There were some problems with a lot of the equipment that Toben had beamed down. A lot of it hadn't taken well to landing in mud, the containers had not been water-tight, and some of the containers of equipment that had missed landing in the mud had taken some damage by materializing several feet in the air. A few had bounced on rocks.
The least damaged was an independent piece of equipment that would allow the boys to monitor certain galactic communication channels, not unlike an interstellar Cable TV system. This device had its own built-in generator, and was ready to use, although getting a decent picture on some stations wasn't easy.
The most damaged, unfortunately, had been the power generator that Toben had brought with him, and the food replicator. Both could be repaired, but first they'd need to be cleaned and dried out. Such delicate equipment was not expected to take a dip in mud. Toben expected it was going to take several weeks to even begin repair work on either device, because it was going to take that long just to get all the mud and sand out of them.
Without the power generator, none of the aliens' main machinery would work. They could use a few basic hand-held devices, such as some of their medical equipment -- at least what they had of THAT that wasn't in need of some level of repair, but setting up a home in the woods was, for now, out of the question.
It didn't help that the tent-dome that Toben had brought with him had also suffered some damage. According to Toben, when properly activated, the tent-dome would resemble more of a trapezoid shape, at least on the outside, and be far larger on the inside, sectioned into multiple tesseract rooms, than the aliens' previous home.
Unfortunately, when he activated it, the end result looked like something that broke several laws of visual perspective, to say nothing of possibly a few laws of physics. Toben quickly collapsed the tent-dome back into its stasis form, hoping and also confident that he COULD repair it, but he'd need powered tools to do it with. That would require the generator. No one had been especially inclined to enter the malfunctioning structure, since there had probably been a chance of getting trapped inside of it.
That meant, for the time being, that the boys would have to reside under the Caulfield roof. Reaction to this on the part of the Caulfields was mixed. Davy loved the idea, Mrs. Caulfield accepted it readily enough, and Mr. Caulfield said that the boys were welcome for as long as necessary, but he tended to keep out of their way, and was secretly hoping it wouldn't take too long for Toben to fix their machinery.
There had also been some initial concern about Skerby, Toben's pet skerbit, possibly running off. Early on, the little creature had showed considerable interest in exploring its new world. Toben generally had to keep the little furball on a leash, even inside. This made Skerby miserable. However, one day, Skerby did manage to get off his leash, and bounded off into the woods before Toben and Martin, who was visiting that day, could catch up to it.
A few minutes later, though, Skerby came dashing back, wild-eyed, whining, and jumped immediately into Toben's arms, shaking like a leaf. Since that time, Skerby had been entirely content to remain indoors, and insisted on being on the leash whenever taken outdoors, and walked so close to Toben's heel that the youngster was sometimes worried he was going to step on the animal.
No one ever figured out what had so scared the skerbit. Had Toben and Martin been able to keep up that one day, they would have discovered that Skerby came across a medium-sized cottontail rabbit, who had taken an immediate dislike to the alien creature, but instead of running off with fear, and despite being distinctly smaller than Skerby, still managed to give him a rather sound beating. Not much more then Skerby's pride had been hurt, but the skerbit had decided in its little animal brain that if this was the nature of even the most harmless-looking wildlife on this planet, then Skerby was distinctly better off as an indoor pet.
The closest any of them came to figuring out what might've bothered Skerby was the night they all sat down to watch a video of "Watership Down" and the skerbit had screamed and spent the rest of the night under the bed in Davy's room.
Finding room for everyone had been difficult, but not excessively so. Morik was the least comfortable staying indoors all the time, so he was more than content to rig a hammock on the porch and sleep there. One thing that hadn't been damaged among the supplies Toben had brought down had been several air mattresses, which he, Keyro, and Jahv used in the living room. Arion, used to somewhat better conditions and not sleeping on the floor, tended to take the couch.
Initially, it had seemed to Davy and some of the others that Toben was essentially a blue-skinned, longer-haired version of Jahv. But he wasn't. He lacked Jahv's creativity in coming up with new devices. Conversely, he was a lot better at repairing existing devices than Jahv could ever expect to be -- including a few that Jahv himself had built. The days of "what sort of machine is Jahv going to get us intro trouble with now" might be in the past.
Toben was also generally more outgoing than Jahv, certainly more adventurous, and also had more of a sense of humor, although this wasn't entirely appreciated since he also had a penchant for sarcasm. He was also a good bit more unruly and untidy. He not only liked his hair long, he didn't tend to comb it much, and generally had to be told by someone else to go take a bath.
