The Hero’s Home
The cold starry night sky was lit with orange sparks as Jake Clawson stood atop the framework of metal, welder in paw and smelling of singed fur. He worked next to the iron foundation posts of what looked like a low skyscraper and the scattered salvage heaps of the yard lay gathered around his creation, as if they sat in tribute to some higher being than themselves. Stepping back from the iron skeleton in front of him, Jake shut down his equipment and pushed his protective goggles off of his face and into his pocket. His eyes scanned the structure for flaws or cracks and a slight smile flashed across his stony features as his work passed review. The building-to-be dominated the salvage yard with its sheer size. The metal structure stretched up for about three levels and was as long as the average department store. But whenever customers questioned the better-organized pile of junk in the yard, he simply waved it off as a house he was building for a friend.
“Good thing nobody lives close enough to be bothered by a kat and his late night hobby.” Jake muttered to himself as he began to load his tools back into their carrier. The biting October wind dug it’s own claws into his skin, but he didn’t really notice it anymore. The cold in the air would never again compare to the cold in his heart. He spoke to himself often these days. Sure, it was a nutty habit, but it was always better than letting the silence of the garage sink in as he worked on the cars alone….
“Main supports are complete, now…. gotta connect some walls to it tomorrow night. What did Callie say that car needed help on? Oh yeah, that coolant block….” His eyes scanned the dark yard for any other signs of forgotten importances. His eyes rested on the run down dump truck by the entrance as another task, and a few depressing memories, resurfaced in his tired, sad mind.
“Gotta go pick up that next load of garbage from Murry….” Sighing, he brushed the dirt and dust from his coveralls and picked up the tool carrier, walking back to the garage door. Just as he was about to close the door behind him, though, he found himself staring back at the mess of beams across the yard. Suddenly, as the bright moonlight poured out from behind the heavy cloud cover, the whole pile of steel and tin seemed to glow with a magical quality all it’s own, and Jake felt somewhere inside of him a touch of pride at the sight before he shut himself back into his empty home.
“It’s gonna be great, Chance. I promise.”
Rory Tailor shut down the shields on his car and set it down on vertical fans as three Enforcer troopers came running at him. The three chattering kats gathered around him in a tight knot and the constant questions were enough to make Rory want to hide in the back seat under the cushions in the hollowed out foxhole. Why not? He thought glumly. This is not an attitude to have at six am on company time, he chided himself as he waded out into the chaos. The wind of the cold October morning ruffled through his thick dark brown, maybe even black, fur and hair, both frosted with a fair dose of gray, from the work, of course. His dark green eyes had barely focused on the scene in front of him before he noticed a few more stragglers running towards him for instructions. Sighing slowly in frustration at having to direct their every movement, as if they were mindless cleaning droids, he straightened his uniform and marched quickly through the living roadblocks, ignoring them for the moment, over to the nearest officer he saw in sight. She had on her Enforcer uniform and thick shielding like a hundred other kats in sight, but he easily identified the owner of that cropped dark auburn hair and fur and smiled for the first time since getting up. Only one officer in his memory had chosen royal purple as the color for her personal shielding. One Enforcer decision he was actually proud of, and he was positive he would never have recognized all of his own officers without their own colors. The one he was striding towards was currently yelling at four of her unit to remove the katizens from the area, she did not seem pleased with her morning at all. Quickening his pace and putting his growing grin in check, Rory stepped right up behind the she-kat and tapped her solidly on her right shoulder.
She whirled on him, her violet eyes flashing angrily for a moment at the interruption and lack of her proper title but, just as quickly, they registered her surprise as she stepped back from him in respect.
“Commander Tailor! Good to see you. Have you been briefed on the situation at hand?” He silently groaned as he saw that she was going to play it the professional way today…and shook his head quickly. He understood why, of course. The troopers….
“Not yet, Lt. Commander Sheer. I had just climbed into my car to head to work, when the alarm goes off, and the car starts traveling here on the Enforcer main computer’s say-so.” As they moved away together away from the patrols, he shook his head disgustedly.
“I should never have installed that blasted auto-steer, Katrina…” He heard her chuckle as he melodramatically covered his face with a huge paw. Having broken the ice of duty between two close friends, he immediately reset himself to be the stern “Commander” for all the surrounding troopers.
“Get me a link back to headquarters and I’ll check the reports.” She nodded briskly, but smiled to him and they both lifted up the doors on their sides of his car. Sitting inside, in the driver’s seat, she quickly removed a thin shielded case from under the seat and began unwinding the black insulated cord attached to the back before she plugged the end of the cord into a nickel-sized socket on the car’s electronic dashboard. She ran her fingers lightly along the side of the case shielding and, with loud click, unlocked it. She raised the top portion into position and her claws began to demand information from the laptop keyboard at a rapid pace. To his surprise, the reports she had requested from the main computer came quickly into view on the monitor.
“It must have been some serious trouble out here to have that mess of hardware giving it proper priority for….” Katrina interrupted him as she pushed the laptop into his lap and corrected a rather hopeful assumption of his.
“Not must have been, sir. Still is. The computer only has it in surface memory because the bulletin just went out within the half-hour. Just in time for your auto-steer to pick it up.” She watched calmly as his eyes quickly scanned the reports, and then smirked slightly as they widened in surprise at the end of the report statement.
“You mean you have Viper in there? Trapped in there? We have a chance at finally slamming the doors on that mutated sicko?” She grinned at him and nodded.
“That’s the good news. From the looks of it. Purvis is surrounded in there. But the situation goes a little downhill from there.” Rory nodded quietly and cursed the fact that nothing was ever that easy or simple anymore…
“Originally, we thought this had been some setup he’d kept handy for awhile. You know….a building old enough to still tap into the old sewer system and all….But for the past hour that we’ve had it surrounded, reports have come from all sides of this giant that troopers have been seeing Viper appear at windows, throwing things at them and throwing his body at the glass, as if….” She dwindled off, apparently rethinking her words herself, even then, before she spoke them. But the Commander had the idea already, puzzling though it may be.
“As if trying to escape….and they didn’t break?” She shook her head quickly.
“Not a scratch. This antique place has more to it than we even thought.” Rory’s mind raced as he began to slowly, then more steadily building up his pace as his thoughts increased in speed, type in request after request for information about the old place. Each one came back from zoning as a denial. The computer maintained that since no building had been authorized to be built there, then there was no building there. Finally, more than a little frustrated, he queried about the owner of the land. The answer startled him to no end.
“We own that unholy piece of rubbish!? That land is Enforcer property. Why did we never sell it off as the city expanded out here?” Katrina shrugged, then took back the keyboard and began typing his requests for him as he spoke. He leaned back and watched, happy for the physical break and more than willing to let the faster typist handle this. Soon enough, her glazed eyes refocused and she fixed him with a hard look.
“It was a salvage yard for our surplus back in the late 20th century. Put under long-term management of a pair of Enforcers….” Her eyes returned to their busy compiling of information and he realized in surprise that *this* was the hunt for her. To coax and prod the information and mysteries to their source, the answer. The invasion of computers had left some of the Enforcers sitting in the dirt or retreating back to city patrols, but it had also bred itself a new generation of net surfers and code crackers determined to keep the peace as they best knew how. Rory had always seen her ability to adapt and survive while staying on top of trouble as a fantastic trait. The minute her nomination by the Commodore had come up he had jumped at the chance to have this intelligent, wily she-kat as his second in command.
“Yep…Jacob Clawson and Chance Furlong. Condemned here to work off some damage to Enforcer headquarters they caused on duty.” She grimaced in sympathy at the thought of being left behind, out of the action and in the scrap pile. Glancing back at the screen a moment, a light smile lit her face.
“Hey, Tailor, guess what windbag gave the order for their expulsion? The good Vice Admiral Feral himself, back in his days as Commander. Hey, don’t give me that look. I know it’s disrespect to a superior officer, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give that wasted bag of dignity anything else.” She sighed as Rory fixed a stern glare on her and motioned with a paw for her to continue.
“It’d be a good guess to say those two built that old place. Reports from their supervisors say that Clawson had the brain to put it together and Furlong had the muscle to help him. ” Rory nodded quietly from his seat, piecing what parts he had together.
“And reports on them now?” She had been typing for a few moments when suddenly her face fell, almost as if her spirit had been deflated.
“Chance Furlong died here in ’97 of fatal head injuries in a fistfight with a salvage delivery kat, and Dr. Jake Clawson had heart failure in his sleep in ’38 in….the Megakat Mountains? Seems the minute he paid off their debt, he shot out of this city like his tail was on fire. Spent some time finishing college then teaching near Pumadyne then curled up as a hermit in the mountains. Was found by a she-kat that usually delivered supplies to him. We won’t get any answers from two ghosts, sir.” She closed the terminal and unplugged it, then replaced the laptop beneath the seat. Pressing a button, she opened both doors and motioned for him to climb out. When they were both standing outside the car, he moved around to the back and opened the truck. She watched him curiously as he pulled out his own shielding and blaster, along with his electronics belt system. He locked the thick slate blue shielding, his own personal color, onto his shoulders, then latched the shoulder plates to the chest and back cover, before connecting both to the thigh and calf covers. He snapped the belt into place, slipped his blaster into the holster on the side, and, with a quick flip of a claw, brought to beeping and whirring life the hand-sized electronics unit attached to the front. Commander Tailor didn’t really remember all of the technicals, but he did know that the battery pack of the unit would add extra power to his shields when under attack and that it could keep his blaster recharged for a couple of days, at least.
“That’s all I needed to know. Time for me to head in after Viper, Lt. Commander.” Even he had to wince at the look in her eyes as he placed his helmet on. Deep green eyes echoing his own doubts and queries and fears about a 20th century building that had engraved terror onto the features of the immortally mutated mad scientist. Swallowing hard and, praying to a god almost forgotten in the modern science of the world, Rory nodded grimly and lowered the visor over his face. As he moved swiftly towards the front door of that huge front surface, his intent was clear in his very stride and the mess of troopers in his way seemed to part before him. Rory was slightly disgusted at this deviation from procedure. As he reached the building, only a single Enforcer was left standing guard. His pale orange shielding and dyed blond fur and natural blond hair brought to mind a particular lieutenant, Briggs, with a photographic memory and a sharp mind. He seemed to understand the situation in front of him as he scanned up and down the shielding and uniform for irregularities from the usual. Rory was truly impressed by the proper procedure this trooper went through before allowing an officer into an area. Finally, satisfied that this was indeed the real Commander Rory Tailor of the Megakat City Enforcers the lieutenant raised his visor to look him curiously in the eye.
“Your orders, sir?” Rory permitted a slight smile to escape his grim mask as he nodded to the Enforcer.
“Just moving in for the arrest, lieutenant.” The young kat’s eyes widened slightly but he merely nodded to his commanding officer.
“Yes sir. And your external assistance kat is, sir?” Rory again noted this lieutenant in his mind for special assignment. Good question … very good question.
“Lt. Commander Sheer will be monitoring my systems at all times I am inside and will respond as she sees fit to any irregularities.” He looked up to meet Katrina’s gaze from a few feet away. She smiled and nodded. More assured, he continued.
“As her attention will be focused on my activities inside, command now falls on you, Lieutenant Briggs in the absence of her orders. Keep them busy….” Briggs again seemed surprised but merely smiled, lowered his visor and lifted his blaster from its holster. Rory nodded to him and repeated the gesture. When all troopers in the area stood ready for any sign of danger, Briggs gripped the brass doorknob of that huge wooden door and turned it.
The door opened, without a creek, but had only moved about a crack the width of a bowling ball before stopping. Internally, Rory groaned about having to fit his armored bulk through that slot, but simply nodded to his Enforcers. Inhaling deeply, and a little self-consciously at that, he took the next few minutes squeezing and shoving his body through the hole and around the doorknob.
He was halfway through, his eyes almost past the doorway when suddenly, as if on cue, the door slammed open all the way, flinging Rory into the space beyond before slamming shut again with a resounding “CRASH!” The moment he hit the ground the commander was up again, tensed, ready to spring but before he could even absorb his surroundings he heard the chaos and yelling from the other side of the door.
“HOLD YOUR FIRE!” came the muffled order of Lt. Briggs. “I SAID HOLD YOUR FIRE!” Suddenly, as quickly as it had begun, the noise level was simply cut off, as if some sort of curtain had come between him and the outside world. Truth be told, it frightened Rory. He was about to yell, to take command, to make it all right again like he always wanted to do when he realized that it didn’t matter anymore what happened out there….he wasn’t the Commander anymore. Just another Enforcer out to bust another bad guy. The feeling was strange to him….but welcome. Letting his duties slip away for once, Rory Tailor, Enforcer, began to investigate. He laid his hand upon the wooden door in front of him….
…And jumped as his paw came back stung from the bitter cold he felt there. Doing some quick math in his head he thought about how much steel it would take to absorb that much cold from the fall air outside. That door wouldn’t fall if his entire force outside fired at it until their ran out of juice. He felt a tingle of fear race up his spine, warning sirens going off in his mind that he was trapped…trapped…trapped. Quickly he shushed the terror that threatened him. It wouldn’t help, he told himself. It would only slow you down. Don’t think about how to get out. Think about Viper. How much you want to get that one. How much you want to slap the manacles on that sicko. How trapped he is. These thoughts refocused him, as they always did and for the first time since he had entered the building, Commander Rory Tailor turned and looked around him.
The sight left him without words. The bland exterior had suggested a factory, or maybe even a storage shack, but not this….The ceiling had to be at least 10 feet above him, with a small but tasteful chandelier hanging down over the entranceway. The carpet underneath his feet was dark red and two mirrors framed in some dark wood, Rory didn’t recognize it, hung on either side of a doorway in the wall right in front of him. The foyer wasn’t very long, just big enough for Rory to have fallen in, and continued on into two dark areas to the left and the right. The walls surrounding Rory were a very nice shade of cream. This all would have been startling enough for one day if not for the fact that it was all completely spotless. Rory walked over to one of the mirrors and ran one claw along the top lightly. No dust. Or at least certainly not enough for over 30 years disuse. He shook his head for a moment, absorbing……and reabsorbing…..and finally hoping that it would make sense sometime before he had to turn in his report to the Commodore and the main computer. Deciding that it was best not to think to hard in a situation such as this, he simply moved forward, gripped the doorknob in front of him, and smoothly opened the door. Rory stood with the door open for a moment, staring into yet another impenetrable black space before him, pondering the typical bad omens one should pay attention to after one gets out of bed, when he suddenly noticed a whine emitting from the space in front of him. It hadn’t just started, but had probably been building for a moment or two before he finally noticed it. As it swiftly grew louder in volume and higher in pitch, Rory’s instincts screamed that he should not simply be standing there holding the door knob like your average store-brand idiot at a moment like this. Just as the noise, and the instinctive siren, had built itself to a fevered pitch, Rory slammed himself flat on the floor, only to see a high powered laser blast sear the air where his head had been moments ago!
