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No Fury Like A Woman Scorned - The SWAT Kats Fan Fiction Archive

Original SWAT Kats Story

No Fury Like A Woman Scorned

By Sarah Combs

  • 1 Chapter
  • 48,704 Words

The SWAT Kats team up with the Enforcers to fight Turmoil.

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Author's Notes:

Hello again, all – just when you thought it was safe, et  cetera. This is my second entry here, and it’s just as long  and scary. However, with this one come a few words of  warning, as some of the opinions presented herein might have  the potential to offend some readers. In this story, I’ve  injected some statements on things which can be tied to  feminism, but I’m also aware some are not quite friendly. I  want to put it forth here that I am *not* anti-feminist, nor  am I a misogynist (as that would be rather pointless). I’m  not a feminist, either, and so I do harbor a few strong  opinions of my own – but be assured that none are meant to  demean what others hold true to themselves. If you find they  do, then I offer my deepest apologies right now.  On *that* cheerful note, I’d like you to enjoy the story  as best as you can, and send all comments and whatnot to  onnanotaku@hotmail.com when you do, and I thank you for  reading.

“*Joint* lieutenant commander?! What the heck is *that*?!!  Am I a lieutenant or a sergeant?”

Safe behind his desk, Feral apologetically received his  niece’s rant. When she paused for breath, he seized the  chance to defend himself. “Look, Felina, I’m sorry it had to  be this way, but I can’t really help it…”

“Can’t help it?! You’re the commander! What about it can’t  you help?”

“Being the commander isn’t nearly as simple as you think,”

Feral explained wearily. “Part of it is diplomacy,  especially when it comes to dealing with sensitive egos like  this.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well…Lieutenant Steele’s family is very, very influen-  tial in this city, and virtually every block they encounter  gets blown out of the water,” he explained. “That also  includes me. If I so much as demote Mrs. Steele’s precious  little son to sergeant, she’ll have me out panhandling on  the streets in five minutes.”

Felina seated herself unprofessionally on Feral’s desk.

“So? Dad owns about half the city. Can’t you finagle him  into backing the Steeles off?”

“No. Grant thinks of everything in terms of profit, and  getting some yuppie kid out of his older brother’s fur isn’t  a worthy enough investment of his energies,” Feral sighed.

“Besides, last I heard, he and Steele’s mother signed a  merger, so I couldn’t even try.”

“Oh. That’s kinda bad, isn’t it?” Felina added as she  examined her uncle’s nameplate.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “You deserve the position a lot more  than he does, which is why I hurried up and had you promoted  this far already. The only way I could make everybody happy  was to split the position between the two of you.”

“I still think that’s retarded.”

“Yes, well, so is life,” Feral hurriedly defended. He sank  further into the desk chair and turned lazily toward one of  the immense panel windows. “You’re equals, so at least you  don’t have to do what he says. I have a lot of faith in you,  Felina. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“Nah,” replied the half-kat.

“Dismissed, then.”

Felina stalked off the commander’s dais, across an expanse  of linoleum, and throught the door into a more commonplace  hallway. *He’s in command of a middle-sized air force, and  yet he lets himself get jerked around by a pack of aristo-  crats just to keep out of trouble,* she fumed as she stomped  sullenly toward an elevator. *And he wonders why I never  want to talk to him.*

“Good morning, Felina!” *Oh, goody,* she flinched.  A significantly shorter orange kat with a tuft of blond  hair jogged to catch up with her industrial-strength  strides, although she had quickened them to escape. The  twerp continued to jog beside her as she flew down the hall.

“Hullo, Steele,” she muttered.

“Boy, you walk awfully fast – you trying to lose me?” he  panted. *On the nose, twit.* “I wanted to see what you were  doing before I started anything so I could help or  something, y’know, with us being partners and all.”

“Oh…go clean off your nose, Steele. It’s unsanitary.”

“Huh?”

At long last Felina arrived at the elevator doors. She  swooped into the salvation of the carriage a mere seven feet  before her unwanted assistant could catch her. Steele  watched the doors shuffle shut between them, confused by the  strangely relieved expression on her angular face and by her  last remark. “I wonder what she meant by that?” he puzzled.  He shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his drab  trenchcoat and waited for another lift.

———-

In the earth-toned office on the twenty-fourth floor of  City Hall, Callie Briggs, a petite blonde and bespectacled  hybrid, wandered sleepily to a tall window in the western  wall, where she watched the morning sun slowly rise. If  nothing else, her job offered her a fantastic view of the  sunrise over MegaKat City. The rosy sky cradled the city-  scape’s resting skyline as sunbeams gently prodded the  skyscrapers into morning. Callie discovered that both she  and the city were refusing to wake up, and she rubbed her  wide green eyes behind her glasses’ lenses. She re-straight-  ened the glasses on her delicate nose bridge, then began to  push the gigantic window open to rid the office of some of  the stuffiness that had accumulated overnight. Her first  push, however, failed to move the glass even the tiniest bit  out of the pane. *That’s weird,* she thought. *I thought I  just had that oiled.* She leaned into the window again, this  time with all her miniscule weight, and the glass finally  swung open, then promptly pinned itself to the outside wall.  Stunned, Callie fumbled with the outer clasps to fasten the  window as it began to flap, threatening to smash her pink  cat noose. While she fought, bursts of a gale strove to  force the diminutive cat girl away from the window, whipping  her yellow mane into her eyes. As she shielded her eyes from  her hair, she at last caught hold of the clasps and fixed  the window in its place, her thin arms straining against it.  Callie combed her fingers through her mangled bouffant and  moved toward her desk, picking up scattered papers as she  went, and wondering what could have caused all that wind.  She did not let the weather stay too long on her mind,  though, as the citizenry squealed for her attention via the  mounds of paperwork stacked, more or less, on her desk. The  blonde flumped into her chair and rolled unwillingly in  front of the documents as she heard the mayor chat jovially  with the people in the hall on his way to his own office.

———-

ONE HOUR LATER

On the street, parked cars shuddered and convulsed outside  high-rises; a few of the lighter vehicles shimmied in small  arcs away from the curbs. Parents with small children  clutched them close in their arms as they forded the nearly-  liquid airstream. Stray papers skittered like enormous  cockroaches over the pavement and shot up to plaster  themselves against trees, cars, walls – whatever seemed like  a safe, stable anchor. The trees themselves swayed and bowed  and dipped, creaking and moaning as if they were lamenting  the end of the world.  A news van braved the aerial beating, bearing down the  street through the dancing, skittish papers and by the citi-  zens searching for hard cover. The van tucked itself  prudently between buildings, where the blast could not tease  it.  Inside the van, Ann Gora absent-mindedly tugged at her  teal dress jacket and stared outside at the mess. The sky  above was its standard cheery blue overhead, with that  unnerving green tinge near the skyscrapers, and there were  no wispy messengers of a coming storm, either. *So what’s  causing this freaky weather?* she asked herself.

“Ready t’go, Annie?” prompted a close voice.

“I’m ready if you’re ready,” Ann less-than-readily  answered.  It took the combined effort of the driver, the sound and  video technicians, the cameraman, and Ann herself to  shoulder open the door against the gusts that had sneaked  into their alley. When they had won over the door, the  collective labored to keep it cracked long enough for Ann to  sneak out into the wind tunnel. Outside, the wind began to  pull her up off her toes, and she grabbed the rearview  mirror for support. “Johnny, hurry *up!*” she yelled over  the air’s groan.  Johnny, her ever-present, baseball cap-wearing camera  lackey, started another fight with the van door. Ann glanced  at her wristwatch. She renewed her hold on the mirror,  propped her shoe heel in the hubcap, and, with a heave,  wrenched the door out and let Johnny fall out onto the  asphalt.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he sniffed. He retrieved his camera and  pulled himself up along the van. “Let’s get on it! We’re  already late. And…go.”

“This is Ann Gora, Kats’ Eye News, on location by the  MegaKat City Meteorological Society in the midst of a freak  wind storm,” Ann narrated as she and Johnny moved into the  full typhoon. Raising her voice over the bawling wind, she  continued, “Inside, we’ll be consulting chief technician  Allan Horowitz, who has been monitoring these conditions  over the entire eastern half of New America. During the  ordeal, citizens are reminded to find shelter, stay inside,  and remain calm until the ordeal has ended.”

In the tempest, the news team shimmied flush to the wall  in search of a door as various objects, from papers to large  branches, whizzed past them. The air squished the duo to the  mortar on its way and bayed heraldically to another street.

“Good, *there* you are!” called a kat’s voice from an  opening door. A gray-shirted shoulder blocked open the door,  followed by its lean, tawny-furred owner. He adjusted wire-  frame glasses on a darker brown nose bridge, then stretched  an arm out to his visitors. “I was getting worried about you  guys.”

“Thanks, Allan,” Ann breathed as she entered the sanctuary  of the foyer. The murk-light of the corridor temporarily  blinded her after the brilliant midmorning sun, and while  she rubbed her eyes to help them adjust, Johnny tapped her  shoulder.

“They’re ready over there. How ‘bout you?”

“All right.” The camera came on again as the three emerged  in a blinking lagoon of transistors and monitors. She gave  the customary introduction, then pointed the microphone at  Allan.

“Thanks, Ann.” He reached behind himself and struck some  obscure key, which summoned a neon-colored map of the east  coast. “Okay,” he began. “About when all this was getting  started this morning, we picked up this really, really dense  mass just off the MegaKat City area’s coastline, right about  here.” With a slender finger, he indicated a red dot in the  aqua splotch of the ocean. The dot lay an inch away from the  criscrossed black-and-green land. “It was at about 10,000  feet MSL at five AM. Now…” His finger drifted to a knotted  clump of red pixels, edged in white and sneaking bit by bit  over a blocky yellow blot on shore. “…it’s lowered to  2,000 feet MSL, and it’s moving pretty quickly over to  central MegaKat City. While it’s been moving, we haven’t  observed any storm conditions, but apparently its movement  is causing some pretty high wind activity. Honestly, we  don’t even know *what* it really is, but we’re still  sticking by the weather warnings until we figure out just  what’s going on here.” Allan faced Ann again and said, “As  for the advisory, it’s been moved up to four o’ clock this  afternoon for all the city and its suburbs. We’ll report as  often as conditions change.”

The map demonstrated the the movement of the misshapen  source of all the turmoil – a dawdling shuffle from the red  dot to the yellow splort – then replayed itself, endlessly,  as the three talked among themselves. The image broadcasted  itself on live TV, an enigma in a reddish blob, which held a  strange hypnotic power over those who tried to deduce what  the events the blob represented meant. The city collective  watched, from a sidewalk, hiding in a Good Samaritan’s  house, at their own homes, pondering the strangely  meaningful picture.

“Ann Gora, Kats’ Eye News.”

———-

“Ah, *la cantatrice*, the bringer of divine power and  channeler between Heaven and the mortal world. She also  represents the ties between the mind and emotions.”

A fragile, white-furred hand emerged from the dim candle-  light and manipulated the long and yellowed card with a deft  flourish, displaying its faded watercolor picture to the  listener.

“Given the previous cards, I’d say she can stand for any  number of things in your life. Perhaps she is referring to a  time soon when you must be careful how you interpret your  feelings so as not to use them as an excuse, for instance,  or to think that they give you special permission for some  notion you have. Or, maybe she is just nodding toward your  double life – saying Jake is the normal, discerning mind,  while Razor is the impulsive, battle-ready emotion? It makes  sense to me, at least. And, most literally, she could repre-  sent *me*, since I’m both involved in your life and am a  minor cantatrice at church.” The card slipped face-up into  its place of origin, where it lay among thirteen other  cards, most overturned. Two unrevealed ones remained.

“Okay, so which is it?”

“Pardon?”

“Which meaning is it, Nicka? You said it could be, like,  three different things,” expanded Jake, folding his arms on  the polished wood card table. “I wanna know which it is.”

“Jake, the tarot aren’t limited to just one static  definition,” scolded Dominica. “Reading them is a highly  interpretational art, and to apply them to a number of  lives, one distilled definition would be pointless!” She sat  up straight and continued, in a lecturing tone, “These are  meant to be a symbolic representation of what will be, and  their reading is given in the context of the recipient’s  life. Because people’s lives are so multi-faceted, I must  read with more than one meaning and let you determine which  is right. Now, had you a plainer lifestyle, I could afford  to be more specific, but your life is hardly what I would  call ‘plain,’ SWAT Kat.”

“All right, I’m *sorry* already,” apologized Jake. He  unfolded his jacketed arms and leaned back into his wicker  chair, then clasped his hands in front of the cards. “So,  continue to enlighten this unwashed heathen with thy  talents, O fair learned one.”

“You’re incorrigible,” smiled Dominica as she brushed her  fingertips along the next card. “Speaking of being incorri-  gible, whatever possessed you to call poor Chance ‘T-Bone’?”

“Ask me later. What’s the card say?”

“It says…” Dominica plucked the painted card from its  brethren and examined it in the feeble light. “…It says,  *la fuertza*, strength. This also means forceful emotions,  usually very basic ones like envy or sadness, but mostly  rage, hence the lion on the front. Most likely, something  will arouse these in you sometime in the future, so you must  be very, very careful not to let it overwhelm you,  especially if it is linked to the cantatrice card.”

“That’s a happy thought,” replied Jake. “What should I  do?”

“I don’t know, love – it just happens,” she answered,  returning the card to its place. “Think of it as a preview  of your life. You’ll do what you do, and if you remember  what the cards said, you’ll be just fine. But really, _don’t  worry_. It shouldn’t be anything too nasty and bad.”

“Shouldn’t.” The russet kat involuntarily swivelled an ear  rearward and leaned forward as Dominica announced, “Let’s  see what the last card has to say.”

Jake swallowed as the petite woman a foot and a half away  solemnly drew the card up off the table. *Now why are you  acting this way, you big wimp?* Jake admonished himself.  *Just like a kid at a scary movie. She’s told me about  fifty-three times that this is not real, so why do I keep  acting like she’s predicting my death or something? Must be  a side effect from all those movies I watch. Calm down,  she’s looking at the next one…* He resumed an eased  attentiveness until a breath later, when Dominica bit her  lip and her thin bistre eyebrows met behind the tarot.

“What?” he asked, almost voicelessly.

“This is *la murdia*, or death.”

“Death,” Jake repeated flatly.  The small Nitalianese read what Jake was thinking and  quickly attempted, “I haven’t finished – *la murdia* does  not always mean *literal* death, but a sharp change, like a  rebirth, like moving to the afterlife is, you see?”

“You’re sure?”

“*La murdia* in tarot usually refers to change, yes,  but…” Dominica lifted her eyes to her boyfriend’s to  accentuate her point. Jake gazed speechlessly at the  upturned cards in front of him and breathed out, expression-  less. Dominica rolled her delicate shoulders forward inside  the gray Enforcer sweatshirt that engulfed her slender  frame. Suddenly, she jerked upright, snatching Jake’s  attention from the table. Dominica muddled the cards into a  mess, then jumbled them into a more manageable pile. “Don’t  worry, kitten,” she reassured him, enfolding one of his  hands in both her minikin ones. “They’re only cards, not  instruments of doom. You should never take them too  seriously. Besides, I’m still only learning – nowhere near a  real tarot reader. Had I known you were this sensitive to  things like this, I never would have offered you a reading.”

“I’m *not* that sensitive,” Jake defended. He looked off  to a planked wall, pretending to study the silk scrolls  hanging there.

“Darling, don’t be that way.” She cupped his thin face in  her palms and brought his stare to her. “I told you, they’re  not real. It’s just for entertainment.”

“I’m not feeling very entertained,” he quietly complained.

“Well,” Dominica purred, abandoning her chair and slinking  closer to his, “maybe I can fix that for you.”

She perched featherlight in his lap and looped her arms  about his neck, and her tail entwined itself around one of  his legs. Jake, in turn, brightened a degree, then wrapped  her waist in his own lithe arms. “I don’t think your mother  would be too thrilled with us carrying on in her house.”

“My mother isn’t here right now, is she?” She pressed her  lips softly to his.  Before either could venture anyplace else, a shrill, nasal  beeping caught the two mid-caress. They quickly separated  and eyed each other, petrified, while the honking beeps  sounded from hiding. After a second, Dominica relaxed her  tense posture and settled back into Jake’s lap. “Your  trousers are beeping,” she informed him.

“Oh,” Jake answered, then dug into a pocket. “That must be  Chance.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“No, no, no, he’s paging me on a commlink I built for us –  here, move your leg, you’re sitting on it -”

“Sorry.”

“- in case we were separated in civilian time, like now,”

he explained while searching his other pocket. “‘Course,  there are times, like *now,* that I regret ever suggesting  the darn thing.”

Jake withdrew the triangular beeper and held it up, then  pressed the cherry-red light in its center. “Whaddayou want?  I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

“Well, exCUSE me!” retorted the voice of Chance. “Heaven  forbid you should ever be deprived. Anyway, in case you  hadn’t noticed, the weather’s gone all weird, and there’ve  been a lot of reports of private planes dropping out of the  sky for no apparent reason. I think we should be on our  guard, especially if commercial planes start goin’ down.”

“All right, I’ll be right over,” huffed Jake. He tapped  the light-button again and crammed it into his back pocket.  He flopped his arms onto the armrests, his eyes disappoint-  edly half-lidded. “Duty calls, y’know.”

“Yes, I know,” she mumbled.  The reddish-brown kat clamped his hands on the girl’s  waist, hoisted her off his legs, and parked her on the card  table. She finchishly hopped off and stood up with him. He  extended a paw and squeezed her arm. Dominica glanced  anxiously at the hand holding her. “Are you sure there’s no  way for you to call this off early?” she blurted, her voice  hushed and lacy.

“Call what off?”

“Well…” She averted her eyes while her snowy face turned  pink. “…Is it too late for you to forget the mask-wearing  and such?”

Jake glanced to the side, as if to make sure no one else  was listening, then tilted Dominica’s chin to meet her eyes.

“Honey, I wish I could, but you know…once we caught the  Mendozas and were on the news, I pretty much made a  commitment,” he explained, shrugging. A response came to  Dominica, but she kept it to herself.

“Thanks for the tarot reading, though, softness. See  y’around,” he murmured as he shuffled into the foyer. He  kissed her for the final time, then squished her against  himself before retreating into his car.  *I shouldn’t be so selfish, but…* she rationalized as  she poked along to the door. Once there, she shifted her  weight into the doorframe. *’Once we caught the Mendozas and  were on the news, I pretty much made a commitment’…after  what he did to get me, I’d think _I_ would hold at least  some importance.*  As Dominica leaned into the frame, attending to Jake’s  departure, a tinkling ring came from the neighboring  kitchen. Her milky ears tipped back at the jingling, and she  disengaged herself from the doorjamb to silence it. She  plodded into the kitchen, spotted the telephone, and clipped  it from its cradle.

“‘Alo?”

“May I speak with Major Dominica le Normand?”

“This is she.”

“This is Commander Feral,” introduced the gruff, stringent  speaker. “You’re needed here – there have been newly-  confirmed sightings of what appears to be an air fortress,  and a crisis has been declared. I’m sorry to interrupt your  day off, and I’ll make sure you’re reimbursed as soon as  possible.” Click.  The diminutive lady kat held the now-voiceless phone at  short arm’s length. Uneasily, she then re-holstered it on  the wall. *I never told him I was going to be at my mother’s  house,* she thought. *Oh well…with Jake gone, my day off  was virtually over, anyway. Better hurry along.*  In the time it took to write a note, the le Normand house  was left to itself.

———-

Jake lunged stormily into the open garage after parking at  the side of the house, then marched the memorized path down  to the hangar. He flitted his eyes over his shoulder to  sight any incoming customers, saw none, and padded toward  the television in the living room. The kat hooked his claws  into a square of carpeting next to the TV and tugged at it.  The carpet rose, exposing a somewhat grimy concrete opening  only just big enough to accommodate a male kat’s shoulder-  width. Jake lay on his belly and fed his legs in first, then  wriggled farther until he found a solid foothold. He  descended on ladder steps, bringing the carpet door shut  after him.  Chance was already halfway into his costume when Jake  leapt from the ladder to the paved floor.

“Y’know, I’m sorry to have brought a premature end to your  libidinal fiesta, there, sureshot,” Chance began, “but there  are a few more urgent matters than your love life. Suit up  and quit pouting.”

“I’m not pouting,” growled Jake as he shed his T-shirt.

“So…where’re we going first?”

“The Enforcer’s’ve seen a big mass up north that they’re  calling an airship.”

His ears snapped back, his attention now fully shifted.

“Whoa, now – they’re calling it a *what?!* How can they  tell?”

“The way I’m thinking, it’s either when the weather people  used Doppler radar, they saw its shape, or when the  Enforcers scanned it, they found weaponry, or they found  someone peeking back at them,” postulated Chance.

“I see. That would work, wouldn’t it? Well, then…”

tugging on his gloves, “…whereabouts up north is it?”

“It’s just now passing Ithaca Central and moving into  MegaKat City,” replied Chance. “They’re calling it a crisis,  so we’d better get going but fast, Jake.”

“Okay, but first…” Jake scuffled to a workbench near the  jet, rummaged through a drawer, and returned with somethings  suspicious in each hand.

“Oh, carnfraggit, Jake! *More* of those glovadoohickeys?!”

hissed the yellow tabby. “The last ones nearly burnt all the  fur off my arm!”

“It’s all right. These are IMPROVED glovatrixes!” Jake  reassured Chance, pushing one of the gauntlets into Chance’s  hands. “I worked out all of the defects. C’mon, put it on!”

The striped one accepted the weighty contraption, his eye-  brows merged. “‘Fyou *say* so.”

———-

“Mayor? Where’d you go?”

Callie’s high-heels clacked along the hardwood hallway on  her way to the mayor’s office. She skittered to a hesitative  stop outside an enormous lacquered oak door, sealed tightly  from the hallway and the bespectacled halfling. She rapped  her knuckles on the door and ventured, “Mayor Manx?”

“Come in, Callie,” whimpered the muffled reply. “And shut  the door behind you!”

Callie entered as she was asked and allowed the varnished  door to whisk home behind her. Inside the office, she  recognized everything characteristic of the room – the  sentinel potted plants in the corner, the steep windows and  filing cabinets, the oil-paint cityscape behind the desk,  and the putter, flags, and golf balls strewn on and about  the rug – but there was no life. “*Mayor?*”

“Under the desk.”

She twitched a flaxen ear. “Under the *what?!*”

“Here!” A blue-sleeved arm waved at her from beneath the  mayor’s desk, a few steps before her. Callie strode curtly  toward it and planted her arms on the buffed surface, facing  the empty seat. “Sir, come on out of there,” she coaxed.

“No!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake… Be reasonable, mayor! The press  is coming!” she pleaded.

“Not until it’s safe out there.”

Exhaling loudly through her nose, Callie scooted the  fountain pens and the telephone off to the brinks of the  desktop, then leaned all the way over it until her knees  crooked for leverage. She held on to her glasses with her  right hand and swept the leg space, her canary-colored mane  grazing the plastic chair mat.  In the cooplike leg space, her specs defined the quivering  outline of a greenish-blue lump that occupied most of the  room. It turned to her a plump, maize-furred face, adorned  with a nez-pince and beady, inquisitive eyes. “Sorry,  there’s only room for one, Callie.”

“Mayor,” she addressed him, bypassing his apology, “the  people of MegaKat City need their leader’s support! They  need you to tell them it’s going to be all right.”

“You’re good at that sort of thing – go cover for me.”

“Mayor!”

“Just come get me when the big thing goes away!”

Callie gave him a patronizing look. “‘Big thing’?”

“Yes…” Mayor Manx crept a millimeter out of the crawl-  space to confront the gravity-fighting Callie. “That big…  thing up north that the Enforcers have been talking about.  Haven’t you been watching the news?”

“No, I’ve been trying to find you,” replied Callie. “But  please tell me what big thing it is you’re talking about!”

“Love to, but we’ve got company. You know what to do, now,  don’t you? Wonderful.” The mayor, rather like a turtle,  retracted into the leg space and left Callie teetering help-  lessly on the desk as the door thumped.  Callie regained her balance and hopped off the desktop to  answer the banging door. When she did, a gaggle of kats,  bearing cameras and a boom, swarmed upon Callie, attempting  to squeeze the clot of them through all at once. The  invaders, chattering among themselves in technical jargon,  speedily formed a horseshoe around their entering leadress,  the newscaster Ann Gora, and the baffled Callie, who soon  found herself staring at a microphone.

“You’ll provide some comment for us, won’t you?” Ann  casually asked.

“Um, yes, of course,” responded Callie while nudging the  mike out of her face.

“We’re live in the office of His Honor, Mayor Fauntleroy  Q. Manx, to see how the heart of MegaKat City is handling  the situation. With us now is the deputy mayor, Calico  Briggs. Ms. Briggs?”

“The mayor is attending to his business as we speak, Ann,”

Callie lied, “but I can assure you that he has things well  in order. As for me, I’m going to Enforcer Headquarters to  oversee police actions during this ordeal to make sure  nothing goes out of hand.”

“All right. Is there any way we can reach the mayor?”

“He’d prefer to be left alone at the moment – he’s very  busy,” replied Callie, edging toward the still-open door.

“We’ll let you go, then. Thanks, Ms. Briggs,” dismissed  Ann, then added as an afterthought, “Anything in particular  you want to advise to our viewers?”

“Just keep an eye on the situation and act wisely, and  everything’ll be fine,” the blonde offered on her way out,  betting the generic advice would provide enough for the  populace…not that they’d listen, she inwardly observed.  *Sometimes I just have to wonder,* Callie thought, her  composure slackening as she trudged to City Hall’s garage.

———-

The plexiglass door sucked at the vinyl mat while it slid  back into its frame. As she trekked across the impersonal  Enforcer lobby, Dominica recalled how that noise had raised  the fur along her spine when she entered Enforcer Headquar-  ters for the first time in her life. That reflex had since  quieted down, but sometimes its vestiges resurfaced without  warning. She reached back to smooth down her hackles when  the sucking sound slurped a second time. A pert young  woman’s voice waved at her.

“Major le Normand!”

Dominica tilted her head over her shoulder and pinpointed  the caller: a blonde, bespectacled hybrid whose pictures she  had seen in papers, but whom she had never personally met.

“Good morning, Miss Deputy Mayor,” Dominica greeted,  outstretching her hand.

“Hello, major – so nice to meet you, even if only  briefly,” Callie politely answered as she took Dominica’s  hand. “Do you know where Commander Feral is?”

“Sorry, no; I was just now called in, so I don’t really  know where he’d be, ma’am,” Dominica apologized after  releasing the deputy mayor.

“Oh, that’s okay. I see him now,” replied Callie. “Take  care, now.”

“Thank you, I will.” *What a nice lady,* thought Dominica  as she padded away into a corridor. From it, a wave of  Enforcers, among them the commander himself, began to roll  into the lobby. *Uh oh…looks like I’ll have to navigate  through them,* she told herself. She tried to snake through  unseen, watching Feral to make sure he hadn’t spotted her,  but unfortunately, he reached over and grasped her shoulder  before she could squeeze past.

“Good morning, le Normand,” he greeted. “See me later so  we can reschedule a day off for you, all right?”

“Er…certainly, sir,” Dominica hurriedly agreed. She  slipped out from under his hand and whisked down the corri-  dor as he watched.

“Well, *there* you are. I asked you to be here *before*  now.”

Feral begrudgingly turned his head to see a woman he  welcomed much less. “I had to clear up a few misunderstand-  ings before you came.”

“So you say,” muttered Callie as the commander stopped  slowly before her. “Are these ‘misunderstandings’ being  cleaned up in the standard procedure?”

“I don’t like that tone in your voice,” Feral growled as  the two proceeded toward an elevator.

“I didn’t expect you to,” snipped Callie. “Do you  perchance remember those two poor recruits you ejected a  year ago after a rather messy tactical error?”

“The two I consigned to a salvage yard?”

“Yes, them.”

“What about them?”

“I trimmed their alleged sentence to fifteen years. Four-  teen, really, since last year counted as Year One.”

Feral’s boots scuffed the floor. The blonde twisted at the  waist and regarded him innocently.

“Their punishment was absolutely *none* of your concern.  This is strictly Enforcer business, deputy mayor, and your  failure to respect it as such shows flagrant disregard for a  government institution,” he snarled through gritted teeth.

“*You* are not a government institution, Feral, and all  the ten-cent words in your vocabulary aren’t going to  convince me otherwise. What you did was so…was just so  completely morally *wrong* that I had to intervene somehow.”

She placed herself directly in front of the commander and  continued, poking her finger in his chest with each accent.

“You ruined the lives of two young, competent men, probably  just for the heck of it for all *I* know, and you have the  sheer unmitigated gall to call it ‘Enforcer business’  instead of the hissy fit it was,” Callie snarled in return.

“Now, excuse me – were you their commander? Who are _you_  to be championing the personalities of people you’ve never  met, or are you suddenly omniscient?” challenged Feral.

“I met them a couple of months ago, thank you very much,”

she replied as she stepped away from him. “They’re both very  considerate, and after I noticed several Enforcer-related  articles posted in their waiting room, they told me their  case. I considered looking into it.”

