A CHANCE DEATH Felix Lee <email@example.com>
19:28 17 Rain 2751
The most hateful thing about his cell was the fluorescent light. A dungeon should be built out of darkness, not this antiseptic glare. The Pastmaster pressed his claws into his eye sockets, trying to see the blackness that was missing.
It didn’t work. Nothing worked. If he had the power, he’d shout down the walls and raise a Desolate Spire from the rubble. He’d chain the Enforcers to the walls and fuel the spire’s beacon with their blood. Not for any particular grand purpose; just for the crisp satisfaction of it.
His reverie was interrupted by a voice outside the cell. “You have a visitor. Stand away from the door.” A moment later, the door clicked and quietly swung open. No squeal of hinges, no creak of steel, not even a grunt of effort from the jailor. No satisfaction there.
But the visitor who entered . . . This had potential. It was Razor, one of the SWAT Kats. Come to gloat, no doubt.
The Pastmaster waited for the door to close, then whispered, “Trapped in amber, buried in darkness, with screams your sole companion. How many centuries can you survive?”
Razor shrugged and said, “You’re the one rotting in jail, not me.”
It wasn’t a bad response, but there was no menace in it. The Pastmaster was frustrated. Nothing in this world was right. “Begone,” he said. “You do not belong in this domain.” He turned away and resumed his bleak meditation of what should have been.
But Razor grabbed the Pastmaster’s neck, dragging his attention back to the stark present. “I need to know,” said Razor. “Can you really change the past?”
The ventilation fan stopped. The cell grew still, as if the Marks of Time themselves were waiting for the answer. Inside the Pastmaster’s skull, a long-dormant spider uncurled its legs and began feeling for places to anchor its web. He had never expected to hear that question, not in this day and age, not from one of its heroes.
There would never be another chance like this.
He could hear Razor’s blood, could practically taste the pulse in Razor’s grip on his collarbone, reminding him of what he had lost long ago. He gently clasped Razor’s hand with his own skeletal paw, and prepared to lead Razor down the path to oblivion.
“Whose death is it?” he asked.
“What?” Razor feigned confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Only fools and grievers wish to change the past. Are you claiming to be a fool?” Fools enjoyed that bit of flattery. “Again I ask, whose death is it?”
Razor shook his head. “Well, I had to try.” He pulled free and turned to leave. “It’s . . .” His voice stumbled. “It’s Mayor Manx.”
The Pastmaster laughed in his soul at the touching display of loyalty. This was going to be easy. He waited for the door to open, waited until Razor was halfway through, then said, “There’s a price.”
Razor’s ear twitched, but he didn’t stop. When he finally did turn around, on the other side of the threshold, his grin was fierce.
“Let me guess. You want out of this cell, Commander Feral for a scratching post, Megakat City destroyed, and a pony.”
“Nothing of the sort,” the Pastmaster replied. “The universe itself demands . . .”
Razor interrupted. “A life for a life. Yeah, we went through that litter already. I’m here to keep my part of the bargain.”
That wasn’t right. The Pastmaster was perturbed. A dark premonition chittered in his brain.
Razor removed a card from a pocket, thrust it at the Pastmaster, and said, “This message is for me.”
Paralyzed by dread, the Pastmaster watched Razor open his hand, watched the inevitable falling of the card, watched the words “To Razor” and “From Razor” tumble to the ground.
And then Razor was holding a familiar pocketwatch beside a familiar crystal. The Enforcer beside him was crumpled against the wall. When had that happened? The Pastmaster hadn’t noticed.
Bells were ringing in the corridor. Beneath the din, Razor mouthed arcane syllables that echoed in the Pastmaster’s head. He wanted to scream at Razor, “Where did you learn the Cypher of Unlocking?” But he knew already what the answer would be.
The chant stopped. The electric breeze from a nascent timeportal caressed his neck. The Pastmaster watched Razor throw the anchor crystal, watched it glitter and arc, watched it strike his chest and fall. But before it could shatter against the floor, he forced himself to act, to catch the crystal in his claws.
Razor shouted something incomprehensible, something about “twelve seconds”. It didn’t matter; the Pastmaster wasn’t going to stay that long.
He picked up the card Razor had dropped. The message written on it was short: “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”
Hysterical laughter was the only sane response.
Centuries of meticulous caution, centuries of successfully avoiding temporal knots, and this costumed idiot of a hero managed to tie one tightly around them both, for the sake of one insignificant little death.
There wasn’t much time to plan. He had to convince the Razor in the past to come here quickly, to close the knot before complications could arise. Yes, there was still a chance of escaping from this unscathed.
The last time he had been in a temporal knot, he had lost his life.
He screamed and leapt at the timeportal. There was an explosion of light.
09:14 16 Rain 2751
Mayor Manx was 3 under par when an impossible dragon torched his ball.
It was the 15th tee at Tiger Woods. 463 meters, par 5, but that was the long way around. The fairway had a controversially sharp dogleg in it, so the straightline distance to the hole was 185 meters. If you had good control over distance and didn’t mind shooting blind over the trees, you could easily sink the ball in three.