However, Toben was initially not especially comfortable with physical contact. In this, he was much like a traditional Botaran, and the first time he saw Jahv and Keyro cuddling up on their air mattress he could hardly believe it. He wasn't offended, just surprised. A couple of nights later, though, Jahv asked Toben if he wanted to come over and share the mattress. Toben had been reluctant, even a little scared, but once he had done so, he found it most enjoyable.
Toben also expressed the least objection when the three Botarans were told that as long as they lived under the Caulfield roof, they were expected to wear some form of clothing at all times. This had been one edict that Mr. Caulfield had delivered. Perhaps it shouldn't've been surprising. Toben had spent most of his life on board a starship, where it was expected that even Botaran children be dressed. Keyro tried to get around the rule as much as possible, generally wearing underwear and nothing else.
Feeding these boys was no easy feat, even for Mrs. Caulfield's considerable ability, and the fact that she liked to cook. It wasn't so much the amount they were capable of eating, although that was a factor, it was the fact that she had to tailor menus to take the boys' preferences and, more importantly, allergies and avoidances into consideration. It took about a week, but she finally nailed down a menu that was at once filling, enjoyable, and safe for everyone to eat.
Everyone enjoyed pancakes or waffles, although Morik tended to avoid maple syrup. Potatoes of any sort were fine, and, being children, french fries were an obvious favorite. Hamburgers were workable provided that Mrs. Caulfield didn't put any toppings on them, but just served the boys plain burgers and let them choose their own toppings from a plate in the center of the dinner table. The Botarans all loved pickle slices. Arion so despised tomato slices for some reason that he tended to turn the plate around so that they were as far away from him as possible.
There were a few universal rules. Everybody seemed to like scrambled eggs, and bacon. None of them seemed to like cheese -- which pretty well ruled out pizza.
Such were the routines gradually established with five assorted aliens living in the Caulfield house.
One afternoon, Davy decided to take Jahv and Toben up to the treehouse he had built. He didn't use it as often as he once did, but it was still up in the tree and still in good condition, and Jahv and Toben had been working so hard to clean and repair the machinery that they'd been skipping meals and, according to Keyro, been getting a little testy, so Davy dragged them out for a break.
It was a warm summer day, and as usual on such days, Davy was dressed in overalls and not much else. Jahv and Toben had decided to dress pretty much as Davy had for being outside, although Jahv's overalls were bright yellow, and Toben's were bright red, and both seemed to be made from the same kind of plastic-coated fabric as raincoats.
Toben was initially surprised to learn that Davy had built the treehouse. "Where did you think it came from?" asked Davy, when they were standing at the base of the tree.
Toben shrugged. "I dunno. I guess I assumed some large species of bird had built it. Why, when you have such a nice house to live in, would you build a place like that, and up in a tree?"
Jahv poked Toben in the ribs. "Owww! But -- overall, I mean, it seems like a decent enough construct."
Davy smiled. "Thanks. I guess I built it so I could have someplace to get away from everything else sometimes. Besides, I love climbing around in this tree. Come on, I'll show you around inside."
Davy headed up into the tree. Toben looked reluctant. "You ever been up in there?" he asked Jahv.
"Once, not too long after I first arrived here." replied Jahv. "It's primitive, but not a bad place."
"I'm just not used to climbing." said Toben.
"Oh, come on. You must've had to climb around inside that ship of yours any number of times to make repairs."
"That was a ship -- machinery. Stuff I understood." stated Toben. "I don't know from trees."
"Well, Davy's invited us, and it would be rude not to accept." said Jahv. "So get climbing."
The treehouse was much as Davy had left it. Several old sleeping bags and blankets padded much of the floor. There was a small box with some toys, snacks, and assorted supplies in one corner, and a lantern hanging from a hook in the ceiling.
"Cozy," said Toben. Davy was stretched out on one of the sleeping bags. Jahv and Toben sat at the edge of the cushioned area.
"You know it was in here that I first met Keith and Martin." started Davy. Then suddenly a new head poked into the treehouse. "Hi guys!" It was Martin. "I thought I saw somebody coming up in here."
Martin was wearing knee-length shorts and no shirt. He clambered into the treehouse and joined the others.
"Is Keyro expecting you?" asked Jahv politely.
"Nah, not for another half hour." said Martin. "I just left the house early, that's all."
"Nice timing, Martin," said Davy, grinning, "I was just about to tell these two how I first met you and Keith up in here."