“And, of course, you believed them.”

“I’d believe them before I’d believe you.”

“This is wonderful,” laughed Feral as he entered the  elevator. “So now you’re going to tell City Hall how evil  and nasty I am because I rid myself of a potential threat to  the city?”

“No, I’m telling City Hall how you’re a pathetic old liar  because you fired two innocents for no reason,” Callie  serenely replied. Feral tightened his jaw, his eyes locked  in a glare at the elevator door and his hands clasped behind  a rigid back. “I can do it, too, since, conveniently enough,  there are no other witnesses on record to confirm whose  fault it was.” She softened her voice, rested against the  rear of the elevator, and continued without meeting his  eyes. “I haven’t trusted you once since I came into office.”

The elevator pinged as their floor moved into range.

“And so undermining what I say makes you feel better.”

With a chrome *whoosh*, the doors parted. Callie drifted  airily to the outer world, but turned around before leaving.  She removed her glasses and fixed her cool green eyes upon  him. “I enjoy watching you writhe,” she purred. She affixed  the glasses to her face and clicked into the hall, vanishing  around a corner.

———-

A gigantic passenger jet swam through the thick air over  MegaKat City like a whale pushing drowsily for home. Inside,  the captain fidgeted in his seat. His flight had been  uncomplicated all the way – which, of course, was pretty  fortunate for him – and traffic was fairly low. Thus, he was  becoming a bit impatient. *At least we’re almost there,* he  sleepily thought. He reached a paw for the PA, but it ducked  from his fingers as the plane unexpectedly bucked. He sat  straight up and reflexively checked the altimeter. It  reported a fifty foot drop from where he should have been.  *Turbulence? With a sky this clear?* he wondered. As he  pulled the plane up, his world swirled out of recognition:  skyscrapers stretched up and flattened out on the horizon,  which also strained to meet the sky, while the faraway  cirrus wisps wanted to crash into the cockpit. The captain,  summoning rusty training he had never had to use before,  forced the instrument panel into view, but it too ran like  an oil painting in a fire. Nothing was controllable anymore;  only a dreamlike, Surrealist aura existed. The unmanned jet,  left to the prevailing winds, tilted earthward.  Its descent was fast delivering it to the oblivious facade  of a building, but instead of plowing through the windows,  the aircraft coasted up, parallel to the face, and reentered  the skyway. A black fighter jet tagged discreetly behind.

“Good thing we happened to be in the neighborhood,” sighed  its pilot. “Have you got it all right back there, Razor?”

“Completely under control,” answered Razor. He kept his  concentration on the gunman’s emergency controls, each move-  ment of the second foot pedals and joystick duplicated  exactly in the passenger jet. As the airport scrolled in  underneath, Razor pulled back, tipping the other plane up,  then stepped on the rudder pedals to help bank the unwitting  jet toward a runway. He released one hand for the radio and  called the decommissioned pilot: “Captain, prepare for  landing.”

Instantly, the great white jet’s landing gear deployed.  The SWAT Kat made the craft float level to the strip,  focusing all his energy into it.

“Careful you don’t bounce it,” T-Bone warned from the  front.

“Just worry about keeping us in range. I’ve almost landed  ‘em…” The passenger plane’s wheels screeched, cueing Razor  to move his feet up the pedals. Responsively, the plane  below slowed, and the jet crept along the runway until lack  of propulsion stopped it. Their purpose fulfilled, the SWAT  Kats climbed into the stratosphere to allow room for the  obligatory media and emergency crews.

“‘Intangible mystique’,” mused T-Bone once they sailed  past arriving Enforcers. “Nice landing, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Razor accepted. “I have to admit, though – it  *was* a bit of genius, using that transmitter I found and  the extra controls back here like a big radio control unit.”

“And so modest, too. Hey, can I trouble you with one more  small item before we go around again, bud?” asked T-Bone.

“What’s that?”

“What in the world could have caused that jet – and all  those other little planes – to plummet?”

“Well, I dunno. Maybe we should ask _her_,” suggested the  lean kat, indicating the colossal hologram of a hybrid.  The hologram, hovering in the sky over the central city,  appeared to be sizing it up as she roosted on the clouds.  She wore a pair of polished black, high-heeled boots,  followed by a smart red, brass-buttoned uniform, like that  of an army general. Just below her suit collar was an ornate  gold chainlet that harnessed a billowing, vampiric black  cape around her epauletted shoulders. Atop her complacent  head perched a brimmed military cap, emblazoned with a  pronged, bright blood-red insignia. The cap rode low and  obscured her already dark and surveying eyes as she summed  up her audience, and the remainder of her set expression – a  straight line of a human-kat nose, rose lips not flinching  from a determined frown, well-placed cheekbones suggestive  of high breeding, and a chiseled jawline – refused to convey  any of her thoughts. From the cape emerged a black-gloved  hand, which she used to brush her light ear tufts and fawn  hair out of the cape’s tall, Dracula-esque collar. Finally,  she was satisfied with the state of the spectators. She  batted the cape aside, planted her hands on her hips, then  struck her booted feet apart on her stage of clouds.

“Attention, citizens of MegaKat City: I am Turmoil.

“I hope you were not so distracted by the tremendous winds  caused by my ship’s movement that you’ve missed the samples  of the weapon I wield – the vertigo beam. Indeed, it would  have been a shame for me to sacrifice more aircraft just to  make a point.” She detached one hand from her hip and swept  her arm over the city. “You see, it is also but one weapon  in the arsenal I will use to take this city – its commerce,  its airspace, and its government – and defend it from those  who would threaten my cause and myself. I advise, for your  own safety, that you turn your authorities over to me  quickly and unconditionally; failure to comply will result  in the use of extreme force. And, just to establish our  business relationship, you will first deliver to me two  million in gold bullion – a down payment for this favor. It  shall arrive no later than oh-eight-hundred hours tomorrow  morning. You have been warned. Turmoil…out.”

The hologram began to dissolve, but before she had dissi-  pated completely, a monolithic flying fortress loomed  sluggishly from its den in a cloud patch, as if accentuating  Turmoil’s ultimatum. It crawled toward central MegaKat City,  letting everyone watch, and it paused over captive City  Hall. The fortress gauged its reception, then eased down  into a hover five hundred feet above the buiding’s spire,  presiding over its catch like a lioness as fleets of smaller  jet craft began streaming down from it.  At the airport where the previously-incapacitated jet was  healing, Felina Feral found she could not believe what was  just said.  *She’s gotta be kidding!* she thought, shaking her head.  She snatched her radio and broadcasted into her followers’  helis. “The other craft aren’t paying attention to us. Get  going – we need to get a quick start bringing this extor-  tionist in, guys.”

“Lieutenant, is that really a good idea? What if she  decides to use that vertigo beam-thing on us?” rebutted one.

“Your proximity alarms will work for that sort of thing,  got it? Now go!” Felina jammed the transmitter back into its  cradle and forced the throttle to the limit.  The fortress, still nested lazily over City Hall, made no  effort to oppose the three Enforcer copters closing in on  it, nor did the sentries. Felina noticed this, and warily  she kept wide clearance between the behemoth and her little  heli. She flicked her radio to public address. “This is  Lieutenant Feral. Turmoil, you’re under arrest!”

The millisecond Felina finished her sentence, the view  outside the cockpit churned like rapids, causing her stomach  to churn sympathetically. The controls fluttered out of her  hands, and the heli pitched down without its pilot’s  restraint. She scrambled for what she thought were the  controls, but the entire lit dashboard huddled a mile away  from her blind fingertips. The swarthy halfbreed, still able  to sense the speed at which her helicopter was hurtling,  gave in to the cardinal sin among pilots: panic.  The heli issued a jerk, smooshing Felina down into her  seat. She recovered, then pushed against her harness to look  up out the windshield. She grinned at the sight that  welcomed her.

“Thanks for the save, SWAT Kats,” she sighed. An insistent  memory shot to her attention. “Were you able to save my  other pilots?” she anxiously asked.

“They’re okay,” T-Bone’s voice replied, simply.

“Although a few streetlights suffered in the process,”

admitted Razor’s voice.  Over the speaker, the pilot mumbled a growl. “Never mind  that. You have any more Enforcers flittin’ around up here?”

“Not now, but my uncle will probably see to that.”

He exhaled. “I see. Stay outta trouble!”

“I told you, efforts to resist are futile! From now on,  the city and its skies belong to Turmoil!” Turmoil crowed  from the air.  The trademark black jet unloaded its cargo onto the pave-  ment beneath it, then, unaccompanied, arrowed for the belly  of the flying fortress.

———-

“Incoming fighter, commander – looks like the SWAT Kats,”

reported a red-haired, violet-uniformed hybrid from a  control deck console.  Turmoil neutrally watched the approaching Turbokat through  one of the room’s panoramic windows. “Give *them* a taste of  the vertigo cannon as well, lieutenant,” she ordered, not  turning from her vantage point.

———-

*At this range, we’re going to make a good target for that  vertigo-inducer-thing,* T-Bone cautioned himself. “Hang on  back there, Razor,” he warned his gunman, rolling their jet  sharply to the left.

———-

“I told you to fire!” Turmoil snapped at her hapless  subordinate, who jabbed manically at the console.

“I am, I am, I AM!” the lieutenant cried as she meddled  furiously with the switches. “They’re…crazing their path  so badly, I can’t get a fix on them!”

The cloaked woman twitched an ear. She returned to her  vigil, her eyes squinted and two fingers held to her lips.

“Dispatch fighters,” she ordered at length.

“Understood,” smiled the lieutenant. *Let someone _else_  deal with ‘em,* she thought.

———-

The Turbokat careened past the fortress’s glassy helm and  arcked high over the landing strip.

“Soon’s we take out that beam, we’ll board,” T-Bone summa-  rized.  Razor glanced up through the canopy. “Not quite, T-Bone,”

he warned.

“Why? Whaddaya mean?” Three foreswept-winged jets sluiced  past the Turbokat, followed by a firestorm from three more.  The six congregated behind the diving aircraft, where they  hailed more missiles upon the kats.

“Oh, *them*,” sniffed T-Bone.

———-

“Just three or four fighters, sir – they need help with  such a big enemy,” pleaded Dominica.  At the other end of the cramped mini-tech room, Feral  continued to study a radar screen over an operator’s  shoulder. The little white cat girl, unseen, tossed her  hands up and let them slap against her thighs. “*Certainly*  you don’t expect just the two of them to win against THAT?”

“I certainly don’t,” Feral coolly replied.

“Then why won’t you send backup?”

“Why don’t we see how the SWAT Kats perform here before we  send our own out there, Major le Normand?” He brought  himself formidably around, and Dominica cringed in spite of  herself. She reclaimed her stance, threw back her waifish  shoulders, and pronounced, “We already know her attacks and  her threats. You called me up here for strategic advice; I  don’t see why we cannot move in now if the SWAT Kats are  distracting her.”

As Feral opened his mouth to shoot her down, Callie  called, “I agree with her, commander. Send out a small  squadron.”

The veins in Feral’s neck stiffened. “But, Ms. Deputy  Mayor, the-”

“Do it.”

Overruled, Feral’s response was limited to clenching his  fists at his sides. “Dispatch an aerial unit to City Hall  and tell them to engage,” he grumbled.

“Roger,” came the obligatory word.  Dominica spun for the exit, but halted abruptly,  remembering proper etiquette. “Permissiontoengagesir?” she  garbled.

“Whatever.”

“Thankyusir!”

Callie flattened herself along the doorframe to prevent  being run over by the young major, then watched her fly into  an elevator. When Dominica had disappeared in the lift,  Callie flitted her eyes back at Feral, who glared viciously  back at her. She smiled broadly at him.

———-

Incendiaries whistled through the loops of the Turbokat’s  path while the missiles’ senders tailed closer. Together,  seekers and runner blasted further upward, the ground their  sky and the sky their earth.  At the height of the climb, T-Bone reduced the throttle  and nudged the jet farther back and to the left, performing  a neat backflip. The pursuers swished blindly past, allowing  the pilot kat to take up his spot for the upper hand.  Cued, Razor locked on to three key pockets in the clutch.  He fired. Three missiles flew faithfully between the jets;  once they met their destination, the missiles detonated, one  after the other, and the jets clanged surprisedly into each  other from the shock. The pilots ejected themselves from the  doomed cluster, which continued its fall without them.

———-

“Major, five attackers at six o’ clock!”

Dominica’s cruiser jet swerved radically off course and  confronted her tags. She attempted to strafe them, but the  grouplet fractured and zipped out of the way. Her radio  crisped, “Wouldja watch it next time? I can’t keep an eye on  all of you AND myself at the same time!”

She crinkled her brows at the demand and half-smirked. “A  lieutenant commander only since yesterday morning, and  already you’re barking commands like your uncle at his  worst?” Dominica remarked, but only for herself to hear.  Meanwhile, the black jet she was supposed to assist raced  beside her craft, bringing with it four other planes. “There  go the SWAT Kats!” Felina radioed. “Go cover ‘em, every-  body!”

Soon the entire Enforcer squadron had swarmed upon the  Turbokat’s tails. The squad outnumbered the enemy two to  one, and with them in hand, the Turbokat swished out of the  formation.

“Okay, pincer in and take out the leaders…now!” Felina  ordered from the rear. The three cruiser jets up front  obediently closed in. As they pitched, the cruisers opened  fire on the enemy, and the all-sides assault eliminated the  two leads. The remaining two slipped out between the other  five Enforcer craft, then spread predictably out toward nine  more of their kind.

“Fan out and mount a frontal attack!”

Both teams spritzed each other with fire, missed, and  changed sides. The Enforcers charged the acrobatic  strangers, who anticipated the rush and curved out into an  expanding ring; this time, however, the police darted into  the center of the ring and swerved up after their opponents.  In seconds, a plane for each Enforcer fell out of the fight.  Only a mini-squad was left, and they, starting to abandon  the coolness their team had maintained, clumped together and  raced for the mothership. They did not fly fast enough,  though, as the Turbokat reappeared between them and the  fortress and neatly polished them off. When it finished, the  jet turned its concentration to the fortress itself.

“I do just love it when things work out that nicely,”

Felina complacently told her squad. “Time to go help them  out up there.”

Before she could, two of her jets banged suddenly into  each other, and the rest of the cruisers scrambled out of  their way as the pair careened toward the skyscrapers.  Felina and her bewildered crew knew the situation before  they realized it. “She has a lock on us! Everybody go, go,  GO!” Felina yelled, following the retreating Enforcers.

———-

“We’ve scattered all the police – now what about the SWAT  Kats?”

“Attack the remaining Enforcers as a decoy, then hit  them.”

———-

Another cluster of fighters gunned for the frenzied  Enforcers and assailed them, aided by shots from the vertigo  cannon. The invaders then carefully began to herd each  dizzied and panicked jet into a thickening herd, only a  hundred feet from Turmoil’s fortress.

“I’ll bet she’s trying to put them all in one spot and  take them out all at once,” observed Razor as the jet  wheeled on its side, hesitating over the landing strip.

“Major Feral, get out of there! We’re coming down!”

The Turbokat screamed toward the Enforcers.

———-

“Now!”

———-

T-Bone felt as if he had been ripped through the jet and  continued falling without it, and as he fell, the landscape  thinned into a funnel to speed him along even faster.  *She…was aiming for us instead,* he eventually realized.  He squeezed his eyes closed to try to counteract the  dizziness. It helped somewhat, but the kat’s head still  swam, and he still felt like he was riding inside a centri-  fuge. Fumbling, he rediscovered the controls and held tight  to them, using them as an anchor. He reasoned, *If I don’t  open my eyes, I can’t tell if I’m going the right way…but  if those other pilots mean anything, I won’t be able to  tell, anyway…* He grew sicker with each wasted second.  *But what about Razor?! He _has_ to have passed out by now.*  T-Bone gradually pried his eyelids apart, then noticed the  whirling had ceased…and so had his flight. “They really  didn’t want the Enforcers, just us,” he loudly surmised, and  wrung himself around to glance at his partner. As he had  guessed, Razor was slumped over in his seat, blacked out.

“We’re locked in, Razor, but,” and with his restored vision  found the rear ejection switch, “you’re outta here!” The  canopy shucked back and flung Razor clear of the frozen  plane.

“That cold air oughta wake you up,” T-Bone said quietly  after his other half had vanished. The tabby kat’s senses  jumbled into nonsense again, and, still reeling from the  first attack, he passed out, and there was no more.

———-

He reentered consciousness lying almost full on his back  in a room devoid of light, save a measly cone of it right  above him. He squirmed to right himself and get a fix on his  surroundings, but he did not rise more than an inch before  he noticed his arms were bound behind him and the chair in  which he lay. Effectively trapped, the kat relaxed shoulders  tensed from the escape attempt, then waited for the next  development.

“As you can see, my vertigo beam is nothing to take  lightly, SWAT Kat.”

The cool, though obscured, face of Turmoil loomed into  focus in the interrogation light. “And neither is the  proposition I am prepared to offer.”

“Well, you’re asking the wrong guy,” T-Bone hissed,  renewing his struggle, “as I’d rather bash in that cocky  face of yours after all you’ve put me through.”

“Relax, T-Bone,” she soothed. “I never intended more than  catching your attention.” She calmly and casually examined a  gloved hand. “I see you have lost your partner,” she lightly  observed. T-Bone’s ears flattened, and she asked, “Why don’t  you come fly with me?”

“Are you crazy, lady?” he retorted.

“‘Crazy’?!” She seized his collar and shook him emphati-  cally. “What does MegaKat City have to offer that can  compare with me?”

Turmoil unclamped her fingers from T-Bone’s collar and  began to pace slowly about his chair. “If it’s money you  want, I can easily supply ten times any amount you could  name.” She swished past his feet into the dark, then  reappeared, outlined by a suddenly-lit wall screen. “If  power is what’s bothering you, I can fix that as well: How  does the title ‘flight commander’ sound to those pointed  ears?”

“Flight commander of — ?”

“The finest pilots in the world,” she smartly finished.  The screen broadcast images from around the fortress, alter-  nately showing futuristic aircraft, complicated machinery,  and dozens of noticeably feminine creators. Turmoil boasted,

“We have bested more than half the entire planet’s Air  Forces already, and with a talent such as yours on our side,  the rest would be a pathetic joke. The most high-tech,  state-of-the-art weaponry would be yours to manipulate at  will, with no limit to your demands.”

“I’m listening,” he said, leaning forward in spite of his  bonds.

“Your rank,” she continued, tantalizing, “will be second  only to mine. But, that is all on the condition you maintain  loyalty not only to me, but also to my superior.”

He reclined into the chair. “There’s a superior?”

“Yes. I am certain you will appreciate her vision when you  talk to her. But you have agreed, yes? You’ll assume  secondary leadership among the elite?”

“How couldn’t I?”

She nodded, her cream-white ear tufts drifting along well-  sculpted cheekbones. “Smart fellow. I knew you would see the  right way.” One of the shining gloves whisked off and  exposed an elegant hand, from which popped perfectly-  manicured, red-polished claws. He heard her go to work on  the restraints around his wrists, and when he sensed the  cord unravel to its last fibers, he tore himself free.  Nursing his abused wrists, T-Bone looked up at Turmoil. She  was gesturing to a redheaded hybrid who wore a deep blue-  violet uniform. The other acknowledged the command and  ducked out of the room. When she had gone, Turmoil returned  the kat’s glance with a quick, mysterious smirk.

———-

Razor found himself levitating in freefall when his eyes  finally opened. He clasped a hand to his head, which still  spun from the vertigo beam and, more recently, the ejection.  As the ejection seat fell away and gravity reclaimed its  hold on his body, Razor deployed his parachute and assessed  the situation, floating.

“T-Bone must’ve had a good reason to eject me outta the  Turbokat,” he reasoned aloud, placing an oxygen mask over  his muzzle. He looked down upon MegaKat City, a smattering  of light and webbish roads, and, blocking where its center  would have been, Turmoil’s mothership itself. From his view-  point, it blotted out the major city, and across its  expansive flight deck was the same pronged red insignia  emblazoned on the half-kat’s cap and cape. “And now I see  why.” He maneuvered his descent toward the deck.

———-

The flight deck guard on duty reclined on her rifle,  fighting off sleep as hard as she could. She wondered where  the rest of her shift was, figured they were probably caught  up in an impromptu meeting, or the latest gossip, and she  yawned, irritated. She gazed overhead for a change of  scenery, then focused, fascinated, on a growing splot just  above her.  Razor slammed into the single guard far harder than he  intended, but he did not mind the advantage it presented.  While the guard lay stunned, he deftly unhooked the  parachute from his costume, and bound and gagged her. As she  realized what he was doing, she began to fight wildly  against the parachute ties. “Yrff!” she screeched, muffled  by nylon. “Yrff craify cawftoom-wearing freak uffnaisher!  Emmee go!!”

“Well, how unladylike,” snorted Razor, who held her by the  ankles. He noticed a well-concealed hatch in the wall of the  entryway. “I think you’d better take a little time to cool  off, okay?”

“Ahm gnna ripf yrff fteenken-”

“In you go!” He promptly shoved her into the hidden supply  closet and sealed it. Before he moved into the fortress, he  paused and tapped on the door. Several muffled epithets  exploded in reply. *She should be able to breathe well  enough, then,* he assured himself, then left the hogtied  guard to her tirade.

———-

A small bevy of female pilots escorted Turmoil and T-Bone  into an immense communications room that could have housed  at least eight of the Enforcers’, with some room left over.  Past the Ionic columns that framed the doorway, four  gigantic monitors hung from the ceiling, arranged so each  faced its own wall. On the floor, surrounding the screens,  sat a ring of instrument panels – twelve in all, T-Bone  estimated – all uniformly outfitted with microphones and  various buttons. To his left, there stood a scalloped metal  railing in place of the wall. He followed the escort past it  toward the monitors, and out of curiosity T-Bone peeked over  the railing. An even bigger chamber, more like a cavern,  opened beyond the railing, and the walkway where he stood  became one of several platforms, suspended at least a  hundred feet above the gadgetry-littered floor. He saw three  or four other platforms equipped for communication, and the  rest either harbored elevators or panned into covered  observation desks. When he peered at the ground, he beheld  scores of women tending to gutted aircraft, next to which  lay a peculiar, yet somehow familiar, type of turbojet  engine. T-Bone rolled his opaque eyes upward and wondered  where he had seen that make before.

“That’s…an M-24 megathruster, isn’t it?” he ventured.  Turmoil turned her head to him as he pointed at the distant  floor. He added, “I thought that hadn’t gone past the  drawing board stage…?”

“It hadn’t,” she affirmed while she glided from the front  of the line to his arm. “Until *I* perfected it. We’ve just  now started installing them in our jets.”

“Wow.” The engines genuinely impressed him, but the kat  had boarded for a different purpose. He impersonally  commented, “You’ve thought of just about everything, haven’t  you?”

“Yes, which is why I’m where I am now,” Turmoil responded.  T-Bone thought he detected a wisp of sardonism in her tone,  but convinced himself he had imagined it.  The escort ushered T-Bone and his hostess to one of the  monstrous screens, then parted, and lined themselves into  two rows off to the sides. T-Bone wondered if he should also  have filed himself off into the lines, and watched Turmoil  for her reaction. She stayed him with a gloved hand, her  eyes affixed to the screen. The SWAT Kat resumed his stance  by the hybrid and also stared at the monitor, questioning  himself as to what would make it so interesting. The image  of a frail, dark-haired young woman instantaneously burst  into view, startling the kat. She appeared about thirtyish,  her hair adorning her head and shoulders in near-black ring-  lets, her river-ice-green eyes staring him down. Her costume  was identical to Turmoil’s, except it was pure ivory,  decorated in a lace ruff. The woman looked barely able to  intimidate a small child, but her stentorian voice  overcompensated when she greeted Turmoil:

“Omnia mutantur, nos et mutantur in illis, Turmoil,” the  lady hailed.

“Et si vis pacem, para bellum,” Turmoil replied. She bowed  her head slightly, then met the screen-face’s giant eye.

“Very nice, very nice,” the screen-lady heartily approved,  then set her face to seriousness. “Why have you called this  time? Have you apprehended that city-state yet-” She stopped  abruptly, a thoroughly disgusted scowl replacing her calm  expression so harshly that T-Bone stepped back, partially  hiding behind Turmoil. “*Turmoil,*” she snarled, “do you  realize what’s standing next to you?”

“Yes, I know what he is, sir.”

“Why do you have a MAN on one of MY ships?!”

“That is exactly why I’ve called you, sir – he wants to  join in on our cause,” Turmoil explained, lifting her head a  little higher. “He has witnessed the uselessness of  resisting us, and he is such an extraordinary pilot that it  would be impractical not to accept his offer. I ask for your  approval, Sylph.”

The woman-picture’s eyebrows met, and her nose crinkled.

“But, Turmoil…he’s a *man,* for heaven’s sake…”

“Yes, but he is a wise and exceptional man,” repeated  Turmoil. “There are visual records from this morning of his  remarkable flying ability, if you would like to see for  yourself.”

“No, that’s quite all right,” Sylph melodramatically  sighed, rolling her eyes. “I trust in your judgment, even if  it *does* favor using a male…and one who wears leather and  a mask, at that. Are you sure you want him aboard? He looks  dreadfully unstable.”

“Leadress, please…he doesn’t like being insulted any  more than any of us do,” Turmoil pleaded as she sent  sidelong glances to a visibly annoyed T-Bone.

“Oh please, Turmoil – you know men are too stupid to know  when they’re being insulted,” snorted Sylph. Turmoil, now  mildly panicked, checked T-Bone, whose teeth were bared, and  a low growl rumbled deep in his chest. She reached over and  attempted to pat down his hackles while bowing at the  screen.

“Thank you, Sylph. I will see to it that he keeps his  promise.” The striped kat glared at her, and she avoided it.

“You’d better. Get back to work, commander.”

“Aye, sir,” Turmoil complied from under her hat’s brim.  Sylph dematerialized and left the infuriated kat and the  mortified half-kat to themselves.

“Her attitude really bites,” T-Bone informed her after the  screen had darkened.

“She’s not usually that spiteful,” apologized Turmoil. “I  must have called at a bad time. But that doesn’t matter  right now.” She straightened up and resumed her imperious  bearing, all of the sudden servility erased. He looked over  her company, who offered no comment. “I still have to show  you what you’ll be commanding, lieutenant.”

When Turmoil addressed him as “lieutenant,” T-Bone noted  that one of the attendants, the same redheaded woman who had  been guarding the door when he came to, flinched. She  gritted her teeth, but once she caught T-Bone staring at  her, she hastily composed herself and led the rest of her  compatriots in a march. The redhead ignored him with all her  might when she passed him, but he kept his gaze on Turmoil,  who was scrutinizing him in return.

———-

After five minutes of walking, the flight deck’s entryway  delivered Razor to a four-way intersection. Each way was  equally lightless, and the hissing of the uncovered pipes  and the tapping of guards’ boots emanated from the  invisibility. Razor passed his hand along the tunnel’s side:  if he found a service hatch or an air vent, he would be able  to bypass any skirmishes and find T-Bone that much faster.  He stepped up onto a wide pipe and touched the ceiling. He  then fingered along more pipes, feeling between thousands of  conduits, for a depression, an area that gave under  pressure. His searching arm stretched all the way behind  him, the red kat strained to find a groove, fingers splayed  as far as they could reach. The hand moved down an inch,  then another, one more, but still no shortcut appeared.  Abandoning delicacy and becoming impatient, Razor swept the  wall haphazardly. At his shoulder level, his fingertips  finally slipped over the sought-after hinge.  *Finally,* he mentally remarked. He sidestepped along the  pipe until he stood directly in front of the concealed door.  His claws forced themselves into the slivers of space around  the door, then, biting his lip, the kat tried to tug the  latch free.  *Now _this_ thing won’t come open,* he thought. *There’s  no way they could have foreseen an infiltrator finding this  hatch, and making it unopenable would be silly – no one else  could get in, either…unless there’s a key.* He took his  hands out and speculated for a minute. Tentatively, Razor  reached up into the gap again. *Am I looking at it wrong?*  He pushed the hatch in the opposite direction, and the door  rolled smoothly into the passageway wall. An entry, sized  perfectly for the russet kat, exposed itself. *There we go,*  he thought, then scrambled into the cramped duct.

When the light of an upcoming room at last emerged in the  service tunnel – ten minutes after Razor had entered – he  sank gratefully to his belly. *Thank goodness…I thought  this thing was going to go on forever. Now, to make sure I  won’t have a surprise welcome when I get out of here…*  He scrabbled his claws against the grate, stopped, and  waited. No one asked what that sound was, so he scratched  the grate again. Still nobody replied. *All right!* he  thought. He put his weight on the metal grate to dislodge  its screws, then pulled it into the shaft with him. Taking  hold on one side of the hole left by the grate, Razor  lowered himself, slowly as he could manage, into a vast and  stately room that could easily have housed the entire Turbo-  kat. The SWAT Kat waited for a moment to take in the new  environment: the setting seemed Victorian, with gigantic  picture windows framed by laced, crepe curtains. There were  ribbed columns between each window that continued around the  room, each probably ten feet tall. In the center of the  outside-facing wall, he confronted a massive wall of plaques  and photographs grimly overlooking a desk. He inched closer  to it, and, inspecting it, he noticed, “These are all women,  dressed in military uniform. Is this the crew, or the  employees of the month?”

