Title: T-Bone Too
To the Dawn's Earliest Light
Author: Kristen Sharpe
Date: March 9, 2000
Updated September 8, 2003
Completed May 29, 2007
Warnings: May contain slightly more than average violence for a children's cartoon.
Disclaimer: "SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron," its characters and concepts are copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Inc and are used without permission.
For the curious, "T-Bone Too" is intended to be a four-part series. Welcome to book two.
This one was a while in coming and it's been repeatedly delayed by writer's block. Thanks goes to Sage for her encouragement and suggestions throughout the project. Thanks also to Beth for her invaluable contributions to my early brainstorming sessions on the series. An added thanks goes to Matt Fiske for writing "Timeless" and thereby showing me where some sequences of my own story were empty and heartless rather than dramatic so that I could try to fix them. And, always, thanks to everyone who has read/is reading this story and its predecessor and all the wonderful people on FFN that have offered feedback.
This installment of the "T-Bone Too" series has now been completed
with a very, very short wrap up. But, the story is at a point where, if I continue,
the next part that will be as long as what I've already written. So, I decided
to wrap up on a high note and pick up the next two major plot threads in Book
3. I always knew that "Dawn"/Book 2 was going to be a sort of bridge
story anyways. Its job was to provide the setup for the rest of the story, and
I think it's done that. As always, any comments and constructive criticism are
--I've seen the nightfall turn to day
with every single word You say,
Element of light I long to share.
Something cosmic's in the air.
-- The Power Cosmic by The Echoing Green
Dawn found Callie Briggs still staring moodily into the fire's embers. Her blonde hair reeked of woodsmoke. Her glasses wobbled on her delicate nose askance.
"He'll be back."
Starting from her half-awake doze, Callie swivelled to find Felina bending over her with a cup of coffee.
"Thanks," the petite blonde murmured, taking the proffered cup. She paused with it midway to her lips. "Doesn't Camp C need you back?" she asked.
"They'll be okay for a day or two," Felina returned. "My second, McFurland*, can handle it. We weren't just attacked."
Callie simply nodded.
Felina reached out to gently shake her shoulder.
"He will be back. He's a SWAT Kat," she assured.
"It's been two days..."
"It could take that long to get there and back." That said, Felina paused, eyeing Callie. Somehow, she sensed there was more to Callie's worry. "Callie,... you and T-Bone...," she started.
"They're back!" The joyful squeal echoed in the clearing as a twelve year old kitt tore out of the jungle growth with a grin on his face.
Felina and Callie spun as one, eyes wide. The kitt beamed even more and clarified. "The SWAT Kats are back!"
"Uhm... I'm fine, really," Razor assured the curious kat looking him over.
The black kat who claimed - for that matter, so did Feral - that he was a doctor was not to be deterred.
"I'll be the judge of that," the tomkat returned, adjusting his glasses and bending close for a fresh look at the symbiotic growth on Razor's chest.
Idly, T-Bone thought the tall doctor would look far less comical if his glasses weren't held together with masking tape. Razor caught his grin and gave him a reproachful glare over the doctor's head. T-Bone returned in kind, giving Razor his finest smirk. But, it was an expression of joy.
He was deliriously overjoyed to be reunited with his friend... and the only way he knew to show it was through playful bickering and smart remarks. Razor grinned at him as though reading his mind. Razor knew; Razor always knew.
Feral shook his head as he watched the two. Now knowing their identities, it seemed so obvious. Such was the magic of a mask.
Leaf dappled light played over the three kats as the doctor continued his examination. They stood on a mossy hummock that rose from the surrounding swamp. The remainder of the medical camp were some distance away on a plateau, treating the wounded from the last attack.
Slow and methodical as he had been in examining T-Bone's mutation, the doctor prodded Razor's symbiote some more. It was the only one left. The PastMaster's magic had made the other on his head vanish, unneeded.
"The mutation seems to do as he suspects," the doctor murmured to Feral, eyes wide in amazement as he placed the stethoscope on Razor's symbiote for a second time. A steady heartbeat was evident, throbbing more from the growth than Razor's chest itself.
The doctor removed the stethoscope. Sliding the instrument into its case, he turned to face Feral. At first, all he could manage was a nod, then he found words.
"I'd need... more than we have here to give you a definite, Commander," he began, "but, he seems fit."
It was a diagnosis both SWAT Kats expected. T-Bone had mentioned no more of Razor's former brain damage than he had his own former rabid state. Both were gone without a trace, and the big kat was more than glad no one else knew they had ever existed. As far as he was concerned, Razor needed no test beyond a study of the clarity in his amber eyes.
He spun at the voice to find Callie Briggs clambering up the slippery hill, Felina, for once, tailing behind. Or had the once deputy mayor run ahead? Her face was flushed, her glasses tilted at a wild angle.
And, she found two SWAT Kats there to greet her.
"You're alive!" Callie was radiant, embracing each kat in turn.
T-Bone could do nothing but smile. It was more of a glow than a smile, but he couldn't contain it. He was deliriously happy and he had a right to be.
Watching the happy reunion, Feral murmured to the doctor. "I think it's time we met at the cavern again..."
By evening, ten and twelve year old messengers had spread the word, their bare feet racing the swamp trails others couldn't even find. The message they brought was met with mixed elation and doubt. Still, it came from Feral himself.
The SWAT Kats were alive and everyone was to gather at Sanctuary.
"Wow..." It was a gasp of awe and surprise. It was the only fitting response T-Bone could find. Beside him, Razor nodded agreement.
The cavern they called Sanctuary was immense, sixty feet high and over a hundred in diameter. It was several miles from the swamp, where the subtropical jungle began to give way to a stand of ancient hardwoods. And, a half-mile below those hardwoods was Sanctuary, the refuge Callie Briggs had discovered in the wake of the Enforcers' disastrous attack on the Metallikats' Central Control Matrix. In that dark hour it had sheltered all who could be crowded into its subterranean caverns. Until wisdom eventually prevailed over fear. If the kats were ever found, hundreds in one place, the result would be slaughter. So, they left Sanctuary to disperse into the camps, and the great cavern stood as they had found it, abandoned for over a year.
Until now. Once again, all the refugees had regrouped. Two years ago they came to hide together, now, to celebrate... and, hopefully, sow the seeds of the Metallikats' defeat.
T-Bone's green eyes were huge. Their forms dimly illumined by a myriad of traditional torches and countless battery or gas-powered lamps, kats filled the magnificent room. They crowded in until they were packed tight against the damp, rock walls. Voices echoing from the stone, they created an eerie clamor. Hollow and countless, the voices seemed hushed. Phantom voices. None seeming to belong to a specific flesh and blood kat. As though the ghosts of all who had been lost were here as well.
T-Bone shivered with that thought.
And, he had to stand high on a natural platform facing the masses. He and Razor were the kats of the hour. The big tabby was suddenly, uncharacteristically, filled with stage fright. His mutation he guessed. His grotesque face. Or was he afraid someone would want the whole story of his survival and sudden reappearance?
A light nudge at his back assured the larger SWAT Kat that Razor had noticed his discomfort. The failings of a nervous tail and a perceptive friend.
Turning to face Razor, T-Bone met Feral instead. Rather than speaking, the broad-shouldered kat motioned them aside beneath an outcropping of limestone where they were less visible.
"Sir?" Razor queried, curious. He looked at Feral puzzled, pointedly averting his eyes from T-Bone, who was mouthing, "Kiss up," with a typical smirk.
Feral was no less attentive than Razor.
"I take it you're mouthier with an appreciative audience, T-Bone?" he asked. A single, bushy brow quirked simultaneously with a corner of the old Commander's mouth.
Again, T-Bone was surprised. The old disciplinarian had lost everything and gained a sense of humor.
"Sorry, Sir," he returned. "I was..."
"Nervous and still overexcited," Feral filled in.
Crud! Did his lousy mutation have to destroy all his careful checks on his emotions? One thing for Razor to see it, but anyone else....
If Feral saw his frustration, he made no comment. Instead, he stretched a hand out in the direction of the crowd, the sweeping gesture taking in the masses.
"Not quite all that remains of MegaKat City, but the majority," he murmured, his gaze travelling upward.
Following it, T-Bone truly saw the magnitude of those before him for the first time. Not only did kats fill the cave floor but, as the cavern rose to its rocky vault, tier upon tier of rock, some accessible by tunnels, others by a difficult climb, held more kats. Farther and farther, higher and higher, T-Bone tilted his head back to see them all. It was impossible. So many. And, all here because they'd been told that the SWAT Kats were alive.
A hush fell on the room abruptly. T-Bone tore his eyes from the breathtaking scene to find Feral stepping forward with his hands raised high for attention. Callie appeared at his side, entering discreetly from the narrow crevice that opened on the platform. She turned to smile at both SWAT Kats and then faced the assembled masses.
"Exiles of MegaKat," she began, her voice clear and strong. Loud enough to need no microphone.
At his side, T-Bone could sense Razor processing that information. That the cavern naturally had superb acoustics was clear. Likely, Razor would be able to explain it all in detail by the end of Callie's first paragraph,... which he should be listening to. Tail twitching, he forced himself to put his thoughts aside and focus.
"The rumors you have heard are true. The SWAT Kats are alive," Callie continued, motioning the twosome forward. "They've been prisoners of Dr. Viper... and subjected to his experiments," she explained, voice softening.
T-Bone was sure they could all hear the sound of his heart hitting the floor. Surely the shame of his lie burned on his face. Then, he was facing the remaining free citizens of MegaKat again. And, his mask was back. Not the black mask he always wore as a SWAT Kat, but the mask he had worn only five days ago. The mask of real emotion they would read and never realize the extent of all that it hid. An alliance with the creature who created this world, a being who might be a demon for all the SWAT Kat knew. His allowing Callie to believe her theory, errant as it was. His posing as a dead hero whose grave would never be honored.
Callie was still speaking.
"And, now they've returned to help us fight. Fight to survive... and fight to free our city!" Callie finished her speech, voice rising with excited fervor as her face took on the joyous glow it had held when she greeted the twosome, together again, back in the swamp.
T-Bone stood numb, a single tear sliding from beneath his mask. Lost as the crowd roared approval. Hurting with every cheer. Burdened with every hope laid on him.
"It's the story they want. It's the story he would have wanted them to hear."