Manx liked to sink it in one.
It was something almost primal. He couldn’t do it anywhere else. First, a glance at the city skyline to anchor himself, then a feral stare into the woods. Wait until the flickering images subside to a single, white point. Take a breath, then swing.
Seven times out of twelve, the ball went straight into the hole. It was extraordinary. Even kats with nothing to gain had said so.
But his only audience today was a sniffer named Milo. Nephew of the CEO of Mercer-Aden Biotechnologies. Milo announced it like an occupation. Callie called it his handicap. When Milo had introduced himself to her like that, she took a moment to touch her glasses, as if she didn’t believe what they showed her, and replied simply, “I’m Calico Briggs.” Didn’t mention she was Deputy Mayor. Didn’t _need_ to mention it. The difference between them was clear.
Callie would make a beautiful Mayor. But the last time Manx had told her that, she smiled and said, “I’d have to shoot all the idiots like Milo first.”
Milo was here because Manx owed his aunt Rescha, the CEO of etc., a favor or two. “Mayor’s Caddy” was a convenient way of handling young sniffers like him. It was an honorific that appealed to their resume, without actually putting their paws near anything important. Some of them even learned from the experience. And if they didn’t, well, at least they served a purpose.
Milo had finished setting the ball. Manx walked up to the tee, gave a fond smile to Megakat Tower in the distance, then settled down to find the small bright center that led straight to the hole in the 15th green.
It was a long time coming. The woods he faced was a sparse screen of transplants, but the woods in his vision today were darker and unsettled. Trees pointed their branches like accusations at leaf-shrouded secrets. Vaulted corridors twisted past moss-encrusted trunks, opening paths for unnamed beasts to creep through.
It was probably just anxiety. The land-use commission was meeting after lunch, and Tiger Woods was on the agenda. Someone had finally questioned why City Parks money was propping up an unprofitable _private_ golf course.
That was no big deal. Manx would put up a token fight, concede the issue for some minor advantage, and divert money to Tiger Woods another way. Of course, nothing was that simple.
Cade Feldon was the problem. That’s what the meeting _during_ lunch was for. A dozen years after the last war-orphan case was settled, and two weeks ago Cade finds this kat who says he’s the sole surviving member of the Lamongier clan, with legal claim to dozens of properties, including Tiger Woods.
Manx didn’t believe it any more than Cade did, but Cade was grabbing the opportunity like a tick. It was romantic, and populist. Not to mention potential profit for her brother’s development company.
She probably hoped the threat of scandal would bring Manx to her side. Well, Manx couldn’t let that happen. Somehow, he had to find a way to put her off, defuse the issue, and stall the Lamongier claim, without calling too much attention to Tiger Woods.
Situations like this were why Manx needed golf.
After an endless waiting breath, his flickering thoughts turned white and shrank to a dot. Manx slowly raised the club above his head, suspended it a moment, then attacked.
It was a clean strike. He didn’t even need to watch; he could feel the ball heading straight for the target.
The stream of fire that destroyed the ball was a complete surprise.
A dragon, looking like an odd-shaped blimp, had appeared from nowhere, and didn’t look happy about it.
Manx dropped to the ground and froze.
Behind him, Milo made a shrill squeak and ran senselessly for the parking lot, hundreds of meters away. The colorful moving idiot attracted the dragon and shortly became a colorfully burning idiot.
Mayor Manx shuddered at the screams. He wished he could help, but there was nothing to do.
His brain shouted at him from a distance, telling him not to waste the diversion. Manx forced his shaking limbs to action, and started crawling for the burning trees nearby. There was something he knew about Tiger Woods that Milo didn’t know, despite him being nephew of etc.
Poor Rescha. Milo was an embarrassment, and his death came at a good time. But she had few living relatives left. She wouldn’t take it well.
Ten meters to go. Manx would tell Rescha himself. He could spin it a little, emphasize Milo’s self-sacrifice, and how Milo did his duty in the end. No matter it was unintentional. She might even appreciate the irony of it.
Manx reached the trees and checked the situation. His dragon wasn’t in sight, but it looked like others were terrorizing the city in the distance. From the explosions in the air, Commander Feral was doing his usual half-bitten job of neutralizing the threat.
Well, if Feral’s Enforcers couldn’t handle it, the SWAT Kats would save the city. They always did. Callie might even have a victory speech prepared for Mayor Manx already.
And perhaps he’d work Milo’s death into it somehow. Milo could stand for all the civilian lives lost in this crisis. There might even be a way to handle the Tiger Woods problem in all this chaos. Manx couldn’t think that far ahead at the moment. But there was now an excuse to postpone the issues another day or two. That would help.
He heard the buzz of an approaching helicopter, reminding him that he needed better shelter. The Enforcers were sometimes a little careless with their heavy weaponry, and they would probably be as dangerous as the dragons.
Best to stay out of the way until things quieted down. He crawled through the smoke, looking for a particular stone in the ground. Was it thirty-six years ago already? He had just been inducted into Rescha’s gang, when they had stumbled onto the secret.
It was better protected now. No reckless kits would find it today.