The kat hesitated in front of the wall of plaques when  something small and glistening, off to his right, drew his  attention. He stooped to peer at it: a gold-plated panel,  situated beneath a corner of the plaques. Near the panel’s  top, there were four almost-unseeable gold buttons lined up  in a row. Naturally curious, Razor pushed the one nearest to  him. He heard the static sizzle of a screen snap on behind  him, and he watched the varnished desk top become a video  terminal, complete with an embedded keyboard and stylus pad.  His ear flicked, then he returned to the gold panel. He  poked the second button, but nothing as impressive happened.  Nothing even mundane happened. *This another trick thing?*  he wondered, and prodded it a few more times. He soon lost  interest in that one, so he moved on to the next. After he  pressed it, a spot of the floor under his foot felt as if it  were trying to rise up under him, but the foot was holding  back its effort. Razor stepped away and allowed a square  pillar to grow from the thin carpet up to his waist. When it  stopped, its top retracted to offer a stack of round disks,  each labelled “DFF Filum ab Omnia Novus Miles,” followed by  an eight-digit number. *One-nine-eight-seven-one-nine-eight-  nine. Looks like it could be a yearlong file of…of…* He  crinkled his eyebrows in trying to decode the words. *Of…  oh, well. My Latin’s too limited for this. I’ll just have to  take these and trust the Enforcers will help me with it,  provided I can hitch a ride down.* He deftly removed a thick  stack of the disks and zipped them inside his backpack, then  returned to the fourth and last button. Pressing it blipped  on another staticky screen sound from behind. He turned, but  the desktop screen looked no different from before. He tried  the lap drawer, and surely enough, another, smaller monitor  and keypad had materialized there. At the flat screen’s top  appeared the words “LOG ENTRY 13.6.98/CODE # 000287,” which  made no more sense to Razor than the labels on the disks. He  pushed the fourth button again to turn the lap drawer off  and consulted the more promising desktop.  The screen presented the inquisitive kat with the same  prongy red insignia he had seen on the flight deck, plus the  question, “Password?” He rummaged in his pack again and  withdrew a small blue card, decorated with his own team’s  kat’s-head logo. Looking for a place to put it, Razor  finally located a slot just above the keypad and deposited  the card. He entered a command, then rested his head on one  hand while he waited. A few minutes later, the “Password?”

disappeared along with the logo, and the monitor replaced  them with a set of icons.  *This must be one of those pads where you use your finger  as a mouse,* he reasoned. Razor lightly touched the stylus  pad, which summoned an arrow cursor onto the screen. The  costumed kat manipulated it to an icon and tapped twice.

“Bingo,” he quietly purred.  Over an hour later, when Razor had hacked and copied all  that he found, he picked the blue card from its slot, depo-  sited it in his bag, and refastened the bundle to his back.  *How’s this for your business relationship, Turmoil? All I  have to do now is find T-Bone, and we can make our escape in  style.* He hiked across the empty room to a door that would  not have looked out of place in a sci-fi movie. The kat  tapped another button beside the clashing frame of columns,  and three women, dressed in deep violet uniforms and bearing  rifles, greeted him.

“Well, I must say *I* was impressed by what you were doing  in there,” opened one. “Our squad leader wants to see you in  person. Come with us.”

Razor eyeballed the leeway between the guards, then  slipped onto his back and through the threesome to escape.  As he darted down the pipelined hallway, the first guard  called, “You’re making this too hard for yourself! Quit  running!”

While she said this, Razor careened into another blockade  of soldier women, also brandishing rifles. He reversed and  bounded in the other direction before they could lay hold on  him, but another set of guardswomen walled him off as well.  The kat backed away from the advancing guards, unable to  decide whether to fight or flee. The women from the door  broke through the coming side and seized him, pinioning his  arms behind him. The first guard circled to his front.

“Didn’t I tell you to quit running?”

“A bit hard of hearing in one ear,” he grumbled.  One of the violet-uniformed soldiers addressed the one  before Razor. “Captain, this is that other SWAT Kat, Razor,”

she reported.

“I can see that!” the captain retorted. “The question is,  what should we do with him? He *did* break into our system.”

“Should we put him in the brig like we were supposed to?”

asked one.

“That won’t help, and the squad leader has too much  bureaucratic garbage to go through to do anything effective  with him,” the captain rejected. “We’re going to do her a  favor.”

“Maybe we can force him to help us build some of our  weapons,” suggested another.

“What are you, nuts? He’d sabotage us as soon as we’d give  him a toolbox. Shouldn’t Turmoil know about this?” observed  a third.

“No, no, no. I have a better idea,” waved the captain,  laying a white-gloved hand on Razor’s shoulder. “He’s pretty  high-risk, so why don’t we do something that’s sure to keep  him out of trouble?”

“Like what?” they all asked.

“What do you mean, ‘like what?’! Throw him off!” she  snapped.  Like a tribe of bloodthirsty savages, an excited mummer  buzzed from the women at the suggestion. Razor squirmed in  the guardswomen’s unusually strong grip, wondering if they  were only baiting him. “What do you think my partner will do  when he finds out you went behind Turmoil’s back and killed  me?” he asked while striving against the guards.

“He’ll do nothing. He’s already sworn allegiance to Dux  Femina Facti, Razor,” the captain declared. Her grasp on his  shoulder turned into a nasty pinch on his muzzle.  *These women are all-out psychotic,* he realized. “Then  you don’t know him well enough,” he continued, muted. “He’d  never do something like that.”

“Who doesn’t know whom well enough, kat? Men will switch  loyalties faster and easier than they’d like to say,  especially when offered power.” She addressed her battalion.

“Find an airlock!”

The clutch of women lifted the lightweight Razor off the  ground and carried him by the arms down the hall. When they  encountered an airlock, the guards not carrying Razor formed  a semicircle and stood at attention. The captain herself  separated from her two assistants and rested a finger on the  keypad by the lock. Before she pressed it, she grasped a  handhold by the frame, looked back at her crew, and warned,

“Prepare for decompression!”

The airlock pulled itself open, and with a whooshing howl,  the hallway’s air stampeded over the group into open sky.  Razor glimpsed at the world below the mouthlike airlock,  where the tallest buildings were less than an inch tall.  *We’re a lot higher than before,* he thought with a twisting  gut. *Just as long as they ignore my spare chute, I’ll  survive.*

“Sir!” one of the guards holding him yelled. “Should we  take his backpack? It probably has a parachute in it!”

*Well, there goes that.*

“Good point, officer!” replied the captain. “Rip the para-  chute out, then throw him!”

“What about the files he stole, sir?” inquired the second.

“He won’t be able to use them where he’s going, and even  if he lives, they’re too heavily encrypted for him to under-  stand! Throw him OFF!!”

A guard’s arm dipped viciously into Razor’s pack, jerking  him backward, and she severed a carefully-packed delta-form  glider, which she discarded onto the floor. The red, black,  and blue nylon skated along the floor with the torrent,  sucked out of the lock, and flapped helplessly out of sight.  His captors dragged him closer to the lock, where the wind  tore ravenously at them. The kat detected the guardswomen  winding up for the toss. *This is it…*  Instantly, he was freefalling tens of thousands of feet  above MegaKat City in the icy-thin atmosphere, unable to  save himself. Razor’s weight took effect less than a second  later, and, screeching in a cross between his feline and  speaking voices, he rocketed toward the city floor.  Nearly a hundred feet away from him, Razor briefly noticed  a helicopter – specifically, the Kats’ Eye News chopper.  Seeing it meander above him, he remembered a key piece of  equipment the attack women had ignored: his glovatrix! He  aimed his gauntleted fist at the heli’s skis and triumphant-  ly shouted, “Grappling hook, deploy!”

No response.

“What? Grappling hook, DEPLOY!”

The glovatrix remained faithfully on target, but did  nothing else.

“Rrrhgh! Deploy, deploy, deploy, *deploy,* *DEPLOY,* you  ungodly channel-changer! Now now NOW!”

Snarling, and with the news chopper retreating at a clip,  Razor whacked his fist on the unresponsive chunk of metal.  It then spat forth a length of cable toward the heli, which  then tightened, alerting Razor to a successful catch. He  breathed out in relief, then set to reeling himself in as  his momentum changed him into a pendulum.

———-

“What’s that?!”

The occupants of the helicopter – Ann Gora, her cameraman  Johnny, and the pilot and copilot – all blurted the question  when they heard a loud, metal-to-metal *clang* and the  copter began to shimmy back and forth.

“Is that turbulence?” asked Ann, clinging to her armrests.

“Might, but we heard a ‘clang’ first, and we haven’t  dropped any,” the pilot said. He ordered his assistant, “Run  a panel check. I need to make sure we’re going fast enough  for that vampire-chick, regardless of turbulence.”

As the copilot scanned the instruments, the foursome’s  ears pricked up at three distinctive knocks at the side  door. The pilot left his eyes fastened to the air, but his  ears spasmodically twitched behind him. “That wasn’t one of  you guys, was it?”

Again, the door rapped at the kats, accompanied by a  straining male voice: “Let me in! *Hurry!*”

Ann abandoned her seat and rushed to the side of the  chopper. “I’ve heard that voice before…” She hopped up on  her toes and pressed her nose to the plexiglass. A masked  pair of opaque white eyes stared back, and the owner  pleaded, “Please! I need to reach the Enforcers!”

“It’s one of the SWAT Kats!” she exclaimed. “Can’t we help  him in?”

“Great! Maybe he can help us out of this arrangement. Go  open the door, kid,” the pilot told his compatriot.  Ann, Johnny, and the copilot set to work hauling the door  open, as difficult mid-air as the news van had been on the  ground. It *sluish*ed free, and the costumed kat bolted in  between them before they noticed. Newscaster, cameraman, and  copilot let the door slide secure by itself while Razor  rested thankfully in the rear of the craft. The copilot  returned to the cockpit while the news duo surrounded their  surprise visitor, eager to find out why he was there.

“Let me catch my breath first, guys,” Razor politely  interrupted the interviewers. “First off, why haven’t you  been zapped by the vertigo beam?”

“Special business,” answered Johnny.

“Right. Turmoil wants a press conference, I guess so she  can build her PR,” Ann added. “There should be others headed  this way soon, so we’re safe, or at least until we leave.  But, more importantly, why were you hanging off our helicop-  ter?”

“I was caught snooping in their more secretive informa-  tion, so a bunch of these soldier-women took my parachute  and threw me off. ‘Course, I saw you at just the right time,  so I boarded. I hope it didn’t scare you too much, though,”

he easily replied.  Razor watched both Ann Gora’s and Johnny’s eyes widen to a  discomforting degree. “I didn’t think it’d be *that* much of  a problem, really,” he apologized. “Did I throw the  helicopter off that badly?”

“No – you were *inside* that thing?!” Ann demanded,  leaning farther toward the reddish kat.

“Yeah. My partner’s still stuck up there, so I also need  to rescue him.”

“Do you still have the information you were looking at?”

“Sure do, along with a few other bonuses,” answered Razor.  He withdrew the blue card and the stack he had stolen from  his pack and displayed them to an astonished Ann. “They were  sure I was going to go splat, so they let me keep ‘em.  Pretty neat, huh?”

While Razor replaced the information in his backpack, Ann  tugged on the chopper pilot’s sleeve. “Call Turmoil – say  we’re having engine problems or something.”

“Will she buy it? What if she shoots at us?”

“She won’t buy it unless you sell it. This kat needs to  get to the police! Think of this: how much do you like  totalitarian dictatorship?”

“I gotcha.” The pilot opened a channel to the airship.

“Air to air, this is Kilo-Echo-November zero eight zero zero  five niner. Requesting dismissal on grounds of malfunction.”

A rough, feminine rasp replied, “Nature of your malfunc-  tion, Kilo-Echo-November?”

He paused. “Engine knocking, and backup of exhaust.”

“We can fix that once you’re towed in.”

Ann poked him. “Say the balance is off!”

“Air to air, we’ve also got some CG problems. Stability’s  wavering us rollwise, and continuing too much further might  result in serious danger.”

The other end crackled for one minute. “Permission  granted, Kilo-Echo-November. Send up a replacement upon  return, or we’ll be forced to take punitive actions.”

“Right. Thanks – over.”

———-

Felina braced herself against the Enforcers’ sick bay  wall, mashing a cold compress against her right temple. Her  eyes were still recovering from the vertigo beam, which had  left her vision clouded and runny, even after landing. The  rest of her squad either lay on sterilized mattresses or sat  in cushioned chairs, all recovering fairly well. She,  however, still suffered the vision problems as well as a  migraine and nausea left over from the first attack. Rather  than look weak in front of everyone else, Felina stood by  herself against the wall, staring disinterestedly into  space. She concentrated so hard on looking untouched that  she did not notice a particular brunette until she had  almost climbed up onto Felina’s shoulders.

“Here, give me that!” Fairylike fingers squirmed between  Felina’s hand and her compress. “You shouldn’t do that. It’s  going to constrict your blood vessels and hurt even worse!”

“Dominica, I’m a big girl, and I think I know what I’m  doing to myself. Now get off!” She held tight to the  compress and shoved Dominica benignly away from her.

“I’m telling you, your head is going to be killing you  later on! It’s like I was saying earlier: you’re lieutenant  commander for two days and already you can’t take the  littlest bit of advice. You’re just as bad as your uncle,  Felina.”

The elfin lady kat dodged a light swipe. Felina glared at  her half-seriously. “You’re in some dangerous waters, there,  babe.” She refolded her arms and adjusted her compress.

“_You_ look awfully perky. What’d they give you?”

“It’s a medicine I made myself, kind of like a holistic  panacea. Want me to get you some?”

“Holistic medicine? Ugh, no,” Felina refused, screwing up  her nose. “I never trusted that stuff. I’ll just stick to  Advil, thanks.”

“Oh, come on. It’s never hurt me, so it definitely can’t  hurt someone as big as you,” offered Dominica.

“It doesn’t have, like, hemlock and dandelion in it, does  it?”

“No, of course not! It’ll make you a lot better, I  promise.”

“Well…”

“Trust me?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Okay! Stay put. I’ll be right back.”

Felina watched Dominica trot airily out the opposite door,  then listened to her feathery footsteps cascade on the  stairs. The dark-haired girl blew out slowly. “She’s so  cute,” she mumbled to herself.

“Isn’t she, though?”

The query was so unexpected, Felina jigged sideways and  let the compress hit the floor with a *splut.* Even though  her sight was still limited, her eyes sprang wide open at  the intruder: a blurred but distinguishable Callie Briggs.

“Just makes you wanna puke, doesn’t it?” finished Callie.  She regarded the deer-in-the-road Felina. “Something the  matter, lieutenant?”

Felina stooped and retrieved the cloth, avoiding showing  the pinkish hue of her face. “Nah, you just startled me  there. So!” The tall halfbreed bolted to a stand, winced at  the drain of blood, and returned the short one’s look.

“What’s my uncle have to say?”

“Along the lines of ‘I told you so,’ and his usual  whinings. Oops – I guess I shouldn’t be talking about him  like that in front of you.” Callie added this while checking  over her shoulder to see if Feral had heard. He was absorbed  in other commanderial matters. The blonde patted Felina’s  uniformed shoulder and said, “Here, he probably wants you to  help him decide what to do. Coming?”

“In a little.” Callie nodded and clicked into the  adjoining war room. As she left, Felina puzzled over her  reaction to Callie’s opening remark, now pressing the cold  cloth to her cheeks. *What in the heck did I do THAT for?!*  she asked herself. *That vertigo ray must’ve made me jumpy,  too.*  In the war room, she heard Feral begin to snap at someone,  but Callie stopped him as a second, vague but somewhat  familiar voice spoke. She heard him – she was sure it was a  him – ask:

“Now are you or aren’t you interested in these files? I  took them directly out of one of Turmoil’s own computers, so  they *must* have something we can use against her.”

“I’m not going to touch one of your illegitimate vigil-  ante…whatever that thing is supposed to be…if you *paid*  me–”

“Feral.” The deputy mayor confronted the newcomer as  Felina peeked in the doorway. She beheld her irate uncle,  Callie, and a SWAT Kat impatiently waiting his turn to talk.  Callie nodded to Razor.

“Thanks. As I was saying, I copied these files directly  from one of the onboard computers, and I took a few disks on  top of that. There has to be a diagram of the ship in here,  and some of their weaponry; using that knowledge, we both  could go in there and shut her down.” Razor pocketed the  disk. “Unless you have a better plan. I can go either way.”

Feral glanced at the door through which Razor had entered,  then cockily asked, “So where’s your partner? I thought  there were two.”

“I still need to go back and get him, sir,” Razor replied.

“We were separated.”

“That figures. You see?” Feral fronted Callie, who  remained unimpressed. “He can’t even keep track of his  partner. What’s so impressive about them, then, Ms. Briggs?”

“*They* got aboard,” both Callie and, from the doorway,  Felina answered.  Razor alone looked directly at the lieutenant; the other  two only twisted the closest ear toward her. “Hey there,”

Razor cheerfully greeted her.  She waved a hand in response, then joined the trio. “He’s  the only one of us who’s actually been inside that fortress.  Why can’t we collaborate?” Felina added. “Isn’t that the  best way to play his advantage, if nothing else?”

Feral had already realized he would lose if he did not  make a compromise. As Felina finished speaking, Feral held  out his hand, not bothering to look at any of the company.

“Give me the disk,” he brusquely sighed. Razor placed it in  the giant paw, and Feral slapped the piece of plastic  against an unsuspecting technician. “Analyze this.”

While the rattled techie fed the disk into a terminal, the  lieutenant, the deputy mayor, and the vigilante milled about  the room. “All of you, stay put,” Feral sharply demanded.  The three stopped still at the order.  At that moment, Dominica appeared in the doorway, clasping  a vial and a teacup in her small hands. “Oh! Here it is,  lieutenant,” she announced.

“Le Normand, you come in here, too,” Feral barked.  She scuffled in and took refuge by Felina, placing the  vial and cup on a glass table. “What did I do?” she  whispered to Felina.

“Nothing,” Felina whispered back. “Just stay here. We’ve  finally found a way in, thanks to him.”

She pointed a thumb at an obscured corner of the room.  Dominica looked where Felina indicated and noticed Razor,  parked leisurely against a bare wall. He acknowledged her  and gave her a friendly, even affectionate smile. It dropped  from his face, however, when he received an expression he  did not expect.

———-

*Before I forget, you need a uniform befitting a flight  commander,* she had told him. *_Then_ we’ll go on.*  *Do I need to?* he complained.  *Regulations. You know how they are. Here you go – just  come out when you’re finished.* Turmoil handed him a bundle  from her closet and hurried the kat off to her bathroom,  where she left him to change.  Twenty-five minutes later, T-Bone was adjusting the high  collar of an indigo uniform, much like the one he had seen  the redhead wearing. *So here I am, dressing in women’s  clothes in some crazy lady’s bathroom on a flying fortress,*  he mused. *The lengths I’ll go to to make the city a better  place.* As he adjusted the epaulets, he looked closer in the  mirror and noticed something he had ignored while dressing.  *Convenient that she had a suit in my size and proportions,*  he noted.

“It fits you well…flight commander.”

T-Bone jumped, then stared at the doorway. In it stood  Turmoil, her arms folded. She gave him another slight smirk.

“Did you watch me get dressed?!” he demanded.

“I only wanted to see what was taking you so long,” she  explained. “Your crew *has* been waiting. Are you ready?”

Insecurely, he smoothed out his blouse. “Yeah, I s’pose  so.”

“Then follow me.”

He let her cape swish out of the way before he reentered  her palatial quarters. As she led him into the outer  passageway, T-Bone half-impatiently, half-nervously thought,  *Razor’s taking long enough to get here; he shouldn’t have  had too much trouble boarding.* His ears swivelled back  involuntarily. *I hope those psycho-women haven’t hurt him.*  The two emerged in the central control room, awaited by  fifty stern, unspeaking women. Kat, human, and hybrid  constituted the neatly-arranged army, each outfitted in  uniform burgundy g-suits. They stood immovably, shoulders  fixed, lips in the frown of formality; their helmet visors  blocked any indication of individual thought from T-Bone.  Anywhere else, he told himself, the discipline and synchrony  of the group could have evoked tremendous respect, maybe  even awe, but with the militia-like atmosphere enveloping  the place, the rigid fifty-woman guard instead emanated an  eerie, disarming aura. Presently, his new uniform began to  itch.

“Commander!” The redhead who had given T-Bone a dirty look  earlier popped up beside Turmoil and gave a pompous salute.

“Aerial units all present and accounted for, ready for  presentation and approval, sir.”

“Good work, Guizot. At ease.” Turmoil waved her aside and  led T-Bone toward the troops. As he glanced back at the  redhead, she thrust all her weight on one leg and mouthed,

“What do *you* want?”

He returned to Turmoil, who held out her arm to the grim  soldiers. “Allow me to introduce you to your crew. They are  fronted by the best of the best, our Omega Squadron, whom  you battled earlier today.”

T-Bone nodded. “I see all your pilots are female,” he  remarked.

“They are the finest pilots in the world, unmatched by  *any*body,” Turmoil quickly supplied. “Until today, I had  seen no male pilot who could outfly them.”

“Flattered, I’m sure,” he accepted.

“Would you like a demonstration of their flying?”

“No, thanks,” he declined. “I saw enough of what they can  do this morning. How about the weapons?”

“All right, this way.” Turmoil directed him to an expanse  of a weapons panel at the windowed wall of the room. Before  she joined him, she abruptly barked, “Dismissed! To your  quarters if you like, or run practice drills until your  commander orders otherwise.”

T-Bone heard a chorus of “Yes, sir!”s, and the squadrons  had clomped out of the room before he could turn and watch  them. Likewise, Turmoil reappeared at his elbow and pulled  him to the panel of switches, saying, “There is much for you  to see. Come on!” He wondered at her sudden urgency, but  followed the tour regardless.  For the next three hours, Turmoil carted T-Bone around her  fortress like a rapid-fire tour guide, eager to have him  know his way into and out of each room. All the rooms she  seemed to want him to be most familiar with were either  information- or communication-oriented, which, of course, he  did not mind. *It makes it that much easier for me to do my  job up here,* he thought.  The last place she led him was the hangar. There was a  huge door separating them from the jets, but Turmoil did not  open it. Instead, she twisted a dial in the center, then  backed away from it. The four flat panels of the door faded  to invisibility. Between the still-solid diagonal girders,  T-Bone caught sight of the solitary Turbokat, ringed by  farther-away, alien jet craft. He moved for the door, which  he found had only become transparent, and leaned against it,  gazing at his beloved jet from a distance.

“There’s the Turbokat,” he spoke, mainly to himself.

“This is where the Omega Squadron houses their jets,”

Turmoil blandly announced. “We also use it to store captive  aircraft, like your jet there.”

“Is this where you put all the news choppers when they  came, too?” he asked.

“Yes.”

*Maybe Razor could have hitched a ride, but is stuck in  here.* “Is this place accessible from the outside?”

“Only to those with proper identification. If you were  wanting to go in, you’ll need me to go along with you until  headquarters have you cleared. Any other questions?”

*That might be why I haven’t heard from him yet. I’ll need  to lure her in later if he’s there.* “No, thanks.”

She nodded curtly. “That’s all you need to see, then. Feel  free to wander through any part of the ship you want, or go  and meet with your pilots.” The leadress pivoted and began  to walk back in the direction they had come. “Oh, and one  more thing…” She looked over her shoulder at him and  called, “As soon as is convenient for you, come up to my  quarters.” She continued on her way, and soon T-Bone only  heard her boot heels punctuating the ship’s hum. As she  left, the redhead who had tailed them all day – Guizot,  Turmoil called her – oozed from the side wall and trotted  furtively after her superior. She did not even pause to snip  at him, which led him to believe she must have wanted  something *really* important. He left her to her business  and considered the Turbokat.  *That’s the hardest woman to read that I’ve _ever_ met,  and that’s saying something,* T-Bone mused. *First she’s  all weaselly, trying to convince me to join her with all  those bribes, then she melts into a puddle whenever that  scary woman – whoever she was – looks at her cross-eyed…  then she goes back to being cold as before.* He quitted the  door-window, which thrummed back to solid metal. *What does  she _really_ want? I don’t care how sexist it sounds, women  always tend to act distant when they have hidden agendas.  Heck, she didn’t even put on half the show for the news that  she did this morning, now that I think about it.* T-Bone  reviewed the news conference he had seen from a distance:  As the news crews circled her, Turmoil’s leaderly poise  faded again, much like when she had called her higher-up.  She had paced from the reporters to the comm-board three  times in one minute, not too aware of it, and when she came  to rest anywhere, she moved again in less than a second. She  tapped her toe neurotically if she stood still, and when she  finally began to televise her previous demands, her tail tip  picked up where her toe left off. The imposing halfbreed  progressively petrified while she spoke, though she loosened  a tiny bit whenever she caught herself. Her answers to the  reporter’s questions were of few words and very vague, and  the entire affair lasted all of ten anticlimactic minutes.  When the reporters, still thinking Turmoil had more to say,  pressed her for more details, she hurriedly declined and  acted only too ready to help them back to the hangar. She  returned to the control room soon after and settled back  into her unreadable state, not even slightly flushed as she  had looked with the news conference.  Then there was Guizot. *Where was she?* T-Bone asked  himself. *Oh, right.* She, too, had hidden herself among the  equipment. Remembering it, T-Bone saw something else new:  Guizot had been statuesquely calm while Turmoil’s nerves  were jumping out of her skin. The redhead observed  motionlessly from her own hiding place, just barely visible  to T-Bone from his. Knowing her most likely reaction to his  attention, he had continuously looked up to see if she had  seen him. If she had, she disregarded him. Instead, she wore  what he thought to be a complacent face, frozen until the  interviewers adjourned. When they left, Guizot disappeared  as well, or at least until she popped out of the wall nearly  a minute ago. Whatever her problem was, T-Bone decided to  keep as much distance between them as he could, lest she pop  out of another wall when he was off his guard. *Hopefully,  though, I’ll be out of here before bedtime. I’d better go  see what Turmoil wants – she might wig again if I stay down  here too long.* He looked away to the end of the steely  corridor. *It _was_ this way, if I’m remembering right…*

———-

When her cape’s hem started to tangle in her high heels,  Turmoil forced herself to slow down before she tripped. At  her clip, she had already crossed most of the track to her  quarters in what felt like seconds, having thoughtlessly let  her walking rhythm carry her. *A little excited?* she teased  herself. *He probably won’t start up this way for another  hour or so, so I should have time to check up on some more  things. I wonder if he’s caught on yet?*  One more set of feet strode behind her, out of time with  hers. Turmoil checked over her shoulder to find Guizot  staring back at her. The demoted officer flicked aside one  of her mutton-chop ear tufts and asked, “Are you feeling  well, commander?”

“Yes, of course,” Turmoil replied warily. “Why do you  ask?”

“Well, it’s none of my concern, but I *have* noticed  you’ve not been yourself lately,” Guizot shrugged.  Turmoil stopped, as did Guizot. “In what way am I not  ‘myself’?”

“Hey, hey, easy, all right? Obviously, you know what’s  going on more than I do, and that’s how it’s supposed to  be,” defended the redhead, her hands up in front of her.

“Really, I don’t mean to pry.”

“Guizot, you wouldn’t ask me that if there weren’t some-  thing else behind it. What did you mean by saying I’m not  myself?”

“All right. It’s just seemed to me that you looked nervous  when you held that news conference; I don’t remember *you*  ever being camera-shy.”

“It wasn’t camera-shyness, if that’s what you were  thinking.”

“Then why did you keep pacing?”

Turmoil drew back a bit, then planted a hand on her hip.

“Well, put yourself in *my* place: This is the biggest piece  of New America we’ve seized yet, which translates into the  most pressure *I’ve* ever had to keep a capture. Each second  requires careful observance if we’re going to keep this one,  and if I so much as breathe out of rhythm in a broadcast,  MegaKat City will slip away, and I would lose my standing  with Sylph. How would *you* handle this sort of stress,  Guizot?”

“Point taken. But still, just stress couldn’t be all  that’s bothering you…”

“*Now* what are you thinking?”

“You hauled one of the enemy – male, I noticed – on board,  for only one reason,” Guizot obliquely accused Turmoil.

“His flight skills evaded both the Omega Squadron and all  our weapons, Guizot. As big a threat as that suggests, it  was either assimilate his talent or suffer the damages,”

Turmoil coldly returned. She picked up her march. “The fact  that he is masculine is merely an unfortunate circumstance.”

“Hmm, nice vocabulary.” Turmoil glared at the unaffected  Guizot. “All this pressure made you give him my rank, too, I  see. That’s not exactly the most faithful thinking, sir –  with all due respect, taking the enemy in and handing him  such power is like holding an open house for industrial  spies. You’re inviting him to take us apart, sir!”