Again, Razor's soft voice found his ears, over the outer and the inner tumults. How, T-Bone would never know. It didn't matter. The smaller SWAT Kat had pieced together the story T-Bone had told him - the true, the whole story - with his friend's actions and attitudes and said exactly what the big kat needed to hear. Razor too bore the weight of the PastMaster's secret now, as well as the hopes of the people. They shared both. As Razor had already reminded him, those few days ago, he wasn't alone anymore. Razor bore those two burdens with him.
And, the roar of exultant sound that rushed into the void of T-Bone's mind on the heels of Razor's words washed away the other two griefs.
"So, are they just morale-boasters or fighters?"
The heavyset kat's words rang in the sudden quiet of the deep cavern, the council cavern. It was the question they all wanted answered, and the one only he dared ask.
"Fighters," T-Bone returned levelly, ignoring the skepticism in the other's eyes. Just how did these assembled leaders of the people view the SWAT Kats? Curious, he searched the room, eyeing faces lit by flickering torches. A single, battery-powered lamp at the room's center gave him a starting point, but, beyond its sphere, all was veiled in darkness. Dim figures lined the walls. Some stood. Some crouched uncomfortably amid the rock walls. Others sat simply on the floor. Each was here because they held respect for one reason or another.
"Really?" the speaker queried, drawing T-Bone's attention back to him. "I thought you were a morale scheme of Briggs'. As everyone knows that the real SWAT Kats..."
Razor cut him off, finishing the sentence. "...are alive."
T-Bone glanced from Callie to his partner. Callie, at the head of the room, was irked, but quiet. At his side, Razor was another matter. The normally gentle amber eyes were burning with fury. The slim SWAT Kat's tortured face was the only replay of the crash T-Bone needed. Quickly, trying to save Razor more pain, he leapt in.
"What would prove it to you?"
"I don't need proof." Feral's deep voice brought all eyes to him. He stepped forward from his position against the wall by the SWAT Kats. "T-Bone more than proved himself saving Callie's camp, councilman. Not a kat was lost. And, I was there," he added, looking pointedly at the doubter.
T-Bone eyed the kat himself. A former city councilman? And, those beside him... They bore the same look. The way they carried themselves, their neat appearance... They had commanded power and likely still did. Though how much was
"Fine," the heavyset councilman snapped to Feral. "Let them fight under you, Commander, and boost morale. As far as everyone here is concerned, they're the SWAT Kats - we'll tell no one otherwise. Now, they can be excused so we can conti--"
"They will not leave!" Callie shrilled, stepping to the center of the room.
The councilman straightened to glare at her across the room. "They hardly belong in a meeting of this magnitude!" The two beside him nodded in agreement. "They're your crowd-pleasers and part of Feral's troops... and they'll take orders like the rest of his kats."
Feral's snort of amusement ended the tirade.
"The day the SWAT Kats take orders from me like the rest of my kats...." He shook his head.
"Commander,...!" the heavy one began, irritated by Feral's levity.
"Ach! What is this fighting?!"
Every head twisted to find the stooped kat silhouetted in the entrance.
Slowly, Professor Hackle picked his way into the room. The old professor was grayer than ever, his stooped form leaning heavily into his walking stick. His tired eyes squinted painfully with the effort of finding faces in the dim cavern.
"Consider it a lively debate... that just ended," Feral assured Hackle, launching a piercing glare at the once councilman and his companions.
Snorting in wounded pride and pure disgust, the other kat held his peace... on the SWAT Kat subject at any rate. Instead, he fixed his sneer on Hackle.
"We're meeting yet again," he began. "I don't suppose you've yet found a way to stop your robots?"
The blame, the condemnation in his voice was clear.
Razor hissed softly.
Hackle sighed, either too old and tired or too past caring to rise to the accusation. But, he didn't need to; half the room was already defending him, calling the councilman down loudly.
"The people decided the Professor was innocent at his trial!"
"He's the only one left who knows about these things!"
In the clamor, a slim kat in a far corner stood up.
"My people need food and clean water - not your fat mouth!" he shrieked. "What did we come here for?! To listen to you try to dredge up the last shreds of the power you had back before the Fall?!"
"The Fall?" T-Bone whispered.
"...of Katkind," Feral returned softly, eyes never leaving the building spectacle.
It left T-Bone perplexed. "Of Katkind?" Not just "of MegaKat City?" The slim kat's voice rising to fever pitch brought his attention back to the speaker.
"It's over for you and your kind!" he was screaming, his thin frame shaking. "There is no city anymore!" His eyes narrowed, dark slits in the dim lighting. "You ask why the SWAT Kats are here - why are you here? I'd rather have these SWAT Kats... or any of our fighters. They actually help us!"
A profound silence settled in the wake of his words. Every eye was darting madly between the former councilmen and the slim camp leader.
The two SWAT Kats exchanged a glance, sensing the tension. This was not a new fight; it was a new development in an old one. That much was clear. Otherwise, they found themselves uncomfortably out of the loop.
Meanwhile, the camp leader was warming to this battle, stepping into the center of the room.
"We're keeping these people alive!" he spat. "Those of us who manage the camps and guard them. We don't need politicians anymore." He smiled faintly. "Maybe we never did."
That brought a chuckle or three.
"Briggs is the only one of you worth anything - she fights like a soldier and works as hard as anyone to find food. What do you three do?!" He levelled a forefinger on the trio of stone-faced councilmen, the shuddering half-light tossing his dancing shadow over them. "You sit on your tails, giving these nice speeches..." He broke off, quaking with anger, before snarling, "It's not helping us! Those days when you had the power and might have needed it are over!"
The slim kat held his furious glower on the councilmen, staring them down. And, it worked. Slowly, one by one, huffing indignantly, they left. They shouldered their way out and vanished in the darkness beyond the lit room. It was the final blow in a long campaign.
The heavy, outspoken councilman was the last to leave. He rose carefully, slit Siamese blue eyes locking on the camp leader. "This is not over," he hissed. His own shadow loomed over the other kat. Then, he was gone.
Utter silence enveloped the chamber. T-Bone and Razor exchanged glances anew. Later. Later, they would pry from someone the entirety of all that had transpired. That decision made, they stared uncertainly into the silence that had settled over the cavern.
"I suggest we adjourn until everyone's calmed down," Feral rumbled into the stillness.
Heads nodded in agreement. The unanimous silent decision was scarcely made before the camp leaders erupted in cheering. Several leapt up to pat the slim one on the back and whisper excitedly in his ear. Even Callie slumped against the wall in relief.
But, Feral was not happy. T-Bone could see it in his face. The shadow of the old glower was back. And, when the clamor began to die, he opened his mouth to speak, his voice a rumble.
"That was quite a speech, Pawlik."
Then, he left, striding past the SWAT Kats and motioning for them to follow.
The twosome locked eyes for an instant before falling into step behind Feral.
It was a lengthy and silent journey.
Feral said nothing for a long time, leading them from the bowels of the cave system. That they were heading upward was evident only in a slight rise in the stone floor under their feet. There was next to no light as the old Commander guided them only with a tiny flashlight. Its bobbing glow bounced off multi-colored rock walls glistening with beads of moisture. The graying kat's steps were sure, but he faltered around irregularities in the floor periodically.
The SWAT Kats had no such troubles. Their eyes needed only the tiniest fraction of light. Razor's were more accustomed to gloom than daylight after his years as Viper's prisoner, and T-Bone relied on his mutation's heightened senses. Politely, they let the Commander take his time, waiting soundlessly.
Warm air flowed down the tunnel past them, bringing a thousand myriad scents - to T-Bone at least. They were nearing the outside. Leaving the cool cavern and its damp, musky odors.
Then, they were free of the cavern. Shrubs crouched low over the door-sized opening in the rock, surrounding the trio.
T-Bone blinked, eyes adjusting to the change in light in that instant. It was night outside, a lighter night than that found inside the caves. The sound of frogs was dimmer here in the forest, but a thousand insects more than filled the void, their voices bringing the night to life.
Razor adjusted as quickly as T-Bone, turning to study the doorway. A second entrance apparently. The "front door" was much more narrow.
"This way." Feral spoke for the first time, indicating a jagged series of rocks to their right. With a grunt, he heaved himself upward and disappeared in the thick foliage over the crevice. Clearly, he knew they wouldn't need his light to follow.
Trading a glance, T-Bone and Razor scrabbled after him. They found the graying kat on a small plateau veiled in brush.
"We can talk here without being heard," the Commander explained, lowering himself onto a rocky outcropping. "The mess you just saw means nothing to you, I know. But, you should hear what I have to say on it." He paused to look at each in turn.
Razor nodded first, settling himself onto the damp ground before reaching to tug off his battered helmet. The black mask that had replaced his old, tattered scrap was the next to go. Freed of his disguise, he ran a hand through the thatch of fur on his head.
Watching him, T-Bone realized that he hadn't removed any of his SWAT Kat accouterments in days. Keeping the mask on somehow seemed to keep him T-Bone. He was deathly afraid of being recognized without it.
A chill stalked its way down his spine. Did he really want to spend the rest
of his life as T-Bone?
"T-Bone?" Razor and Feral asked one on top of the other.
"Hmph?" T-Bone shook off the chill. "We're all ears," he rumbled, dropping down to a crouch. He was too restless to sit.
Feral nodded. Taking a deep breath, he began.
"Furrer - the councilman - is dangerous. He wants power again. The Fall broke Manx and a few like him who couldn't accept losing all they'd had. But, Furrer..." Feral shook his head. "What he'll do about tonight's events I can't imagine. But, he's patient - he'll wait."
T-Bone started to ask about this "Fall" again, curious, when Razor interrupted him.
"What about the other guy?" The slim kat arched a brow. "Is he...?"
"Pawlik," Feral rumbled. "He's a firecracker. He's just as dangerous in his own way. He's led eight successful raids... with no casualties. I'd thought he was going to rival you two's fame there for a while." Feral smiled slightly, looking at both kats. Then, his scowl was reborn.
"And, now he's defending you... and it gave him the support to call Furrer down." His level stare met both sets of eyes before him, each glowing with an unnatural light Feral had already chosen to ignore. Who was he to call them freaks? Everyone bore the scars, inwardly if not outwardly. That in mind, he knew they could withstand what he must tell them.
"Pawlik will use you. He's young. He's brash. He's become a hero... and it went to his head. If MegaKat's legends follow him...."
"He has all the power," Razor finished.
T-Bone sighed heavily, rocking back on his haunches and staring up at the night sky. A few stars rewarded his gaze, shimmering in the cloudy sky.
