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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.”
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“*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 -”
“- 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.
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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 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,”
“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-”
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.
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.
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,”
“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?”
“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!”
“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.
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.”
“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.
*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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“Just curious. Was he?”
“No, he was a kat.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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,”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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,”
“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…”
“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,”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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–”
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?”
“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,”
“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.
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?”
“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.”
“Good.” The larger stepped out from behind the smaller, so they both addressed her. “Then we’ll take you up on it,”
“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?”
“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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Disclaimer: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. All Rights Reserved. © 1995. All other characters and material within this page are the property of their respective creators.