When he found the right stone, he levered it aside and placed his pads on the claw lock it had concealed. A few quick twitches, and the lock beeped.
Lying flat had been a mistake. The concealed hatch opened up beneath his chest. Manx cursed as he fell into darkness.
“Feral’s yammering on channel 9.”
“Anything important?” T-Bone asked.
“Of course.” Razor imitated Feral’s self-important tone. “Scram. Stay out of our way. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And try not to blow up any buildings, pretty please?”
T-Bone was too busy to think of a snappy response. “Tell him we said hi. Check me on this: eleven, make that twelve dragons in the air. Enforcers have engaged seven of them.”
“Roger that. Except the Enforcers don’t seem to be doing anything useful.”
“Goes without saying.” T-Bone switched his HUD to engagement mode. “Okay. Pick a dragon, any dragon.”
“Rrrr. The one by the railyard. Heading 240. Feral doesn’t have coverage in that area.”
“Roger.” T-Bone turned the Turbokat and opened the throttle a notch. “Twelve seconds to contact. Get your slingshots ready.”
Six seconds later, a dragon oozed into existence right in front of them. “Shit!” T-Bone saw an instant of wings and gray confusion as he fought to avoid collision. The Turbokat’s nose ripped through a wing membrane, the plane’s belly scraped across the dragon’s spine, and the exhaust from the jets made the dragon explode.
At least, that’s what T-Bone thought had happened. He didn’t have time for a good look.
Razor was helpfully saying, “Note for future reference: dragons explode on contact. Hey, I bet Feral knows that already. Wonder why he didn’t tell us.”
T-Bone regained control of the jet. The Turbokat was a little singed, but her systems checked out okay. “Forget Feral. Where’s the dragon? And where’d it come from?”
“Looks like it’s history. Flaming dragon steaks all over the Urvin warehouse district. Hope everyone was insured.”
“We can’t keep doing that. Someone’s gonna get hurt.”
“Well, only half our weapons are explosive. Where’s our target? Lemme try the cement guns.”
T-Bone continued to the trainyard and made a low-speed flyby. Razor plastered the dragon’s wings with resin. The dragon, clearly annoyed by the attack, sent a stream of fire toward the Turbokat. It was a feeble threat: the plane was out of the dragon’s range already. But the action did accomplish one thing: it unbalanced the dragon and flipped it on its back.
“Hey, T-Bone. See anything strange about the dragon?”
“You mean the way it’s just hanging upside-down in the air, without flapping?”
“That too,” said Razor. “Make another pass. I wanna try plugging its flamethrower.”
The dragon had lost some altitude, but it didn’t look like it was going to touch ground anytime soon. Its struggle with the sticky resin had given it a slight spin, so T-Bone adjusted his course to give Razor a clear shot at the head.
The consideration wasn’t necessary. When the Turbokat approached, the dragon twisted its neck around and spewed fire that licked the plane’s canopy for a moment.
Razor yelled triumph. He had shot past the flames, filling the dragon’s mouth with resin.
A few seconds later, the dragon exploded.
“Rat on a stick!” T-Bone wasn’t happy. “I thought we weren’t gonna do that any more.”
“Hey, you popped one, I popped one,” Razor said. “Now we’re even. That trainyard was ready for urban renewal anyway.”
“Any more bright ideas?”
“Yeah. Now we know why dragons went extinct. How many are left? I can pin them down with the cement gun while we figure out something else.”
T-Bone checked the city’s radar composite. “Looks like fourteen. Feral’s engaged nine.”
“What? Where did the extras come from?”
“Don’t ask me. I still don’t know where the one I crashed into came from.”
“I don’t have enough cement. We need another plan.”
T-Bone wasn’t going to say it, but Feral’s fleet of Enforcers could handle a multiple threat like these dragons better than the SWAT Kats and their single plane could. But if dragons kept appearing at this rate, the Enforcers would soon be outnumbered too.
They had to do something. T-Bone tried to think like a dragon, tried to _fly_ like a dragon. Their wingspan was impressive, but the wings seemed more ornamental than useful, like a peacock’s tail. No creature that large should be able to fly on muscle-power alone. “Look, if the dragons float, they have to be filled with hydrogen, right?”
“You forgot antigravity, magic, and invisible string. But yeah, that’s a good idea. Try the laser-seeking slicers in bay two. I’m going to look at the instant replays.”
The laser-seekers didn’t need Razor’s precision aiming. T-Bone just had to point the Turbokat’s nose at the target, and the missiles would home in on the reflected laser signature.
There was an unclaimed dragon near Tiger Woods, a private country club with plenty of space. T-Bone set course for it. If this dragon blew up too, the fallout wouldn’t do any serious harm.
At medium range, T-Bone fired. The slicer missiles cruised towards the target, unfolded their blades, and opened ugly gashes across the dragon’s belly. The dragon panicked and spat quick streams of flame all around it, fighting enemies it couldn’t see. Blood sprayed from its wounds as it swept its wings frantically, trying to stay aloft.
Eventually it touched ground, without exploding. T-Bone approached and switched to hover mode for a closer look.
