Tuesday, November 13, 2001. This is a streamlined version of the original. If you already have this file, don’t bother updating, as the changes are negligible.
My first attempt at fan-fiction. Hopefully, it won’t turn out to be one of my worse efforts. Just like any other egotistical newcomer, I’m desperately jostling for a place in the limelight, or at the very least, passing notice. As some might put it, the best approach towards this is to do something new and novel… something that people will remember you by, deride you for it though they may. Yea, bringing in different angles on an otherwise mundane situation, portraying the world as it seems through the eyes of relatively minor characters is an often-used narrative device, while repackaging hoary old tales and passing them off as contemporary is yet another. That way this story is no exception, based loosely as it is on a short story written way back in 1830 by Alexander Pushkin entitled “The Undertaker“, after the main character of the same profession. It is a tale filled with supernatural beings, the most powerful being those of the mind, as opposed to their having any actual existence in ‘reality’. The inescapable gothic undertones pervade every page and paragraph. It was, however, the visitation sequence that caught my attention, so much so that it kept on simmering and gestating in the back of my mind for God-knows-how-long. Well, one thing led to the other and at the end of it all comes this story which concerns itself with the experiences of the protagonist, in this case a particular episode from the past that returns to haunt Feral at a time when he’s got his hands full. Throughout the writing of this I have tried for as straightforward a format as I can provide without putting too much of a ‘cramp on my style’, so to speak. You’ll notice straightaway the duality in the narrative, arranged interleaved and recognisable by colour––turquoise and the default white. I’ll admit at the outset the fact that you aren’t going to be spooked beyond a feeble measure, if at all, so Stephen King aficionados: steer clear of this!
Rated R for blood n’ violence. Nothing overly gratuitous though, I assure you. And in this chapter there isn’t anything!
“Purgatory isn’t the nicest place you’ll visit, but take heart; it’s so efficient, there aren’t any lines.” ––A supposedly ancient adage you can bet was never said.
A dreary, overcast day. The clocks said it was twelve, but the sun was absconding still, afflicted perhaps by a sudden modesty and thus impelled to veil himself with an unbroken vista of surly clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. The kind of day whose grim ambience undermined the morale of the little people scurrying about in the capillary-like streets and dirt roads of the city, shuffling wordlessly through narrow causeways and in-between ominous concrete edifices. Life carried on at the same pace it always had with no visible slowdown in terms of efficiency, although this was for the most part due to the inalienable need for continued commerce no matter what. As witness to this, blue collar workers toiled ceaselessly in factories and construction sites, their counterparts in the offices lugging hernia-busting loads of files and storage media back and forth without so much as a whisper. In burgeoning, impudent high-rises, stressed-out MBAs quaffed scalding coffee out of perpetually-full mugs over sheets and reams of statistics. On street corners, hawkers peddled their lighters and ballpoints, even as the homeless tirelessly solicited meager handouts.
The theories of Adam Smith dictated the ebb and flow of business through their immutable workings, and if their execution was a bit detached from emotion, so much the better. Today’s zeitgeist called for diligent silence. A dictum whose purview extended to cover inanimate objects as well, it would seem. The jaded types fancied they saw ordinarily garish fabrics acquiesce to the prevailing mood and take on a far more sober demeanour. Ditto that for the ones walking around in them. Even those with cause for celebration, cause for joy, found their exuberance woefully impaired, almost as though the depthless grey carapace now occupying all of the space from noon high to a quadrant lower was some malevolent void bent on sapping the city below of any semblance of brevity it might possess. Indeed, citizens out in the open could discern little evidence of this elusive trait in the jaundiced faces of their fellow pedestrians.
Finding no solace at eye-level, they were understandably ecstatic when, not over an hour ago, the magnificent but unknowable sentinels of Megakat City pursued an airborne outlaw through the sky and brought him down after a protracted dogfight. Passersby, beat cops, adolescents, the aged and infirm, squatters, civil servants, corporate executives––the entire population in the vicinity temporarily halted their activities and strained for a good ringside view. But try as they might, all they got of the fighting was a fish market rhubarb of jet engine reverberations randomly interspersed with a few muffled explosions, and that was the end of it. What a letdown! If you were there and then, if you had stopped to arch backwards and look straight up, just as everybody else did, you’d have received the same. No manna from above. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just somebody’s smoke blown in your face. By the time the crowds began to disperse, sooty flecks and the smell of cordite were lazily drifting down towards the city, a boorish reminder to the disappointed masses of the lovely show they’d missed out on. All this did was to add fuel to an already charged situation. Within the span of a few moments, the collective lightheartedness of the people took a sharp nosedive from glum to fuming. There are few things worse than a disconsolate populace; it affects everything within a stone’s throw, which isn’t good news for anyone, with the possible exception of the glazier.
What now? Look within oneself? Right. Well, that’s the big city for you, stranger. You either have it all or you don’t. And so it was that into this grim setting came the one with whom our story is concerned. Little did he know that events that day were a chillingly percipient portent of things to come. Terrible things.
Chapter 1: A Prayer and a Whisper
During the hullabaloo, a blue enforcer sedan had pulled up in front of city hall unannounced by fanfare and thus unnoticed by the citizenry about. Out of it stepped an immaculately uniformed figure of great height and top-heavy from the shoulders down, according due importance for his almost regal bearing in his imperious manner. His arrival coincided with the culmination of the air battle, an aural impresario whose exposition he followed with great interest not because he cared a whit about vigilante victories but because of the potential PR fallout resulting from such an event. Headlines would scream from the newsstands shortly: “Enforcers caught napping on the job. Again.” “SWAT Kats foil terrorist.” Commander Ulysses Feral, a kat given to as much bluster and vainglorious pride as indubitable courage and unimpeachable dedication to the corps, was not amused.
When it rains, it pours.
The wapper-jawed supremo stood by his car, staring thoughtfully at the sky. He was intently musing over the spate of misfortunes that had befallen his department and its annexes lately, almost as if they had been building up in spiteful intensity towards this very day. It was odd how these annoyances, singly so minor they could be easily overlooked, had chosen this accursed sequence of events to attack with such unremitting fury at a time when he was most vulnerable to such maladies. And that wasn’t very often, hardly at all, in fact.
Feral clawed his itchy stubble perfunctorily. He might have noticed just how much the grey of his coat matched that of the clouds, had he not been so preoccupied with other things. And like the clouds, he was so full of unshed tears he was ready to burst, the strain being that intense. But neither he nor the soggy goatskins above would give out anytime soon. That remained his most noble quality, one that had seen him through before time and time again––tenacity. A quality whose substance was yet being eroded daily, he recognised.
Maybe I should take it easier. It isn’t fair on myself, or the men for that matter. I’m so tired of all this…
Lost in his gloomy reflections, Feral looked for all the world like some freshly installed statue, free of bird droppings and graffiti and all the usual blemishes that come with icon-hood. Besides the greyish uniform, his browned face, never vibrant in the first place, was decidedly pale with worry. Scattered strands of white peeked out from under his fur, there were bags below his eyes, and the stock-still posture completed the effect of a newly commissioned, yet mysteriously weather-beaten stone carving hogging some forlorn corner in a park, or, in this case, the sidewalk.
A capped baton of office wavered mindlessly in a meaty grip. When the commander was deliberating matters, he would frequently became detached from his immediate environment, with the predictable result that he was only dimly aware of the multitudes who had accumulated in droves around him before drifting away to other purposes. A passing couple loudly commenting on the recent travesty elicited no response from this kat, none whatsoever. Icy breeze billowing in the spaces under his coat went unnoticed, as did the chill that rapidly set in.
“Ahh-choo!” he sneezed, jerking his head forward violently in a spasmodic reflex. That did it for him. With a backhanded wipe across his nose, Feral was once again brought to awareness of daunting obligations and an impossibly crowded schedule awaiting him like some knuckle-rubbing moneylender. A darting glance at his wristwatch confirmed he was late for a rather important appointment with some out-of-town visitors, the biggest he’d ever had yet. Bother.