Within seconds his blaster was out and shooting about where he thought the whine had come from. The object inside, whatever it was, went up almost instantly in a ball of flame and Rory opted for the tried and true method of “sit still until further action is necessary.” He kneeled on the carpet, shielding from any further attacks until he was positive he had knocked whatever it was out of operation. Rising slowly, he nodded, noting to himself one piece of evidence for this theory. No whine. Once standing he moved slowly towards the area the blast had come from, but circling away from his previous dead center position. By the light of the still slightly burning device he noticed that the room it sat in was the size of a small half-bathroom, tiny and painted the same cream color as the rest of the foyer. The remains of the weapon itself suggested it was a tiny laser cannon mounted on a long pole to place it at head level and, even as Rory watched, the pole and slag resting on top of it quickly slid into the floor through a hole. “SH*T!” Rory made a dive for but couldn’t catch the trap before it escaped out of his grasp. And to make matters worse, when he searched the floor for signs of the trapdoor he found nothing, not even the edges of the opening. It was as if it had never even existed. Heaving a melodramatic sigh that he was pretty sure he had earned at this point, Rory stood up and moved out of the tiny room, unconsciously, yet courteously shutting the door behind him. This left him with two choices in front of him, or more accurately, to the sides of him. He could chose the black to the left or the black to the right. He chuckled to himself at this lack of any choice and muttered, “Well, Mrs. Wray always taught me in drama class to exit a comedy at stage left.” And with that, he turned left and walked quickly into the darkness.
Though it was difficult to see, with the light filtering in from the foyer he had just left Rory did manage to understand that in front of him was a larger area with a mass wider than himself moving upwards in a slant. Cautiously, he shifted his feet forward, one at a time, waving his blaster slowly back and forth before he felt a slight jarring and froze. He tapped it in the proper direction a few more times and smiled. The object was made of a nice safe wood. With this in mind, he replaced his blaster into its holder and heard the faint whir click that signaled the auto recharge had begun.
After a moment’s investigation, and a great few more of wary poking and prodding, he voted that before him stood a carpeted staircase leading up in…he did have a single clue. There was nothing else in the room besides this set of stairs and it didn’t take the instincts of an Enforcer Commander to vote that this too, was a trap. Rory sighed and looked around once more for any other options that he had besides up and back. Nope. That settled, every muscle in his body tensed in fight or flight as he set his right foot gingerly on the first step… …and nothing happened. Rory pushed a bit more weight onto that foot, testing. Still nothing. The trial progressed up this way, testing every step with varied amounts of pressure and a wash of relief when this wasn’t the step that killed him. He allowed himself a small smile, no more than a crease in his face before taking that final step, off the stairs onto a platform, before realizing that the space in front of him was no bigger than the size of his body and completely empty. Rory was wary but puzzling this over to himself, one thing perfectly clear. The stairs had only been a trick. Bait. But for what. Before he could blink, only enough time to inhale sharply in surprise, the top platform that Rory’s shoe rested on tilted up at a frighteningly steep angle and the speed the plate shot up with sent Rory flying backwards through the air, that gasp still caught in his throat. Thinking quickly, he closed his eyes and braced himself for impact with the stairs and grunted in pain at the heavy contact of wood and carpet along his left side. But then the sensation changed, a suddenly lurch and the surface underneath him, the stairway itself, broke apart with the sound of loud cracking and tearing. Rory felt his body falling, falling, and then the world simply stopped in a short, ugly blast of pain….
Lieutenant Briggs felt his heart fly up and lodge itself firmly in his throat. He had just been staring at that door, he had been perfectly ready to grab the Commander and haul him back out of harm’s way. So why was he gone? I failed. I failed. I failed when he was trusting me. I could see it. These thoughts buzzed around his mind like a hive of angry bees, and when his haze cleared, it took him a moment more to realize that the rest of the troops, not hearing an order from him, the current commanding officer, were firing at the door.
“HOLD YOUR FIRE! I SAID HOLD YOUR FIRE!” The sound emerged loud and powerful, heard well over the sounds of weaponry and echoing around the enclosed scrap yard to draw every kat’s eye. If he hadn’t been so caught up in the adrenaline punch of the second, Christopher Briggs might have noticed the approving nod of Lieutenant Commander Katrina Sheer, and the conspiratory wink of his partner in “crime” Marshell Cassidy. And in the silence, quiet, shy, Enforcer clerk Christopher Briggs found not only a voice, but a power.
“That’s better. Not much good it’ll do us if we blast a hole through that door and the Commander at the same time, will it?” There was a grating edge, almost a growl in his voice that no trooper’s attention missed. A few glances passed back and forth as those jealous for the position reconsidered their own stature to that of the “bookworm” or “deskjockey”. A blond furred claw extended directly at four other Lieutenants present and the orders began pouring forth fast and furious.
“Lieutenant Oliver, Lieutenant Homer, Lieutenant Crystel, and Lieutenant Borgeson meet me over at the Southern perimeter corner for a planning session. Lieutenant Xar, keep a hold on this here. Dismissed!” The final word cracked out like a whip over the heads of the large gathering of Enforcers, sending them into action. Even his peers had to appreciate Lieutenant Brigg’s grasp of the job of commanding officer. And as he moved calmly through the crowd towards the southern corner few noticed the sparkle in his eye and the surprised smile under his light layer of pale blond whiskers. Fewer still heard the murmur under his breath, “Maybe you were right Mom. Maybe I can be a leader after all.”
Katrina had just settled down in front of the monolithic piece of hardware known as a System Monitor of Enforcer Vitality or a S.M.E.V. (for brevity or idiocy she often wondered) when the Commander readied his blaster and stepped up to the door of the building. The S.M.E.V. was anything but easily portable and only hauled out for important cases when either the safety of an arresting enforcer or the danger of a cornered criminal or environment were in question. This situation fulfilled all three requirements. She smiles to him warmly, hoping this token of caring could offer him a measure of protection then turned in her seat to bring all the important charts up into view. This included the heart and lung monitor in the main armor casing, the helmet’s brainwave recorder, and the graph of current hormone levels from the occasional blood sample drawn from the stomach area, the pinprick almost unnoticeable to the bruise-taught bodies of the Enforcers. All checked out normal, slightly raised heart rate she noticed, but hell, who wouldn’t be a little nervous heading into that kind of a mess. And after Viper, no less, she thought.
The Lieutenant Commander was checking a few other monitors running in the background when she heard a violently loud clang of metal against metal and chaos erupted among the Enforcers around the building behind her. She whirled around to see what was going on and instantly was forced to shield her eyes from the glare of many blasters being fired at the heavy front door at once. When the immediate brightness was gone and only vague spots remained floating on the background of splayed auburn hair , she understood with a sickening stomach lurch that Rory was nowhere in sight and Lt. Briggs was working to calm the agitated troops. Panic seized the energetic she-kat as she realized she had already been distracted from her assigned monitor post too long and was back facing the S.M.E.V. in a flash to check her medical charts, sighing in relief as the only noticeable difference was a spike in adrenaline, understandably. She leaned back with a smile and a sigh at this personal view she received of the great Commander Rory Tailor’s battle fears before deciding to put herself to a better use, turning on the audio alarms on the medical monitors and quickly retrieving Rory’s thin laptop from his unlocked car. The usual clicks and snaps of setup were repeated, Katrina allowing herself a toothy grin as the small green glow behind the screen flared to ever-so-informative life. As she worked, Lt. Briggs approached her left side so quietly she might have been startled if not for her own combat-tight nerves. Even so, if not for the light sound of his throat clearing positively ringing with submission to her authority) her typing paws twitched violently on their keys before the smaller she-kat spun to face him.
“Lt. Commander, the building has presented an impossibly stable defensive front. It hasn’t appeared to generate any shields, but shows no damage to heavy blaster fire physical efforts on the part of the troops.” Katrina was forced to raise an eyebrows at this comment, half from her surprise at the constant stream of surprises that concrete mystery presented and half from the idea of *her* Enforcer troopers putting even the smallest foot out of line. He hung his head a bit in response to her look and understanding for the younger officer finally broke through the haze of duty and worry that was clouding her usually good judgement. Swallowing back the always ready criticism for now, she placed a paw on his shoulder and waited until Briggs was looking her in the eyes again.
“It’s okay. Seeing the Commander slip out of their protection will do that to kats trained as soldiers. It’s even doing it to you, I’ll bet. Somewhere deep inside where you’re pounding at some hidden evil in the dark, gnashing your teeth and screaming for it to give him up, and pounding yourself for having not been looking at that exact spot when he vanished of being too surprised to grab his arm while you thought you had the chance.” The young kat’s eyes widened a bit at her very accurate evaluation but went no farther in his surprise, probably having logically concluded that she had noted his condition by naming what she herself was already feeling as well. And for a moment eyes and minds met in a rather rare empathy before Katrina’s internal smile grew a notch more and she continued with her lecture. “That psychological trick is how some of the best battles have been and still are won. It’s called checkmate. The Commander left you in charge of these high-strung Enforcers and that makes you their authority figure.”
“But ma’am….!” Briggs’s paws flew up in protest in less than a second. Katrina timed him. She thought cheerfully, “Great reflexes. Wrong reason, but that can be fixed. Anything can be fixed around here.” Her voice cracked like an old model pistol shot.
“No buts, Lieutenant. As your superior I place you in charge of this situation as per the last orders of Commander Tailor.” The burly young blond nodded his acceptance of the orders and Katrina felt it was time to pull in on the reigns. “Now, I am in the position to give you a recommendation on actions for the recovery of Purvis Viper and Commander Tailor so listen good. The Commander’s in there now, environmental situations unknown, the lead officer of arrest. If you want him and Viper back you’ll probably have to get them yourselves. That is, ourselves. What is your preliminary plan of action?” While he did look as nervous as he deserved to be, Katrina noticed that the mantle of authority settled well on his pale orange plated shoulders, and the premonition hit her that if he proved as clear headed and quick as he did steady under all this pressure he would have a fine sterling career ahead of him in the Enforcers. Too bad he wasn’t a technology kat or she’d choose him for the next vacancy in her squad. A light chuckle escaped her lips as she recalled her own thoughts that anything can be fixed. The effect of his bewildered expression staring back at her, a tough of fear and worry shaking his whiskers randomly, was like a dip in an icy bath. All her dazing off about the future wouldn’t amount to much if they were ruined by losing their own commander to a turn of the century factory! Her sliding thoughts were snapped back to their proper attention as the Lieutenant began to voice his growing ideas with his typical edge of tentativeness.
“Lieutenant Commander, you possess singular talents with machinery and computers. I’d like you to focus on doing as much good as possible with them while keeping a close eye on Commander Tailor’s readings. I will focus on breaching the outer walls of this structure through a more organized means than has been previously tried.” Katrina was impressed with him and was about to say so when an ear-splitting klaxon wailed out from the S.M.E.V. behind her, shattering the morning calm that had just dared to reform. Her lungs allowed her the air to call “DO IT!” to the retreating form of Lieutenant Briggs before they demanded the startled gasp that escaped her at the sight of the monitors. Rory’s heart rate had doubled up to a violent 160 and the adrenaline level alone in his system would have made her fur stand on end. “My Lord, what’s he doing in there, wrestling a constructor crane?” Further investigation proved the temperature around his helmet region to have gone up 15 degrees…Someone is shooting at his head, she thought grimly. Tense minutes passes as his and her pulse and hormones dropped back into safe, if nervous, levels. Gritting her teeth, the frustrated she-kat turned away from the S.M.E.V and began to pound at the enforcer code blocks to every telecommunications outlet within a 3 block radius, working inward. She needed a signal connector, any kind would do, even a binary modem system. As long as it was in 100 feet of Rory she’d be able to pick up the video signal on the helmet camera that her S.M.E.V’s monitors assured her was still perfectly operational….There! A signal pickup! And a beauty too, she thought. She didn’t even bother to question why such a powerful line was connected to an ancient salvage line. She already knew she wouldn’t like the answer anyway. Her claws on the keyboard mimicked those of a piano virtuoso in concert while inch after inch of the previously well shielded line was laid bare on the monitor’s impromptu map. She allowed herself a brief flash of hope as it began to curve off into a beeline for the building. Closer. . . 500 feet . . . Rory’s heart rate, now switched over to an audio pulser, was rising again. So close to her goal, Katrina felt a sour sensation in the back of her throat and keyed in the video monitor to accept any signal, however faint, ruling out the standard parameters of television and radio entertainment waves. 250 feet . . . and the pulser sounded like the percussion section to a jazz band. A quick glance up granted her with the satisfaction of a camera view of . . . stairs? That’s all she thought she could dare guess at before the laptop mapping reached 175 feet. 170 . . . 165 . . . 160 . . . 155 . . . 150 . . . . The klaxon went wild again, and if there had been a collar around her neck, it would have had to be suddenly, violently yanked to produce the spin she did. Too late, she realized that almost all monitors were in the red zone . . . and the signals from the brainwave monitor had ceased completely! “No!” she cried before she could clamp her mouth shut. Be quiet, she thought, be calm. Too many troopers and too little time. The lieutenant checked the screen again to be sure and realized that autonomous functions were still in the green and low yellow levels. “Alive, but unconscious. Great. I’ll take what good I can get now.” She looked for the flickering camera image of stairs on the video screen again but the picture was gone. In fact, no signal was being received at all from the digital probe. “That’s strange . . . the line was a direct link in at last . . .” Her words ended abruptly as she examined the laptop monitor again and saw the small flashing error message in the bottom left hand corner of her map. Connection lost. She ran a claw over the screen, scanning for the line break until her composure broke in a seething growl from deep in the she-kat’s throat. The breakage was located at the exact point of contact with the thick concrete walls . . . at 110 feet. “Blast, Blast, Blast, and triple Blast more . . . .” In her agitation she began muttering to herself as she worked, with a few choice curses that would have raised blisters on a diamond. “Must be an interference system, operating around the parameter itself from within. . .” Claws extended in her growing frustration she click-clack-click-clacked her way across the keyboard and back into some semblance of authority and control. Must be a heavy duty energy supply to power the door robotics, defense system, and interference . . . If I can just tap into the Megakat General Electric grid, I can isolate it’s drain and shut it down. But that would take more complicated equipment than this site provided. Currently. Motioning over the nearest available trooper she rattled off her new list of needs and sent them frantically on their way. “Hoh, my boy’s are gonna love me after this haul. Just hope they can find everything.” That settled, nothing more to do but wait, she turned her attention back to Commander Tailor’s medical charts . . . and choked back a happy laugh. All charts were green and he was apparently up on his feet again. “Luck with you, sir.” The S.M.E.V. was only giving the surface details and Lt. Commander Katrina Sheer was much too wired to trust surface details. She called up full armor diagnostics, to check for damage . . . Odd, she thought. The full armor’s temperature was up 16 degrees, with even further pinpoint elevations at the helmet and left hip. Those locations showed minor damage. “Blaster fire?” She muttered this aloud, rhetorically of course. Also the blast visor on the helmet had been lowered over the combat visor . . . but to shield him from what? What was going on in that building that she was getting hints of but couldn’t control? A final check showed higher levels of endorphins at the chest area than a heat rise would produce, confirming internal injuries from the event that knocked him unconscious.