Both Davy and Martin explained the story, of how Keith decided to run away from home, and Martin tagged along, not realizing how serious Keith was. They'd paddled down the river on a raft, but had lost the raft during the night when they pulled over to sleep. Eventually they'd found their way to the treehouse on the Caulfield property, and Davy had discovered them. They'd become almost immediate friends.
Martin giggled. "You gonna tell them the part where Keith wrestled you down and I pulled your pants off and threw them out of the treehouse?"
Davy's face went a little red. Toben raised an eyebrow. "You did what?"
"Clothes." groaned Jahv. "More hassle than they're worth."
"As I recall," said Davy, unfastening the straps to his overalls, "I retaliated, and yours went out next. It was Keith who was the most reluctant about that."
"I think that's because he wasn't wearing any underwear." laughed Martin.
"I'm not sure that was the ONLY reason," said Davy, "but in order to prevent a confrontation this time -- HERE!" Davy tossed his overalls in Martin's face.
"Pyew!" proclaimed Martin, wadding up the overalls and tossing them in Jahv's direction. "I don't want your smelly pants!"
"Well, I CERTAINLY don't." emphasized Jahv, tossing them out the window.
"Isn't somebody going to get upset about that?" asked Toben. "I thought everybody had to be clothed on this planet. And in more than just -- undershorts."
"That depends on who's around." said Davy. "And I don't think my parents would object THAT much. That's not an invitation to show up for dinner naked, though."
"What about in here, though?" giggled Jahv, having removed his overalls and tossing them deliberately at Davy.
"Yeesh!" sputtered Davy, brushing them away and tossing them out the doorway. "What are those things made out of, anyway?"
"You know," said Jahv, "there are still two people in this treehouse that at this point are pretty overdressed."
"Yeah," grinned Davy, "there are, aren't there?"
"Oh, vrekt." said Toben.
What ensued was a four-way wrestling match, bouncing all around the padded ares of the treehouse, that when it started to wind down, saw Jahv and Toben completely naked, Davy with his undershorts wrapped around his knees, Martin desperately trying to keep his undershorts in place, and a small pile of clothing at the base of the tree. That small pile probably would've grown to include two pairs of undershorts had the treehouse not suddenly creaked and shifted a bit.
"Nobody move!" said Davy. All activity froze. There was another slow creak.
"Uh, ohhhhh." said Martin in a fearful whisper.
"What is happening?" asked Toben.
"I think maybe this place has gotten a little too old for what we were just doing." said Davy.
"Is the treehouse going to fall?" whined Martin.
"I don't think so. Not yet, anyway." said Davy. "But let's all get out of here right now, real carefully."
"I seem to be closest to the doorway," remarked Jahv.
"Go for it." said Davy. "Give a yell when you're down."
Jahv very gingerly crept out the door, and not long after, the other boys heard a yell, "I'm down!"
"Martin, you're the next closest." said Davy. "You head out."
"I'm -- I'm scared." protested Martin.
"Look, I really don't think this place is going to collapse, and if you slip on the way down or something, Jahv's down there to catch you." explained Davy. "Now go on."
"O -- Okay." said Martin, very slowly making his way to and out the doorway. A long minute later, they heard Martin's voice. "I'm down, guys!"
"Toben, you're next." said Davy.
"Why? We're equally close to the doorway."
"It's my treehouse." said Davy.
"I am aware of the tradition of a commander going down with his ship, Davy," argued Toben. "But you're no captain, and this is a treehouse. And I'm more resistant to injury than you are. Get out of here."
"Toben..." protested Davy.
"Move!" said Toben. "I didn't come halfway across the galaxy to get taken out by a pile of lumber, and I'm not going to. Get out of here. I'll be right behind you."
Davy crawled to the doorway, pulling up his undershorts in the process, and climbed down. When he got down, he noticed that Jahv and Martin had put their clothes back on, and Jahv handed Davy his overalls. The fun had ended, and this was a rather serious matter.
"I'm down!" called Davy. "Get out of there, Toben!" Davy noticed that several of the floorboards of his treehouse had cracked, and the entire structure was swaying a fair bit. More than it should've been.
"First things first!" yelled Toben. "Heads up down there!" The first thing that came flying out of the treehouse was the storage box. Jahv managed to catch it. Then came the sleeping bags. Davy and Martin dodged these and let them settle on the ground. Finally Toben emerged. He was just starting to make his way out the doorway when the treehouse lurched again, and looked as though it was going to topple over right on top of Toben. Davy, Jahv, and Martin all backed away from the tree, and Toben launched himself away from the tree and into a double backflip. He landed surprisingly well on the ground, and the treehouse, although clearly out of position how, remained in the tree.
