TITLE: INNER DEMONS
AUTHOR: C. L. Furlong
DATE: January 13, 2004
FINISHED: August 20, 2010
LAST REVISION: December, 2010
CONTACT: As a member of FanFiction dot Net, you can send me a message via the site's system.
SUMMARY: Everybody has their demons to contend with but when an ancient malice suddenly gains consistency, many will have to deal with their personal inner demons as well as with some exterior ones…
DISCLAIMER: SWAT Kats and anything related to the series is the property of Hanna-Barbera. No infringement is intended and no profit is gained with this fiction.
COMMENTS: Hello there, SK-fans! It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, it's time to move on with the "Final Resistance" series and with the themed fictions. My last work, "The Tiny Bacteria" centered on Biology and the dangers that might arise from genetic manipulation of certain strains of common bacteria. This piece will center on my other field of science (and also my favorite): Geology! I usually say that life couldn't be possible without something geological to hold on to; that every living being, since the enormous redwood tree to the tiniest bacterium, need a geologic support in order to thrive and live, be it the ground, a rock, a grain of sand or just a thin film of water. This, like most generalizations, probably is a dangerous one but it speaks volumes on how I feel about Geology.
Writing an action story based on a geologic event can be tricky! You can easily fall either into exaggeration or into boredom. I will try to be as realistic as possible although certain elements of this story are mystical in their origin (you will understand as you read on). On the other hand, data pertaining a certain National Park is based off of a *real* National Park that's been under the spotlight in recent years, so, every figure concerning it is quite accurate, give it or take a few units. Nevertheless, several liberties were taken in the description of said National Park and every single error that you encounter in this story is mine and mine alone.
I'm sorry I took so long writing another story! I really wanted to get this one done a lot sooner! As you can see, I started working on it in 2004! In the meantime, I've worked together with my very good friend Helion to bring you, I think, some of our best work. I'm talking about the "Duty and Desire" saga and the short story "Secrets and Lies" (you can check them both on FFN or at the SWAT Kat's Fanfiction Archive)! So, working on those two stories and having to coordinate work and life with the concoction of this story proved just too much for me, hence, the six years it took to come out to the light of day… I hope the next one gets done a lot faster!
A word of thanks goes to Helion, for his thorough comments on the first draft of this story were nothing short of invaluable!
This fiction contains mentions to the SWAT Kats' episodes "Destructive Nature", "Chaos in Crystal", "The Dark Side of the SWAT Kats", "Volcanus Erupts" and "Unlikely Alloys".
One semi-serious warning: don't try T-Bone's training routine at home! Expect serious muscle and bone injuries if you do! ;D
"Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice."
"Where hell rears its face, we will continue to live (…) as long as the volcanoes allow us."
Katja and Maurice Kraftt, Volcanologists
Thank you for all your efforts. Rest in Peace.
"Volcanus will not rest that easily!"
"It still looks nasty, buddy!" – Jake said as he changed the bandages on Chance's punctured thigh.
"Nah, it looks nastier than it actually is…" – Chance retorted – "That freaky genetic aberration…" – the burly tom murmured, referring to his battle with Doctor Viper's winged scorpion two weeks ago. He winced a little when Jake tightened the knot on the bandage.
"Wimp…" – he taunted before he softly tapped twice on Chance's leg, as if to say the job was done – "Say, you never did tell me what made you change your mind about your SWAT Kat career."
"What made me change my mind?" – Chance questioned back. He leaned his head back, resting it on the head support of the sofa and exhaled. – "What made me change my mind…"
"Yeah! You sounded so determined to abandon your double life, saying that your irresponsibility might dead me in some day…"
"I still think so. But I hope I'm wrong." – Chance stated before he groped the arm of the sofa and rose up. Leaning on a cane for support, he tottered towards the garage.
"Many things made me change my mind. Every single kat that dwells in our city, for instance. Every kat I helped killing." – he said the last sentence in a sigh.
Jake was about to say that it wasn't Chance's fault that nearly sixty kats had died during the outbreak of flesh-eating disease he helped propagate but Chance had cut him off by continuing to speak.
"I realized that those unfortunate kats should be avenged. That it wouldn't be by running away that I would redeem myself. I knew what I had to do. I had to bring Viper to justice." – Chance turned around and looked straight into the eyes of his friend – "But the greatest reason of all lies right here, in front of me. You. I had audio and video reception from the Turbokat on the ThunderTruck's monitors, receptions that showed your efforts against that beast. You were getting banged up pretty bad and then, I realized one thing…
"I was being irresponsible again… And my irresponsibility could cost me the life of my best friend! This time there wouldn't probably be any machine that could bring you back to life. I couldn't let that happen! I couldn't let my best friend die! That, more than anything else, did the trick. You saved me, Jake. You saved me from myself and you know I'm probably my worst enemy… Thanks, buddy…"
"Aw, shucks, Chance, it was nothing…" – Jake said with poorly feigned bashfulness, taunting the husky tom.
"I mean it! You asked what caused my change of heart. There: I said it!"
"I believe you." – Jake said, seriously now – "I'm always here for you, pal! Remember that!"
Chance smiled – "I will. Now, how about if we get back to work, huh? Cars don't repair themselves, you know?"
"I long for the day they can!" – Jake moaned as he got up from the sofa.
"Be careful with what you wish! The day cars *can* repair themselves, we'll be out of business!" – Chance retorted with his trademark smirk on his face as they headed for the garage.
The stars were still glinting faintly in the brightening sky when the old sedan skidded to a halt in front of the gates of Megakat State University before the sound of its engine turned from a rumble to a purr.
"Told you we'd be here in time, Ryan." – the old brown-furred tom said to his passenger as he adjusted his black-rimmed glasses. The younger reddish brown-furred tom took a look at the older kat, smiling as his eyes rested on the tweed beret perking precariously over the tom's head.
"Never doubted you for a second, Uncle Bill." – he said. The young tom climbed out of the car and opened the trunk to retrieve his satchel, slinging it over his shoulder. By then, the older tom had already climbed out of the car as well.
"You're sure you have everything you need?" – uncle Bill asked, to what Ryan answered by patting the shoulder bag.
"I have everything, uncle. Don't worry!"
Uncle Bill frowned – "You know my sister would kill me if she knew you were going to such dangerous places."
"C'mon, Uncle Bill! This is just a field trip! We're just gonna go over to Anakata Island to study the volcanic features there."
"That's exactly what I mean. Anakata is a live volcano, Ryan. You know what happened to your father and your grandparents." – his old features revealed even more lines of concern. A shadow passed fleetingly over the youngster's eyes, making the older tom kick himself mentally.
"It's precisely because I remember that I'm taking this course; that I want to go on this field trip. I want to learn more, to know more, uncle!"
"Ryan! We're just waiting for you!" – a she-kat shouted from the university's bus, which was waiting a few yards away.
"I have to go now, uncle."
"I know!" – he hugged his nephew before sinking a brand new panama hat down Ryan's head – "You're not forgetting your hat this time! Now go or your teacher is going to leave without you!"
Uncle Bill watched as Ryan ran towards the bus and hastily hopped aboard. Inside the bus, Ryan found an empty seat behind his teacher.
"Hey, geek! Nice hat!" – one of his colleagues mocked. Ryan's teacher peeked back to take a good look.
"Actually, it's the kind of hat that protects you from both sun and rain. A geologist's best choice, right next to the cowboy hat, I have to say."
"Thanks, Dr. Robertson." – Ryan said sheepishly.
"Teacher's pet." – someone said from the back.
"Is everyone here already?" – the driver asked Dr. Robertson.
"Yes, we may go now."
Ryan took off the hat and stashed it inside his satchel – no point in wearing it when there still was no sun, right? He looked outside. Due East the sky was slowly turning from purple to a bright shade of rose, followed close by the beautiful green and yellow skies as another bright morning slowly took over Megakat City.
Ryan thought about his father and his father's parents. It had all happened so very fast! It had been the first time Ryan had ever been to South Amerikat and he remembered he loved his grandparents' village. It was so different from Megakat City! The mountains surrounding it were high and beautiful, adorned with emerald-green forests and capped with immaculate white snow. The sky was so brightly yellow and clear. It was just weird that everyone spoke another language that, at age nine, Ryan was just beginning to understand.
It was the first and last time that Ryan saw Grandpa Joaquin and Grandma Raquel. It all happened so fast… Ryan remembered dad was talking with mom about a volcano located several kilometers away from the village that was showing several signs of activity. He remembered Grandpa Joaquin telling them that it wasn't unusual to see smoke belching from that mountain, that he and Grandma Raquel had seen it for several years already and that nothing had happened so far, that that was no different from those other times. And the thing was that the next morning they saw no smoke coming from the mountain's summit. He remembered that dad had looked towards the mountain as if he was seeing something no one else could see.
But then it happened, and it happened so, so fast! That same night they heard a deep rumble, like a thunderstorm rolling in. It had been going all evening and even Grandpa Joaquin and Grandma Raquel were beginning to feel alarmed by that. It must have been around midnight when the loudest explosion Ryan had ever heard in his life woke everyone up. He remembered he'd been so frightened that he had rushed to his parents' room.
He remembered going outside with everyone and seeing the summit of the mountain tinted in deep incandescent red as the eruption raged and destroyed the top of the mountain. But, fortunately, the lava front was headed the other way. It was going away from the village! Aside the light ash fall, the destructive lava wasn't going to hit the village. Everyone was surely safe!
