The Kit Engagement

In the early morning hours, when all sane and reasonable people were well asleep, huddled together in their dens, the duly elected leader of the Kit Commune paced. Her companion, there for political reasons, sat only a few feet away; the most extreme range that decorum permitted, lest she be thought alone.

No Kit was alone. Ever. To enjoy the quiet reprieve of solitude was the kind of faux pas that would leave her ostracized—or worse, since the madness that came with imposed loneliness was very real. Nah’hala was too used to the pretense to let her companion’s presence distract her. She ran her paws over her head, pulled her ears down, and tugged at them futilely. She stepped to the window and looked out on the city below.

The vast cavern of The Great Barrow was home to almost twenty million Kit. It was the largest and most densely populated center in the world. The capital of all Kitdom. She had crawled her way out of a poor, nameless, house to become their ruler; their protector. Despite the many attempts by her rivals, she always came out stronger.

Nah’hala never aspired for prestige, unlike the House Matrons or Den Mothers who played their petty games, but to do good works that ensure no Kit lived as she had. She thought for certain the Matrons and Mothers would oust her when she gave the males suffrage, but that had only made her more popular.

She turned away from the window to her companion. “What is your name?” She never bothered asking. The companions were hired to be present. Nothing more, nothing less. But now, with an alien starship seated in her solar system, she could no longer retrace the same thoughts again and again, with only her voice to guide her. Had she been truly alone, she might have pulled one of the rocks from the garden and hurled it as hard and strong as she had in her youth, then followed it out the window. Perhaps the companion could have some value.

“Ritika, Madam President Nah’hala,” he replied, surprised to be spoken to.

“A stranger comes to your door, Ritika,” she repeated the name, so she would remember it. “They say they are a friend. Do you trust them?”

“Of course, Madam President.”

She snorted. “Why would you? What makes him trustworthy?”

“We’re taught that all are friends among the Kit, Madam President. We are One Family and No Kit May Be Alone.” He spoke it like a mantra.

“And if he carries a knife?”

“It is surely to cut the Grvmra, or slice a t’zat, or pry the flash from a Nmt’z to share, Madam President.”

“And you believe that?” Nah’hala challenged with a sharp snap of her jaws. He couldn’t be that naïve, could he?

Here, he hesitated. She could see the struggle in his face; how he now held his tail in his lap to stroke it gently. He was nervous. His leader was asking him to answer in a way other that what he had been taught. Critical thinking among the men remained lacking. Suffrage was suffering to them, since they were expected to perform as equals when, for generations, the Den Mothers and House Matrons had fought tooth and claw to mire their progress with bulky, cumbersome legislation that preserved their power while denying equality to others. Nah’hala would never dare say it out loud, but she hated those elitist t’zat-kal straight from tip-to-tip.

Ritika finally answered, his ears back, flat against his head: “I want to believe the stranger is kind,” he began quietly, “but no, Madam President, I would not believe it in my heart. Though, what other choice do I have? The door is open, and he holds the knife.”

“The door is open, and he holds the knife,” she repeated thoughtfully. A spark of intelligence in this one, maybe? He managed to break his instinct, if only for a moment. “A wise answer,” she replied. She touched his head and smiled inwardly at the wonder in his eyes at her praise, then chided herself for enjoying his submissiveness.

Nah’hala retrieved the phone her scientific advisor, Jara, gave her at the press conference the other day. It was there when contact with the starship was first made. All she had to do now was press a button to be connected.

Such a simple procedure for such a terrifying moment.

Nah’hala propped the phone on large stone in her rock garden and carefully adjusted the camera so she would be nicely framed by a few plants and a waterfall. She knew it was vanity to be surrounded by precious, decorative, clean water. To grow plants for aesthetics was a ridiculous display of opulence. However, her advisors were right to say a display of wealth and prestige were sometimes more important than the underlying wealth. She would speak to these strangers from this position of power and they would know to respect her.

Gingerly, Nal’hala touched the button and waited.

“Good Morning, this is the Brahe,” came a strange voice and an even stranger face: pale and shiny. She heard the alien speak her language. How had they learned it so quickly? This already placed her at the disadvantage. They clearly know more about us than we do them.

“I am President Nah’hala of the Kit Commune calling to speak with your leader,” she said plainly. She couldn’t be certain if the strange, furless creature wearing yellow would understand her, but that concern was quickly abated when he replied.

“Yes, Madam President. Please stay on this frequency while I get her.”

Interesting. Their leader was a woman. Where they matriarchal as well? Was the creature speaking to her just now a male? He certainly filled a lower role if he answered her calls. But their structure, no matter how familiar or alien, would need to be understood. There were still houses that only accepted women and outsourced the fathers of their next generation with careful selection. It was impossible to know.

“Madam President,” the creature in yellow appeared again. “I am connecting you to Captain Sel, the Commanding Officer of our ship.”

“She is your leader?” Nah’hala asked, making sure she was getting who she wanted.

“Yes, Madam President,” he replied. “There is no higher authority than the Captain on our ship.”

“Very well, proceed.”