"Nice move!" said Martin, handing Toben his overalls.
Toben shrugged. "I think the gravity on this planet is a little less than I'm used to, that's how I got away with that one."
"You hung around up there to salvage a box of stale snacks and three dusty sleeping bags?" exclaimed Davy.
"First rule of private space travel and commerce -- Waste Nothing." said Toben.
Davy looked up at the damaged treehouse. "You know, I'm kinda gonna miss that place."
Toben was studying it as closely as he could from the ground. "You might not have to. Reinforce the floor, attach a couple of anti-grav stabilizers -- nothing really obvious. It'll still LOOK like a treehouse. I should be able to do it for you in less than a day. And the next time, it'd be able to put up with four of us bouncing around and tearing each other's clothes off -- if that's what you want it to do."
Davy's face turned a bit red again. "Well, yeah, I guess that's one purpose for it."
The group started to walk back to the Caulfield residence. At one point Toben whispered a question to Jahv that Davy couldn't quite hear, and Jahv replied, almost as quietly, "Well, probably for the same reason ours do, but I think it'd be rude to ask about it." That made Toben giggle, and Davy wonder if they were talking about what he suspected they were talking about. He didn't have any time to speculate on it, though, because Keyro came running out of the house, looking more than a little panicked. "There you guys are! You'd better come see this news report right now!"
The group dashed into the house. Keyro had set the transmission receiver on the dining room table. Arion was standing in front of the viewscreen, and looked as furious as any of the others had seen him since their return to Earth. "Why would the news be of any interest to us?" asked Toben.
"Watch." said Keyro. "I've been watching the GalactiNet News -- GNN. I've got it set up to translate into English."
"That should be interesting." Toben had had to absorb the language from Jahv right after the destruction of his spacecraft, which had contained a translator field the same as the space station Garboris where he'd first met the others. It was an easy enough language as far as he was concerned, but a little silly-sounding in some respects.
Most GNN broadcasts were aired in a sort of cobbled-together Standard that took aspects from about ten major languages in the galaxy, but the broadcast always contained a translation option for any sufficiently advanced receiving equipment. Certainly the equipment Toben had brought with him qualified, but it hadn't been set up for English, either. Toben's opinion of Keyro's apparent engineering skills went up a few notches.
Anybody would've recognized this as a newscast. It showed an individual seated at a desk, with multiple computer graphics around him/her/it/whatever accentuating the news. The individual seated behind the desk was relatively humanoid, bright yellow, with five eye stalks coming out of the top of its head. "Repeating our top stories," said the translation, giving the voice a distinctly female tone, "Botaran fugitive Pol, son of Keis, etc., has been sentenced to fifty years imprisonment. Renegade Botaran Magistrate Varek has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The bulk of his crew will undergo re-education. However, before being taken away, in his final comments, Pol stated that he had captured the notorious runaways Jahv and Keyro, sons of disbarred techno-scientist Amshat, and that they were broken free by exiled Prince Arion of Korras, and another runaway Botaran youngster named Toben. Presumably the entire group is presently residing on a world listed as off-limits by galactic treaty. Its location remains classified by authorities."
"That miserable, low-down, stinking piece of Botaran fr'zeez!" swore Arion. "Going to prison for the next five decades, but has to get his final shot in."
"And the authorities WILL be interested." said Jahv. "They won't cut his sentence, but they will want to do something about it."
"But guys -- I mean -- can they?" asked Davy. "Like the news said, this is an off-limits world. They'd have to break their own laws to come here!"
"Hey, look!" cried Keyro. Attention returned to the newscast. Davy could almost see Jahv and Keyro turn paler versions of their normal skin colors. There were two adult Botarans on the screen. "Is that -- ?" began Davy, not sure if he could ask the question.
"Our parents." said Jahv, very quietly.
The man, Amshat, spoke. "We have asked the Governing Council for special dispensation to travel to this off-limits world ourselves, and bring our children to justice personally. We will be in touch with the family of this Toben youngster, to see if they want him retrieved as well. Our children will be brought in conformity to Botaran society. We will see justice done."
"Yeah, and get your business license back, and your sense of honor." grumbled Jahv.
"Do you think they'll get permission?" asked Davy.
"Probably." said Jahv. "This is like trying to make good for your own misdeeds. By our society's standards, our parents are just as responsible for us running away as we are. If they can bring us back, it'll make them look good, and I'm sure that's all they really care about."