But they were not safe! If he knew then what he knew now, he'd have tried to warn everyone of the danger they were all in. Maybe he could have even saved the whole village! Ryan closed his eyes. Sometimes he couldn't understand how he and his mother survived that ordeal!
Everyone had neglected the immense lahar that rushed towards the village just as the slower aa lava torrent poured the other way. The molten snow and the ashes of the volcano's slope combined to produce an enraged, fast-flowing river of mud with the consistency of wet concrete – and the same destructive force as though the thing was made of that material! The next morning, the village had been completely buried under thousands of tons of mud, it's every inhabitant destroyed. Save for two.
It had been father that had ordered them to run away to the opposing hills. Dad had, however, stayed behind to see if he could convince Grandpa Joaquin and Grandma Raquel to leave as well. But there had been no time! Ryan and his mother had been caught by the lahar as well but were able to keep themselves afloat since the liquid monster had already lost much of its destructive strength by the time it hit them.
Dad hadn't been so lucky… Nor had it been Grandpa Joaquin and Grandma Raquel… Nor the remaining two hundred villagers…
"Lahars are just one of many volcanic hazards no one is expecting but they claim much more lives than a lava flow… People are uninformed… People need to learn that a volcano can literally rise from below their feet and its hazards don't amount solely to its lava!"
Ryan closed his eyes and slumped back in the bus seat, crossing his arms over his chest, thinking with anticipation of the field trip to come.
"So this is the joint they call Alkatraz, heh?" – the young black-furred tom asked rhetorically – "Looks like a place of sissies to me…"
"Watch your tongue, lil' one…" – a blond tom in his late forties said as he approached from behind – "Life has a limited value in this place and you're a newcomer, if you get my meaning. Brad Zangfield's the name but you can call me Zang."
"Is that so? Well, then, I'm Phillip but you can call me Phillip, anyway." – the young tom said with a grin, which promptly disappeared when he saw that the other's expression remained unaltered.
"You squeal too much for a young rat." – Zang said before his lips became a straight line, which meant that he was smiling – "Life in this joint is hard enough without having to undergo all the initiations these guys demand. Stick with me for a while, kiddo, and maybe you'll learn something."
Zang and Phillip walked along the yard of Alkatraz prison. The yard was filled with all kinds of thugs. Some were disputing an animated street basketball game. Others were waiting on the sides to play with the victors. Some others were training with weights and others yet were strolling around, seemingly doing nothing. One of the kats exercising with weights was a familiar gray-furred tom.
"You see that guy over there, with the gray pelt, doing biceps curls?"- Zang asked, pointing towards the tom in question with a jerk of his head.
"That guy?" – Phillip stretched out his arm, pointing towards the tom in question, which was immediately pulled down by the older tom.
"Besides not being polite to point at people…" – Zang hissed in a low voice – "…it is also a very badly seen act around here! It's the kind of thing that makes you never wake up again in the morning!"
Phillip gulped on the sly, although his face still presented a disdainful look.
"That guy is Rex Shard. Some say he's a loner, a rogue among us. I know otherwise but he and he alone chooses with whom he wants to speak."
Phillip looked to Shard as he performed another set of biceps curls. The tom didn't look dangerous at all!
"Appearances can be deceiving most of the times. In this case, they are! One little piece of advice: stay well away from his arms' range. They're his most fearsome weapon. I already saw him reduce to rubble a piece of the black rock this island is made of with his bare hands. Some say he's the strongest of us…"
"He's like that, huh?" – Phillip said with an unimpressed tone in his voice before turning tail and heading to another part of the yard, leaving the husky gray tom to himself.
"Hey, Shard! Look at this!"
Rex Shard looked to the white-furred tom coming to him for only a second before returning his attention to the bulging muscle as he lifted the heavy dumbbell.
"Whattya got there, Billy?" – he replied to the younger inmate, still focused on his workout.
The young tom moved his fingers rapidly and produced a packet of cigarettes. To the untrained eye, it looked as though the packet had just materialized in his hand. Shard let down the dumbbell and, with equal agility took the cigarettes and hid them. He then resumed his workout.
"What about the other item?" – Shard questioned with a soft grunt as he lifted the heavy weight.
"You know, you gotta be the guy who asks me the strangest smuggles…" – Billy mused, crossing his arms over his chest.
"You got it or not?" – the gray-furred tom asked with another soft grunt.
"Hey, you're insulting me! There's nothing 'Little' Billy here can't smuggle in!" – the young tom bragged, pinching the chest of his shirt with his thumbs – "Sure I got it. Getting books for you isn't hard! It's not forbidden material. Heck, even you could order them! Felson would have nothing to say about it!"
"I don't trust Felson." – Shard simply replied as he changed the workout arm.
"Neither do I. Anyway, you'll have it in your cell when you get back to it."
"Good." – was Shard's only reply.
"I wonder what you do with a book on minerals…" – Billy asked, matter-of-factly.
"Besides using it as a blunt weapon… I learn."
"Does this have anything to do with the fact that you were turned into a living mineral giant?" – the young tom asked. Shard fulminated Billy with an awry stare that made the youngster shudder imperceptibly, saying nothing – "Whatever. Enjoy the book and the cigarettes." – the young tom said as he stepped away, leaving Shard to his workout.
High above the yard, Warden Felson surveyed the scene behind the three-inch thick bulletproof glass of his office's window panes. The cell phone all but glued to his ear distracted him enough, however, to prevent him from spotting the little trade between Billy and Shard.
"I understand, sir. No, sir, I don't have a problem with that! It's just that it is a little… irregular, that's all." – a moment passed as he heard his interlocutor speaking and his eyes narrowed – "I know that, sir. No, I don't want to lose the generous grant that the Draak Corporation… Yes, sir. I understand, sir. Right away, sir. Good morning to you too, sir."
Felson pressed the button to end the call with shaky fingers. He looked outside, beyond the reach of the impregnable walls of Alkatraz into the dark blue ocean and Megakat City far in the distance without actually seeing anything.
"What's going on?" – Howard Kowalski, Felson's best friend and Head of Security of Alkatraz Island Correctional Facility asked from his standpoint near the door.
The warden turned around and looked at the well-built frame of his friend. They'd been teammates in the MSU's Cougars, the university's fabled football team. That was many years ago. Kowalski had managed to retain his solid frame. Felson hadn't been so lucky and a slight pear shape had begun to appear. Felson plumped down on his executive chair, behind his steel and tinted glass desk, releasing a sigh.
"I will never understand why Mayor Manx passed that bill allowing civilian private corporations to co-finance penal correction facilities… That was T. K. Draak himself on the phone, right now."
"The big boss of Draak Corp? What did he want with you?"
"He told me to transfer a prisoner to the facilities on Sub-Level Five."
Kowalski narrowed his eyes. Sub-Level Five was the prison's brand new Genetic Research lab – "What are you going to do?"
"I don't have a choice! He practically *owns* this place!" – Felson sighed before he addressed his Head of Security – "Prepare prisoner PA-258-DV for immediate transfer."
The perfect day for the perfect holiday! A soft breeze blew her golden mane, stirring some locks and refreshing the late morning littoral ambience. A small wave crashed against the dark rock of the headland on her left, spraying seawater a couple of feet in the air. Dr. Paula Robertson watched as the tide slowly lowered. It was almost the peak of the lowest tide of the year, the only time that lava tube would be accessible. She had already explored it thoroughly many years ago. In fact, her doctoral thesis was based on the geochemical analysis of that geological feature. She knew exactly that this was a perfect specimen to show to her Advanced Volcanology course students. She closed her eyes and took up a deep breath, basking in the swirl of pleasant sensations the maritime air brought, purposefully trying to forget the insane scene occurring in front of her.
"Well?" – the volcanologist, head of the Geosciences Department of Megakat State University, asked to the fourteen alumni grouped in front of her. One of her students, a red-furred tom in his early twenties, stepped forth.
"We're not going, Dr. Robertson! It's too dangerous!"
"Dangerous?" – she asked, unbelievingly – "Dangerous? To get there, climb up a measly foot or two and get inside the largest and safest lava tube in the state? You've got to be joking, Richard…"
"I'm quite serious, Dr. Robertson. Besides, we're all tired…" – Richard whined as he sat on a large rock.
"Not to mention that I broke a nail walking along this rocky beach…" – a white-furred she-kat, Sarah, said in the most coquettish tone Paula had ever heard.
"And look at my shoes! They're ruined! This salt air is *poison* for the leather!" – another tom complained.
Paula lowered her head as if pondering. She started to nod almost imperceptibly as she groped the cold steel of the rock hammer dangling from the holster on her waist. Her blood was starting to boil! Here she was, trying to show the most beautiful, the most perfect and the safest lava tube in the state and these good-for-nothing, brainless poor excuses for a life form refused to go any further because they were too lazy to get their tails wet… She snapped her head up, looking at her students with a coruscating look on her pale-green eyes.
"Tired? Because you walked for a lousy quarter of a mile? And Sean, didn't I tell everybody to bring *appropriate* footwear? Genuine leather shoes and high-heels are *not* appropriate footwear for a day at the coast! Oh, and Sarah?"
"Yes, Dr. Robertson?"