The dragon’s mouth was open wide, but it wasn’t breathing fire. T-Bone turned on the directional mike to listen. The cries he heard from the dragon were a layered melody that reminded him of whales.
The dragon itself reminded T-Bone of a beached whale. Its wings were furled against the damaged belly, and its tail was folded between its legs. The splayed legs were undersized and didn’t look like they could support the dragon’s weight, but it was clear from the way it had flown that the dragon was lighter than it looked. Though maybe not now. There were furrows in the grass near its claws, but it hadn’t moved far.
The cries stopped for a breath, and the dragon turned its head to face the Turbokat. T-Bone looked into the dragon’s eyes, and saw green holocaust. Bright shapes and emerald shadows flashed through the orbs like fire and flight, like a videotape replaying at high speed, as if the eyes were a window into the dragon’s thoughts, its memories of death and destruction.
The eyes held T-Bone in their depths for an eternity, and then the dragon blinked, turned away, resumed its distress call. T-Bone shook himself alert, as if waking from a dream, and looked around.
The damage to the area around the dragon was acceptable, but the grounded dragon was still a problem. It could still explode, and even if it didn’t, it was a menace to anyone nearby.
In the denser parts of the city, destroying a dragon in the air was probably less hazardous overall. The city’s Volunteer Fire Brigade was pretty good at aiming their antiox cannons. But if he needed to ground another dragon, he could do it. There were still four slicer missiles left.
T-Bone turned off the external mike. “This is a dead-end. Find anything?”
“Yeah. Screen 2. This is right before we crashed the dragon. See the dark stripe in the air? The dragon flies out from there. I think it’s some type of hole. It’s hard to see because of the angle we’re at.”
“Any idea what caused it?”
“Well, the crash was suspicious, so I’m assuming enemy action. Oh, by the way, don’t fly in a straight line for more than a few seconds.”
“Been doing that already, buddy.”
“Okay.” Razor changed the display. “This is the last twelve. About one a minute.”
T-Bone watched the radar trails in the replay. “Only one at a time?”
“Looks like it. So I’m guessing one enemy. And I bet he has to see the holes to create them. So first I looked at the center of mass, by Overton Reservoir. That’s no good. You can’t see anything from there. Too many buildings in the way.”
“Maybe the enemy is a dragon? Or riding one?”
“Rrrr. Didn’t think of that. Hold that thought, and look at this.”
“Hang on.” Two more dragons had arrived, and looked ready to fight over the grounded dragon. T-Bone moved the Turbokat to neutral territory.
Razor resumed his explanation. “Okay. Say that dragons fly straight out the holes. I extended their initial vectors, and see? Most of the lines cross in one spot.”
T-Bone worked it through in his head. Razor was making too many fast assumptions, but the result looked good. The vectors didn’t converge perfectly, but it was too much of a coincidence.
It was the tallest point in the city. “Megakat Tower. Right, let’s go.”
Something important was happening. Dr. Viper could taste it. Guards had clotted up the north airlock, but that was just the reflex response. The real action would be at the nerve center. Viper hurried toward the control room of the underground complex.
He stopped a few meters from the door, and listened.
“How did he find the entry shaft?” the captain was asking. “I told you the claw locks aren’t good enough.”
“No, they’re fine.” It was the Director’s voice, on the vidphone. “Manx knows the key. How is he?”
“Still unconscious, but breathing is stable. Why does he have the key?”
“It’s a long story. Manx knows about the complex. But not about Dr. Viper. We’ll have to move him.”
Viper hissed frustration. He was so close. A few more days and he’d have it. Moving the vats again would setback the project for months, maybe more.
He ran for the lab. No way was he going to spend another day working for that bitch. It had sounded like a cushy deal when he signed on. Plus it kept him out of sight of the Enforcers. But a fur-lined cage was still a cage. And this one was way overdue for a cleaning.
Good thing he had a plan. He’d been meaning to do the hostile takeover thing once the cultures tested okay. No reason he couldn’t bump the schedule a bit. Running this underground complex would be easy. It might slow him down a couple days, but that was way better than a three-month delay.
He walked into the lab and ignored the two lab technicians there. They ignored him back, like usual.
First things first. Viper took a rack of mislabelled embryos out of cryocabinet 3 and stuck them in a spare incubath tank. They were precocious creatures in a fast-growth medium, but it would still be several minutes before they were ready.
Enough time to finish the takeover. This was the fun part.
An angle bracket, some polytube, and a cryoflask. It had been real simple to make a cryogun out of spare parts. Security in this place was a joke. Good thing none of the lab techs had thought of it first. Viper was way ahead of them, as ever.
He pulled the gun from his private stash, yelled “Fire!” When the techs looked up, he quickly sprayed their faces. Just a light coat, freezing their eyes shut, maybe bursting an eyeball or two. That would slow them down.
Next step, the rest of the complex.
The lab had its own fire suppression unit, but the unit did have a datalink to the main system. Viper froze the cover of the control panel and busted it open. Then he patched into the main system and told it there was a major raging inferno in all sectors. The system met the challenge by dumping all its antiox tanks at once.