"Enemies without...," Razor started to murmur.
T-Bone's eyes never left the stars as he finished the thought. "And, enemies within..." He flashed the closest facsimile of his trademark cocky grin his twisted face would allow. "But, we'd be bored otherwise."
"That's crazy!" Molly Mange uttered a metallic snort of derision as she removed the control matrix headpiece that held her empire together.
"What?" her husband, Mac, asked boredly. His visual sensors, a poor trade for real eyes despite their telescopic, thermal, and infrared capabilities, weren't reading color properly. Or was the TV monitor off? No, the computer systems wouldn't allow it. So, it was him. Well, that was just...
"Mac, are you listenin'?"
The ringing clang of Molly's metal hand connecting with Mac's head got his attention... at least until he realized that the beating had inadvertently repaired his optics. He swivelled his head to see around Molly. The computers he had set up to run his entertainment complex had finally cycled around to an episode of "Scaredy Kat" he hadn't seen.
Molly was less gentle this time. Skipping mere bludgeoning, she slapped the side of Mac's titanium alloy head with an electric prod. Every sensor and optic in Mac's cranium overloaded for an instant, provoking a metallic shriek of pure agony. The robotic equivalent of numbness set in instants later, leaving Mac quivering.
When sensation returned, Mac looked up at his wife and meekly asked, "Yes, Dear?"
Molly fought off her chuckles of amusement long enough to snort, "They's sayin' the SWAT Kats are back!"
"The SWAT Kats?!" Mac chortled. "Those clowns and their jet're a smear all over the side of City Hall!"
"Mac... This is City Hall."
Mac paused. "Oh. Well, what did we do with them?"
"Left them to rot out by the swamp," Molly snapped. "They're long gone." She paused, metal fingers drumming against a control panel. "SWAT Kat rumors..." Something nasty glinted in her ruby red eyes. The spark of a new, cruel idea. Her metal face abruptly twisted in an even more garish mockery of a smile than usual. "Well, why don't we give 'em what they want?"
Mac levelled a puzzled stare on her, uncomprehending. This was that odd mood of hers, which he'd been seeing more and more lately.
And, Molly laughed again, her vocal synthesizers converting the sound to a shriek.
From his crowded corner of the command center, the battered, drawn face of the kat who called himself Hard Drive peered out of a morass of technological clutter.
' I never should have dared tamper with their minds,' he thought, quaking. 'It made Mac complacent enough, but Molly...'
Molly's twisted laughter went on and on, the grotesque howl ringing hollowly from the metal walls. The cry of the tortured. The mark of the insane.
Hard Drive alone knew it for what it was... and knew all living creatures should fear it. But, there were none but himself to hear it. For nothing living ever came near the dark steel citadel at the heart of Metallikat City.
Molly paused her fit suddenly, barking, "Hard Drive!" Her wicked smile leered at him as he shuffled from his hovel, his legs shackled, eyes downcast so she couldn't see his fear. "Good news, Geek." Molly's eyes blazed. "I gotta new job for youse."
"I'm going to go see the Professor," Razor announced, hopping down by the entrance to the cave. "Want to come?" he offered as T-Bone joined him and led the way back into the tunnel beyond the entrance. They had left Feral back on the hill. He seemed to want some time alone with his own thoughts.
T-Bone shook his head in response to the question. "I think I'm gonna go crash."
Razor nodded, understanding. T-Bone had only slept once in all the time he had known him - all the time he'd known this T-Bone. He shrugged off the thought quickly as his friend turned and, giving him a light thump on the back, ambled away down the tunnel. This was T-Bone. A few years younger. Mutated... Razor frowned. Chance had told him everything. There were still things he had to tell Chance. Several things.
Padding back to the tiny cavern he shared with Razor, the privacy purely to save the two heroes from the masses, T-Bone wondered idly what Razor wanted to speak with the Professor about. Likely something techy. He chuckled softly. Two years away from gadgets... Razor probably just wanted to hug the Professor's toolbox or something. The big kat smiled tiredly. At least some things never changed.
A glimmer on the stone walls ahead made him pause suddenly. Narrowing his eyes, he watched as a splash of light played across the limestone wall on his left. Curious, the tabby followed the light to its source, a tiny opening in the cave wall on his right. Light spilled through the hole in twinkling bursts. Brow furrowed, T-Bone knelt to peer through the opening. He pressed his face to the cool rock.
He saw kats everywhere, their forms dark and fuzzy against the intermittent, flickering torchlight. The room beyond was so vast it could only be the great cavern. And, it was again filled with kats. Though not quite so many as before.
T-Bone's green eyes widened as the figures suddenly began to whirl in a dance, the rhythmic thrum of stringed instruments filling the cavern. As he stared, something brushed his shoulder lightly. T-Bone leapt from his crouch instantly, spinning around and assuming a ready stance.
Her lantern swinging loosely in one hand, Callie Briggs slowly let out a breath before smiling. "We have to stop meeting like this."
T-Bone relaxed his stance, embarrassed, his hands dropping to his sides. "Yeah... Sorry about that," he rumbled, arching his back in an effort to ease the tense muscles.
Callie looked from the big SWAT Kat to the crevice in the wall. "Watching the party?"
"Yeah..." Great broken record conversation he had going. "What are they doing?"
"A victory dance for some, just a nice chance to socialize for the others," Callie replied simply. "We don't intermingle between the camps too often." She darted away from the more depressing subject quickly. "I was just going to stop by and see everyone before turning in." The petite she-kat paused, that gleaming smile lighting her face. "Care to join me?"
Who could resist that invitation?
"Sure." T-Bone nodded to reinforce his willingness.
Callie's smile grew as she stepped around him and again took his hand to lead the way. Again, it was his green-skinned right.
'You shouldn't torture yourself like this,' a voice in T-Bone's head chided as Callie drew him forward.
Shouldn't, however, wasn't couldn't. Besides, the torture of knowing there could be nothing between them was worth enduring in order to simply be near her.
At Callie's voice his eyes traveled to her face... and then to the cavern before them. Again, the figures danced across his vision in the dim light, in time to the strains of some melody. And, shadows danced with them, flickering on the walls, playing over faces.
It was a party, but something somber hung over it. Something dark.
"It's hard to get into a party mood sometimes," Callie stated softly, sensing his feelings. Her voice was barely audible over the din of music and voices. Then, it was louder, her green eyes drawing his own to them as they flashed defiantly. "But, we can try."
With that, she tugged him into the throng.
Razor cautiously stuck his head in the opening to the cavern Feral had described. There was no light, and his amber eyes glowed softly in the darkness. A gasp sounded to his left, and Razor twisted his head to find the wide eyes of Sanctuary's only permanent resident. And, perhaps the one who needed sanctuary the most.
The slim SWAT Kat raised a hand and waved it slowly. "It's Razor...."
Lights clicked on abruptly - real overhead fluorescent lighting, albeit a clearly homemade variety complete with some lose wires and a damaged tube that flickered intermittently. With the light, Razor could see just how badly he'd scared Hackle. The old kat's eyes were huge, magnified all the more behind his spectacles.
"I'm sorry," Razor stammered, embarrassed. "Feral said you'd be up, and I..."
Hackle reached out to lay a hand on the orange-furred kat's arm and stop further apologies.
"It's alright, my boy." The graying kat smiled up at Razor reassuringly. "I was expecting you."
Razor returned the smile and reached up to slide off his helmet. The mask followed it a second later.
"Good to see you again, Gran'pa."
T-Bone wasn't sure how he had come to be amid the dancers. Callie was nearby, talking animatedly with a cluster of kats. And, in front of him was a trio of she-kats roughly his age asking him to dance.
"Me?" he slurred, looking for a way out. Any way out. "I ca--"
"Of course you can!" the grinning brunette on his left assured, taking his two huge hands in hers.
He dwarfed her by two feet and an exceptionally bulked frame. Surely he stood out like a beacon as hesitantly matched her steps. T-Bone looked around. Figures danced and chatted in the flickering torchlight. None were gawking in anticipation of the "Dance of the Half-Frog SWAT Kat."
Relaxing, T-Bone joined the dance. He was considerably uncoordinated at first as he fished for the natural sense of rhythm he had so prized at his infrequent visits to parties. It was there, somewhat hindered by his single webbed foot, but serviceable.
"See? You can dance!" the brunette declared.
"Dance?" The cocky grin it knew so well blossomed on T-Bone's face. "You ain't seen dancing yet!"
The big SWAT Kat was only able to escape the "dance floor" an hour later. Tired, but happy, he slumped against an outcropping on the closest wall. For the first time since the PastMaster had restored his mind, he truly felt like himself again. And, it felt good.
The mutant tabby's head had started to dip toward his chest with exhaustion when he sensed someone approaching. T-Bone looked up to find Callie stepping to his side. He quickly straightened, ready to escort her wherever she was going. Nevermind that she was the one who knew her way around.
Callie smiled at the content expression on the SWAT Kat's face. It was the first time she had seen him simply at ease. He had been giddy with joy and relief when he returned with Razor, but never relaxed. In fact, he had been perpetually on edge since that night she'd found him in the swamp. Biting her lip the slender she-kat wondered if she should bring up the question she had been considering. No. This was a bad time.
But, she realized too late. He had already seen her face, his mouth already parting in a question. With a sigh, the once Deputy Mayor placed a finger to T-Bone's lips and angled them to a secluded corner just to the side of T-Bone's outcropping. Reaching it, she turned to face the big kat, uncertain.
"What is it?" the tabby asked hoarsely, worried for her.
"T-Bone," Callie's voice was soft, "is there anyone we can try to find for you? Any family? Anyone but...?"
T-Bone shook his head. "No. Just Razor."
Callie's green eyes searched his own. "Are you sure? It's not a special privilege. Our scouts look for everyone."
Again, the mutant shook his head. "Only a few acquaintances. I was raised in foster homes."
For an instant, he thought he had said something horribly wrong as Callie's eyes widened and she searched his face anew. In her emerald orbs a sudden light seemed to burn even as her brow puckered and her lips parted in confusion.
Worried, T-Bone reached out to her. "Miss Briggs?"
It broke the spell.
The blonde drew away, looking down and shaking her head. "I'm alright." She bit her lip and glanced up at him, trying to banish the rush of memories that had spilled over her and smile. It was a weak effort at best. The radiant glow had drained from her face.
