Several hours later, the trio reeled happily, albeit somewhat unsteadily, out of a beachfront restaurant and down the boardwalk toward the crash and hiss of the rolling surf. The boardwalk was half-deserted, with only a few strolling couples left and the sidewalk vendors packing up their stalls for the night.
“I vote for a stroll on the beach… what say you two?” Talon, tucked between the two of them, leaned her head on Chance’s shoulder and sighed in perfect contentment. Strolling along with an arm looped through Jake’s and Chance’s sturdy shoulder propping her up, she felt as safe as if in her own starship. The trio wandered along the boardwalk, Talon peering into shop windows and blithely ignoring the odd looks her breathtaking beauty was garnering from the few remaining passerby.
“Hey, fried dough with grated catnip. Tally, you have to try this… three, please.” Jake stopped in front of one of the last vendors before the wooden steps led down to the beach itself, and began digging through his pockets for change. Chance took the first of the crusty rounds and sprinkled it liberally with grated, toasted catnip before handing it to Talon.
“Blow on it a little before you try to bite into it, or you’ll burn your mouth.”
Talon nodded as she nibbled delicately on a corner. As Chance turned back to accept another round from Jake, Talon’s eye was caught by one particular shop window, with a pretty blonde kat dressed in a short pink sundress gazing wistfully through it. Wandering over, she stopped by the girl and peered through the window at the delicate jewelry displayed on velvet stands. Made from carved mother-of-pearl sea-shells fine and ornate as spun lace, the shimmering pendants, bracelets, rings and earrings glowed all the colors of the sea- blue, green, purple, peach, pink and silver, most dangling on fine chains of silver and gold. Among them were two beautiful combs of carved shell in the shape of water lilies, one with a pearl of palest pink for a center, and the second centered with a luminous pearl with the faintest shadows of green and blue shimmering in it.
“How lovely…” Talon breathed, laying a paw against the window.
“I know…” the stranger answered wistfully. “I love the pink comb myself.”
Talon smiled warmly at her. “I was admiring the blue one… but the pink would look so pretty with your dress.”
She smiled back. “You’ve got the hair for it, just like me… not many kats wear it so long. Those combs have been in the window for weeks.”
“Too bad… something so gorgeous is meant to be used and loved.”
Jake and Chance, munching busily, turned away from the vendor and noticed Talon standing in front of a jewelry shop.
“Hey, isn’t that Callie? I thought Tally hadn’t met her yet.”
Jake looked in the direction Chance was pointing, and his eyes widened, remembering what had passed between Callie and him earlier that day. “Hey, that is her. Let’s go find out.” The two of them headed over to where the two girls stood, leaning against the window.
“I thought you didn’t know each other.” Chance grinned in teasing fashion at the pair.
Callie smiled back as the two strolled up. “Hello, Chance, Jake, how nice to see you.” She nodded at Talon and continued, “We don’t know each other, we were admiring the pearl combs in the window… what did you mean by that anyway?”
Chance’s grin widened. “Talon Per Astra, Calico Briggs… Callie, meet Tally. She’s from out of town. Tally, meet Callie. She’s the Deputy Mayor of Megakat City. ” The quartet dissolved into laughter as the girls shook hands.
A look of delighted comprehension flashed across Callie’s face. “It’s you! The one who bought that tract of land behind the salvage yard! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you in person. You’ve been so much help with all the red tape. I don’t know how to thank you.” Talon looked inquiringly at Jake and Chance. “Jake was shocked when I turned out to be Chance’s new girlfriend, and Chance was shocked when he found out I’d already met his partner, and I was shocked when I found out my new boyfriend was my new neighbor, and I’d already met his partner who was my other new neighbor. What a comedy of errors! How do you three know each other?”
*Nice save, babe! I hadn’t even thought of that.*
Talon’s mental chuckle echoed through Chance’s mind. *You don’t stay alive where I come from if you can’t think fast on your feet.*
Callie rolled her eyes. “These are the guys who have to keep fixing my car when it gets blown up, smashed in, trampled by dinosaurs, frozen solid, dumped on the roof of skyscrapers, covered in plant slime… all that sort of thing. Frankly, I’m amazed they keep talking to me. All I ever bring them is more trouble!”
Jake ventured shyly, “We don’t mind… it’s nice to be able to help that much. You’re the one who keeps getting shot at, kidnapped by crazy magicians, slimed by walking plant zombies, and chomped by dinosaurs. You’re the one who’s doing the hard work.”
Chance riposted wickedly, “Because we know the Mayor doesn’t do it!”
Talon headed off that comment quickly. “Are you here by yourself or are we keeping you from something?”
“Hmmn? Oh, I’m only out for a walk tonight. The air-conditioning in my apartment’s out again, so I was looking for someplace with a cool breeze. I’ll be glad when our new place is ready.”
“Me too. Next month, hopefully. The contractor gave me a much shorter estimate than I was expecting.” She smiled up at Chance. “Your dad’s pretty sharp. Anyway, Callie, we were headed down for a walk on the beach, would you like to come with us? I’m sure Jake would lend you an arm over the rocks.”
Jake’s eyes widened, but he nodded energetically, before casting his eyes down and blushing fiercely. Callie cocked her head, her quick eyes not missing the oh-so-casually possessive arm Chance draped over Talon’s shoulder.
“I’d like that, if Jake doesn’t mind?”
“No, no, not at all…” He quickly extended an arm to Callie, and she curled her hand through his elbow with a droll feminine wink at Talon.
“So what were you two looking at?” Chance asked, peering through the window.
“The carved shell hair-combs with the pearl centers. Those ones there.” Talon pointed and Chance noted carefully the filigreed pieces she indicated. “Callie was telling me not many kats around here grew their hair long enough to wear them.”
“The pink would look beautiful in your hair.” Jake said quietly. Callie turned to look at Jake as he said this, a faint blush staining her cheeks too.
The two couples ambled down to the beach, and Talon stopped at the water’s edge, kicking off her sandals and padding ankle-deep into the water. The splashing surf was blissfully cool, and her sigh of complete contentment caught Callie’s attention.
“Nice and cool, is it?”
Talon nodded and replied, “Kick off your shoes and walk along that way. It feels great on your paws.”
Balancing herself with one slim hand on Jake’s arm, Callie slipped her sandals from her feet and echoed Talon’s sigh as the surf slid over the sand and washed around her, pooling silver in the moonlight.