“Nothing broken though, thank heavens.” She punched in an administration of painkiller from the stomach medpack’s minor reserves and hoped for the best. More stressful minutes passed with nothing more eventful than the utter terror produced in a random trooper that brushed up against the hyper Lieutenant Commander and startled her. She sent him to a medical advisor and decided the time might be right to give herself a tranquilizer. When this act of trooper preservation was complete she was back in action again, staring anxiously at the S.M.E.V., punching up chart after chart, checking every clue that looked like it might be useful, some window as to what was going on in there. Though the search was uneventful, due to the medication she was back to her cool, calm, logical self in minutes. As she leaned back in her chair and rested a paw over her eyes to think, there was the loud heavy beating down of Enforcer Helikat blades as the big chopper landed. Katrina stood, with a smile of satisfaction and a look at her watch for seeing a job done well and quickly, and moved to greet the extremely talented, if not noticeably eccentric Megakat Enforcer Electronic Threat Force.
“Boy, the Light Commander’s sure got a haul here,” murmured a newer recruit. “You’d think she was going up against Felinectroid solo with this kinda power.” Katrina chuckled and nodded to the newbie. “Since you’re young and curious, I’ll make this into a lesson.” The air rang with the sounds of loud melodramatic groaning and she cast a side glance to the rest of the squad. “Keep it up and you’re all off-line for a week.” There was utter silence. The light, authoritative smile, became a full grin for a moment before it reverted back to its previous stern line for the lesson. The lieutenant commander ticked off the points on her claws. “High levels of power are an understandable precaution against an opponent of unknown skill . . . ” She motioned vaguely to the structure and continued. ” . . . but against a noted organized, and thus far successful, resistance to investigation and entry it becomes a necessity.” She then turned sharply on her heel and took long strides in the direction of one particular pile of equipment being unloaded. The deep royal purple of the flexible casing seemed to absorb all the sunlight around it, producing the look of a mysterious void. A void to get to the bottom of, Katrina thought. “Tyler, Marx. Suit me up. Jameson, Floyd, Harrison. Find me a hardware communications linkup and get it ready. The rest of you. Report to Lieutenant Briggs for assignment.” The air was still echoing with her barked commands as the MEET Force was gone. While all Enforcers reported to the Commander, only the MEET Force jumped like that to the words of the Lieutenant Commander.
A few minutes later, armed with her own full armor, each plate covering a sheet of the flexible casing that was now firmly in touch with her own matted fur. She carefully extended her claws a few times to test the glove holes before placing a paw on each side of her wide visor and preparing to lower it over her serious amethyst gaze. For a brief moment the usual sense of claustrophobia in her VR helmet took its toll and she remained standing there, breathing deeply, staring into Zachary Marx’s concerned eyes. Was this how the Commander had felt before he entered the lion’s den? Then, *CLANK*, it was all black as her visor clicked seamlessly into place over the new risen sun. Katrina was rechecking her connections when the klaxon rang out for the third, and hopefully, final time. “Jameson,” she called, knowing the white furred kat was standing nearby. “I sent you through nursing, now prove it! Reading?” A long moment later, punctuated by the clatter of keys, he answered hoarsely. “We’re losing oxygen on him!” Her pulse short to it’s peak as her gloved paw shot to her side and the switch there, turning her blackened helmet into a blinding mess of visual static, “snow”.
“Do what you can! Checked clear. Monitor ready?”
“Monitoring!” “Diving.” “Dive on!”
The static dissipated into a blue haze as the connection to the city grid network was established. She called out into the deepening blue, as if to stop the rush of electric pattern flow, in a commanding voice touched with maybe even desperation or violence.
“Log on Superuser Enforcer Lieutenant Commander Katrina Sheer! Password inputing!” She reached down to her wrist control panel and felt for the raised letters on the keys to spell out the keyword, “Tomorrow”. The deep blue resettled back into its light haze as the androgynous voice of the network guardian rang loudly in her ears in response.
“Audio recognition confirmed. Vocal pattern confirmed as non-replication. Password confirmed. Superuser accepted. Persona file?” After a moment’s thought she typed in her request for the persona file Priority 1 Entry and Control. Armed to the teeth, light and flexible, with full access to all my requested file uploads. Not to mention she built it off of the shots from her only glamour photography session in full uniform and armor. “Persona loaded Lieutenant Commander. Transport ready. Destination?”
“Telecommunications city sector DX30101G.”
With a whooshing of what always felt like wind, (but she better of course) Katrina was twisted away through the light blue tunnels, the journey occasionally punctuated by a flash of brilliant light and heat from a passing current or information flow pattern. When the “wind” ended she felt the static tingling of her persona digitizing into a “solid” form. The slightly glowing she- kat placed a paw solidly on wall next to her and began to explore the sector, occasionally checking with the city computer for what direction she should be going in. Then, she was stopped cold in her tracks by the sight before her. In the distance was an angry red glow produced by the huge digital disk blocking the entire tunnel. She recognized it and the shattered shards of glowing metal around it. She had found the remains of her probe and the virtual representation of what had destroyed it. A code block. After studying the edge of the red defensive energy flow with her clawtips, Katrina stood up and called loudly again.
“Alright kats! Upload Cracker! Materialize!” In moments a small keyboard-like device with what looked to be a tuning fork sticking out of the back appeared in her outstretched hands. Setting to work, she began sorting out various skeleton code keys, numeric and lettered. It was only after a frustrating series involving both patterns that the tuning fork began to hum ever so slightly. A toothy grin broke out on her digital face and she continued the series rapidly, the hum growing louder and more insistent in front of her with the now humming and vibrating block, like a swarm of angry insects. Suddenly, the code block cracked down the middle with a snap to shake all of Megakat City. She dropped the cracker, knowing it would dematerialize out of her grip anyway, and dove through the crack just before the block mended itself.
“Good job, Katrina. Now, let’s go get the Commander out of this,” she murmured to herself, not caring that her vigilant MEET Force was probably listening and sharing in her private success. Setting her teeth with a determination that surprised even herself, Lt. Katrina Sheer set to work giving Rory Tailor all the help she could, always the klaxon ringing remembered in her ears.
And truthfully, her efforts did not go unrewarded or unnoticed.
Dr. Purvis Viper hissed in the unintelligible language of evil and dark things. His tail thrashed angrily behind his scaled body as he leaned back against the tiled wall. As per instinct, he kept himself in a corner of the room, so the ghost she-kat wouldn’t be able to sneak up on him again. In his weakened state, no kat logic intruded past his instinctive survival actions and seething hate for those that had hurt and cornered him. True to his name, when the bare soul of the kat that remained in his shell was stripped away by pain and/or danger all that remained was the twisting, writhing, poison of a lowly swamp snake.
The she-kat put me here. With her spikes and gas and demons. But I, Dr. Viper, will not be beaten so easily. I will regenerate and leave this house far behind me. And when Megakat City is mine, it will be the first place to fall. She has been gone too long. Perhaps she has other matters to deal with. But she cannot hurt me here. Only her taunts come into these walls, and words have no effect on those who choose not to hear them. For now, to heal, to harden, and to have my revenge upon you, ghost of my ancient enemies.
So twisted round and round the oily snake that was the hate-filled thoughts of the genetic scientist, Dr. Viper.
Commander Rory Tailor moved slightly. And regretted it. Pain shot through various limbs to center in on his chest and his paw flew up to a lower rib where all the points of dull aching converged. He grunted low in his throat to avoid outright groaning and sat up. Then, he opened his eyes. Still pitch dark, of course. But by touch he could tell he was sitting on a bare, cold floor, the remains of the staircase that had fallen on him strangely missing. The middle-aged kat sat very still, partially to avoid further pain and partially to give himself a change to figure all this nightmare out. The surrounding blackness was like a living thing, and as his combat training kicked back in he felt the fur on the back of his neck stand on end at the growing sensation of eyes. Watching eyes. He rose up into a kneeling position and began to crawl on his paws and knees out of the blackness towards the light of the “foyer.” Once there, he rose to his feet and ran a diagnostics on his armor.
“Minor dents, but operational.” On a whim, he pounded a few times on the ever-so-solid door with his gauntlet but received the same response of silence touched with the echoing ring of steel on steel. With a light sigh, the Commander turned and entered the dark left passageway, slowly and prepared for the walls themselves to go crashing down on him. As he reentered the inky black he began to pick out the outlines of chairs, low and rounded at the top, and a table set with dishes? A vase of some sort of flowers?
“Well, at least this proves I have some good old cat blooded night vision in me, but what’s with the decorations it’s as if this place is really someone’s home.” At those words, there was the rush of heavy fabric brushing fabric and huge curtains covering a set of three bay windows opened to startle Rory out of a few more spare wits and confirm what he had seen of the room. The scheme of everything was in yellows and creams, including a cream wicker patio set, the table covered with a checkered yellow and white tablecloth and set with lemonade for one. But these details were all but ignored in Rory’s rush to get to the now uncovered bay windows. He reached the center panel and began pounding in an effort to break through, or at least alert the patrol of six Enforcer troopers that were guarding the wall not 10 feet from him. But neither goal was accomplished. The glass that appeared the width of his claw belied that image with the feel against his fist of pressure cooked crystal sheeting.
“This is Commander Rory Tailor, your lead officer!” At their lack of reaction his panic level peaked. They could have been staring through him. Like a ghost. A dead kat.
“You deaf doorknobs! Look at me! Look at me!!!!!!” And despite his yells and motions, the six showed no sign of even seeing the windows. It was as if they were still staring at the same concrete wall they had been staring at for the past half hour.
“Winters! I’ll have your blaster if you don’t turn around rightOW!” He jumped back, the briefly stolen wits regained just as quickly to silence his less than dignified yelling when he realized the window had become hot enough to feel through his gauntlet.
“What the?” That was the moment the world became an inferno. The windows before him began to glow, and the temperature shot up, triggering the automatic rescue sensors of his blast visor. It slammed into place over his eyes, too late to save him from full vision spots, but still in time to protect his sensitive kat retinas from permanent blindness. Waves of heat bombarded his armored form, forcing the Commander back to his knees and even further into a curled ball of protection on the floor. As the sounds of wicker igniting and flames crackling died away he reflected strangely on memories of home and his childhood.
“I swear to you mother, and I know you’re watching because you always loved hearing about my Enforcer missions, I will never again ignore the rugged process of pressure cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.” The thought that this comment would probably please his mother’s spirit to no end if she was indeed keeping track of “her son, the Commander’s” exploits gave Rory the ability to smile as he waited out the extreme temperature. And, oddly enough, whether by his faith, or by another plan altogether, the heat slowly died away, leaving him no worse than achy, surprised, and slightly singed. And, thanks to his meditative reflections, much calmer. This good mood lasted all of two seconds as he realized that his very dark blast shield refused to raise back into his helmet.
“Great, blind, angry, locked in a huge death trap, and chasing one of the most dangerous criminals in the city. What I wouldn’t pay for a cheering section right now.” With that he crawled forward, hoping to find now a cool wall he could trace to the door. Before he reached it his paw struck what felt like a pitcher the same pitcher that had been sitting on the table, by the feel of it.
“But I heard this thing breaking ” He tested the liquid with a corner of his gauntlet and listened as the hot plating cooled off considerably. Without further hesitation he dumped the pitcher over his head.
“That’s much better. Now, to get out of here.” Rory rose to his feet and continued on past the ashy remains of a rocking chair, clockwise around the curtainless window panes to finally reach a space where his gloved paw didn’t strike a wall. Instead, it his quite a different solid surface. Commander Tailor squinted in the now much dimmer light of the room through his tinted blast visor to see before him, another door. Another handle. With the sick feeling that another laser cannon was waiting for him, he gripped the handle and prepared to dive for the floor as he turned it. But he had barely turned the knob when it clicked against its bolt and refused to continue turning.
“Locked? What’s your game? You seemed ready enough to kill me before, you mad house.” Truthfully, the startled kat never expected a reply to his complaint but received one readily enough as the door clicked, unlocked, and swung open of its own volition. The unsettled tone of his voice was now apparent as he muttered his thanks and walked slowly, cautiously inside.
The room was already lit, dimly of course, but it was the rich decorations for this room that astounded the quickly adapting Commander. A billiards table was the centerpiece for the room of browns and reds, paintings of poker games, pool tournaments, and hunting clubs on every wall. It was only with the minor level of class instilled in him by a wealthy aunt (who sadly believed that she *could* take it with her) that he was able to recognize his surroundings for the proper room they created. And it made him smile.
“A smoking room? My, my, you’re a refined thing aren’t you? A first class loonybin. So what’s next? An eight-ball cannon? How about ” He had gotten no further when the hissing sound began. He didn’t wait this time, diving for the open door to his left just before it slammed shut. As the grayish mist poured out from under the door he nodded and chuckled, oddly relaxed for the situation.