T-Bone fought the urge to enfold her in a hug. "I'm sorry... If I...," he stammered, his slur worsening with each word.
"No, no," Callie hurriedly assured, embarrassed. "I... You just reminded me of someone," she murmured quietly. "Someone I miss...."
"And, can't find?" T-Bone whispered gruffly.
The petite she-kat nodded.
This time T-Bone did hug her, holding her close. And, over her shoulder, watched a newly familiar figure furtively bend to whisper in another's ear before the two vanished, becoming one with the dim room's shadows.
--There's a kind of mystery when
the dark recites its elegy.
And, I believe it.
-- The Power Cosmic by The Echoing Green
As he picked his way over and around metal debris, Hard Drive silently cursed first Molly Mange and then himself. No sooner had she gleefully sketched out the rudiments of her plan than he and a robot escort had been forced into the cargo bay of a Metallittack vehicle and shipped out to the forsaken graveyard where the TurboKat had been laid to rest. This latest madness of Molly's could only end in disaster. Bio-robotic clones? Create two Frankenstein monsters just to lure the last starving free kats into a trap? It was a ludicrous risk.
But, it was cruel. And, if nothing else, his efforts to disable Molly had unleashed an even uglier side of her nature. She and Mac had been no more than thieves - in a way, no different from himself. A thief with a gimmick. Granted, the Metallikats' gimmick was near-indestructible robot bodies. Still, their ambitions had never reached beyond the MegaKat City Mint. Controlling the construction bots that serviced the city had given the Metallikats a taste of power.
It was stupid of him not to have thought of the repercussions of that. His own surge suit had been an irresistible power that instantly sent him from robbing ATMs to eyeing military defense secrets. Power was a rush even adrenaline couldn't match.
The patrol drone at Hard Drive's back snapped the battered kat back to the current reality with a jab from its energy rifle. Hard Drive stumbled and fell, just catching himself by grabbing onto the rusted frame of a shredded helicopter.
"I'm moving!" he bellowed, pulling himself up.
As if the homing device strapped to his leg wasn't enough. If he tried to escape, not only could whole fleets of attack craft descend on him instantly, but he was an easy, locked target for any seeker missile too. Not for the first time the tan-furred kat longed for freedom... of any kind. Even the refugees out in the swamp must live better. Debatably, it was even safer in those wretched work camps.
He pitied the scientist Molly had ordered hauled out of one to help with this project. Poor sap.
The patrol bot abruptly intoned, "TurboKat sighted." It pointed toward the shattered hulk of the jet with a single rounded arm.
Hard Drive's head came up, eyes narrowing as he followed the arm's direction. Best to get the dirty deed done. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped to the wrecked jet.
It was as he had expected. Half of the craft crushed beyond recognition. One broken wing rotting in the sodden earth.
The former techno-pirate's lip curled at the thought of what he had to do. He sucked in a deep breath and stepped up to the jet, standing on his toes to see within. This wouldn't be pleasant.
The lanky kat blinked in surprise.
It was empty. No bodies. No SWAT Kats.
Hard Drive spun, eyes sweeping the unofficial scrapyard. His searching gaze abruptly fell on a patch of gray earth several feet away. Not daring to believe what it must be, he jerked a thumb at the jet.
"No organic matter."
The drone treated him to an unblinking stare before scanning the jet. "Affirmative," it agreed.
"What about over there?" Hard Drive indicated the gray earth.
The robot pivoted and flashed a blue beam over the area in question. "High carbon content. Organic matter incinerated," it stated.
"Well, let me make sure it's all incinerated, alright?" Hard Drive demanded.
The drone's blocky head canted to one side. "Acceptable."
Fear mounting within, Hard Drive stumbled to the pile of what, on closer inspection, proved to be unmistakably ashes. The charred remains of logs stood as mute testament to the fire that had destroyed what he had been sent to retrieve.
The SWAT Kats' bodies. The free kats had burned the bodies.
Hard Drive fell to his knees, digging his fingers into the fine ash. Molly Mange would kill him as sure as if he had personally failed. Then, he yelped and jerked his hand away at a sudden flash of pain, of heat.
Embers were still smoldering beneath the ash. Which meant the fire was fresh. Not more than several days old.
Standing, the tan-furred kat tried to process the finding, but could see no use in the knowledge that the bodies were only recently cremated. It didn't help him recover the genetic codes for which he had been sent. Frantically, he searched his options. None came.
He spun to the robot. "Give me an in-depth scan of this!"
The blank-faced automaton obligingly stepped forward and began scanning.
His speed fueled by desperation, Hard Drive lunged for the access hatch on the drone's back. As it began to turn and end both the effort and his life, he was rewarded with a shower of blue sparks as he ripped wires free.
The drone slumped forward, power to its main processor temporarily cut.
Hard Drive worked quickly. There was no chance to run with the homing device still locked firmly in place. But, Molly never need know of his failure.
T-Bone shivered as the frigid air of Sanctuary's deeper levels caressed the bare "skin" on the right side of his body. He'd been trying to pick up Pawlik's trail for the last half hour. It would have been easy if he hadn't spent so long in excusing himself from Callie, but it couldn't be helped.
Now, he seemed inexorably driven deeper into the bowels of the cave system. He wasn't sure why stalking Pawlik was so desperately important, but something about the whispered conversation he had witnessed had left a dark foreboding sitting in his chest. He tried to analyze the scene, replaying it in his mind. He gave up before he lost himself in the winding caverns from lack of attention.
Eyes glowing in an annoying resemblance to Dr. Viper, the big tabby slid forward, senses wide open. As he had been forced to do so many times before, T-Bone pushed aside his revulsion and used his mutation. Used his heightened senses, used his hunter's instinct. And now, he knew he was getting close. He could smell kats. Yet...
A waft of air flowing past informed him that something cold and wet clung to his chin fur. Stifling a growl, the mutant tomkat swiped at the excess spittle with the back of his right hand. A snarl rumbled from his chest as his hand spattered viscous saliva against the already slimy limestone.
Disgusting. His self esteem high of earlier was waning.
'Steady, Chance. It hides you from the robots. It helps you fight this war..... And, Callie doesn't care.'
The realization of that so stunned T-Bone that the sudden sound of a voice echoing from the stone walls sent him into a fighting crouch.
"Victory!" the loud voice declared. It was quickly drowned in cacophonous applause.
For all the noise there was no one in sight.
Ears pricked forward, the SWAT Kat crept ahead, his steps soundless save for a gentle scrape of claws on stone. The sounds grew nearer as the barest hint of light began to brighten his vision. Then, he rounded a narrow corner and found himself teetering on a narrow ledge above a chamber.
T-Bone backpedaled quickly, his claws scrabbling against the smooth rock. As he retreated into the sheltering tunnel, his mind struggled to process the sight below. The room was lit only faintly by scattered torches, but even that light had been enough to see the mass of kats glutting the open space.
Had they seen him?
Recovering, the SWAT Kat peered through the narrow opening.
The applause was trailing off. Clearly, it had covered his frantic scramble.
The loud voice rang anew in the growing silence. "At last, the old regime is gone and our concerns will be properly heard. We are the majority. We who realize that we are all refugees and that we must work together. Now, perhaps, we can begin to move toward what should have been done a year ago."
Pawlik. It had to be.
T-Bone's ears strained forward against his helmet as he listened. Thus far, Pawlik sounded like a politician himself.
"We rule!" Pawlik screamed, jabbing a fist ceilingward.
Correct that. A college student trying to be a politician. Perhaps Feral's fears were well-founded.
T-Bone caught himself abruptly. He distrusted this kat purely because Feral did? The old commander had risen considerably in his eyes since they'd met, but still...
No, he decided after a moment's thought. It wasn't just Feral. Something about Pawlik's attitude had set off warning bells since that first meeting. Feral's words had just added fuel to his own suspicions. That thought simmering, the big tabby paid careful attention to Pawlik's speech, determined to learn just why this kat made him so edgy.
Pawlik had found a rock formation flat enough to serve as a platform and was slightly elevated over his companions, his gaunt face lit from the torchlight below. "It's time to show the Metallikats we're tired of living like animals! Tired of starving! Tired of being hunted! Tired of our families living as slaves in the workcamps!" he proclaimed.
Pawlik's headfur - gray like the rest of him - was wild, his eyes catching the light and reflecting yellow. He looked like a kat possessed. Caught in a moment of glory. Revelling in his power. Working his audience into a frenzy.
"It's time we made the Metallikats suffer!" Pawlik shouted. "The old Salvage Yard holds hundreds of kats. And, it's those monsters' primary weapons facility." The slim kat's voice dropped, trembling with a feverish intensity. "And, tonight, my friends, we take it for ourselves!"
His crowd - and truly it was his crowd as they drew his words in with each breath - roared, voices screaming. Screaming, "Tell us what to do!" Demanding their leader lead them.
Pawlik commanded attention with upraised hands. "We have a plan. We just need volunteers."
A thunder of voices answered him.
The gray kat nodded shortly. "Good. Then, we meet at the fallback position by Furren's Rock - just beyond the swamp. Meet in no less than an hour. We'll make our move under cover of the morning fog." He smiled. "They'll never know what hit them."
'Or you guys won't,' T-Bone thought grimly as he backed well away from the opening before breaking into the fastest pace he dared.
"So, from what Chance told me, I don't think he even knows the mutation is reversible," Razor explained, resting his chin on his upturned palms as he hunched over. From his perch on one of the Professor's worktables, he watched the old kat fiddle with a kerosene heater, waiting for a reply.
"Then, you must tell him." Hackle looked up and fixed his grandson in a bright-eyed gaze.
"But, what if the antimutagens were destroyed? I don't want to tell him that there was a cure, but it's gone now," Razor returned. He sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes through the mask he had donned once more.
"A possibility and a false hope aren't the same animal," the graying professor noted.
"Point taken," Razor acquiesced. He puffed out a breath and tossed T-Bone's possible reactions around for several minutes. "You're right," he agreed at last, "I have to tell him."
Hackle nodded. Chance's dilemma was all they'd spoken of for the last hour. It was enough. Enough to be reunited. Enough to be able to just talk. Each had endured his own private torment for the last two years. Neither wished to relate the experiences and neither needed to do so. Their relationship didn't require it. And, the only personal outlet each needed was a project into which to pour himself.
Seeing the professor struggling to lift the housing from the heater, Razor slid from his perch and hurried to help. As he gently set the housing on the floor, he frowned.