“The only thing nicer would be a swim.” Jake nodded, and greatly daring, slid his arm around her waist to balance her better. Callie said nothing, leaning comfortably into the curve of his arm as they walked along. The four kats wandered down the shoreline, the lights of the boardwalk giving way to the shadowed dunes and their cheerful chatter falling to a comfortable silence.
As the sandy beach gave away to the tumble of rocks that marked the long granite breakwater, Chance swept Talon up in his arms and carried her easily over the tumbled, water-washed boulders. Jake and Callie, a few steps behind, paused as they came to the rocks and Jake eyed Callie uncertainly, unsure whether to pick her up. Callie blushed again, as she whispered, “You don’t have to carry me… I can make it fine by myself.”
Jake said nothing at first, but gathered her up in his arms with exquisite gentleness and whispered back, “I want to.” Callie snuggled into his arms and leaned her head on his shoulder trustingly. The silvery moonlight limning the rocks showed them the quiet niche where Chance and Talon had settled in the sand against a great rock. Jake lifted Callie higher to jump the last few feet, and her grip tightened around his neck. They settled into the sand next to Chance and Talon, and she smiled sleepily up at them.
“Mind a short rest?”
Callie shook her head, not trusting herself to speak, and wished she dared curl up in Jake’s lap the way Talon was cuddled in Chance’s. Even as she thought it, Jake’s hands slid very slowly around her waist, giving her plenty of time to pull away if she wished, and gently lifted her from the sand, cradling her against him. She laid her head against his chest, listening as the rapid beating of his heart gradually slowed and steadied. Watching in silence as the moon slowly set, feeling the slow rise and fall of Jake’s breathing, made her sleepy as well.
An inaudible murmur came from where Chance and Talon were sitting, but Callie felt no desire to break the fragile spell between her and Jake. She tipped her head back to gaze at him and found him staring back, with such a look in his eyes that she was unable to pull hers away. She reached up, unable to believe her own courage, and ran a delicate claw along his whiskers. Jake’s arms pulled her closer against him, and his head bent down toward her.
But even as he did, the surf, which had been quietly hissing against the sand, rose with one gigantic swell, and an enormous wave crashed up the beach, soaking all four of them to the skin. Talon yelped, Callie gasped, and Chance and Jake exchanged one fiercely exasperated `Why now?’ look. All four found themselves on their feet as the wave receded, the undertow tugging fiercely at them, and sweeping back toward the waterline where the surf was boiling and hissing in a positive fury. As they gazed in shocked bewilderment out to sea, where a wall of even larger waves was surging toward them, they turned as one and began leaping over the water-worn boulders toward the seawall and the stairs leading up it to the boardwalk high above them. Waves crashed against the boulders, knocking them against the rocks, swirling about them with terrific force as they desperately fought their way toward the row of buildings and safety.
The waves poured back over the seawall as they struggled up the stairs in desperate haste; sweeping back out to sea laden with garbage cans, awnings off the fronts of buildings, beach chairs, telephone poles, the fried dough cart, (abandoned by its owner in his frantic haste to escape), and several cars. Clinging to the heavy iron chains that formed the handrail up the seawall stairs, Talon risked one look back toward the ocean as the wave surged past them, and was the first to see the immense, misshapen thing that was rising up out of the sea.
“Look!” was all she had time to say before an even more massive wave swept them up and hurled them toward the buildings. But they were luckier this time, the wave threw them completely over the row of buildings, and spent its force against them, leaving them on their knees in the parking lot behind, clinging to the shattered remains of the parking lot fence, coughing water out of their lungs and frantically checking to see if they had all made it.
“What was that thing?” Callie gasped, flipping her streaming hair out of her face and down her back with a wet smack as she struggled to her feet, fighting to keep her balance as the cold green water swirled and boiled around her legs. “I couldn’t get a good look at it.”
“I did,” Talon replied, using her claws to rip away a heavy length of canvas awning-cloth half-wrapped around Chance’s leg. Chance pulled himself to his feet as she rent the last wet, stiff fragment away.
“What was it?” he asked, rubbing the raw, oozing welts the awning rope had left behind as the four of them waded quickly for the farthest corner of the lot, where a few cars had been battered by the water but not swept away. Among them was Jake and Chance’s tow truck, half-buried in the shattered remains of a pavilion, but the big truck had been too heavy and solid for the wave to sweep away.
“Nothing natural…” she spat, catching the shattered remains of the fence and locking her claws around Callie’s hand, as another surging wave threatened to sweep her away as Chance and Jake fought to get the truck’s doors opened. “It looked like a bastard cross between a squid, a tubeworm, and a crab. I only got one look, but I know that’s nothing indigenous to the ocean here. That was a mutant.”
Callie, Jake and Chance swapped a 3-way, waterlogged look of disgusted realization and Jake groaned “Dr. Viper!” Talon’s brows drew together, giving her a vengeful, ominous look. “Him again?”
“There’s no time for that now,” Callie declared, “I’ve got to get to Enforcer headquarters, and warn Commander Feral to evacuate the beaches and waterfront,” she shot Chance an anxious look as he boosted her and Talon into the passenger seat as Jake heaved one last building timber off the truck, “can your truck make it that far?”
“We’ll make a damn good try,” he responded, jamming the key in the ignition and sending up a silent prayer the engine would turn over. The truck’s engine coughed, turned over once, died; and as Chance hit the ignition again, Jake heaved the hood open and reached down to the battery terminal, snapping a pulled connection into place with a arcing crackle of electricity that snapped his whiskers straight out. Ignoring the aftershock still zinging through his fingers, he dropped the hood and leaped for the back of the truck, shouting, “Go, quick, the next wave’s coming!”
Chance gunned the engine and the truck surged forward, leaving a mass of churning, litter-tossed water in its wake, and bounced over the curb to tear down the road back toward the center of town.
As the truck screamed to a shuddering halt in front of Enforcer Headquarters, Callie leaped out, turning back to the truck for a second as she shouted, “Thanks for saving my neck, and get under cover!” She dashed up the steps into the building, and as she did, the heavy rumble of helicopter rotors thundered overhead as Enforcer choppers began streaming toward the beachfront.
Talon turned to Chance as Jake climbed into the cab, and the truck turned and plowed through the knee-deep water toward the salvage yard.