"You just failed at my course! This isn't a rocky *beach*! It's a wave-cut terrace! If you don't even know your basic geomorphology, I suggest you drop off this course!" – she glanced briefly at her watch – "The tide is at its lowest. Now is the time to safely study this volcanic feature. Who's coming with me?"
A young reddish brown-furred tom dressed in some old-looking khaki shorts, a t-shirt with the university's symbol printed in the chest and a brand new panama hat stepped forth. He took off his sunglasses.
"I will." – Ryan said. His colleagues started murmuring cynically behind him.
"Leave it to Ryan, that butt-kisser…"
He turned to his comrades – "C'mon, guys! We're here to learn some Geology and we won't learn anything unless we go to the field and start hammering down on the outcrops! That's the only way to learn Geology and you know that!"
"Freak…" – someone said in the sly.
"Knock it off, guys! What are you after all? A bunch of wimps?"
"ENOUGH!" – Paula bellowed, putting an end to the impending confrontation – "I take it you do know that your grade at my course depends *greatly* on this field trip and on the annotations and schematics you take on your field book. Now, the way I see it, you cannot have annotations in a field book if you don't partake in the field trip. Therefore, if you don't get involved in this field trip, you're sure to fail at this course."
A choir of protests ensued. Paula simply turned her back on the young kats and marched towards the intertidal zone.
"Dr. Robertson, wait, please!"
The golden-furred geologist turned her head back and saw Ryan join her.
"I'm coming with you. I don't care what my dimwitted colleagues say. I know this is a rare opportunity to explore that lava tube and I've been waiting the whole semester for this chance. I'm not going to throw it away just because of some spoiled city brats."
Paula nodded and walked towards the entrance of the lava tube, followed close by the youngster.
Paula stormed inside her exiguous office, throwing her satchel to the ground and sinking on the stuffed chair, which screeched in protest. She exhaled loudly, letting all the air out of her lungs and closed her eyes.
"Paula?" – her husband, David Robertson, asked softly from the door, holding it open ajar – "Is everything alright?"
"Let me rest for a few minutes, David. I'll meet you in the lab." – was all that she said. David obeyed, closing the door behind him.
She rotated on her chair so that she was facing the semi-closed shutters of the window. The scant rays of the sunset passed through the cracks and borrowed a cozy orange tone to the darkened office. One of the rays hit on something further to her right, making it glint. She dragged her look towards the spot and smiled just a bit. She reached out to pick up the object and stared at it. Mounted on a wooden stand there was a large piece of snowflake obsidian, a volcanic glass, that David had picked up in one of their expeditions around the world and offered to her. She admired as the white speckles that resembled snowflakes matted the pitch-black glossy rock, drawing a strange motif that somewhat resembled a rose. Her smile grew a tad wider.
Picking herself up from the chair, she put the rock back in its place and prepared to leave her office. On her way out, she picked up the satchel and made her way to the basement of the building, where the laboratories of the Geosciences Department of Megakat State University were located.
When she reached Lab 0.3, she headed directly to the desk on the left corner of the large room. The laboratory looked just like any other, with white working benches, upon which were fitted shelves stuffed with reagents, rock and soil samples, glass material and ongoing experiments. Against the wall were some more working benches with sinks and taps. Machinery lay atop these benches, like stoves, sets of sieves and a machine used to make thin sections of rocks, that would later be fit into glass slides in order to be analyzed under the petrography microscopes. To the right of the entrance was a white board and against the right wall were the chart cases, filled with dozens of topographic and geologic charts of the entire country. Hanging from the walls were a framed geologic chart of Megakat State, a giant framed copy of the Michel-Lévi birefringence chart, a poster of the Mohs' scale of hardness and a framed picture of Anakata Volcano when it erupted in 1994, leveling a fifth of the tropical paradise known as Anakata Island.
Paula sat at the desk, turning on the computer. She unzipped her satchel and removed her rock hammer from within, placing it inside the metallic case behind her, in the leather holster she had an acquaintance of hers manufacture for the sole purpose of accommodating the hammer. She then produced some rock samples from the satchel and placed them on top of the desk. She opened a file for each of them, rapidly dating and locating the samples. She produced the small field book from her rear pocket and opened it on the first page of annotations she took during her last field trip. In a few minutes, she was totally absorbed in the task of cataloging the four samples of dark rock beside her, consulting her annotations on occasion.
"So these are the latest additions to our collection?" – David asked as he grabbed one of the rock samples – "You look terrible!"
Paula looked at her husband. He stood there with an immaculate white lab coat, holding the rock sample in his hands. She observed the dark blue reflections the light hitting his black fur made whenever he moved. She then looked at herself. She was covered in dust and salt, her golden-furred hands were darkened due to manipulating the rocks and her fur was a mess.
"I could probably use a bath…" – she said, sheepishly. He put down the sample and grabbed her chin, bringing their muzzles close for a passionate kiss.
"You're that kind of she-kat that looks even more gorgeous when is full of dirt." – he said, his amber eyes never leaving hers.
"I bet I am…" – she said before she returned her attention to her work – "I want to get this done so I can go home and take a shower. I'm half-dead…"
"Was it that tough to take a few kids out to see the 'Maw'?" – he asked as he headed for a nearby microscope. The 'Maw' was the affectionate name they used when they referred to Volcanus Vent, the lava tube on Anakata Island she had shown her students that day.
"Don't make me remember that…"- she said while a surge of wrath took over her. David noticed it when he heard her hitting the keys on the computer keyboard harder.
"What happened?" – he asked as he peered through the ocular of the microscope. He pushed in the device's gypsum wedge and the seemingly featureless field of view of the microscope became alive with a multitude of colors.
"Those brats didn't want to go see it! They said it was too dangerous! Can you believe it?" – she said, annoyed that she had to relive that absurd situation – "In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such spineless kids!"
"Come on, now, desert rose. You know Geology sucks!" – he taunted her. He knew she just *hated* to hear that! He kept looking through the ocular as he rotated the microscope's stage and defined the extinction angle for one of the minerals, a beautiful twinned amphibole. However, he could sense her glare boring a hole in his skull nevertheless!
"What the hell have you been looking at in there, anyway?" – she finally asked as she pointed to the petrography microscope, changing the subject.
"Why don't you come and take a look yourself?" – he invited her. She rose from the chair and sat on the stool in front of the microscope, peering through the eyepiece. She looked at a long hexagon-shaped yellow-brownish mineral that was half brown and half yellow. When she rotated the stage, the yellow part became brownish and the brownish became yellow.
"First order interference color… Cleavage angles at approximately 120º… A twinned amphibole?" – she asked.
"Looks like it. This is a thin section from a piece of that monster."
"Volcanus?" – she asked, looking at him – "Where did you get this from?"
"From a souvenir seller on Anakata, last year. I've only managed to begin my analysis on it about a month ago, though… " – he said as he stroked her hair, undoing the knotted locks.
"What have you found out so far?" – she asked as she returned her gaze to the microscope.
"Not much." – he said as he continued to pass his fingers through her hair – "Looks like any ordinary peridotite."
"Peridotite? That means his body must have come from the upper layers of Gaia's mantle. What do you say?"
"Could be." – he simply answered before his arms surrounded her waist and turned her around. His lips placed upon hers, kissing her passionately. – "You're intoxicating, today…"
"You're just in heat… But you'll have to wait till we get home… This is not the place to do it…"
She went back to the desk and printed four tabs, one for each specimen she had recollected. After placing the specimens inside plastic boxes, she placed each tag together with the respective sample. Finally, she took the samples and set them inside a metallic case. When she came back to turn off the printer and the computer, she noticed that David had already put the microscope and the slide away and was hanging the lab coat on the hanger beside the door.
"Are you done yet?" – he asked her.
"I'm just about done here!" – she said as she shut off the computer. Seconds later, she picked up the satchel and her field book and prepared to leave the lab. She was about to leave when she noticed a sentence by Will Durant printed with round letters and fixed to the door with some pieces of scotch tape that read Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.
"So very true…" – she thought – "If only we could keep that in mind…"
It was a bright Sunday morning that greeted the closed body shop. Chance was in the living-room, rubbing an anti-septic balm over the practically healed wound in his thigh. He closed the pot and rolled down the leg of his shorts, standing up on the healing leg and squatting slightly, testing the resistance of the newly formed muscle. It held up satisfactorily. He still felt a little sting whenever he made some moves or some other violent effort but nothing compared to the first weeks. Now, about six weeks since the incident, he could even walk without the help of a cane.
"Don't overstress it." – Jake said as he entered the living-room – "I don't want to carry your heavy ass around anymore!"
"I carried you around many times when you got yourself injured and that's how you thank me?" – the tabby asked, putting a hurtful look on his face before he grinned – "It's time for you to carry me around for a while!"
"Later!" – Jake said as he plumped down on the sofa and retrieved a book from the stack below the coffee table beside it.
"What's the literature for this week?"
" 'Light Fight – The Use of Laser Technology in Modern Day Warfare' by Lieder Greenbox. It deals on how the use of discrete quantum packets can affect the crystalline structure of agrecite-armored vehicles."
"Huh?" – Chance asked in utter confusion.
"How focused laser beams can blow up agrecite." – Jake explained – "It's been a recurrent idea among physicists that several well aimed laser beams can actually cut the hardest metal this planet has ever known. Greenbox drew some interesting theories on that respect before going wacko."