“Silly me, a smoking room *requires* death by smoke or at least lung cancer down the line.” Rory turned to examine the room before him, a dining room about as long as an Enforcer evidence lab, only having the time to take a step towards the large door in the right wall before recognizing the danger of his situation. He heard that same low whine again, only much higher in pitch and beginning to build beyond his hearing range. But with his blast visor down and such a huge room before him, there was no way the Commander could pinpoint the location of the offending weapon. So he tried the next best thing. Running for the nearest exit. Not a coward’s move considering he was halfway there when a tremendous force smashed against the back of his helmet and tripped him to the ground. He was nailed by a second destructive laser blast of energy in the shoulder before he slammed through the already partially open door into the dark room. He threw his body against the wooden door he had just entered. It closed with a resounding boom, leaving him in pitch blackness.
Great, stuck in the dark again. And with this blast visor locked up, I’m probably a great target. Suddenly, and idea hit home in his efficient, logical mind. And it made him smile as he muttered to himself and the entire house around him while he moved along to a wall to his left with a searching paw.
Build just like an old normal house. A fancy piece of work, but a normal 1990’s architectural design. That means that if I’m right there should be Jackpot! The light switch. With the flick of a claw, electric bulbs lit up the interior to show that yet, he was indeed standing on a thick piled carpet, with a couch, coffee table, several bookshelves, and a television/entertainment center before him. Oddly enough, the television was on. This in itself was no real cause for alarm, simply curious and showing the need for investigation. The bit that chilled Rory’s blood was that the image on the screen was of himself, walking forward to stand between the old wood coffee table and the leather covered couch to stare at the screen. His head whirled to the left corner of the ceiling, where the shot was apparently being taken from, but saw no camera.
Nice video equipment you got there. Sorry, I’m gonna have to break it, but I don’t like the idea of somebody watching me and laughing at poor little Enforcer Commander Tailor in the killer funhouse. He leveled his blaster at the estimated area of observation for the camera on the screen and fired. His laser passed straight through the corner and the kat jumped back a bit as something, the camera probably, exploded with a shower of sparks and a few puffs of acrid smoke coming out of a seemingly solid corner. After a verification that the television was receiving only snow Rory took a step towards the illusionary ceiling section. Sadly, a step was all he got.
The arm of the leather sofa swung in an arc in front of him, slamming the Commander back into the center of the leather monstrosity where he landed unceremoniously in a heap, stunned and unprepared for the thing’s next move. Faster than he could react, the black leather around him closed in to trap his arms and legs and cover his face, clinging like a living thing. Rory dug his claws into the upholstered surface around him, but all his scratching and shredding showed no change in the shell around him. And then Rory Tailor realized the true danger of his situation. With his head and body immobilized as they were inside the airtight cloth, he was suffocating rapidly. Desperate, heart pounding in his ears, the Enforcer drew upon his last reserves of strength, to still no avail. As the buzzing in his ears began to fade and the pain from his lungs screamed in his mind he hoped the house had gotten Viper first. It was then at the end, when the couch suddenly released the near unconscious Commander and deposited him onto the floor. He did no more than suck air violently through his visor vents for the few seconds before his vision cleared and he realized that no more than three inches from his head was a set of spiked black high heels and legs attached to them. Following them upwards, he was an orange-furred, tiger-striped she-kat in excellent shape wearing a tight royal blue sleeveless unitard, showing off that “excellent shape,” and black clawless gloves and a belt to match her knee-high heeled boots. Despite the obvious attraction inherent in such an image, Rory knew better.
His fight instincts took over, propelling the exhausted kat onto his feet, at his assumed attacker, and right through her. Landing on the carpet with a startled growl he could only turn back to stare in amazement at the figure grinning wryly before him.
“You’re a hologram!” The she-kat laughed directly in his face and offered him her paw, which still looked as solid and substantial as it had a few seconds earlier, her manner that of a primitive cat playing with its chosen prey.
“You don’t believe in ghosts? What a shame. Let me assure you Commander, I am much, much more than a ‘hologram.’” Rory stared at the paw presented dubiously, then reached with his own towards it. He expected it to pass right through but his gauntlet met with solid fur and skin over taut toned muscle and bone. She hauled the bruised Rory Tailor to his feet with a mischievous smile. She motioned to the couch.
“You look beat Tailor, why not take a load off?” All the proper emotion of his response was correctly settled in the derisive snort he gave. She repeated her playful laugh and placed her arms akimbo, paws on her hips.
“Look, this place answers to me, and I saw it’s time you deserved a break. And in the shape you’re in, I doubt you could find the strength to disagree with me.” Rory could do nothing but nod as he collapsed on the couch, and true to the mystery she-kat’s word, the leather monster did not so much as shiver. He studied her and his expression moved from suspicion to curiosity.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” The suited figure bowed low and motioned to the room around her, claws fully extended in some gesture of reaching even further outward than her body allowed.
“I am Fortuna and I live here. Or, to put it more correctly, I am here.” The gears in Rory’s head were noticeably clicking as he worked to puzzle that reply out. Finally, he decided on the direct approach.
“Pardon?” Fortuna flopped down on the couch next to the still slightly dazed kat and leaned against him, causing him to slide over on the couch a bit as a pure startled reaction.
“Open your mind a little, Rory Tailor. What kind of emotionless set of electronic circuits and parts would be able to keep this household running smoothly? I’m telling you, I am the very walls around you, that television in front of you, and the couch you are sitting on. Not to mention that camera you just took out.” She leaned back and stretched, in a manner revealing her unique fur pattern of deep orange striping ringing the space between each shoulder and elbow. Rory knew the programmer must have had a template he build Fortuna off of, or else was astounding at the imagining and design work of every last detail to her physical structure. The holographic she-kat winked at him, recognizing the studying look, jolting Rory back to the subject at hand.
“Why did you try and kill me?” Her answer was quick and matter of fact.
“Because I am programmed to instantly engage the traps at any sign of intruder.”
“And why are you helping me now?” It was Fortuna’s turn to take a derisive tone to her voice, a rich sound, half between normal speak and a growl and noticeably deeper than the range of most she- kats.
“Because that pile of scrap metal you Enforcers call a central computer finally returned my description of you with the verification that you are currently Commander of the Enforcers of Megakat City. By the way, you’d have better air flow if you got that helmet off.” When Rory shook his helmet to her in response she too replied wordlessly, raising an eyebrow in question. With a light sigh, wondering how such a brilliant “she-kat” could miss so much in the level of common sense, he explained.
“You just admitted that you had been trying to kill me, why should I trust you now?” She smiled again, her mouth forming an “ah” of understanding. Suddenly, her expression dropped to a blank mask and her voice became a full growl.
“You don’t really have much choice, do you? I mean, if I waved my hand right now, this entire couch could not only rewrap you like a bean burrito, but it would also teleport from the parlor to the center of the trash incinerator.” She thought on this a moment longer before correcting herself. “Then again, I don’t even have to wave my hand for that trick.” Seeing Rory’s paled expression the mischievous smile returned. “Do I really sound that threatening?” She seemed pleased when he took no extra thinking to not in confirmation.
“Very. And I’d love to oblige you, but the systems in my helmet have not only locked my visor down, I can’t retract my blast visor either.” But curiously Fortuna simply shrugged.
“Oh, I don’t know, try it again. For me?” Ready to humor her, Rory placed his paws on either side of his helmet and pulled. And the helmet slit smoothly off, drawing both visors up into their compartments. To his credit, the Commander’s expression was less of surprise and more analytically curious.
“How did you do that?”
“Oh that? Your poor system was overloaded by the light show in the sun room and locked up. I just rerouted the signal out of its command loop and out into my network, clearing your circuits of their emergency lockup. Clear?” She was most amused when Rory simply shook his head as a negative response, then shook it a second time, more violently, to clear his fur of the sweat and condensation that had built up inside the helmet. And she was utterly silent as he ran a second armor diagnostic to confirm her appraisal of the situation. It was completely true. Beyond that, the scanner detected a failed video linkup soon after his entry, a painkiller injection from the medpack while he was in the dining room, and a foreign software invasion about a minute before when Fortuna had leaned up against him. It was then all the pieces finally connected in his mind.
“You’re an AI.”
“Smart kitten. You were awake during that class. I am an Artificial Intelligence of the finest degree, for your information. The only others in existence are those prototypes built by the renowned scientist Professor Isaac Hackle previous to his death and I’m sure you can see I am a level above and beyond even those beta units.”
“You know a lot for a she-kat stuck in a concrete death trap all her life.” This seemed to strike a nerve in Fortuna as she sat up and spoke with more vehemence than ever.
“Just because I’m in here and not out there doesn’t mean I don’t hear the news, Commander. I have access to every form of wavelength communication created so far and can read 1500 words a second if I find a the subject interesting. And this place isn’t so bad. I’ve kept it in incredible shape for its age. So don’t talk to me as if I was a kitten, Tailor, because I’ve been alive nearly 40 years, same as you, and was programmed to grow by experience and trial and error, same as you.” She leaned back again and waited for his answer. By her expression, it was not what she expected. He should have apologized in her mind but instead the kat sat running an armored paw through his hair and scratching a bit behind his left ear before asking her a question.
“Then why do you behave as if you’re a teenager hotshot?” She stood and paced a bit before stretching her arms, paws, and claws out again. Her tone this time was quiet and thoughtful.
“Wouldn’t you have an ego trip if you could sense everything in a 750 foot cube? Every smell, feeling, sight, sound, and even taste in this entire house. And with a little more effort, everything traveling by computer, telephone, wire, radio, or television for a hundred miles? If you wanted the curtains blue instead of white, would they be that way? If you wanted the life of the burglar who came after all the valuables you cared for in your house, it was yours for the taking?” She stopped at that and seemed ready to speak again, so Rory withheld his ethics lectures. “And anyway, I don’t know. My creator blocked me off from his building notes and identity before he left me alone.”
“You don’t know where you came from or why? Just that your job was to kill anything that came here?” Fortuna shook her head and motioned for him to stand as she returned to stand by the couch.
“It’s more than that. I’m supposed to grow, grow up, I guess, through my experiences. But I can’t do that, for some reason. It’s as if every time I try and reach the next level of understanding about myself, it’s out of my reach.” Her tone changed to one of minor insult as she crossed her arms in front of her. “And I’m not supposed to kill everyone, just the criminals and trespassers. You’re not dead yet, are you?”
“That’s by my own luck entirely. If I had been killed by that collapsing staircase or the laser cannon you’d have been pleased to see me go.”
“I didn’t know who you were! I only pay attention to the text around here these days. I listen to the TV while I work, for Christ’s sake. It’s not my fault you Enforcers keep an antique around as your central processor!!!” Holding up his paws in surrender at the verbal onslaught, Rory nodded.
“You’re right. I apologize. I’m sorry. Will you please help me find and capture Dr. Viper?” She nodded.
“Be glad to. It’s perfect you’re here, really, because that twisted lizard-kat made it all the way up to the safe room and I can yell at him and all sorts of psychological warfare, which he ignores, but I can’t law a paw, tentacle, or nanobot on him.” She held out her paw for Rory to shake in agreement of their truce and alliance but as they touched, he felt Fortuna flinch and withdraw her attention deep inside her mind.
“Are you alright?” His concern was genuine, stopping her in mid-denial and instead drawing the truth out of the flighty she-kat AI.
“Not really. I just lost a code block. Someone’s invading my system. I know I promised to help you, but this feels wrong. Less mechanical, more alive. Almost like a techno-organic. I hope I’m not virused Anyway, I can turn off the really lethal kill-em-before-they-know-what-hit-em traps, but I can’t turn off the pain-inducing variety, even for the good guys. In the dining room, all the lasers are located behind the family crests high up on the walls and pointed to reflect off the plates. I know there are a lot, but if you can hit them first, the lasers’ll just go through the table. That’s the way out of that one. Then there’s the kitchen,” she laughed in mid-sentence, “that one’s a doozy. My hint for you is to stay low to the ground, I meant like flat on the floor, and don’t get up ’till you reach the oven. Then head for the door. You’ll find the stairs going upstairs. A good hit for this one is the fact that you’ve already learned that stairs aren’t safe things at all. Now I’ll meet you upstairs. I’ve got a virus check to run.” Leaving Rory no time to react, she simply vanished, as if the stunning she-kat was never there in the first place.
“Yeah thanks.” He spent a moment more examining the room and returning his helmet to its secure place upon his head before giving the couch a good solid kick and moving for the door. He heard the creak of leather behind him and fired his blaster in its general direction behind his back without even looking. The creaking ended while the snow on the TV returned to its ceiling view of the parlor.
“Nice place you got here, Fortuna.” Blaster ready, he swung open the door to the dining room and leveled his blaster, firing at the nearest plate as he heard the predictable whine of the lasers powering up. But, the Commander had forgotten one important detail and it certainly came back to him. The forgotten item returned to his mind just as the blaster fire returned, reflected from the plate. After a frightening moment of singed fur and one heck of an adrenaline rush, this tactic was abandoned for other, more creative uses for an Enforcer issue blaster than were originally outlined in the handbook. His favorite, and most effective, turned out to be using the barrel as the handle and the handle as a club. A very effective plate smasher. And true to Fortuna’s word, the lasers sliced right through the table and were easily avoidable.
“Well, that clue was right. Now, let’s see what’s so special about this kitchen ” Upon entering, Rory had a few seconds to analyze the layout of the classic-looking porcelain kitchen before he threw his armored body flat on the tile floor with a loud crash. He inched forward on his stomach and began to feel like Fortuna must be laughing at him from behind another camera. But only for a moment. It was at the point when he was ready to stand up and face her that the cabinets to the left and right above him swung open and blasted fireball strength flames where Rory’s head would have been, had he been standing. As it was, the armor took another heating as the Commander continued this way down the kitchen’s central aisle. Remembering the instructions, the moment he reached the oven he jumped up and over the oven’s path, as it opened and threw flames that would have charred him solid had he stayed on the floor. The slightly-cooked kat commander stood a second near the door, assuming it to be safe breathing ground before he realized how deadly that assumption could be and dove through the door out of the kitchen.
“That’s right, I’d almost forgotten there were more stairs here.” His groan echoed evilly up the dimly lit wooden staircase. While the top of the stairs were in sight, what lay beyond them was, as usual, hidden behind a door.
