Jason narrowed his eyes and assumed his fighting stance.
“I’ll kill you,” his opponent growled.
“You think so,” Jason answered, sotto voce.
In a flash Jason kicked aside his opponent’s right hand, stepped in, grabbed the larger kat by his uniform lapel and threw him over his shoulder. He followed him to the ground, applying a choke hold.
“Give up?” he asked, grinning.
The trapped kat smiled back.
“You got me.”
Jason relaxed his grip – and found himself face down on the mat with a foot on his back.
The drill instructor was not in a good mood this fine four a.m..
Derek Whitepaws looked down at his stunned friend, his arms folded in contentment and smirking in a way that suggested contempt.
“You know you have to do better than that, buddy. An Enforcer never relents.”
The instructor rolled her eyes.
“Not another lecture…” Jason sighed.
Derek kicked his friend over onto his side.
“You know what you need? You need some coffee. Come on, let’s get over to Millie’s before the ceremony.”
“Is she even open this early?” Jason asked.
Derek laughed and threw him a towel.
“Of course she is. Now hit the showers. You don’t want to stink for Tawny, do you?” Derek said, referring to a cute waitress with whom Jason had been known to flirt.
Jason stood up, his good humor restored. It isn’t healthy to be angry on one’s graduation day, after all.
At full height he was only 5’10”, but he was built well and very attractively proportioned. He was a far cry from the featureless, generic Enforcer that had long been the stereotype, with his silver-gray fur and eyes, a narrow face, and tousled salt-and-pepper hair that, at the moment, he dried with a towel. Finished showering, he looked in the mirror to note how long his whiskers were getting. He never understood how the commander kept his so neatly trimmed – or Derek, for that matter.
Derek was already dressed, and looked down at his friend – literally. Derek was 6’3″, jet black, and with a voice like Joe Williams. He was muscular, yes, but he was not quite as perfect as he seemed at first glance.
“Almost ready?” he asked, although he could see Jason was not.
“Give me a moment,” Jason replied.
He pulled on his clothes only to get his shirt stuck on his ears. By the time he was free, Derek was gone.
It was just the way it always was. Jason threw his stuff in his duffel and ran out, knowing he’d better get to Millie’s quickly, or he’d be the butt of jokes for a week. * * *
Millie’s was the best-known of all Enforcer hangouts, and for that reason, it was never robbed, vandalized, or bad-mouthed, save once. No one wanted to incur the wrath of its patrons after what happened to THAT burglar.
Derek and Jason liked it best of all places in the city, despite its enormous following, who made the atmosphere slightly more crowded than cozy. They liked it because Millie, the proprietress, had “adopted” them. They were her personal favorites, and for this received the most free coffees of anyone – three per week. She was never without a huge smile when they were around, and neither was anyone else.
Of course, everyone else smiled because they had to do it. It was required of all who entered who weren’t known by sight – a rule designed to keep Commander Feral out. Millie did what she had to to keep her patrons happy in the wee hours of the morning.
Jason swung the door open, setting off the door chimes. A few looked over, but most eyes in the room were directed to the center, where the petite Tawny had called their attention. She had a kat named Scotty Angora on her arm – if one could say that, because he was so huge. His arm was bigger than her leg.
Jason knew what was happening, and was tempted to back out the door. Scotty was a fellow cadet, and a promising one at that. It was suspected that he might take top honors at graduation – gold pilot’s wings, awarded only to a very select few. Those who got them usually made Sergeant within a year, lieutenant within two of that.
Silver wings were slightly less rare but just as highly coveted tokens of merit. Most of the best pilots got them or gold. They were signs that one would succeed; ones that were worn every day on the left breast of the uniform jacket. Jason, Derek, and Scotty all wanted to be so honored. The desire had ingrained itself in their blood.
Tawny climbed up on a chair.
“Ladies and gentlekats, today is a special day in Enforcerdom -” her voice was cut off by cheers “- for as we all know, it’s Academy graduation day!” She gestured for silence. “With us today are three of our most promising cadets. The first of these stands 6’4″ and weighs 225 lbs. He graduated from high school here in MegaKat City with a 3.7 GPA. He always has a mocha latte – fuel for his ambitions to be the kat who takes care of DarkKat once and for all. He’s… Scotty Angora!” She held for applause. “Don’t you just love his reddish fur and green eyes? I do!”
Scotty smiled, blushing. He had a weakness for she-kats one-third his size.
“But wait!” she resumed. “Let’s bring on our next contender – or, shall we say, the shoo-in! He’s 6’3 and 205 – which by my book gives him the adjective tall to add to the others – try dark and handsome. Known to his friends as ‘Mr. Enforcer,’ lovingly as ‘Commander,’ and casually as ‘M.P.D.’ -” <laughter> “- he’s the kat who will kick all other’s tail, …Derek Whitepaws!”
It was Derek’s turn to grin rather impishly, especially at the mention of his nicknames. Jason, on the other hand, wanted to crawl into a corner somewhere and hide.