"Good luck… Agrecite has the strongest metallic bonding known to katkind. It's hard even for diamond to cut it and diamond has the strongest known covalent network of carbon atoms."
"Whoa! Did I just hear what I think I did? You have an insight on the atomic structure of agrecite and diamond?" – Jake asked, surprised.
"Everybody knows *that*!" – Chance said as he crossed his arms over his chest, pouting slightly – "I went to school too, you know?"
"Sorry! I didn't mean to insult you! It's just that you're usually so… so…"
"Dumb?" – Chance completed in a sour tone.
"NO! That's not what I meant! I mean you're usually so down to earth… I don't think I ever heard you talk like that before."
"I'm no genius! I only know what every kitten is taught at school." – he smiled – "Then I guess you've never seen me taking care of my collection."
"I've seen you overhauling that Dodge Charger, if that's what you mean… Guy, you really wrecked a wonder of a car…" – Jake taunted.
"Don't talk like that about my baby! She's not finished yet! Anyway, I wasn't talking about that but rather about this." – he said as he opened the lower drawer of the television cabinet, retrieving a wooden box from there. The husky tom opened the lock and revealed a series of small squared compartments filled with different specimens of minerals, some of them quite beautiful.
"What the heck… Rocks? You've been bringing rocks into the house all this time?" – Jake inquired, cocking one eyebrow.
"Not just *any* rocks! Only the best samples I could find! Look at this."
Chance picked up a small blood-red stone and gave it to Jake. The slender tom looked at it unimpressed and rapidly returned it to Chance.
"You don't know what it is, do you?" – Chance questioned, grinning broadly.
"Of course I know! It's… It's… huuuuh… Something ending in 'ite'!"
"Wrong! I'm surprised at you! You talk so much about lasers and you don't even know what this is?"
"You're kidding me! Are you telling me that red piece of rock is a ruby? It doesn't look like a ruby! They're all bright and shiny!"
"It hasn't been polished yet! This is a rough piece of ruby! And it's full of impurities. It wouldn't be worth much if we tried to sell it."
"So, you have a knack for minerals, do you? That explains your love for the desert… You picked up all of those there?"
"No, not all of them. I went to the sea shore and to the mountains too. Hey, see here?" – the tabby retrieved a piece of a blue rock that slightly twinkled at the morning light – "This is a bit of agrecite from those scorpion-infested caverns. And this…" – he picked up a pitch-black stone and showed it to Jake – "You should recognize this…"
The slim kat looked at the black stone. Yes, he seemed to remember seeing it somewhere… Suddenly, his mind flashed back to the time when he and T-Bone faced the fire demon Volcanus.
He had just planted the explosive device and prepared to leave the premises when the giant grabbed him. Volcanus had moved so fast he had been caught off guard. He remembered how the huge stone fist enveloped his body, nearly crushing him as easily as it would a fly. And the heat, the unbearable heat! The suit was slowly melting down. He fought back and resisted for as long as he could, shooting at the monster in front of him with the Mega-Rivet Gun. He knew the explosive was about to go off. T-Bone had to get away or he too would be destroyed by the blast.
He was scared, terrified. Never before had he been so close to dying. When the device exploded, he though it was the end. There was no way he could survive that. Even if somehow he did manage to live through the blast, the rocky fist of the fire-demon was still grasping him firmly, crushing and burning him. Soon, he'd dive into the cold waters of the bay and drown.
But Fortune had other plans for him. The contact with the cold water weakened the stone and he was able to break loose from Volcanus' grip. The effort, however, made him lose precious air. Another challenge presented to him then. He had to swim to the surface, several meters above his head, exhaling all the way up in order to minimize the risk of nitrogen lodging in his brain. But swimming up proved impossible with the heatproof suit on. Wasting some more precious air, he took it off and kicked it away. He finally could swim up, towards the surface and towards life.
That adventure had cost him a month of healing. His right arm was severely burnt and some nitrogen had indeed lodged in his brain. He had to be decompressed before he could get proper treatment for the wounds. It had been a month of pure pain.
Forcing himself back to the present, he absent-mindedly stroked his right arm as he contemplated the black rock in his friend's hand with a grim expression.
"This is a piece of Volcanus, isn't it? Where did you get it?" – Jake asked before returning his gaze back to Chance, who put the black rock back in its place.
"This is the only specimen I've bought so far. I've purchased it from that souvenir seller on Anakata Island." – the tabby said as he put away his collection.
"It brings back bad memories… You should throw that thing away." – Jake somberly demanded.
"I won't for two reasons. First, it's part of my collection, which I love. Second, and more important, it reminds me of our frailness. It reminds me that death is a constant companion and that we should be careful if we want to live another day to risk our necks for the citizens we agreed to defend."
"You're too intense today…" – Jake remarked – "You want to be reminded of pain and frailty? Then face me! Downstairs, in the arena, two out of three."
"You're on! I'm gonna mop the floor with you, buddy!" – Chance said before both toms headed downstairs.
"LIGHTS OUT IN FIVE!" – a guard bellowed from the lower level.
Shard sighed as he closed the book on Mineralogy he'd been studying for the past weeks. He put it under the five-inch mat covering the wood of the cot and rested his head on the mound it made. Soon enough, the lights went out and he was momentarily blind as his eyes got used to the darkness. When he could see something else beside darkness, he got up, making the cot screech softly. He went for the barred window as he searched his trousers' pockets for a cigarette and a matchstick. He climbed up the stool and put is arms out of the window, lighting the cigarette. Puffing out the smoke, he stared at the night sky, hearing the lap of the waves on the rocks beneath, occasionally crashing against them.
"It's so calm tonight." – he thought as he sucked in a generous portion of smoke, the red flare of the cigarette faintly illuminating his features – "It makes me remember those nights on the beach with you, Susan."
Shard crumpled the cigarette on the wall before throwing it to the ocean. He returned to the cot, lying on it again. From there, he could see the stars glinting palely in the sky through the window. Soon, he fell into a disturbed slumber.
In his sleep he could still see the stars glinting in the nocturnal sky. But he wasn't in Alkatraz anymore. He was someplace else he could not recognize. The gray light coming from the stars and the moon barely illuminated the place. Only then he heard the soft sound of the surf, rolling to lap his bare feet. That, together with the feeling of soft sand beneath his soles told him he must be in some sort of beach.
"Rex!" – he heard a soft female voice calling him out in a whisper. He looked to his right. With a radiance of her own, he saw a she-kat with her arms spread out open. – "Rex!"
"S-Susan?" – Shard queried before running towards the feminine figure in front of him – "SUSAN!"
The husky gray tom was still a few feet away from his former love's embrace when her form disappeared like a charlatan's trick, turning into a gray smoke that mingled with the darkness of the night.
"SUSAN, WAIT!" – he still shouted but to no avail. Once more he found himself surrounded by complete darkness. He dropped to his knees on the soft sediment, his ears drooping in dismay. He looked down on his own hands and embraced himself before collapsing in shear despair.
All of a sudden, the ground began to shake and all around him large multicolored crystals darted upwards from the sand, encircling and imprisoning him. He stumbled backward until his back met the sharp edge of one of the crystals, wincing as it cut a gash on his back. Starlight mirrored off the crystals, making them produce a faint and eerie glint. He looked back at the crystal he'd touched and saw his blood staining the otherwise immaculate gem.
The ground stopped its rumble and the crystals quieted down. Shard looked all around him, trying to figure a way to flee from his prison. But the crystals were too high and too close to even try to attempt an escape. Suddenly, one crystal, the one he'd smeared his blood on, started to branch out like a tree. Shard stepped away from the sharp branching arm. To his dismay, he saw that every other crystal started to branch out as well. Some shot out crystalline branches that dug deeply into Shard's flesh. Soon, Shard was a gory mass of blood and flesh impaled in crystal.
Seconds that seemed like years passed by before Shard's ordeal was over. When it stopped, his body started absorbing the crystalline structures. Soon enough, a new Shard emerged from the gory remnants of the old one. In the beach, on the blood-soaked sand, stood a husky figurine made out of a green mineral. Shard opened his eyes and stared down on himself. He'd been turned into a monster once more. The question was why…
He looked up, to the stars, as if they could provide him with an answer for his question. Once more, the ground started shaking. He looked ahead and faintly discerned, outlined against the starry night sky, the shape of a mountain. Suddenly, the mountain became alive with a stream of fire that projected upwards from its summit, into the heavens. Red incandescent rocks fell all around him but he didn't move an inch. He gaped at the brutal spectacle displayed in front of his eyes. Then, with a sound more horrific than anything he'd ever heard, the side of the mountain facing him was ripped open and, from within, came out a giant kat-like shape, outlined against the red fiery fountain behind it. The form reached out for him, grabbing Shard in its stony left hand. The giant brought Shard closer to its face. Shard looked at the ominous orange glow coming from the creature's eyes, merely gaping holes in the black rocky crust.
"You belong to me." – a voice that resembled a low growl, a sigh and a dying tom's wail altogether said as a flow of flames enveloped Shard.
The husky gray-furred tom bolted upwards, gasping and opening his eyes wide. He looked around him and was a bit surprised to see that he was still in his cell. Wiping the perspiration off his forehead, he got up and went for the barred window, climbing up the stool again in order to put his arms outside and bask on the freshness of the night. He reached for his pocket again and retrieved another cigarette, igniting it with another matchstick. He sucked in a generous portion of smoke before slowly exhaling it all out. He placed the cigarette in his mouth and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the cold steel of the window's bars.