"And, that's not the hardest part I have to tell him." The slim kat's face grew thoughtful. "But, how do I explain to him that in this world...?"
He was interrupted as Commander Feral barrelled into the room. The big kat fixed Razor in his sights.
"Where's T-Bone?" he asked quickly.
"He went to b--" Razor started.
Feral was already shaking his head. "I checked your quarters and then met up with Miss Briggs. He was with her, but he left to tail Pawlik."
Razor studied the Commander's grim face. "What's going on?"
"Some of my kats got word that Pawlik's arranging a major attack on one of the workcamps." Feral grimaced. "He's always resented any effort on my part to 'interfere' in his raids. And, he's definitely working to avoid me this time. His usual cohorts have split into three groups - all headed in directions that could be different camps. By the time the kats I sent after them figure out which two are decoys, it'll be too late." The old kat's shoulders slumped. "I'd hoped T-Bone would know more if he'd followed Pawlik himself. With any luck, he still is, but what can he do alone?"
In the silence that followed, Professor Hackle shook his head, sighing. "They're too impatient."
Feral swore under his breath. "Are they? Or am I really losing it?" he growled, speaking half to himself. His face twisted in anger. "I should have mounted a real offensive a year ago. The longer I wait, the more our morale sinks and the more kats we watch die one way or another." Feral pounded one fist into the other. "Maybe I was wrong about Pawlik..." His yellow eyes fell on Razor. "It wouldn't be the first time." Then, he looked back at his huge hands, clenching them. "Maybe he's right and my methods are too cautious."
Razor stared at Feral incredulously. He had never seen the Commander doubt himself like this. Never. Either the hard years had stripped away the shell of pride that hid the old Commander's true self... or he had somehow been brought into the select circle of those who were allowed to see the Commander forget himself. Whatever the case, the SWAT Kat found himself at a loss to respond.
"I'll live to eat this, but you're dead wrong there, Feral."
Every head swung around to find T-Bone's hulking figure barring the doorway.
"Pawlik means to capture the workcamp based in the Salvage Yard," the mutant SWAT Kat continued.
"Capture?!" Feral spluttered.
T-Bone nodded. "Pawlik's staging that offensive you wanted... with a half-hysterical mob of young kats looking for a place to vent." Though slurred, T-Bone's voice was serious, his manner suddenly that of Enforcer Lieutenant Furlong reporting.
It was the familiar, professional attitude Feral needed to snap him back. He wordlessly clenched a single fist before responding in a growl. "I'll assemble my kats to evacuate the cave. If Mac and Molly capture even a fraction of those kats, someone is bound to tell them where we are."
Razor paled beneath his fur. If they were caught here, precious few would manage to escape through the narrow tunnels leading to the surface.
T-Bone was nodding. "They're assembling at some place called Furren's Rock before going on. In... Well, he said an hour about twenty minutes ago." The big kat ducked his head. "I got a little lost on the way back."
"Then, there's a chance," Feral muttered, pulling a handset from his belt. He flipped it on and released a rapid succession of orders to two different kats. Then, barking, "Follow me," he tossed the handset to T-Bone and strode out of the room.
The two SWAT Kats exchanged a glance and hurried after him.
Feral walked so fast it felt like running as he wove through the dark tunnels, travelling by memory. Then, he lead them through a narrow slit in the wall. The thin grotto beyond had been retrofitted into a storage room of sorts. Crude shelves lined every inch of wallspace.
The old Commander whisked a waiting flashlight from a nook by the door and, flicking it on, quickly busied himself looking for something.
Expecting a weapon, T-Bone was surprised when Feral tossed him a suit.
One for Razor followed.
"Make that a double."
"Put those on," Feral ordered. "If it comes to the worst and you have to stop them at the camp, you shouldn't be seen in those outfits."
Wincing, T-Bone went to remove his suit. With half of it lost beneath the mutant growth that covered the right side of his body, he found himself ripping the remainder. He wasted no time mourning the suit's loss. There was no time.
"Keep your helmets," Feral continued, producing a blaster and checking the charge. "Hopefully, that'll be enough to convince them you're the SWAT Kats."
T-Bone grimaced as Razor voiced his thought.
"Hoping we can catch them at the rock and use our 'influence,' huh?" the orange-furred kat asked quietly.
Feral turned to face them, a blaster in each hand. "No, I'm just trusting that you will do all you can."
The ground beneath their feet was soggy but firm as T-Bone and Razor jogged through the last vestiges of swampland.
"They're aiming to come up on the camp from the point where the trees are closest. But, they still have a lot of open ground to cover - too much," T-Bone rumbled, his voice nearly unintelligible as he made no effort at clearing it.
It didn't matter; Razor understood.
"Guesstimate of how many?" the slim kat asked.
T-Bone had used the fact that the Metallittack craft were blind to his presence to get bearings from the top of a tree.
"Fifty to seventy-five, but I couldn't see them well. Too many trees, and they're still too far ahead."
"What're these kids tryin' ta' prove?" T-Bone growled half to himself, leaping over a rotting log.
Razor frowned in thought as he ran. "Pawlik won today, so this is their celebration," he returned at last. "Or it's a move by Pawlik for even more popularity. Either way, this's classic mob mentality. They're stirred up and ready to cause trouble."
"They're gonna get trouble," T-Bone snapped grimly.
Razor remained silent, wordlessly agreeing with his partner. It was going to take much more than the two of them to save those kids... if they were in time to do anything.
They and the guide Feral had sent with them had arrived at Furren's Rock far too late. Muddy tracks had been the only evidence that Pawlik and his followers had been there. The two SWAT Kats had been running hard and fast ever since, following the line of the Tiger River through the thinning trees. They had radioed Feral and sent the guide back to meet up with whoever Feral could send. He'd gone willingly. It was clear the two worked best alone.
Now, they were on the final leg of the three-mile journey. That they'd come so far and he was still able to move had Razor marveling. Two years in that cell should have atrophied his muscles to the point this would be impossible. Maybe Viper had done more than replace his damaged organs. Maybe T-Bone wasn't the only mutant.
Then, the trees were receding to stunted hardwoods, the ground sure underfoot. The two SWAT Kats slid to a stop and crouched in the dry underbrush. They were at the edge of the last few scraggly trees bordering the dirt road leading to the Yard.
Ears swivelling, Razor listened. The cool night air was still. Even the creatures of the distant swamp were silent. The slim kat frowned. It wasn't a natural calm. This smacked of that ominous, deceptively still moment before the storm. The lull that always preceded all havoc breaking loose.
T-Bone sensed it too, ears flattening against his helmet.
"Halt! Non-metallic lifeform!"
The synthesized voice rent the night's silence. And, seemed to catapult T-Bone off his haunches.
Razor was seconds slower, unfamiliar with the drones' metallic voices. As he lunged to his feet to follow the larger tom, T-Bone forced him back with a firm hand.
"I can charge out there and they'll never know," he hissed. Adding, "You can't," was completely unnecessary.
Then, Razor found himself alone. Frowning, he crossed his arms over his chest.
"Great. Now, he has an excuse to charge headlong into things," he muttered to himself.
As the night exploded before him, T-Bone charged onto the bare earth by the road. Hanging close to the treeline, he crouched low and hurried to the top of the hill that barred his view. Cresting it, he stared at the compound that had once been his home.
So, this was what was meant by "work camp." Below him, a wickedly barbed fence enclosed an outdoor assembly line for more metal monstrosities. Like everything in this new metal world, it was all cold steel and bare earth.
The big kat's eyes shifted to find a battle raging just within the perimeter fence at the far end of the compound. Metallittack craft were swarming around a cluster of figures.
"CRUD!" T-Bone snarled. The worst had happened. The big kat spun to bark over his shoulder. "Razor!"
A shadow flashed over him as the slim form of his friend leapt from the branches above to land nimbly at his side.
"No good. Those kids're gonna get toasted," Razor muttered, meeting T-Bone's gaze. His own amber eyes were narrowed.
T-Bone huffed once before responding. "Ideas, Tarzan?"
Razor's lips started to form a retort. Then, he froze, looking past T-Bone into the camp. The big tabby blinked, then followed Razor's gaze, curious. His wide mouth curled into a smile as he saw what had caught Razor's eye.
Decided, the twosome hurried to the barb-topped fence that surrounded the workcamp. Fully twenty feet tall, it hummed with invisible death. As one, the SWAT Kats ripped the blasters Feral had supplied from the holsters at their sides.
"I'd kill for a glovatrix," T-Bone muttered, taking aim.
"Just give me time and some parts," Razor shot back as he fired. Three, quick strokes. Three flashes from his blaster's muzzle.
"I'll hold you to that," T-Bone assured as he levelled a final, wide beam blast on the section of fence Razor had severed. The force hurled it inward and opened the way.
The two partners rushed through and bolted across the compound.
Directly across their path marched a tired line of kats. They were being hurried into a stretch of buildings behind the garage by huge, felinoid sentry drones. The heads of those kats in the lead jerked up as the two darting forms plunged across their field of vision.
A second rescue team?!
Heads followed the speeding kats. Eyes lit.
A salvo of crimson fire ended the moment as the Metallikats' guards opened fire on the two kats.
Blaster bolts dancing at their heels, the SWAT Kats dove behind a stack of metal barrels. As they slid into crouches, the pair traded a glance and smiled. Just like old times again.
Razor turned to check the barrels beside them. His smile died.
T-Bone pivoted quickly, his eyes finding the word that had so upset his partner.
"Coolant?!" the big kat gaped.
"Yeah, now what?"
T-Bone glanced at the approaching robots before looking to his partner again. His green eyes narrowed.
"You get those kats outta here." He jerked his head toward the prisoners. "I'll handle the distraction."
"No," Razor snapped. "You get them. The robots don't pay any attention to you, right? We need them to pay attention to the decoy." With that, he leapt onto the stack of barrels. High time T-Bone had a taste of his own medicine.
The big mutant just stared at the empty air where his partner had been for a second. Then, he hissed under his breath. "Razor,... if you get yourself shot, I'll kill you."
"Hey, Bucketbutts!" Razor shrieked in the sentries' general direction. Knowing they were already tracking him, he kicked at a freestanding barrel to his right and sent it rolling toward the drones. A second quickly followed. Then, a third. "Now, T-Bone!" Razor bellowed, exchanging fire with the robots as they dodged the barrels.
T-Bone darted from his hiding place and raced toward the line of prisoners. The robots paid him all the attention they would have paid a raccoon.
