"T-Bone! T-Bone? T-Bone, wake up."
The big kat's eyes opened slowly. A muzzy pink and gold blob hovered before him. It took endless seconds for him to realize what it was.
"C... Callie?" the SWAT Kat rasped, propping himself up on one elbow.
"Are you alright?" Callie asked, moving to support him with her own narrow shoulder.
"I..." T-Bone shook his head. What had happened to him? Where was he? Where was...?
"Razor!" The scream tore from his throat without warning as T-Bone remembered. As the horrific images returned. His friend... Razor... a ci-kat-a.
And, now he was gone... Somewhere with that purple-furred monster. A slave to it.
T-Bone lunged to his feet, nearly knocking Callie over. His eyes blazed. He would not let that... thing have Jake.
"T-Bone..." Callie hurried to stand, struggling with her narrow skirt. She had never seen the SWAT Kat like this. But, she knew something was desperately wrong.
"Where's the TurboKat?!"
The question was directed to no one in particular, but Callie answered it hesitantly.
"Razor... left in it a few minutes after I got here..."
T-Bone swore so vehemently Callie took a step back. Something was more wrong than she could imagine.
The tabby's gaze swung to the smoking remains of the Cyclotron. No help there. Maybe Callie would loan him her car... But, first...
He reached into one of the pockets on his flight suit to produce a square tracking device. He pushed a few buttons. The device's tiny screen glowed to life. Then... Nothing. No signal.
'Razor disabled his tracker.'
Even his mental voice sounded dumbfounded.
No. No, Razor would never do that. It was the creature controlling him.
And now, there was no way T-Bone could track either the TurboKat or Razor.
Only wait for them to appear. Wait.
But, what if there was a point of no return? A point after which Razor would never be... a kat again? Never be... himself again?
T-Bone stared at the tiny monitor, disbelieving. Then, with a moan, he sank to his knees.
"Nooooo...." The word was a sob now. "No."
Chance Furlong jerked upright in bed, breathing heavily. Sweat dripped from his matted headfur, sliding down his face. For long minutes, his breathing was the only sound. His eyes stared vacantly at the room around him. But, slowly, it became familiar once more.
No power plant.
And, Jake was safe back in the research facility.
Safe and himself again.
Chance began to relax.
"Just a bad memory," he reminded himself, mopping the sweat from his forehead. He flopped back into the bed with a sigh. "A really bad memory."
He twisted to eye his clock.
Seven o'clock. An hour until he needed to get up. By the time he'd be able to doze back off it would be time to open the garage. Which meant he was needlessly losing an hour of sleep.
Well, fine. Maybe the garage just wouldn't open until nine. He was self-employed - more or less. He could do that.
That defiant thought in mind, Chance stretched himself back into a comfortable position. But, something wouldn't leave him alone.
Was he supposed to be doing something this morning? Something different? His tail twitched in thought.
Carefully, Chance went over a mental list of his schedule. Garage, eat, garage, visit Jake...
Chance sat straight up again.
He was supposed to go get Professor Hackle and take the old kat to look at Jake this morning. To fit him for a translator the kindly professor had been developing for months.
"Right." The tabby slid out of bed. "Get the Professor."
Mechanically, he began to get dressed, tugging pants on over his boxer shorts. Then, he stopped. Why get fully clothed just to change into his flight suit down in the hangar? So, dressing ended there, and he stumbled down the hall to the bathroom.
It was only as he made his way to the kitchen that Chance thought of "the problem". What was he going to pick the Professor up in? Ask a septegenarian to strap into the TurboKat? To straddle a jet-powered motorcycle?
Chance paused at the fridge. The ThunderTruck? He rolled the idea around in his mind as he poured himself a glass of milk.
No, he decided at last, holding the milk just below his lips. From the inside, it was painfully clear that the ThunderTruck was no more than a turbo-charged towtruck. Callie had already figured out the SWAT Kat secret. Better if he didn't have to explain to Jake how half the city had learned it.
No, this called for outside help.
The big kat drained the glass in a single gulp and thumped it back down on the counter. Too bad he didn't know Callie's cell phone number. The communicator calling her might be a shock. But, it was better than calling City Hall and fighting through secretaries.
As he pulled his own communicator from a pocket, the tabby subconsciously slicked back his matted headfur. Not that she could see him, but who knew? Maybe he'd find a way sneak in asking about a date on Friday night.
'Right, Furlong. Like you have time for a social life...'
But, it never hurt to dream.
"Pleeeease? It's not like I have a civilian vehicle on hand..."
"Okay, back that up and listen to yourself. A civilian vehicle. So, that's like my Enforcer jet instead of your super jet?"
Lieutenant Felina Feral leaned back in her borrowed chair. She'd thought she'd be nervous talking to the SWAT Kat she'd only met once before. Talking to a SWAT Kat period. But, she wasn't. In fact, the payback for their last meeting was downright fun. And, getting to briefly commandeer her uncle's office didn't hurt. Smirking at that, she waited for T-Bone's reply.