"This weird dream again… What does it mean? Why did I have this dream for five nights in a row?" – he thought to himself – "However, this time, it was different… What was that volcano thing all about? I'd never dreamt that before! And what did it mean with 'you belong to me'?"
Shard looked out to the horizon. In the distance, he saw a pale red flare illuminating an island. He squinted trying to see what it was but couldn't discern it. Suddenly, for only a second, he saw the face of the creature that had grabbed him in his dream. In a reflex act, he grasped the bars of the window and gritted his teeth, shutting his eyes. When he opened them, the face did not reappear and he relieved the pressure on the cigarette as he let go of the bars, noticing, however, that they were incandescent in the place where he'd held them!
"What the…?" – Shard murmured unbelievingly as the smoke from his cigarette flowed in a turbulent pattern out the window an into the night sky.
"Can you believe this?" – Paula asked as she banged the palm of her hand against the side of her laptop's monitor – "This stupid contraption is so *slow*! I could've worked out these variables ages ago without the help of this *thing*!
"Power down, honey! Violence and technology are *not* good bedfellows!" – he said as he too punished mercilessly the keys on his laptop, trying to finish the report he'd been postponing for ages.
"I'll go check my mail while it takes its time to compile everything." – she moaned before accessing the Interweb.
"You know, if you had less applications running, the system would be faster."
"Oh, I've got mail… It's from Anakata's Volcano Watch." – she exclaimed as she clicked on the mail's subject field in order to open it. Meanwhile, David's cell phone rang.
"I'll get it…" – he said as he reached out for the phone, one hand still running dexterously across the keyboard – "David here!"
"Oh, my… David, you're not going to believe this…"
"Anakata Volcano has just erupted?" – he said as he discontinued his conversation on the phone.
"Yes! How do you know?" – she asked, looking at the amber eyes of her husband.
"I've been talking on the phone with the director of Anakata Observatory. The volcano has just erupted. They told me they were taking all measurements. Everything would be downloaded directly to the University's mainframe." – he informed her.
"The AVW is doing exactly the same. We'll be receiving data from two different sources. Too bad the National Geological Survey isn't here too…"
"We can always contact them if we need. I'm sure their new Landsat network is capturing all of it."
"I'm currently trying to access the University's server but this piece of crud is just too damn slow!" – Paula complained – "Cripes! It's still compiling those variables I've spoken of! Okay, time's up, baby. You had your chance and you lost it…" – she said as she interrupted the program and shut it off. She would have to wait five more minutes before she accessed the remote server.
"I'm in. Let's see the visual data first." – she said as she punched a few keys. Half a minute later she had a video feed from the AVW. – "Come here, David. I've got it."
For the next minutes, they watched in silence the images of wild nature in action. A veil of ash and gas covered the northern side of the mountain, reflecting the reddish glow of the outpouring lava and outlining in black the conical shape of the volcano. Occasionally, a fiery sparkle-like jet would escape the summit and spew over the northern slope. The small lava river that had formed in the meantime, running towards the ocean was partially hidden from sight but they knew it was there because of the reflection of the lava against the falling ash.
"It's not a much violent explosion, don't you think?" – Paula queried her husband, who responded her without ever taking his eyes from the images on the laptop.
"Indeed. It's quite a calm episode. But that's not really surprising, don't you agree?"
"No, it's not… Given the tectonic setting of Megakat State, this is what one should expect: relatively calm volcanic events, with plenty of lava outpouring. We must definitely be near a mantle plume…" – she said as she shut off the video feed.
"The lava cascade at Megakat National Park also proves that. How else would we get such a lava source if not supplied by a hot spot? Big mystery is…"
"Where does it go after it exits the primary vent… The lava lake keeps it warm for a while, but it would have to cool off and solidify, forming rock…"
"… that, in due time, would block the main fountain, nullifying one of best tourist attractions of the state." – David concluded – "We make one hell of a team, love."
"I'm giving a quick look around on the gaseous fraction composition. Nothing unusual. Looks like it's just another hiccup… Huh?"
"What? Did you find anything worthwhile?"
"Maybe… It's odd… Look at this seismic data." – she asked him as she stepped aside.
"Whoa! Pretty regular for a harmonic tremor, isn't it? You can almost draw the sinusoidal curve to match it!"
"It is. Except it's not harmonics at all! These seismic waves were those created by the eruption itself. Anakata Volcano's always been known to have harmonic tremors before an eruption but there hasn't been any before this one. It's almost as if the magma wanted to get out without warning…" – that last comment made David cock one eyebrow – "I know, I know! I'm being silly. Maybe it's nothing but I can't stop thinking this may be of significance… Anyway, tomorrow I want to go to Anakata and see the eruption with my own eyes."
"Whatever my fruitcake says…" – he said before he kissed her forehead.
"And now, some images of raw natural beauty. Anakata Volcano, on Anakata Island, has erupted this night at approximately ten p.m.!"
"Whoa! Uncle Bill, come see this!" – Ryan called with an amazed and enthusiastic voice.
"What is it, Ryan?"
"Anakata Volcano! It's erupting!"
"As far as we know, the stream of lava is heading away from homes and crops, unlike what happened in this volcano's last eruption in 1994, which consumed about an eighth of that island's crops."
"Well, at least there weren't any casualties or property damage this time."
"Isn't this beautiful, uncle? I *so* wish I was there!"
Bill watched as his nephew's eyes were nearly sparkling with the violent spectacle of Anakata Volcano's eruption. He smiled and placed his arm over Ryan's shoulders.
"You really love this Geology stuff, don't you?"
"More than anything, uncle!" – the young tom answered, embracing his uncle but never quitting his eyes from the TV screen – "I want to be a great geologist, uncle. I want to try and find ways to predict these catastrophes so that people won't have to suffer anymore from them."
He parted with his uncle and stepped towards the TV set, squatting in front of it and touching the screen, which was still showing images from the eruption as the MBC's news block credits rolled.
"Volcanoes are truly one of the most destructive forces of nature but we owe so much to them! We may owe them our very existence in this planet but they may also hold the key to our extinction! What an amazing power they have: the power to give life and the power to end it!"
"You wish you could control them."
"No! That's impossible! Controlling the volcanoes would mean controlling the entire planet and that, quite frankly, is still in the realm of improbability! No, uncle! I want to understand them! I want to be able to warn people when volcanoes are about to erupt so that measures can be taken to avoid casualties and property damage. That's what I mean when I say I wish I could be there. Hey… Maybe I *can*!"
Ryan ran towards his room and quickly snatched his cell phone from the desk, pressing a button. His uncle appeared at the door.
"Hello! Dr. Robertson? Ryan, here."
"You've got your teacher's phone number on speed-dial?" – Uncle Bill muttered, cocking one eyebrow, to which Ryan just shrugged.
"Yes, yes I've seen it in the news. That's why I'm calling you. You'll be going there, aren't you, Dr. Robertson? I'd like to accompany you, please!"
Ryan's expression turned from expectancy to disappointment in an instant.
"But Dr. Robertson…" – was all he could say before the call was ended.
"What happened, Ryan?"
"It's too dangerous for someone who doesn't have any kind of field experience to witness a primary volcanic feature."
"C'mon, sport! Don't let it get to you! Your teacher is right! I wouldn't feel much at ease with you there as well! I'm sure other opportunities will present themselves if you have the patience to wait!"
"You're right, uncle! My time will definitely come!"
Uncle Bill smiled and fatherly passed an arm over the youngster's shoulders – "You're a chip right off the old block, Ryan…"
"Hey, Jake, come over here, quick!" – Chance called as he rose from the couch and approached the TV set.
"Recognize this?" – the tabby queried pointing at the television screen. The slim kat watched the footage of Anakata Volcano's eruption.
"That's Anakata. Is this live?"
Both toms exchanged apprehensive glances.
"You don't think…"
"We destroyed him! *You* destroyed him!"
Jake stared at the animated images as the credits rolled by, narrowing his eyes. He knew he had destroyed Volcanus. That had to be just another natural hiccup. And that's what he told Chance.
But the seed of doubt was planted anyway…
Smoke still belched from the summit of Anakata volcano when Paula and David arrived on the island. The boat laid anchor in the small space reserved for Megakat State University in Anakata Marina and slowly came to a halt. Once the boat was tightly secured to the dock, both scientists came ashore, where they were met by a representative of the Anakata Volcano Watch and another from the Anakata Observatory for Geosciences.
"Glad you could join us, doctors, but I'm afraid you have come in vain…" – Dr. Richard Pruss, from AVW, greeted them as he pointed towards the volcano.
"So I've noticed." – Paula muttered, glancing briefly at the dark mountain – "For how long has the eruption ended?"
"About two hours ago, Dr. Robertson." – Michael Mendes, from AOG, informed as he shook hands with her.
"Just five hours of eruption time?" – David made the math rapidly – "Not unusual but still…"
"I want to have a look at the main vent." – Paula demanded as her eagle eyes pierced the clouds of volcanic smoke that still lingered around the crater.
David's black fur almost turned white with her wife's request. He was used to her unusual and sometimes reckless demands but this…
"Paula, the eruption has only stopped a couple of hours ago. It probably was not the main eruption and the fact that the mountain is still emitting gases is proof enough of that!"