“But wait! Didn’t I say THREE cadets? That’s right – we have today the *cough* rather late little guy to go! He came late, so I don’t know much about him, except that Derek kicked his tail this morning when they were sparring. He’s the underdog, …Jason Whiskers!”
Jason’s silver face flushed a dusky pink. Everyone was laughing at him.
“Thanks so much, M.P.D.,” he said dryly.
Derek’s expression didn’t change at all.
“Who will take top honors? Find out today at 8 a.m. sharp… or, after the speeches are over, at 12 p.m. sharp… possibly later.” <more laughter> “So go support these guys at Enforcer graduation, held at the newly abandoned jet hangar on the outskirts of town – although I’m sure you’ll be there anyway” <groans> “to wish them all well. Thank you!”
Tawny bowed and stepped down from her chair. Jason let go of some of the tension that he’d had from the second he’d walked in the door; he slumped down at the stool next to Derek at the counter. Just a few more hours of waiting, and then they were all Enforcers, though with what distinctions he couldn’t even imagine. Millie must have noticed his weary expression; she set a steaming mug of brown gelatin before him.
“Drink up,” she purred. Jason poked it with a claw.
“You mean, ‘eat up,’” he corrected, the corner of his mouth involuntarily twitching upward in a smile.
Millie leaned over across the counter to look him directly in the eye.
“That’s quintuple espresso, brewed, then perculated for three days. It’ll put the gleam back in those gold-wing worthy eyes,” she assured him.
Jason chuckled, taking hold of the mug handle.
“Yeah, sure. But I can’t afford this.”
“It’s on the house – ace.”
Millie patted him on the head and bounced off, ready to share her gray-haired ebullience with the next kat who needed it. Jason shrugged and took a sip – and Derek jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. Jason choked and regurgitated the brown blob.
“Nice one ‘ace,’” jeered Derek. “And by the way, that makes four freebies within seven days – never thought the victim bit would work so well for you.”
Jason shrugged it off. He tried to eat the coffee again, but it overwhelmed him, and he set the mug down.
“Just playing with you, buddy. Keeping you awake,” said Derek.
“Right,” said Jason.
“Listen – no matter what wings we get, we’ll always be cool, okay?”
It was an unusual question to come from Derek. Jason gave him a quizzical look.
“Of course,” he said.
But Cadet Whiskers had no way of knowing.
* * *
Miss Calico Briggs leaned on the side of a jet, sighed, and waited for time to pass. This, apparently, was what the life of the deputy mayor was like. How many times would she have to fill in for the mayor when he didn’t want to keep an appointment; when he would abandon his post for a game of golf? She had a head full of questions but the only kat who could answer them was dead and gone.
She felt sorry for poor Deputy Mayor Rogers, now more than ever out of sympathy for what he’d had to suffer. Manx was a deadbeat politician – the worst kind, if distinctions could be made; and Callie felt they could, now that she was sure to be one herself. She would make the most of her time in office, and run the city well. That was why she agreed to be here, she reminded herself. These kats were those who would help her do it and keep her safe. She’d need protection – bodyguards, maybe.
In her paw she held a few sheets of loose paper, which were being blown a little by the wind. They were her notes for the speech she was to give. The sunlight, rapidly heating the base, made the letters difficult to read. Disgusted, she gave up.
“I can ad-lib,” she thought. “Should be good practice.”
She squinted from the brightness of the sun; then a shadow enveloped her and she turned to face Ulysses Feral, Commander of the Enforcers.
“I take it you are Miss Briggs,” he greeted her, face as expressionless as a slab of granite.
“I am. And you must be Feral.”
“COMMANDER Feral,” he corrected.
“Of course. So sorry to have offended you.”
“Mm. Miss Briggs, this is my niece, Officer Felina Feral. She will escort you around the base, and serve as your protection during the ceremony.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Callie, wondering from whom she’d be needing protection.
She then noted the angle of Feral’s gaze as he resumed speaking.
“You are scheduled to speak after myself – make it inspirational. You will then also be called upon to pin pilot’s wings on the graduates in turn. You can shake their paws, but they are not to touch you in any other way. Understood… Miss Biggs?”
Callie’s ears grew hot.
“It’s BRIGGS, COMMANDER. By the way, I do have eyes, and in our future conversations, I do suggest you meet them. It is 7:45. We should prepare ourselves.”
She turned on her heels and marched off.
Felina was laughing, but Feral silenced her with a glare. She bit her lip and ran off after the soon-to-be deputy mayor.
‘Impudent she-kats. Felina worst of all. Hard to believe from the way she behaves that she’s been out of the Academy for a year now – she acts younger than THEY do.’
Feral was looking over at Jason and Derek when he thought that. He didn’t know any of the cadets by name, or even face. With a sigh he realized that by the time he had their identities memorized, there’d be another batch. Age was creeping up on him – the burdens of work, etcetera – but he couldn’t show it.
He had a graduation to preside over.