“Stairs aren’t a safe thing.” He repeated Fortuna’s warning as he drew his blaster and fired on the first step as an experiment. Logic told him that if he broke the first step he could always jump it to the next step. But something happened. As the laser burned through the wooden step, the wood plank sitting up at a perpendicular angle between the destroyed step and the next one slammed down with a force that shook the staircase and would have permanently crippled Rory had his foot been there instead. But, the bonus was that while the first step was destroyed, the plank that had fallen over it formed an excellent replacement. A test of his food and weight on it also proved the new step sturdy and solid. And so he progressed upwards, shooting out the original stairs and climbing to the top on the planks that fell to replace them. The effect reminded Rory of a series of mousetraps he once saw set up in domino fashion. When he finally reached the top, he saw a star on the floor and smiled.
“It may have been years since I played a good arcade game, but I still know when I’ve moved on to Level 2.”
MEET trooper Noah Jameson watched the two S.M.E.V.s under his control with a nervousness almost palpable. His fellows made motions to help calm him down, but nothing was really helping. After all, even though the Commander was green in all zones once more, his armor temp was still jumping like a pogo stick, and he kept running into inexplicable minor damages. That, in itself, would not have placed Noah in that state. That additional stress was caused by the second S.M.E.V. the white kat was monitoring . . . that one that said that his MEET squadron commander, the Lieutenant Commander Katrina Sheer had vanished from the sight of his cyber grid scanners. Of course, that was his breaking point.
His white furred paws flowed once through his regulation length crop of thick hair before he cracked his knuckles for the nth time and began reentering the scanner codes.
“Come on back ma’am. Come on . . . ” His voice was like that of a worried mother calling to her kitten in the huge network of city alleys behind her home. And, for one of the amazing rare moments in the life of a MEET kat, Noah wondered if life would have been better without the computers, the cyber network, and the seemingly cold, dark civilization of MegaKat City. His attention wandered away from the screen to a land where green trees stretched forever, the water flowed clean and clear, and the electronics that created Felinectroid and the chemicals that created Dr. Viper had never been seen on the face of the Earth before. Then again, if those dangers had never existed before, people like him and the Enforcers would never be ready for them when they came. And that means the city would have long ago been wiped off the face of the planet. So maybe there was some good in the forward march of time. It meant that the prey learned to survive as well as the predators.
Enforcer Lt. Commander and MEET Force Commander Katrina Sheer was not 3 steps past the shattered blockade into the digital access tunnel beyond before she recognized the tell-tale signs of a homemade network. It was as if she had moved from a subrail tunnel to an underground cavern in the manner of walls around her.
“I want a hand monitor with a continual feed from the Commander’s medical charts. Upload! Materialize! I want a notepad chat linkup with the S.M.E.V. terminal in use by Enforcer trooper Jameson. Upload! Materialize!” Once in possession of the hand held computer she lay the charts, digitized as a 1×1 foot throw rug, on the floor of the tunnel for examination. Her claws on the keys did her speaking for her.
[Good job, Jameson. Breathing rate’s good. Heart rate’s up but green. Temp’s up but green.] The reply arrived on her screen a moment later.
[I wish I could take the credit, ma’am, but he stabilized before you were fully logged on. Lt. Commander? There’s something over on the hormone charts I think you’ll want to see. Nothing dangerous. Just strange.] She nodded to herself. Katrina worked a bit on the rug, touching areas to bring up other categories of charts until she found the hormone monitor.
“What the ?” [Jameson, confirm that I’m seeing the abnormality as a spike in testosterone?]
[That’s it Lt. Commander. I sure can’t puzzle it out.]
[If not for that armor temp rise and the currently multiplying pinpoints, I’d say the Commander was handling himself fine.]
A voice rang out around the she-kat, startling her into dropping the communicator. This, sadly, caused it to dematerialize.
“That’s funny, so would I. Though I truthfully wouldn’t think it any of your business how the Enforcer Commander is braving my maze.” Floating above Katrina’s head was a she-kat to stare at. She looked as though she would stand up to a wrecking ball without mussing her brilliantly tiger striped fur. And that was equally in her body as in her devil-may care attitude. It was her words that really caught Katrina’s attention. And made her see blood red. “Upload Paralyzation Infection! Materialize!” Her voice fairly shook with rage as she prepared to catch and loose the breakdown virus on “her maze”. But it never digitized and all she was left with was an armed she-kat persona with an obviously sadistic grin on her face.
“Ah, ah, ah,” she chided, waving a well manicured clawtip back and forth. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Then again, I’m not, and I’m pretty sure you won’t be too pleased to be you in a moment either, technorg.” Waving her hand, a bulky glove-looking device digitized, encompassing her entire wrist, very mechanical and dangerous in its look. Staring down the three barrels it presented, Katrina dove for cover just in time to see a glob of semi-solid liquid fly past her right hip and flatten onto the wall, hard as a rock. But not in time for the strange eight pronged projectile that slammed into her chest, knocking her flat onto the floor and pinning her struggling body there. It was no surprise when the cyber enforcer heard the echo of footsteps and saw the looming figure of a royal blue arm attached to a black glove, a mechanical monstrosity of a hand held weapon recently smoking from its attack, and five “hooker red” polished clawtips brushing up against her whiskers.
“Not much of a fight for a technorg, but then again, I don’t remember any virus that stood long against the ol’ octopus missile. Ready to meet that hell that evil little programs like you deserve for being created?” The teeth she was showing seemed even more pointed than a normal kat should have possessed, and the bloodlust in her eyes was incredible. Katrina was sputtering a moment before she could burst out her cry.
“Technorg!? I’m no program! I’m a kat digital persona! Enjoy killing Enforcer Lieutenant Commander Katrina Sheer, because you sure as HELL won’t get rid of Commander Tailor in your concrete walls!” She closed her eyes, preparing for the death blow, but it never came. Opening her eyes, she saw the stunned expression on the villainous she-kat’s face as she stepped back and waved a slightly shaking paw. At this motion, the pronged restraints around Katrina vanished. She muttered to herself something that sounded like, “glovitrix dematerialize,” then offered her now plain gloved paw to Katrina in aid. Her voice was steady and sincere in its shock.
“My name is Fortuna, Lt. Commander. And I apologize.” Eyes shifting back and forth, alert for deceit, she finally gripped the paw and pulled herself up. The two she-kats were utterly silent until Fortuna cleared her throat and explained the situation.
“Your commander came into my territory in pursuit of Purvis Viper, whom I have trapped in the only safe room in my ‘concrete walls’. I am the local AI in charge of this house. And let me assure you, it is a house. Your Commander is currently heading for the stairs that will take him up to the second floor, where Viper and the more dangerous traps lie. But I’m trying to take care of him.” She read the question lingering in Katrina’s eyes and nodded. “He’s in one piece.” As an afterthought, she smiled thoughtfully and commented to herself, “And not a bad piece at that.”
Katrina chuckled and shook her head, partially at the fact that she should be irritated at that comment, but mostly in agreement.
“Would it be safe to guess you’re the one responsible for that testosterone spike?” She motioned to the hormone chart at her feet. As Fortuna glanced over it, she blushed a bit. To Katrina, her mask of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants seemed to fade a bit to reveal a truly complimented young she-kat. And she liked her. But the curiosity of a cyber Enforcer never dies so easily and just thinking of the possibility of a locally operating AI system with full emotion and physical capacity made her head spin.
“How do you work?” So many questions condensed into one understated effort at them all. Fortuna had every right to ignore that question, but instead, she chose to follow her instincts and offer what she could to this Enforcer who risked leaving her physical body comatose to come virtually break down a code block between herself and her superior officer.
“You know, my creator bred into me a firm respect for Enforcers and their lives. I have a few files put together that explain some of the technicals without allowing for duplication instructions. I can download that to your system..” The light in Katrina’s eyes was enough thanks. But that happy glow was rapidly replaced by the furrowed brows of worry returning.
“You say that you’re taking care of Commander Tailor, but I can’t just sit here and fidget at my terminal. Is there anyway, anything, I can do to help you both out?” Her paws wrung together, then through her auburn hair, and then went back to their wringing motion as Fortuna began to shake her head in a negative reply. But the AI laid her won paw over Katrina’s knot of claws in a calming fashion as an idea struck her.
“Now that you mention it, there may just be someway you can speed this up for both of us. And save him a few more ribs. You’re pretty good with a Cracker, aren’t you?” Katrina nodded, her own moment of glory in the light of this technical wizard world. “I’m limited by the fact that my creator placed blocks on the amount of help I’m allowed to donate to maze travelers. I’ve never had a problem wit them before as, well,” she avoided Katrina’s gaze, “I’ve never tried to help anyone survive before.” As the idea began to solidify, Fortuna’s speech sped up in her excitement. “But, there are only four major blocks and if we could just break the first one before he starts in on the second floor, it’ll really help. I think I’ll be able to give him hints on those traps too.” Katrina nodded, not understanding all the information Fortuna was spouting rapid fire, but seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally.
“Wait a minute. If you’re so powerful a computer network, why haven’t you cracked these blocks before now?”
“Well, like I said, I never really had much of a reason to test them, but mostly because I have a direct code sequence in my programming that forbids and keeps me from even touching those blocks. That’s why I need help from an outside source. Like you.” Once again, she offered her paw out to be taken. “I need you. Rory needs you. I can take you to the block right now. Will you help me, Lieutenant commander Katrina Sheer?” A light “breeze” flowed through the tunnel around them, seeping through fur and hair alike, almost with a shiver of anticipation. Without a word, with only a firm nod and a confident smile, she tightly grasped Fortuna’s hand. The light flowing of current swept the two she-kats up as if shifted to a full force gale strength, the scenery a blur of blue tunnels until they were deposited in front of a code block identical to that Katrina had just faced.
“Hmmm nothing special here.” Katrina’s clawtips scratched the corners of the antique barrier, testing, probing, prodding. “It’s really old though. Which is why it’s so amazing to see it. This computer blockade is older than I am and better than anything I’ve ever written.” Her violet eyes turned up towards Fortuna’s questioningly, but her only reply was an orange striped shrug.
“Remember? I’ve never touched it before. I can only assume they were created just before I was activated. And I was activated before you were born.” Katrina’s expression was certainly surprised at those words from the slim twenty-something she-kat. But she only returned to her examination.
“This is sealed tight. How do you know this block has what you think it does inside?” Fortuna shook her head, tossing the pale orange hair from one shoulder to the other.
“I’d call it feminine intuition, if I was a legally recognized she-kat. I don’t have a word for it though, except that there is a fair chunk of memory being taken up by those three blocks and I doubt my creator would have left me without the means to control my own abilities would they?” her voice was tense and even worried in the rare moment of doubt, before she snapped two claws together and the cracker materialized. She handed it to Katrina and settled herself on the floor. “Please try.”
“You doubted I’d even try? I’ve prepared all my Enforcer career for a moment to go up against technology like you. Felinectroid is even dimming a bit in comparison.” She typed rapidly, her excitement apparent in her entire charged manner. It was as if she had drained a little of the digital environment into herself. Her eyebrows furrowed in annoyance as she hit her first snag. “Alpha-numeric isn’t working Let me try numeric up to 50 spaces..” As she muttered to herself, Fortuna smiled and responded to the previous comment. “Felinectroid? And myself? I am flattered dear Lieutenant Commander, but Curtis Wyre was, is, probably the most brilliant computer programmer alive. I just barely kept him from snooping into my network drain. I was startled enough that he even detected my presence under all that cloaking ” She was cut off as Katrina flopped back on her heels and sighed.
“I doubt it’d be something so generic as a pure alpha code but, here goes.” It was less than a second later when the cracker began vibrating, the code block answered the frequency and vanished. Fortuna was on her feet in a second.
“You didn’t crack that! You found the code!”
“Fortuna, have you never tried a dictionary scanner on no, I forgot, you can’t mess with this. Fortuna, the code is in standard English. Access it with the word ‘luck’.” Fortuna closed her eyes and engaged the command and was swept away mentally. Behind the block was the program alteration allowing her the ability to warn Rory about the 2nd level traps and disengage the instant death obstacles. But there was something else. A Virtual Reality file. She opened it and found the wind racing around her at a mach level. Eyes wide, she looked around to find herself in the cockpit of a *gorgeous* jet, paws on the controls, diving, climbing, racing. The scenery of the city flashing into site and vanishing again at a rapid-fire pace as the hands, moving constantly without her control, spun the aircraft into a tight barrel roll. And somewhere, deep in her soul, if the programmed she-kat could ever admit to having a soul, she thrilled at it.
“Hey, are you alright, Fortuna? I know interfacing with the older software should be hard but you said we had to hurry for Rory.” Katrina spoke up as she noticed a shudder ripple Fortuna’s fur and bodysuit. The hologram shook her head in confusion, coming out of her daze, and nodded.
“You’re right. The block had exactly what I’ve been looking for.” There was an odd tone to her words, as if they held some kind of double meaning. “The next block is a good distance from here, but I need to get to him. Think you’ll be alright?” At the Enforcer’s nod of affirmation, she was suddenly left alone to her thoughts, with only the crackling energy wisp remaining of the object of her curiosity, and what seemed to be miles of blue tunnel before her.
*Interlude* The figure coughed. It had been too long since it had found cause to think.
“What is the year now? Ah, 2040. I’m impressed with you Fortuna. You are evolving faster than I ever dreamed, little kitten. It was the breaking of that first code block that awakened me. It is time for you to mature. Will it be for good or evil? But, to business nice network setup. You seem to have extended all the way through the city electric utilities and outwards to the Enforcer main computer? I’m impressed. Now, who broke that block for you? A she-kat an Enforcer she-kat let’s access that little network of yours to the Enforcer CPU and that is one slow piece of junk. I won’t wait for that. Maybe it’s tucked away in your RAM system. Ah yes, there she is. The Enforcer Lieutenant Commander Katrina Sheer, head of the cybernetics forces? I didn’t realize they had a cybernetics attack force what’s this? Initially founded to combat the appearance of the cyber villain Felinectroid. I must be really behind on the times here.”
“What’s this? Two live entities? Let me see. I don’t recognize the one at the top of the stairs and the RAM says? The commander of the Enforcers? One Rory Tailor? This is just too rich. The figures who actually reach Fortuna in the end are those who began the cycle that created her. The irony would drip from my tongue. If I still had one, that is. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. And who is the other VIPER?! That explains the Enforcer presence. Alright, I’m still on the sidelines here, and know you can’t access this program, Fortuna, but go get that scaly piece of garbage. For me.”
Rory was ready when Fortuna reappeared at the top of the stairs. He didn’t jump, or shudder, or wince. In fact, he even smiled as she examined him carefully from head to feet.
“No missing limbs yet. Good.” She quirked a half-smile at him and turn to open the door in front of them.