"Nonsense. Don't you see those gulls over there?" – she pointed to the summit of the volcano. David saw, in fact, the white birds soaring the skies near the vent, sometimes piercing the whitish clouds.
"It's just water vapor…" – he mumbled – "Nevertheless, the fact that the volcano is still emitting gases…"
"…is irrelevant. I want to go there, anyway, and sample those gases. Shall we?" – she said as she slung her satchel over her shoulder and marched on towards the black mountain. David sighed in defeat and followed her. The other two followed them as well.
A few minutes later, they were climbing the basaltic rock, with Paula always in the lead. David climbed up right behind her but both Dr. Pruss and Mr. Mendes stayed behind. David's worries only increased with the climb. He felt the rock warm to the touch but he daren't tell Paula about that. The fact that they were climbing the east slope and the rising sun was hitting the black rock with all its might, along with her wife's temper, were enough to keep his comments to himself.
It took them an hour to get to the top. The volcano wasn't really that high but the eastern slope was the toughest one to climb because it had a dip of 45 degrees, formed during a more explosive episode of lava outpour. The western side, subject to the majority of the blasts, had a much lower dip.
"Come on, David, or I'll leave you behind!" – Paula warned her husband as she pressed on. As they climbed up the dark hill, David's worries grew. It was almost like a premonition and his anxiety only grew as he watched his wife climb higher and higher, nearing the smoking summit of the hill.
"Paula, let's go back, please… I have a bad feeling about this…"
Paula stopped for a second. She knew her husband well enough to know he wasn't a tom to cower in the face of a volcano. Heck, they were even surprised once when they were climbing Mount Rocha, in Elurope. They were leading an expedition to study that volcano, which had been inactive for more than a hundred years. They were already on their way back when they felt the tremors and, only half an hour later, the mountain exploded in a fiery fountain of molten rock. A small group of scientists, who had stayed behind, inside the crater, gathering some gas and rock samples for further study, was surprised and instantly died when the volcano erupted. The rest of the group ended that day either dead or severely mangled. David had received the Herculean blow of a small lava bomb and both his legs had been broken. He had had the same feeling on their way up and had insisted that the expedition should be postponed. But she had stubbornly insisted that they only had three days left to do it. So they climbed. Paula more than once regretted not having heard his husband that day. Besides having to watch David agonize at her side with both his legs broken and burnt, lawsuits poured from the dead and mangled scientists' families, who did not understand the risks their loved ones took when they embraced that profession, even though the survivors had tried to discourage them. They had paid a lot of money to soothe the memories of the families.
"Death is the constant companion of any geologist, let alone a volcanologist…" – she thought before she pressed on, to her husband's dismay. Still, he followed her.
Finally, both scientists had reached the summit of the smoldering volcano. As Paula had expected, the smoke clouds still circling around the crater were comprised mainly of water vapor but she could smell the rank of sulfur as well. She touched the rock beneath her and immediately retrieved her hand. It was *very* hot. Only then did she look to her feet and saw the sole of her shoes sticking slightly to the hot rock. David protruded the thermometer and stuck it into the ground. The numbers on the monitor of the hand-held multimeter climbed steadily until they read a temperature of 185 ºC.
"It's unusually cold for an aftermath of a recent volcanic episode." – David announced.
"What did you expect? 1200 ºC? I don't see any lava pouring, do you?" – she replied as she took a careful step further towards the edge of the smoldering crater.
"Careful, Paula! The rock may have become fragile as a result of the eruption!"
"I know. That's why I'm taking extra care! Hand me a bottle, will you? There's a vapor vent two feet beneath the rim of the crater. I want to sample it." – she crouched as her husband extended her a small glass bottle with a glass tube protruding from the container's neck – "Oh, I see some traces of sulfur around the vent. Maybe there are some emanations still coming out…"
She twisted the small valve embedded on the tube of the vacuum-sealed bottle, opening it. A portion of the gas was instantly sucked into the glass container, the container's wall immediately becoming fogged. A few seconds later, she closed the valve again, sealing the bottle and handed it over to David, who hoarded it inside his backpack. She then hunched over the rim of the crater a bit more in order to recover some of the yellow dust around the vent with a small metallic spatula. David produced another glass vial from within his backpack and was unscrewing its lid in order to give it to Paula when it happened!
A portion of the rim collapsed under Paula's weight. A chunk weighing several pounds of basaltic rock gave way and launched Paula in the void. David had fast enough reflexes to let go of the vial and grab his wife's hand. Spreading his body flat on the dark rock in order to evenly distribute his body's weight over the rough surface of the rim, he managed to stop her wife's fall but the heat emanating from the rock soon began to seep through his clothes. Both Paula and David looked into the crater as the chunk of basalt approached the dark gray top of the vent, hitting it and breaking it into a thousand pieces. Underneath, both scientists could then suddenly see the intense glow of the lava pool disguised under the thin roof of solidified lava. David's mind processed the information in a split second and instantly started pushing his wife up, even before she had cried out to him.
"Pull me up, pull me up!" – she bellowed as she felt the broiling gust of air that rose from the depths beneath, scalding her.
David used up only a fraction of his strength to heave her up and away from the inferno below. He was a toughly built tom and, with a wife like Paula, he needed to be! He embraced her tightly when she was out of the crater, muttering in her ear reassuringly – "It's over now! Let's head down, safely."
She didn't reply but just complied, almost blindly. It wasn't the first time she'd been surprised by a volcanic trick but this time it had been too innerving! In her early years as a volcanologist, she'd learned a lot, especially to mind the rock temperature as an important indicator of volcanic activity. She also knew that newly formed rock was highly unstable and could crumble to pieces without warning. The rocks surrounding a crater, especially those near the rim, were the weakest, since they were most subjected to the blasts and the forces of erosion. She understood she was taking a risk climbing up Anakata Volcano after such a recent volcanic outburst but even David told the temperature wasn't that particularly high… Now, as they walked away from the crater, her rational mind started working hard again.
"It was a skylight, a lava skylight…" – she mumbled – "The eruption mustn't have stopped yet. There must be a lava tube heading towards the ocean or to some other place underground. It's the only explanation for the existence of a skylight over a lava pool."
"I think you're right, honey. The eruption is still going on but no one can see it. There's just one thing I don't get…"
"Where's the lava heading? If it went to the ocean, we would have seen vapors or seawater boiling… I haven't noticed any of that…"
"You're right. We should contact the National Geological Survey and ask them for a satellite temperature reading in this region."
"You don't think the Maw's been reactivated, do you?"
"It's probable… As far as I could go inside it, the lava tube wasn't completely blocked… It would be underwater now but I'm sure we would see a large cloud of water vapor if the Maw was still pouring lava into the ocean…"
"It must be going under the crust… That's unusual… Do you think Anakata's magma chamber is connected to another?" – David queried, not without some uneasiness in his voice.
She pondered on that for a moment. Sometimes, when the setting was right, adjacent volcanic regions could share and interconnect their magma chambers. Or… She trembled slightly…
"Either that or…"
"A mega-magma chamber…" – David muttered – "That's a daunting scenario… A terrible dejá vu… If something like the Blackstone Event was ever to happen in nowadays' Megakat State… Crud…"
"Don't say that… Don't even think of that…" – Paula muttered as she hurried along out of the volcano's hill and headed towards Dr. Pruss and Mr. Mendes.
One of the blackest days in Gaia's history. Literally. That's how the Blackstone Event is known among geologists.
The event was named after Blackstone National Park, in relation to the pitch-black rock that comprises about seventy percent of the total surface area of the park. That rock is basalt. Unusual forms made out of basalt pinpoint the park, ranging from towers made out of hexagonal columns of the dark rock to hollow tubes, caverns, arks and cascading pools of boiling water and mud.
For the visitor, the tourist, the eight hundred thousand acres of Blackstone National Park were a magic and wondrous place, where they could visit the geysers, the thermal fountains and all those amazing volcanic features. For the geologist, it was a live laboratory of volcanism in action. And its history was both incredible and terrifying. The visitors did not know but they were walking, running, frolicking atop one of the largest magma chambers in the world, a chamber that comprised more than three thousand square kilometers in area and had an amazing volume of more than twenty five thousand cubic kilometers. The distant line of low mountains a visitor could watch when in the center of the park was nothing more than the rim of Blackstone Caldera, one of the largest in the planet.
They were inside one of the largest live volcanoes in Gaia, stage of one of the most powerful and violent eruptions of the last three million years of the planet's history. An eruption so violent it wiped out life around the crater for a hundred-kilometer radius. An eruption so powerful its ash covered the northern hemisphere for more than eighteen months, plunging the world into two summer-less years. An eruption so potent it left a layer of ash more than a hundred meters thick in the area around the crater.
It was this scenario Paula and David equated when they climbed down the slope of Anakata volcano. They suspected that Blackstone's mega-magma chamber also served the fifteen smaller and now dormant volcanoes that were inside Blackstone National Park. It was also suspected that some of these volcanoes had secondary magma chambers connected to each other. The fact that the lava was heading out of Anakata volcano into a lava tube and on to nowhere city was indeed disturbing. However, they didn't share their ideas with Dr. Pruss and Mr. Mendes – they feared they'd just laugh at their faces. They knew theirs was a wild idea and they readily dismissed it.