Gathering himself up with a few deep breaths, he strode purposefully into the lobby, then straight into an elevator which ratcheted steadily upwards, disgorging its load at a floor close to the top of the skyscraper after a long haul at the end of taut cables. His rush had been so swift that he hadn’t really felt the transition from the savage tenor of the streets to the mild, climate-controlled ambience of the building, and it was only when he stepped off the elevator did the change catch up to him. It crested toweringly high over the harried kat for an instant, then lashed down on him feather-soft, ephemeral tendrils of warmth coaxing the pink back into him, rejuvenating his injured spirits by leaps and bounds, and the resultant relief was exquisite. As he soaked in the feeling he paused to scrutinize his surroundings. They were, as was to be expected, large and eminently suitable for their avowed purpose––to cater to the lofty requirements of visitants of international stature whatever their designation or calling in life, no questions asked. Snooty embellishments mounted schematically within Hellenistic facades covered the walls from ceiling to floor in a masterly attempt to project noble refinement towards onlookers passing through and hopefully impress them.
The opulent corridor therein appeared identical in either direction, its great length swallowing up light in the distance. A bit of educated guessing and uncertainty as to the correct path ensued, and the resolution that followed sent him down the right-hand passage with a prayer and a whisper. It took no inconsiderable length of time to traverse this carpeted hallway right up to the destination, the far end remaining barely visible throughout the duration of this exercise.
Halfway across and facing polished surfaces was a heavy mahogany door set unobtrusively in a carved frame. The Commander halted before it, detachedly examining the gold inlay with mounting apprehension. All the doubts and inadequacies of the previous month came racing back to him, magnified in their abhorrence by the sudden realisation of what he was up against. Cold sweat broke out along his brow ridges. He was still wrestling with his demons when the door swung open…
A dreary, overcast day. Feeling as low in spirit as one is high in altitude. That’s because staying in one place for hours, days, weeks in addition to not working at all becomes insidiously debilitating to mind and body after a while. Try taking a ‘walk down the park’, and you get assailed by an icy zephyr which quickly leaches the heat from exposed flesh. That’s not all. When this breeze decides to develop into a fine mizzle, those outside are forced into shelter. That’s the way the weather has been for a week: inclement and totally indifferent to mortal concerns. The victims flee before the onslaught, hoping against hope for some respite which never comes. They realise this early on, accepting it only afterwards amidst fatalistic grumbling beneath storm baffles. Mother Nature has condemned them to an unnatural hibernation.
Again, one can’t do anything worthwhile when stuck indoors, with ‘indoors’ happening to be a badly-lit cavern of some sort, hewn right out of solid rock face. The prime symptoms of Claustrophobia, mutual antagonism and pent-up frustration serve to stifle bonhomie, a deplorable trend exacerbated by the low temperatures and excessive humidity in the grotto. In the darkness sits a young fighter pilot aimlessly fingering threadbare blanket. He does little else besides that. A motley collection of pilots, navigators and bombardiers huddle up in their bunkers likewise, sullen and listless, marinating in their misery. This cloistered community is socially dysfunctional, its members islands into themselves, but no one seems in the least inclined to rectify the situation at hand. Each keeps his distance from the other. Any tactless soul who attempts banter has his exertions consistently rebuffed by hostile stares and muttered unmentionables. Chastened, the deflated upstart withdraws into his corner.
Silence. The pilot has worked through several inches of blanket, fluff clumping at his feet. His fingertips are chafed raw. He looks over his shoulder to the right, then to the left. Peaked countenances fill his perspective. Not one eye meets his. Still more silence. Persiflage can’t take root here, so the pilot, deciding enough is enough, gets to his feet and walks to the exit. Indoors isn’t any better than the elements.
It’s been an hour by now. A hinged steel lid guards the only doorway to the entrenched bunker. A slight heave is all it takes to open outwards. As he steps outside onto a massive ledge, the cold of the mountain air is the first thing that greets him. Its oxygen-deficient aspect is a close second, taxing his lungs to their utmost and making each step a veritable workout. A third harbinger is the light that overwhelms his eyes despite the lack of direct sunlight, as there are sufficient amounts of diffused radiance bouncing around. Squinting works well as a countermeasure but only at the cost of acuity. That’s a good trade-off, he thinks. At least the atmosphere is now clear in all directions save for the vaporous ceiling. Distant mountaintops are distinct and highly visible without optical aids; the sheer height of the mountain even facilitating a discernible view of the curvature of the world. The bedraggled pilot luxuriates in the awe-inspiring spectacle he beholds. What he can see of it, anyway. To unadjusted eyes, snow glare can be brutally searing.
Time for a breather. Wish I had a panoramic camera with me. Oh damn, it’s beautiful.
There, at the end of the ledge, loiters a group of steely-grey aircrew.
That looks like my gunner! Mincing jackanapes, he still owes me fifty from last week!
Hobbling on calloused feet, he is halfway towards the lip of the precipice before a curt hail from behind commands his attention.
“Hey, Sergeant so-and-so! Wait up, man!”
Feral slows, then wheels around. He eyes the rapidly approaching smudge owlishly, blinking repeatedly to improve focus. When that doesn’t help, raised knuckles gradually rub the clarity back into his vision. It works, to an extent. Now that the jiggly pastel is well upon him it’s beginning to acquire texture and personality, vague pseudopodia giving way to limbs and extremities. Presently this amoeboid mitoses into two. They come to a halt an arm’s length from Feral, who answers the shorter kat with a rasp.
“Wassamatter, man? Left your eyeballs behind? Looks like you haven’t slept for a month.”
“One could say the same about you.”
“‘ey, been doing something useful. You? You just mope around all day, all night.”
“We’ve got some free time before the assault,” blabs Sad Sack, turning to his less loquacious companion. “Jose, remember that feature I was telling you about, now’s as good a time as any to have a look-see. I want some air, anyways. C’mon Odie, quit hulking around and let’s go where you were heading.”
“Don’t call me Odie, it’s Ulysses,” says Feral brusquely as the trio ambles along.
“Touchy, aren’t we!”
“I have a good chance of dying within the next twenty-four hours and the last thing I want ringing in these ears of mine is that silly nickname, so if you please… Sad Sack.”
“If you’ll call me Kyle.”
“No can do.”
Interlude. Jose yawns quietly. Kyle follows suit, his rendition far more audible.
“Some weather, eh?”
“Wasn’t born for this kind of life,” the small kat grimaces. “Sunny beach sunny beach sunny beach. Brrr!”
“I’ll second that.”
They join up with the others. Visages starved for beauty greedily take in the sprawling spectacle before them, as cave-dwelling yahoos struck at once by both the vastness of the scenery and their infinitesimally small size next to it will. No obstructions mar their field of vision. Not the large, slot-like runway built into the mountainside for camouflage. And certainly not the distant speck of a scout plane superimposed against the ranges that manages, for now, to evade the notice of the seven perched on the ledge, standing like tanks on the brow of the hill.1 An air of awkward austerity hangs heavily over the scene. Intermittent gusts of steam escaping lungs provide the only ambient sound. The solemnity lasts for quite a while, broken finally by a query from an unlikely quarter. The hitherto mute Jose speaks up.
“Kyle, you were saying?”
“Hmm? Uh, yeah. That feature.” Kyle uncrosses his arms and assumes the role of instructor, “right, come with me.”
He walks past his comrades to Jose, sticking out a finger at the ranges authoritatively. “D’ya see that black outgrowth sticking out the side of the mountain there?”
“Which one, there are dozens––”
“That sucker between the two big whitecaps. No, not that one, that one! Follow my finger!” The digit prods insistently at empty space.
“I still can’t––”
“This is worse than babysitting a pig!” he taunts. The others guffaw. Kyle leans sideways, gripping Jose’s scruffy head in a pincer. “Here, Josephine, straight ahead––see it? Good! Now if you’ll notice, right in front is a black outgrowth, the one with brown speckles on top.”
“Okay, I see it.”
“That’s one ugly boulder!” interjects gunner Haley.
“Call that ugly? You ain’t seen anything as ugly as the sergeant when he gits an allergy. Now that’s ugly!” contends one fellow.
“Heh, bang on!”