“Now that’s she’s safe, can you guys get to the Turbokat?”
“Yeah, but why?” Chance asked, fighting the wheel as the truck careened around a corner, narrowly missing an overturned car.
“I’ll keep that thing busy as long as I can, but hurry!” And with that, she closed her eyes, concentrated, and disappeared in a swirl of sparkling light.
Jake’s eyes widened, and he remarked in an amazingly commonplace tone, “There’s a lot you haven’t told me about her, isn’t there?”
“Yeah, but we’ll have to get to that later. Looks like the Turbokat’s gonna get that test run a little early!” The truck banged off the gatepost of the salvage yard and pulled up in front of the garage. Chance and Jake raced for the underground hanger.
Back in Enforcer HQ, Callie was receiving a hasty briefing on the situation from Commander Feral in the main Enforcer emergency response lab as Lt. Felina half-dragged the soaked, wretchedly shivering Mayor into the room.
“So that’s the situation, Deputy Mayor,” Feral boomed, “the waterfront and beaches are being evacuated and we’ve got choppers tracking the creature’s progress inland.”
“You’re going to have to do more than track it, Commander, ” Callie retorted, “that thing’s the size of this building and headed inland fast.”
“Wwwhat is that thing, Callie?” the Mayor faltered, striving to rescue some vestige of dignity as Lt. Felina dropped him in an unceremonious heap in front of Feral, with the air of a retriever delivering some extremely dubious prey it would have much preferred to leave behind.
“It’s one of Dr. Viper’s creations, Mayor; I’m sure of it, I was caught in the flood it generated when it came ashore. But Feral’s Enforcers can’t manage to find it!”
“You mean it could be coming here?” Manx squeaked, collapsing to the floor again.
“You’re safe here in Enforcer Headquarters, Mr. Mayor,” Feral growled, giving Manx an ill-concealed look of disgust at his spinelessness.
“For now,” Callie snapped hotly, glaring at Feral for his obtuseness, “but we have to get some more information on the location of that thing, where it’s headed and what it’s after!”
“Message coming in now, Commander,” the back-on-probation Lt. Steele interrupted, leaning over the watch dispatcher hunched over a communications board, “a patrol spotted it heading for… what looks like… the prison mine!”
“The mine?” Callie said blankly, her forehead creased in rapid thought, “That doesn’t make sense, Dr. Viper doesn’t care about gems or jewels, all he wants is to turn Megakat City into Mega-swamp City!”
“Unless there’s something at the mine he wants or needs for that purpose.” Lt. Felina responded crisply. “I’m taking my chopper and heading out there for some first-hand information, the chopper that spotted the creature has its hands full rescuing some trapped civilians.”
“Right.” Callie gave a jerk of her head in agreement. “I’m going with you.”
“Now wait a minute!” Feral half-turned toward the door as both women darted through it and up the stairs to the helicopter pad on the roof.
Snarling in anger, he turned to Lt. Steele, “Keep me informed, rookie, and try not to let the building fall down over your head while I’m gone.” With that he slammed the door behind him as he raced up the steps after Felina and Callie.
“Y-y-y-yes, sir.” Lt. Steele saluted rather shakily and looked longingly after the Mayor’s cowering retreat into Feral’s office as he turned back to the main communications board.
Several miles away, T’l’nn materialized in mid-air, hovering nearly a hundred feet above the ground and scanning the terrain below for the swath of destruction left by the beast. A twisted trail of water-stained debris and wreckage left a readily visible track, and her eyes followed the trail as it twisted toward the mountain foothills. Hovering rock-steady high above the earth, T’l’nn closed her eyes, concentrated, and reached for the familiar presence of T-Bone in the back of her mind. An impression of startlement, recognition, and an overwhelming wave of relief swept back along the telepathic link as T-Bone identified the mental touch.
*Where are you?* he sent back along the link.
No words answered, but a picture formed in his mind of dusty barren plains, a complex of starkly functional buildings with peeling, sand-blasted paint, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire and guard post stations, rolling foothills behind the complex with dark, empty tunnel entrances gaping like hungry mouths…
“The prison mine!” T-Bone said aloud.
“Huh? How did you know?” Razor asked, turning his attention from the police frequency he was eavesdropping on. “It just came over the police band. The creature’s headed for the prison mine and Callie and Lt. Feral are headed after it.”
“Tally told me telepathically. She’s there already, and the creature is almost to the prison entrance. The prison’s in lock-down because of the emergency broadcast the Enforcers put out. If the creature gets to the prison, the prisoners will be crushed alive in their cells! She’s gonna slow it down and try to lead it away.”
Jake’s eyes widened, and despite the seriousness of the situation he could not help joking, “There’s really a lot you haven’t still told me about her, isn’t there?”
T-Bone grinned in response. “Buddy, you don’t know the half of it!”
Back above the mine, T’lnn studied the creature as it scuttled ponderously along the road. Out of the water and fully visible, she was forced to agree with her original estimation of the creature; a twisted shell reminiscent of a chambered nautilus, supported by five crab-like legs on each side, with two enormous tentacles situated below a gaping maw surmounted by gigantic eyestalks. The shell itself was rather pretty, dappled in pale brownish-tan with glints of pink, but the misshapen, twisted thing erupting from it like some ghastly infection held her eyes in sickened, horrified pity for the pitifully mutated beast.
Keeping her eyes fixed on it, she extended a tendril of thought toward the creature, probing deftly for any trace of intelligence or will. A swell of unconnected images flowed sluggishly back along the link, and T’l’nn struggled to wring some coherence from the morass of shifting, half-formed scenes. A face swam up from the maelstrom of swirling images, and T’l’nn matched the face with the impression of Dr. Viper she’d plucked from T-Bone’s memories.
*Beloved?* T-Bone shifted part of his attention to the mental touch and answered with a wave of attention, rather than bothering to verbalize a mental message.
*See.* she sent simply, laying a series of images before his mind that she had filtered from the creature’s mindless recollection. The images were distorted, unclear; and T’l’nn’s previous realization that the creature was looking through an aquarium wall slid through T-Bone’s mind. Dr.Viper’s face, a hand seizing his shell, the flash of a hypodermic needle and an impression of a short sharp pain that was rapidly drowned in a flood of purest agony… T-Bone tore his mental awareness from the backwash of searing pain and grabbed blindly for the steadying touch of Tally’s mind.