It took the big tom a few minutes. He was facedown on his kitchen counter... and making a firm resolve to clean said countertop more often.
At last, he managed to find words.
"Lieutenant," he growled, "Deputy Mayor Briggs suggested I contact you as she's..."
"In Lake Faroe doing Manx's job - I know," Felina returned, using one foot to twist the Commander's massive chair back and forth as she spoke. It made an interesting squeal with each movement.
"You know? Did she talk to you?"
"Yeah." Felina tentatively put a booted foot against the desk. The moment of sacrilege was delicious. But, asking for more trouble than she wanted to be in. She removed the foot before replying. "She told me to make you smile. Said you weren't doing it enough. Said your facial muscles would atrophy, and MegaKat City would never see that roguish grin again."
Oh, this was too much fun.
"From the sound of it, I think she likes you."
Chance felt a hot blush start in his cheeks and reach all the way to his toes. He quickly tried to control it.
"Lieutenant!" It came out as more of a wail than a growl.
One that Felina interrupted with a short laugh. "I'm going, T-Bone. Don't worry. Just teasing you until my shift officially ends."
On his end Chance blinked.
"I worked third shift last night. Aaaaand....," Felina looked across the room to the wall-mounted clock, "It just ended. I better get moving."
With that, she hung up.
Chance continued to hold the phone to his ear long after the dialtone had resumed. At last, he reached to hang it up, shaking his head.
"And, she's related to Feral?!"
Lieutenant Felina Feral left her uncle's office as she'd found it. Best not to get in any more trouble in only her third month here in MegaKat City. Her uncle was still angry over that little unscheduled trip into space she'd taken.
The black-haired lieutenant sighed. Any other officer would have been dressed down for such a dangerous stunt. She would have been dressed down if she'd still been in Lake Faroe*. Here, she was berated mainly for putting herself in danger.
With a shake of her head she dismissed those thoughts. She'd have a talk with her uncle yet. But, right now, her idols from her Academy days needed her.
"You said what?!" Razor demanded. Well, not in so many words, but T-Bone had learned to read his partner's ci-kat-a facial expressions well enough to know that the extended stare he was receiving was one of disbelief. And, it made him sigh.
"Well, I was a little stressed, and it just popped out."
The stare continued.
"She came in at just the wrong moment!"
T-Bone's shoulders slumped. Clearly, Razor wanted the full story.
"Do you... Were you listening when I told you about the aliens that tried to steal the planet's water?"
"Okay,..." T-Bone gathered his thoughts together and began. "See, I had to get up to their ship... Only, when me n' the Enforcers headed after 'em, they went into a higher orbit. The TurboKat couldn't follow. I'd shot down a few of their fighter craft, so I went back to find one that would still fly, and..."
As T-Bone recapped infiltrating the alien ship, half of Razor listened. The other half reminisced on the first time he'd heard this story. It was a new talent this ability to divide, yet not compromise, his attention. An ability he'd only recognized in the last few weeks. He assumed it was somehow rooted in the ci-kat-as' hive mind. A ci-kat-a could receive information from the Queen or another worker with pertinent information in his memory while simultaneously performing a task.
In any case, it made it simple to listen to T-Bone - today's T-Bone, full of life - and hear again the broken kat of two months ago. He'd listened through a fading fog then, his mind still fighting free of the hiss of voices, the last remnants of the hive mind. He only heard them dimly now. The voices of his fellow former kats, dim impressions of their moods. All of the ci-kat-as had died, pounding against the walls of their cages and clawing at their own bodies until they ruptured the nearly indestructible exoskeleton beyond repair. Those that were restrained from that... somehow rotted from the inside.
Razor shuddered visibly, remembering the palpable urgings that he do likewise. Thank goodness he'd listened to T-Bone instead. Thank goodness all the former kats had listened.
His thoughts slid to a stop as T-Bone face before him grew concerned.
"You okay, bud?"
He'd seen the shudder.
Razor quickly nodded to reassure his friend.
T-Bone frowned. "You were doing that thinking thing again, weren't you? Listening to me and thinking at the same time?"
Razor nodded, knowing the big kat wasn't mad.
T-Bone immediately fixed the orange-brown ci-kat-a in a glare. "Why, you...! Well..." He huffed once. "I'll just have to record myself and make you listen to two of me!" he roared.
Razor quickly sketched a smiley face on his ever-present notepad.
"Don't you smirk at me!" T-Bone pouted, pushing the pad aside. "Now, where was I?"
His friend scribbled a response of, "Mutilor had just grabbed you."
"Right." T-Bone affected a grandiose air. "Thank you, my good kat." He cleared his throat and returned his tone to normal before continuing.