At least, half the guards did.
Those drones not occupied with Razor turned to target the charging biped. Feline heat signature or not, he definitely looked like a threat. Built-in lasers unfolded from their metal arms, and the guards opened fire.
T-Bone searched for cover, dodging energy bolts and again wishing for a glovatrix. Quickly, he ducked behind the old garage building. He needed a plan. As his mind raced over options, he came to a sudden realization. The robots had stopped firing. They were ignoring him again.
The SWAT Kat looked up at the building at his back, dredging up his memory of the compound's layout. It might work... if he moved quickly.
Leaping to his feet, the tabby lunged at the nearest window. His feet caught onto the upper edge of the frame. His hands' claws gripped the naked concrete above.
'Mutation don't fail me now.'
Razor was starting to worry. He had seen T-Bone forced to take cover. And now, he was running out of loose barrels. Not that the robots weren't giving him plenty of time to select...
The orange-furred kat's eyes widened as he ducked behind a barrel. The drones were holding their fire. Waiting for clean shots. Which meant...
Razor peeked around the barrel and snapped off a succession of shots at those barrels now surrounding the guards. He was rewarded as each barrel erupted in flames the instant the blaster bolt pierced its metal hide. The drones were enveloped in a column of fire.
"Coolant, huh? That's some coolant!" the slim kat crowed, rising.
Then, he realized just how large the inferno was... and just where he was standing...
Razor launched himself off the stack of barrels, landing on his feet and breaking into a run as the flames began to lick at the metal containers. He was diving for shelter behind a large pipe running across the ground when the barrels exploded. The shockwave sent him spinning.
Separated from the fight by the old garage, the sentries surrounding the cluster of bedraggled prisoners swivelled their heads at the explosion. Sending a radio-linked message among themselves, all but one raced to deal with the threat.
The remaining guard's sensors were blind to the figure plunging from above.
T-Bone uttered no warcry. Not even a growl escaped his throat as he flung himself from the roof of the old garage, hurtling across the ten feet of empty space between them to slam into the robot guard.
The bulky sentry unit crashed to the ground under the big mutant's weight. Before it could recover, T-Bone ripped his blaster free and jammed it into the base of the drone's "neck." He fired downward once, toward where Feral had taught him to find the power supply. The metal body beneath him jerked as a final, spastic burst of energy fired its circuits. Then, it was still.
T-Bone scrambled to his feet quickly and faced the kats.
"Run to the back of the compound. There's an opening in the fence."
They stared at him, trying to comprehend it all. Disbelieving. Free. Free? Surely this was a dream. A hallucination.
"Go!" T-Bone gave the nearest kat a shove.
It was impetus enough to send them all rushing away. They understood little beyond the need to run. It was enough.
T-Bone watched them for a moment before scrambling back onto the garage. From the roof, he saw that Razor's explosion had done its job. Metallittack craft on the far side of the yard were pivoting to swoop toward the rising column of smoke. Good. If Pawlik was any sort of leader, he'd take the chance and get his kats out of there.
T-Bone then looked for his partner.
A line of guards was advancing on a pile of scrap parts a few hundred feet away from his vantage point. Razor's hiding place no doubt.
The big tabby's eyes narrowed as he tried to think of a way to draw them off. Belatedly, he wished someone had thought to repair their helmet radios.
Then, a sudden blur of color drew his attention away from Razor's plight. A line of figures was racing into the fray, firing at the guards as they came.
T-Bone growled, leaping off the building for the second time. This was not going according to anyone's plan. Unless the Metallikats had found a way to broadcast their stupidity to people.
Pawlik's kats had successfully diverted attention from Razor, but they were now engulfed in fire from fresh sentries. And, more Metallikat reinforcements were moving in.
"We gotta get out of here!" a tall brown feline screamed.
Then, blaster bolts were raining from above. A swarm of Metallittack craft hurtled into sight, cutting through the thick smoke. The kats were surrounded in instants.
It was the end of the fight. Pawlik's force, already down to twenty-five, was hopelessly outgunned... and they knew it. The gray kat's face contorted in rage and despair as a kat at his back fell against him before slumping limply to the ground under the force of a drone's blast. Defeated, Pawlik threw down his blaster and held up his hands. His kats grimly followed suit.
It was over.
The metal army moved in. But, held its fire, suddenly still.
"What're they waitin' for?" someone murmured.
Pawlik was silent, eyes closed. The fists of his upraised hands clenched.
Several hundred feet away, a massive screen suddenly lit with an electric whine. As it glowed to life, Molly Mange's flat, metal face became visible, looming over all below at a hundred times its actual size. Seeing the captives via the two-way transmission, her mouth gaped in a hideous smile.
"Well, well.. If it ain't more of th' rebels... I'd thought you guys had given up." The garish grin leered down at the quivering kats. This was so satisfying. She nearly had them all now. All of them. All of the kats that had made her the metal monster she was.
For several long minutes, Molly savored the sight. Then, she cocked her head studying them, debating. Perhaps she could have more fun with them later.
"Lock 'em up," she ordered at last, her image winking out.
T-Bone slid up alongside his partner, finding him to the left of his former position, crouched behind a damaged Metallittack craft. Razor acknowledged him only with a twitch of his tail. His focus was deep within a hole in the machine's side.
T-Bone watched him.
"You have a plan?" he asked quietly.
"Maybe. I just realized that those barrels weren't mislabelled," Razor returned, hands busily sifting through wires. "They were coolant. These machines just happen to use liquid sodium as coolant. At least, that's what I'm hoping. Liquid sodium is pretty explosive when exposed to air."
"Right." T-Bone's head bobbed. He wasn't quite sure of Razor's plan, but he got the general idea. "Anything I can do?"
"Hole's only big enough for me." Razor's voice echoed as he squeezed his head and shoulders into the mound of metal. "Keep me covered."
T-Bone took a quick survey of their surroundings. The cylindrical pipe Razor had tried to use for cover earlier ran just behind them. The air above it shimmered with waves of heat, steaming in the chilled air of the waning night. The tabby dipped his head to the added boon. That kind of heat should mask them well enough.
Then, he swung his gaze toward the captives. They were being angled toward the buildings by most of the sentries.
"Uh oh," the mutant hissed, seeing the line of guards fanning out. Searching. Heading their way. "Razor, they're coming," he warned, leaning toward his friend.
"Almost got it," was Razor's only response.
T-Bone moved away, peering around the craft to look back toward the robots. He willed himself to be still lest he be noticed by any motion sensors.
"Found it!" Razor's muffled voice announced. "Now, to juuuust.... Okay, there..."
"Razor..." T-Bone hissed urgently, glancing to his partner's exposed back.
"I'm workin'!" Razor returned.
T-Bone watched the searching guards grow ever nearer. Three in particular seemed to be taking an interest in he and Razor's hiding place. Every muscle in his body tensed as the big kat picked a point on the ground. If they passed it, he'd try to distract them. Draw them off. His green eyes narrowed, focused on the spot. Waiting.
Carefully, Razor connected power couplings, fingers flying. This wire here. That one there. He was aware that time was running out... but if he did this wrong...
T-Bone was rigid. Muscles bunched. A coiled spring ready to explode. The guards were three steps from the spot he had chosen. Any second now...
The tabby nearly flew out of his fur as a roar burst from the prone craft beside him.
Razor had pulled him to his feet before T-Bone could react. Acting blindly on instinct and his trust in Razor, he followed the smaller kat wordlessly. By the time he had fully collected himself, they had leapt over the metal pipe and Razor was pulling him to the ground.
Behind the two, the Metallittack craft Razor had activated lurched forward, VTOL engines thrusting it off the ground. Roaring, it careened toward the guards. The ten tons of agrecite alloy mowed the robot sentries down easily as it continued its awkward flight, barely hovering, one half dragging the ground like a bird with a broken wing. Crushed beneath the awesome weight, the drones' metal bodies squealed in agony.
As the wounded Metallittack craft continued plowing its path of destruction, the coolant line Razor had weakened snapped. And, air met a hundred gallons of liquid sodium in a fiery reaction that flung metal shrapnel into the sky.
Seeing the brief shift of the tides, Pawlik dove on his weapon. "Go!" he screamed, gesturing across the compound toward the entry point. In the same motion, he brought his blaster's muzzle up under the nearest guard's metal head. He fired at the drone's neck, targeting the power supply. The drone toppled as his kats bolted obediently. Following, the gray kat and several of his lieutenants laid down cover fire to hold the remaining guards at bay.
Burning shrapnel was still raining around the two SWAT Kats when T-Bone saw Pawlik's crew making their escape. "Let's go!" the tabby yelled. This time, it was he who hauled his partner up and propelled him forward.
Then, they were running across the compound, staying close to anything that offered shelter. Following Pawlik and his kats, the twosome ran around the old garage building.
As they rounded the corner, T-Bone nearly plowed over a cluster of kats. At its center was the kat who'd fallen in the rebel's final stand. Alive. But, he was clearly in bad shape, unable to stand on his own. Two kats were trying to carry him. The third, providing cover fire, reflexively brought his blaster to bear on the large shape and fired.
T-Bone was caught in the chest and flung backward. The big kat somersaulted in the air before hitting the hard earth with a thud, uttering a little cry unbefitting anything his size.
"T-BONE!" Razor screamed.
He could feel the world falling out from under him again.
His second cry of agony was drowned in a volley of blaster fire from above as a Metallittack craft targeted them. The slim SWAT Kat instinctively leapt back, away from the ozone-scented blaze. He threw himself against the poor shelter of the garage. From its height, the angle was too steep for the craft to hit him.
And, in that instant he collected himself. T-Bone was not dead. T-Bone could not die again. He had to help him. Had to stay in control.
As the other kats around him lunged for any pretense of safety, Razor ripped his blaster free and sprayed bursts of fire across the Metallittack craft. The shots were ineffective but placed widely enough that it was difficult to tell that they came from only one source. Or so he hoped.
T-Bone and the other fallen kat.
He had to keep it away from them. Distract it.
'I can't lose you again, Chance.'
An image flashed into his mind. Inside the TurboKat. Hearing the ear-shattering shriek of metal ripping apart. Feeling the jet shudder violently beneath him. The world outside the cockpit spinning. T-Bone calling his name.
"Jake! PUNCH OUT!"
His own voice yelling back "No!" Only to be lost in a roar of sound. Then, silence.