*What… was that?*
*The poor thing’s creation, I think; I managed to sieve this much from what remains of its mind. It’s being controlled externally; that’s for certain, there isn’t enough intellect left in all that pain to manage even rudimentary volition. There has to be a control mechanism of some kind implanted or attached to it. We have to break that mechanism.*
*How? And why? Can’t we destroy it?*
The mental bellow tore across the link, making T-Bone flinch in response. *There’s no need to shout.*
A wave of apologetic remorse reached gently back and caressed his mind. *Sorry. We can’t kill it, darling, it hasn’t done anything wrong. That Viper nut has tortured, mutated and controlled it. You felt the agony in its mind. We have to help it, save it if we can. It’s completely innocent, it’s so far gone in pain it doesn’t even know it’s out of the water and dying by inches. If we can break Viper’s control over it, I’m sure I can reach into its mind enough to calm it down and get it back to the ocean. Then we can see about healing it.*
A wave of focused, purposeful fury flowed back toward T-Bone, carrying Tally’s blistering rage at the torn, broken condition of the creature’s mind. *Poor, pitiful, tortured thing… my mind’s ringing like a bell with its pain! If I get my hands on that Viper freak, he’ll learn what pain’s all about, the hard way, and the Enforcers can go whistle for an arrest! They can have custody of whatever’s left, if there is anything left when I’m done with him!*
*That’s not how the Swatkats operate, love.*
*Tough. That’s how I operate. I won’t tolerate the torture of helpless animals!*
*That’s what I love about my kitty, her vigilante’s homicidal instincts… I’ll tell Razor what you told me, we’re about five minutes from your location. See if you can find that control mechanism!*
*Will do. Oh, and an Enforcer helicopter’s got a head start on you, it’s coming over the horizon now. It’s almost in range to fire on the creature. That’s a very bad idea.*
*Were you in Callie’s company long enough to identify her mind if you touched it? Scan the copter and see if it’s her. We might get some help that way, and I’d rather not have to fight Dr. Viper, the creature, and the Enforcers if I can help it.*
*I’ll see… Yes, it’s her, and a `Lieutenant Felina Feral’ is piloting. I’m going after that control mech. Check back later. And HURRY!*
T-Bone shook his head as the mental link faded and he had to consciously force himself to speak with his voice rather than his mind. “Razor, Tally told me… or rather, T’l’nn told me.”
“I heard,” Razor interrupted, ignoring the shocked look on T-Bone’s face. “I’m radioing the chopper now. Enforcer chopper, this is the Turbokat. Lieutenant Feral, Ms. Briggs, do you copy? Do not, repeat, do not fire on the creature.”
The radio spat back a crackle of static, and then Felina’s voice came back.
“And would you mind telling me what we are supposed to… what the hell is that?”
“If it looks like a demented squid, it’s the creature that came ashore. If it’s blue and hovering over the creature, it’s a friend of ours. We’ll be there in a minute, has the creature reached the prison yet?”
Another burst of static, but the disbelief in Felina’s voice reached both T-Bone and Razor clearly, as she continued as if she hadn’t even heard his response.
“It’s that thing from the dam! T’l’nn or whatever. it’s glowing with such a bright blue light you can’t see anything but the outline…and it’s distracting the creature! It’s decoying it far enough aside so that it’s going to miss the prison, but it’s still headed in the general direction of the mine. The creature, it’s like… it can’t make up it’s mind what it’s doing, swatting that thing, or moving towards the mine.”
Back in the chopper, Felina and Callie were staring in stark amazement at the blazing blue shape that was diving what looked to be suicidally close to the monster, but the slow-moving tentacles were too ponderous to connect with the preternaturally quick sparkle of azure light. Stunned by the sight, both wrenched their attention back to the situation at hand as the Turbokat shot by.
*Beloved.* The mental link in T-Bone’s mind reactivated, and a series of sharply defined images flooded his mind. The creature, now far away enough from the prison so that the prisoners and guards would be unharmed, a close-up view of what Tally’s mind told him was a very short-range radio receiver riveted to the inside of creature’s shell, and an odd image of brilliant deep red crystals she’d managed to pick from the creature’s maelstrom of pain. *Those red gems, rubies?, they’re called? Those are what the creature is being sent after. What’s so special about them?*
*Beats me. Did you figure out how you’re going to get that control mechanism out of commission?*
*Yes, thank the Nova that warms us all! Listen, I scanned the creature’s physiological system when I was distracting it. The control unit is wired directly into the poor thing’s nervous system. It’s feeding electrical impulses through the control mechanism into the creature’s synapses, and overriding its musculature control. That’s why it’s so clumsy and so quick all at the same time. The creature’s mind and the control mechanism are fighting each other for control of the body. The control mechanism’s pouring a ridiculously heavy voltage level into the creature’s nervous system; that’s why it’s a short-range unit, it’s sucking so much power a long-range transmitter couldn’t handle the voltage load required. Plus, it’s a one-way power shunt, straight to the creature, so, no overload safeties. That’s a break for us. If I can get the mechanism off, the internal power build-up should blow it sky-high. But just before it fries it’s own circuits from the overload, the power build-up in the receiver, once it’s deprived of the creature’s body for an organic ground, will back-blow to the transmitter unit that’s broadcasting the power to it. Understand me?*
*Yes. When it blows, it’ll give a straight-line trail back to the transmitter unit itself, AND whoever’s operating it. We’re going to need a three-pronged attack to make this work, love, right?*
*Yes. The chopper will have to distract the creature enough to let me get to that transmitter. Once they’ve got its attention, I’ll zip in and get the transmitter off without it detonating until after I get it loose. The Turbokat’s augmented sensors can track the signal-burst when it blows, back to this Dr. Viper. It’s a short-range transmitter, so he must be close by. Then you can nail him. But be aware you’re going to have to handle the rest of this alone, beloved, once the control transmitter’s out of the way, it’s going to take all of my attention to calm the poor little critter down and get it back to the ocean. Ship can’t help us, his power level is way too low for flight.*
*Fair enough. You take care of Baby, we’ll take care of the rest. Love you.*
A warm rush of mental affection was all the answer he got for that comment. Razor chuckled at her non-answer, startling T-Bone again, and as he flipped the switch to cut into the radio link to the helicopter, he made a mental resolution to find out how his old friend was tapping his and Tally’s mental conversations.