“Guizot!” Turmoil stopped a second time and faced her  subordinate in full. “That is MORE than enough! If you wish  to move ahead in rank, you must learn to get over your  petty, paranoid fears! I know what I am doing, and if you do  not want to slip all the way back down to private, I suggest  you question me no more! Do-I-make-my-self-*clear*?”

“Crystal, sir,” muttered Guizot.

“Good. Return to the bridge, sergeant.” The brunette  swooped around into another brisk walk and distanced herself  from the redhead. Guizot smirked when Turmoil was out of  sight. *I’ll _bet_ you know what you’re doing,* she thought.

———-

“All I’m saying is I fail to see the logic behind your  rather bizarre support for those two demolitionists, Ms.  Briggs. I would think that you, as a leader of this city,  would also disapprove of the damages they’ve wreaked.”

Outside of the tech room, while an operator worked at  Razor’s stolen files, Feral nagged at Callie over a  different issue. She rolled her eyes at him and said, “The  SWAT Kats have publicly declared their devotion to MegaKat  City, and so far, they’ve lived up to their promise. I find  that honorable myself, commander – and as for the messes,  your own Enforcers have destroyed just as much by  themselves, using that ridiculous overkill you call your  squad vehicles.” She stared off into the tech room as she  continued. “To be honest, I wonder why the mayor hasn’t come  to his senses and done away with all that military surplus.”

“We’ve never caused -” Feral interrupted himself, thought  for a moment, and then seethed more furiously than before.

“So *what* if we HAVE dented a few buildings in our time?!  We certainly haven’t caused anything as grievous as they  can, and *have*, in one night! That office building where  they apprehended the Mendozas was closed down for five  months because of all the internal damage, which cost Mien,  Incorporated several hundred thousand dollars! Any  collateral damage incurred by Enforcers is purely  accidental… AND we pay half the insurance.”

“If that makes you feel better,” Callie disinterestedly  answered. “But keep in mind that *they* actually caught the  Mendozas.” She took her eyes from the tech room and looked  calmly back up at Feral. “And the last time you did that  was…?”

The commander growled, for lack of words, and stalked into  the tech room. The small blonde indifferently picked a file  from her purse and sawed away at her pink claws.  Meanwhile, concealed from most people’s view in the cranny  between a compound filing cabinet and the wall, Razor dealt  with altogether another matter.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Why aren’t you talking to  me?”

Dominica refused eye contact. She crossed her arms over  her chest and glared off to her side. Exasperated, he tried  taking her chin and bringing her gaze to him; she set her  jaw and stymied the effort. He released her chin and thought  of another ploy. Lightly, he started to stroke her satin-  furred ears. She hissed and smacked his hand aside, then  returned to her pout. Razor removed his hands from the tiny  Enforcer and sagged against the enormous cabinet, racking  his memory for ways to squeeze out an answer.

“Have I done something wrong?” he ventured. Dominica  narrowed her eyes and darkened, still focused on the wall.  Razor nodded slowly. “I see. Is it the way I acted at the  tarot reading? I’ll understand if you’re mad at me for that.  It’s just that I–”

“Now is not the time to talk about this,” Dominica  hushedly interjected, finally redirecting her glare to him.

“I’m supposed to be figuring how to bring that ship overhead  down and those sentinels from taking over much more of the  city, as should you. Or have you forgotten about that?”

The reddish kat cast his eyes down and accepted the  insult. “I know, and I’m sorry. It just made me wonder what  was wrong when you gave me that look earlier, Nicka. I mean,  seriously, you could’ve curdled milk with that face.” He  grinned weakly at her, but she gave no response. He stood up  from the cabinet and drifted nearer to her. “I only want to  know what’s upsetting you so I can fix it. You *are* the  most important thing to me…” He gathered her up in his  arms and pulled her next to him. As he moved to kiss her,  she sharply turned her head, presenting Razor with a  mouthful of hair. She backed firmly out of his embrace. “We  have a job to do here,” she stated, and hustled out into the  open space.

“Later, then?” he loudly whispered after her.

“Whatever!” she spat back.  Razor waited until he was certain Dominica had reentered  the tech room before he came out himself. He checked the  immediate area for passersby, puzzling over Dominica’s  sudden mood swing while he looked. *What in the world is she  so angry about? This is totally unlike her; even when it was  only Enforcer business that kept interrupting our dates, she  got over it.* He ducked into the crevice as a medic trotted  a little too near the filing cabinet. *She won’t give me any  straight answers, either…which means she’s probably  thinking of ignoring me for a little while until she has it  resolved herself, if she still acts anything like she used  to.* The way all clear, the slender kat emerged in the  sparsely populated sick bay. *I wish she’d come to me when  she has problems, rather than run off… Just because I’ve  taken on this ‘side job’ doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten you,  Nicka.*  He slipped into the claustrophobic tech room and  reabsorbed himself in the blackest corner to oversee. From  there, he saw Dominica again, except in a considerably  better mood. She talked cheerfully with Felina, chatting  about a headache or some other thing like that. He paid less  attention to what Dominica said than to how she behaved.  Razor shrank further into his corner as Callie, the last of  the five, casually entered.

“We don’t want a full-force invasion until all this  alleged information is decoded,” Feral, seated at the glass  table, began, “but we now know enough to make a small  surveillance operation possible. Lieutenant, major – you’re  to select the officers most qualified for this and assemble  a small squadron. Use them to enter from the weak point  we’ve discovered…” He rose and tapped the technician’s  shoulder. Beside him, on a widescreen display, flashed a  partial diagram of the flying fortress. “…right here,  beneath the vertigo device.”

“But isn’t that a bit dangerous?” Felina cut in. “It’s  pointing right at us. I mean, she’s bound to see us coming,  and we’ll be gunning right for her main weapon.”

“We’ve learned security in that section runs in hourly  shifts, so there’s a window of opportunity for us during  that change. If we take off right after the current shift  goes off duty, they shouldn’t become suspicious right away.  You’ll take the carriers with electromagnetic counter- and  counter-countermeasures, so that should take up the slack  once you’re in the air.”

Feral returned to the glass table, but remained standing.

“From aboard the ship, you’re expected to infiltrate their  defense networks, using the salvaged information to do so,  and gradually shut down all communications in conjunction  with regular situation updates. While up there, your tasks  to be completed are: shutting down connections between the  fortress and its ground sentinels, break down security all  around the ship, provide safe means of entry for later  attackers, and do all this while staying out of sight. Can  you handle this, lieutenant?”

“Sure, of course,” accepted Felina. “I’ll start right  away. Come on, Dominica.”

“Remember ‘qualified’ also means ‘female’,” Razor added as  Felina passed the doorway. “The crew was entirely women, so  you’ll be busted in two seconds if they see more guys  running around.”

“I was *getting* to that,” Feral indignantly grumbled.

“But yes, I expect you to fit in once you’ve boarded,  meaning taking only women and outfitting yourselves in the  enemy uniforms. With their apparent number, you shouldn’t be  too conspicuous if you’re cautious. Now, select your squad  and bring them up so they can see the entry point, too.”

Felina and Dominica departed from the tech room, and Razor  came forward from the shadowy corner. The commander,  oblivious, reclined on the glass table and glanced at  Callie. “Does *that* plan meet your approval, then, Ms.  Briggs?”

“Risky, but nice,” she answered.  He frowned slightly, then turned and discovered the SWAT  Kat standing at his side. “And what about you?” he asked  roughly. “Aren’t you supposed to be going after your  partner?”

“Wish I could, but they think I’m dead,” explained Razor.

“I’d blow the mission if they saw me, so I was planning on  helping out down here with the updates.”

“That’s fine,” Callie agreed before Feral could disagree.

“And thanks for bringing us this information, Razor.”

“No problem. Where should I go?”

“We’ll be relocating to the tech room upstairs to accommo-  date the new squad later. It’s the third one on the right  after you get off the stairway,” Feral supplied.  Razor looked at the commander, then replied, “Oh – thanks,  sir!” He jogged out of the closet-sized room.  When Razor had leapt up to the next floor, Callie  gravitated to Feral’s elbow and hiked herself up onto the  tabletop. She crossed her arms and lifted an eyebrow when he  noticed her.

“What?”

“You were actually *polite* to him,” Callie remarked.

“Yes, well…there have been so many uprisings with this  ordeal today, I figured we’d be in a hard place if I didn’t  agree.”

“And?” she prodded.

“And…” he breathed, “…I knew you would have overridden  me if I said no, anyway.”

The diminutive blonde patted the commander on the back.

“Good,” she said, then slid off the table.

———-

“Why do you suppose Commander Feral chose *me* to help  choose the squadron officers, lieutenant? I mean, I would  think that if he had to pick another, it would be Lieutenant  Steele,” asked Dominica while she combed through a list of  female Enforcers. She snatched an incoming list from its  printer and went on, “Do you think he thinks I’m more apt to  make a valuable decision, or that maybe Steele doesn’t have  as much experience? He *did* call me from my day off.”

“Well…” Felina flitted her eyes from the monitor before  her to Dominica. “…To tell you the truth, dear, a lot of  officers just happened to come down with the blue flu today,  which left us understaffed – *that’s* why he called you in.  Plus, we haven’t seen Steele since Turmoil came, and you  walked in during one of my uncle’s worse moods.”

“Oh,” murmured Dominica. Her ears drooped a bit. “I guess  I shouldn’t have assumed, then, eh?”

Felina leaned back and bumped her fist against the small  cat’s arm. “Hey, don’t be too disappointed by it. I’d much  rather work with you than that dipstick any day.”

Dominica smiled, muted, then returned to her lists.

“Thanks,” she acknowledged, and began circling names.  When the pair had picked out enough women for a moderate  squadron and assembled them, Felina and her charge ushered  the fold into the more spacious tech room. Razor had been  awaiting them by the main display and nodded at Felina as  she entered. “And so we meet again,” he hailed her. “What’s  this business about you being the lieutenant already?”

“Let’s say I have my connections, and we’ll leave it at  that,” she slyly replied.

“I *guess*,” he rejoined.  She strode to her place in front of the troop, next to the  vigilante. “Not like the position’s all mine, though – I’ve  had to split it with someone else who has his own set of  connections,” she confided under her breath. She surveyed  the group, then leaned on one hip. “But that’s not impor-  tant; can we see the map?”

“Here you go. Take it away, lieutenant.”

Razor withdrew from the display panel as the skeleton of  Turmoil’s ship flashed on screen. Felina began the  debriefing.

“…And, of course, we’ll be using the ECM/ECCM carriers  to minimize detection. Once it’s opened up, don’t mess  around! Get in _before_ I give the order, and, until we come  upon any unsupervised staff, *stay with the group you came  with*. You’ll diffuse as you find the proper uniforms. Any  questions?” Heads shook. “Great. Move out! We take off at  EXACTLY fourteen-hundred fifty-eight.”

“Good luck, Felina,” added Razor. “We’ll be keeping a  lookout here on the ground.”

While the neo-squad squeezed out of the tech room, Domini-  ca lagged and hesitated near Razor. “You’re not coming?” she  inquired.

“Nope. Gonna make sure nothing happens while you’re gone,”

he answered simply.

“Oh. All right. Well, take care.” She sprinted to catch up  to her teammates, paused to wave at the SWAT Kat, then  barrelled down the hall.  After the petite lady kat had pittered away to another  part of the headquarters, Razor, left to himself, eased into  a padded chair and rested against the long panel. Alone as  he was, the red kat readily gave a relieved sigh.

———-

The team was as efficient as Felina had expected, and in  less than two minutes, two light carrier jets had their  cargo loaded and ready.

“When we get there, you better move in immediately! Nobody  diddle around – anyone caught slowing us down gets tossed  off, you hear me?” Felina reminded her half of the squad.  She abandoned her seat in the back and yanked a transmitter  from the cockpit. “Pick up, Carrier 2. Dominica, you there?”

“All ready, lieutenant,” the slight major’s voice  crackled.

“All right, then. Here.” Felina packed the mouthpiece  against the pilot and returned to the passenger bay. She  gripped an overhead rail and stood in the middle of the  plane. “Twenty seconds to go-time. Brace yourselves,  ladies…”

Twenty seconds vaporized, and the carriers blasted off the  mid-air runway toward the fortress. The lieutenant squeezed  the handrails as the carriers, on full power, angled into a  steep climb.

“Time!”

“Fourteen-hundred fifty-eight and fifteen seconds,” called  the pilot.  The high-tech carriers coasted up and up, and the vertigo  beam’s barrel stared directly at both craft. Felina’s throat  burned, and she gripped the handrail even more tightly,  strangling the blood from her fingers. “Time?”

“Fourteen-hundred fifty-eight and…thirty-nine seconds,”

the pilot reported.  *Shift change’s almost over…* The cannon leered over-  head, then hovered, on top of them, for years. When it  tired of them, it drifted above the cockpit windows and  slinked past the jet’s tail. The carriers floated safely  under and changed to VTOL mode.

“Time!”

“Fourteen-hundred fifty-eight and fifty-two seconds.” The  pilot twisted around in his chair and faced Felina. “Better  hurry up with the can-opener, lieutenant.”

A panel in the roof whisked away, and a member of the  squad, armed with a torch, to burn their way into the ship.

“There’s a service shaft right above us, tall enough for a  woman, but only wide enough for one. As soon as you’re in,  make room,” ordered Felina as the half-squad unbuckled  themselves. She shouted up to the torch-wielder, “Hey!  You’re three seconds behind schedule! You done or what?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the startled recruit answered. She tossed  the torch and slag metal to the carrier floor and scrambled  into the pitlike shaft. The Enforcer shuffled ahead in the  dark as another hoisted herself in with her. “Careful, it  has no lights inside!” the second warned her teammates.

“Thanks, captain,” acknowledged Felina. “Report that to  the second half as well, and tell them as soon as there’s a  branch, we’ll be heading west,” she instructed her pilot.  She leaped up and began climbing out of the plane.  The first carrier dropped out of VTOL and swung into a  drifting crescent path home when its crew had exited. The  second took its place while Felina’s team followed the  tunnel. The lieutenant sidled her way to the front and led  the team a hundred feet farther up the shaft. When she had  crossed that much, Felina’s leading foot hit the ground  sooner than she expected, and she nearly fell on her face.  While she recovered, she cautioned, “Here’s an incline.  Watch it.” She continued on the slope, the way lightening as  she walked.  The corridor flattened into an alcove, lit by a slatted  trapdoor in its ceiling. There was a short ladder anchored  to the wall beneath the door, and walking members of the  enemy tromped above the Enforcers.  Felina checked her squadlet. “Is Major le Normand aboard?”

“Back here!” Dominica answered, shrouded in the darker  incline.

“Good. From here, we’re going out one by one, as we’ll  have less of a risk losing all of us in one go. My crew will  head left, Dominica’s will go right. Ready?”

“Ready!” the full squad whispered.  Felina separated herself from the group and took hold of  the ladder. She pulled gingerly up to the trapdoor, then  peered through the widest of five slats: no one ahead, nor  off to the sides, or at least close to her. With the absence  of bootsteps, Felina delicately lifted the door and slipped  through to a vast, mansion-like hallway.

———-

*He still has yet to find my room…I might as well run  another security check,* thought Turmoil. She ambled into  the canyon of the communications room – the same room she  had first shown T-Bone – and observed the rushing and  jabbering attendants. One panel at the back blinked,  unattended despite the number of officers speeding wildly  past it. She batted her cape out of the way and glided  toward the empty seat.  Above the second of six television monitors, a red bulb  flashed spasmodically, attempting to find someone to see the  image under it. Turmoil leaned nearer to the screen. There,  she saw an Enforcer, specifically the one hybrid officer who  had withstood two attacks of the vertigo beam, assault a  lone guard. The Enforcer removed the guard’s uniform and  passed it off to a follower while handcuffing the guard and  discarding her in a closet. The subordinate then shed her  own uniform, threw it in with the reeling guard, and dress  in the guard’s blue uniform before departing. Other Enfor-  cers began seeping into another monitor, setting off another  red strobe.  Turmoil’s back twitched upright, and she surveyed the  platform for anyone who might have noticed. Everyone around  the displays kept up their frantic relays without even a  stray glance, which left Turmoil to readdress the screens.  *Security’s becoming less efficient in these parts – though  for this, I am more than grateful,* she told herself. The  brunette half-kat leaned over and wrenched out a drawer full  of boxed disks, dated per day as far back as four months.  She withdrew two random boxes while removing two from their  respective slots in the switchboard. Deftly, she deposited  the backdated ones into the board and hid the original two  in the drawer. Turmoil inched the drawer back in with her  foot while resetting the pictures on the monitors. The red  lights ceased their blinking. When the displays met her  approval, Turmoil stood up and put her chair back in its  place.

“Sir!” One of the attendants split from the rush and  breathlessly confronted a bemused Turmoil. “Was anything the  matter, sir?”

“Cameras Two and Six over there were acting up – focusing  on the ceiling and the walls and such. I fixed them, though.  Now, what is so uproarious that would make you all rush  about like this instead of keeping your posts like you  should?”

“Oh! I’m so sorry, sir,” the attendant apologized, bowing  for accent. “I really am. It’s just that it’s been so hectic  with trying to process that SWAT Kat’s registration and  negotiating with the mayor, plus Sylph’s regular check-ins  …I guess security’s been a little overlooked with this  fray going on.”

“Well, see to it that security is *not* a little over-  looked from now on, private. Have you seen Sergeant Guizot  lately?”

“Oh, yes. She’s been the one updating Sylph, sir,” the  private answered.  Turmoil’s darkly-lashed eyes slitted, accompanied by a  subdued growl. The attendant shied away at the reaction, her  own eyes round. “She said she had clearance to answer for  you, sir,” she weakly offered.

“She most certainly does not!” Turmoil retorted in a  shrill voice. She stared into the private’s eyes and  demanded, “When Guizot comes by again, tell her I forbid her  to answer for me at ANY check-ins, and restrain her if she  decides to help herself to any more commanderial duties.”

The leadress stormed off to the walkway. *If she’s been  intercepting Sylph, there is no way to tell how much she’s  twisted the truth…I had better find T-Bone and tell him  all now,* she thought. She half-heartedly called over her  shoulder, “Back to work, private.”

———-

“That was sloppy, people!” Felina hissed at her crew. “A  camera spotted us right as Reilly was leaving, so we’ll be  REALLY lucky if no one noticed. If one of you could keep an  eye out for cameras, that’d help a lot, all right?” She  edged along the marbled wall and squatted at the corner.  With a dental mirror she had stowed in her pocket, she spied  on the next hall. She whispered, “We’re in a group to  maximize the advantage in an ambush, but it seriously limits  our mobility – that’s why you all need to get dressed and  moving *fast.* Okay…here comes another one…”

———-

As insistent as his hostess had been in having him nearby  all morning, T-Bone, standing dumbly in front of a closed  door, wondered where in the world Turmoil was. Since she was  the one who had invited him to her quarters, yet nobody  answered his knocking, the yellow tabby pondered what else  she could be up to, or if she figured he was not up there  yet. While he asked himself these, he also thought of what  she wanted him for, and the more he thought, the more  anxious he became. *Does she suspect anything?* He backed  away as he wondered if he would be convincing enough if he  had to add lies.

“T-Bone, you’re here!” Right as he met the wall, the  sculptured lady in question swept gracefully in at his  right. He nodded briskly and grunted, “Yep.”

“Good, because I didn’t think you would come up right  away.” She produced a green plastic card from her trouser  pocket and whisked it through an electronic lock. “This  makes it much easier for me.”

“Okay,” T-Bone tersely grunted again, clenching his hands  behind his back. The airlock-looking door tucked itself into  the wall, and Turmoil waved toward the port. “Go on,” she  encouraged.  He looked unsurely at the door, then at the expectant  Turmoil. “Er, ladies first, please,” he insisted. *Rather  keep my eye on you than yours on me,* he kept to himself.  She tilted her head to one side, then shrugged, her  epaulets clinking in response. “Whatever makes you happy,”

she acquiesced, and entered before T-Bone.  Her miniature estate bloomed again as he passed the door  frame, and the regal, though elegant, decor closed in on  him. The same upper-class furnishings, which he had not  examined as closely when he changed costumes, introduced  themselves anew: there were the recurring giant picture  windows on the far wall, draped by immense, laced curtains;  the Ionic columns that guarded her lofty marble-shaded walls  at regular intervals, all the way to the anachronistic  doorway. Over to his left, he saw a more simplistic wall  with one door, slightly open – he presumed this must be her  bedroom door, since the bathroom lay on the other side of  the room. Beside the door, between a column and the corner,  an arrangement of fronds sprouted from a tall, pale blue  ceramic vase. T-Bone looked ahead to the windowed wall,  where Turmoil stooped beside a smallish golden panel. Higher  on the wall, offset by the crepe curtains, a grid of plaques  featuring grim, condescending women leered at the waiting  kat. Not one of them revealed any individual thought, nor  fear, nor anger, nor smugness, nor even pride. They were all  devoid of expression, like the flight of fighter pilots he  had encountered. These women looked conditioned to be  unreadable, he thought while searching the plaques, or  perhaps it was an aftereffect of something else.

“That should take care of the security devices trained in  here,” Turmoil murmured to herself as she tapped buttons on  both the panel and an odd-looking amalgamation of a computer  and a desk top. “Though for the life of me, I can’t remember  leaving my desk’s terminal on. Absent-mindedness comes with  age, then, hm?” She stood and smiled pleasantly at T-Bone,  who stared vacantly over her. She stopped smiling, then  looked up to see the plaques. “Oh, *those*,” she muttered,  walking around the desk and to the striped kat.  His attention broke once he realized she was standing  beside him. He asked her, “Who are those?”

“Lieutenants and commanders, past and present,” she  answered, her voice low. She creased her brow as she  continued, “These date as far back as the mid-seventies –  that’s how long Dux Femina Facti has been in operation. I  came in around the mid-eighties, so I am in there too,  somewhere around the middle.” The hybrid wandered away from  him. He watched her glide into the bedroom, where she  remained for a time.

“You sure don’t sound happy about it,” T-Bone commented,  somewhat louder than normal to compensate for her distance.

“Are you all right in there?”

“Yes, I’ll only take a minute. Sit down,” she returned  from out of view.  T-Bone did as he was bade and plunked down on the floor,  which was when he noticed the coffee table and its two  ergonomic chairs before Turmoil’s desk. *Oh – oops,* he  sheepishly thought, then climbed into the nearest one.  *If she’d just been a little more expressive, I’d be able  to tell if she’s figured me out yet; right now, I can’t tell  if she invited me up here to bust me or help me.* He glanced  at the plaques of the blank women. *Whatever this Dux Femina  whatsitsname is, it must have a lot more than MegaKat City  in mind – otherwise, why go to the trouble of having its  crew trained not to change its expressions?* He checked over  his shoulder. Turmoil still had not returned. The kat dug  into his pocket and brought out a set of tiny black  triangles. *I’m going to regret bringing her in, though. She  _is_ pretty fascinating…in a corrupted sort of way. Well,  I made sure I kept these with me…guess I better start  looking for pressure points.*

“Here, I’d like you to have a look at these.” *Whoop,  guess not,* T-Bone thought, jamming the devices back into  his pocket.  Turmoil’s gloved hand dropped a large brown envelope and a  few brochures in T-Bone’s lap. The rest of her flowed around  his chair and gravitated toward the second seat. “My real  name is printed on that envelope, so that should give you an  idea of the trust I’m placing in you.”

He reflexively picked up the envelope and scanned the  address label while Turmoil unfastened her cape’s throat  clasp. The billowy fabric settled sloppily over the other  chair’s back, and the significantly less frightening hybrid  flopped down after it. T-Bone, finished with the label,  stared at her as she tossed her hat to the floor and tugged  off her gloves, which she flung carelessly on the coffee  table as if she were relieved to be rid of them. She then  took a foot in both hands and proceeded to yank off her  boots. When, after the struggle, she had discarded both,  Turmoil propped her bare, clawed feet on the table. She  jolted as she remembered her dumbstruck guest. “You don’t  mind, do you?”

T-Bone, not really in a position to approve or disapprove,  nonetheless shook his head absently and replied, “Not at  all.”

“Thank you. Be grateful men do not have to wear those  horrible things – you don’t know anything about back pain  until you wear stilettos. I’d think with all Sylph’s  feminist ballyhooing, we’d be in flats…but anyway…” She  rested one foot on top of the other and fell deeper into her  chair. “How far are you in reading that?”

Having thus far been marvelling how much smaller Turmoil  appeared without her accoutrements, T-Bone snapped out of  his reverie ungracefully. “I, uh, yeah. I…haven’t started  yet. Couldja gimme a few more minutes?”

“Of course. Read carefully.”

He opened a brochure, but instead of reading, he inquired,

“Excuse me for asking, Turmoil, but is it really necesary to  show me this? I mean, your offers were enough to sign me up,  and I promised I’d be loyal to the cause -”

“T-Bone.” Turmoil removed her feet from the table and sat  up. He looked at her again. The fawn-haired halfbreed across  from him was at least three feet shorter than the vampire of  that morning, and her shoulders were far narrower, more like  a real woman’s, even a girl’s. Her bare hands and feet,  emerging from her ominous burgundy covering, rendered her,  to a degree, exposed, and for the first time since she had  reentered from her bedroom, T-Bone noticed her makeup had  disappeared. Her eyes were still large and lovely, framed in  thick lashes, but they were much less stark. Her lips were a  faded pink instead of blood red, and her whole face had  become approachable – and, as T-Bone looked more deeply into  her eyes, he thought he saw a crinkle or two beginning to  form at the corners. Even her voice had assumed a more  lifelike, though tired, timbre.

“T-Bone,” she repeated with a sigh, “there was never any  cause for you to pledge allegiance, nor any offers to ‘sign  you up.’ You don’t need to cover around me. I *know* you’re  here to sabotage this ship, because I need you to.”

*Watch yourself,* T-Bone mentally cautioned himself. “You  wanted me to sabotage your ship.” She nodded. “So you’re  saying you were planning to betray your company?”

“Yes. I thought if the properly-sized uniform hadn’t given  it away, my overexcitement in having you tour the ship would  have tipped you off sooner. You must have been concentrating  so hard on your real purpose, you didn’t have time to  notice. That’s what I wanted, though.” Turmoil reclined in  her chair again and set her feet on the table, her tail  draped over an ankle. “I _am_ glad you weren’t swayed by  bribery, or else this all would have been just a waste.”

T-Bone watched his companion relax a few seconds longer,  then returned to the brochures, debating furiously with  himself over what she had said. Printed in bold, black  letters on the topmost pamphlet was this:

A SORORITY FOR ALL THOSE SHUNNED,  ABUSED, DENIED, AND DISCARDED BY  THE MALE OPPRESSORS.

*Boy, that Sylph chick really gets to the point fast, I’ll  give her that much,* scowled T-Bone. He unfolded the bro-  chure and ran his eyes over a professional essay entitled

“Dux Femina Facti: A Woman Led the Exploit.” As he read, he  asked Turmoil, “What are you getting out of all this?”

In a thinner, quieter voice, she answered, “This is part  of why I asked you here. Listen to me, because you’re my  primary witness…” She drifted into a trancelike state,  slipping a little farther into her seat, and spoke as if in  her sleep.

“I was sergeant major of the New American Air Force ten  years ago, when I was only twenty-four and, at the time, in  what I and other people thought to be a happy marriage. The  rank had been mine for a solid two years before then, and I  was happy enough in it. After all, there I was, a young,  relatively unknown halfbreed with few connections and no one  but myself for help, and I was partly in charge of Air Force  administrations. And, of course, my placement attracted all  sorts of attention.

“A lot of commanding officers who passed through did  double takes once they learned how high up I was, even  though they tried hard not to be obvious. When I told them  my rank, I practically heard them think, ‘A half-and-half?  What’s this country coming to?’ Most times I let it roll  off, though on more sensitive days, I allowed it to be an  excuse to feel sorry for myself. You see, I incited a lot of  jealousy among the lower officers, especially the much older  ones. There was one in particular who had been asking for  years for a promotion to sergeant major, and he didn’t like  me anyway. When this little girl in engineering suddenly  flew up ahead of him, he made it clear he had sworn himself  my mortal enemy. He tried starting all kinds of rumors to  sway the office against me – which didn’t work, because he  depended too dearly on my having a social life even I  couldn’t afford – and he made threats, which I didn’t bother  reporting because I wanted to cause as little trouble as  possible. He even went as far as tampering with my records  to make it look as if I’d lied about my citizenship. That  landed him with some jail time, but it was later reduced to  a smaller sentence and a fine. He was still angry at me  after that.