The newscast continued, back to the original commentator. "In a separate statement, the Royal Family of Korras stated, 'Arion's departure from this world was part of an agreement to end hostilities between ourselves and the Soluans. If they cannot keep track of him, that is not our concern. We expect the Soluans to continue to live up to the end of their agreement, which only calls for the absence of the young Prince from his homeworld. As for Arion himself, we wish him well, wherever he is."
"Looks like I'm off the hook, but what are we going to do about you guys?" asked Arion.
"Still depends on them getting permission." said Toben.
"The public statement of Amshat was recorded earlier," said the commentator, "and we have an update. The Governing Council has granted permission for Amshat and his wife, Tiri, to travel to this unnamed world in an attempt to retrieve their renegade children. We will update this story as events warrant..."
Keyro shut off the news broadcast. "Great. That means they could get here anytime!"
"It'll take them at least ten hours to prep the shuttle, five more to get here." said Jahv. "You know Dad -- he does EVERYthing methodically."
"Yeah, you're right." said Keyro. "That gives us until tomorrow morning."
"To do what?" asked Davy. "Look, guys, you know where this is heading -- right to that Procyon place you told us about. You don't want to go there! We beat this once, we can do it again!"
Jahv shook his head. "Our capture by Pol and trial by Varek was a completely illegal operation. This isn't. It's a different matter entirely. I don't know how we can get out of this one."
"I can't see as why they'd even want you back." said Toben. "I mean, no offense, but none of us are exactly typical Botarans. We just don't fit in."
"They don't care if we fit on or not." said Keyro grimly. "They just want us back for the sake of their own reputations."
Jahv was suddenly, inexplicably, smiling. "Toben -- you just gave me an idea."
"Huh?" exlaimed Toben. "I gave YOU an idea? It doesn't generally work that way. And what was the idea?"
"An idea to get out of this entire mess." grinned Jahv. "But Davy, we'll need your help -- and we'll need to talk to your parents, as well."
The group tracked down Davy's parents, who had been elsewhere in the house, and explained the entire situation, and their plan. Jahv explained that it was likely to get a little messy, and possibly even a bit offensive to some people's sensibilities, but he felt it was really their only chance, and if it worked, would solve the problem permanently.
"Anything you do can't possibly be as offensive as these people thinking it's all right to round up children and lock them away for trying to get away from such an unpleasant situation," said Mrs. Caulfield.
"Kids, I'm behind you 100% on this," said Mr. Caulfield. "But I hope you'll excuse me if I don't participate directly."
"Not a problem, sir." said Jahv. "It'd be better if we handled this on our own as much as possible anyway."
"I just thought of something," said Davy. "What's to keep them from just -- transmatting you up to their ship or whatever?"
Jahv shook his head. "Our parents are total sticklers for procedure. And there are procedures for everything, even something as extreme as this. And it includes a direct meeting with us to deliver the charges, and stuff like that. Mostly it's to gather evidence as much as anything, but they're not going to just grab us and run."
About an hour and a half later, Arion reported that he was detecting an incoming craft, visually cloaked, just having come out of hyperspace and heading for Earth orbit. Minutes later, near the Caulfield home, two adult Botarans appeared in the traditional burst of light and sound.
The male stood roughly six feet tall (not counting antennae), had well-groomed white hair, orange skin, and was wearing a silver space suit. As was the female, who was a little over five and a half feet tall, also well-groomed, and had pale blue skin, even lighter than Toben's. His name was Amshat, hers was Tiri.
"What does the Infopad say about this world again?" asked Amshat, in the static-like language native to Botarans.
His wife pulled out a small device from a pouch on her belt. "Galactilogue Planet Tok-7826-Ceta. Native name: Earth. Native scientific name: Terra. One natural satellite. Third planet in a system of nine. Two massive gas giants, two lesser gas giants, five mineral-based worlds. Earth only one with significant life. Overall rating on planet and population is 3 on the Kozik scale."
Amshat sniffed. "I'd say Kozik was being polite. What else?"
"Primary lifeform bipedal humanoid." said Tiri. "Population 5.3 billion at last recording."
"That's in keeping with the court report filed on Pol and Varek." said Amshat. "Any details?"
"General characteristics of populace: aggressive, divisive, and easily confused. Multiple societal types and languages."
"How odd." said Amshat. "Anything more?"
"Nuclear power used for both energy source and weaponry. Limited space exploration capabilities. Manned expeditions to natural satellite. Curious downplay of space exploration since that time. Mostly robotic probes to other worlds. Manned expeditions limited to orbital missions."