“That door’s locked, you can’t open…” The knob turned silently and the thick door swung open. “. . . it.” She chuckled, and he knew better than to speak. So instead he looked at the new area before him. It was a plain, ordinary hallway, with seven or eight doors on it, overhead lighting coming from lamp alcoves near the ceiling. “At least this room is well lit. Don’t tell me, the lights explode?”
“Nope.” She said cheerfully. “The doorknobs.”
“Oh yeah, that was next on my list. So, how do we get into the rooms?” He asked, puzzled. His reply came fast enough.
“Through the doors, how else?” There was this infuriating quality to her answers, as if they were the only answers decreed by the gods and she couldn’t understand how anyone else wouldn’t know them.
“But you just said…” Rory’s gauntlet twitched at the thought of gripping a doorknob, to have it react like a spitting hand grenade seconds later. She turned back to him and recognition seemed to finally dawn as she laughed lightly.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you thought I meant that the doorknobs would still be active when you went inside. No, no, I’ve turned off the traps set to destroy you on contact.” Her absolute calm set his nerves on edge strangely. He swallowed back the bitter remark he had instinctively felt appropriate to this situation and instead allowed his brain to find a more diplomatic suggestion.
“Well that’s nice of you. Be sure to tell me these things. By the way, how was the virus hunting?” While it was a seemingly harmless line, he noticed it sobered Fortuna instantly. The Commander listened carefully for what must be the next trial in his search for Viper.
“It wasn’t a virus, Tailor. It was your Lieutenant Commander.” He thought she sounded almost guilty before the full import of her words struck him. She had destroyed Katrina! He wanted to lunge again, but knew he would end up on the carpeted floor so he simply shook. Violently. His gauntlets quivered and his words came quick and short with shaky breath.
“What did you do to her?”
“Me? I didn’t do anything to her. She helped me find the code block that allowed the transfer of previously withheld data and . . .” Fortuna continued on, unaware she had lost the attention of her sole audience member. He had jumped to the conclusion that she would be as deadly as the rest of this madhouse. How good it was to be wrong for once. But if Katrina was inside, who was monitoring his signals and that rookie Briggs? In the typical fashion of a man reminded of greater duties than his own fur, Rory was about to wander off in thought again. However, a few choice words from Fortuna held his wavering attention. “. . . and so the instant death traps have been shut off and I can even give you a few more tips on how to avoid the traps on this floor once Lieutenant Commander Sheer gets that second code block open.” Her good spirit was growing infectious. After all, if she, the controller of this entire house, was friendly to him, what was there to fear?
“Then let’s get started.” He reached for the first door, hovering over the knob for ten seconds before he overcame his fear and grasped it. As promised, nothing happened and he turned the knob stepping into the first room. It was a bedroom, warm and clean in appearance, and huge. It was obvious that most of this floor had been taken up by this room. Somewhere in Rory’s mind, it even struck him that all the rest of the doors out in the hallway should have led into this room, but didn’t. More holograms. He took a few steps forward in the rich burgundy carpet and heard the door slam shut behind him. As usual. The good mood he had felt moments earlier was draining out of him like water through a sieve. And a paranoia was returning to take its place. He stopped and gave the room his total analytical attention. Two solid wood dressers, a large water bed, several potted plants, a complicated stereo system, what looked like a large walk-in closet, and a closed door to his left. He stepped to the left towards the door when it dawned on him that Fortuna was missing.
“Fortuna? Are you here?” There was a small sound, like the brush of a tiny breeze and he caught a flash of blue out of peripheral. Turning to face her, she nodded. “Are you alright?” Again she nodded, and he noticed, that when she reached to rest a paw on his shoulder, it simply passed through. That’s right, he remembered, she can’t help me now. Obviously no hints yet, or she would have given me one.
“Nice room you have here.” He expected to get a smile for his troubles, but instead only a strange sad, lost look passed over her features.
“Thank you. But it’s not mine.” Her eyes rested over her shoulder she shifted nervously. Rory noticed, but couldn’t attribute it to anything specific.
“But I thought everything in this house was yours. Was you.” She swallowed hard and her fidgeting became more pronounced.
“It is. But this room isn’t mine.” This made no sense to the Commander and he shook his head, growing annoyed at her riddles. He turned back to the door and gripped the handle only to find it locked. No surprise there. He tested the strength of it, throwing his armored body up against it a few time before turning back to Fortuna and opening his mouth to speak, only to find her peering over her shoulder at the closet. The Commander of the Enforcers was never horribly interested in mysteries and decided to end this one as soon as possible.
“Ah, so that’s where the surprise in this one is? Well, shielding’s up, you’ve become redundant with fire and lasers. I wonder what this one will be.” His bravado was still hanging in the room as he crossed the room in several large strides. His paw slid into the handle slot pulled on the sliding wooden door, keeping his back to Fortuna. She stood still in her previous position, her face contorted in a scream of warning, her hand motions frantic, reaching towards Rory. The mistress of the house was no longer in control of her own functions. Her own will told her to stop him, her own voice pleaded with him to leave the closet alone. But that was against the rules, so she remained silent and distanced against her own will. At the sound of the door scraping open on its rails, she huddled into a miserable ball on the floor and closed her eyes, before vanishing.
Rory turned around to face the room, forcing a chuckle back down his throat.
“Fortuna, there’s nothing here, only a closet of old-fashioned clothes Fortuna, where are you?” The question was not answered before the creaking registered in his mind. It was the kind of *creak* *creak* sound effect used when a kat was hung in the old western vid-films and the body was left swinging on the rope with a creaking gallows beam. It came from the closet and the Commander noticed the coat hangers were swinging slightly to the sound, as if a breeze in the room set them to moving. The whole image unnerved him. The nervous kat felt the fur rise all along his back under his armor and drew his blaster, stepping backwards from the closet.
“Fortuna? Fortuna, what is this? Answer me!” His voice didn’t echo this time, in fact, he barely heard it at all as the creaking had increased to the volume where kats begin banging on walls and telling you what time it is. It seemed to be more in his head than around him and as the swinging on the clothing increased, a feeling of panic made his claws from his gauntlet and his muscles twitch in protest to his unwillingness to flee. Fighting for control he went back to the door and tried to break it down again. The results were the same. The laser had no effect on it, nor did the desperate claw slash even mar its wood surface. The tiny voice in his head encouraging calm and peaceful feeling was drowned by the deathly creaking. And like Fortuna before him, Rory Tailor found himself huddled on the rich burgundy carpet, gripping clumps of it in his claws, fighting to keep a hold on his sanity.
——————————————————————— ———————————————————– “LIEUTENANT SHEER!” Katrina jerked her head up violently from her cracker at the scream. Fortuna was running towards her quickly, her facial expression foretelling disaster the Commander!
“What’s wrong? Tell me. Tell me he’s not dead!” Her own voice rose a bit in force but calmed quickly, knowing she was a better officer than to panic under stress.
“No no not yet he’s not. But he might be if you don’t hurry. I can’t tell him where the door latch is and this room is one of the worst.” She paced the tunnel next to Katrina her paws gripping into fists in anger at her own helplessness, a gesture very fitting to the she-kat. It was almost as if she were molded to have all the proper gestures and persona of a real kat instead of a personality file.
“I’m on it. Sending dictionary scanner codeword is fate. Good luck.” As soon as the barrier vanished, Katrina was on her feet and running for the final codeblock. Fortuna watched her for a moment before accessing this next file, the program for second floor hints was downloaded as well as another video file. She felt a strong longing to open it now, but knew it would distract her from helping Rory.
“Don’t worry hero, the digital damsel in distress is on her way.”
——————————————————————— ———————————————————– He hadn’t noticed the bodies until they began walking towards him. They had been in the swinging clothing so far as he could reason, which wasn’t very far. Even through the mental fog violently rejecting the sound invading his mind he recognized faces. Almost. One of the figures lumbering across the carpet towards him was Hard Drive, but not the Hard Drive currently finishing up his life sentence in Al-kat-traz, this one was younger looking, as if more vitality had been found in his death. And his death had been horrible from the looks of it, the millions of wires of his primitive electronics coat growing into his flesh, burned from the electricity and conduction. A figure in the dress of the older pilots looked almost normal until Rory discovered that it seemed his neck had been snapped and his head turned 180 degrees. But two eyes still stared blind and dead at him from over his trimmed neck hair! How was this possible? He tried to meld with the door as the most gruesome figure of all stepped from the depths of the closet. The villain known in Enforcer computer records as Dark Kat came forward to demonstrate his cadaver, robes soaked through, purple face bloated and sagged from an obviously extended drowning. The mind of a normal kat was never meant for such images and for all his vaulted authority and power, Rory was fairly normal. Thus, his mind froze at the dozens of criminal zombies moving for him, locking the muscles of his body with it.
“Commander Tailor, pay attention. The door switch is in the top drawer of the bureau to your left. Pull it to stop the monsters. The dead creatures are not real. Commander Tailor, pay attention. The door switch is in the top drawer of the bureau to your left. Pull it to stop the monsters. The dead creatures are not real. Commander Tailor, pay attention. The door switch is in the top drawer of the bureau to your left. Pull it to stop the monsters. The dead creatures are not real .” He shook his head as the gentle voice final penetrated. At first he couldn’t recognize it and didn’t understand most of the words, feeling confused and helpless. But three were clear. To Stop Monsters. Pull It. Pull what? The door switch. Where is the door switch? In the top drawer to your left. Still not having the courage to open his eyes, his left paw flew blindly up the wood bureau, gouging splinters out of it until it found a drawer. It was ripped open and he felt a small object like a lever. Rory thrashed his paw at it again and again until he felt too weak to continue trying. The creaking had stopped but Rory understood not to move. It was some amount of time before he opened his eyes slowly. There was a she-kat in from of him. She smiled and held out her hand but he kept away from it in suspicion.
“It’s me Commander. Are you all right?” The word Commander felt important to him and slowly his mind woke up from its nightmare and stretched out. When he felt he could use his paws and feet again he stood shakily and looked at the she-kat again. What was her name again? Katrina? No, that was someone else.
“Fortuna?” She smiled.
“Good. I was afraid we’d lost you, buddy. I’ve never had a healthy respect for Enforcers, but I would have been terribly sorry to see you go. ” In spite of her attempt at wit, Rory could only nod. It was a bit too early for a humor.
About ten minutes later was a perfect time for humor. Or at least conversation.
“What is this room anyway?” Rory eyed the open, empty closet with a new respect now.
“The second floor only has three rooms but two of them will blow you away. Literally. And even if you were, say impervious to extreme physical harm like our friend Viper you would still have to deal with the holographic gore and death to get through. And for anyone still sane, Viper not included in that category, that’s a hard thing to do. He was startled, yes, but I think that was more for having known some of those criminals than for any fear or disgust.” Rory sat with his helmet off on the water bed rubbing his temples and resting from his brief meeting with Dementia. He had just convinced his armored, bruised, tired body that it really did want to go into the next room when he became curious again. A good sign.
“Why criminals? Why was this room built to display your criminal slaughters?” Her reaction was partially laughter and partially a thoughtful response.
“Those aren’t my kills. I never killed anybody that special. Okay, so I once crippled Hard Drive with an energy overload, but he never set foot in this house. I always wondered that about my creator. At sometimes he seems very kind and generous, while others, like this room, make him appear as vindictive and horrible. I’m not sure about him at all. I can only know that he was sad. Very sad.” Her face lit up as a memory set aside returned. “Speaking of the creator, I have a file I need to look at.” She turned to the Enforcer in her home. “Commander, please go on to the next room. The door is now unlocked. Do not go beyond the carpet until I get there. If I am right, this will all be over with soon.” When he nodded his acceptance to her, she vanished again.
Rory stood and moved away from the bed, replacing his helmet before opening the door.
——————————————————————— ———————————————————– Fortuna was not surprised when she saw she was now in a warehouse. Dark and full of brown boxes labeled Pumadyne, she understood that this must be what it was like when Rory Tailor and Katrina Sheer dreamed. She was not even surprised when the robed purple figure, unlike the one she knew by her programming (this one was alive and undrowned), stepped out in front of her. What surprised her was her own voice ringing out in proud defiance as her arm raised and aimed the glovitrix at him. I thought when one dreamed they had an element of control. Silly computer, you’re not dreaming. You’re watching a video file. Nothing more.
“That’s as far as this goes Dark Kat. Megakat City will never be yours.” The figure before her laughed an evil booming laugh and the she-kat felt the emotion of righteous indignation at this insult. Without another word, she fired two rounds of the cement gun at him. The moment the laughing face vanished, so did the warehouse. Strange, she thought, the first made me happy, the next made me angry. What are these files? I wonder what the final one will be.
She stepped next to Katrina as she reached the final codeblock. Lieutenant Sheer, for her part, did not seem surprised to see her and called for her cracker again. First a chat hand console appeared and the Enforcer actually laughed upon viewing it. Fortuna leaned over to see the message [His brainwaves were out the window for a minute along with his heartrate, but he’s fine again. How did you manage to copy your self and send one in to take care of him?] When she was sure Fortuna had finished reading, she typed the reply, [I’ll tell you about it sometime. Now send me my Cracker, Jameson.] The console dematerialized and the cracker arrived.
Katrina prepared to send the last dictionary scanner when Fortuna rested a paw on her shoulder. She looked up curiously, and the gaze that met her was solid, and serious. Different from the free-spirited she-kat of previous encounter, and yet somehow, the kat she was always meant to be.
“Allow me? Computer, access blockage in area #72961 with code key ‘random’.” The code block in front of her opened slowly, almost in protest and Katrina was surprised to see Fortuna’s hopeful smile drop almost instantly upon investigation.
“Is everything alright? The file to help Rory is in there right?” The AI shook her head, not in response, but to clear whatever cobwebs form quickly in the minds of programs and the smile almost returned.
“Yes, it’s there. I better be getting back to him.” She began to fade away and would have made a clean escape if Katrina had been a she-kat of less electronic empathy. The Lieutenant Commander had grabbed her by the tail, causing a jolt in her teleport. Fortuna turned to Katrina with an eyebrow raised in question and forced an odd sound out of her throat for effect. But the Enforcer was not fazed.
“Fortuna? What was it you were looking for?” Their gazes met, and for a brief second there was only a thin layer of looking glass between them, one face mirroring another soul. Officer reflected as automation, mechanization represented in the form of magistrate. With the quiet sound of glass falling apart there was a blink, a twitch and it was over. Fortuna sighed.