Observes another, “looks to me like some poor sod’s frostbitten toe.”
“Yours maybe! What’s it gonna take to get it through to you eating boots is stupid? The swill’s bad, but not that bad.”
“Yeah, yeah! Spare me the deep insight! When I need it I’ll ask for it. Right now I don’t, so back off! My momma, bless her hymn-singin’ soul, sent me enough hickory-stick wisdom in her scented letters, and I’ve had it up to here,” snarls Kyle in annoyance, illustrating the truth of his assertion by panning his hand at neck level. “Jose! Look at me when I’m talking to yuh! No––not me! At the mountains!” Jose speedily complies, to Kyle’s satisfaction. “Hokay, that’s a good boy! Someday, you’ll be a man, my son. A man! Alright, attenshun! There, deep in-between the two horizontal slabs and a mite to the left is…”
Tiring of Kyle’s incessant prattle, Feral turns away to face Haley, hoping for solid talk. The gunner himself, a string-bean thin albino, seems willing to strike up a conversation, slightly keeling his frame backwards for a full frontal. The goliath fingers his rock-jaw meaninglessly, one arm slung transversely across his trunk to support by its own paw the elbow of the other. Arm, that is. He speaks, “Will your equipment withstand these temperatures like it’s done so far, or will it fail like those of the other crews have?”
“Nothing of the sort, compadre,” comes the flippant reply. “My guns should last throughout the campaign, and I can go so far as to stake a week’s pay they’ll last this coming battle easy-peasy. Of course, I don’t see how useful they’ll be today considering there’s no opposition in the air, so the only purpose I can put them to is strafing those poor fools on the ground like turkeys. It’ll be just as if I was at the fair shooting BB guns at balloons back in town… bag ’em all.” Feral’s mouth hardens in disdain, forcing forth more reassuring words. “And in case, just in case something unexpected shows up, like an eagle on our rudder,” Haley sarcastically interpolates, “I’ll be ready. I won’t let us down, I promise you that. It’s all a question of the right lube and TLC. Dat’s all there is to it.”
“Didn’t mean to ruffle you that way,” says Feral almost apologetically, his mild, out-of-character approach surprising Haley so immensely that he is at a momentarily at a loss for words. “I shouldn’t have taken it out on you like that, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. It’s because I’ve been on edge these past few days, what with all this hectic activity on the base and preparation. And can’t quite get over the fact that here I am, preparing to risk my life fighting a bunch of disorganised partisans in total obscurity, whilst on a distant coast my comrades-in-arms are about to engage a worthy enemy in the full glare of publicity.” He works himself up into a fine rage. “If they die in battle, they become famous––they get to go home draped in the flag and receive a 21-gun salute. If I die, I die an unknown soldier, my contribution hushed over, my reward a shallow grave. Call that fair? Huh? Do you?”
The soldiers murmur among themselves. Some shrug uncommittally at his outburst, some look from person to person trying to gauge the group reaction. No one affirms his beliefs, but neither does anybody repudiate them outright. Except for Haley, who alone shakes his head in manifest disapproval.
“No, it’s not fair,” counters Haley, “but you’ve got it all wrong––it’s the other way around. This situation’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be, so knock it off, man!”
“Why on earth should I?” Feral lashes back. His gunner talks down to him as he would a small child, which is fairly noteworthy, when one takes into account the difference in their sizes.
“Look at it this way, Feral. Our faraway pals are up against a deadly enemy, so deadly top brass can’t consider victory a given, as well they shouldn’t! We, on the other hand, face a rowdy collection of nobodies who can’t find their own backsides in the dark, you yourself admitted as much. They have no air cover, scattered anti-aircraft defences in all the wrong places… Really, Ulysses, if you’re thinking casualties on our side are gonna be astronomical, you’ve got another thought coming. I just can’t agree with you on this,” declares Haley in some heat. “Just can’t. I, for one, am really, really glad I’m not one of those aboard the Katfish or the Blue Manx, even the Doolittle. I’m quite content to stay put and live, unlike you, you…” he scrambles futilely in his mind for a befitting word, then abandons the effort, “whatever.” The nameless malcontent purses his meager set of lips pensively at the rebuke.
In a softer voice Haley goes on, “Aw, don’t take it so hard on yourself. Buck up, it’s no dishonour to stay in the reserves, just bad luck. After all, you were sick when they called out for volunteers.”
Feral nods in assent, finding to his pleasant surprise that he is cooling off in the face of reason and is the better for it. Peace warily descends upon the little assembly. Unbeknownst to any of them, him included, events in the near future shall ensure it is shattered before the day is out.
Though mostly unnoticed, Kyle’s berating treatment of Jose has been forming an acoustic backdrop to the repartee between Feral and Haley all along. Suddenly his voice trails off, his attention diverted towards something else. The abrupt cessation of the lecture has a jarring effect on the continuity of the second exchange, the participants and audience of which are shaken out of their activity, their focus shifting to the same source of this disturbance. Only Jose remains unawares.
“To the left is…?” the perplexed navigator enquires. “Kyle?”
No answer is forthcoming. Jose looks at his mesmerised comrades blankly, then follows their gazes over to a braking aeroplane descending towards the concealed runway.
“Rifler’s back! C’mon you saps, we’d best get back indoors. Fight’ll begin soon enough.”
Feral concurs, “That’s the last of the recon teams. Takeoffs should commence shortly. I’ll go tell the others inside.”
“War’s about to start, guys,” jests somebody, “don’t forget to sue for peace if you begin losing.”
“You can only do that if you got lawyers on your team. My barracks neighbour said he took a correspondence course, so we’re in the clear. As for the snowmen down there, they don’t even know which side of the stamp to lick––hee!”
“Sweet mother of God, pray for those sinners…”
And with that bit of blasphemy they are off, followed after a belated interval by the overlooked flight navigator.
One hundred and seventy-five feet beneath rock strata and reinforced concrete, two high-ranking officials avidly discuss the slew of new reconnaissance data amassed by the scout, with the captain of the aircraft in question standing close by. The shabby, cramped room is pitch-black on all sides, the sole bulb dangling from the mouldering ceiling dribbling out a pale yellow effulgence onto the desk underneath. The dented desk is covered in sheets of paper, dog-eared maps and assorted paraphernalia.
“Begorrah, this changes everything!”
“Rifler, it can’t be possible! There was no indication, not even an inkling of trouble. Are you sure about all this?” implores an ashen lieutenant-general.
“Yes, suh. We followed each and every procedure in the rulebook to a T. Our first run itself after we located the WB96 showed up a lot more gun emplacements, ammo dumps and fortifications than we’d been told to expect, in places here, here, here and here. And here,” his finger picking out the relevant spots on the map. He considers, “I don’t think we should wait for what a second flight would dredge up, we’d only be wasting precious time. As it is, the ground forces aren’t going anywhere, nor have they any reason for doing so.”
“It’s not those I’m worried about––it’s these,” intones Coordinator Swank, frantically studying freshly-developed aerial photographs. One specimen wields his attention in a death-lock. “Look at this! This just so happens to be the Vanguard. The Vanguard, goddamit! Why in hell weren’t we warned of this earlier? Now all our friggin’ plans are thrown out of alignment!”
His second-in-command picks up where his superior leaves off, venting his spleen on faraway and, fortunately for him, unknowing powers. “They stripped us of our best forces to counter a rust-bucket that was supposed to be on the other end of the continent and then! It ends up here, of all places. Ooh, you’d think intelligence would care to do its job properly once in a while. With a flat-top floating around we can’t risk the remaining machines––we are so dead in the water, I tell you!”
Swank squeezes his paws into balled fists so tightly the blood squeezes out of them, turning the fur thereof a shade lighter than its normal caramel and giving him the appearance of a person experiencing lockjaw. His face is hideously contorted in a wrathful risus sardonicus as well. Sanguinary juices beat a hasty retreat to deeper flesh. He’s mad, be sure of that. His subordinates certainly are.
After an appropriate period of time has elapsed, the lieutenant-general asks, “What are we gonna do now?”