Amshat shook his head. "Idiots."
"Am -- what is that horrible smell?" asked Tiri.
Amshat looked around, and finally focused on a field across from the Caulfield farm, with several cows contentedly grazing. "I think it's those creatures. Native animal life, domesticated for some purpose."
"These beings live around animals?" remarked Tiri, shuddering at the concept.
"See if the Infopad says anything about it." said Amshat. "I would be curious as to why our sons would willingly come to a world such as this."
Tiri worked the device, then curled her lip in disgust. "According to this, the people of this world keep small animals for -- companionship, and use larger ones as -- sources of food."
Amshat's eyes went wide and he looked at his wife. "How thoroughly repugnant. No wonder this planet is off-limits. The sooner we take care of our business here and quit this world the better. Scan for the children."
Tiri pulled a second device out of the pouch. "I have them. Three Botarans. They're behind that building. Am, are we going to have to deal with the natives?"
"Not if the boys are behind it, we're not." said Amshat. "I have no intention of addressing the locals in whatever grunts and squeaks pass for their language, let alone set foot in one of their primitive dwellings. These things look to be made of the same sort of material as the ground itself, and they don't seem especially stable. Now come on, let's get the boys."
"All right, but Am -- please -- watch your temper."
Amshat turned briefly towards his wife. "I always have, and look what it got us. Two runaway sons, loss of a business license, and public disgrace. Maybe it's time the boys saw something of my temper."
Amshat and Tiri carefully walked around the side of the Caulfield home, not knowing that they were being watched by Morik, who was up in a nearby tree and thoroughly camouflaged by it. It helped that the only thing he was wearing, to keep himself fully camouflaged, was a sensor deflector which Toben had pulled out of one of the more intact equipment containers. The device also had a small commlink built in. "Get ready," he whispered. "They're coming around."
Amshat and Tiri entered the backyard of the Caulfield home, to indeed find their sons sitting quietly on the porch. Their jaws nearly hit the floor, however, when they saw the condition of the boys.
Jahv was wearing an open shirt with swirls of multiple colors in it that were enough to sear the eyeballs. He also was wearing bright purple shorts with an elastic waistband, and some sort of fabric and rubber footwear the likes of which the two adults had never seen. Keyro was wearing an ill-fitting long-sleeved shirt that was a painfully bright shade of green. This was also all he was wearing, and this was obvious given that he was not seated, but rather standing near a potted plant, shirt raised in the front, and peeing into the plant. Common nudity among Botaran children was one thing. Public relieving was another matter. Toben was outfitted in a sleeveless, tight-fitting shirt, bright pink in color, and baggy trousers of some rough-looking dark blue material. Both the shirt and trousers had multiple holes worn in them.
All of this was alarming enough, but all three boys were liberally smeared with mud, but were not so covered with it that one could miss the fact that they were also thoroughly painted with a wide range of colors and symbols across their entire bodies. Amshat and Tiri both flinched when they realized the meaning of some of the symbols.
"By the twin moons of the homeworld." said Amshat under his breath.
"Hiya pop!" said Jahv, leaping over the back of one of the chairs and parking himself in it,legs spread out.
"Hi, momster!" yelped Keyro, yanking the front of his shirt down and seating himself in Jahv's lap.
"So you're these guys' oldsters, huh?" announced Toben. "Funny, I don't see much resemblance."
"Am --- what -- I -- " Tiri was as close to speechless as her husband had ever seen her. The two approached very warily.
Jahv, however, was distinctly not speechless, as he chugged down at least half of a bottle of soda, and proceeded to cut loose with a belch that nearly knocked Amshat and Tiri out of their boots, and ruffled Keyro's hair.
"Hey, good one, Jahvy!" proclaimed Toben, "but I can beat it." said Toben, raising one leg to set it on the table and breaking wind.
"K'vat, Toben, what'd you eat to cause that!?" said Keyro, plugging his nose.
"ENOUGH!" roared Amshat. "I can see what's going on here. Very good acting, boys, but not good enough. This is all a put-on to try to delay the inevitable. Somehow, you obviously knew we were coming, and are trying to convince us that you are so far gone that we'd be better off leaving you here, although why in the name of everything Botaran you would WANT to remain here I have no idea. Nor does it matter. We will follow procedure. I will read the charges against you, and then you WILL return to the ship with us and return to face justice, even if we have to lock you in cargo containers to do it!"