The screen flickered for a moment and a new, mostly furless creature appeared, though she had a long, reddish brown mane and strange spots on either side of her head. Nal’hala observed eyes, a nose, a mouth. Different but familiar. In the background, a small fire burned in an odd-looking oven. “President Nah’hala,” the captain said, “it is an honor to receive your call.”

Strike hard, strike fast. “The Kit Commune claim sovereign domain over all bodies in orbit of our stars. Your unannounced presence is a violation. Explain yourself.” I must remain in a position of strength, or she will smell the uncertainty in my voice.

“Madam President, my ship is ready to withdraw at your request. We intend no disrespect,” the alien woman said. Nah’hala searched for signs of subterfuge, but all the typical facial or body cues she would rely on were missing: the woman did not twitch her nose, or lower her ears, or bare her teeth. And she did not avoid her gaze.

“Why are you in our space?”

“We are explorers on a—,” the captain began but the president interrupted.

“I heard your broadcast: you are explorers and seek peaceful coexistence with all sentient life. That is not my question,” she said sharply. “Why are you in our space, presently?”

“We are studying an unusual astrological phenomenon at the edge of your solar system.”

“You did not contact us. Why?”

“We hoped to learn more about you from your broadcasts and arrange a ship better suited for diplomatic functions. My ship, the Brahe, is a small science vessel, Madam President. Our facilities are rather limited.” A pause. “I should have initiated contact before entering your space. I regret that decision and hope you will accept my apology.”

Nah’hala was bemused. In the complex, interwoven fabric of Kit politics, an admission of wrongdoing would only fuel a future fire. What game was this Captain Sel playing? What deviousness lay at the heart of such a strange creature? The answer came as quickly as it was asked: The alien need not fear us , she reasoned. Her scientific advisors had previously confirmed the readings of the starship as being many orders of magnitude more powerful than anything the Kit had built. The captain could admit failure because her position was so much greater than Nah’hala’s…and she knew it, must know it. Her ears lowered reflexively.

“I will forgive this oversight and allow you to continue your research, but only if you agree to share your findings with the Kit, at no cost to the Kit.” She made sure to add a stern, foreboding guttural sound. “Otherwise, you will be asked to leave and never return.” There, let’s begin the negotiation and see this captain’s cunning.

“I accept,” the captain said without hesitation.

“What?” Nah’hala said, startled. “Further, I demand you take at least two of my scientific advisors, so they may report on your findings directly.” There, let’s see her enthusiasm crumble against such an imposition!

“That’s an excellent idea, Madam President! I’m a scientist first and foremost and believe that working together to understand our universe is the best way to cultivate new, friendly relationships. Will you send them by shuttle, or should we bring our ship to you?”

She wasn’t supposed to agree! But, the damage was done. Nah’hala couldn’t walk back on the demand now, especially when it was so enthusiastically met. “You will receive them by shuttle within two days,” she said angrily as she ended the call.

Nah’hala looked to Ritika who sat patiently, quietly nearby. He had managed to unobtrusively position himself two arm lengths away, as he and all companions had been trained. She lifted a paw and motioned him to sit beside her. Once seated, she played the call over for him. “What do you think?” she asked, hoping that he had more than one tiny spark of clarity rattling around in his mind.

“She seemed friendly,” he said when the recording ended. “You seemed tense, Madam President—but, I agree with how you handled it!” he added quickly.

“Nal’hala,” she said evenly. “I didn’t need a title when I was in the slum, I didn’t need one when I tossed for the Burrow Boulders, and I don’t need one now. For the Burrow’s sake!” she cried, exasperated. “Speak the truth or not at all.”

Ritika dipped his head in a low bow and answered. “Yes, Nal’hala. Then, where you see a stranger with a knife, I see a new neighbor, eager to know us.”

“One can be too familiar.”

“Not among the Kit.”

“And without?”

Ritika lapsed into a quiet contemplation for so long Nal’hara lost interest and began a slow breathing exercise that helped settle her worried mind. When he spoke again, she bristled from surprise.

“If among them, they eat and drink and breath and have children and nurture and love them, we have already that much in common,” he struggled as he spoke, the words more like a rockslide than a cohesive thought.

“The Nmt’z does all those things, Ritika, but it is a beast for hunting and eating.”

“Yes, Nah’hala, but the Nmt’z’ only voice is venom, its only tools claws. I did not hear this Sel keen high as she pounced to devour us whole or feel my fur bristle to hear her trounce a clutch of our brightest in the Matron Trials.”

“Barbarism,” she spat at the mention of the Trials. She saw Ritika’s fur ruffle in surprise but, to his credit, said nothing. “Continue, companion,” she instructed formally.

“Those are the thoughts I have, Nah’hala.”

Nah’hala watched him for a moment then spoke. “Ritika, you will be my companion going forward, if you accept.”

“Yes, Nah’hala, I would be honored.” He bowed low, his nose nearly in the gravel of the garden.

“Then make the arrangements while I finish my meditation.”

“Yes, Nah’hala.”

“And Ritika, for what it is worth, I hope you are right about the aliens.”

“I pray so, as well, Nah’hala.”