And, opened his eyes to find himself eye to eye with the flying dealer of death. Breathing heavily, the slim kat never flinched. Only raised his blaster to fire a single, clean shot down the right cannon of the Metallittack craft.
The force of the ensuing explosion threw the SWAT Kat against the wall at his back. Dazed, he slid to the ground. He landed hard and bit back a scream as a molten spear of metal lodged in his arm.
It didn't matter. It would heal.
Where was T-Bone?
As he forced himself up, blood pounding in his ears, a scream reached Razor.
Razor unthinkingly launched himself across the mass of burning debris, covering the fallen figure he found on the ground. A discharge of energy ionized the air over his head as he landed.
Another craft. Or more guards.
Ignoring it, Razor found untapped strength and propelled the prone kat up.... and into waiting hands.
"C'mon!" Pawlik yelled to the crouched SWAT Kat, reaching down to pull him to his feet.
Razor stumbled with the pull, trying to regain his bearings.
He looked to the kat he had rescued. A glassy pair of orange eyes stared back at him.
It was not T-Bone. It was the other kat.
It was not T-Bone.
"T-Bone!" Razor gasped, spinning around.
His searching amber gaze found only Pawlik.
"Go!" Pawlik yelled, pushing him away to get him moving.
Razor was immobile for an instant. Then, with a fresh shriek of his friend's name, he pushed past Pawlik. He could make out the shape of the big kat lying just by the corner of the garage. A gust of wind fluttered the trailing ends of T-Bone's mask.
The orange SWAT Kat's heart leapt into his throat. His steps faltered. He stumbled.
A squad of drones rounded the corner, barring his view.
Skidding and spinning, Razor got his legs under him and spun on his heel.
The drones were faster, blasters coming to bear at point-blank range on the retreating kat's back.
Pawlik twisted his head away, calling for the last of his kats to follow him. But, his voice couldn't blot out the roar of blaster fire.
And, his mind would never be able to blot out the image. Burned into his memory.
With a heavy heart, the gray-furred Pawlik strode to meet Commander Feral. There were things he must say. And, others he never could.
His legs leaden, his body bandaged, Pawlik crossed the tiny clearing where Feral had been waiting. The old commander was only a dim silhouette in the nearing twilight.
As he approached, the older kat turned slowly. His face was set in an unreadable mask. Pawlik averted his eyes from that indiscernible gaze, stopping just before Feral. Slowly, he looked up. Met Feral's yellow stare.
"I lost two," the thin kat stated quietly. "Another seriously injured."
He looked down.
"Who?" Feral asked, voice low. He knew the answer.
"The two you sent after us."
Feral heaved a tremendous sigh and looked into the distance beyond Pawlik. A tendril of smoke still marred the darkening sky, marking the scene of the battle.
The two kats stood silent for several, infinite minutes.
"Commander,... what now?"
Feral's response came quickly this time.
"Tell no one of this. Not yet."
Pawlik blinked. And, in that moment, he knew.
"They were the SWAT Kats, weren't they?"
Feral's only answer was a nearly inaudible murmur.
"They paid for my mistake for so many years..."
Dr. Seymour Conway removed his new, ill-fitting glasses and scrubbed at his eyes. Days of staring at DNA strands were taking their toll. In more ways than one.
A light hand on his shoulder nearly made the tired kat jump out of his fur.
"How's it going?" Hard Drive asked softly, looking over Conway's shoulder at the computer screen the bespectacled scientist had been studying.
"Another few days and it should be ready to start the actual synthesizing process," Conway returned dully as he turned to face Hard Drive.
The once-techno pirate nodded. His face was more sunken than ever as the monitor's unnatural light left deep shadows beneath his eyes and cheek bones. "Good." He started to leave and paused. "There was another thing I wanted to ask you about, Doctor..."
Conway stiffened at Hard Drive's tone. There was a hint of something unreadable there. Something alive. Not the empty monotone he had heard since the day the robots brought him here. Forced him into this dark, cluttered metal room with its quietly humming machines and hollow-eyed resident.
A resident Conway didn't fully trust. He trusted nothing about this place. He was sure the very walls could be turned against him with an infinitesimal flutter of electricity across what served as Molly Mange's neural pathways.
As the scientist eyed him warily, likely pondering his words, Hard Drive spoke again.
"They can't hear you here. They don't listen."
Conway arched a brow.
Hard Drive smiled at the other's silence. Yes, he had chosen the right ally. Someone cautious. Someone not likely to get them both killed.
"Alright, I'll talk." The slim kat settled his bony frame onto the floor before Conway easily. The device around his leg brought far less peace of mind than the comparatively benign shackles, but at least he was free to move.
"You'll die fast if you try to leave, but you can say what you want," Hard Drive explained. "We aren't monitored. Molly's crafty, but not that smart. Besides," he allowed a sardonic smile to tug up the corners of his mouth, "she doesn't consider us a threat - compared to her, we bleed easy and die faster."
Hard Drive looked into Conway's slit eyes. Any hint of even morbid humor was gone now. His face was serious, his eyes pleading. "Doctor... Whether they listen to us now and hear what I say or not, we will die. We're only good to Molly so long as we can work. You're exhausted already after only a week here. Me... I don't know how much longer I can keep going."
Seymour Conway looked into Hard Drive's haggard face as he grew silent at last. There was an earnestness there. An honesty. Yes, Hard Drive might have once been a criminal. But, now they were all victims. They all shared a common enemy and a common wish to live.
"I..." The scientist rubbed his eyes anew. "What are you suggesting?"
Hard Drive paused before answering, glancing first at the monitor behind Conway.
"We make these... creations... work for us," he murmured.
"We have to make them work period first," Conway reminded him tiredly.
"I know. I know." Hard Drive stared past Conway into the shifting images on the computer as though seeing something only his eyes knew to find. "But, are you willing to take a risk with me?"
A risk. They both knew it would be the ultimate risk.
But, while Conway was not a kat of action by nature, he was also not one to lie down and die.
"Yes," he answered at last.
Ulysses Feral turned his head to find Callie Briggs approaching him slowly. Reluctantly, he rose to greet her. The flickering light from the fire he had been watching etched deep lines into his long face.
"T-Bone and Razor haven't been seen in a week...," she began hesitantly. Her eyes stared into the darkness beyond the campfire. Then, she focused on Feral's face. "Commander... Please tell me if--"
Gently, he took her by the shoulders. And, simply nodded.
She sucked in a breath quickly.
"I'm sorry," Feral whispered.
Callie made no sound as she fell into the arms of her old ally.
Feral said nothing, just held her as she sobbed.
They had never been close. They had only an unvoiced respect between. But, she had no one else now.
--When the morning comes to be,
the sun restores my hope to me
And, I receive it.
-- The Power Cosmic by The Echoing Green
His world was dark. Empty. Nothing to see. Nothing to feel. His senses were numb. Was he even alive?
Yes. He had to be. Because, in the darkness, he could hear. A voice. It was speaking to him.
Was it calling his name?
Voices even more distant and fuzzy could be heard somewhere beyond the phantom voice that fought for his attention.
"I don't believe it... He's still alive."
"I told you."
"Quiet down before the guards hear!"
"Jake. Jake, you can't let go now." And, as the words penetrated his dazed mind, he almost saw a face leaning over him. A familiar face.
"How is he, Doc?"
"Alive. How I don't know..."
"Jake, you have to wake up." Again, the flickering idea of a face.
"Will he recover?"
"His heart is a mass of dead tissue... That's nearly been re-absorbed by his body somehow..."
"But, that... thing attached to his chest... It's acting as his heart... Amazing..."
"Jake, you're going to be okay. You have to be."
The face came into view at last.
Chance's green eyes danced as he looked down at his old friend. Then, he sobered.
"You have to tell them both everything," he whispered.
And then, Razor knew.
The kats clustered around the prone SWAT Kat jumped away as he lunged upright in his makeshift bed, eyes wide.
The too sudden movement sent a violent spasm of pain through his body. He gasped and doubled over. And, nearly screamed at the fresh agony the sudden intake of air brought.
"Easy, easy," someone to his right soothed.
"Your friend is okay," a second voice added. "He's with some friends of ours."
But, Razor could only stare ahead into an infinite he alone could see.
Callie Briggs watched the scene playing out before her with a sick feeling inside. She might have seen it coming. Might have made some move to prevent, to lessen, this. Somehow.
But, she had been too lost inside herself. It had hurt too much. Hurt too much to lose them again. But, the news came from Feral. He wouldn't lie.
The SWAT Kats were dead.
'And, I never even knew them. Not really.'
So, what do you have to say now, Pawlik?!"
Councilman Furrer's roar brought Callie back to the discussion at hand. Her green gaze found the gray kat sitting across the council chamber hidden in shadow. Pawlik was thinner than ever. His eyes were fixed on the floor, his shoulders slumped.
The fire in him had died. And, the councilman meant to make it permanent.
"Nothing?!" Furrer growled. "Nothing now that your recklessness has cost lives?!"
Beside Callie, Commander Feral's stony face tightened. "Use this anymore and I'll gut you like a fish myself, Furrer," the graying commander hissed.
But, it was Furrer's moment now. The SWAT Kats were martyrs, for the second time. And, with Pawlik taking the blame for their deaths, the power of their memory was behind the councilman.
And, through it all, Pawlik remained silent. Not once did he raise his voice to protest the flying accusations. Not once did his eyes leave the floor. By the time it was over, he was beaten. But, no one rose to offer a punishment. Feral's terse response in regards to that question earlier had ended any debate about how to deal with Pawlik before it started. No punishment was necessary. Pawlik was stripped of his authority in the council and would lose popularity as soon as it was made public that the SWAT Kats had died in the raid.
Callie shivered. Some part of her still refused to accept that fact. But then, some part of her still thought he was still alive out there somewhere.
She shook off the thoughts quickly as the meeting adjourned. Purposefully, the blonde rose to go to Pawlik as the others filed from the chamber.
"Pawlik?" she asked softly.
There was no answer.
Callie softly called his name again.
At last, a soft murmur answered her as the thin kat trembled.
"What?" Callie slowly lowered herself so that she was crouching in front of the young kat.
"It's my fault...," Pawlik whispered, looking up at her briefly. His yellow eyes were pained, a pain she'd seen too many times. "They saved us. They saved us all, and...."
Gently, Callie rose and laid a hand on his shoulder. "That's just... what they've always done. It's how they would have wanted it - them, not you."
The words were true, but even she knew they would be poor comfort.