That should knock out everyone for a bit. Antiox gas grabbed oxygen tight in its molecular claws. In a few minutes, everyone would be unconscious from anoxia, except Viper. The green symbiont in his skin could recycle CO2 into O2, so he didn’t really need to breathe, ever.
And if anyone did find a spare pocket of air to breathe in, the cryogun would take care of them, easy.
The rush wasn’t over yet.
Viper left the lab, quickly slashing throats with his talons as he went. Pity he had to recycle everyone. He’d rather make them a part of his team, but nursing each kat through the necessary infections took way too much time. He had to secure the complex against external threats, soon.
Which would be easy. There were only two ways in or out, and both of them could be blocked, no problem. No reason to keep a squad of goons on hand. What a waste they had been.
But Dr. Viper was in charge now! No more micromanagement, no more in-fighting, no more braindead security goons. Life was good.
It wasn’t until he carved his way to the north airlock that he saw the flaw in his plan.
The unconscious kats in the corridor, one of them was the medic. Next to his sprawled body was an open medikit. The stretcher was assembled and ready to go. The kat strapped in the stretcher was Manx.
Not just _any_ Manx. It was _Mayor_ Manx.
Worse, he was wearing an oxymask. Manx was awake.
Viper pressed the points of his talons against Manx’s throat and said, “I should kill you right now.”
Manx gabbled something in the mask. Viper pulled the mask aside, and Manx said, “I can pay. Don’t . . .” Manx started gasping. Guess the ventilation system hadn’t cleared the antiox from the air, yet.
Viper put the mask back and said, “Silence.” He drew out the final hiss for effect. “I need to think.”
The other kats, they were nobodies that nobody’d miss. But Manx would draw down packs of Enforcers, and they had the firepower to crack this place wide open. Even if he tossed Manx outside somewhere, they’d want to know what killed him.
Viper asked, “Does anyone know you’re here? Talk fast.” He moved the mask again.
“Of course. I was playing . . .”
Viper squelched the rest of the sentence. Golf, it was. Manx was famous for it.
The Enforcers would find this place, easy. There weren’t any options left. Looked like he had to do the hostage negotiation thing.
“Twelve million, and safe passage. Who do I talk to?”
Manx replied, “Not the Enforcers! Talk . . .”
Viper almost crushed Manx’s throat right there. He’d forgotten about Commander Feral, that hardass. Feral would never deal. He thought Viper was insane. Even if Viper pulled pieces off of Manx, Feral’s priority would be extraction of the Mayor.
It was hard to negotiate with kats who thought you were crazy.
The rush would never end. Viper felt it course through his skin for a moment, then chose a plan.
He started pulling off Manx’s clothes. Manx didn’t struggle, much.
“So what’s the plan?” T-Bone asked.
“How about we blast Megakat Tower to bits?” Razor said flippantly. He didn’t have enough data yet. Megakat Tower was still too far away to see anything useful. He scanned the video log for clues.
“Let the Enforcers sort through the rubble?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” The skyscraper was a disaster magnet. Megavillains considered it a challenge. “Who do you think it is?” Razor asked.
“How about the Pastmaster?”
“Nah, it can’t be him. Where’s the flashy storm and the vacu-suck vortex?” Razor hoped it wasn’t him. The time-travel holes created by that undead sorcerer had sucked the SWAT Kats, Turbokat and all, into ancient history, several times. Too many times.
“Maybe his special-effects budget ran out. Bet you a week it’s him.”
T-Bone was usually right about these things. Razor knew he’d probably lose, but he doubled anyway. “Make it two weeks, and you’re on.” Two weeks of laundry, that is.
Razor suddenly realized something. The Pastmaster, or whoever it was, could just escape through one of those holes if anyone came too close. “New plan. Fly for a dragon, umm, heading 096. We don’t want to scare our bird away.”
“Roger. What do I do with the dragon?”
“Ask it to the prom. Use the cement guns. Splash its wings a couple times, then go for a dragon on the other side of the Tower. Fly past it, not too close. I’m going to look for our bird.”
The Pastmaster was probably somewhere near the top of Megakat Tower. There weren’t many places that gave you easy views of the whole city. Razor tapped the Turbokat’s spare cameras and autolocked them on the Tower’s upper floors.
He then quickly readied his gear. Top-down assault of Megakat Tower was one of their standard gameplay scenarios. They’d even done it for real a couple times, without doing too much damage.
T-Bone had cemented the first dragon without problems and was flying past Megakat Tower now. Razor watched carefully, hoping for something he could use.
The tourists were crowding the windows on the skyscraper’s upper observation deck, gawking at the spectacle, as if it were part of the package deal, safe and sanitized for their protection.
“The Mayor should raise admission prices for major disasters,” he told T-Bone.
“You expect them to pay for the privilege of surviving a disaster?”
“Sure! Remember basic economics? Large number of tourists competing for limited number of survivor positions drives up the opportunity cost of survival.”
“Does that mean we get rich?”