*She’s backfiring the conversation to me, T-Bone; it’s a battle tactic, and she’s doing it automatically because she’s in a team-combat situation.*
“Hey, it works! I wondered if I could make you hear me over the battle-link. Wherever your lady’s from, she’s seen some heavy combat action. Skip the chatter and make like a bloodhound, ol’ buddy; I’ll clue Felina and Callie in on the plan, you’ve got to be ready to follow that transmitter signal. The tracking computer’ll only get one shot to feed you the direction the signal’s coming from when it blows.”
T-Bone merely nodded and fixed his attention on the radar screen.
“Lt. Feral, Razor here. According to our blue friend, the creature’s being controlled by a short-range transmitter. It you can distract the creature long enough for her to get to it, she’ll get that transmitter loose, and control the creature herself.” Silently, T-Bone hoped his friend wasn’t overstating the case. “We’ll track the signal and get Viper. Will you help us?”
Callie and Felina exchanged meaningful looks, and Callie mouthed silently `her’? Felina shook her head in bafflement and shrugged, gesturing to Callie to tighten her seat harness.
“Nobody’s got a better plan over here,” Felina replied, “we’re with you, Swatkats. Tell your friend to get ready, `cause here we go!” Felina slewed the helicopter sideways in the air and peppered the ground just behind the creature with shots. The creature, set upon from yet another side, turned and struck at the chopper with a startlingly quick tentacle.
“Not bad, critter,” Felina said under her breath, “but not quite fast enough.” Looping around behind the creature’s shell, she sent another fusillade of shots into the ground. The creature screamed its outrage and struck at the chopper with both tentacles. That was all T’l’nn was waiting for. A streak of blue light, moving almost too fast to see, shot down to just behind the creature’s head, in under the edge of the shell. Grasping the transmitter, T’l’nn ripped it bodily from the flesh it was embedded in, and hurled it into the air straight toward the helicopter.
*NOW!* The mental cry echoed in Felina’s head. Startled far beyond words at the sudden presence in her mind, Felina’s Enforcer-trained reflexes took over and she blew the transmitter to pieces with the chopper’s heavy chain-guns.
“Got it!” T-Bone yelled triumphantly, and the Turbokat spun in the air and shot away toward the mountains.
“Shall we follow the Swatkats or stick with… them?” Callie asked, pointing toward the creature, which had collapsed immediately once the transmitter was removed, even before Felina had destroyed it.
“I think the Swatkats can handle Dr. Viper. I say we check on our mysterious benefactor and that… thing.” Felina prudently set the chopper down out of range of the creature’s tentacles. The two women jumped from the helicopter and ran toward the blue glow at the creature’s head, Felina stopping only long enough to grab her bazooka. Both of them stopped short as they came around the curve of the creature’s shell, and got their first good look at the glowing figure. The blue glow had faded to a barely noticeable azure nimbus around her, and her face turned toward them as they skidded to a halt.
The… girl, Callie decided, it was definitely female; although the face and body were covered with a shimmering blue and silver layer of something that glimmered and shifted like oil on water, the outline and shape were unquestionably feminine. Desperately so, silver tears were running down her face like rain and her mind reached out frantically and clamped onto Callie’s and Felina’s shocked thoughts.
*Help me! Please help me, it’s dying out of the water! It’s too heavy for me to lift alone, but with your helicopter we can do it together! It’s never done anything to deserve this, that wretch Viper tortured and mutated it! It doesn’t deserve to die!*
The psychic scream rang silently in their minds as they stared in shocked amazement at the strange apparition. It took no time at all for either of them to decide, the agonized despair in that unspoken, desperate cry left no room for doubt or uncertainty. Felina dropped her bazooka and ran for the chopper as Callie grabbed a tentacle and hauled with manic strength. T’l’nn (that was her name, Callie realized, somehow unsurprised) grabbed the other tentacle and dragged it back toward the shell. Felina came pelting back with heavy lifting straps draped over her shoulder.
“Get them under the legs and around the shell!” she gasped, dropping them on the ground in front of the creature. “I’ll hook them to the chopper once they’re in place. I’ll bring back another set for the back half!”
Working frantically, they dragged the cables under the creature, and T’l’nn levitated the ends of the cables back up over the top of the shell to secure to the helicopter’s power-winch. Although they had the straps rigged in less than ten minutes, all three could feel the creature’s life ebbing away as they did so. As Felina powered up the chopper and Callie leaped into her seat, the now-familiar presence touched their minds.
*Bring the helicopter up enough to get the straps taut. Then I’ll do the same, and we’ll lift together and run like hell for the shore! Got it?*
*Got it.* Callie and Felina replied together, too caught up in the struggle to save the creature’s life to even be surprised at hearing the other’s thoughts. The chopper rose, pulling the front straps up gradually, then the blue glow surrounding T’l’nn brightened to near-blinding incandescence as she rose into the air, taking up the slack on the rear set of straps.
*Ready?* A dual surge of agreement.
*Now!* Helicopter and far-traveler lifted together, and the creature’s shell rose into the air, crab-legs dangling forlornly and the tucked-up tentacles sagging as if already limp in death.
Far behind them, as the trio struggled desperately to save the dying behemoth, the Turbokat’s radar blipped steadily, marking the transmitter pulse the jet’s radar had caught as the mechanism blew when Felina blasted it to metal confetti.
“Think they’re all ok?” Razor asked, breaking the silence.
T-Bone nodded. “T’l’nn’s upset, but she’s not hurt or anything. She’s concentrating too hard for me to feel much from her mind. But the three of them are ok. I’m sure.”
“Good enough. There’s Viper!”
On the mountain peak just below them, a crudely-modified helicopter with the badly burned remains of a still-smoking transmitter dish on the front was attempting to lift off, with Dr. Viper snarling in rage and scrabbling with the console while trying to pilot the clumsy craft. It refused to rise more than a few feet, the rotors twisted and bearing char-marks of their own that attested to the power of the explosive feedback to the transmitter.
“Your turn, buddy,” T-Bone said, slewing the jet around and lining up on Viper’s craft. The cement-guns deployed from the bottom of the jet’s belly, and Razor’s tracking visor locked onto the smoking helicopter. A flurry of cement slugs clogged the rotors and blocked the doors, leaving Viper sealed in a smoking shell of metal.
“That was almost too easy!” Razor exclaimed.