"So, he had me, and I was this close to finding out if aliens feel pain when you kick 'em down south..." Razor could tell by his face that the big tabby hadn't been nearly so calm at the time. "...when this ship busts into the room. Mutilor drops me, and I end up laying on the floor. I was pretty out of it. It all happened so fast. Then, I started to wonder if we were all going to be sucked out. I mean, there was this huge hole in the ship! But, nothing happened. Got me why. Anyways, about that time, I look up and this she-kat walks out of the ship that saved me. She looks down at me and asks, 'Did I miss the party?' Just like that!"
Razor made a curious noise in response.
The big kat paused and eyed his friend strangely. "You okay, bud?"
A quick nod answered him.
Inside, Razor chuckled. T-Bone acted like he'd been so surprised. But, the she-kat's words sounded very like something the tiger-striped SWAT Kat would have said.
"Anyway," T-Bone continued, "Then, she sticks out her hand and says, "Hi. Lieutenant Felina Feral. So, I say, 'Hi' back. Then, it hits me. Feral? Yeah, she says, why? And then, I... Well, y'know."
Razor let his head drop into one three-clawed hand.
"C'mon! I'd just been roughed up! I had an excuse!" T-Bone wailed.
Razor couldn't help it. He laughed.
And, this time, T-Bone realized what the funny noise was.
"That's your laugh?!" he blurted.
The ci-kat-a nodded.
"Sheesh... Please don't try to sing."
Razor quickly drew a frowning face.
"Well, it would sound like a car dragging its muffler behind it. Admit it!"
Razor crossed his thin arms. The way the sleeves of the already loose flight suit T-Bone had brought him hung from his nearly skeletal arms made him seem almost emaciated. It was disconcerting. His ci-kat-a's face was still frightening, but somehow comical in a kat's ill-fitting clothes. But, there was nothing comical about the fresh stare in which he fixed T-Bone.
"You stop that."
The stare went on.
"I didn't do anything to deserve the cold stare."
Now, T-Bone was staring back.
"Y'know... I'm at a serious disadvantage here... My eyeballs are drying out."
This time Razor's laugh was a full-volumed concert of squeaks and screeches. And, despite the unpleasantness of the sound, T-Bone's own howl joined it.
"What's going on in here?!"
Felina Feral stood just outside the chamber, hands on her hips. Behind her, Professor Hackle's expression was thoughtful. To his left, Dr. Katleider just looked relieved.
"We thought Razor was hurt or something," she scolded quietly, recovering at last.
Razor hung his head in a typical, "I've been bad," gesture as T-Bone sat up.
"Sorry, Doc," the big tabby apologized. "We were just having a good laugh." Then, he waved to the others, sheepishly avoiding Felina's gaze. It was time to get to business.
Professor Hackle carefully positioned the translator's main component, a small black box, along where Razor's neck joined his body. It was the point where the Professor, the research team and Razor himself thought the ci-kat-as' peculiar sounds could best be intercepted and distorted into more feline vocal sounds. Holding it in place gingerly with two fingers, he nodded to Razor.
The mutated kat returned the nod and took a deep breath. Then, he tried to speak. A raspy gurgle came out. But, at its tail was the faintest hint of speech.
Encouraged, Hackle shifted the translator a bit. This time, a hoarse, "'Ello," made its way from Razor's throat.
T-Bone's previously unfocused stare snapped back to the moment. His green eyes, invisible behind his mask, flew to meet Razor's own.
It was the same voice that had vanished a little over a year ago. Lost in insectoid buzzes and screeches.
Never had he dreamed the translator would sound anything but mechanical. He had assumed that his friend's real voice was lost with the completion of the mutation.
For his part, Razor was equally astounded. So giddy he completely missed whatever it was the Professor was saying to him. Had his ci-kat-a's voice always been his own? Just distorted beyond recognition?
Incredulous, the smaller SWAT Kat returned T-Bone's astounded gaze, though his ci-kat-a eyes showed no emotion, and tried to speak again.
Hmm... Hard consonants weren't working so well.
But, T-Bone's face was alight. He'd heard enough.
"Hey, bud," he responded hoarsely.
Professor Hackle merely watched them, smiling softly to himself.
Some feet behind him, slumped against the glass viewing wall, Felina stirred. Her dark eyes opened and slowly focused on the trio before her.
Still sitting there? No... Something was happening now. What a day to have done the graveyard shift.
"Did I miss something?" the dark-haired she-kat blurted.
Every head turned her way.
No sense in retreating at this point.
T-Bone snorted, his large frame shaking slightly. Two silent seconds ticked by while he shook as though he was having a seizure. Then, the big SWAT Kat burst into loud laughter.
Razor followed suit. Even Professor Hackle allowed himself a slight chuckle.
Felina just crossed her arms, her face set in a scowl worthy of her uncle.
---------------------------------------To Be Continued.... Tune in next time to find out just what T-Bone called Felina back during the Mutilor incident. Oh yeah, and the rest of the plot too!