"We've got the imagery you required, doctors." – Mr. Mendes barged in the conference room of the AVW main building waving a Manila paper envelope in his hand. He opened it and spread the geotherms over the backlit table. They showed some weird-looking images with colors ranging from turquoise to dark blue. After getting it all in, David looked away, towards the farther wall, where a large geological chart of Anakata Island was displayed. His eyes jumped from one spot to the other in rapid succession, trying to overlap the geotherms with the map.
"There isn't anything obvious… Are these the sharpest geotherms they could send us?" – Paula asked, slightly annoyed.
"I asked for the most accurate imagery around the Anakata region. If their Seasats can't see anything, then there's nothing to be seen…" – Dr. Pruss said, also slightly annoyed at Paula.
"What about the seismological data?" – she asked as she examined the geotherms again.
"What about it?"
"There were no harmonics before this eruption."
"That's not at all unusual. It's happened before."
"In your dreams, perhaps…" – she muttered on the sly. David heard this and suddenly turned his head towards his wife, shooting a glare that rooted another acid quip in Paula's throat.
"What my wife's trying to say is that Anakata Volcano's been known for the regularity of its harmonics. The fact that there were none before this eruption could be meaningful."
Mr. Mendes shrugged – "I don't see how the absence of harmonic tremors can be of significance. They don't have to happen to…"
"*Excuse me*?" – Paula interrupted – "All my life I've studied this volcano and ever since the first time data started being collected back in 1946 that this volcano has presented harmonic tremors before each and every eruption. Don't tell me the absence of harmonics in Anakata Volcano has happened before because it hasn't. Maybe when you have twenty years of field experience as I have then you can tell me what can be deemed important or not in an investigation. Until then, you'd better..."
She quickly shut her mouth, almost biting her tongue in the process and looked down, anger still welling in her eyes. David was right, though. She'd done it again… When she looked back at him, she could see his amber eyes nearly coruscating in fury.
"You will forgive my wife. She's still very upset because of the incident back there in the volcano. Please, do keep the Geosciences Department informed of your surveillance."
"It is completely understandable. Let us speak no more of this." – Mr. Pruss said in order to cool down the moods – "We will continue to relay all our data to the University's mainframe, rest assured, Mr. and Ms. Robertson."
"Well, we'll be leaving now. Thank you, gentlekats, for all your cooperation."
Judging by the light outfits of the other kats they encountered on their way from the AVW to the marina, the day should be a warm one. But the cold shoulder her husband was giving her made her feel like it was mid-winter in the poles. They embarked without saying a word. Only when they were halfway through the strait separating Anakata from Megakat City did she speak.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay? That brat had me all worked up."
"Everyone gets you worked up…" – he retorted as he steered the boat.
"He's not even a geologist…"
"What makes you think he doesn't know much more than you, even though he's not a professional geologist?" – David snapped – "What makes you think you're better than anyone? Where do you get off looking down on everyone?"
His words hurt her more than the impact of a lava bomb would. She just stood there, behind him, eyes abated.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so harsh on you." – he said a few moments later in a softer tone – "It's just that…"
"I know. I screwed it up."
"Come here." – he called her as he steered the boat with one hand, inviting her to his side with the other. She embraced him and nestled her muzzle over his chest as he cuddled her under his arm, holding her close to him.
"Mark my words, Callie! Third time's a charm, he, he!"
Mayor Manx and Callie were in the penthouse of the newly rebuilt Megakat Tower. Destroyed twice, by Doctor Viper and by a giant extraterrestrial cikata, the new Megakat Tower was not only higher than its predecessors but altogether different, with its distinctive pyramidal shape.
"Now, not even an earthquake can bring down this building!"
"Yes, it was a smart move to implement seism-resistant building standards on Megakat Tower."
"Thank you! And thanks to my diplomatic and commercial genius, I've already leased the whole building!"
"Yes, to Draak Corp. I'm surprised they had the money to sign off on such a multimillionaire five-year lease…"
"Now, now, Callie! I'm sure Mr. Draak will be much pleased with Megakat Tower to house his company's world headquarters. Look at what he's getting! State-of-the-art domotics *and* safe lodging for him and his employees!"
"But why would Mr. Draak want to erect his company's world headquarters in Megakat City, of all places?"
"It is true that we have a set of… unique… characters and problems but we are one of the most important cities of this country and we have several other major companies that wish to house their corporations in our city. If it is their wish to do so, who are we to stop them?"
"Yes, I suppose it will be very good for our economy… And we *surely* could use the increase on the tax revenue after sinking almost *all* of the City's Treasury rebuilding this place!" – she shivered and embraced herself – "It's just that I can't help to have a bad feeling about this building…"
"So you're saying that rubies and sapphires are basically the same thing?" – Jake asked before he took a forkful of baked salmon and pasta – "How come? They're completely different! I mean, the former is red and the latter is blue!"
"I'm telling you!" – Chance managed to reply before gulping down – "They're both corundum, one of the toughest minerals around, next to diamond! Rubies have chromium impurities in them while sapphires have iron and titanium. That's enough to make a difference in color!"
"Yeah, it makes sense when you think of it… When you're staining a chassis, you control the amount of pigment you add to a paint mix in order to get a more or less saturated tone." – Jake pondered as he got off the table, bringing his dishes to the kitchen sink. Chance finished his plate with one large forkful and rose as well.
"Well, rocks are even more complex than minerals. I remember my Science teacher once said that minerals are to rocks like cells are to living beings."
"Fascinating…" – Razor said as he washed his plate, although his tone said he found that as fascinating as watching paint dry. Chance didn't miss that.
"Fact is all electronics we know nowadays would be useless if it wasn't for quartz crystals. Here, let me help you with that." – Chance took the wet plate from his friend's hand and began drying it up with a cloth.
"Yeah, I know." – Jake replied as he washed the cup he used to drink the milk with which he had accompanied the salmon and pasta dinner – "Silicon chips are the very nerve centers of every piece of electronic material today. Silicon's four-sided bonding ability is almost as versatile as carbon's but its heat resistance is way above that of carbon."
"Well, did you know computer chips are being made out of diamond instead of silicon? Don't ask me why, though…"
"No way! The cost would be prohibitive!"
"Nature's not the only one who knows how to make diamonds today. Katkind has found a way to replicate the pressure and temperature conditions necessary to make diamonds a long time ago."
"You're talking about synthetic diamonds, then! I know their value is below that of the natural ones but even so…"
"You're thinking about gemstone-grade diamonds, which are indeed the most valuable! But I'm talking about low-grade diamonds that wouldn't be worth more than a quarter!"
"A quarter million?" – Jake queried as he finished washing Chance's plate.
"More like twenty five cents!" – Chance corrected himself as he accepted the dish his friend extended to him – "I'm talking about dust-size particles of diamond, diamond dust, if you will. The kind that you find in a dentist's drill bit."
"Oh, I see! Diamond is nothing more than carbon that was submitted to extremely high pressure and heat but it still has a four-sided bonding ability like silicon. However, diamond's heat resistance is far superior to that of silicon, which could open the doors to picotechnology!"
"Don't you mean nanotechnology, like our bodies are made of?" – the burly tom questioned as he finished drying the dish and put it inside the cupboard.
"No, picotechnology! Picomachines are even smaller than nanomachines! I'm talking machines that are smaller than the smallest known virus!"
"So, what's the big deal? Couldn't silicon be used to make those machines?"
"Heck, no!" – Jake snapped back, turning towards Chance and waving a finger in his direction – "Do you know what the biggest problem with the miniaturization of electronic chips is?"
Chance shrugged – "The lack of space?"
"The heat dissipation! You know that the smaller the chip, the more the amount of heat it has to dissipate in order to work. Since everything is so small, the electric current heats the silicon very much, so much that the silicon might melt! That's why we put heat dissipaters, a.k.a. fans, in computers, to help dispel the heat the processing unit generates. We need a material as versatile as silicon but with a higher heat resistance capacity in order to resist the high temperatures such picomachines undergo. "
"I get it! Diamond can withstand humongous temperatures! The problem was the cost of their manufacturing. But with the new methods of making lots of microscopic low-grade diamonds…"
"The doors to a whole new world are beginning to open! Welcome to the age of picotechnology!" – Jake finished, eyes glimmering.
"We interrupt this program to give you this news bulletin." – the television unceremoniously interrupted them, immersing the room in a telegraph-like sound.
"But, for now, we'll settle for the old one. The newscaster seems distressed!"
"Breaking news from Alkatraz! The criminal known as Rex Shard is confirmed to have evaded the fortress-prison. MBC cameras captured the moment of escape while shooting a documentary on the fortress that held the title of most secure prison in the world for several decades. The footage we're about to see is still unedited but viewer discretion is advised."
"Shard?" – Chance queried, cocking one eyebrow.
"Yeah, I'm with you! How come *he* escaped? I mean, with brighter bad guys there, how come he managed to escape?"