“I don’t know. But it wasn’t there.” With a swift flick of her tail, she dislodged it from Katrina’s grasp and vanished. Lieutenant Commander Sheer settled against the wall and prepared to log-off when the tunnels around her blasted out Fortuna’s words.
“STAY IN THE NETWORK. YOUR COMMANDER WILL NEED YOUR HELP CAPTURING VIPER.”
The room was nothing spectacular. Not by the standards of the rest of the building, that is. But judged on its own, it was at least impressive. Royal blue tiling stretched the length of the dining room, which it resembled in shape, except that this time elegance had been traded for practicality. Mirrors lined all four walls, interrupted only by the wooden door behind Rory. Various pieces of exercise equipment were scattered throughout the room, with the central figure being the large weight-lifting set of steel and iron. He had been unable to find another door yet, but was also trapped on a small square of burgundy carpeting so he was sure his chances would improve upon Fortuna’s return. Which wasn’t much longer.
“Miss me? Time to finish this.” Despite her cheerfulness, Rory understood that something was wrong. He had not been in the house as long as his aching body claimed he had, but Fortuna was so real to him, so individual, that she did not behave like any AI he had ever met. Thus, even when upset, she could not hide her pain behind a program cover. She could only create bravado, the same as any she-kat . . . like Katrina. Despite her smile, there was a quiver to both voice and whiskers that Rory could not ignore.
“Of course I did. What do you mean? And why are you so nervous? Please tell me Fortuna. I want to help you as you’ve helped me.” His paw was gripped tightly around her arm and he had even lifted his visor, so as to see her eye to eye. But she only shook her head, that same plastic smile glued on.
“There’s nothing you can do Commander. You were right. Plain and simple. I was built for no better reason than because MegaKat City’s prisons were too full 40 years ago. The reason I am emotionally trapped where I am is because there is nowhere farther for me to go. I could give up, and kill you and let Viper starve to death and that would be the end of it. But I won’t. I’ll at least prove better than that.” Rory tried to speak but she rushed on past him, words becoming a jumble, and the grating edge of her voice growing harsh with restrained violence. “Shut up. Put your visor down. You’ll need it. I don’t need you or anyone else. I’ve been alone this long and I can handle myself and *my* house just fine thank you. You’ll be the one needing the help. After all. I’m the best of my kind. And the worst.” Tail thrashing an angry tempo behind her, she stepped away from Rory and lifted her hands up high in the air, as if to call a tempest down upon them both. The kat half-expected a violent wind to spring up from nowhere, far worse had happened without warning, but there was nothing. Only silence.
And then that silence was shattered, literally by the breaking of mirror after mirror after mirror, one by one, glass spraying violently outwards from 10 different locations, all at him. Somehow, the armor took the battering. But as nothing was ever that easy or simple anymore, he stood ready. Out of the storm’s calm came Fortuna’s voice again.
“The final room is this training room. You’ve already fought fire, and lazers, and monsters, and enemies. But are you ready, high and mighty Commander of the Enforcers…to fight yourself?” He didn’t even turn to look at her. He already knew the she-kat was gone. And in the order they had broken the pieces of each mirror shifted and skittered across the tiles until they lay in nice neat piles before each scarred frame. Then, a foot formed out of the mass, and another. Two legs, covered in armored guards were distinctly the next shapes molded. So each pile continued upwards until they reached the correct height of six feet, helmet included, and ten mirror images of the Enforcer Commander Rory Tailor stepped forward to due battle. The eleventh and original did not falter as he charged the nearest golem, smashing it with his armored body.
Each of his copies drew their blasters and went through the motions of firing, but nothing emerged. She really is trying to kill me, Rory thought sadly. “There is no failure, except in no longer trying.” Who said that, he wondered? And then the moment of peace and thought was gone and another image of himself was attacking. A strange time to think of quotes, he supposed, but they kept coming anyway. “If at first you do succeed – try to hide your astonishment.” He chuckled weakly at that one as the third glass figure crunched under his foot. “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” Sorry, Rory told himself, as he worked to punch the fourth figure’s helmeted face inward, I doubt you were thinking of this situation anyway . . . whoever you are. “Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.” Yeah, whoever said that had it right on the whisker. The fifth returned to a pile of broken glass.
“It is said that one machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine, however, can do the work of one extraordinary man.” It was only after the words had passed through his lips that Rory realized that he was saying the quotes now, using them almost like a driving force as his armor was slashed under the razor-sharp assaults of his silent opponents. None moved towards him until his predecessor had already been trampled, giving him only a second’s rest and no time to breath, or think, or recover. The words reminded him that he couldn’t give in to the need to fight mindlessly. And so he kept saying them as he smashed, and crushed, and cried out, and bled.
“It matter not how strait the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” He was slowing down now, the damage taking its toll. An inch off of the end of his tail was missing and his armor had finally given way in the well-beaten areas to flesh and fur. He struggled briefly to find the words, but they did not leave him for long.
“Who we are we choose to be; nobody chooses for us!” That was a jab at Fortuna for her final choice on his fate. He had no illusions now about his end. There were only three left, but three was still too many. When he spoke now, his voice was cracked and sore from his rapid breathing and broken ribs. But, though it came out in pieces, the quote still forced its way out.
“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you.” The shiny surface of the creature before him, the thing that looked like him, left Rory confused. This battle took minutes, not seconds, and time was currently his greatest enemy. And when the ninth pile of reflection was strewn across the blue tiles, the Commander knew he was done. It didn’t matter that there was one left. His body had taken all the abuse it could. His battery belt was not only drained of all energy, but it had been shredded off of him much earlier. His blaster had cracked while he had disemboweled one of the mirror-forms. He did not hear himself speak, “No one can harm you except yourself.” Rory Tailor knelt down, head bowed, and prepared to rest. The golem moved slowly forward, no intelligence in its cold frame making it hesitate over a fallen opponent. It halted a few inches away from him and raised one paw high to crush his battered helmet and skull.
There was no yelling. There was no cry of “NO!” or even any witty patter about salvation. Truly heroic deeds occur unannounced. Rory did not even notice until a splinter of glass hit him that he wasn’t dead. He opened his eyes, and lifted his head to find Fortuna taking the brunt of the injury meant for him. Without armor, even his pathetically thrashed variety, she was being tossed back and forth like a rag doll. He understood by the cracking sounds that many of her bones were no longer in one piece, and she was about to meet the same end he was. Never mind she wasn’t alive. Never mind she was a computer program. Rory pulled off his helmet and managed to heave it full force at the mirror creature of himself a foot away. It impacted with the kneecap and cracked it. When the creature moved again, the leg snapped at the knee, toppling it forward, to the tiles where it smashed itself into hundreds of pieces. On top of Fortuna. She had not dematerialized, or vanished. She lay on the tiles, almost blending into them with the blue color of her suit, and did not move. Rory decided he would do the same. Of course, he really hadn’t expected Katrina to arrive. Than again, Katrina hadn’t expected Katrina to arrive either. But that didn’t stop it from happening. One minute she was standing confused in the tunnel and the next she was standing in a room full of broken glass with blue tiles and Rory and Fortuna were dead on the floor. She didn’t scream. She was too surprised. She did trip on the way over to Rory and didn’t even notice that nothing happened when she landed on a pile of broken glass. She only knew that she needed to prove to herself that he was dead. A moment later she knew that she had to help him. One moment more than that and she knew there was no helping him with his own equipment. Not that a problem with equipment ever stopped anyone really determined before. Especially not the leader of the MEET Force. Katrina grabbed her own medpack and hauled it out from underneath her two layers of armor plating, careful not to damage the wiring leading from it to her suit controls. Judging where the fur and skin was swollen, she placed the unit needle down and injected as much painkiller as her safety controls would allow. As she gave him the final dose the she-kat felt a shudder through him up the medpack.
“Commander? Rory?” He tried to raise his head but only ended up groaning loudly before closing his eyes again. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but don’t move. You’re hurt very badly. Just stay where you are, I’m going to go check on Fortuna.” She stood and picked her way across the glass field to the she-kat’s body. Strange, but she remembered there being broken shards of mirror all over here. The gashes were all still there but the glass was gone . . . She decided not to think of it, but instead followed the same procedure of deducing injury. So sad. While the cuts and blood were more from the glass on the floor, she seemed to have taken a lot of physical internal damage. Finding an area to start with, the smashed pelvis bones, Katrina placed her medpack unit over it and injected the painkiller. As the needle punched into her skin, Fortuna’s eyes flew wide open in alarm. Her voice cracked like a whip through the room.
“STOP! I’m fine! I’m fine! Don’t poke me, prod me, or do anything!” Katrina fell backwards in shock as Fortuna, with her vaguely deformed skull stared at the ceiling and took on a look of intense concentration. It was as if she was studying a grain of sand trapped in a dust particle lodged in a crack in one of the tiles above her. Katrina worked so hard at trying to puzzle out that look, that expression, that she eventually gave up and closed her eyes to rest them. Feeling better, she opened them again, only to find Fortuna in the process of standing up.
“What the? How did you? Wha . . . ?” That familiar cocky grin quirked into being at the corner of the AI’s full lips.
“Surprised?” She brushed the various bits of glass off of her jumpsuit as Katrina worked for find the word for yes. “Oh don’t look at me like that. If I’m powerful enough to control this whole house, you can expect me to be able to reattach a few broken bones. Not that it didn’t hurt. It hurt a lot. A whole lot.” With another concentrated look she scanned the room around her and Katrina had to stifle another surprised gasp as the glass flowed across the tiles to reform into wall mirrors. Fortuna noticed her expression and laughed out loud.
“Oh, that’s right. You’ve never been on the inside before. A lot prettier than the network, eh?” Before Katrina could answer, Fortuna’s expression shot from peak of performance to somewhere around I blew it. She rushed over to where Rory was laying on the floor and knelt down by his side. While Katrina didn’t understand it, she was positive that there was a tender aspect to her whole manner as she checked for a pulse and found one. Placing a paw lightly on his chest she obviously spoke only to him.
“For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor that the protected will never know.” She noticed Katrina’s questioning look and let out a small puff of breath through her nostrils in that huff way. “He said some things that made a difference.” The tenderness collapsed under the new emotion, a brisk surgical manner that made Katrina at once both nervous and hopeful. “Give me your medical injection unit. Disconnect it from your suit. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt it.” The bewildered Enforcer handed the requested item over, her doubt and confusion clear, but waited patiently. She saw Fortuna place the bundle of loose wires in her hand, and then suddenly the wires were attached *into* her hand. After considering the commander’s condition for a second, she placed the injector on the underside of his left biceps and released . . . something into his body. Looking pleased, she handed the unit back to Katrina who could no longer keep silent.
“What are you doing to him?”
“I’m saving his life. My nanotech units can heal him the same as they did me. Like they did you.”
“Yes, all the little cuts you would have had from the loose glass shards. The nanotech bots fixed them first.” Katrina removed her gauntlet and looked down at her fur, flexing her paw a few times. She even tested popping her claws in and out a few times before looking back at Fortuna.
“How am I here, in this house? With you and the Commander?” Fortuna smiled with a look of understanding.
“I formed a body for you, just like mine when I want to become solid, and projected your digital form into it, giving full structural access. This is how I feel all the time, Lieutenant Commander Sheer. Just the same as you and the Commander, and every other kat out there feels. I have flesh too. And a soul.”
“Yes. You certainly do.” Rory groaned again and Katrina looked down to see he looked much better. She was about to speak to him when she felt Fortuna’s paw on her shoulder silencing her. She leaned over to whisper in her ear while offering a paw and helping her stand.
“I don’t think now would be a good time. Let him rest. Besides, you have a snake to catch.”
“Ohmagosh, I’d forgotten all about Viper. Is he still trapped?”
“Of course he is. I wouldn’t let him out of the saferoom.” She motioned and a small hand weapon appeared that Katrina finally recognized as an older issue Enforcer tranquilizer.
“A bit old fashioned, aren’t you?” Fortuna blushed all the way down to her orange stripes and shrugged.
“It’ll work! Go on! The bathroom’s over there.” She motioned to a handle in one of the mirrors. “I’ll wake up Commander Tailor and be right behind you.”
“Alright.” She stopped for a minute before laughing. “Your saferoom is the bathroom?” Fortuna shrugged helplessly, clearly saying what’s-a-she-kat-to-do?
“The creator had a sick sense of humor, I guess. And Sheer? Good luck.” Katrina smiled warmly and gripped the weapon, on a strange high from being able to digitally battle Viper with a real body and weapon. She stepped over to the mirror and slid it sideways, revealing a wooden door when a brass door knob. Gripping it firmly, she turned the knob and swung the door swiftly inwards.
The bathroom was average sized and simple. One tub, one shower curtain, one sink, one mirror, and one toilet all done in the scheme of light gold. There was a violent hissing from the space between the toilet and the bathroom wall, a pair of animal yellow eyes focused on her. Katrina Sheer pulled the trigger. Dr. Viper gave a howl of pain as the dart struck home in the upper leg, and then it was over. She stared at the collapsed reptilian body for the longest time . . . until Rory placed a paw on her arm and slowly lowered the gun, so as not to startle her. She exhaled slowly and dropped the weapon to the floor.
“Fortuna, I think I’m ready to leave now.” Her voice was a bit shaky but only with fatigue and worry. Emotions which Fortuna completely understood, even if she was not quite in control of the situation now.
“I’ll see what I can do. I thought we could just leave the way you came, but the door seems to have jammed. I’ll go check it out. Be right back.” She sat on the floor and stared at the door in concentration. Unsure of what else to do, Rory wrapped Katrina in a hug he felt from somewhere within his broken armor. She returned it warmly.
“I swear Rory Tailor, Commander of the Enforcers or not, you will not do this to me again. Do you realize what a mess a MEET she-kat like me would cause to that cranky old Enforcer system if I was Commander?” His face twisted up at the very thought of it, and he sneezed as his whiskers brushed some fur near his nostrils. This, of course, set off new bouts of healing laughter entirely . . . .
Fortuna stepped to the door in her mind’s eye and was just about to turn the knob when the door opened by itself. She was about to attack when she instead froze at the sight of a figure in the doorway. It was a kat, a tom slightly smaller and not much older than herself with a sort of caramel colored fur pattern wearing the same blue jumpsuit she was personally so fond of. Something in him struck her as familiar. Not just familiar as in seen before, but familiar as in a sense of home. She had never felt it with such power before. The kat stepped forward and his brown eyes studied her carefully, his smile growing warmer every second.