Razor laughed. “Only if nobody survives.” Not much chance of that. Even the tourists in Megakat Tower were safe, probably. There weren’t any dragons anywhere close to Megakat Tower. The Pastmaster wasn’t dumb. If it _was_ the Pastmaster. No, T-Bone was right. Razor stopped pretending to himself that it could be anyone else.
T-Bone was engaging another dragon. Razor kept scanning the vids. If he didn’t find anything soon, he’d just assault the Tower blind and hope for the best. The longer it took to nail the Pastmaster, the more dragons he’d bring to terrorize the city.
Well, the Pastmaster had to run out of dragons sometime. “Two, maybe three hundred dragons, tops. Think the Enforcers can handle it?”
“Sure, why not?” T-Bone answered. “Feral hasn’t used up his special-effects budget yet.”
Suddenly, Razor saw it. A lone figure moving in the Bird’s-Eye Restaurant. Razor had taken Chelsea there once. Intimate dining with a panoramic view of the city, and a spectacular business flop. It was closed now, waiting for new management.
That had to be it.
Razor replied, “Then our work here is done! I’ll call Feral and order the pizza now. Just make one last pass at Megakat Tower, for old time’s sake.”
“Shy little building, isn’t she? Hello, Miss Tower. Care to dance?”
At extreme range, Razor punched the eject. With luck, the Pastmaster wouldn’t notice Razor leaving the plane. The ejection seat had twelve seconds of boost, enough to land him neatly on a roof of Megakat Tower, 92 floors up.
Bird’s-Eye Restaurant was three floors down. Razor unreeled an optic snake down the side of the building for a quick recon. The Pastmaster’s cloaked form was perched on a table against the windows, not far away. In his right hand was a thoroughly modern pair of Korvus CCD binoculars. In his left hand was an antique pocketwatch, his magic talisman.
Looked like he didn’t suspect a thing.
Razor picked a handy spot and attached his grapple. The optic snake had said 12.6 meters. Razor set his cablebrake at 13 meters, for luck. Then he ran to the edge and jumped.
He’d seen this stunt in a movie. He swung on the end of the cable, straight for the restaurant. Before he splatted against the polyglas window, he fired flechettes from his Glovatrix, neatly cracking the window from edge to edge. An instant later, his body easily crashed through.
The Pastmaster was slow, had barely turned to see what was going on.
Razor landed lightly on his feet and unhooked the cablebrake in a single, smooth motion. Without even taking a step, he reached forward and pulled the pocketwatch from the Pastmaster’s grasp. “I’ll take that,” he said as he snapped the watch’s chain.
The Pastmaster screamed and threw the binoculars. Razor ducked easily, and knocked the Pastmaster off his feet. It was no contest. Within seconds, Razor had the Pastmaster securely cuffed.
“T-Bone, you there? I want a new dancing partner. This one’s undead.”
“Ha! I knew it was the Pastmaster.”
“Lucky guess. Oh well. Another week of laundry.”
“_Two_ weeks. And don’t you forget it, buddy.”
Rescha Crane watched dragons from her morning office and worried about Mayor Manx.
The office was nothing special. Just a standard high-rise suite in the Tarsier building, furnished in Retro-Paranoia style B, and completely impersonal. It was her private office, her sanctuary.
Afternoons belonged to the corporation, but mornings were her own time. After breakfast and early-morning crisis control, she’d unplug the databook from her kitchen, ride the subway to the L Street station, and run up the twenty-three stories to her morning office.
Other kats found her daily ritual odd. Rescha’s assistant had collected a small file of foxtales about what _really_ happened in her morning office. Her favorite involved twelve clones who took turns acting as Rescha in thirteen parallel universes, each universe more bizarre than the previous one.
Reality was less interesting, and less believable. She spent her hours alone with her databook, just reading. News articles, nanobiology papers, psychoeconomic analyses, whatever her databook had culled in the night. She hardly needed a downtown office for that.
The office was nothing special, but it had a view of the city around her. It helped her feel connected at a time in life when little she did had tangible effect. The last time she could hold her work in her paws was a dozen years ago, when she was still hanging her tail on a lab bench.
Now, all her priorities were on the datanet, untouchable as words. So she watched the lives and commerce of the city outside her morning office, and it centered her, reminded her why she was still here.
The Tarsier building wasn’t _the_ center of the city, but it was right outside the ACIS-zero boundary, and grossly undervalued. Catastrophe analysis showed that the risk index dropped off sharply just two blocks away from the ACIS-zero singularity. In fact, Rescha’s office was statistically safer than many structures farther away. Still, most kats would be uncomfortable staying within hissing distance of Megakat Tower.
In the distance, Rescha saw another dragon disappear in a fireball. She wanted a closer look, wanted to make her own live assessment of such an unlikely creature, but there were none nearby. Trouble was avoiding Megakat Tower this time.
Not that anyone would notice. Public perception was always skewed toward the extremes. She could imagine the headlines now. “Megakat Tower Avoids Dragon Fire!” As if the skyscraper had anything to do with it.
Still, there was something about Megakat Tower that attracted more than its share of trouble, and earned it the awkward label of ACIS-zero: Anomalous Catastrophic Incidence Sphere Zero.