“Eventually, in the middle of my second year as sergeant  major, my rival finalized a rather clever plan for his  revenge. It involved a female squad captain – a human built  very delicately, but with a nasty tendency to start huge  fights. This was known only on base, though, and only to  know her by appearance would give the impression of her  being a frail little thing. Also worth mentioning is that a  great amount of important people in the office were human,  too, which must also have played something in his planning.  Anyway, this captain just happened to offer to take me out  for a drink one night, and, being the trusting person I was,  I took her up on it. I drank relatively little, but enough  to wobble my better judgment; she, on the other hand, vir-  tually swam, and it put her in a pretty foul temper. When we  were leaving, she began taunting me out of thin air. She  threw a few light punches into my side, prodding me to fight  back. I refused, of course – she *was* drunk. Still, she  kept up with the baiting, and her punches started getting  stronger. I growled a couple of times for her to quit, and  by then *I* was beginning to lose my temper. Finally, she  rammed her fist so hard into my side that I lost all  rational thought and slashed out at her with my claws. We  were outside the bar at the time, and I had struck so  quickly, I thought I had missed. My claws had nothing on  them, so when she collapsed onto her knees and covered her  face, I thought she was being overdramatic. I knelt next to  her to tell her she had gotten what she deserved when I saw  a dark liquid seeping between her fingers. She uncovered her  face, and I realized what had happened. Word travelled fast  there, and so I was discharged within the hour.

“You understand the logic behind that setup, don’t you?”

T-Bone, suddenly aware that Turmoil was addressing him,  tilted his ears toward her. She continued, “Had she been a  man, I would have been justified in attacking him, and my  rival would have been wasting his time. However, with a  woman, the benefit of the doubt was gone. With a smaller  woman, my attack became ordinary and aggressive assault, and  when the assailant has claws that the victim does not have  the option of using, it becomes aggravated assault, in my  case motivated by bigotry. I was framed into attacking  another creature, and was judged by her kind, not mine. My  rival’s name came up more than once in the captain’s drunken  babbling, so that led me to believe it was his plotting; I  wouldn’t put it past him. My testimony lacked evidence in  regards to hers, and so whatever I did meant nothing.”

*Hard telling whether or not she’s making all this up to  get me to follow her,* T-Bone thought. “So then you became  bitter and joined Dux Femina Facti,” he concurred.

“No, not yet. I had not even heard of them then,” the  brunette breathed. She resettled into her trance. “But I was  bitter, among other things. During my tenure at that posi-  tion, my husband-”

“Was he human, too?”

“Why?”

“Just curious. Was he?”

“No, he was a kat.”

“Oh.”

“Moving on, my husband sometimes offered support, usually  with the stipulation that he’d get something else in return  and rarely because he worried about more than my next  paycheck. He did listen to me when I most needed it, but as  my job and its problems wore on, I saw less of him each  evening.

“The morning I came home, he nearly ran me over on his way  out to his car. He left our front door open in the rush, and  I guessed he was ferrying luggage between there and the car.  As to why, again, I was too trusting to assume the obvious.  Once he noticed it was me staring at him, he froze by the  car, as if my presence there was something totally unexpec-  ted. I then asked him what he was doing, and for five  minutes he just looked at me. Then he came back up the walk  – I remember him kind of shuffling toward me, rubbing the  back of his neck like a child caught doing something he  wasn’t supposed to – trying to explain himself. When he was  at arm’s length from me, he took out a sheet of paper from  his back pocket and held it out to me. I opened it, and he  started saying that my problems weren’t necessarily his  problems, and that I had drifted away from him and that it  wasn’t worth the work for him anymore…”

“He sprung a divorce notice on you?”

“Exactly. With the way I had been used already, plus his  uselessness to me then anyhow, I signed where he very  *readily* pointed out and shoved it back at him, then went  into my house and locked the door.”

*Okay, now she’s gotta be having me on. Nothing that bad  could happen to anybody all in one day,* T-Bone told  himself. He considered the pamphlets. *Well…it’s unlikely.  But it wouldn’t serve her interests to show me her real name  – if something that weird really IS her name – and then lie,  if she’s expecting me to testify for her, would it?*

“By then, I was existing only in a kind of daze, waiting  for the base to decide what sentence to give me. The biggest  parts of my life had gone, and so I haunted more than lived  in my house. It seems longer than it really was, but exactly  three days after the discharge and the divorce, I received  that envelope.

“At first, I thought it was from the base, since my rank  was listed along with my name. But once I saw the return  address, there was Dux Femina Facti’s name, followed by a  phrase in fractured Latin and the slogan, ‘Omnia mutantur,  nos et mutantur in illis.’”

“‘All is changing, and we are changing with it also,’”

mused T-Bone.  Turmoil glanced up at him. “Yes – you speak Latin?”

He waved one of the brochures. “Nah, it just told me in  here. But anyway, you received the envelope, and your name  was on it.”

“Yes. It was not what I wanted, so I neglected reading it  for a few days. My prison sentence notification came a  little while after, so then at least some of the tension  broke. It was then that I started reading all the other mail  I’d put aside, starting with that envelope. When I picked it  up, it felt like a ream of paper had been stuffed inside;  I’d started worrying about it, but I was also eager to know  what kind of non-military group would address me by rank. I  ripped it open and poured it out onto the table. What you’re  holding was among the mess, and the rest were booklets and  pamphlets detailing the history, connections, incomes, and  victories of this place, all headed up by a woman who only  let herself be called ‘Sylph.’ On top of the pile, there was  a typed business letter; I first thought was a form letter  until it described my situation perfectly, down to the  middle initial of the squad captain. Once it proved that  this organization ‘knew my pain,’ so to speak, it set to  work playing on my emotions in order to recruit me to their  cause – and as you see, it worked.” Turmoil focused and  fixed her eyes upon the kat’s. “They *spied* on me, T-Bone.  Through their networks, they located me, along with every  other woman whose case records remotely hinted at something  amiss. When I was the most vulnerable and open to sugges-  tion, they stepped in and sold me a sanctuary. No… an  escape.

“Exactly. Dux Femina Facti is exactly an escape, because  Sylph’s view of reality is fractured, at best. It was stupid  of me not to see it staring me in the face, but that might  as well have been stamped on the front page. But at that  time, I wasn’t as rational as I am now, and it’s just now  that I see what should have turned me off. What were the  first words that popped out at you, T-Bone?”

T-Bone consulted the pamphlets. “‘A sorority for all those  shunned-’”

“‘Discarded and whatever by the male enemy,’ or ‘oppres-  sor,’ or what have you. I remember that. No sane woman would  have kept reading after that, but a scared or self-pitying  woman in an altered state would think she’s finally found a  friend. After I joined, I learned that Sylph wrote all her  propaganda herself; she, if nothing else, is a brilliant  mistress of psychology and timing. She likes to pick out the  best, then wait for the appropriate time to drop the line.”

Turmoil rose from her chair and slinked to a window,  travelling with natural grace without her trappings. She  leaned into the glass, and she watched clouds drizzle past  while her reflection steadily guarded her. T-Bone cast the  paperwork he was ignoring onto the coffee table and ambled  behind her. He paused by her shoulder, hesitant, then also  settled against the window as she resumed speaking.

“The appeals to my skills as an engineer and to my  subconscious desire to avenge myself led me to call the  number on the sheet’s letterhead. Literally as soon as I  hung up, two well-dressed ladies with the Facti insignia on  their lapels knocked on my door. They came in and helped me  gather my belongings, then escorted me out to their car.

“Neither spoke during the drive, not even during the five  times we stopped to change vehicles. We drove out into the  middle of miles of undeveloped land, and we stopped in a  grass field. When we were there, I asked what we were doing,  but all they did was hold my arms to make sure I didn’t  wander from the car.”

“Why’d they do that?”

“Because,” and Turmoil issued a simultaneously amused and  sarcastic chuckle, “both we and the car began to sink into  the ground just then.

“Once the car had descended maybe fifty feet and the  ground had sealed up above us, the escorts hustled me to a  dressing room and ordered me to put on one of my formal  uniforms. They then gave me a map of the complex I’d entered  and pointed out an auditorium on a lower floor. They told me  to go there in half an hour and showed me a rather milita-  ristic security guard who could help me when I was ready,  and then they left. I was horribly confused, and even a  little fearful for my life by then, but I reasoned the  safest avenue would be to learn about what I had gotten into  before doing anything foolish. I dressed as quickly as I  could and hurried to the auditorium.

“On the way, I passed a lot of Victorian architecture and  furniture, which looked really strange next to high-tech  locks and weaponry blueprints. I made it down there just in  time, and a guard led me to a seat among probably hundreds  of other nervous women. Sylph started speaking below, on  stage, when I sat down, and the first thing I noticed about  her was how tiny she was. She was barely visible from where  I sat in the back, and it made me wonder at how someone that  small could lead something as grandiose and scary as what I  had seen. But then I recalled my fiery little squad captain,  and I paid attention.

“I remember her voice sounding bigger and louder than a  lady her size’s should sound, but maybe that was an illusion  created by the things she said. She introduced herself and  started out with an overview of what I’d read, then launched  into her own personal history – about how she witnessed  abuses of women’s rights and listened to female friends  recount tales of the prejudices they’d suffered – and how  seeing such evils take place motivated her to use her wealth  to empower victims, to help them ‘pay back’ whoever had hurt  them. Her stories were convincing, the way she told them,  centering on women like us – that was the key part, ‘like  us,’ – who bore the problems of slanted pay, harassment,  violence and unfaithful husbands and a number of worse  things, and the fact that they had to hold it all in without  a chance at an outlet. With that, she already had our  sympathies, so then Sylph began replacing the women in those  stories with *us*.

“She worked about five of our backgrounds into her speech,  mine included. Each time a new recruit realized she was  being talked about, her posture took on an air of eagerness  and authority, as if she had been recognized for her  stoicism in her particular situation. The others would look  upon her and learn that the problems Sylph targeted were  real, because there was a veteran sitting right in their  midst. In this way, Sylph built up a sort of desire to  avenge ourselves and our sisters, like a kind of proud and  wounded nationalism. The same trick applied to me too, I’m  sorry to say – as she lauded me for my patience in such an  unfair world, she massaged my ego while proving she was the  only right, as far as the rest of us were concerned. All my  doubt was erased, and I was converted. Not once did it enter  into my mind, nor anyone else’s, that her stories were  generic, and as such could have been inflated to suit her  purposes. Instead, we allowed a strong voice and carefully-  chosen words wash us into a ridiculous plot to twist the  world into our control, supposedly making up for our  troubles in it. Looking back, I feel so sorry for the women  who had the real problems, because they received even more  insanity rather than understanding. Most likely, I suspect  they became as fanatic as she is as she fed them more gross  exaggerations.”

“Now wait a minute,” interrupted T-Bone. He placed a hand  on her shoulder, and she gazed a bit vapidly up at him  before she came back to the present. He said, “If her  stories are as generic as you’re making them sound, then how  could they have moved so many women at once? They obviously  had to happen to *some*body to be so believable.”

“Of course they did. Unfortunately, some of them happened  to EVERYbody, men as well as women. One of these shocking  tales involved a woman who was continually denied a job,  allegedly because her interviewers noticed she was female  and therefore inferior.”

“Sounds unfair to *me*,” said T-Bone.

“By itself, yes, but don’t you notice a significant lack  of detail in it?” Turmoil interjected. “Sylph purposefully  left out bits and pieces of her stories that she knew would  weaken or even moot her point. She fed us a vague story that  a crowd of injured and angry women could accept as an  affront to our sex. Did that woman have a complete, reliable  resume? Not said. Did she try to look professional, or did  she show up at all her interviews looking like a haystack?  Sylph didn’t say. Did she finally find a job, but later  leave because she didn’t like to work? Did she put forth an  intellectual persona? Or was she so lazy, she gave up after  a few lukewarm interviews and applied for welfare instead?  Sylph never bothered with anything that ‘trivial.’ She never  even specified the number of interviews, which, in my  opinion, would have helped make her point, if she really had  one. Instead, all she said was ‘interview after interview’  and the like – it was probably only one or two, which would  explain why she left something that important out.”

“But still…at least some of the stories must have been  real…”

“I’m not saying this one or the rest aren’t. I’m saying  Sylph manipulated them into distorted half-truths to  supplement her view that the world is an evil entity bent on  keeping womankind demure and subservient, which it’s _not_.  She knew that a masterful liar does not need the whole truth  to speak powerfully.”

“Are you sure you’re not trivializing the things that  could’ve happened to these women? How do *you*, in your  jaded state of mind, know that you yourself aren’t twisting  what Sylph told you into something that benefits your *own*  cause?”

Turmoil waited a moment. “I admit I’m telling you all this  through a very biased viewpoint, but I can assure you that  beneath the remarks and the revulsion, everything is  truthful,” she confided. “I know I can’t tell you what  Sylph, or anyone else besides myself, was really thinking at  any given moment, and I can’t tell you what anyone besides  myself experienced. I can only tell you my side of what  happened. With other information you’ll find in records and  files you pirate, hopefully you’ll agree with me that Sylph  is a megalomaniac.”

“Oh, I have no doubt of *that*,” he quickly amended. “It’s  you and your causes I’m worried about. After all, up here,  my life’s in probably more danger than yours.”

“I am a prisoner here, and I want out of a trap that I was  lured into,” she continued. “You’re the only way out I’ll  have, and so you must believe in me, or at least what I have  to say.”

T-Bone stared out of the picture window at the late sun,  his whiskers twitching as he thought. Turmoil noticed his  hand, still resting on her shoulder, and lightly placed hers  over it.

“It still sounds to me like maybe you’re refitting what  was said to support your own motives, but, like you said,  your story is the only one you’ve got. So far, it also  sounds like a more likely plot for your taking me aboard  than the one you gave Sylph, given the way she and that  Guizot lady acted,” T-Bone acceded. “And I’m interrupting.  So Sylph’s brainwashed you. Now what?”

“Thank you,” Turmoil quietly said, giving the kat’s hand a  gentle squeeze. He removed it from her shoulder without  reaction, and she likewise let her hand drop. “Having  applied her tragic deserving to all of us, Sylph let loose  the stinger: she charged us as one under her to take back  our collective dignity. Of course, we ate that part up after  hearing all the reasons we should. If nothing else, Sylph  knows emotion. She asked us if we were strong enough, smart  enough, brave and all that, to which we shouted back we  were, louder with each adjective. When we were whipped up to  the point where we’d start trampling each other if she  didn’t wrap it up, she concluded, and I quote: ‘I know the  outrages we as a people have kept submerged for fear of  punishment, because I have lived it all through you! Through  you, and you through me, all women will reclaim a world that  betrayed them, and you will be their heroes! The saints and  martyrs of our kind are reborn in you – ask not why, but ask  how you will save your sisters from their predators!’”

“That’s what she actually said.”

“Yes. You don’t forget something like that. *I* was  impressed, to understate it, and most of the auditorium  burst into applause. We all left in an awed trance, making  it simple for the guards outside to herd us down to the next  floor. Before I went through the door, though, Sylph  appeared right behind me and pulled me aside. As she sized  me up, I saw her in full for the first time – the dark  curls, fragile complexion, childlike limbs, compared to my  more Nordic proportions – dressed in the same costume I’m  wearing now, as she had yet to feel like she had to  distinguish herself from her underlings. She sighed as she  finished, fixed her cold, light eyes on mine, then took one  of my hands and said, ‘I can tell already you’re going to be  one of my favorites, sergeant major. Your talents and your  mind – maybe even your looks, too – will take up a space in  myself that I’ve been looking to fill for a while now.’ I  can’t remember whether I was flattered or disturbed, but I  did feel looked after when she told me that. She’d told me I  was appreciated, and I’ll admit it felt good after what I’d  been through.

“We all underwent a physical and mental training period in  the weeks that followed, conditioning our bodies to their  peak capabilities as we had our minds molded to fit Sylph’s  own. All the while, Sylph doted on me like a mother,  praising me when I was successful and fussing over me,  making sure I understood what I learned and asking how the  staff treated me, things like that. All over the fifteen-  mile complex, her affections made me a respected and  resented celebrity, not unlike what I had been in the Air  Force. This time, though, I *liked* the attention; I had  come by my own choice and found acceptance in the highest  authority on reputation alone. If I was good enough to have  the leader ‘adopt’ me as her daughter, then I was good  enough to lord it over everybody else, I thought. My rank  climbed rapidly until I became one of her crew of esteemed  commanders, worthy of a codename.

“There are about ten select commanders who head the  tactical wing of Dux Femina Facti. As the seek-and-confront  agents, the commanders, who negotiate with governmental  figures and speak for their fellows, appear the most in the  open. As such, they have to allow all legal records of their  existence to be masked from all but the company and take up  a codename in their place. This is purely security, since,  if a conquest recognizes one of us and tries to arrest her,  it can’t, because a warrant can’t be issued for someone who  technically doesn’t exist. We essentially give up everything  that says we’re alive, which would be terrible if we were  not receiving total control over pure power in return. To  command this kind of weaponry – precision jets, perfectly  synchronized troops, and, most recently, an air fortress  whose defenses can reduce cities like this one to a crater –  is the highest goal for all soldiers.

“All commanders are chosen on the basis of how much they  have contributed. Some have been around since Dux Femina  Facti was founded, some have been steady contributors of  time and money, others have forged new bonds with businesses  while keeping the old ones healthy. I am the first recruit  in their history to have become a commander before age  thirty, thanks to the advances I made in their attack and  defensive forces.”

“Like the vertigo beam?”

“Yes. Back before I decided I wanted to be a turncoat,  that was my most favorite creation. I used to think only I  was genius enough to think to use electromagnetic waves as a  disorientation weapon…even though I had taken the idea  from tested and failed models in the Air Force. That M-24  turbine you saw came from designs I had stolen earlier,  while I was still a neophyte devotee.”

“Your idea?”

“Partly…I think I took advantage of my prior knowledge  of government then-secrets as an example of my faith. When I  first had the idea, I must have wanted to show Sylph I could  earn my keep and more with her. So I stole probably hundreds  of designs from bases all over the world, on everything from  jet engines to laser rifles and whatever else caught my eye,  and then applied my talents to each to add to our arsenal.  It was then my responsibility to realize the means Sylph had  really wanted in taking over the world. She promoted me soon  after I invented the vertigo beam, and she sent me to  supervise construction on the airship I’d eventually serve  on. That was five years ago. She’s just now begun releasing  fortresses to major cities worldwide.”

“What made you want to betray her, then?” T-Bone asked.  Turmoil met his eyes. “Sounds like you had it made there.  You were finally getting the recognition you wanted,  c’rect?”

“Well–yes, but…”

“So, even if you don’t like how Sylph’s working, what’ve  you got to complain about? You’re in power, you’re in her  good graces…”

“But what she’s doing is without purpose!” Turmoil  exploded, balling her fists for emphasis. “She’s insane!  She’s tricking women into throwing their lives away for  something completely inside her head!”

T-Bone nodded sagely, then gazed out at the sky again. “So  this decision to take me on board to cover your sabotage  came up just recently?”

“No. The decision to defect from Sylph came from a long  debate with myself over why I was there. And you’re not  covering my anything. You’re a much-needed piece in my  escape, not just camouflage. I no longer wish to be a part  of this. I’ve committed too many crimes by accepting Sylph’s  lunacy, and that’s why I’m asking you to help me atone – by  letting you know the way women like me are sucked in and  manipulated. That’s perhaps the worst evil I need to right.  The activities that sustain Dux Femina Facti are more the  crimes of that madwoman’s fantasies than of the women who  perform them for her.”

The fawnhair departed the window and crept back to her  seat. The kat remained by the glass but faced her, folding  his arms and resting with his back to the window. With a  miniscule whimper, she reverted to her feet-on-the-table  position and closed her eyes.

“Where’s all the money to build those stolen designs  coming from?” T-Bone prodded.

“Once I ascended to commander, everything was open to me.  I could look up anything I wanted, and I had asked that same  question before. No mere lackey could know that sort of  thing, as grunts have been historically been denied know-  ledge to keep them at work. But that was the first thing I  checked into when the other commanders presented me with  their passwords. That, and how they find their recruits.”

“What’d you find?”

“First off, I found that what I had hypothesized about  their recruiting procedures was, in fact, true: From the  second her birth certificate enters government databanks,  Dux Femina Facti traces a woman’s entire documented life.  Every woman, from any country in any continent in the world,  is watched and noted, especially if she excels. If she’s had  a history of things working against her, as evidenced in the  records of lawsuits, news reports, and sometimes observa-  tions of field spies, then she becomes a target. When an  event that leaves her vulnerable to suggestion, like a messy  divorce or the loss of a job, occurs, she receives a package  that advertises the vengeance she’ll reap if she joins. One  would think being so haphazard would expose Sylph in no  time, or that someone might refuse, but the way it’s all  presented and the time at which it comes are so perfectly  measured it’s impossible to resist. Take me, for example.  Those who refuse are either further convinced, or exter-  minated under the pretense that she could never have been a  true female.”

“And the funding?”

“The most ironic part, considering Sylph’s ‘mission.’  Stupidly enough, I had always assumed it was Sylph’s own  wealth, since I knew she was rich. Instead, I learned women  who had left the real world with cozy ties to important  business kept them, contributing to the company in secret  and their personal data left open to that business for trade  alone. Specially-appointed business consultants also meet  regularly with the heads of other contributors, usually  masquerading as smaller business owners or labor suppliers.  From thence comes our funding, and the bank deposits the  money to pseudonymous accounts without ever suspecting  anything. What the outsiders have in return is a ready-made  market – us -, insurance that their product will sell the  best – by our preventing other brands from reaching shelves,  either by bribery or by plain hijacking -, labor from us,  depending on what the product is, and secrets from  competitors, stolen by us. A fair trade by Facti standards,  giving in return for favors.”

“That sounds an awful lot like the Cosa Nostra t’me,”

commented T-Bone.

“It does indeed; our influence sways markets in all  developed countries. Money comes in, our preferences and our  twisting of the outcomes go out.”

“So, if Sylph, using agents, already has that strong a  push in the global economy…”

“Then she, in effect, *_already_ rules the world*,”

finished Turmoil. “She’s fulfilled her want for crushing  male power for more than twenty years now. When that became  clear to me, I realized that constructing a special assault  force was redundant. We already had the world firmly in our  grasp, so physically attacking it is contradictory. My logic  for the past five years turned into nonsense. Once that woke  me up, I looked much more closely at everything Sylph had  ever said to me, and that was when I concluded she was  absorbed in psychosis. It became obvious every threat she  described was imagined, and all her motivations were trash,  only fit for the tabloids. You saw how she reacted to your  presence. Do you think that’s how a sane woman would act  around men?”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” puzzled T-Bone. He returned  to his seat and fell in it. “A reaction that extreme has to  have something more to it. To have set her off like that,  something terrible must have caused her to hate men.”

“That’s just it, though,” Turmoil gently responded.  Nothing has happened to *her*. She’s internalized all the  news stories and sensationalistic garbage she’s ever heard.  She’s had the most charmed life of any of us, never having  any of the problems she so vehemently decries, and she never  thinks of the women whose problems she’s worsening. She does  not *know* what she wants, and her misconceptions have  ruined all our lives. Somehow, the memories of the things  she had read fused with her memories of herself, and she  used those to create a past that never happened. Eventually,  she went so far over the edge that she used that false past  to justify a morbid obsession with obliterating the mascu-  line status quo.”

“But why?”

“She’s just plain nuts. At the time of my epiphany, I did  a very taboo thing to decide whether or not my mentor really  was crazy – I broke into her own records. It turned out she  was once a harmless eccentric heiress, strongly feminist and  very proud of her high intellect. She was also on prescrip-  tion drugs to suppress an acute paranoia. When she inherited  her fortune, she stopped taking the medication, I presume  because she felt she had come into her own and didn’t need  her mind altered anymore. Well, without that safeguard, her  brain came unglued, and her previously healthy feminism  erupted into an all-consuming hatred for anything  reminiscent of males. She strove for symbolism in her  surroundings, adapting Victorian architecture and Latin  phrases to communicate with her peers. Both, supposedly, are  to serve as reminders of her cause, since both eras were  reputedly hard on women’s rights. Her life soon rotated  around her bizarre craving for a wholly unnecessary revenge,  and so she assembled a group of her closer friends and had  them vow to help her make the world a safer place for her  kind. The rest is the proverbial history.”

“Wow. Were you caught?”

“Of course not,” laughed the lady. “If I had been caught,  I wouldn’t be alive and talking to you today. I’m still her  favorite ‘child,’ which makes it easier to distract her.  However, there are others with whom I hold less favor.”

“Guizot?”

“Hm?”

“That Guizot lady. She doesn’t look like the most  trustworthy she-kat I’ve ever met,” explained T-Bone.

“Her. Yes, she wanted to be a commander and had been  asking for a promotion years before I came. I shot past her,  and she’s tried ever since to dethrone me,” muttered  Turmoil.

“Just like your rival in the Air Force.”

“Just like him, but if my life history repeats itself  I’ll end up not only imprisoned but dead this time. Staying  hidden for so long depends on keeping leaks plugged. Any  potential danger is eradicated as soon as possible, usually  within hours. I can’t make my escape obvious, or else I’d  undo everything I’ve planned to resolve. I had to take  advantage of my being dispatched here to provide cover – I  could take a hostage and pretend to be serving the company’s  purposes while hiding my ulterior motives. That means your  trust in me, and your agreement to help me, is what will  save or kill me.

“There have been two defectors before me whose disappear-  ances were explained away to the lower workers as natural  causes – you stay within all your life – but I plan to  survive long enough to bring this into the open.”

She picked herself up out of the chair and stretched her  arms high over her head, then walked slowly, processionally,  to her desk. The half-kat leaned on her arms and stared into  the glossy top. “The point of all this was to let you know,  from an actual participant, what really goes on past safe-  robbery and air raids. I want you to start on the way to  incarcerating Sylph and preventing her from kidnapping any  more women…and I need to pay for what I’ve done, not just  here but in the Air Force, too. With this in mind, you have  free run of the ship to collect any piece of evidence you  think vital. If anyone tries to block you, tell them you  have my clearance. While you’re gathering, I’ll be putting  my personal information and the restricted information  together–” She reached over the top and pulled out a lap  drawer, from which she plucked and held up a miniature  recorder, “–and making sure this recorded everything.” She  mashed a button on the machine’s side and replaced it inside  the desk.  The stripy kat hauled himself out of the desk chair and  padded behind it, marking Turmoil as he went. He breathed  out loudly and looked first at the door, then out to the  setting sun. *She’s been able to support her claims  unwaveringly. There’s no real reason for me to think she’s  lying now – the papers I saw substantiate her story, too…  they sound as nationalistic as she said. She wants me to  save her, but either way, she’s gonna go down.* He watched  the first moon rise, mulling over this. *The question is…*  He caught himself there. *Nah. There’s no question.* He  looked back at her; she had turned around to him.

“Well, with that, then…” T-Bone announced, “…about  when should we call the authorities?”

———-

The second the pilot kat asked when to call the police,  Guizot ripped the plug to her earphones out of the wall  adapter and scanned the hall for passersby. Checking to make  sure Turmoil’s door did not pull back and blow her cover,  Guizot jiggled a vent grate out of the floor and wedged  herself in just before T-Bone walked out of the quarters.  She listened to his steps echo off the metallic corridor and  fade, punctuated by the hydraulic hiss of the closing door.  The lieutenant held her breath and waited for Turmoil to  follow, even though she had told the kat she would be  staying. *Best not to risk anything,* reasoned Guizot. When  five minutes had retreated, so had the threat of being  discovered. Guizot slithered back into the walkway and  painstakingly replaced the grate, pushing in the earlier-  loosened screws enough to prevent a stray glance. She gave  the corridor a last look, then draped the earphones over her  shoulder and hurried to the bridge.

“What is it this time, Lieutenant Guizot? You look awfully  pleased with yourself – I hope you weren’t doing anything  illicit.”

Guizot, barely able to contain herself, stood at a shaky  attention before a widescreen monitor. Sylph’s china-doll  face glowered at the redhead as she slipped the earphones  off her shoulder and plugged them into a socket on the  control panel. She readdressed Sylph’s image and nodded.

“Sir, I can now prove beyond any doubts that Turmoil is,  in fact, the traitor I’ve been telling you she is for the  past three years,” Guizot victoriously announced. “Here–”

“No!” The subordinate jumped at the barked syllable. Sylph  blazed at her, then growled, “If you’re just here to try and  tattle on her again, I’ll demote you to janitor! This  vendetta you’ve waged against Turmoil is clouding your  judgment, Guizot. Insubordination? Usurping the duties of  your commander just to make a point which, might I add, is  only in your imagination? Your antics have gone from  slightly annoying to criminal, lieutenant–”

“‘Sergeant’ is the title your pet uses for me, sir,”

interrupted Guizot. “Did you say the point I’m making is  only in my head?”

“I most certainly did. Why?”

“Funny; I overheard Turmoil say the same thing about you.”

“You lying, backstabbing little peon.”

“Right now, I’m uploading incontrovertible evidence as to  her scheme, given in her own words to the male pilot she  took on board this morning. It’s much more convincing than  anything *I* could tell you myself. It should be all there  in a few minutes.” Sylph maintained a revolted scowl, but  said nothing. “In the meantime, I’ll show you something else  potentially useful. Lewis, display Private Jennings’s post  at quarter-screen, main bridge monitor.”

“Aye, sir,” a voice from the intercom responded. At the  monitor’s lower left corner, a blonde, burgundy-suited  attendant absently minded a set of security screens. Guizot  unhooked a radio transmitter and clicked it. “Hey,  JENNINGS!”