A morose coordinator puckers his mouth, without immediately answering, but it comes. “I don’t know. I don’t know at all. I’ve––we’ve spent weeks planning this operation. Weeks of work and pain and sweat and toil. All for… nothing.” Weariness and defeatism weigh him down. One more straw and he’s done for. The captain stirs as if he has more to say, looks like that straw’s a-coming.
“It’s not just the Vanguard we have to worry about, suh,” ventures Rifler tentatively. The two supremes give him a withering glare, as if they can dissuade further misfortune from appearing by out-staring it into submissiveness. Forebodingly, he states, “We also identified and snapped the Leviathan, just at the limit of our range. Here.” He rummages through a molehill, then retrieves and proffers a blurry photograph. The officers lean forward for a close examination. Obscured by grainy clouds, a blackish oblong monopolises the upper-left corner of the image, its proportions, doubtlessly immense, imperceptible at this level of detail. Nevertheless, the unmistakable silhouette of the raiding vessel dispels all lingering disbelief.
Both officers are speechless. The lieutenant-general’s pipe slips from his fingers in shock, but he doesn’t take notice, not even when it breaks into two pieces upon hitting the ground. Both he and his commandant are in deep, and I mean really deep aphasia. Captain Rifler nervously shifts his weight from one foot to the other. It is not long before a decision is made, and that’s because it’s the only one available to them.
“Wikuress,” quavers Swank, “this won’t do. We’re way in over our heads here. I say we call MKC and inform them ASAP.”
“I-I’ll see to it,” then a pause. “What about the men?”
“What about them?”
“They’ve been expecting action for a fortnight, now this…”
“Nothing for it. Tell ‘em.”
“Should we, really? I mean, this is mind-blowing stuff. Could provoke a riot or something… besides, head office may not want it this way.”
“These people we’re talking about are stuck in the same boat with us. It’s no fault of theirs if intel screws up, and personally I’d rather go down in flames with my men than betray their trust. G’wan, tell them. I’ll take full responsibility.”
The lieutenant-general wheels languidly around to face his superior fully, somewhat surprised at his attitude. “There’s another thing,” he points out, moistening cracking lips with spittle, “spies. The traffickers out there field far-reaching tentacles, and it can’t be gainsaid that one or two informants might be lurking amongst our forces. I’m sorry, but I’m not so eager to spread the word on this. Wouldn’t be wise at all.”
“Mmph. Yeah,” relents the frazzled leader, “you’re right.” He makes a last ditch effort. “But I’ll tell you what; while the channel’s open, consult HQ on this matter and ask for reference checks on all personnel on this mountain. I gotta feeling the men will have to be told, eventually.”
“Yes, sir. I’m on it.”
Swank swallows uneasily, watching the receding backs of the silver-hair and captain without registering their departure. What started out as a textbook offensive has turned into a logistical nightmare within a matter of minutes. How could it have gone so wrong so soon, so fast? He lets out a deep sigh. It’s going to be a long day, he thinks. Just how long, he has no idea.
Pyroclastic animus wells up and out the top of the mountain, any analogy to a belligerent volcano fitting perfectly. If the mood of the men had been rotten before it’s now, well, worse. Except for Ulysses. A weak smirk twists the corners of his mouth.
He saunters over to his comrades with whom his disposition is at such variance, as they wait together in the cold for an urgent debriefing. Outside, the weather is souring fast, the brief lull fading away.
An unshaven kat hurriedly made his way to the steps of city hall, nearly knocking over a grocery-laden mother of two and a councilman in the effort, as an addendum to bumping a constable a block away. That annoyed policeman hadn’t been quite so courteous as his latest victims, who affably accepted his hasty apologia thrown backwards over a rumpled shoulder, a sop delivered not out of any real remorse but rather as an chivalrous afterthought. He would have similarly sent flying all loiterers in his mad trajectory to the glazed entrance, had he not caught sight of a trademark armoured vehicle hugging the sidewalk possessively––that of the Commander of the Enforcers. The sight of it halted his rush only long enough to confirm some notion he had, driving him on with renewed vigour through astounded dawdlers a second later. The glass panes came close to breaking upon the impact of his outstretched arm, yet the moment of contact was as nothing to him, so determined was he on his purpose. In an instant he had blazed past reception and now stood before a quintet row of elevator doors, none of which, unfortunately, had a carriage at his floor. A frenzy of jabbing the call buttons, all of them, yielded no immediate results. His fists feverishly clenched and unclenched in sync with an inner upheaval, as he waited there with escalating impatience. Minutes ticked by. Mentally, he railed against not having being born in a era sporting teleportation as a primary means of travel. Science either didn’t progress rapidly enough or it was too fleet-footed sometimes. Its pace was never right for his liking. The hell with it, he decided, and bolted up the stairs, rising numerous floors in record time.
The irritable addressee found to his consternation that his fevered path was blocked by a smallish enforcer who had resolutely stationed herself well within the ornate portal. He tried to peer past her frame, vainly as it turned out, as he was able to see little other than an uncooperative sofa positioned against a wall under an abstract. This annoyed him to no end. At any other time, he could have summarily avulsed this obstacle with a rough shove to the side, but as of now distinguished company was close by––it simply wouldn’t do to manhandle underlings within such earshot. Reluctantly feigning a courtesy that didn’t come easily to him, he squared off with the clipboard-wielding enforcer straight in the face and steeled himself to talk his way through quickly.
“Good afternoon, sir! I trust all is well back at Headquarters? Haven’t been there myself for quite some time, ‘though they tell me things are mighty busy, what with the redecorators walking in and out the building all day, getting distemper all over the place. Eugh! It’s busy for us here too; do this, do that, yes sirree. The major’s been working nonstop so hard his arms are falling off due to overwork, but oh don’t you fret, sir, for once we get a job, we do the job; that’s our sworn credo!” she gushed, her exhilaration presumably the result of a caffeine high. She was obviously dead for sleep.
“Well, yes, we’re very busy at the moment. Keep up the good work, ensign. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
As if he hadn’t even spoken, she kept on, “When I signed up, my parents warn’t mighty happy with my decision, my daddy actually threatened he was never going to see me again if I joined the enforcers, can you imagine that? So I said to myself, Jamie baby, you’re eighteen now, you’re a big girl who can take care of herself, you don’t need coddling from nobody. As my sister would say, ‘come rain, rabid dogs or the IRS, we’ll get it through’. She’s in the postal department, sir, says a lot of silly things, that’s what comes of working the graveyard shift.” Chuckle.
So much for that! Feral was at the end of his tether. “Step aside, fool! Let me through! I’ve got a very important meeting to attend!”
“Oh, that!” said the unaccountably cheery assistant, beaming and still refusing to budge. “No need to worry, sir, you’re not late for anything. One chartered jumbo’s been diverted due to poor visibility and won’t arrive for two hours, at least. As of now only a few odds and ends have turned up, not ’nuff for the conference which by the way should start before nightfall.”
She stood there smiling away.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” said a relieved Feral, flicking sweat off his brow. He surveyed the hyperactive workaholic interestedly, noting the laminated ID-card positioned on her sternum. “Fletcher, is it? I take it you’re here to assist Major Mosby.”
“Yes, sir. And so are Ames and Roth. Roth is inside, arranging things. It’s such a mess in there. I daresay his job is equal to cleaning up the Aegean Stables. Filthy!”
“Where’s Mosby, I don’t see him.”
“In the executive lounge, talking to industrial representatives from overseas.”
From behind a half-foot of concrete emanated an agonised call for assistance. The sprightly one seemed eager to break off the conversation, and so too, did Feral.
“Very well then,” he said dismissively, abandoning his earlier zeal to enter the meeting room, “I’ll see how things are going. Carry on, ensign.” Whereupon Fletcher presented her back in a proletarian leave-taking and trotted into the chamber.
Feral also turned to excuse himself, but as he was doing so, he caught sight of an oil on the wall facing him and for some reason the painting held his focus. He adjusted himself to regard it fully. It depicted a strapping figure posing complacently in the foreground, hand resting on a earth-stabbing sabre, his troops exulting behind him at a victory of theirs. ‘Gen. Felix Battenburg at Fort Swordstone,’ the caption declared. It revived old lessons from schoolboy days he thought he had long forgotten. So what was it about? That depended on whom you asked.