* * *
Jason and Derek slid into line near the end – where they should be, as it was arranged alphabetically. Their dress uniforms, freshly starched, were itchy and chafed at their skin. It was hot in the badlands when the sun was out, and they were nervous, so they sweated in their places, waiting for the minutes to tick by, and envious of Scotty for having a last name that started with A.
The graduating class was small this year – only two hundred and seven cadets at last notice, but thinned out from final examinations and final skill tests. Jason guessed the total to be one hundred fifty, but couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that he was near the last in line.
Chairs full of spectators in t-shirts were set up in front of a main stage, where Jason could see the Commander himself pacing back and forth. A blonde she-kat was seated with a female Enforcer standing at attention behind her. Jason saw that there were, also seated, a few retired generals and the commander before Feral.
“Paw-shakers,” Derek clarified. “Some will speak, when they do, try not to fall asleep.”
Jason nodded, feeling more confident. He’d really like some silver wings. He knew he’d earned at least that.
“Where’s the Academy President?” he asked.
Derek squinted and strained.
“I see… Look! Wings!”
“In the box there, by the blonde… wait a minute… I KNOW HER!”
The tall kat had a faraway look in his eyes.
“Come on, buddy, don’t go all wacko on me now…”
It had been a long time since high school for all of them. The Enforcer Academy required its graduates to finish with some sort of a degree, and so for Derek it was four years. In that time he never stopped thinking about HER.
Calico Briggs was a month younger than Derek, but she was incredibly bright and so had skipped two grades in elementary school. That was how she already had her Master’s Degree, despite her age. Derek had a crush on the brainy upperclassman; he had even gone so far as to ask her out on a date. Derek, however, was a jock, and Callie a brain, so her friends all mobbed him to leave her alone and stop messing with her head. He couldn’t handle rejection of this kind and so set out to one day go on that date.
It was all very cheesy. Jason had heard the story a thousand times before, only he always thought Derek was confusing life with some movie. The melodrama of the situation caught him off guard, and Derek’s moony eyes made him have to cover his mouth for her entire speech to keep from laughing out loud.
Every so often he’d peek over and chuckle. Derek sure looked silly. At least he didn’t have to worry about passing time. Someone next to him muttered “Jeez! Feral IS an old windbag,” and Jason just smiled. He was okay.
After a time he looked up at the stage, realizing he was supposed to be watching it, and when he did, he saw that someone was watching him. That someone had black hair with white patches on the sides, and a sideways smile that could only mean one thing.
Jason sent Officer Feral a little wave just to make sure she meant him, and she returned it almost imperceptibly, still staring. Jason felt a little uncomfortable. He hadn’t had much experience with assertive she-kats before. Then all of a sudden, everyone was standing but him. He quickly jumped up, realizing it was finally time for the certificates… and awards.
Feral’s booming voice called out the name of the graduate, degree received, and special merits. Jason listened attentively despite the high- pitched ringing of the P.A.
“Angora, Scott Andrew. B.S. Mechanical Engineering. Merits: Silver.”
A roar went through the crowd as Scotty stepped up to take his diploma, officer’s insignia, and have his wings pinned to his chest by Callie. Then he shook everyone’s hand, jumped down from the stage, and ran to the back of the line while giving all a high-five.
Derek, grinning, leaned over to Jason’s ear.
Jason stiffened. He looked up, watching the graduates pass, trying to spot that she-kat who stared at him, but he couldn’t see. The line shortened by integers as time ticked by.
Only the Blue Manx, a handful of admirals, and the disgraced ex-pilot Chance Furlong had gained the gold wings on graduation. Jason tried to imagine how it felt to be them, then. They must have had smiles like Derek’s.
“Valdemar, Felix. B.A. Computer Science. Merits: standard.”
‘I’m next…’ thought Jason.
“Whiskers, Jason Robert. B.A. Forensic Science and Investigation. Merits:” Feral paused and squinted. “Gold.”
‘Gold?!’ everyone thought in unison.
Jason was frozen in place.
“Congratulations, Officer Whiskers,” said Feral, looking at him approvingly.
Everyone in the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. Jason’s head was spinning as he mounted the steps to the stage, taking his diploma and rank insignia. He saw the she-kat – whose name was Feral? – and smiled broadly at her, only to have Callie distract him to pin the wings to his coat. They were beautiful.
“Congratulations, Jason,” said Callie, shaking his paw.
Suddenly someone else had hold of him, and then another, and it was all he could do to keep conscious. Then he was off the stage, and he reached for a high five from Derek, but Derek wasn’t there, he was on stage. The P.A. speakers echoed two words throughout the base, ones Jason would learn to regret forever – “Merits: silver…”
He was back in reality, standing in a field with thousands, and he had just robbed his best friend of his moment of glory. In a flash he forgot everything else, and walked slowly, angrily, reflectively to the back of the line.
He looked in the shiny gold plating of the wings, and saw fate.
She was frowning.
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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.