"May I say just one -- little - thing, before you proceed?" asked Jahv.
"If you must." said Amshat.
"You're gonna have to CATCH us first!" Like a shot, the three boys were on their feet and running off towards the woods.
Amshat scowled. So did Tiri. "Am -- can't we transmat them up?"
"It's against procedure." said Amshat, shaking his head. "And I WILL teach these boys the value of procedure. But if they want to play games, so be it. Follow me. They need to be caught, we will catch them."
"In there?" said Tiri, alarmed. "Am, it's some sort of massive native plant growth. There could be disease or animals or anything in there!"
"The boys were not afraid to enter, and regardless of how they're acting, they're not idiots. Now come on, before we lose them."
Toben, Jahv, and Keyro had actually slowed their running pace. "Do those two discuss EVERYthing in advance?" asked Toben.
"Yes," said Jahv and Keyro simultaneously.
The boys heard a rustling sound behind them. "Here they come," said Toben. "About darn time!"
The boys continued to run, making sure to never quite lose sight of the adults. At the last moment, Toben broke off and ran to the right, as planned. "We'll catch him later!" he heard Amshat yell. "Focus on our own offspring."
"Yeah, you just do that," said Toben, trying not to laugh as he headed for a very specific area.
Jahv and Keyro reached the mud pool and ran across its most shallow point. They stood in the mud at the very far edge and waited for Amshat and Tiri to break through into the clearing. As expected, the two adults stopped in their tracks. "Do you think THIS will stop us?" yelled Amshat.
"Seems to have done a pretty good job of it!" yelled Jahv.
"Boys, be reasonable!" cried Tiri, although honestly, she was losing patience herself at this point.
"Reasonable!?" yelled Keyro. "And do what? Spend the rest of our childhoods at the Procyon Institute?! No thanks!"
"Now see here!" roared Amshat.
And then Jahv and Keyro casually flipped their antennae backwards. This was the Botaran equivalent of raising the second finger, except it was about ten times more insulting. Tiri almost went white with shock and anger, and Amshat started to turn more red than orange. He started to run into the mud even as Jahv and Keyro darted further into the woods, but at the last second a rope shot out of the mud pool, caught around Amshat's legs, and sent the man sprawling into the mud.
The rope had been pulled by Davy, who came leaping down from a tree, smeared with mud and paint, and wearing only a very shredded T-shirt tied around his waist, carrying a long, pointed stick in his hand. Davy let out a high-pitched shriek intended to resemble a war cry. It sounded more like Arion with indigestion, but the overall effect was not lost on the two adult Botarans, who were shocked at the sudden appearance of one of the natives, who were, if this was any example, a whole lot more primitive and dangerous than any of their probes had indicated.
"Hey, look out!" came a voice in Botaran. Amshat was still clambering out of the mud. Tiri was at the edge of the mud pool trying to help him without getting muddy herself, but turned to see a bright red globe coming in her direction. It hit her midsection, splattering her with red paint and throwing her off-balance just enough so that she fell backwards into the mud just as Amshat was climbing out.
"Whoops!" said Toben, although he was grinning. "Sor-ry! Got the wrong one!" Then he aimed the bazooka-like device he was carrying at Davy and fired again. Davy was instantly splattered with blue paint and made a huge production out of being stunned and knocked into the mud, apparently unconscious, and trying not to giggle.
Toben dropped the device and ran back the way he'd come.
"Am..." said Tiri, dragging herself out of the mud and feeling both miserable and defeated.
Amshat remained furious. "This ends right now!" He charged after the fleeing Toben.
Once he emerged from he woods, he could see that all three boys were together once again, and were trying to take refuge in a ridiculously primitive structure that had been placed in a large plant. He smiled to himself. They were trapped. And after what he'd endured this day, he'd gladly haul all three of them off to the Procyon Institute personally.
He started to climb the tree, and reached the entrance to the odd structure just in time to see Keyro and Toben bail out of a window, but Jahv was still inside. Amshat lurched forward and caught his son by the heel. "All right, boy, I've got you now, and the other two will certainly surrender after this. Enough is enough!"
Then the floor creaked. And started to crack. And the entire structure lurched. And Amshat was so surprised that he let go of Jahv's foot, allowing the boy to follow his friend and brother out the window. The floor suddenly gave out under Amshat, and he fell to the ground -- almost.