“That was the easy part.” T-Bone replied, “now get on the horn to the Enforcers and give them Viper’s location. We have to get back to the girls and that thing!”
Back on the coast, the helicopter thumped toward the shoreline, the tremendous weight of the creature forcing the craft to wallow through the air clumsily. Inside the cockpit, Felina fought grimly to keep the copter on course and in the air.
“God!” she gasped, “I can’t believe how long this is taking us! We’re so close to the chopper’s weight limit I can’t believe we’re still airborne! If it weren’t for her we’d have never gotten off the ground! That thing must weigh 30 tons!”
“There’s the shore!” Callie exclaimed, pointing slightly to the left of the direction they were heading. Felina dragged the stick around and began gradually losing altitude as they flew closer to the water.
“See if you can get our blue friend’s attention,” Felina said quickly, “I can set the critter right down in the water, but she’ll have to get the straps off while we hover low enough to let them go slack.”
“Right.” Callie said, as she wildly tried to guess how in hell she was supposed to do that, but she closed her eyes and gamely fumbled through her mind, trying to reach for the odd place in her head where the voice had come from..
A wave of vertigo hit Callie like an avalanche; making her sway sickly in her seat, suddenly glad for the restraining straps holding her firmly. Callie reeled as her mind was flooded with images and feelings; a swirling morass of desperate effort, exhaustion more draining than anything she’d ever felt before, wrenching pain as muscle and fiber strained to their utmost, and worst of all a desperate, sick fear that it was already too late for the pitiful creature below her.
Her rational mind thrown into utter chaos by the overwhelming torrent of thought and emotion, Callie opened her mouth to scream when she felt her scattered consciousness slam into something that felt to her spinning mind like a brick wall. Grabbing frantically at `it’, whatever `it’ was, she felt her mind slide inside, an unbelievably strange sensation; and was suddenly bulwarked by the fierce and absolute conviction that she was not going to stop, and she would get the creature to the water, she would heal its wounds and help it, and nothing, absolutely nothing was going to stop her. and woe unto whatever got in her way.
*T’L’NN!* Callie screamed at the adamantine determination around her.
*Callie? How the hell. Got it.* the suddenly familiar mental `voice’ replied instantly, reading the situation from her floating, disembodied mind-self, and with infinite gratitude, Callie felt her consciousness slam back down into her body, collapsing limply in her seat.
“Okay,” Callie gasped out, “she’s got the plan.”
Felina shot her a decidedly unsettled look, but eased the chopper the last few hundred feet out over the beach and came to a stop above the crashing surf, then let it sink slowly, feeling the chopper steady out as the gross weight settled into the water. The rear set of retaining straps hit the water with a splash, and Callie craned her neck around to see the two free ends sink into the waves on either side of the creature.
*There go the front set!* rang through their minds, and Felina hauled back on the stick as the helicopter leapt momentarily skyward. Slewing the helicopter around, she landed it roughly on the soft beach sand, and yanking loose the catches on their flight harnesses, the two she-kats tumbled out of the craft and down the dune toward the creature’s motionless hulk.
The salt surf crashing around it stirred the creature’s aimlessly floating tendril-tentacles, washing them back towards the ocean. The motionless hulk lay partly on its side, and from their vantage point Callie and Felina could see the ugly wound on its. head. (she supposed it would have to be called a head, if you called it anything, Felina thought irrepressibly), where the transmitter had been torn away. T’l’nn, the light glowing from her fading again to a mere nimbus, was standing in the surf next to the creature’s limp eyestalks, both hands pressed firmly against the torn and bleeding flesh and crooning to it softly with her thoughts.
*Poor little one. poor baby. it’s all right now. Mama’s here. you’re safe, and you’ll be fine now.*
The mangled flesh under her hands was knitting itself together, wounds sealing and clean new scar tissue replacing the ragged hide.
Callie and Felina swapped slightly incredulous glances, but waded unhesitatingly out into the surf into where she stood.
“Is it all right?”
For a moment Felina did not think the stranger had heard her speak over the noise of the surf, but she reached forward and stroked the creature’s slick hide above the wound site, now a mass of whitish scars, and to Felina’s inexpressible relief it rumbled faintly in response.
*Yes, he’s alive. And he’ll be all right now that he’s back in the water.*
“That’s all well and good, but what about the city?” Callie asked a trifle skeptically, even as she acknowledged to herself she was glad they hadn’t had to try to kill the bloody thing. It looked like it might have been no easy task. The damned critter made an Enforcer tank look like a toy. The mental reply she got was laced with weary amusement.
*Don’t worry, you’ll probably never see him again as anything other than a local legend. Every beach should have a sea-monster for the tourists to gawk at. But he’ll never bother anyone again. All he wants is to go back to the bottom of the ocean and stay there, don’t you, Baby?*
The creature rumbled again, and pushing against the soft sea bottom weakly with its crab-like legs, began to maneuver deeper into the surf. T’l’nn gave it a last pat and turned back to where Callie and Felina were standing, braced against the surf.
*Thank you,* the thought rang clearly in their minds, *Thank you more than I can say. If you ever need me to return the favor, I’d be pleased and proud to be of help. Just yell with your mind. I’ll hear. Good-by for now.* Smiling wearily back at them, she waved a arm as she backed out into the surf until a swell rose over her and she simply disappeared into it. The giant shellfish was almost out of sight in the deeper water as well, but Callie fancied she saw a last glowing flash of blue and silver near the front of the creature’s shell.
Both Callie and Felina turned and began wading out of the water, and Felina turned to Callie with disbelief and said, “That was weird, even for this city.”
“You said it.” Callie agreed. “Let’s go home.”
“What’re we going to tell my uncle? You know, about T’l’nn?”
“What do you want to tell your uncle?”
Felina thought it over. “As little as possible?” she said doubtfully.
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“Isn’t that civil corruption?”
“Only if they catch us.”
“I can live with that.”
Talon sighed with relief as she reappeared in the garage’s kitchen with a soft pop of displaced air. She’d left the creature, Baby, she told herself with a slightly hysterical laugh, it’s name is Baby, (blithely ignoring the incongruity of calling a 30-ton mutant sea monster Baby) snuffling around the sea-bottom near her submerged spacecraft, with Ship keeping an electronic eye out to see it didn’t wander too far. She’d also left it with a short-term mental compulsion not to wander away, but she wasn’t sure how well it would take on something with such limited intellect. Hopefully it would last until the critter established it’s territory in the deep sea trench running 2 miles offshore along the coastline, with her spaceship sunk squarely in the deepest crevice of the trench.