The blonde whipped her head around in several directions,  then, realizing it was her intercom talking to her, flipped  a switch off screen. “Yes, sir?” she squeaked.

“Was the commander in your communications bay a few hours  ago?”

“Yes, sir. She was checking on security and said she had  fixed Cameras Two and Six at my post, sir.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” commented  Sylph.

“I’d like you to watch Camera Two, private – and patch us  through while you’re at it.”

“Okay…” The lower right corner of the main screen  changed into the view from the security camera. A single  guard leaned against the wall in an otherwise vacant  walkway.

“Do you see this, sir?” asked Guizot.

“See WHAT? The hall’s empty. Are you trying to make an  idiot of yourself, or is it only by accident, sergeant?”

Sylph snarled.

“Look.” The private, the redhead, and Sylph concentrated  on the grainy, blue-and-white image as an officer walked on  camera.

“That’s…” Jennings spoke.

“That’s you, Jennings. Apparently, the security tapes have  been looped, sir – unless our recruits are now being trained  in bilocation,” Guizot smugly revealed. “Back to work,  Jennings.”

“Sir.” The attendant and her tape blinked off, and a  baffled Sylph stared at Guizot.

“That tape should be fully loaded by now. How about a  listen?”

Silent and unsure, Sylph held eye contact with Guizot as  she picked up a headset of her own. The woman in the ivory  uniform cast her eyes up while she listened to the bugged  conversation between Turmoil and T-Bone, then her eyes  darted to the side. She fast-forwarded to another part. She  bit her lip and knit her eyebrows, then fast-forwarded  again. For the next ten minutes, Sylph listened and ran  through the tape forwards and backwards, paling with each  remark. Guizot grinned broadly and rocked on her heels.  Eventually, Sylph removed the headset, put it out of view,  and covered her mouth with one hand, her eyes closed.  Guizot called, “Was I right?”

Sylph breathed deeply and kept her gaze from the  lieutenant. “Wipe that stupid grin off your face and bring  me Turmoil, Guizot,” she ordered weakly.  Guizot’s self-important smile condensed into a placid  smirk. “Aye, sir,” she replied.

———-

The last Enforcer to find a disguise, Felina tugged and  re-adjusted the too-snug uniform over her athletic frame,  while the suit’s original owner wrestled with her bonds. As  Felina peered out the heavy metal door of her closet, four  guards swung around the far right corner and hiked straight  for her. She hopped out of the thin shaft of light as they  filed past, then waited for them to turn at the coming  corner. When the guards had stomped away, Felina screened  the corridor again and darted out, closing the door behind  her. She struck out at a fleet march to blend in, though the  halls were strangely empty. Once she passed the second  junction, she depressed a concealed headset to catch her  bearings.

“Base, come in,” she whispered.

“Right here, Felina,” came Razor’s voice. “What’s  happening?”

“I’ve travelled about twelve blocks west of the entry  point, and I just came out of a maintenance closet,” she  answered. “Is there anything nearby?”

“Hold on a second.” Felina marched past another inter-  section while Razor searched their confiscated maps. “Here  it is. Five blocks south of that closet is a minor records  room. Turn right at the next corner and walk up that far,  and you should find a black, raised plaque sticking out of  the wall a bit – that’s where the door’ll be.”

“Does it have any comm things in it?”

“Can’t tell, but it’s worth a look anyway.”

“All right. Thanks, Razor,” she accepted.

“Oh! One more thing,” added the kat. “What time do you  have?”

Felina turned up her left wrist. “It just turned nineteen-  hundred fifty-eight hours. Are they changing shifts?”

“Should be. Be extremely careful,” warned Razor. “If you  get there fast enough, you can stand in for the real guard,  and you can–”

“Punch her out when she comes?” Felina finished,  hopeful.

“Uh, no. I was going to say you could tell her she’d been  relieved from duty, since that would cause less of a stir,  but if you come after she has–”

“*Then* can I punch her out?” she cut in again.

“–then you can still tell her she’s been relieved,” Razor  corrected.

“But if she’s still running around, someone’s going to  notice she’s not on duty. If I knock her out, I’ll get rid  of that chance,” Felina whined as she turned south. *Maybe  her suit’d fit better, too,* she thought, stretching the  back seams.

“As big as that ship is, she’ll probably wander off to her  quarters, or the hangar, or whatever social gathering-type  place that they have before anyone sees her,” Razor  explained. “Don’t worry; it’ll buy you enough time to do  what you need. We’re sending more, remember?”

A dulled growl rumbled in her throat. “Can’t I just kick  her a little?”

“No!”

“Not even a sleeper hold?”

“Not even that much.”

“Hmph.” She passed the fifth expanse and peeked sullenly  into the walkway. “Feral out, then.” The slick black  signpost emerged from the opposite wall, fifty feet farther  down than the Enforcer. Alone, Felina sauntered for it and  came to a stop before its featureless door.  *Uh oh,* she thought. *It must have a security device near  it somewhere – there, in the plaque.* She squirmed her hands  into her pockets, wincing at the tightness. *Must have a key  in here someplace…*

“Hey, what’re you doing?!”

Felina looked up at the call and saw an approaching  guardswoman. “My watch is now, isn’t it?” said the real  officer.  Felina flicked her eyes down to the floor, then back up to  the guard, who was now beside her. The impostor put up a  hand to wave the guard off and told her, “That’s okay.  You’ve been relieved.”

The guard put her hands on her hips and stared irritatedly  up at Felina. “Well, yesterday I asked to have some time  off, and that’s not what you said *then*.”

“Oh.” The Enforcer glanced awkwardly at the walls, still  standing in front of the door. She scanned the ceiling and  the marble walls, made eye contact with the perplexed guard,  and let her fist speed into the unsuspecting young woman’s  face. The guard crumpled onto the tiled floor without a  sound, and Felina rummaged through the felled officer’s  pockets. She recovered a yellow plastic card and fed it into  the plaque. When the door whished aside, Felina grasped the  guard by the collar, slogged her in, and followed. She  regarded the watchwoman, who was slack-jawed, limp as a  ragdoll, and bleeding a little from the nostrils. *Just some  risks that aren’t worth taking,* she shrugged. Felina  handcuffed her to a metal pipe sprouting next to the  doorjamb, then took in her new surroundings. Literature –  hardback and softcover, thick volumes and flimsy catalogues  – crammed closely but neatly within stainless steel  bookcases, lined the softly-lit concrete room at diagonals  to their walls. Felina held her arm out to avoid bumping  into the dangling lamp, then noticed a ladder welded into  the far wall, at the end of the middle aisle. It led up into  the darkened ceiling, and she squinted to identify a wheel-  locked trapdoor.

“I’m in the records room,” she reported.

“Where’s the guard?” Razor’s voice inquired.  She checked the lump of a woman on the ground. “I sent her  off.”

“You didn’t get violent, did you?”

“‘Course not! I was reasonable,” she defended.

“Good. What’s it look like?”

“Pretty low-tech,” she began her report. “Just a lot of  books. No computers, no communications or monitors or  anything like that.” The ladder came up to her, and she  reached up it and stared at the trapdoor. “Should I be  looking for anything in particular?”

At Enforcer Headquarters, Razor, abandoning his chair,  leaned over the flashing controls and studied screens  swarmed over with maps and text. He flattened a headset over  his unhelmeted ears while examining a relevant display.

“Hang on,” he stalled. The reddish kat covered the  mouthpiece and hailed one of the in-house operators. “What  else’s been decoded? Do we know yet?”

The operator held up his index finger as he punched a  litter of buttons, then pointed to a screen between them.

“Screen Fifteen!” he announced.

“Thanks,” Razor acknowledged. “Let’s see…it looks  like…”

“…Rosters and case files on new recruits – as far as can  be told from the awful Latin on the label – and the  frequencies and codes used in all types of their comm  systems,” Callie stated. Razor turned and watched the deputy  mayor, trailed by the commander, as she entered the tech  room and joined him at the panel. She wheeled his empty  chair over to his right, seated herself, then plugged in her  own headset. “That’s what we’ve just recently decoded. This  is Lieutenant Feral, isn’t it?” she asked. Razor nodded.

“There’s a ladder right here. Want me to go up?” Felina  queried from the ship.

“Not yet,” said Razor. “Could you take a look at some of  those books first?”

“Where is she?” Feral, poised behind them both, asked.

“A records room,” Razor answered. “She says it’s only full  of books, though.”

“That’s pretty incongruous with all the electronic crud  we’ve run across,” mused the commander. “Or maybe that’s  where they keep all their written reports until they can  transfer them to their computers.”

“Hey, *base!*” The three fixed their attention to the  talking radio in unison. “Here’s what one of the catalogues  says: ‘Post 12 intercept successful; SAF shipment 12/17/97  discarded, replaced with OYE. Godiva closed with Merrickson  at 520 K, profit 0.3%. Appointment with Merrickson by  1/31/98 confirmed.’ It’s all handwritten in shorthand, then  it goes on with a chart of numbers with the labels ‘pay-  roll,’ ‘maintenance,’ ‘R&D,’ ‘jet construction costs,’  ‘materiel costs,’ ‘courtesy fees,’ and ‘profit total.’”

The SWAT Kat glanced at the commander and deputy mayor for  their reactions. Both were wordlessly concentrating on the  names and abbreviations, and they returned the kat’s glance  with the same question.

“Keep it with you. It’s definitely a business chart, so we  might be able to use it in case we need evidence for any  other charges,” Razor decided.

“Okay. I’m going up now – out,” Felina responded.

“That set of disks is almost finished, but it seems kind  of pointless now,” Callie remarked offhandedly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the other two demanded.

“Well, think: Turmoil’s been here all day, but what has  she done since she came? Sure, she has officers patrolling  the city on the ground, and they’ve successfully frozen  businesses and kept people inside, but they haven’t done  anything else. The mayor and I’ve been drawing up lists of  compromises for hours now, but we haven’t had a call from  her since noon. If she *really* wanted the reins to MegaKat  City, don’t you think she’d be inside City Hall, haggling  for them herself?”

“Not necessarily,” disagreed Feral. “There have been  dictators who’ve conducted everything from a distance. She  has security to worry about, after all.”

“Yeah. Who’s to say Turmoil’s not just giving us ‘til  tomorrow before she launches a full attack?” added Razor.

“Even so, what’s the point in flying to the center of the  city you’re going to conquer if you’re not even planning on  coming out of your ship? I thought *all* evil invaders liked  to gloat over their catches personally,” Callie countered as  she coiled the headset’s cord in her fingers. “It’s just  better business to have somebody consorting with your  associates in person – it gives a good impression. And  besides that, here’s a question for you: How do you think  one should go about making sure large amounts of money make  it all the way into one’s account?”

“Check with the bank while it’s being done?” ventured  Razor, leaning closer to Callie.

“Right. Do you think she’s thought of that?”

“Didn’t she?”

“A hundred and fifty million in gold bullion’s been  compiled at the First Bank downtown already, but nobody from  her ship’s been down to oversee it. It wouldn’t be smart to  rely on fear alone to ensure your subjects follow orders –  how would Turmoil know we aren’t holding out on her without  someone to keep us in line? How does she know we haven’t  rigged the load with a bomb?”

Feral and Razor looked at each other, each not quite sure  how to justify the last questions. The blonde unensnared her  fingers and dropped the headset onto the panel. “Gentlemen,  I think our extortionist is bluffing.”

———-

The hangar stretched beyond the invisible barrier, the sky  lending its last swatches of coral and gold through the  opening to the fuzzy lights in the bay. The Turbokat’s black  finish glowed with a cherry hue, whereas the horde of enemy  jets’ flat paint absorbed the colors. Service attendants and  pilots in shadow passed between the craft, ignorant of the  sunset display. Having then completed most of the necessary  work of that evening, T-Bone absently witnessed the scene as  he contemplated his missing partner’s whereabouts.  *I wonder why he hasn’t contacted me yet?* he thought.  *Unless he’s stuck somewhere, he knows better than to leave  me hanging for eleven hours…Maybe, if he is stuck up here,  he thought he’d get out and start working on the defenses  before giving away that he’s here. That’d be more like him –  making certain the job’s done before taking any risks.* The  yellow tabby rested his elbow against one of the diagonal  supports. *If he’s here.*

“You need in, sir?”

“No, thanks, ma’am. I’m just looking at–” The voice  registered in T-Bone’s memory, and he faced the guard to  learn if she really was who it sounded like.

“Major Feral?” he eventually asked. *If she’s here, Nicka  must be, too,* he involuntarily recalled.

“‘Lieutenant,’ thanks,” she corrected, crossing her arms  over a thin batch of booklets. “We just keep meeting in the  darnedest places, don’t we?”

Less surprised by the change in rank than a certain  personal detail, T-Bone reached and took hold of her left  ear tuft, causing Felina to pull a few inches away from him,  though a second too late. “What do you think you’re doing?”

she protested.

“It’s white,” observed the kat.

“Oh, yeah. That. The dye finally came out,” Felina  elucidated while batting T-Bone’s hand from her face. “So  now that we’ve cleared all that up, how come you’re not with  Razor?”

“I thought he was still up here,” contradicted T-Bone,  with an ear swivelled rearward.

“Nope. He said he was thrown off the ship and then picked  up by Kats’ Eye News, and they brought him over to  headquarters. He’s been giving our team orders for hours  now,” Felina informed him.  Relief overcame him. *At least he’s safe on the ground…  except now I have to worry about him and Feral.* “Can I see  your radio for a minute?”

She handed him her headset, a thin headband with a  transmitter. He pinched the receiver. “Razor! You listening  down there?”

“T-Bone?”

“No, it’s Felina with a deep voice. How come you didn’t  tell me you were with the Enforcers? I thought you were  stuck up here,” T-Bone complained.

“Oh. I thought you had a handle on it up there, so I  didn’t bother. Sorry,” apologized Razor. On the other end,  T-Bone snorted. “But I *did* manage to steal some files  earlier. They’re almost all decrypted by now – hopefully,  it’ll provide more evidence if more charges pile up.”

“The weirdest thing about all this, though, is that  Turmoil hasn’t enforced any of her demands, T-Bone,”

Callie’s voice interjected. “We’ve started to wonder if  she’s bluffing, and I’m thinking about calling off the money  collection.”

“Go ahead. You’re right,” T-Bone radioed. “She’s  bluffing.”

“What?!” all four listeners yelped. The SWAT Kat  continued. “She just spent the last five hours telling me  her life story, and part of it was a confession that she’s  just putting on a hoax. What she’s really after is betraying  her superior, using us to help her through it!”

Felina spoke next. “So what we’re doing up here is  pointless – if it’s a hoax, there’s no real danger we’d be  averting by killing her comm systems, plus there’s no need  to garner so much evidence if she’s innocent of the *real*  charge! Does that mean I should put these back and we  leave?”

“Definitely not,” objected Feral, “and especially not on  just *his* say-so. I still don’t know whose side he’s really  on, so he’s not dictating anything you do until I have proof  he’s not lying.”

Razor began to protest, but T-Bone cut him short. “Fine,  whatever. Either way, she’s going to end up arrested,  regardless of what either of us wants, right? So for now the  best course of action would be for us to move this thing out  where nothing’ll get hurt when things turn messy.”

“Good. That means we were thinking alike,” Callie  assented. “Isn’t that right, sir?”

Feral made no reply, and Razor took it upon himself to  fill the empty airwaves. “We’d originally planned to  evacuate the Enforcers via the ground patrol’s shift-change  shuttles in order to fight, but now it might be better to  keep them up there, wouldn’t it?”

“I could use the backup,” said T-Bone.

“Backup? I meant so they could control the ship’s  direction and finish locking up communications,” sent Razor.

“So’d I. You think the ladies aren’t gonna notice when  their ship starts moving? They’re not going to like it too  much when they find out it’s us.”

“Yeah, well, you should still be able to escape before  then if you follow this route we mapped out–”

“Razor, this sucker took three hours to cover on foot when  I was in a hurry. It’s going to be even longer with a bunch  of people to round up and as many jets to start. They’ll  have discovered us by the time we’re ready; we’re not going  to be able to get out without doing some path-clearing on  the way. And besides…” the tabby sniffed, “…I wasn’t  exactly planning on making a quiet exit myself, y’know. For  image’s sake.”

“Uh-huh. You know Feral’s listening too.”

“I know.”

“Just making sure.” A string of seconds passed. “All  right. Tell the Enforcers to wrap it up, and start  organizing ‘em for evacuation.”

“Will do. Thanks,” T-Bone acknowledged Felina as he  chucked her headset. She nodded shortly and caught it, then  re-affixed it to her head.

“Felina, you’d better not be getting any ideas,” her uncle  growled as she refit the headband.

“Yes, sir.” She snapped off the transceiver and met the  eyes of the SWAT Kat. “Guess that means I should find the  control room, huh?”

“Yup. Once I’ve finished setting the bombs, I’ll call you  guys together,” T-Bone added. “You’d better plan on  gathering yourselves in plenty of time to leave.”

“How many more bombs do you have?” Felina asked.  He dug into his pocket again and held the toylike devices  before the lieutenant’s face. “Twenty-five. Each can give  off the energy of a ton of TNT by itself, ‘cause there’s no  way we’re going to convince the crew to land this thing nice  and polite.”

“Ooh, great!” exclaimed Felina as she cupped his hand and  picked through the explosives. “How about giving the rest to  me so my team can spread them around? That’ll be faster,”

she reasoned.

“Uhm…sure,” he agreed, somewhat haltingly. “But be  CAREFUL – we need all of ‘em.”

“No problem,” she easily reassured him, shoving the  handful into her own pocket, then shifting them so they  would not bulge too obviously inside the ill-fitting suit.  Once situated, Felina tucked the booklets under her arm and  pivoted to begin her trek back to the ship’s center.

“Don’t put them near anything that looks information-  related!” he warned as she left. “She wants us to use that  to indict Dux Femina Facti!”

The darkhair stopped and turned, giving him a lifted  eyebrow. “Dux what?”

“Dux Femina…the company that owns this ship and Turmoil.  These are the people she wants to shut down, and that’s why  she created this elaborate setup and… oh, never mind that  right now,” T-Bone responded, waving an arm. “It’s too  complicated – I’ll tell you later. Go plant the bombs! We  need to hurry!”

“Right!” At that dismissal, Felina set off at a brisker  clip than what had brought her, and T-Bone watched until she  became ant-size in the stretch of the hall.  *Then if Nicka’s here, I could go see her myself,* his  subconscious reminded him. *On this huge ship, with the  enemy all over…* He surveyed the hangar briefly, not  noticing the velvety indigo blue blanket on the jet craft  after sundown. *I want to be sure she’s okay before I go,  but the Enforcers should be taking care of her. It’s not  really any of my business, but still…if these wackos do  anything to her when I could’ve been with her, what would I  do?* He gazed at the ceiling. *What would Jake do? I can’t  let Nicka get hurt in the rush, not when I can be there with  her. She’d say she could take care of herself, but she’s  just so little…* The kat detached himself from his jet,  and the door solidified while he trotted anxiously in the  direction Felina had travelled. *The bombs can wait another  coupla minutes, anyway.*

———-

On his way to the communications cavern, T-Bone bounded  through Turmoil’s hallway as a shortcut, but skidded to a  halt before he missed her door. It had been more than half  an hour since he left, and so he rationalized he might as  well find out how much she had accomplished since then. He  rooted for, found, and whisked a borrowed key card through  the lock before any more time could be wasted.

“Hey, Turmoil, about how far are you in–”

Even though the sun had disappeared and the first moon  balanced precariously above the MegaKat City skyline, the  room remained unlit, save the cityglow emanating through the  panel windows. All the objects in Turmoil’s quarters  distinguished themselves only by their outlines, as if  someone had thrown in a bucket of black paint in his  absence. Turmoil herself faded into the setting a few  minutes later, her contours blended with her background so  that she gave the impression of a phantom. T-Bone stole  through the door toward her, which sealed soundlessly behind  him. Without the ambient light of the hallway, the form  vanished, but now he sensed her presence and homed in on it.  He knelt next to her as she returned to his focus.  She had sprawled herself over the table and chair as she  had when she confessed her plot. T-Bone could identify the  stacks and piles of sheets and disks Turmoil had yet  collected – some orderly, others strewn and collapsed. Her  gloves, cape, and boots still lay in slopped masses among  them. Turmoil had not moved since he came in and sat by her,  and he looked farther at her, concentrating on her face. Her  head drooped so that her chin rested fully on her chest, her  brunette locks spilling over and masking most of her  features. By then all preoccupations with Dominica erased,  he parted some of the tresses and tucked them up over her  ear, then studied her unhidden calm.  Breathing softly and deeply, her eyes closed and her brow  smooth, Turmoil evolved further into an innocent – maybe  angelic – being. Her expression, its terse barrier finally  wiped clean, conveyed a peace he had not yet seen anywhere  on her ship. She achieved tangibility there, unaware and  defenseless beside him, and in T-Bone’s mind, her claims  lost a few more shades of their improbable tone. The  strange, shifty hybrid whose shell fractured in bits around  him had become, since he met her, mortal, both flawed and  remarkable. He stayed by his fellow creature for a time,  considering her, listening to her breathe. The kat eased his  arms in beneath her, scooped her out of the stiff chair and  closer to himself, then stood, her body limp against him but  heavier than he anticipated. He sighted her bedroom door and  carried her toward, then through it.  Though it was blacker than the main quarters, T-Bone  located a vast bed-shape blocking out the opposite corner  and toed to it. There, he lowered her meticulously onto the  bedspread, as if she might shatter in his hands if he  released her too roughly. She twitched as he removed his  shoulder from beneath her head, and she groaned something  unintelligible before rolling onto her stomach. He presided  over her until she settled, and then continued studying her  even after she had stilled.  *The bombs,* he reminded himself. The SWAT Kat regarded  the tranquil figure a final time, then, at length, trudged  back to the standing door.  The bedsheets rustled thinly as T-Bone’s shape reached the  doorframe. “T-Bone?”

He answered to his codename by facing Turmoil in full, but  not parting from the door.

“T-Bone?” Turmoil yawned once more. She pushed herself up  into a slouch and ground a fist in her eyes. “Was I  sleeping?”

“Yep,” he laconically returned, his thoughts still  lingering on her metamorphosis.

“I was? Really,” she drawled as her hands plopped with a  *thap* in her shadowed lap. “I’m sorry – I haven’t had a  good, deep sleep for several months now, you see. I suppose  once I finally began to enact my plans with you, the tension  was off, and I…you know…”

“Fell asleep.”

“Pretty much, didn’t I?” she tittered.

“Mm-hmm,” he agreed, shifting his weight to the doorjamb.

“Feel better now?”

As she nodded, he saw the rest of her upper body join her  head in the movement, absorbing the recoil of two lazy head  bobs. A closed-lipped half-grin completed her peculiarly  informal character, and she fixed her warm eyes in his.

“Yes, yes I do, as a matter of fact. Thank you.” Her eyelids  flitted down long enough for her to disentangle her legs and  station them on the floor. Afterward, she reconnected with  the bemused pilot. “I want you to know I really do  appreciate your hearing me out. Knowing you’re helping me  has made me feel the most secure I have been in a decade.  You *are* helping me, right?” He dipped his chin. “I thank  you. I was afraid that maybe my ‘stage’ personality confused  you, and you weren’t interested in much more than arresting  me. I’ve been told that I’m confusing – am I?”

“Oh…well…” T-Bone hesitated before replying. Since she  had revealed to him a capacity to emote, he realized he had  far less of a desire to harm her in any way than when he  initially met her. It was a simple question she asked, even  kind of flippant, but still he found himself reluctant to  answer it.

“Don’t think you’ll hurt my feelings by saying so, T-  Bone,” Turmoil spoke while the kat fumbled for words. “It’s  all right. I can see how difficult it is to connect the face  I put on for the public with the one I have right now. You  must think I have multiple personalities by now, don’t you?”

she gently laughed.  T-Bone decided he would dispense with the trouble and say  nothing, and nodded to humor her instead. Her eyes again  fluttered, and she abandoned the mattress and finished  waking. She then walked leisurely to him and the door.

“Shall we get ready, then? I’m sure the Enforcers have  already taken what they’ve needed since I found them on the  security cameras. I looped those, of course, but it’s not  going to last for long…”

A bit let down by her sudden switch to business, T-Bone  sluggishly bowed out of the doorway and allowed her to pass.  She stumbled across an abysmal floor, seemingly having  forgotten the time of day, then gestured back at T-Bone.

“Get the lights for me, would you?”

He discovered the switch and threw it, causing Turmoil to  shield her not yet ready eyes with a bare hand. “Good Lord,  what time is it? I couldn’t have been out for that long.”

“It’s about a quarter to eleven right now – I’d say you  were out an hour and a half, if I’m telling time right,” T-  Bone corrected. He finally exited the doorjamb and moseyed  into the grand chamber’s center with Turmoil. Himself a  little drained, he parked in one of the desk chairs to wait  as she collected her costume, which, to him, looked slightly  inappropriate on her now, even grotesque. First she husked  her hands within the gloves, waggling them to straighten the  fur, then summoned up her cape from the opposite chair while  continuing to recite her course of action to T-Bone.

“Originally, I’d planned to have you make your escape  tomorrow morning with all the information I gave you, and  some way or another, either by your doing or mine, the ship  would have wrecked. With Enforcers here, though, that gives  us an extra arm, and we’ll be done faster with them helping.  You could even leave tonight, perhaps before midnight, if  the rest of the ship hasn’t discovered them yet.”

“You mean you’re not coming with me?” T-Bone blurted.  Turmoil glanced up from the second of her boots to him. “I  wasn’t counting on it. Why?”

“How will you get off, then?” he asked, partly standing in  his chair. “I have to make sure you get out safely, don’t I?  I mean, won’t you be stuck here if the crew finds you out?  You’ll go down with the ship!”

“T-Bone, why are you worrying about something I already  know of? I have my strategies for these kinds of things in  place – believe me, everything is taken care of. All you  need to do is land and arrest me when I find you.”

“Well…” He reclined on his haunch in the seat, not  straying his sight from her. “I’m still worried about you,  anyway.”

She paused, then looked up in time to watch him avert his  face when she smiled, inquisitively. “You’re what?”

“You’re the key piece in this case, so it won’t do either  of us any good if you die, all right? That’s all I’m  saying,” he covered gruffly, fixing a stony, impersonal  glare at the main door.  The temptation to tease the correct answer out of the  obviously self-conscious tomkat overwhelmed Turmoil. “That’s  clearly not all you were saying, because you’ve turned all  kinds of red. Tell me what you really said!”

“Look, Turmoil, I–” Before he finished snarling, the main  door dilated and spewed a volley of armed guards around the  pair. The flock swarmed upon them, uprooted them from their  places, and brutally wrenched their victims’ arms behind  their backs. Forced down until their noses grazed the floor,  T-Bone and Turmoil could barely see the melee part for its  ecstatic director. To compensate, she drove one high-heeled  foot precisely into the arena between the prisoners, and the  guards slackened their grips just enough for the two to  follow the boot all the way up to its pinnacle.

“Time for us to clear up a misunderstanding, commander,”

said Guizot.

———-

“Last of the communications are blocked, lieutenant,”

mumbled Dominica as she discreetly removed her hand from  beneath a radio panel. She scanned the bridge to ensure her  safety, then imbedded herself in a clump of roving  assistants who were gyrating toward the exit.

“Okay,” Felina, from the air, answered. “You’re in the  control room, right?”

“Right.”

“All right, stay there – I’ll join you in a few. All the  bombs T-Bone gave us are set, so now we’re supposed to nudge  it out of the way, c’rect?”

“Yes, I know it. There are some officers in the way now,  but I’ll see to that…”

A call crystallized the activity in the bridge and ushered  in a fleet of soldiers, led by a hybrid with a sneer and a  wing-footed gait. Her voice blared at the women on the  center cloister of monitors as the mob proceeded in full  career, and Dominica recognized among them not only a  dishevelled Turmoil, but T-Bone as well, restrained by at  least five guardians.  *Chance!* she mentally cried. *Then Turmoil must have been  telling the truth for real – she actually is our ally,* it  dawned on her while she remembered Felina’s earlier news.  *But I can’t do anything to help him from here without  blowing it.*

“Lieutenant, how far away are you? A crew of soldiers just  brought T-Bone AND Turmoil into the control room, as  prisoners!” she whispered hoarsely, crouching behind  oblivious onlookers.

“Oh, *crap!* That means we’re outta time!” Felina hissed.  The spectral echoes of her footsteps picked up in frequency.

“What’s going on in there now?”

“Everyone’s concentrating on them, and it looks like  they’re going to call someone on the screens – hurry and you  can make it before they force her to expose us!”

“Sheezus… Hold on, I’m there,” gritted the lieutenant.

———-

At the helm, the squad hustled the conspirators to the  front line, behind Guizot at the panel layout. Turmoil, ears  and head down more from concern than disgrace, craned her  neck to see T-Bone as he towed two of his rumpled guards  along with him. He returned her look, and she diverted her  eyes, retracting more into herself.