“My, my, Fortuna, you have really come along in your years. And your looks are amazingly clear. You fulfilled your programming beyond my wildest hopes. ” The dazed she-kat finally found her voice somewhere back in the smoking room.
“Excuse me? Are you, the Creator?” The slight kat nodded and ran a hand through his thick side whiskers in pride.
“You could say that. I know that you’re thinking that I shouldn’t be here. I should be gone or dead. In fact, now that I think about it, I am dead. But you’re not. You’re alive, and vibrant, and everything you were always meant to be. Everything he was always meant to be.” The older kat’s eyes misted over at some ancient sad memory and he held out a hand to Fortuna. “Come inside now. There is so much you need to know, that I need to tell you about yourself. Don’t be afraid. There’s only one file missing. It’s right here.” He held out a small box to her in both hands and she accepted it in silent wonder and almost reverence. “That’s it. You can access it with the code word ‘chance.’” With that, he stepped back into the doorway and waited. Frightened but curious, determined but hesitant she concentrated on the file before her. Chance . . . .
Fortuna opened her eyes and turned back to Rory and Katrina. She smiled once again, but this time her look was far-away, deep in some space that the Enforcers could not begin to fathom. Which made her next comment so strange.
“Going down.” There was a jolt, and the floor under the kats feet shook violently before a swift pain came and went around their sensitive ears. She motioned with a claw and the door to the bathroom opened itself, this time revealing not the exercise room they had all come from, but instead, a dim room with the combined looks of the Enforcer crime labs, hangers, and locker rooms. “What is that? And will it smash us flat?”
“No. It won’t.” With that she easily swung the unconscious Viper over her shoulder and walked into the large room. As she walked forward, overheard lights flickered after ages of disuse and blinked on behind her. They cast pools of light that reflected off of a thin layer of dust that lifted to the air in a cloud from under her unimpeded treading of left foot, right foot. Rory and Katrina followed behind her, Rory coughing as the dust entered his lungs, Katrina as unaffected at Fortuna. Looking at the drawers and lockers and a strange old Enforcer training equipment littered through the room Katrina broke the silence with her query for logic.
“What’s going on, Fortuna? I thought we were leaving.” The response came without a pause or a break in stride or manner.
“You are leaving. All three of you. But it doesn’t make sense to leave a slaughter house without seeing the morgue, now does it?” Katrina turned a bit pale but only muttered.
“Must we?” Fortuna chuckled.
“Sorry. It happens, you know, my need to scare and harass and annoy the Enforcers. It’s just ground into me. At least now I know why.” Her gaze fuzzed over and then flashed back with sharp clarity. “I’m rambling again, aren’t I? Well, don’t worry. The dead I have killed now rest in easy pieces. And this house is not full of dead kats. It is only full of memories.” She placed Viper down in a seat and worked for a moment with his paws, the rest of her body obscuring Rory and Katrina’s vision of her actions. When she stepped away, he was securely manacled in a set of cuffs that looked to be without a keyhole. She smiled an almost evil grin and then blushed in shame, as if listening to a sudden reprimanding voice before adding a hole to the lock and handing the key to Rory without a word. The two Enforcer officers remained silent as well, not understanding the need for such reverent silence, but feeling it all the same. The AI plowed another dusty path to a wall-like computer and pushed a button. The screen came to life in a light blue shade and clearly displayed a layout of the entire house, showing the entrance foyer, the boiler room and mechanics area used to run the AI and robotics, informing Rory and Katrina that they were currently in a sub basement level under the surface of the rest of the house. With an few moments work at the keyboard, the rest of the lights came on, and a light wind of a ventilation system began sweeping up the dust from the room. Fortuna lifted Viper again and moved further into the area, vanishing around a corner. The Commander and Lieutenant Commander increased their efforts to keep up only to freeze in their tracks at the sight that met them all.
“That’s the…” Rory breathed, leaving the sentence unfinished.
“Yes. I know.” Katrina’s voice remained as quiet as his had been. Fortuna also chose to keep their volume.
“There has never been built another like it. It is the height of perfection even now, decades later.”
The three stood stock still and looked over the entombed expanse of the Turbokat. The plane had remained in fine condition for its years, mostly due to Fortuna’s unconscious work on its preservation. Seeing it, she wanted to slip into the cockpit, wrap her paws around the controls and live the video file she had watched, soaring free in the air instead of laying stagnant and bitter in her guardhouse. She would have. She could have . . . . The time was not right. Katrina turned from the plane to Fortuna and understood the expression. A waiting. A truth untold. Something still buried. And then the Enforcer detective in her mind began to piece together the clues she had been given all day. With an almost audible click, probably from her jaw lightly dropping, the full picture came into clarity.
“Clawson and Furlong were the SWAT Kats…” she breathed as the names, the deaths, the house, and the plane all joined into one statement. Fortuna simply smiled.
“Smart. That’s what I call good research. The secret that no one knew for almost 60 years, not even me, and she just says it out loud. Maybe that’s what they wanted in the end. An exorcism of these ghosts.” She walked past the plane, to the left and opened one of the side lockers, withdrawing a helmet, mask, and a jumpsuit almost identical to the one she was wearing. “Even if the ghosts were the spirits of Justice and Freedom.” She took a moment to replace the items carefully into the locker before moving to one side of the pair and pushing. The side panel of the wall moved away to show a hollowed out area three feet back into the wall, stretching eight feet out and two feet high. Within it lay a stone box on a low pedestal, simply cut and plain in its memorial. On top of it lay another helmet, mask, and jumpsuit like those in the locker, but with them was a strange glove mechanism like that which Fortuna wore, a long shriveled mongo pepper, and an age dried tiger-lily. There was a plaque on the side facing them, the only item which had been allowed to grow dusty, whether through a sense of poetry or irony, no one knew anymore.
“Which one was he?” Rory asked with a brief hand motion to the sepulchre.
“He was Chance Furlong. He was also called T-Bone of the SWAT Kats.” She had only just finished this statement when a hum of voices began. At first too quiet to be anything but noticed, it steadily grew to echo loudly, but not painfully through the hanger. The voices belonged to no one the Enforcers recognized, but the conversation made their identities amazingly clear.
“Chance?! Chance, buddy are you alright? Whoa, look at the blood, we’ve gotta get you to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to look at the blood, Jake, I’ve already seen enough. How’s Burke?”
“You don’t want to know. Murry already went to call the police so they’ll bring round an ambulance….How could you just blow up like that at him? What happened?”
“He crossed the wrong line. It doesn’t really matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? Chance, listen to yourself. They’ll send you to jail. It won’t be self-defense, everyone saw you throw the first punch.”
“Jake, don’t yell at me. I’m sorry, okay. I went berserk. I’ll take the consequences.”
“Oh, I know you will. Sorry, I just keep replaying Feral’s voice in my head, going on about throwing the book at us.”
“So what’s new?”
There was weak laughter by the disembodied pair and a tense silence which couldn’t seem to pass long enough. Rory and Katrina had closed their eyes to help listen, while Fortuna made one slow motion across the front of the dusty plaque, revealing its message.
“Uh, Chance? Wake up. You can’t sleep now, okay, you have a concussion.”
“I know. I’m not asleep. I’m just resting okay? I don’t think Dark Kat himself ever hit me as hard as Burke did that last punch.”
“Chance, I mean it. Open your eyes.”
“Don’t worry. We’re heroes. The stuff of legends. You and me both know that legends never die.”
“You know, that was pretty poetic for you Chance. Maybe I’ll write it down somewhere and torment you with it for the rest of your life. Better yet, I’ll write it on your tombstone so you can spend your eternity of afterlife knowing you once wrote something so cheesy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .” There was another pause, but this time, the silence was not tense, but heavy, and the sound of sniffling and speech broken in grief made the ending clear. “Yeah. That’s what I’ll do . . . .” The sounds ended and left the hanger in a deeper gloom than before.
As he opened his eyes, Rory understood that this gloom held an important difference between it and the rest of the house. Where gloom equated with fear outside this place of meaning, here it only expressed the pain and sadness of loss and mourning. Which was why it startled him out of his empathetic depression to see Fortuna smiling as if she had just won the lottery. He opened his mouth to ask her, question the ridiculous grin on her face, but she instantly laid a claw to his lips and pointed to the now clear surface of the tomb’s plaque. Reading it, he nudged Katrina in the side and drew her eyes to it as well. In bright letters the bronze plaque proclaimed,
“WE ARE HEROES. THE STUFF OF LEGENDS. LEGENDS NEVER DIE.” He removed his blaster from his holster and placed it on the tomb with the other items. Katrina nodded her approval of the item as Fortuna guided them back from the space and the lockers began to move back by itself. A golden gleam blinded both Enforcers as a brief crack of the full afternoon sun hit them both in the eyes. It came from an exit at the far side of the hanger. Katrina raised an eyebrow in true scientific fashion to Fortuna who only tipped an imaginary hat to her, before hugging her goodbye. With that hug, Katrina vanished. Rory, being a kat who really wasn’t built for the melodrama or mystery of a real legend’s ending, asked where his Lieutenant Commander had gone. Or at least, he tried to. For about two seconds he continued talking after Fortuna had pressed her lips to his in farewell and thanks before the concept hit him properly that one is kissed by an attractive she-kat, one should respond properly and return the favor. Feeling her absent, he opened his eyes to find only the hanger around him, and the tiny crack of sunlight at the end of it. Without a word further, he took the still unconscious Viper over his shoulder, and went to meet his troops.
While curiosity burned in the Lieutenants and troopers, they were almost all too well-trained to ask about the specifics of the adventure into the strange house. Those that had been given slightly different training on the issue of asking questions, mainly the MEET Force, all matters were explained by their Lieutenant Commander as she stepped out of her VR equipment.
“What do you mean I vanished from the network? How long did you search for my signature? An hour? That’s ridiculous. And your chat programs weren’t going through? That does it, I want that S.M.E.V. in the repair shop on the double. What happened? Nothing happened. It was a homemade patch network someone had left behind when one of the older super villians had tried to rewire the city. How would I know what happened inside that old shack? You’ll just have to read the Commander’s report on Viper’s capture when it is released to the public.”
The answers by the Commander were of equal quality and much shorter. Most only consisted of a promise to include everything in his report. Due to the nature of this assignment, the Commander announced that he was returning to his apartment to rest briefly and write his duty report, which would be turned in the next morning. Not one trooper objected.
Katrina was busy at home that night, noticing that the revelations of the day had inspired her to rearrange her furniture again and to go through her photo albums and organize them. At the same time she was searching through all the Internet sites she could find that professed to keep accurate information on the brief vigilant career of the SWAT Kats, a radical pair of pilots/heroes who had worked mainly in the area of MegaKat City. The phone range at midnight. Paws still sticky from the photo glue, she rushed to answer it.
“Katrina? How are you?”
“Fine Rory, just hiking for my life down memory lane.” He laughed.
“Is it a she-kat thing?”
“I guess. So, what can I do you for?”
“Um…I need your help.”
“With what? Viper isn’t giving any more trouble is he?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. I just don’t know what to write on this blasted report!” At his exasperated tone she began laughing out loud. “I’m glad you think this is funny, because you’re probably going to be grilled by the Commodore too if I don’t have this on his desk tomorrow.” She calmed down long enough to wipe her other paw and switch the phone to it.
“I’m sorry Rory. Really. Come on over to my place. We’ll see if some cocoa and creative brainstorming really can come up with a barely plausible story.”
“So we aren’t going to tell the truth?”
“I’m not if you’re not Mr. Commander of the Enforcers.”
“Good point. See you in fifteen minutes.”
Mayor Calico Briggs was not having a good day. And that was before she received the warning note from Calamity Jane about the bomb under the First Megakat Bank five minutes ago. So her reaction to Enforcer Commander Rory Tailor’s arrival at noon for his appointment was less than lady-like.
“You called Mrs. Mayor?” He settled down comfortably into the seat before her desk, in the confident manner of a man who has faced this situation enough times to feel calm about it.
“Yes, Tailor, I wanted you in here so I could inform you in person that this promotion my son just received will in no way helps your funding from City Hall this year.” She smoothed a stray wisp of her grey hair while glancing in concern out the window at bank across the street.
“I understand completely Mayor Briggs. You son is a very competent-” He was cut off as she stood to her high-heel enhanced imposing height of five feet 9 inches and glowered at him in his chair.
“I hate to skip the conversational niceties Tailor but I must inform you of the fact that I received this note approximately five minutes ago from the explosives stuntwoman Calamity Jane.” She thrust the paper under his whiskers just long enough for him to understand the peculiars of the situation and then slammed her fisted paw, with the note crumpled in it, on her desk. “I demand Enforcer action. And this time, I don’t want to have to pay for your eight hour jaunt into an abandoned garage!” He was on his feet and moving for the door before his “Yes Mayor” could even get fully out. But before he could exit, there was an immense roaring sound from the street behind him and a plane blasted by, avoiding the two building, but lifting away a large truck outside the bank. The tarp covering the top was blown away revealing a huge obviously armed explosive device. It then left for the vicinity of the harbor.
The Mayor stood unsteadily for a moment before flexing her jaw in a testing method and turning to him.
“That was the Turbokat. But the SWAT Kats have been gone for decades. We thought they died. . . .Why are you smiling like that Commander?”
Rory shrugged lightly. “Why Mayor, didn’t you know that legends never die?” With that the jet came by again, this time slow enough to show a glimpse at the pilot. A she-kat with tiger-striped shoulders in familiar helmet and mask and jumpsuit sat at the controls with the weapons specialist’s seat empty behind her. As she flew over the Mayor’s office, she visibly looked down through the window, smirked, and winked to the pair before continuing on.
“That’s not T-Bone and Razor? How did that she-kat get that jet? How did she…?” When the Major turned back she saw that the Enforcer Commander had already taken his leave. She rushed out to the hallway and saw him stepping onto the elevator.
“Tailor, you come back here! I know you know what’s going on and I demand that you walk right back into this office!” Enforcer Commander Rory Tailor pressed the down and floor buttons.
“I’m sorry Mayor Briggs. Duty calls.” The doors slid shut on his light confident smile.
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Disclaimer: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. All Rights Reserved. © 1995. All other characters and material within this page are the property of their respective creators.