Mayor Manx took it personally. It wasn’t just the money tied up in the building. Megakat Tower meant something more to him, something that Rescha didn’t really understand.
She had heard Manx ranting about the unfairness of it all, many times. Just a few weeks ago, at an otherwise forgettable reception, a foreign investor had prodded Manx into giving his standard three-whiskers rant. Or perhaps Manx had prodded the investor into prodding him. Manx wielded drunkenness carefully, like a weapon.
Rescha had suddenly been tired of the politicking and posturing, the endless speechifying for psychological effect. When Manx stopped for a breath, she had said, straight-faced, “Perhaps Megakat Tower needs an exorcism.” Manx had laughed, not at the idea itself, but at hearing the idea from her, the rationalist.
But the real punchline came a week later. Manx had remembered the idea, and had followed through with an authentic exorcism. The media loved it. Manx had looked comically out of place in the rabbit outfit the shaman had given him, but he had carried it with easy dignity. No, not dignity. Unselfconsciousness. He had grabbed both the seriousness and the silliness of the occasion, and managed to pull off a public relations coup. That was Manx’s genius: becoming a buffoon that people genuinely liked.
The dragons over the city had started flocking, chasing after an Enforcer jet. Or perhaps it was the SWAT Kats jet. Not that it made a difference. The media hyped up the rivalry between the lawful Enforcers and the mysterious masked SWAT Kats, but it was too much of a foxtale. How hard could it be to find their real identity? They were probably a gray budget item, one of those unknown sums of money that just disappeared into Enforcer Headquarters.
She had asked Manx about it once. It was an open secret that the Mayor’s office had a comm link to the SWAT Kats. But Manx had denied everything with a laugh.
Rescha hadn’t pressed too hard. Manx could keep his secrets. She had secrets of her own to keep.
She tried calling Pwyll on the vidphone again. Still no answer. The lack of information was unsettling. Uncertainty was threatening to trap her in an endless waiting game.
Rescha couldn’t let that happen. There was always the failsafe option. One command, one explosion, and the underground base would just disappear. It was her last defense against any problems Dr. Viper might create.
It just didn’t make any sense. She had expected Viper to stay in line for several more weeks. She had bet lives on it. There was no advantage to him making a move now, and the antipsychotics in his food should still be effective.
There was a chance that Viper wasn’t the problem. It could be a natural disaster, or even a catastrophic accident at the lab. But there was nothing to be gained from that line of thought. She had to assume the worst.
Rescha’s phone chirped. It was Bruun from the golf course, with the answer that Rescha had been dreading. “I’m sorry, I can’t find Mayor Manx. But the dragons. Everything’s chaos. There’s a couple charred bodies. Nobody’s looked yet. I’m sorry.”
Rescha smoothed Bruun’s fur, reassured him, then tried calling Pwyll, again. Manx wasn’t a charred body. Pwyll’s team would never let that happen. Manx just hadn’t been moved anywhere, before Viper lost control. Probably.
Still no answer. Rescha let the phone keep chirping. She’d have to send a team to penetrate the base, soon. But she could wait, and watch dragons, for a little longer.
Razor was reporting successful capture of the Pastmaster. T-Bone’s finger hesitated a moment on the trigger, and the resin missed. He watched it arc and stick harmlessly to an office building. No big deal. The cement gun was just a delaying action anyway. Now that the Pastmaster was under control, the rest of the dragons could be handled with care.
He asked Razor on the comm, “Want me to pick you up?”
“Nah. I’m keeping my paw on the Pastmaster until the Enforcers arrive. How are you doing?”
“Missed one. Almost out of cement.”
“How many dragons left?” Razor asked.
“Fourteen. Still too many. I’ve got an idea, but I need a box to put them in. Think you can find one?”
“Gee, that shouldn’t be hard. We’ve got plenty of sardine cans. How many do you need?”
“Just one. Make sure it’s big enough.” T-Bone parked the Turbokat over Whitetail Stadium and called up the mission log, looking for the dragon they had grounded at the golf course.
He listened to the dragon’s cries again and lost himself in its rhythms. Deep thrumming filled his skull as the higher-pitched warbles swept through his fur. The song made him want to run, fight, stand defiant on the edge of wilderness, or . . . it wanted him to do _something_ to escape the emerald shadows in his mind. Intention and meaning were buried in the layers of sound, and if he listened to it a while longer, he might be able to sniff out a word or two, to put a name to how it made him feel.
But there was a city to save. He picked out a section of song and looped it on the external loudspeakers. Then he headed for the nearest dragon, hoping to lure it away.
It didn’t work. The dragon was being harried by a pair of Enforcer choppers. It spit fire at the Turbokat twice, but otherwise ignored the plane. T-Bone tried again with another dragon, one roosting on top of a Starways Hotel. The dragon didn’t seem to notice, didn’t even blink.
T-Bone told Razor. “It’s not working. I’m singing as loud as I can, but the dragons don’t care.”
“What are you singing? Is the noise-cancellation off?”
“Of course not. Something I recorded from the dragon at Tiger Woods.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were pulsing the jets to resonate at the harmonic frequency of the dragon’s wings. Then you’d _want_ the noise-cancellation off.”