At the last instant, Keyro and Toben had moved a kid-size pool into position under what they'd calculated was the weakest spot in the floor of the treehouse. The pool had been used years ago by Davy, of course. It was now filled with shaving cream, paint, mud, maple syrup, half-melted Jello, a half-dozen eggs, chocokate cake frosting, a half-gallon of sour milk, and one air mattress at the bottom to cushion Amshat's landing.
Tiri came walking up, looking miserable, and then she saw Amshat, who was stunned but basically unhurt, and he looked even more miserable. The boys were standing nearby, but not so close that they couldn't take off running again if they needed to.
"You were saying 'enough is enough'?" remarked Jahv.
Amshat tried to wipe his eyes clear of the awful gunk he was plastered with. He stared at his son. "Were we really THAT terrible to you? That you had to do this?"
Jahv and Keyro felt a brief pang of guilt. "Maybe not," said Jahv. "But what you WOULD'VE done to us if you'd taken us back -- that would've been that terrible."
"And you didn't seem interested in talking about it when we saw your interviews on GNN," added Keyro.
"Let's face it -- you're more interested in getting your business license back than us." said Jahv coldly.
Amshat pulled himself out of the goop-filled pool and stood as straight as possible, trying for some measure of dignity -- and not succeeding especially well. He managed a trace of the anger he'd been feeling almost since their arrival on this backwater world. "Tiri -- the Infopad." His wife handed him the device. "We wanted you back as proper members of Botaran society. But this -- THIS! You leave us no choice, if this is the choice you've made for yourselves. Jahv and Keyro, you are NO LONGER our sons! This is your copy of a legal document. You may no longer use the family title. You are banished from the homeworld forever. I have never, in my entire life, seen such disgraceful Botarans, or experienced such an utter level of -- of -- I don't even know what to call what you've done today. Tiri -- the other Infopad."
Tiri handed another device to her husband. Her face was as impassive as Amshat's was angry.
"Toben -- your family feels the same. If you were unwilling, unable, or simply in no condition to return home and accept proper discipline, you also are cut off from your family. Here is your copy of the document. I am certain that your aunt will agree with our decision."
"Prob'ly so." replied Toben.
Without a further word, Amshat activated a device and the two adult Botarans vanished in a burst of light and sound.
"Uh, huh. I figured as much," said Jahv, studying the document he'd been given. "Disowning us gets them their business license back. Either way, they win, whether they'd've carted us off to the Procyon Institute, or disowned us."
Davy came out of the woods, covered with mud and dragging Toben's paint-sphere firing device with him. "Are they gone?"
"Let's find out," said Jahv. He fished around in a shirt pocket for a small comm-unit. "Hey, Arion. You tracking the ship?"
"Are you kidding?" said Arion, who had remained indoors to keep track of the ship. "It hit hyperspace ten seconds after it broke orbit. I'd say your stunt worked, but what the heck all did you say or do to them?"
"Toben farted, for one thing!" announced Keyro.
"Oh, well, that explains it." said Arion. "Thank you so much for sharing that. See you when you get back here."
"Well, it all worked." said Jahv, as the three aliens and Davy started walking back towards the house. Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield had emerged and were standing on the back porch. "Not bad given the limited technology we had to work with."
"It's still sort of -- final, y'know?" said Keyro. "I mean, not that I wanted to go back, not that I ever thought we'd be welcome, but now -- we really can't."
"Boys, you're part of our family now," said Mrs. Caulfield in a reassuring tone. Then she looked at her husband. "Isn't that right?"
"Right, of course." said Mr. Caulfield, managing to sound sincere despite being caught off guard. "But we do try to be a reasonably clean family most of the time, so I think we'd both appreciate it if the four of you headed upstairs, along the path of newspaper I set down, put your clothes in the plastic bag just outside the bathroom, and get in the shower. And try not to leave the shower looking like you do now, okay?"
The boys all giggled, and carefully made their way upstairs. They shed their clothes and placed them in the plastic trash bag that was left hanging on the doorknob. Unknown to the adult Caulfields, but perhaps not entirely unexpected, all four boys managed to climb into the decently large shower enclosure together, and spent a generous amount of time making sure every last bit of mud and paint was washed thoroughly from their bodies, and then gave the shower enclosure itself a proper cleaning. It was, obviously, great fun for all involved. Even Toben.
After wrapping large towels around themselves which had been provided for them, they headed downstairs for a much more civilized breakfast, which Arion and even Morik joined them for. And gradually, the young Botarans got used to the fact that, truly, Earth was their home now.
As for the potted plant that Keyro peed into, Mrs. Caulfield never did understand why it suddenly grew over ten inches in height over the next two weeks...