There were any number of versions on the event, be they textual, oral or cinematic, or more recently, interactive, each featuring invented plot devices of varying degrees of preposterousness, with romantic angles to the legend being the most prominent and commonplace. Sift away the flotsam and jetsam, and they all agreed on one thing: A General Battenburg did indeed lead a battalion to capture the fort in question. His storming attack succeeded brilliantly, albeit against suspiciously scanty resistance on the part of the enemy, a curious fact that should have kept him on his guard––but it didn’t. As he and his men were foolishly gloating over the battlements, mostly busying themselves in flag hoisting ceremonies, the crafty pirates returned in force and wiped them out to the last man standing. Swordstone would eventually be retaken in time. The massacre was, however, to live on as one of the most shameful episodes in the city’s military annals, and to an army used to the heady elixir of constant successes it was better off an unremembered fable. So while the militant collective consigned the tragedy to the dustbin of history, it was warmly adopted by litterateurs, and sometime later, by tinsel town, as a shopworn formula that they could fall back on whenever the creative topsoil went fallow. He recounted the story haltingly in his head. An indefinable something sent chills down the length of his spine to the very tip of his tail. Pirates. The word stuck in his mind, filling him with restless unease, but he was unable put his finger on precisely why that was so. Feral shook his head to clear it. There was no sense in wasting time on fears.
He abruptly swivelled left and strode to the stairwell, for the lounge was a floor lower down. Things were looking up. The delay meant that he could set things in order before the gruelling conference went underway. First stop, Major Mosby. I have certain matters to iron out, assuming he’s not too busy elsewhere. Those investors want more security per dollar and by heck they’ll have it! Let’s see if we can’t arm twist Manx into reallocating city funds to defence needs. That fat retard is pushing too many greenbacks into cabinet expansion and not worrying enough about the enforcers. It’s high time we showed this building who come first––the protectors over the parasites. Once we convince the representatives, they’ll go and make this clear to Manx, or should I say Briggs, and they’ll be left with no choice whatsoever. I’ll put Mosby on the job immediately.
And after that, considered Feral, I’ll get me a drink. A baton rap against his thigh underscored that pleasant incentive. Absorbed in thought, he took no notice when the corridor echoed with footfalls other than his own, not until a slouched-over individual wearing an ill-fitting trench coat shambled up the stairs in the reverse direction and stopped in his tracks, open-mouthed with astonishment. Even then the Commander ignored the newcomer, dismissing him as office help of some kind. The people they hire these days, he observed derisively.
“Ulysses! Ulysses Feral!” The unknown said in a whisper, “After all these years…”
Feral slowed his movement. Despite knowing his name, the unkempt, sweating kat held no further interest for him, and certainly could never have been part of his peer group the way he was garbed. But pressing business awaited; an investigation would have to be dealt with later. He decided to ignore the stranger, whose intentions were the exact opposite.
“When I couldn’t locate you at Head quarters, they told me to come here.” Seeing the deadpan expression on the other’s face, he added, “Can’t you remember me?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” snapped Feral uncivilly. He attempted to elbow past the stranger, but the latter was not shaken off so easily.
“Sure you do! It’s me, ‘Shifty’ John!” He pulled off a battered hat, stumbling along the side of the faster man in a crab walk. The latter’s stride sputtered further. “I was our navigator back at the Webby ninety-six incident, back during the Blackglove campaign. The day we almost lost our lives in the widow maker. Come on! I know it’s been thirty years, but don’t tell me you’ve forgotten something like that! No one can!”
The granite colossus came to a complete standstill. His face was drained of whatever precious little blood it had and the fear was writ large in his eyes. Oh, my. Things were looking up, huh? Up at a falling load of bricks, yes. Feral came directly to the point without preliminary.
“Why are you here?” he hissed, half-pleading, half-threatening.
“Am I glad to see you too,” returned John sarcastically. He thrust his ruddy face closer, and pronounced in conspiratorial tones, “we can’t talk out here in public, with what I’ve got to tell you. Is there a safe place anywhere around?”
“What is it we can’t discuss in the open? It’s a free country, for crying out loud!”
“Ulysses, to use the cliché, this involves national security, but more importantly for you, your own. Something really bad has developed in regard to the Mixen Mountain incident. I’m not playing games here; get us a safe place where we can trash this out now!”
Temporarily dumbfounded, Feral quickly regained his wits while still aware of the ramifications of what Shifty John had said. Practice makes perfect, and he had had it in plenty already the past few weeks. The commander deliberated quickly. A swift ocular rake of the corridor this way and that assured him they were unobserved for the moment. He unhesitatingly grabbed the derelict by the cufflinks and led him on into a little-used lecture hall down at the far end. The door bolted behind them, both surveyed the oratorical refuge, noting with approval the low light conditions and conducive absence of eavesdroppers. Perfect. The big kat turned to the other.
“‘Shifty’ John,” ruminated Feral, “my oh-so-astute navigator from long ago. Aren’t you the one who kept writing me those rambling letters year after year insisting I declassify certain documents pertaining to you-know-what?”
“The one and only.”
“Welcome back to Megakat City, John.” The two clasped each other’s forearms in greeting. That done, Feral smilingly got down to business, “Well then, what was it that was so earth-shaking so as to drag a big-shot executive out of bed and fly a thousand miles to tell me? You haven’t even bothered to shave, I see.”
‘Shifty’ John scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. He raised his chin to speak, but then sneezed unexpectedly.
“And you’ve got a cold too. So do I.”
“Always the same thing,” he sniffled, wiping the snot onto a grimy handkerchief. “Bloody Duberculosis, where I god it from I don’t hab a clue. Could be that third world prospect, could be next door, I dunno.”
Feral cringed at this information. First the department, then the SWAT Kats, now a multi-drug resistant bacillus, and he had a gut feeling worse was still to come.
Again he repeated his urgency, “Enough tomfoolery. Out with it, fast!”
Unmindful of the other’s desperation, John kept nuzzling his hanky lugubriously, clumsily stuffing it away into the recesses of a coat pocket when he was done. He was dog tired, sufficiently so to sell his coveted position for a double-lined mattress, yet not enough to keep him from travelling all this way for whatever reason was bugging him. And here he was generously sharing his worries with an acquaintance from long ago, an acquaintance who wasn’t exactly happy to see him here, but he didn’t let that distress him. Through bleary eyes he came to terms with the tense Commander.
“It’s my son’s birthday today. I wanted to stay back with my family, y’know, quality time and all. But I,” he purred drolly, cocking his head to the side and theatrically placing a paw on his chest, “being so steeped in devotion and loyalty to remembrances of auld lang syne, have cast that all aside, and have come all this way to bring you evil tidings, to warn you of danger, at the great cost of neglecting personal hygiene.”
“Lay it on me thick will you? Convey my wishes to the boy, and mail me a slice of the cake when you get back. Now get back on track!”
“If you say so. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Always a good place to start. Here goes. After we returned from the WB96, I continued on in the Enforcer paramilitaries for a few more months, as you know. Upon my arrival, I was offered a prestigious posting to Headquarters by none other than the Commander himself, ostensibly for my prowess on the battlefield, but actually in order to keep my mouth shut about the fiasco. During that time the corps was undergoing massive restructuring and expansion of its taskforce, and from what I can see, it still is.”
“Not quite,” disputed Feral. “The current program initialised just last month and isn’t a continuation of the one at that time. It’s not an ongoing process. Get your facts straight, pal.”
“Okay, okay, I stand corrected. Are you happy now? I may be comatose when it comes to current events but I sure as Suzie know my history, especially concerning the time spent in this bee-ootiful city. What times they were,” he wistfully reminisced. “I must say our revered higher-ups really knew how to wrangle power from the state, they did. They were always more adept at securing places in Government then they were at securing the streets. Bureaucrats in uniform is the phrase, I believe. Is it the same in today’s situation, hm?” He prodded teasingly.