Dr. Nicholas Zyme, better known as "Doc" among the kats of the Salvage Yard workcamp, made his usual rounds of the "infirmary". It was a shabby affair. Just a tiny off-shoot of the common room where all the kats that worked the camp slept. But, it was an improvement over the early days of Metallikat rule. Truly an accomplishment by comparison.
Zyme shuddered at the memory. The drones had been programmed only to make kats work. Any resistance was met with a swift death. Disease and injury were unknown to them. Just another form of resistance.
The once biochemist closed his eyes. For a moment, his slight form shook with the horror of the memory. Then, he forced the crimson images out of his mind with a surreptitious search of the room. His few patients were sleeping. Medicine was not his field, but there were some services a biochemist could lend the injured. Especially when more conventional medication was unavailable.
Smoothing his errant shock of orange hair, Zyme turned to his newest patients. Both seemed to be resting comfortably now. Something that was nothing short of a miracle.
They'd not been much to look at when they'd been brought to him, that was sure. Dirty, seemingly infested with mutant growths.
Something in his stomach clenched anew. He knew that sort of mutation, all too well. All too horrifyingly well. But, his disgust at his own part in creating such mutations was overshadowed by his amazement. They were alive. Unbelievably, impossibly alive.
Zyme allowed himself a small smile. Perhaps the regenerative growth formula he had worked on so many years ago, the formula that he had held such hopes for, the formula that had doused those hopes in despair when it transformed his partner into a mutant monster, wasn't a complete failure after all.
And, if that was so...
He turned from the twosome to glance toward the cabinet where he had stored the two, battered yet still familiar helmets the pair had worn. Relics from a time he had almost forgotten.
He wasn't sure he dared hope, wasn't sure what it would mean if his hopes were fulfilled or what good could come of it if they were, but, perhaps, there were more surprises in store for him yet.
"How can I ansssswer a quesssstion like that?!"
"You can because you must, Mutant," the PastMaster returned, his single eye narrowing. He leaned back in the chair of living vines he had taken as his own and let the eye close thoughtfully, searching within himself. "I can still feel their life forces. The spell that binds them to me has not failed."
"Then, they're alive. What more do you want?" Dr. Viper hissed, turning away from the sorcerer. His tail lashed angrily as he surveyed the upper galleries of his lair.
His lair. And, this sorcerer had veritably moved in. A truce was one thing, but Dr. Viper did not keep houseguests.
"I want to know if they are healed. If they will heal left alone."
Viper kept his back to the PastMaster, his yellow eyes glowing faintly in the dim light. "I hardly exsspect you to undersssstand, but I'm a biochemissst, not a physssician... a doctor, healer, whatever you called it in your time."
"I'm asking you because you create these aberrations," the hooded sorcerer snapped impatiently, the single eye opening. You're responsible for both of their transformations from normal kats. You know how well your creations can survive injuries. And, how quickly they can repair themselves."
Viper hissed irritably to himself before spinning around to reply. "Yesss, yesss!" His face grew thoughtful. "The one I captured hassss a sssymbiote that sservesss asss hisss heart and maintainsss his lungsss. It hasss itsss own regenerative abilitiessss..."
"And, the other?"
"I wassss not directly ressssponsssible for hissss mutation. I can't determine hisss full abilitiessss basssed only on what you told me, but...." Viper paused, reflecting.
"But, they've ssssurvived a week after they were injured... Any of my creaturesss that isssn't killed in a much sssshorter ssspan of time can revive eassssily. They sssshould be fully recovered."
The PastMaster's yellow-green eye burned into the mutant biochemist. "Let's hope you are right, Viper.... For all our sakes."
It wasn't a question. It was a demand. And, the rapid twitching at the tip of Molly's metal tail indicated that the answer had best be forthcoming.
Conway watched the blur of silver with a detached fascination. It was easier to look at than the robotic female's face. Easier to look at than her blazing crimson eyes.
Hard Drive spoke first.
"It's almost done." He waved a hand at the greenish glow emitting from the far side of the dark, metal room.
Molly's head spun on its axis, fluidly rotating a hundred and eighty degrees. Conway found himself staring at her in a sort of fascinated revulsion. He could see the mania burning in her ruby optics. He shivered as the robotic she-kat stalked to where the new creations stood. Her metal tail lashed as she studied them.
The two figures stood with bowed heads. Their feet were splayed for balance, their arms hanging limp. Long cables snaked from small plugs at the nape of each feline construct's neck, feeding data into their artificial brains.
They were neither true robots nor true clones. Neither fully metal or living flesh. They were a hodgepodge of both. A blend of cloned flesh and fur, synthesized organic compounds, and cold steel.
'Monsters I should have had no part in making,' Conway thought as his gaze followed Molly's.
But, despite his fear, he saw what she could not, and what she must not. He saw them as his own last hope.
Consciousness returned to Razor slowly. At first, it was just sounds, a distant murmur of voices. Then, he became aware of other sensations. The quiver of a rough cot beneath him, the acrid scent of exhaust. Confused, he forced his eyes open.
No sooner were his eyes open than Razor found himself grabbed him up into a surprisingly gentle bearhug.
The big kat held him close for a moment. Then, the tabby pushed Razor away and studied him. His green gaze moved from the bandages on the orange-furred kat's chest to his amber eyes.
Razor forced out a grin to meet the worry in T-Bone's face.
"C'mon, bud... I just have a hole in my chest..."
A single well-defined brow on the less distorted half of T-Bone's face crept up his forehead.
"Well, you had one too!" Razor reached out to poke the big kat.
Drawing away, T-Bone obligingly spread his arms to show off his unbandaged frame.
At this point, Dr. Zyme, who had been watching quietly, finally spoke up. "It seems that your mutations speed the healing process remarkably."
Razor whistled softly. "Incredible."
And, he was grateful to it. Unimaginably grateful. Back in the fight, he had been sure he had lost T-Bone again.
But, he already had lost one T-Bone. One Chance. He couldn't lose another.
Razor struggled to control the turmoil he could feel building inside. His partner was dead. His partner was alive.
At last, he focused on the tiger-striped tom before him. Fumbling in the awkward silence, he fought for the words he wanted to say to this T-Bone. The only one he had. Only they wouldn't come out. In lieu of words, the smaller kat just reached to hug his partner.
It was enough. He had lost one best friend, but he still had this one. And, that was enough.
"It's done." Hard Drive's voice was flat, his eyes downcast.
Molly Mange's metal face split apart in a horrible parody of a smile. "Let's see 'em."
The emaciated kat nodded and stepped aside with a wave toward the two, dim figures behind him. With heavy steps they came forward. The clank of their metal frames was hidden as best their harried creators could manage beneath layers of specially designed padding and a thin veneer of real fur.
"Awaiting orders," the taller construct intoned, his voice level, but not quite the drone of a machine. There was a curious spark of life to the voice. And, to his brown eyes, which held a genuine interest in his surroundings.
His smaller companion reflected a similar mix of machine and living being as he parroted the first construct's words. His wide blue eyes studied Molly intently behind his SWAT Kat style mask.
Molly's terrible smile widened. "Ya' did good, Hard Drive. Maybe we'll get youse and Conway double portions tonight." She let out a sharp bark of laughter. "Hey, Mac, come and see our SWAT Kats," she called.
Mac abandoned his TV long enough to come and eye the two constructs.
"What're they for? Target practice?" He lifted his arm and retracted the cannon he had had installed. "I could have fun wi' dese."
"Stupid!" Molly smacked his arm aside "These are ta' help us deal with that little rebellion once and for all." She turned back to the two creations. "We'll let 'em think the SWAT Kats have come back to save 'em."
Mac cackled. "Think Feral'll show up to arrest 'em?"
Hard Drive slipped from the room as the robotic couple fell into fits of tinny laughter. Slowly, he let a tiny smile slip across his face. The plan was in motion.
"Speed it up!" the all-too-familiar, synthesized voice ordered tonelessly. A wash of low-key blaster fire followed, sweeping over the heads of the kats toiling in the smelting room beneath what had once been the MegaKat City Salvage Yard.
High above, Razor turned his head away, wincing. A tear mingled with the sweat dripping from his sodden fur. So, this was what came of his failure. No, he couldn't think like that. Shaking his head, he backed down the ventilation shaft to join T-Bone. His friend was waiting at the opening where a larger shaft intersected the smaller one Razor had taken.
"So, what can we do?"
T-Bone's face was nightmarish. Bathed in the hellish glow from the smelting room, T-Bone's twisted maw more resembled a demon than a kat. Red light glinted off his mouthful of glistening fangs, shone off the saliva again creeping from the corner of his lips. But, his green eyes were soft, concerned. The reminders of the soul trapped in the monstrous body.
Razor ran a hand through his damp cheek fur, resisting the urge to wring the sweat from it. For a minute, he mulled over his answer. Then, his eyes locked into T-Bone's. "I think it's time we fight fire with fire." A fire already seemed to be burning in Razor's normally gentle amber eyes.
T-Bone looked at his friend curiously.
"You know Pawlik had a good idea," Razor returned. "Only we're in a better position to pull it off."
"Huh?" T-Bone's scowl conveyed his confusion.
Razor just grinned and flung a hand out, gesturing grandly. "What do you say? I think we need a weapons making facility of our own. And, this one looks good."
A wide grin stretched across T-Bone's face as he realized what Razor was saying. Smirking, he offered a fist to punch.
Two hands met; two wills reaffirmed their shared goal.
The End... of Book 2
Inspirations and Notes:
* McFurland is the name of a character in my regular series, and, yes, this is the same character. However, if he even has an appearance in this series at all, (which is unlikely) it will be minor.
I have to give DJ Clawson all the credit for Hackle appearing as Razor's grandfather in this story. I had never noticed their resemblance until she pointed it out in her series, where the professor appears as Razor's father. I couldn't quite see the two as father and son myself, but, for this series, I did decide to make them related.
"Night Ride Across the Caucasus" by Loreena McKennitt
The Echoing Green Self-titled Album
"Battle at the Pyramid" and "The Surrender" by David Arnold from the soundtrack to "StarGate"
"The Giant Discovered" by Michael Kamen from the soundtrack to "The Iron Giant"
"A Day Without Rain" by Enya (entire CD)
Reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the Broadway version of "Les Miserables". Music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.
"Opening - Unmei no Tobira Akareru Koku" by Toshihiko Sakaki & the London Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Seed Destiny)