Oh well, she thought, at least Ship would have someone to fuss over. Her spacecraft had picked up (a fact she personally found flat-out hilarious) her habit of mothering shamelessly any wounded or abandoned critter they ran across. Like pilot, like ship, she mused, wryly acknowledging an old amorphism of her space-faring race. The boys should be back soon. Weary as she was, she flinched away from the effort of reaching for T-Bone’s mind directly, but the mental link in her back-brain could feel him approaching in the Turbokat.
Rummaging through the refrigerator, she fished out three cans of milk and cracked one, gulping gratefully at it, feeling a slight lessening of the enervating exhaustion gripping her. She dropped gracelessly into one of the kitchen chairs, so drained it seemed like an impossible effort to get out of it again. Her augmented senses caught the faint hydraulic whine as the hanger door closed and felt the equally faint tremor of the floor under her as the Turbokat rolled to a stop. Two pairs of heavy paws thudded up the stairs, and two anxious faces broke into nearly identical smiles of relief to see her sitting quietly at the kitchen table. Talon tossed the two cans at them with the very last scrap of telekinetic energy she possessed.
Chance caught his automatically as he strode toward her, but didn’t bother opening it, instead dropping to one knee beside her chair and peering anxiously into her face.
“Are you all right?”
Twining her fingers through his, Talon squeezed his paw gently, conveying a subliminal wash of extreme weariness, but laced through with a quiet satisfaction that reassured him of both her and the creature’s well being.
“I’m fine, and so’s Baby.” she said aloud, more for Jake’s benefit, but she felt the lessening of Chance’s worry as well as she answered.
“We got Felina and Callie’s half of the story on the way back, so we came straight here, following you. That’s a nice mental trick of yours,” Jake commented idly, swinging one chair around with the paw not gripping the milk can, and resting his arms across the back of it as he stared thoughtfully at her. “I know you won’t think this is a rude question, thanks to that nifty little mind-link of yours, so what the heck are you anyway?”
Chance snorted as he flopped down in the chair next to her.
“You’re quick, buddy, I had a good couple of weeks to figure out she wasn’t from this planet. She still had to tell me.”
That comment surprised a chuckle out of Talon. “Yes, but I was very careful not to show off too much around you at first. I didn’t want you to run away from me screaming `Aaauugghhh, another monster from outer space.’ I happen you know you two have run across nasties from space before.”
“Mutilor? Yeah, he was a piece of work.” Jake chuckled back. “But you’re a lot better looking than him.”
“How did you know that?” Chance asked, curious, settling into the other chair and popping the top on his can.
“Oh, the Aquian crew you rescued have been cadging free drinks in the spaceport bars for months telling that story. Everybody wants to hear about the pre-spaceflight primitives that nabbed the worst planet-pirate in the Milky Way. It’s made the rounds everywhere.”
“Hey, we’re famous! What a riot!” Jake spluttered with laughter at the thought of the gentle Aquians he’d met spinning the tale of their adventures to a bar full of eagerly listening aliens.
“To answer your original question, I’m a coherent energy-being from a nebula that circles a star in the center of what you call the Andromeda galaxy. My race doesn’t have a physical matter body when we’re. spawned, but we learn to manipulate our energy forms into any shape we want as we mature. I materialized this body around myself when I came here to better interact with the inhabitants. I admit I never thought I’d pick up a lover like Chance here, though.”
Chance gagged on a swallow of milk at that bland declaration, and choked, “Tally, you have got to learn that we don’t drop comments like that in casual conversation.”
“Drive fumes.” This odd expletive was accompanied by a distinctly disdainful sniff, whose impact was somewhat lessened by Jake’s half-stifled snickering. “Jake’s your best friend, and I’ll not be the cause of you having any more secrets from him. I never felt right about that.”
“Relax, Chance, it’s not like I didn’t figure it out half a second after I saw the two of you together.” Jake assured him.
Rather than reassuring Chance, he looked if anything more unsettled.
Leaving Chance to wrap his mind around that comment, Jake gulped down the last of his milk, and pulled himself to his feet to reach into the refrigerator to grab another can of milk. Lifting an eyebrow at the other two, he tossed Chance another can as he nodded in response, and Talon drained the last of hers and accepted another can from him.
“Nova. what time is it, anyway?” she asked, turning to stare muzzily at the clock on the wall.
“Ugh, four-thirty a.m., we’re lucky this is Sunday.” Jake made a grimace of distaste, and rested his head on the back of the chair. “We should get some sleep.”
“No argument there. I’m not used to that much exertion in a matter-body. I’m wrecked.” Talon cocked her head at Chance. “Can I stay or would you rather I went back to my Ship to rest?”
“Stay! Stay. please?” Chance pulled out of his confusion to stare worriedly at her.
“I’d much prefer to stay,” she assured him, “but I don’t want to intrude.”
“Tally?” Jake interposed.
“Why are you here? On this planet, I mean?”
Talon gave him a long, steady look before she answered. “I was assigned to come here to study your planet and it’s inhabitants, and see if you are mature enough as a species to be allowed to interact with the galaxy at large, or if your solar system should be put under Interdict, and no other space-traveling races allowed here until your race matures sufficiently to handle the stress of multi-planetary interaction. You got a lousy start on interplanetary relations with Mutilor, and there’s been some concern over how your planet was handling it.”
Jake looked faintly alarmed. “When are you supposed to decide?”
Talon quirked a lopsided grin at him. “I’m expected to turn in a preliminary report in a century, but if I need more time to do the assessment, nobody will quibble if I take an extra century or two.”
“A century? How long does your race live?”
Another quirky grin. “We’re functionally immortal in our energy-form. we can be killed, but we don’t die of natural causes or anything like that. That’s why we make such good galactic cops. It’s practically my race’s stock-in-trade. In the meantime, you’re still an open planet, but with a galactic cop assigned to your world, it’s doubtful you’ll have any more unwanted guests. We have a very bad reputation, we do.”
“Wow.” Jake hauled himself to his feet and tossed the empty can at the recycling bin. “I’m sure glad you’re on our side.” Leaning over, he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, ignoring Chance’s scandalized look, smirking a little internally to see the tables turned on his partner. “I’ll see you two later. `Night.”