Feral let his veneer of jovial hospitality dissolve. He said nothing, but his bodily stance grew hostile. A radiant John grinned unaffectedly.
Then he picked up the thread.
“As I remember, it was through a clever piece of legislation, that their ambit was extended over twice as much land, their area of operations redrawn and circumscribed to cover even those territories previously policed by the Federal Adjudicators, who were disbanded soon afterwards. A rump sector was all they were left with, and that too went in short order. This you know as well, heck, better than I do. Our bosses were rolling in moolah, sharing it with those who espoused their philosophy. Why, some even might consider it a golden age of sorts. An ambitious up-and-comer in those days could easily avail of the new openings available, jump-starting his career through advertised run-of-the-mill competency coupled with the simple expedient of greasing willing palms along the way up. I saw lots of well brought-up boys taking advantage of the situation, Ulysses. I saw you, too. It obviously worked, or else I wouldn’t be seeing you here… like this.”
Feral scowled at that.
John, unperturbed, went on, “Anyway, the last thing top brass needed was a expose of the events that occurred around Mixen Mountain that day, events that have since been shrouded in a pall of secrecy by all those that allowed this b*shit to happen and those that lived through it. It would have been too hot to handle––if news of this had reached Congress, the Enforcers could kiss their expansions goodbye, maybe even expect criminal proceedings for gross negligence. Oh, they took care of the survivors all right, placing them in respectable positions in the service, buying their silence in the bargain, while trying their darndest best to keep them physically apart and within surveillance range so that no worms would crawl out of the woodwork.”
Apparently exhausted by his monologue, the disheveled exec paused for breath. Feral, by then getting more than a little impatient, thundered, “Stop telling me things I already know and get to the point!”
“Hold on! I will, just as soon as…” he retrieved his hanky in another attempt to dam his runny nose. Looking down at an inscrutable scalp, Feral grew all the more agitated. It seemed to him John was taunting him. Shortly thereafter John reared up and resumed, “Well, unlike you and others like you, some kats have a conscience, y’know. I wasn’t one to rat on my superiors, but I’d be damned if I was gonna serve under them after all they did to us. I resigned. ’twas a lousy day as I recall, the day I turned in my stripes, same weather such as when our friends died, the same as today. Hey, what do you think ’bout that? That’s some epiphany, huh? Ahem.
“Yep,” he said, irises and pupils quivering in tandem, “quitting wasn’t easy, and downright impossible if one had no connections, but me, I could pull a few strings in the right places. So I left Megakat City, and went back home to the desert. My uncle’s into oil drilling, it’s the family business, y’see. He hadn’t been doing well, his stocks were sliding down, and then I came along and turned everything around. Said I had a gift for crud, and to think I was putting up with it as an enforcer, instead of digging for it. Or is it crude? Never was good with words. Anyway, from then on there was no looking back. I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, and it was at one time that I found I had a knack for prospecting. I was able to find oil in all sorts of places; the sea, tundra, jungle, right in my own backyard… I was happy then, still am now. Heh, I know you haven’t been keeping tabs on me, Ulysses, I’m jes’ a guy in a suit holding a divining twig. I do however hear a lot about you. How can’t I, with those costumed flyboys doin’ your job for you and filling the airwaves and newspapers with their exploits.”
“I don’t have time for this,” muttered Feral, absolutely furious and making no attempt to conceal it.
“Make time. Now listen to me. As a itinerant exec, I get to network a lot with other companies, especially those to whom we outsource geo-technology. Well, yesterday itself word reaches my ear that Katsumaki Co. is once again sponsoring an expedition comprised of field scientists, anthropologists and writers to search for more Inkat ruins, as a follow up to the re-excavation of the Katchu-Picchu pyramid last year. So I thought, this is great, I mean, I’ve always been enthusiastic about other cultures––it’s in my interests to achieve rapport with foreign nations as part of my job.”
“Look, just where is this all leading up to? I get the feeling you’re mocking me somehow––”
“What I’m trying to say is that this seemingly innocuous project may have a bearing on your past and present. Mine. Ours.”
“How so?” Feral, exasperated to the threshold of lassitude, could only follow on.
“You’re no historian, Ulysses. You wouldn’t happen to know anything much about the Inkat civilization. I’ll tell you,” he patronisingly condescended. “Back, way back some five hundred years ago, the Inkats were engaged in a bitter power struggle with the armies who had invaded from the lowlands. Despite the naturally high defensive values of the rugged highlands, and a large population base from which to recruit warriors, there’s only so much bronze spearheads and blow-darts can do against bombards and muskets, y’know, a no-con-test. They lost battle after battle after battle, which surprised nobody. Hilltop fortresses fell like dominoes before the Megalith juggernaut. Within months they had conceded half of their vast empire, most of it agrarian land. That means empty stomachs, which in turn implies poor fighters, the sum total of which is a lost war. In view of their precarious condition, the high priests chose to adopt a scorched-earth policy, evacuating people from vulnerable villages and settlements to higher ground, wisely taking along with them all foodstuffs and such. So the invading legions advanced only to find deserted houses––and no food. Supplies had to be brought up all the way from the coast, two hundred miles distant as the crow flies, four times that on foot. Another factor was the unbearable cold and thin air. They were well and truly stuck. Meanwhile, the Inkats were busy constructing new fortresses at every pass. Pulling their chestnuts out of the fire you might say. It was during this period that their leader, the god-emperor Katchu-Picchu2, directed his subjects to build invincible fortifications, of what sort, we never knew. Whatever they were, they were successful, as the stalemate persisted for five long years, after which the invaders gave up any hope of further conquest. End of story, you’d think. Last year, however, research of inscriptions at the pyramid brought to light some very interesting facts about these ‘fortifications’.”
“Seems they consisted of tunneling underground to form a honeycombed network of subterranean passages connecting all of the important positions. It boggles my mind to think they did it all within five years, what with their backward tools… but I am digressing from the point. Sorry about the lecture, old friend, it’s my brief career as a college lecturer showing through. But enough about that. What’s important is that, by chance, I picked up and leafed through the booklet detailing the expedition, which incidentally should set out in a month’s time. I came across this page where the proposed route should pass through, based on the recent findings, and saw that it cuts right across the Kat’s Spine Range. Sound familiar?” he queried.
Feral confusedly shuffled his neural cabinet and came up with squat. John brushed it off, “Never mind. It’s all these years, they even make you forget what made you what you are now. Poor Ulysses Feral. You don’t deserve this any more than any of us did, but you’re the only one who’s left holding the refuse bag, and you took it willingly, I might add.” He shook his head sadly. “Well, here’s why I’m here talking to you now.”
He paused for effect. “The big reason I came here is simply ’cause good ol’ Mixen Mountain falls smack in the middle of the route they’re taking––heck, it’s a major stopover for the expeditionaries!”
Feral closed his eyes. He opened them, and he was years older.
“Now you understand,” murmured John in a tone approximating a show of sympathy.
The big Commander stood there dazedly. He made a valiant effort to rally himself by saying something, anything, that would ameliorate the situation, but all that came out was a trickle of incoherent syllables. His companion stood by his side in silence, contributing nothing out of uncertainty. The buffered silence of the auditorium waxed luxuriously into a tangible morass, bearing down on the unprotected two and squeezing them from all sides into gnarled husks. John twitched uncomfortably, but couldn’t help noticing his comrade was, unlike himself, untouched.
At length, Feral, always the veteran, managed to emerge from his reverie, his stupefaction immediately supplanted by utter dejection and sadness. His grip on the swagger-stick loosened, sending it clattering unheeded to the ambitty floor. He shuffle-stepped his way on auto-pilot to an unupholstered chair which took his bulk as he came down on it, soughing noisily under the combined weight of physical mass and the milestones of penitence. As he sat, he stooped over, his down-turned face held in position by a cradle of hands resting on pillared forearms, the fingers deforming their neat parallel rows in deference to his jagged facial contours. Then he was still once again. To John, who was standing at his shoulder, it took no great feat of imagination to see Feral as the archetypal thinker mourning over the demonstrated failure of one of his pet ideas, and for a horrible moment he was afraid the big brooding kat might even start crying.