“Whassamatter? Didn’t have a plan for this?” he jested.  She sighed, “I honestly didn’t expect this to happen so  fast – this totally blindsided me. They didn’t hurt you  badly, did they?”

“Naw, I’m fine. Just as long as nothing’s wrong with you,  either,” he answered under his breath.  Turmoil kept talking in spite of his reassurance. “I’m…  sorry you had to get caught up in my problems. I truly am. I  never meant for you to get caught and hurt in my place…”

“Hey, listen – it’s all right, okay? It’s to be expected,”

he consoled her. “But now’s not the time for that. Our  biggest priority’s to watch out for your cue, so quit  looking at the floor.”

She turned a muddled expression to him, not wholly certain  of what she had heard.

“You ain’t the only babe with a brain here. You know what  it is already.”

“Knock it off back there,” Guizot snapped. “The free  ride’s up, Turmoil. You’re finally going to get what you’ve  earned, you arrogant suck-up, and you can bet I’ll be first  in line to give it to you.”

The magnified head of Sylph projected above the throng,  and Guizot stepped aside an inch. The scale of the picture  as Sylph knit her eyebrows and remorsefully regarded Turmoil  inspired sympathetic glances down or away in the audience;  Turmoil stood her ground immovably, rivetting on Sylph and  nothing else.

“Turmoil,” Sylph entreatied to the hybrid. “I trusted you.  I thought you were a real devotee – I gave you power, money,  my care and my admiration, and yet you foster these hateful,  subversive vices toward me? What kind of gratitude is  that?!”

“It’s fair enough for what you’ve done to every member of  Dux Femina Facti,” Turmoil replied, without a change in  expression. “You continually suppress us by demanding what  you condemn in your speeches, insisting us to become a  meaningless herd, not questioning the acts you want us to  carry out. Not even the commanders can think on their own,  lest you sentence them as infidels.”

“But the whole reason you came was because I offered  something you wanted, wasn’t it? I was your refuge,” Sylph  attempted, hopeful.

“I wanted understanding most of all, but you tricked me  into thinking I wanted retribution, too. They’re *not* the  same things!”

“You were wronged. You *deserved* retribution. I gave you  the means, Turmoil, so why would you want to take that away  from others? Why uncover me?”

“Your institution is a lie from top to bottom – not one  iota has any application in the real world! So far,  everything you’ve said is ‘I’, not ‘we.’ Forcing whatever  preconceived notions you have on the state of the world –  which are far too individualized to apply to the breadth and  depth of ideas you so blithely embrace – upon a vulnerable  group of women is far from caring. Is there anything in your  philosophy you can justly attribute to us that rationalizes  secession from society?”

“What ISN’T there?!”

“What *is* there?”

“Turmoil, you know what there is…”

“No, I don’t. It’s because there is none.”

T-Bone, who had been watching in silence, felt his respect  for this stranger grow even more as she spoke. Each of  Turmoil’s volleys of reason had confounded the overemotional  Sylph a long way by then, and, to his amusement, he  overheard some of the officers muttering nervously after  each counter. He looked upon her, coolly holding her ground,  maybe even enjoying the contest, and everything else around  him disappeared.

“The sociological pulls on women are much too varied to  stupidly assign some blanket statement to them. There are  layers and layers beneath what an oversensitive, under-  informed outsider arbitrarily shuffles away as ‘bad.’  Usually, the real situation’s the exact opposite, but an  interference with good intentions often irreparably smashes  any chance for improvement that they had. I think if more  people took the time to research, rather than react right  then and there, then entire sets of standards based on half-  truths would cease to exist. A lot of lives could be spared,  and we wouldn’t have to be doing this now.”

“Men have kept us in submission! They have been for  millennia!”

“What man kept you in submission, Sylph? It was _because_  of a man that you received your wealth at all! Your father  died, and thereby you commanded sums of money no one of your  typical men could have hoped to accrue in his lifetime. You  have no real empathy for the actual sufferers.”

Sylph blazed through a whole palette of expressions at  that, then gelled each into one terrific, oversized,  indeterminate smear. “That is the worst affront anyone could  have given to women,” she mutedly rumbled, accompanied by  several rising growls from the pack.

“And it’s true, because you cannot grasp the reality of  all our lives unless you’ve lived them all yourself. How  many lives have you lived, Sylph?”

“So are you saying the pursuit of a better world for our  people is a misbegotten cause?”

“No. The waste of thousands of capable lives to fuel one  person’s unrealistic fantasies is what we’re supposed to  transcend by banding together. The most effective way to  change our lots in society is to integrate, because then the  ones who need to hear our message hear it, instead of those  who already have. Your cause is noble, but your ideas in  attaining it are vulgar, vile, and ultimately illogical.  Faith to my kind has nothing – or everything, really – to do  with my decision to turn you in; I won’t let you degrade us  to being slaves in an outdated feudal system, even if you  think slapping a prettier label on top of it makes it better  than where we all came from. This habit of slipping  backwards in evolution has to stop at some time if we’re  really going to accomplish anything. Don’t you think so?”

———-

*Nobody’s moving,* Felina observed in dread as she peeped  through the bridge’s entrance. *And the flight controls are  all the way in front, too.*

“Dominica, where are you? I’m at the entryway.”

“I’m along the back wall, lieutenant,” Dominica whispered  in return. “I’m not near the controls, if you were thinking  of dictating the commands. Sorry…”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” dismissed Felina. “How good do you  think my chances are in sneaking over?”

“It looks good – they’re all mesmerized. You should be  safe if you take it slow.”

“Thanks. Watch for me,” Felina ended. She sidestepped the  span of the opening, bunched behind a columnal frame, and,  holding her breath, inched into the paralyzed control room.  She sandwiched herself between the inner wall and a row of  transfixed officers, taking brief notice of the heated  battle far away in the center. Quickly, she threw glances  over heads and between bodies, hoping one would catch on the  main switchboard, as recalled from debriefings. After one  second she sighted it – it stretched idly behind the monitor  array, situated along the mountainous front wall of windows.  The shouting match in the middle continued to enthrall the  collective, and so Felina ducked and twined behind the  outermost listeners, unnoticed. Encouraged, she tiptoed  faster and faster beyond the crowd until the light from two  moons replaced the artificial lights of the bridge. At the  mammoth windows, one of two identical displays glowed at  her.  *Right. Universal specs – this should be easy…* The  Enforcer meditated on the screen as she seated herself  before it. Upon a dusty grey field pulsated lines of lime  green words and numerals, each denoting some function of the  ship’s inner workings. *Airspeed, zip – of course, we’re  hovering; altitude, might wanna raise it; windspeed…  bearing! _There_ it is!*  Second to last in the list of stats and horizon graphs,  the behemoth’s magnetic bearing quivered by itself near the  bottom. The chief number, 180 degrees, told Felina she  pointed a quarter-turn of the compass away from where she  wanted. Without pause she struck a key atop the board and  entered a new number: 270 degrees. When the display reported  the switch, she swivelled around in the chair, clutched the  molded plastic armrests, and readied herself for the next  step to happen.

———-

As Turmoil punctuated her last remark, Sylph resumed the  stricken air from her entrance, tinged with consternation as  she fenced off a bitten lip with crooked fingers. Turmoil,  upright and free of guards who had previously shied away,  threw a leg behind her and shifted her weight upon it. She  then checked compulsively on T-Bone, whom the guards had  also liberated. He lifted one corner of his mouth at her and  nodded approvingly, and she, almost coyly, replied to the  gesture with a full, teeth-baring grin. Toning down her  smiling, Turmoil faced Sylph again, along with a maliciously  scowling Guizot.

“I can’t believe your attitude, Turmoil,” condescended  Sylph. “What kind of a deviant would ever believe all that  pansy reasoning? You’re still too attached to all that swill  the media wants you to believe, so people like us can’t  knock them down! With the way women have been treated, it’s  time for us to give back as good as we got, not settle back  like we always have and let them lie to our faces!”

“Now what evidence do you have that suggests ‘the media’  is falsifying our real status in life? What, in your all-  knowing, all-seeing realm of informants, you’ve discovered  some news conspiracy that men have engineered since  whenever? Besides, if you go back to what I’ve said, my  suggestions still make more sense than your organizing a  covert military; this is an informational world, and brute  strength doesn’t count as much as sharp wits, anymore. To  win, you still have to play by the other side’s rules to get  anywhere.”

“You can never win a game decisively without cheating,”

Sylph answered. “I thought I’d taught you that, but perhaps  you have taken it too much to heart. And now that this city  knows about us, I’m going to have to use much more extreme  measures than I would have, had you just done what you were  told.”

“But don’t you *want* the world to know of us?” mocked  Turmoil, hands before her. “The bold, brave leadresses of  the new age don’t want to come forward?”

“Stop talking!” shrieked the ivory banshee. “Don’t you  dare presume to–”

The monitor disrupted Sylph’s pale face with grey static  stripes and delivered a crackle, and all inside the helm  either swayed or toppled as the craft shivered under them.  T-Bone and Turmoil were likewise caught unawares, and clawed  at the handrails of the communications dais to save  themselves.

“What have you done, Turmoil?!” Sylph roared, her image  twitching.

“Status?” Guizot demanded for her.

“The ship’s turning west!” one heretofore-distracted  navigator revealed. “And the propulsion vector’s changing,  too!”

“Why?” master and puppet synchronously exclaimed. Guizot  added, “There’s nothing of use past Midland View…”

A dartlike report signalled the simultaneous implosion and  explosion of the screen, and glistening pellets cascaded  into the audience, which dispersed as speedily as startled  fish. T-Bone, the recollection of the last incident  concerning him and shattered glass still very recent, laid  hold of Turmoil’s upper arm and tore from the heart of the  crowd, with her barely able to keep up in his wake.

“Was that our cue?” she shouted over the resultant tumult.

“I’m hopin’ so,” he shouted back, elbowing panicky  officers out of his path, “or else we’re SERIOUSLY out of  luck here…”

One of the officers threaded through the stampede and  toward him, waving a formidable-looking handgun over her  head. *Oh great – and they took my glovatrix when I came on  board. Not that it woulda helped, but at least I could’ve  whacked her upside the head with it,* he thought. *Can’t get  distracted now.*  Centered on the exit, he veered his path from the violet-  suited soldier and sought another channel through the mess,  but the officer continued to gravitate toward him. She was  hysterically flagging him down with her free hand, and she  called out to him, “*Stop!* T-Bone, it’s me! Slow down!”

T-Bone snapped his head aside at the call, then recognized  the dark brown hair and chestnut eyespot belonging to his  Enforcer lady friend. He deflected his course just enough to  risk smashing straight into her, but instead he grabbed her  arm and lugged her along with Turmoil for the doorway.

“Nicka!” he greeted her, belatedly. “I was wondering where  you were! Have you done okay on your own so far?”

“Of course I have! I hope you haven’t spent the whole time  worrying about *me*,” the white lady kat answered between  bounds. Turmoil tapped her on the shoulder.

“Do you two know each other?” she inquired.

“Just from on the job,” T-Bone hastily supplied, deftly  evading an awkward situation. One of Turmoil’s ears tipped  backward at the kat’s curtness, but Dominica caught on to  his intent.

“That’s all it is, really,” Dominica reinforced, shaking  her head as if the matter were entirely unimportant. Not  convinced, Turmoil pushed a half of her mouth to the side  and merged her eyebrows at Dominica as the threesome rounded  into the corridor.  Felina broke out behind them a stride later and galloped  up to their pace, semiauto drawn to divert any followers.  She noticed Dominica partially hovering behind T-Bone and  smacked him upon the shoulder. “You can let ‘em go now.  We’re out,” she glibly informed him.

“Oh. Right.” He unclamped both passengers’ arms, who then  touched down and, with a few stumbles, matched his rate.

“Nice shot back there, D’minica,” Felina praised her  major. Dominica bowed her head, not having much time for  more, and after that assumed a voiceless, hawklike  attentiveness to the hall. The lieutenant usurped the lead  and announced into her headset: “Everyone get to the hangar,  I don’t care how or which way you go, but make sure you get  in there and out in as few pieces as possible! If you’re  hurt, pair up with someone who isn’t and can fly you home.  Try not to pick too many fights, as they’ll slow you and  everyone else down, and pirate as many jets as you can, but  – and this is for you greener recruits – the Turbokat is off  limits.” T-Bone chuffed at the last warning with amusement.  Felina continued, “T-Bone’s going to detonate all the bombs  once I tell him you’re all out, so for your sakes you’d  better leave before I lose my patience. Y’ve all been  warned. Feral out.”

A three-way intersection plunged toward them, and each  looked expectantly at the other. T-Bone spoke for them and  proposed, “You guys–” indicating the Enforcers, “–have to  try to stick together so the rest’ll latch on to you.  Razor’ll give you the directions like he has been, right?”

“Right!” both responded. “The left?” suggested Felina.

“Good,” T-Bone agreed. The two counterfeit guards, with  renewed energy, raced ahead and hooked the leftmost corner.

“Good luck, and find a way out fast!” he wished them, then  attended to a more ragged Turmoil. As he extended an arm to  her, she politely prodded his inner elbow away and drove  herself along, harder.

“Not…as lively at thirty…four…than I was at  *twenty*-four…I’d guess…” she panted, her high heels  puncturing an uneven staccato on the waxy tiles. “You…  remember the way to the hangar?”

“Yeah, I remember. You’re coming with me now?”

“Don’t really have a choice NOW, do I?” she playfully  swiped at him. “We should split…up…so it’ll take longer  for…Guizot to find us both. You’ll head up the middle…  okay?”

“No problem, but are you *positive* you’ll make it? I can  carry you if worse comes to worse,” he offered anxiously,  stretching out his arm to her a second time.

“I’m fine!” she strained, sucking in a draught of breath.  She met eyes with him before departing into the right  walkway, and yelled, “I’ll meet you there!”

T-Bone flashed past the corner and therefore did not see  her as she called out her own reassurance, and he had to put  her out of his immediate thoughts in order to keep to his  course; nevertheless, the SWAT Kat could not repress a  sickening knot swelling somewhere under his chest as he ran  farther away from Turmoil.

———-

In the bridge, the anarchy began to swirl into order after  the causes had escaped, and divisions reorganized to sweep  up glass and man neglected posts. Guizot, tacitly and  instinctively appointed the new commander by the crew, wound  to the front from her shelter under the screen’s panel and  glowered over the scene. *Sylph gives her too much leeway –  I wouldn’t doubt it if she meant for Turmoil to run off,*  she inwardly burned. *How can she expect to gain anything if  she lets people like her go unpunished?* She punched her  fists into her hips, shaking her head deliberately. *Lost  her backbone when she let herself get rooked.*

“What just happened?” Sylph, transferred to the P.A.,  crackled, in turn startling the fuming Guizot. “Who did  that?!”

“The same Enforcers you earlier said couldn’t possibly  have boarded,” snubbed Guizot. The elimination of Sylph’s  monstrous appearance emboldened the former lieutenant, and  without the image she permitted a little bit of her own  rebelliousness to taint her speech. “I’d say if we don’t  counteract somehow, they’re going to make it out with the  rest of our secrets,” she sighed, picking her teeth.

“Well, why DON’T you?! Order the sentinels to set off  their evac-nukes and raze that city to the ground! Do it  before they can slip out and tell the rest of New America!”

“Right.” Guizot slapped the radio board and pushed off  toward the audience, crunching the remaining glass chips as  she went. “What *would* I do without you, o wise Sylph?” she  acidically droned. The redhead thumped an otherwise-  engrossed officer across the back and boredly ordered her,

“Give the word to the ground crews to kill the city. Keep a  bead on it while I’m gone, ‘kay?” Guizot deserted that  station as cursorily as she had come and strode to the  columnar exit, absorbed in herself and none of the chaotic  bridge. The comm officer, her curiosity arisen – and her  back sore – hailed the departing half-kat. “Hey! Where are  you going?”

“Going to clean up another mess,” was the response, and  Guizot shot off into the hall as a hound on a scent.

———-

The seventeenth ground crew, arrayed inside the hub of  MegaKat City’s southwestern business district, had been  expecting their pickup shuttle for half an hour, and since  had grown more restless with the minute. The absence of any  messages from their mothership in twice that time had them  immobile, waiting, and their nervous energy, echoed in all  patrols around the city, surfaced in fidgety pacing and  quick tempers.  Captain Wilhoit, the seventeenth’s commanding officer,  picked her way down the decorative front steps of a trading  firm and to her jet, parked disrespectfully in the grassy  island between the street lanes. Once there, she exhaled  loudly and reclined on the jet’s nose wheel strut. She  fixated upon the first moon, tipped slightly off its apex,  then she meandered on a waving line of stars north, where  the ship dawdled over the city center.

“Sir, we still haven’t received anything,” one of  Wilhoit’s attendants reported as she walked out for the jet.

“We’ve contacted the other crews, and they haven’t heard  anything either.”

“Have you tried calling the ship?” Wilhoit drawled.

“Yes, but there’s just static – open air, but no one’s on  it.”

“Hmph.” The captain resituated herself on the strut,  saying nothing much else and still staring at the sky  fortress. “But inter-patrol comms still work.”

“Yes, sir.”

Wilhoit had something in mind to say to that, but forgot  it as the sooty outline of the fortress underwent an  unforeseen change. The prow looked to be pulling into  itself, and the stern followed suit until the behemoth  assumed a squarelike shape. Then, the process reversed,  pushing the prow back out, but in the stern’s place, and the  stern in the prow’s.

“Why are they turning?” the attendant calmly, though  confusedly, asked.  Wilhoit had stepped off the strut then and held her  squinting eyes fast to the ship. It faced west exactly, and,  faintly, she could hear the turbines whining and ascending  in pitch. The attendant leaned toward her and balled a fist  to her stomach, not entirely certain things were happening  according to regs. Finally, the fortress’s engines keened at  their highest, and the ship slogged off, leaving the city.

“Get the troops to pull out and head back toward the  ship!” Wilhoit yelled, running back for the building and  almost flattening the poor attendant. “I’ll contact the  other crews, if they don’t know already.”

“What’s going ON?!” demanded the attendant, at the point  of a stroke.

“Haven’t you wondered where the Enforcers’ve been? They  have to have figured out a way in and shanghaied the ship.  C’mon, think! They’re too unity-minded to move out-city  without telling us!” Wilhoit hissed. “Get on it!”

———-

The radar over the city broke out in concentrated smears  as the commander, the deputy mayor, and the SWAT Kat watched  motionlessly. Other operators ceased, sensing their heads’  concentration, and sat rooted.

“They’re moving out?” Razor eventually voiced.

“But we shut down ground-to-air communications – they must  have figured it out when they tried contacting the ship,”

Callie explained, mostly to herself. “How far along are our  Enforcers in getting out?”

“Spread, but a lot of ‘em are using air ducts as shortcuts  and going faster,” Razor replied, not diverting his gaze  from the radar.  Feral distanced himself from the other two and padded into  the middle of the room. “Well, then, I suppose that means I  can finally make myself useful – I *am* only the commander  here,” he loudly snuffed. Callie and Razor lifted their  heads to see him. With their attention, he tilted toward the  room’s exit and declared, “We’ll need to take care of the  enemy from here. I’m going to the air traffic tower to call  out a squad.” He started for the door. “Stay here. This  won’t be long.”

Razor rose out of his seat and pushed an open hand in  Feral’s departing direction. “Sir, wait! The recruits on  board already have the advantage! We don’t need to waste–”

But Feral had already left.

———-

Clacking at such an exhausted pace that her steps sounded  like Quasimodo in heels, Turmoil, having ducked through air  shafts and slid through laundry chutes to save time, tumbled  to her knees in a lone hallway. Above her panting and her  thumping heart, she listened to the steam hiss and pings of  expanding and contracting metal ahead, past the waxy walls  around her. She planted her arms stiltedly on the polished  floor, taking stress off twitching leg muscles, and let her  body catch up to the demands of her whirring mind.  *I can hear the hangar tunnels up ahead. I’ve made better  time than I’d hoped,* she analyzed, the drive to move on  rising. *I’ll catch my breath for a few seconds, then keep  going.* Turmoil collected her cape in her arms and brought  her legs forward, seating herself on the floor. *There’s  time, yet.*  Something jerked at her cape and pinched off her windpipe  mid-gasp, squeezing a labored mewl out of her. While she  clawed at the collar, it lodged beneath her chin and urged  her upward, her feet flailing to prevent her being hanged.  As her attacker led her to a wall, the identity recognized  itself to her.

“You’re old. It’s taken the bite out of your reflexes,”

Guizot drily remarked, pressing the back of Turmoil’s neck  to the marble. “I’d wished you’d be a better fighter than  this.”

“A stab in the back’s not fighting, but Dux Femina’s  taught you thoroughly, haven’t they, Jeanine?” husked  Turmoil.  A heavy *thunk* struck Turmoil in the head, freeing her  but at the same time hurling her onto the ground. Dizzy but  awake, the fawnhair beheld Guizot standing over her, feet  wide apart and a fist closed around the barrel of the  company’s standard-issue handgun. She had slung about her  one of Turmoil’s uniforms, a trifle baggy on the shorter  subordinate, and had crowned herself with a cape, which sat  lopsided on her unsized shoulders. The affair lent Guizot a  maddened look, her eyes flaring and her red hair let loose  of a hat or pin, and Turmoil, on the floor, seriously began  to doubt her odds of living through a fight with her.

“You don’t have the right to use my first name,” rumbled  Guizot, low in her throat. “You lack the strength. That’s  why you want the outside world back – so you can settle back  in with the weaklings who can’t stand reality! Sylph would  join you, but she can’t deal with being alone, either.”

Turmoil staggered upright and regarded Guizot out the  sides of her eyes. “What?”

“Sylph doesn’t have the mind to really lead her little  enterprise; else, she wouldn’t have put so much stock in  just you. She *is* crazy, and too eccentric to save a world.  Her steady trust in you, a deceiver, proves it!”

Guizot holstered the gun and stepped toward Turmoil, who  in turn moved away like a stalked creature. *She’s abso-  lutely far gone now. I won’t be able to win this fight in my  condition, but I can’t get past her any other way…* She  trained her stare on Guizot, who continued, unfazed. “I’ve  never put that much faith in anyone. See, I _know_ people. I  know everyone’s in it for herself – I know I am – and so  that’s why you can’t just leave it to division of labor. You  need a death grip on your underlings, heart and mind, or  else they’ll get funny ideas and turn on you. Like you’ve  done. I know better.”

Turmoil’s shoulder grazed the opposite wall, and she  checked it on reflex. Then, wide-eyed but grim-lipped with  battle readiness, she stared Guizot full in the eye. “So  you’re taking over now. The more economic choice for  empress, in your opinion.”

“I’ll kill you first and work my way up to her.” Faster  than thought, Guizot’s left arm whipped alarmingly close to  Turmoil’s face, not touching but leaving in its trail over  her jaw a strange, sharp sting. When the arm completed its  arc, a small jungle knife materialized in Guizot’s hand, and  Turmoil, astounded, ran the tip of a finger over a thin,  bleeding cut extending an inch from her fine jawline.

“You…cut me!” she realized aloud, her voice high and  hoarse.  The knife-arm jutted out again, this time for Turmoil’s  stomach. She pivoted in time to dodge the jab, then  unthinkingly chopped down on Guizot’s neck with the flat of  her forearm. The blow robbed Guizot of her balance, and  Turmoil sent up a knee to reinforce her move. Guizot roared  and slapped her unoccupied hand over her muzzle to staunch  the generous dark stream flowing from it, then hopped out of  Turmoil’s range. Not accustomed to living inside commander’s  heels, however, Guizot tripped over herself on the way and  clattered helplessly against a column. Turmoil latched on to  the opportunity instantaneously, and, darting past the pile  of Guizot, flew for the hangar unhindered.  Her path to revenge and redemption running away, the  snarling Guizot flipped upright – “Nnnot yet!” – and sprang  like a missile into the backs of her enemy’s knees. The  combatants rolled on the floor with Guizot’s momentum while  furiously warding off each other’s flashing teeth and claws.  As they bumped into the wall, Turmoil felt the struggle  taxing her: she began seeing all her parries and Guizot’s  slashes as if through a dream, her movements feeling  disconnected and unreal. Guizot beat at her, knowing her  rival’s loss of stamina, and each successful hit sent  Turmoil nearer to the fuzzy null space gathering at the base  of her mind. A lucky swing from Turmoil worsened Guizot’s  shattered nose, and she reared back at the shock, opening  another chance for escape. Unfortunately, by then the fight  had entirely sapped all Turmoil’s reserves, and she  discovered with horror that moving any part of herself, even  a little, proved too difficult for her drained body.  Instead, she only watched, inert and petrified, as the  animalized Guizot took the knife in both hands and raised it  high over her head.  *Dear Lord, it’s happening – I’m going to die,* thought  Turmoil, and sealed her eyes from the sight as tightly as  she possibly could.

“It’s my turn now!” shrieked Guizot, and the knife started  its initial swing.  The next thing Turmoil heard was the flapping of a cape,  followed by a fabric-covered squeal. When she opened her  eyes, Guizot’s upper half struggled and swore under her  inverted cape, pinned securely by the arms of T-Bone.  Hoisting the thrashing mess off the leadress, the tomkat  then hurled Guizot like a sack of flour far down the hall,  keeping his attention on her until she thudded on the floor,  sixty feet away. She did not move again.

“You haven’t…killed her, have you?” Turmoil asked  weakly, trying to raise herself.  He returned to her and shovelled her off the ground in one  swoop, then charged in the direction of the metallic pops  and ticks. “No. Shoulda come with you – I saw you losing  that fight. You’re too tired to move as it is.”

They bulleted past the Victorian border and entered the  last leg of their run. “I’m not an invalid! Let me run on my  own, T-Bone!”

“No point – you’re exhausted, and we’re there anyway.”

The metal door scrolled in at their right. The tabby kat  slowed to a jog, a walk, and a stop in front of it and held  a dangling Turmoil closer to it. “Can you get it?” he asked.

“I can do *that* much,” she mumbled. “This is extremely  mortifying for me, you know.”

“Don’t really care, ma’am,” he obliquely replied.

“Besides, you’re glad I picked you up, aren’t you?”

“Don’t start with that now.” Her hand remembered the  door’s center dial and dallied with it, and was rewarded  with the sound of inner machines grinding. The door faded as  it had before, but now the girders sank into the frame as  well, leaving the entryway bare. Through it, T-Bone  witnessed attendants scurrying pell-mell in and around the  planes and several other fallen officers. By the Turbokat,  one uniformed member looked straight at him, and her face  told T-Bone he was with allies.  The “attendant,” Felina, beckoned to him. “Hey! C’mon! You  wannan invitation?”

The SWAT Kat hauled his passenger and himself through the  port and toward the jet. Once under the nose, T-Bone peered  up at the opened canopy, ears flat, while Felina hovered at  his elbow for his next word.

“Just give me a boost up, and I can climb the rest of the  way,” demanded Turmoil, squirming halfway out of T-Bone’s  grasp. He wanted to restrain her, but his logical side held  him off with the reasoning of time over the chivalrous thing  to do. With an unwilling grunt, he lowered the lady, who  lurched on unready legs and steadied herself shakily against  the Turbokat’s fuselage. Felina ducked by T-Bone before he  wasted more time worrying over Turmoil and blocked her off  from him.

“I got it,” she informed him as she hefted Turmoil, who  growled softly at being manhandled yet again, onto her  shoulder.  T-Bone understood the purpose of her intercedence.

“Thanks,” he acknowledged, and rebounded off the wing and  clambered into the cockpit. Turmoil slunk in behind him  shortly after and secured herself in the seat, nodding for  T-Bone to shut the canopy. Before he did, he called down to  Felina, “Has Major le Normand been by yet?”

“We got separated, but she should be here soon,” answered  the lieutenant. “You need her for something?”

“No, nothing. Just be sure she gets out all right.” The  canopy closed him off from the departing Enforcer, and he  and Turmoil sat with themselves.

“You rest back there, okay? I’m gonna concentrate on  putting us on the ground, so you don’t need to do anything,”

he instructed her, starting the engines.

“I’ll man the weapons while I’m back here,” she smoothly  rebutted.

“What?! No – you’re too weak to keep up that kind of  concentration!” The jet rotated toward the hangar’s opening.

“Trust me – I’ll outfly their defenses.”

“Even with you, that’s a little too risky for my needs,”

she politely declined while taking the joystick. “You’re  short a gunman, and I owe you.”

“But–”

“What can you do about it?” He heard a foxlike smile color  her last comment.

“You…” He sighed and slitted an eye at her around his  seat. “You are one difficult she-kat, you know that?”

She settled in her seat as her response, and T-Bone shook  his head. He redirected his focus to the smoggy nightscape  outside, pushed the throttle, let off the brakes, and guided  the jet as it raced down the runway and jumped just short of  the dropoff.  As the craft glided to the apex of its departure arc,  Turmoil tilted her head back to count the Enforcers tailing  in Facti jets. While she watched them, she noticed a blurb  of motion under the air fortress’s hull. She narrowed her  eyes at it, and strained against her seat belt in attempting  to discern what it was. The last of the city crawled under  the ship and replaced itself with red-orange sand flatland,  and compared to it, Turmoil recognized the incomers.

