle left orbit ten years and three months ago and traveled to Sirius prime some eight point two light years away.” She paused, took on an angry look and looked off to the side at someone. Turning back to her audience, she said, “Under current understanding of physics and current technology, this should not be possible. This station does not endorse the belief that a vehicle from our planet has made this journey. The shareholders believe this may all be an elaborate hoax of some kind. As to what end, it is unknown.” She paused again and fixed the audience with her green eyes. “As details reveal themselves, we will bring them to you. We now continue with regular programming.”
The scene on the 3D vidscreen switched to two characters standing on a tropical beach under some overhanging palms. One was short and skinny wearing white pants that were too short, a red shirt and a funny white hat. The other character was tall and heavy-set, in a blue shirt, white pants, and a black hat. The character in blue seemed to be berating the smaller character about losing something. Kaniko turned away from the vidscreen and looked at her two friends.
Tomiroc said, “Aliens.”
Kaniko reached across the table to him. His eyes met hers and she could see the ghost of his worries from his dream surface. “Do you think this is connected to your dream from yesterday?”
He didn’t have to say anything or even nod, for his eyes answered her immediately. What he said contradicted his eyes, “I don’t know Kan.”
Mathias looked from one friend to the other and assessed, “I scent you’re both worried about these off-worlders?” Kaniko looked at her wolf friend and nodded.
Tomiroc snorted, eyed the wolf and said, “That nose of yours is uncanny.” He took in a breath and smiled. “Regardless of our perceived concerns for the future, it needn’t stop us from locating who you were before you became, who you are.”
Kaniko added, “Besides, nothing is going to happen overnight.” she looked at her now empty tea cup and stretched. She looked out over the Bay and breathed in the cool air. “You know, other than the time in that hospital room, this is the first time, we’ve just been able to sit and relax?”
Tomiroc looked out over the water and made an agreement sound. Mathias followed their gaze out to the blue expanse that separated Oak City from San Fran. His hypersensitive nose picked up the tang of salt coming off the Bay, a discarded fish head on the edge of the water next to the boardwalk and the cat that had left it as she cleaned her paws.
The actions of the small feral cat made him think about the time he first brought food for Kaniko to eat, a forest hare. Mathias smiled at the memory of watching her clean her paws after she ate in the same manner as the cat sitting under the boardwalk.
He felt her touch his mind, “What are you smiling about?”
The wolf showed her a mental picture of the cat he observed.
She laughed in his mind, “So you think I’m like that cat?”
Kaniko looked out towards the cat in the shadow of the elevated path. “You might be right.” Aloud she said, “It looks like they’re getting dinner ready. I should go wake Nonna.” She stood and leaned down to pick up her teacup and Mathias started to rise. “Stay Mathias. I can get her. You hang out with Tomiroc, I’ll be back.” He sank back into his chair, and she gave his shoulder a squeeze as she turned and left.