But not Feral. He was born without tear-manufacturing apparatus, as if you didn’t know that already. He wasn’t one to be cowed down by disaster for long, and heaven knows, he’d been through a lot worse before, and had come out at all times relatively unscathed. His abnormally swift recovery––at least, that’s how it seemed to his compatriot, who now watched in amazement as his former pilot lurched back in the flimsy seat, arms dangling limply over the armrests, and ready for talk––was mainly due to this very resilience, this tenacity.
“Say, Johnny, could you get my stick for me?” he flatly requested. “I’m fagged out as it is.”
John swallowed his incredulity and did the needful. He drew his foot slightly back, dragging the tip, then sent it sliding forward and under the baton until the hooked toes snagged and by way of relayed impetus neatly flipped it on its end and up into the air, where it was retrieved at waist level with a prudent hand snatch. He straightaway handed the sceptre to Feral, who just as casually took it with a pokerfaced sangfroid.
Feral asked, rather mildly, “So. What are we going to do?”
“Oh, so now it’s we, eh?” came the bemused reply.
“Hey, I thought you were my friend,” he stated, rolling his head towards John.
“So did I.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you were a friend of mine you’d have given up this racket years ago. It’s quite unconscionable, and by any standards, immoral. I have no idea how you can live with it.”
He received a grunt that could denote anything, but he detected an undercurrent of unwillingness.
“Ulysses, listen to me. Those expeditionaries will be out there in a month, out among all that evidence. Think of what it will do to your career, to the corps! Come off clean in public, there’s no getting around it.”
Feral stubbornly held him off, saying, “There’s no evidence. All of the debris was cleared up by the enforcers afterwards, even the heavy metal portions that had sunk deep into the snow, and that’s all they’re going to find––snow. If they want to build snowmen thereabouts, it’s none of my business to interfere.”
“I’m not talking about the battlefield debris, which would be hard to find anyway. I’m telling you, they are gonna go inside the Mountain itself in search of Inkat tunnels, and what else will they find but the underground research facility. When they do find it, they’re not just going to gloss over it, dammit, they’ll report its existence to the whole world. Everything else shall follow as a matter of course.”
Feral felt again the stirrings of unease striving to unseat his apathy. “Why inside the mountain? Just what makes it so important to anybody at all?”
“Ohh, man, wouldn’t you like to know! I don’t either, for sure, but I’ve gotta theory that I believe is quite close to the real thing, whatever it is. Remember those zany ripples in the stone walls sometimes, you know, the wavy disturbances that passed through solid matter like they were made of Jell-O, without any sound beforehand, such as rumbling?”
“Sure I do. Used to creep me out a lot. At one time I thought I was hallucinating. Perhaps they were part of some experiment, perhaps. What’s so special about them?”
“That’s right, that’s exactly what some of us figured they were. An experiment, no doubt, but beyond that, we knew very little. Of course, we were late arrivals, and by the time we came on the scene the base was fully established, had been for a year. So we knew nothing about the Inkats in relation to Mixen Mountain.”
Feral felt a sneeze coming on, but just as it was about to unleash itself, it slowly and painfully subsided. How irritating. And it made him lose out on what John was saying at the moment. He apologised, “I’m sorry, what was that again?”
“I said, tie those strange happenings together with what we now know today, namely there being ancient tunnels in the mountain, and WHAM! You suddenly realise just what the facility and the base protecting it were built for. Didn’t it strike you as odd how such an expensive facility, equipped with its very own garrison and air defense, should be located in one of the most godforsaken, inhospitable places on the planet? Why else but to harness the mystic power of the ancients!” He sardonically laughed. “Hell, in hindsight it now seems so obvious.”
“You mean like the forces that powered those giant mummies on their rampage through town, yeah, I see what you mean.”
John sighed. “Such power would have great military value, no wonder then Pumadyne wanted it so badly, no matter what the cost. And, of course, the Enforcers were only too happy to oblige.” He looked down at Feral. “But all that’s in the past. After the battle, they packed up and left the area for good, though I think they got what they wanted in the end. The research lab remains, and sources tell me there was a lot of bulky equipment they were forced to leave behind. Even if they were somehow destroyed, any damn fool gooping around there can tell the difference between plastic shards and bone flutes.
“So you see,” he droned, “they are going to find out. ‘fess up before they do.”
The kat in the chair twisted to a more authoritative position, reasserting his commandership. He spat vehemently, “If I haven’t made myself clear already, nobody’s going up there. There’s been a Federal injunction in place protecting the site from civilians as a top secret ever since.”
“Thirty years is a long time for Congress, and I have done my homework on the subject,” John spat back, just as vehement. “Though it seems you haven’t. The sacrosanct decree in which you place so much faith went bust this spring under the sweeping reforms.”
“W-well,” stammered Feral, “I suppose we could get it renewed…”
The reply was savage. “Under pretext of what? Senator Blackglove, the man responsible for the base more than anyone else has been dead for six years. The most powerful proponent for greater autonomy, gone!” John took to ferrying back and forth in the small space of the aisle. “The Enforcers have been steadily losing clout in the government with each passing election. It is an effort to even get an extension on their life span, now that the coast has gained some measure of peace.” His stride grew vigorous, agitated. “Go on a tour ’round the country now, and all you hear from every second politician is a diatribe against the evils of loose confederation. In short, there is no way to get it renewed. It would raise far too many questions.”
He scooted round in front of Feral. “Think, Ulysses, think! Even at that time, only a select coterie in command knew about Mixen Mountain. At present, those in the know of things include you, a couple of out-of-station generals and the scattered diaspora of the survivors, a lot of them to boot, yet, none of them wields political power of any significance. And if you try blocking the expedition, they’ll call on Katsumaki’s legal team. The situation is hopeless!
“Go on, do the right thing, ‘fess up!”
There was no answer.
The standing man scrutinised the colourless exterior of his companion for a while, then said carefully, “So, you’ll agree to make the matter public?”
Still no answer, but John was reassured.
Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort.
Silence is consent.
“All righty then, think it over, take your time. Tell me when you decide at this number… where’s my dotpen?” He reached his paw into a pocket and pulled out a notebook and pen. He tore off a small triangle of paper, then proceeded to jot down contact information. “There you go. Let’s see,” he considered, perusing his Rolex, “I’ll give you upto eleven, and I will be at my hotel room soon after the meeting.
“By the way, what’s it with this ‘meeting’?” he bubbled, giving Feral the paper. “I don’t remember the Commander ever attending one of these before.”
Feral swabbed his palm across his forehead in surrender, opening his mouth and holding it open.
He spoke in a weak voice, his articulation nonetheless impeccable. “It’s got something to do with what you said in there about the lessening power of the Enforcers. They’ve practically become the property of the executive, specifically Mayor Manx and his deputy, Calico Briggs. You must’ve heard of them.”
“Have I ever.” John rolled his eyes knowingly.
“So instead of sending a high-ranking subordinate as usual I now have to go in person and discuss security issues, unless I wish to forego expansion funds. Especially with the new power plants slated for construction in the outskirts. City hall is pouring everything into their making, sparing no expense.”
“It’s only a few plants.”
“The biggest in the world. As I said, we’re virtually handmaidens to the state. Think of me as the father––an impotent father––and Manx the mother.”
“No, really. Local tradition holds me to a couvade of sorts. Like any expectant father, I must be at the mother’s side at the time of inception, show support always, make approving noises, abstain from controversial actions that might offend investors. And take to my bed if need be. All this as part of shared labour pains. Ludicrous, no doubt, but tradition is tradition.” He ran his tongue over upper incisors behind set lips.
“That explains it. I see you’re taking this better than I expected.”
The two kept without a sound. John, who began fidgeting, made up his then and there to leave the auditorium. “Ulysses, I need a drink.”
“Go downstairs to the next floor, there’s a lounge there.”
“Aren’t you coming along?”
“I want to stay here alone and think about things. You go on ahead, say I sent you.”
“That’ll be great. I’ll get something for you too––”
The exec brushed his tousled hair, and, deciding not to push Feral any further, quietly went through the door after a mumbled by-your-leave.