“When did we call for more Enforcers?” she queried,  crinkling her face at them.  T-Bone caught the question and glanced out the canopy to  the same sight Turmoil reported. “Aw, no…Feral must’ve  gone nuts waiting. Well, there goes our edge.” He banked the  jet and angled for the gaggle of misplaced Enforcer jets.

“Looks like I’ll need you shooting after all.”

———-

Felina, not inside the foreign jet fully five minutes yet,  picked up on a cadence of high-pitched tweets emanating from  her diplay and zeroed in on the source – a radar map of her  range, sitting to her right. In the dull green circle  outside the lighter cone representing the sky in front of  her, a splatter of red dots, like a pattern left by  buckshot, flashed in the lower right quadrant and edged  farther up with each pulse. *Enemies?* she thought, pulling  her head back. *How? Could these jets somehow tell the  pilots are invaders, or–* A volley of cannon rounds sailed  by her canopy, accompanied by a jump in the tweets’  frequency, and the Turbokat whistled down toward the origin  of the slugs. On reflex, she banked steeply, almost  pinwheeling, to join the black jet. A flock of Enforcers  revealed themselves before her as the red dots on radar  rotated into the frontal-view cone.

“So now *they’re* gonna think *we’re* the enemy in these  jets. What was my uncle thinking?!” Felina spat out loud.  *I’d better take down the ship now, distract the newcomers  long enough for us to land and straighten things out. Looks  like they’re all out.* “Hey T-Bone,” she radioed loudly.

“We’re ready – set off the bombs!”

———-

Dominica kicked out probably the hundredth grate she had  encountered in her corner-cutting sprint through the  ventilation system and peeped her head through the opening  to amass her surroundings. When she distinguished it to be  the hangar, she rolled her eyes and snorted, both relieved  and impatient. “About time!” She drew herself back in,  clamped her hands on the opposing lip of the opening, and  slipped out, then plunked to the sloped, broad back of a jet  hibernating below her. Shimmying up to pop the canopy  release latch, she noticed the rushing, disorderly squad of  women cavorting among the craft. *Good, so I’m not late,*  she concluded, and sprang the latch. At the hiss of the  canopy, one recruit who had halted fixed on Dominica, which  was when both parties discovered neither recognized the  other.

“It’s one of them!” the recruit on the ground pointed, and  most of the others stopped and looked up as well. Dominica  shrank as she could not identify any one of them. *I AM the  last one! Don’t set off the bombs yet, Felina! I’m still  here!*

“Well? Get up there!” The bustle herded toward the to-be-  pirated jet. Dominica catapulted into the pilot’s seat and  pressed the ignition, dissuading all the soldiers from  scaling up past the live intakes. She encased herself in the  cockpit as the burgundy-suits scattered for their planes and  pointed the nose toward the runway.

———-

A sudden memory after giving the order, Felina recalled  two important items, one of which being the strategic  placements of the last two bombs she planted. “Wait! There’s  one more person who hasn’t taken off yet! It’s–”

———-

The stranger craft Dominica piloted arrowed out of the  hangar’s artificial light and into more sparing starlight.  She glanced at her airspeed – 50 miles per hour then – and  pushed the throttle a bit harder.  Bursts erupted into curling clouds on either side of her  jet, and while her craft survived the blasts unharmed, the  entire remaining length of runway severed under her, and  both she and the asphalt path tipped earthward. She sensed  freefall separate the plane and the rock, but another  stricken check on her airspeed indicated she was far from  attaining lift. Her seekers befell the same problem, but  none appeared willing to abandon their jets. In addition to  that, a band of Enforcer cruiser jets zipped randomly  between an equally random band of foreswept craft, clogging  her field. The pursuers stayed on her, joined by a clueless  trio of cruisers, and the enemies’ ploy became apparent to  her.  *I’ll speed up as I fall – all I need to do is go fast  enough, and I’ll have enough lift to curve out at the last  minute. _I_ see,* she figured. *The only thing is, will I go  fast enough BEFORE I hit the ground?* The airspeed indicator  read 65, and the altimeter gave 30,000 feet.

“Major? Why aren’t you ejecting?” crackled Felina on  Dominica’s radio. “Can’t you find the button? Is it stuck?!”

“I’m all right.” 72; 25,000 feet. “Could you get those  Enforcers off me? I’m a little busy right now, and I don’t  think they know it’s me.”

“None of ‘em know. My uncle just pulled a stupid one.”

80; 18,700 feet. “I’m not surprised. Have you called any  of them yet?”

“Yeah, but they can’t tell us apart from the bad guys now  – they’re just shooting whatever doesn’t have our logo  plastered on it!”

“Is T-Bone all right?” 87; 15,000 feet.

“Yeah, Turmoil’s with ‘im. Is something up with you two? I  mean, *he* asked to make sure *you* were all right before we  left.”

“But she’s not, is she?” rumbled T-Bone’s voice,  accusingly. “Watch out; I’m gonna help her, lieutenant.” The  Turbokat rolled on its side over above Dominica, then  levelled out and cut parallel to her, lowering closely to  her left wing.

“No, stay up there!” 90; 12,300 feet. “I have this  planned! Get too close and you’ll create drag!”

His voice transmitted to her again, this time sounding  slightly hurt. “I was going to nudge your plane up a little-  -”

“This angle’s working just fine. I know what I’m doing –  please help Felina! She needs a good pilot on her defense  line.” 94; 9,000 feet.

“You’re going to–”

“Go!”

Obediently, the black jet careened up and away from her as  telephone wires and road markings widened into legibility.  She had reached only 100 miles per hour by then, and had  fallen almost to 5,000 feet. *Too slow! I was hoping I’d  reach it by now without much more effort, but…* Beside the  throttle, nearer to her knee, was a button she had marked in  passing but thought herself too resourceful to need on  boarding. She sighed and mashed it, gently convincing the  stick toward her navel as the afterburners thrummed to life  and knocked the airspeed well over Dominica’s original goal  of 120. Her pull back sent the foreswept into a gradual  coast back for the air, and her shadows, not acting on the  same final move as herself, disintegrated promptly into the  outer desert floor.  The surprise tactic did as she needed, but also cost her:  the fuel gauge bobbled on a disquietingly low number,  corresponding to the warnings pasted on her main image  screen. She radioed, “Lieutenant – Major le Normand here.”

“Don’t DO that sort of thing to me!!” Felina gasped in  reply. “I thought you were going to die! What possessed you  to do that?”

“I thought that’s what they were planning on doing, but I  guess not.” Dominica’s plane soared up and over Felina’s. “I  took out some of our foes, though, neh? We have a new trick  now!”

“Well…warn us next time.” Behind the flurry of fighters,  the crumbling air fortress dove toward the sand, littering  it with debris and fleeing Facti members in parachutes.  While the foreswepts, both invader and Enforcer, and the  thoroughly muddled cruisers streaked after Dominica into the  city, the Turbokat wheeled and shifted into a hover to watch  the ship.  It had divided into four chunks, each shedding into more  with stress and aftershock, and its altitude gave the  illusion of its falling in slow motion. The glass of the  hull shone and refracted the light from the stars and moons,  making them look like a meteor shower pouring from the  fortress. The subdivisions themselves rotated almost  imperceptibly in their descent. After what felt to Turmoil  like hours, the first block – the runway – rammed the  ground, sending up a geyser spray of sand that mingled with  the glass and added its own pinpricks to the tiny mirrors.  The sand from the first impact had not yet settled when the  second and third impaled themselves on each other and  enveloped the site in a filmy, sparkling cloud, rimmed by a  distinctive crater humped up in orange sand. The fourth, the  gouged hull, completed the heap by splitting apart on the  protruding spear of the runway and cracking into fat  obelisks, imbedding in and around the detritus. When the  spectacle had ended, the purple-hued sand curtain still  enshrouded the wreck, veiling it as if gently shooing away  gawkers. Turmoil stared at it spacily, no expression playing  on her face even as the jet shuddered back to a normal  configuration and curved away from the place.

“How’s it feel?” inquired T-Bone in a low-pitched voice.  The sudden reminder that she was not by herself startled  Turmoil, and she woke out of herself suddenly with a short  gasp. “What? Oh…” She twisted around and meditated on the  ship’s grave another set of moments, all the while wondering  which emotion was the most prevalent.  The older halfbreed faced forward again, then gazed at her  lap, limply holding a hand on her stomach for no particular  reason. “I feel…a bit like I’ve lost something. But in a  good way, even though I also feel guilt. This *is* what I  wanted, and what I started this mess for – even though this  alone is only a small victory, it’s farther than anyone in  my place has gone before.” She remained silent for an even  minute, and T-Bone tipped both ears back, inching up in his  seat, to hear if anything else came forward. Just when he  was about to ask if she were all right, she spoke again. “I  do feel justified. Maybe this, ironically, gave me the  ‘vengeance’ Sylph liked talking about so. Ideally, I should  look at it in a much less selfish way, but still… I still  have a way to go, and now I’m in worse danger. But I knew  that when I first thought of it.” She focused on the back of  T-Bone’s seat.

“Thought you’d like to see it before we had t’go,” he  said, continuing in his subdued tone. Turmoil bowed her head  and uttered a “Thank you.” Finished, and the pit of MegaKat  City and the travelling anarchic dogfight coming toward  them, the pilot brought his wings closer and aimed for the  thick of it.

“You still able to shoot, y’think?” he checked a final  time.

“Take us in.”

———-

“Hel*lo*? Why can’t you call them off?!”

“Because you need the reinforcement! Don’t you see all the  jets from the ground crews around you?”

Since leaving the ship, the number of foreswepts over  MegaKat City had swollen fivefold, some engaging the  Enforcers and some venturing to sneak by in hopes of  locating their missing mothership. With the predawn murk and  the meager definition it brought to the sparrowlike swipes  of the aircraft horde, it was all T-Bone could do to pay  attention to his nearly-flooded radar and fly at the same  time. While he looped and close-called around the school of  jets, Felina and Feral’s argument bounced back and forth on  radio.

“Look – we’re in the enemy’s jets, right?”

“Yes, I know that–”

“The freshmen can’t tell it’s us, though, right?”

“Felina–”

“ThereFORE, forty-eight jets and climbing don’t know who’s  what and are shooting the bejeezus outta each other just to  cover all the bases!” railed Felina, her volume aggravating  the static. “Are you tanked or something?!”

“Don’t EVEN try that with me, little girl,” Feral warned,  hissing. “Insubordination costs *any*one a rank, even you.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I’m dyin’ out here –  what’re you gonna do? Call ‘em off!”

“No. If you separate yourselves, you’ll be able to  eliminate your targets.”

“That won’t work.”

Feral disregarded her. “All Enforcers: assemble and move  in conglomerate formation, due 57 degrees – Now!”

On cue, all cruisers and eight foreswepts congregated  synchronously into a rounded, bulging wall and slid together  to the right of the battle zone. Twenty-eight enemy craft,  themselves curious as to who belonged where, found  themselves all at once out in the open, as easy targets. The  Turbokat also took advantage of the split, and, not pausing  for an invitation from anyone, ran behind the opposing team  while speckling them with blinding incendiaries.

“Quick, while they’re distracted! Fire!!” prodded Felina.  The black jet pirouetted halfway and bolted at a high  angle from the enemy league as the reunited police closed in  and peppered them with all types of ordinance. Ten fell, but  the rest spotted cover in the onrushing squadrons and flew  between them, intermingling and setting off another frenzied  firefight. The SWAT Kat rose over and circled the confusion,  sympathizing with Felina’s resultant – and unrepeatable –  explosion on the radio.

“*That* worked well,” he commented.

“Actually, it did, for a while,” Turmoil pointed out. “But  to keep up its effectiveness, you’d have to try to outrun  them on a constant basis; there are too many to fight for  that kind of continual strain on your resources.”

“Well, you’re smart – what would *you* do?” asked T-Bone.

“This is your ground, not theirs,” she cryptically  reminded him.  He thought on that until her hint registered. “*Oh!* I  know what you mean,” he responded. He pulled up and barrel-  rolled for another orbit while clicking the radio for the  Enforcers’ attention.  At that time Dominica joined the on-air spat, watching T-  Bone’s moves, receiving his signal, and, intuitively, she  read his intent from them. “Lieutenant, I think it would be  the most effective if we use our field against the enemy,”

she offered.

“You mean wear ‘em out playing tag again, ‘cept all over  the city? We’ll burn up too much gas that way.”

“Well, sort of…I mean, let’s use the ‘home turf’  advantage.” Aware of their broadcast on enemy radio, she  slimmed her suggestions to that much. “You know…  familiarity?” The Turbokat zoomed behind her, tightening its  loop.

“I gotcha,” Felina affirmed, grasping the idea. “Everyone  – follow the Turbokat!”

On the order the complete swarm swam after the black jet,  opponents not distinguishing from and, distracted by the odd  command, not firing upon the others. The Turbokat at the  front, the fleet of fighters streamed into the city’s levels  and proceeded to hurtle through the valleys between  skyscrapers.  At the air traffic tower of Enforcer HQ, Callie and Razor,  bored with the inaction of the tech room, spotted Feral at a  board by the windows. His back was turned to them, and so he  did not notice nor pay mind to them when they assumed places  on either side of him. The commander’s ears had stuck  partway between to-the-side and rearward, his tail tip  twitched irregularly, and he hunched over the board, intent  on the sky. Having heard the proceedings downstairs, both  knew the situation, but only Razor comprehended it. He  identified his partner’s ploy through Dominica and awaited  the outcome excitedly; Callie, however, was beginning to  notice the time and felt her night’s second wind ebbing, and  she loosely hid a huge yawn behind a hand, merely content  the thing was ending.

“What are they doing?” Feral, contrary to his usual  decorum, squeaked.

“You’ll see,” Razor answered, leaning on the board.

“Wake me when something nifty happens,” Callie blearily  added.  The herd, ten blocks long, twined through a space that  barely accommodated one wingspan, forcing some on top of and  some below others. Three of the invaders miscalculated and  nicked neighboring buildings, shredding a few facades and  deflecting their flight paths into one another, discarding  them already. The rest of the train cruised without them and  twisted above the tops of the edifices, bearing toward the  pillarlike MegaKat Towers. They arcked up to it, the whole  parade flying parallel to its face, and when the Turbokat  came a centimeter within scraping its canopy against a  corner of the tower it fell upside down into the city again,  curving out sideways through a paper-thin fissure. The  Enforcers, used to their home skyways, tailed flawlessly,  but more of the invaders misjudged the exact placement of  the foreign territory in space, and at heightened speeds  thirteen jets clogged the lower alley and the road behind  it. Only twelve enemy foreswepts remained.  The last gauntlet lay less than a klick before them. A  double-overpass banded one side of a slender avenue to the  other, leaving a fighter-sized cell of empty air between the  upper and lower roads. The invaders foresaw the obvious, and  when MegaKat City’s team rocketed through the gap, they  copied them to the tilt of each plane’s wings. The immediate  turn straight up added by the police and vigilante was the  surprise, and the delayed and hurried scramble for the enemy  to duplicate it panned out into skids along building  surfaces to avoid early morning traffic and cartwheels into  the ones who were still airborne. The final jumble crashed  climactically into the intersection at the street’s end, the  surrounding structures eating the momentum off them as they  went. When the amalgamation screaked to its stop, the  foreswepts, the cruisers, and the Turbokat wound their ways  back to Enforcer HQ, their work done.

———-

Inside the air traffic tower, the moment all the reports  and damage estimates reached him, Feral had graduated past  livid and, at the board, trembled slightly, eyes cast down  as he concentrated on maintaining his composure. Callie,  sitting on the panel of the board, crossed her arms and  gave a sleepy little laugh, rocking evenly back and forth  as she did.

“There’s your answer, commander,” she invoked, gazing out  the window at the Turbokat as it led the charge home.

“While you managed to royally screw up a situation that was  already in hand, just one of the SWAT Kats fixed it right  up in no time. It looks like they’ve done you one better  again, doesn’t it?”

“But *look* at how they did it! All those buildings  smashed to pieces, and the pile-ups caused by them leaving  plane carcasses all over the roads! I don’t even want to  start on the expenses…” He rounded on her and telescoped to  his full height; Callie swallowed another yawn. “I NEVER  would have allowed that to happen!!”

“Right, you would have drawn up silly plans instead and  let the villains have a seat or go grab a coffee while they  waited. Except they have this funny habit of escaping when  you give them the chance.” The blonde sprang from the ledge  and stretched before leaving. “The SWAT Kats get the job  done, and that’s what counts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I  need to get up in the morning, so I’ll be leaving now. It’s  been a trip.” She passed through the door.  Razor, left with the combustible Feral, reasoned he had  best follow Callie’s example and exit before his health was  compromised. “Um… I see my partner’s landing in the street,  so I’ll go join him now, seeing as I’m not doing much here  and all. Beenniceworkingwithyousir.” And with that, the  small Kat retreated, almost mowing down a figure Feral had  not expected to see, nor much welcomed.

“G’d morning, there, sir – been a heckuva night, hasn’t  it?” Lieutenant Steele cordially hailed from across the  room. Feral snapped his head around in Steele’s direction,  eyes slit nearly shut.  Steele walked through and blithely continued, “Yep,  looked pretty one-sided from the beginning, but of course  we won out after all. I mean, we’re the Enforcers, right?  Right!”

Feral did not lessen the intensity of his stare.

“Uhm, right… Y’see, there was this terrible scuffle  downstairs, and of course I, being the only one of title  available, spent ALL DAY having to sort it out. *All day!*  Can you believe it?”

Again, Feral did not change.

“Well, aheh, I decided I should probably see what I could  do up here now – y’know, since I’m finally available JUST  now – and, ah, well, here I am. Need anything?”

This time, Feral faced Steele fully, then stepped toward  him.

“I… think I’ll go see if the men’s rooms are properly  stocked. ‘Bye!” The frenetic flapping of Steele’s dun coat  was the only indication of his presence there.

———-

Razor slowed his pace once he had put a floor between  himself and Feral, then brought it down all the way to a  walk when the disguised squad of female Enforcers sounded  on the steps behind him. He turned at the hip to search the  chattering group for one certain member, and when he  located her, he dropped back for the catch.  He glided past Dominica as she spoke to Felina about her  desert trick flying. “Really! I thought I would have made  it without afterburners, but I guess it just wasn’t to be,  hm?”

“I’ll have to remember that. Didn’t you run out of fuel?”

“Almost – it’s a miracle I had enough for the fight. I  hope they thought to drive out to the desert to pick up  those soldiers…”

“Ah, they’re not going anywhere fast. They’ll get ‘em.”

Felina glanced over Dominica’s head to Razor and caught the  gaze intended for the more elfin woman. She understood,  then summoned the cat girl’s attention for him. Dominica  checked where Felina looked, thanked the darkhair, and  threaded through to the costumed red kat.

“What?”

Certifying no one watched, he took her hands and led her  behind the stairwell. He affectionately clutched her upper  arms. “Are you all right now?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well…” Looking down, his hands slipped down her arms to  her doll-like wrists. “I thought you were mad at me.”

“Oh. That. I, ah…” She fluttered her eyes to the side,  then to him. “Listen – don’t let it bother you, okay? I  was…in a strange mood this morning.”

“A girl thing, right?” he quipped, smiling now and  holding tightly to her hands.  She breathed. “Yeah. You could say that,” she dully  agreed.

“I’m keeping you up, aren’t I? You need your sleep,  sweetheart.” The ruddy kat encircled her with his arms,  squeezing her as close as she would go, and gently nuzzled  her cheek. “And now I can, too. That’s all I needed – I’ll  talk to you later, preferably when we’re both more  cognizant.” Dominica was actually wholly awake, but feigned  tiredness and very weakly reciprocated his embrace. “Right.  Gotta go now, beautiful. Take care.” Razor bounded out of  the stairwell cubby and trotted out of sight, and Dominica,  to herself, watched, unaffected.

———-

On the street directly before the headquarters’ front  steps, T-Bone helped Turmoil dismount from the Turbokat.

“Careful,” he warned as she slid to the ground. She seized  his shoulder to support herself when she landed, and he  stood patiently while she recovered. When her legs could  hold her on their own, she released him, but both  maintained a steady gaze at the other.

“Thank you again, T-Bone,” Turmoil spoke. “You may very  well have saved my life more than once tonight.”

“Yeah, well… It’s in the job description, what can I  say?” She smirked at this, not the self-important smirk of  the morning, but a reserved, grateful mini-smile. She  hugged herself, then crossed her wrists over themselves at  her belly, and T-Bone shifted his weight to his other leg.

“So this is it for a while,” he mutedly stated.

“Yes. Do you still think I’m a liar?”

“A what?” Stung, thinking she had vested in him the same  respect he had grown for her, he drew away. “You think I  wouldn’t trust you after we just went through all that? I  found all the proof I needed to realize you weren’t lying—”

“Proof is nothing. Do you still think I’m a liar, in your  heart’s pith?”

“Uh…”

“Inside. Would you be willing to put your life on the  line for me again purely on the strength of my character,  not my deeds?”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Let me rephrase: If my life were to be jeopardized  another time in the near future, would you go out of your  way to come to my aid, or will the job be done with no  further energy spent on me once I’m arrested?”

The tabby came closer, leaning for her as he did until  only a few inches separated the two. “Why?”

She exhaled. “We didn’t kill Sylph today, only a small  branch she can easily repair. The fact that I managed to do  even that and escape with my life will set her on a hunt  for me, and with her determination, she won’t stop until my  head is handed to her personally. In prison, my mobility  will become severely limited, and all Sylph will have to do  is hire out a skillful hitman – certainly no roadblock to a  virtual mob queen.”

T-Bone heard this, then narrowed his eyes as he visua-  lized the possible whos and hows of the outcome if  Turmoil’s divinations were accurate. He recognized the  gravity of her requests and listened to her reiterate the  most important. “I asked you from the beginning to do  something extra by becoming my star witness, and with that  I need to know: Do you find me worthy enough to place  yourself in danger for my sake again, or will any positive  attachments to me disappear the second the Enforcers take  me away?”

He looked her over for what seemed like the fiftieth time  that night as she waited, tense but with dignity, for his  answer. Her arms now bound her above her stomach, not  crossed but banded so tightly across her they appeared to  be there to prevent her pooling into a bundle of ribbons  lest she bare any more of her inner workings. Her face, to  him the first he had seen that could express so much with  so little actual change, beseeched a promise from him  through mildly knit eyebrows, half-hooding and thereby  accentuating acutely focused eyes, and a set mouth. It was  then he noticed the new, inch-long scabbed line that  stretched up the middle of her right cheek from the edge of  her jaw.

“I’ll watch out for you,” he vowed, nodding once.  The fawnhair’s brow relaxed, allowing her a dramatically  more soothed demeanor. “I can’t thank you enough – I wish I  still had my old estate so I could offer at least something  worth your while…”

He held up his hands to her as a foursome of Enforcers,  in no hurry, ambled out the front doors toward them.  Turmoil considered them, then regarded T-Bone.

“You know my real name,” she commented. “Sometime before  I die, I’d like to see *you* without your mask.”

The Enforcers reached the middle plateau between  staircase levels, and Turmoil decided to close their  interaction then. “I’ll see you in court,” she waved,  conserved, and started up the steps for the police. When  she met them, the officers, somewhat surprised by her  willingness to reenter headquarters with them, dealt her  the formality of handcuffs – rather sheepishly and a bit  warily – and then escorted, as opposed to led, her through  the doors.  T-Bone continued to stare at the doors even after Turmoil  had travelled well inside the building. The appearance of  Razor through an entrance off the side jostled him into  awareness, though not a thoroughly clear one, and he  anticipated his eager partner with more impartiality than  friendliness.

“That was interesting, working independently for so long  for one mission,” the thin kat gulped, the trip from the  top to the bottom of the HQ having taken some of the wind  from him. “Like the new costume. Wow, you look as dead as  everyone else – even poor Nicka could barely talk, she was  so tired. Rough night?”

T-Bone concentrated on the glassy front doors, closing  his eyes and gradually shaking his head. “Just worn out, is  all. Let’s get outta here.”

Razor caught the abnormal behavior. “T-Bone? Is anything  wrong?”

“Nothing that hasn’t already been mapped out,” the yellow  tabby equivocally dismissed, turning on his heel and  forcing all but the solitary jet out of his realm. “Let’s  GO already.”

The red-orange half of the pair hesitated, puzzling over  what had been said. The events of the day had all sped by  him without a lot to contribute about themselves before  hurrying along again; he waved it off, taking his partner’s  esoteric mutter to be one more and willing to move on to a  day that would not give him such short shrift. He trotted  after the tall, silent kat, unmindful of him or his  concealed private feud, as more comfortable plans for the  mundane took place for another day.

———-

“Waaaait! Wait! I want to talk to you!”

Callie pattered after the night men, who paused to see  what drew her clamor. “Hey, that’s the deputy mayor –  remember?” identified Razor while catching hold of T-Bone’s  elbow.

“Oh, what’s she want? We didn’t wreck the neighborhood  too bad,” T-Bone fuzzily objected. “She’d better make it  quick, late as it is.”

“Whew… Thanks for waiting, guys,” said Callie upon  reaching them. They stood, fixed like monuments, as she  dusted off her dress. “I’m glad I didn’t miss you yet. Now…  how interested would you two be in a City Hall liaison?”

T-Bone, spent, started to turn away, but Razor stalled  him. “For what, exactly?”

She threw back her shoulders, entering sales-pitch mode.

“Well, seeing as how you two seem to be just starting out –  this is only your second major mission, right? – it may  have occurred to you you’re going to need an efficient  means of trouble-spotting, in order to prevent as much  unnecessary loss as possible, correct?”

“Yes – go on.”

“I’m assuming you have lives outside of this as well,  which means that having to track, oh, the news channels  twenty-four hours a day bites a lot out of your free time.  Is this also correct?”

The kats exchanged glances. “Uh, sure,” Razor vouched.  Callie bobbed her head and lightly crossed her arms, one  knee bending her lower half slightly to her left. “So, it’d  be in your best interests to have someone else take that  load off you. And who better than someone whose whole job  is to watch the city – me?”

At this, the SWAT Kats straightened, the idea having  perked some common interest; T-Bone even faced the deputy  mayor full-on, fisting a hand on his hip as he did.

“What’s in it for you?” he asked.

“This is the second time I’ve seen you guys in action.  The first time, I was truly impressed, and now, seeing how  failsafe your methods are, I decided it would benefit both  you and MegaKat City to have a third party scout for you.  With the slack-off standards of the Enforcers nowadays, you  stand to be the only real chance this city has against all  the injustices inside it.”

She awaited their reply, confident she had won them  already. The yellow tabby considered his jet over his  shoulder for a while, and the leaner red kat rubbed his  chin. “Well, it sounds like a good idea, and I know I’d  like that extra time,” he began, partly through his hand,

“but won’t that hurt your reputation? A city official  acting on the behalf of state-unrecognized law enforcement  can’t look too good on her record.”

“I’ve got my secrets that I’ve kept hidden. You’d just be  another one, but a good piece of the public’s moving in  your support – if you’re thinking of me being just in it  for popularity’s sake, you’d be helping more than hurting  my status. You’d have nothing to lose by accepting my  offer.”

“Can we trust you?” interjected T-Bone.

“I keep tabs on a metropolis of twenty million; their  health as a people is my main concern. So is yours, I take  it. I wouldn’t gain anything by befriending you and then  turning on you; we’re both after the same thing!”

“So that’s a yes.”

“Yep.”

“Good.” The larger stepped out from behind the smaller,  so they both addressed her. “Then we’ll take you up on it,”

finalized Razor.

“Great!” Despite herself, Callie clapped her hands once,  then noticed herself and settled back into the more proper  form. “Ahem. Yes. Soo… is there a number where I can reach  you? A particular band, perhaps?”

“As a matter of fact…” T-Bone tapped Razor’s shoulder and  murmured into his back-swivelled ear. “Didn’t you say you  made ‘em for when we were separated and in costume, too?”

he suggested.

“Made what? Oh yeah, I did. Hang on a sec,” answered  Razor, foraging in a hip pocket. He located the object,  withdrew it, confirmed what it was, and held it out to the  curious halfling. She plucked the triangular white thing  from his fingers and cradled it in her palm, running her  thumb over its central red button. Razor further explained,

“That’ll call us whenever you need us, kind of like a  pager. You can tell us what’s going on, and we’ll come to  wherever you say. Will that work okay?”

She slipped it to thumb and forefinger, examining it in a  streetlight’s halo before depositing and zipping the device  inside a small white handbag at her side. “That’s perfect.  Here, I don’t think I’ve properly introduced myself yet!”

She offered her right hand into the space between the  three, looking first at Razor, then at T-Bone.

“I’m Deputy Mayor Calico Briggs – most people who know me  just call me ‘Callie’,” she reported.  T-Bone’s insistence on returning home softened, and he  extended his right arm and enveloped her hand in his,  giving it one stiff, accepting shake. “Pleased to meet you,  Miss Briggs.”

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