“Sleep tight.” Talon tossed her can after his, and turned to look at Chance, reaching out to caress his mind telepathically, ignoring the twinge of pain from overstretched mental senses. *What is it, beloved? What’s bothering you?*
Chance didn’t answer for a minute. “I think I learned more about you in the last five minutes than I did in all the time we’ve been.”
“.been lovers? A whole day? Does that bother you?”
Not wanting to say the wrong thing, Chance took a good, hard look at his feelings for a minute, and came to the rather surprising internal conclusion that, frankly, he couldn’t have cared less. He’d already known Tally was an alien, but the fact she was an alien still seemed pretty damn minor next to the amazing realization that she was an alien that loved him. Uncertainty about whether someone loved you was nothing but stupid when you could feel how much someone cared for you with your own mind. and heart.
Deciding words were futile to tell a telepath how you felt, he took a deep breath for courage and thought, *No. it doesn’t. I. I love you, Tally, whoever. or whatever. you are.* A wave of clumsy emotion; love, affection, worry, concern, apprehension, endearing nervousness and something else, washed over her. Chance stood up, extending a hand to her, and pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. *Let’s get some rest, beautiful.*
*Eventually.* A mental and audible chuckle was all the answer she got.
Eight hours later Jake staggered out of the bathroom. A shower hadn’t helped his dragged-out state much, but at least he looked better. And probably smelled better, too. He’d soaked his g-suit through with sweat, and it was going to need to be laundered before he could bear to wear it again. The heat wave DarkKat had kicked in motion with his volcano stunt hadn’t appreciably lessened, and Professor Hackle’s last words on the subject drifted through his mind again.
“It will take months for the lava in the tunnels under the city to entirely cool and solidify, I’m afraid. Filling the upper tunnels of the interconnected cave network under the city with water sealed the middle tunnels into a solid mass of rock, capping the lava flow, but the liquid magma in the lower tunnels is going to have to cool naturally. It’ll be months before the trapped heat dissipates entirely. Until then, Megakat City is going to have to do the best it can.”
Chance wasn’t up yet, and as Jake contemplated whether or not to rap on the door and wake him, the decision was made for him as Chance appeared in his bedroom door.
“Ugh. Is it morning?”
“Not anymore. Try a cold shower. At least it’ll cool you down some. How’s Tally?”
Chance closed the bedroom door carefully behind him.
“Asleep, and from the looks of it, for most of the rest of the day. Last night tired her out a lot more than she admitted.”
“Before or after we got home?” Jake jibed. “We’re gonna have to get you two some soundproofing.”
Chance turned red under his fur. “We didn’t keep you awake, did we?”
Jake took pity on him. “No, I was only kidding. Seriously, though, is she going to be staying here until her place is ready? I certainly don’t mind if that’s what you’re worrying about, but we’re going to have to come up with a bit more of a background story for her if she’s going to be around a lot. Especially if your dad and Jeff are going to be around, working on her and Callie’s new place. Her identity’s going to have to be as much a secret as ours is.”
“Good point. I hadn’t thought about it. I guess I’ll just ask her what she wants to do when she wakes up. Callie’s gotten her a temporary apartment in her building, but maybe she needs a place to. I don’t know, do galactic cop stuff or whatever. I do know her spaceship’s stashed on the sea floor a couple of miles offshore. Wait’ll you meet Ship!” Chance groaned as the sound of a car pulling into the yard caught their attention.
“Go shower, I’ll take care of whoever it is.” Jake pointed at the bathroom. “Go!”
Chance went. Jake headed out into the garage and recognized Callie’s car pulled up in front of the building.
She got out of her car, and walked towards the garage’s main doors, calling uncertainly, “Jake? Chance?”
“Over here, Callie!” Jake called back, waving a hand at her as he walked out the small side door. Callie changed direction with a relieved smile. Even as he said it, the memory of kissing Callie in her new apartment yesterday afternoon, and holding her on the beach last night, crashed over him, and any further words stuck fast in his throat. Fortunately, Callie didn’t seem to be in similar difficulties.
“I wanted to see if you three were all right. You look all in one piece. Are Chance and Tally all right?”
“We’re all fine,” he managed to get out, “Chance’s in the shower and Tally’s still asleep.”
“Good. I felt badly having to ditch you like that, Jake, but.”, she shrugged helplessly.
“Your job is to protect the city,” Jake argued, forgetting his shyness yet again in the need to make sure she didn’t think he was mad at her.
“Thanks for understanding. You have to let me make it up to you, though. Dinner on me, tonight? All three of you? I’d like to get to know Tally better, and Chance seems nuts about her.”
Jake thought that a very charitable description of his partner’s hopelessly ga-ga attitude over their new chum, but agreed readily.
“I’m sure she’d love it, and I wasn’t doing anything. We’ll pick up the check, though.”
“Nothing doing,” Callie retorted, “It’s on me, and that’s final.”
“We’ll flip you for it.”
“Deal.” Kissing him quickly, she headed back toward her car, calling back, “I slept in a bit myself, and I’ve got to be going if I’m going to get anything at all done today. I’ll be by to pick you three up at eight, ok?”
Waving from the open car window, Callie pulled out of the salvage yard and drove up the road back toward town.
“Who was that?” Jake turned to see Chance standing in the garage doorway, a damp towel draped over his shoulders as he dried the thick fur behind his ears.
“Callie. She apologized for running out on us last night, and wants to take us out tonight, but I told her we’d flip her for the tab.”
“Really? She never did that before.”
“She said she’d like to get to know Tally better.”
“Pretty nice for you, buddy, with Tally and me being an item now. Very convenient for you, you gotta admit.”
“You’re no help. Where should we go?”
“Dunno, why don’t we ask Callie when she gets here tonight?”
Jake pulled the towel off Chance’s shoulder and snapped the end of it at the base of his tail. “Get to work, if we don’t stay caught up around here, we won’t be able to afford to pay for dinner no matter where we go!”
“Hey! Watch it!”
“Hey guys! Callie called a minute ago. The phone woke me up. Do you know what time it is?”
“What did she say?”
“She’s changed her mind about tonight, she’s picking us up at seven instead of eight and to wear jeans and shoes we could walk in.”
“I think we’ve been outmaneuvered, Chance.”
“She is a politician, you know.”
“It looks good on her.”
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.