The lone kat sitting in his chair was a bundle of tension. No physical force, no army, no matter how great, could touch him. Not as he was, protected and safely ensconced in this building. The triple whammy of the early afternoon had shown him, however, that the ghosts of the past, when roused, were no less fearsome than their corporeal counterparts. If not more.
He felt the dead stir in some distant mausoleum, erupting out of their confines and slowly but surely crawling on metaphorical stumps towards his location in an inexorable pursuit. He felt chilled.
The world was closing in, engulfing him in darkness.
And yet, behind the black cloud that had settled over him there was a tiny sliver of hope, almost beyond detection. But it was there. Always had been.
He hadn’t prayed to anyone in years. He had never felt the urge to. For before, no matter how bad things went, it had always been his body at stake. Never his convictions, nor his soul. Now they were on the block. The urge was there.
His lips moved in a whisper. Haltingly at first. Then with increasing smoothness, as long forgotten words fell into place of their own accord. He prayed.
There was little else he could do.
To be concluded.
1. A line from the Jethro Tull song, Heavy Horses. The album is of the same name.
2. Katchu-Picchu? Isn’t he the giant who busts out of the floor at the Pastmaster’s bidding, you ask. If so, why didn’t he just crush the Megalithians with his mummy army? Well, I don’t really have an answer to that one, except maybe this: at the time when he was alive he could have been just a piddling little pipsqueak in a florid headdress, becoming an ultra-cool war golem only after being embalmed. So hypothesises the author, who has never been to the Americas to see for himself firsthand.
Thanks to all who took the time to plod their way this far. As you may have noticed, my prose is rambling, my narrative leaden, the dialogue somewhat stilted. What can I say, this is my first time as a writer, and try as I might, I won’t be able to bevel off all the rough edges in this story without your help. So send those e-mails in, I’d appreciate suggestions and criticism, and although I’m already set on my course I would like to know the audience I’m writing for, even if only two people. I don’t mind long, detailed letters, heck, I demand long detailed letters!
The name of this chapter, A Prayer and a Whisper, is taken from the name of a song in the game Secret of Mana.
Here’s a bit of history. A few months back, I conceived a story involving the Kats in a future where they’re old and redundant as can be, and the weapons of choice are crutch-a-trixes. I had trashed out a few details in my mind, then found a little while later Glen Battilana had started a series similar in choice of plot. Too bad! A good story closed to me, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was, however, mollified a bit by the fact that I had another idea waiting in the wings, an idea that would develop into this very story before you. It was only when the 1st of April rolled around that I was able to open this file. Before that, I had mainly contrived the story around the battle scene, and even now, when I try to think of new things to put in, 75 percent goes to the battle itself. In addition, I had always thought of Elite Corpse (working title from almost the beginning) as a one-shot deal.
So what is this?
Part of the answer lies in my relative inexperience, the other part can be explained by the tale of my misconceptions. See, as I said, I’m new at this gig. I still haven’t learnt to pace the story in my mind, with the result that it proceeds in fits and starts. I didn’t write this chapter in a white heat, I wrote it more like a pedantic dissertion, building up sentences word by word, syllable by… you get the picture. And I was running out of time. The second reason is that I severely misjudged the length of the first part of the story, the part in what is now chapter one. I was so caught up with the battle I downplayed the size and importance of the portions that would serve as a opener to the rest of the story. So while the battle in my mind is detailed and flowing, chapter one, or the parts therein, never were. As a result, it ballooned like an aneurysm before my unbelieving eyes. During the writing of this I had to improvise on the spot, checking and rechecking passages, editing all over the place at once, deleting whole sentences and inserting fresh ones. As any of you who have tried writing like this know, this can be slow going. It’s 4:30 AM. ::Yawn:: Even before I’ve come to the show-stopping number I’ve begun tiring of the entire shebang already. Which is why it’s so important that you e-mail me, please! [Pretty please, with sugar on it?]
On another note, Swank, Wikuress, the guys on Mixen Mountain, Major Mosby and his helpers, Ensign Fletcher, ‘Shifty’ John, the Inkats, the Swordstone massacre and Senator Blackglove were all created as I was writing the story. I knocked myself out trying to accommodate them all and still achieve a modicum of consistency.
The text I’ve accomplished thus far sucked up well over a month of my time. By comparison, the pictures took me a casual week-and-a-half working on and off, most of them in a hospital were my mother was being treated. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this, it’s that I’m better off an artist than a writer. Sigh.
How does this ‘coordinator’ guy outrank the lieutenant-general? I smell a fish. Don’t you know your hierarchy? Not really. Just remember that the base on Mixen Mountain is quasi-military, and Swank is a civilian, not an enforcer.
Why have you given this story an R when there’s no action or violence or sex, even implied? I am so pissed at your wasting my time. Sorry about that. It would have been quite relevant if Elite Corpse had stayed a complete story as originally planned. But as you can see, it’s coming at you in installments. I still think the R is necessary, though. For readers who have followed the story up to here and want more, part two will have all the violence to make it deserve the rating. No carnal escapades, nyet! if I put that in, the story could well become a trilogy, which I don’t want, and be pointless as far as the plot is concerned. In any case I think the R should stay, it’ll serve as a warning of things to come. Terrible things.
Alright, I need your help on a few details.
Number one. Nitpickers would have noticed I haven’t drawn a picture of Ulysses and his buddies. Why is this so? Why indeed. The reason is, I just can’t form a mental image of Feral, the stuck-up mother of all stuck-up mothers, as a young man. What’s he going to look like? Crew cut? Elvis pompadour? Disco regalia? I don’t know. Help me.
Number two. The location of Mixen Mountain, and the Kat’s Spine Range of which it is a part of. We know for sure that there are mountains in the vicinity of the city, as featured in The Deadly Pyramid. I distinctly remember the enforcer dispatch in the cyclotron scene after the duo were leaving Dr. Hackle’s lab say they were east of the city. That’s the only clue I have from that episode. Take note: I’m not saying the Kat’s Spine Range is the same thing. It could be further away, but in my estimation, roughly the same direction. Tell me if I’m wrong in any way.
Number three. The location of Megakat City itself. The television series waffles considerably on the issue of its location. The Tremblays obviously didn’t want to get down to such detail for a kid’s show, but since this particular story is anything but, I’ll be needing solid cartographical areas of play if I want to do serious work. There are two weak clues the show offers. The first are the mountains in the east, leaving open a coastline possibly stretching from north, through west, to south. I’m inclined to believe MKC is situated on the west coast of the continent it’s on. This is a belief reinforced by the existence of Anakata island. That’s the second clue. We all know the world the Kats live in a different world than ours, but MKC is for all intents and purposes a metropolis typical of the United States, and by that I mean culturally and, to an extent, politically as well. Anakata may be just a ten-minute excursion by motorboat from the city, whereas Hawaii and the American mainland are separated by thousands of miles of water, but the similarities are there. It follows from this that this is the west coast. Of course, the existence of Katkatraz whops this notion gleefully, so I’m not counting much on the Anakata evidence. Disclaimer: All the leads I’ve shown up are rather inconclusive. Don’t get mad, just e-mail me.
SWAT Kats® and all related characters are copyright Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc. and Turner Program Services, the last time I checked the credits. The other characters you don’t see in the show are mine, all mine! That includes, in order of appearance, Kyle, Jose, Haley, Rifler, Coordinator Swank, Lieutenant-general Wikuress, ‘Shifty’ John, the Inkats, Ensign Jamie Fletcher, Major Mosby, Cyrus Ames, Roth, General Felix Battenburg and Senator Blackglove. Inanimate entities, in no particular order, include Mixen mountain, the Kat’s Spine Range, Katsumaki Co., WB96, the widow maker, the Leviathan and Vanguard, the Federal Adjudicators and Fort Swordstone. The three ships, the Doolittle, Blue Manx and Katfish are of my creation, though I can’t lay claim to the names of the first two. There may be some I inadvertently left out. This is in no way an infringement on the rights of the copyright holders, as I am not getting any monetary payment and/or reimbursement of any kind for the writing of this story.
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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.