“Yeah, right.” T-Bone sometimes wished Razor would stay more focused, but his wacky ideas were sometimes useful. And if not, well, he got the job done anyway.
“You know,” said Razor. “Feral’s Flyswatters can take it from here. They’ve got enough airpower to mop up the rest of the dragons without help.”
“You really want them to take all the credit? Besides, I wanna try saving the dragons from a second extinction.”
“Good luck,” said Razor. “You’d better swing by Tiger Woods again. There’s a boring party you can crash. I’ll try picking the Pastmaster’s bones.”
T-Bone flew towards the park and discovered another bug in the Megakat Strategic Network. The single blip on his display was actually four dragons: three dragons surrounding the one they had grounded, in a defensive formation. No dead dragon bits in sight. Interesting.
He brought the Turbokat in to hover close by, turned on her ears, punched the speaker volume up to 12, and waited.
Razor lowered the binoculars and turned to the Pastmaster. “Time to talk, buddy. Tell me how to control the dragons and I might give you a parachute before I drop you out the window.”
The Pastmaster raised his head slowly. “Your threats are useless. You have not the power to destroy me.”
“Really? I bet I could dent you a little. That skeleton of yours must be getting pretty brittle. When was the last time you drank your milk? Twelve, thirteen centuries ago?”
No reply. Razor tried a different tack.
“So what were you gonna do with the dragons? Burn down the city?” He casually started to swing the Pastmaster’s pocketwatch. “Here’s a helpful hint. Buildings burn _up_ faster than they burn _down_. Next time try bringing in your dragons at ground level, not way up in the air where they’re easy targets.”
The Pastmaster’s eyes were following the arc of the watch. “You speak much and foolishly. Dragons are loose in your realm, and none who see them pass shall escape unscathed. Surrender to my will and I will save your miserable lives.”
“Yeah, right. This isn’t the Dark Ages, pal. The Enforcers can easily blast the dragons to bits. It’s just a matter of time.”
The Pastmaster laughed. “What do you know of time? I’ve unravelled more history than you will ever know. The dragons you destroy shall be your undoing.”
Razor thought about that a moment. There was a lot they still didn’t understand about time travel. He’d have to ask Dr. Restak, but what the Pastmaster was suggesting didn’t seem likely. It was probably a bluff.
Well, there was one thing he was sure of. “Whatever happens to us will happen to you too. You’re stuck here now.” Razor toyed with the watch in his paws and watched the Pastmaster’s reaction.
The Pastmaster turned away and stared out the windows a long moment. When he spoke, he was subdued. “Give me my talisman and I will undo the dragon attack.”
It was a surprising response, and ambiguous. Razor hadn’t expected to hear that gambit this soon, and yet . . . the Pastmaster didn’t sound very anxious. Razor kept probing. “If I give it to you, you’ll just disappear. I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you tell me how to use the watch, and _I’ll_ do it.”
The Pastmaster started explaining why this was beyond Razor’s abilities, when Razor’s delta comm buzzed. He tuned out the Pastmaster’s speech and activated the comm.
“Come in, SWAT Kats.” It was Callie, the Deputy Mayor.
“Razor here. What’s up, Miss Briggs?”
“Turndale Air Field is clearing their blimp hangar for you. It should be ready in about six minutes.”
“That’s great. All we need now is some way of getting the dragons there. T-Bone’s idea didn’t work.”
“Have you called Dr. Sinian?” Callie asked. “She might know something about dragons.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that. Out.” Razor switched off the delta comm and clawed Abi’s number on his phone. The Pastmaster had stopped talking, had closed his eyes and lowered his head again. Prayer? Meditation? Narcolepsy? Razor didn’t understand him at all.
“Dr. Sinian? It’s Razor. What do you know about taming dragons?”
“I take it this is not a theoretical question.”
“Nope. Well . . .” Razor checked his ComTac readout. “If we don’t find out in twelve minutes, it _will_ be. They’re easy enough to destroy.”
“That would be a shame. A literature search will take some time, but there’s one thing I remember. Have you heard of the legend of Saint Wyndemur?”
“The common form is that Wyndemur saved her village from marauding dragons by building a stone pillar and shouting the Thirteen Precepts from the top of it until she lost her voice. The dragons, according to the story, were so impressed by her holiness that they bared their necks before her and swore never to eat meat again. Of course, all the scientific evidence suggests that dragons were exclusively herbivorous, so at least part of it is fabrication.”
“There are several variations. In one she stands on a stone cliff instead of a stone pillar. Sometimes she has twelve companions, each shouting a different . . .”
Razor cut her off. Enforcer choppers were approaching the Tower; he was going to be busy soon. “Just tell me this. Do any of them mention magic or talismans?”
“No. In fact, some variants spend quite some time detailing how ordinary Wyndemur was, which makes me suspicious. The Burran tradition has a similar myth of a certain Awan-Temris who is supposed to be the only dragon lord to . . .”
The choppers had arrived, the noise from their rotors drowning out other sounds. Razor shouted into the phone, “Gotta go. I’ll call you back!”
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.