The television briefly showed the presenter of the documentary before an explosion tore through the yard. The image went awry and nothing but fleeting images of the night sky and the orange-lit yard were seen. The image flickered for a few times before it was re-centered at the yard. Flames could be seen and people ran in all directions. Several guards were trying to put out the fire when a fireball shot from the smoking inferno towards the camera. The operator had barely had time to dodge it before it exploded in a bright orange glow behind him. His scared voiced could be heard when he rotated to capture a fleeting image of the wall behind him, in flames, before he turned his attention to the yard. Another scared yelp was heard from him when a tom filled almost the entire screen. He smiled before he punched the camera operator, apparently in the face. The last part of the footage presented the image moving up towards the black skies, slowly at first and then rapidly until it fixed for a moment in the night sky. Then, the image slowly went down until the prison yard was seen on the right side of the screen and the night sky on the left. The tom, walking horizontally, went to the farther wall of the yard, where one of the reinforced steel doors was located. The image then flickered and died. The newscaster face appeared and the skin under his fur seemed to have lost all color. The screenshot bearing the grinning tom who had punched the camerakat floated ominously over his right shoulder.
"Our crew is safe from harm and Arnold Fuller, the brave camerakat that endured this terrible experience, is now being taken care of at Megakat Memorial Hospital. The most recent reports account for a broken nose. The doctors say that Arnold is stable but hasn't regained consciousness yet. Our criminology specialist recognized the aggressor as Rex Shard, who had previously escaped from Megakat Maximum Security Prison after taking the life of Warden Cyrus Meece."
Chance pressed the mute button on the remote – "Shard is a violent guy but this seems to be too much even for him. I mean, where did he get the explosives?"
"Forget the explosives! Where did that fireball come from?" – Jake scratched his chin – "It somehow looks familiar…"
"What do you think we should do, buddy? Should we interfere or do we let my father handle this one alone?"
"I think Shard's more of a brawler than a clever criminal… But innocent people could get seriously injured… Don't forget he nearly killed dozens of people when he turned into that crystal colossus!"
"Then let's suit up! If he's escaped from Alkatraz, he's probably gonna go to the mainland. But where? The currents are too strong in that strait!"
"The television footage showed a night sky, so I think this is a pretty recent event. He's probably still crossing the strait towards the mainland. We'll worry about locating him when we're aboard the Turbokat. Let's do this!"
Razor was busy inspecting the scope in front of him, his face bathed in an eerie tone of electronic green. They had passed over the strait and the bay area a number of times but all the results from the infrared scan had come out negative. No fisherman was fool enough to face the rapid tidal currents of the strait in broad daylight, let alone at night and with fog rolling in from the sea! The slim SWAT Kat was beginning to feel the frustration creep upon him! Not only weren't they being able to find any clues of Shard's whereabouts but their time was also slipping through their fingers rapidly! The Enforcers only now were arriving at Alkatraz and Razor was already detecting several dots moving in fast from the mainland.
"We gotta go, buddy. The cavalry's arriving!"
"Did you manage to get anything from the infrared?" – the tabby queried before he maxed the throttle and headed out in a large arc over the open ocean, letting the mantle of fog cover their tracks.
"There was a weird thermal signature that was warmer than the rest of the water around but I honestly can't make anything of it!" – the slim kat said as he punched a button, showing T-Bone the same image he was seeing in his scope. There was a yellowish V-shape coming from the middle of the bottom-right quadrant and extended to some point beyond the upper-left quadrant. The rest of the image came in ever-darkening shades of green. T-Bone cocked one eyebrow under his mask.
"Weird doesn't begin to cover it… What the heck is that? Could you superimpose the coastline?"
"There! What do you make of it?" – Razor asked as he stroked his chin.
"Looks like something came from the mainland and into the water!"
"I've got an idea!" – Razor plugged in the glovatrix and went online. He retrieved a series of currents and wind charts, analyzing them briefly before choosing one. He zoomed out the map in order to encompass the whole bay area, with Alkatraz Island shown as a dot in the middle of the upper-left quadrant and the mainland coastline bordering the bottom ones. On the upper-right quadrant was also visible a small line of mainland coastline. He then superimposed the partial thermal image they had retrieved earlier, which covered only about two-thirds of the bottom-right quadrant. With that magnification, the V-shape seemed even narrower, beginning to look more like a straight line. Razor superimposed the chart he'd retrieved from the InterWeb. Dozens of small arrows showed the mean direction of the currents in the bay area.
T-Bone hummed – "The trail is in sharp contrast with the mean current direction."
"That would rule out any illegal industrial waste dumping in the bay waters but more importantly if we extrapolate the direction of the thermal signature we see that it comes from the upper right corner of the forth quadrant."
A red dashed line was drawn from the thermal signature, following its mean direction. The line didn't hit Alkatraz Island but went by close enough.
"The thermal signature could have come from Alkatraz Island... Whatever the vessel Shard had for his escape, it was some hot tamale to leave such a marked heat signature! Crud!" – T-Bone smacked the side of the cockpit with his fist – "This means Shard has already disembarked! We'll never find him now!"
"He must still be in the docks. The heat signature is too recent! We'll just have to check everything very carefully."
"And hope the Enforcers don't get in our way…" – T-Bone maneuvered the jet back to Megakat City.
"Yeah, we probably shouldn't use the Turbokat. It'll draw too much attention!"
"I can try to land in some flat rooftop of one of those apartment complexes near the marina but we'll still be somewhat far away from the docks. I call shotgun!"
Razor cocked one eyebrow – "What are you calling shotgun at?"
"I get to use the Cyclotron this time, buddy!"
Razor involuntarily rolled his eyes before trying to figure out just why he had done that – "Okay! I'll wear the jetpack, then, and monitor the situation from above while you do it from the ground."
"We got ourselves a plan! I'm setting her down!"
And so they went their separate ways, T-Bone scurrying off in the one-seat Cyclotron and Razor darting off to the distance, both heading towards the docks. None of them thought about the strangeness of their plan, though. Ever since they paired up as a team, back in the Enforcers, that only very seldom had they ever separated. In their SWAT Kat career, that has happened even more rarely, namely when there were multiple targets to be addressed or when they were forced apart. As it was, no one, even for a second, remotely pondered on this unique strangeness, that a single target forced them to go their separate ways…
Pale and cool, semi-enveloped by wraith-like wisps of seaward mist, the full moon shone down on the bustling city, bathing everything above the warm luminescence provided by the city lights in a shade of gray. T-Bone, however, did not penetrate the brightly illuminated areas, rather staying in the gray moonlit alleys of the old docks. He knew Shard would try to avoid drawing attention over himself. If his quarry had really landed near the docks, he'd surely never venture himself through the brightly lit areas of the new harbor, although that presented a shorter route to the city. No. T-Bone knew Shard had to stick to the dark alleys.
He quickly parked the Cyclotron as a scuttling shadowy figure drew his attention towards a rather secluded and dark alleyway. Eyes shining from the few pale rays of moonlight sifted through the wisps of fog, T-Bone watched that particular alleyway and an ominous sense of dread incongruously started to creep through his mind.
Foot by foot he went in. The moment he entered the dark shadow, the fur on his nape stood on end. He looked straight ahead… It seemed the crates were still there, still the same ones…
Another step. The ominous feeling only intensified. Now he was completely immersed in shadow, not only his body but his mind also.
Another step. He unconsciously gulped, trying to swallow the discomfort.
He raised his foot for another step.
Someone screamed at that moment. A male teenager, it seemed.
He spun on his heels, shivering wildly as his fur stood on end, his heartbeat increasing, his eyes growing wider and his breath drawn in. By now, the scream was but a memory. His eyes scanned the whole area, his tense muscles relaxed and he exhaled slowly, as though the very sound of his breathing could conjure ghosts from the past to haunt the present.
"Get a hold of yourself…" – he whispered before groping his forehead and shutting his eyes for a moment – "Think about the mission! That's all that matters!"
Now that the veil of memories that covered his mind and eyes was lifted, the alley seemed altogether different, less dark, less ominous, less…
The fog had lifted up and he could see the rest of the alley clearly. It was a dead-end, no more than a six-yard expanse sandwiched between two old warehouses. The back of the alley was blocked by a sturdy brick wall some fifteen feet high. The only things in there, apparently, were the large wooden crates near the wall on the right.
T-Bone approached the wooden crates, slowly, senses at full alert, glovatrix at the ready. Suddenly, the topmost crates cascaded down upon the burly tom. The tabby had only enough time to deploy the glovatrix's shield and back off from the falling crates. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the hint of a moving figure. He trained the glovatrix at it immediately.
"Stop right there or I'll shoot!"
The form stopped, trapped between the triple barrel of the glovatrix and the brick wall. The tom – for the figure was unmistakably masculine – turned slowly to face the tabby. As the moon shifted through the sky and started to illuminate that patch of the docks, T-Bone confirmed the identity of his quarry.
"Rex Shard!" – the tabby growled, keeping his glovatrix trained at the fugitive tom.
"You're in my way, SWAT Kat!" – Shard hissed and stepped forward.
"Freeze! That's your last warning!"
Shard proceeded towards the SWAT Kat in a slow but steady pace – "You wouldn't shoot a tom unarmed, now would you, big guy? Why, I bet you couldn't even beat me if you didn't have that weapon, could you?"
T-Bone shot a Mini-Spider Missile in order to capture Shard but the brawny fugitive ducked and rolled forward, covering rapidly the distance that separated him from T-Bone. As he came to his feet, Shard landed a jarring uppercut on the tabby's chin, making the SWAT Kat fly back and fall on his back. The impact was so powerful that the helmet flew off the tabby's head, clattered on the ground and rolled towards the entrance to the alley.
Before T-Bone had managed to compose himself, Shard was all over him, turning him around and binding his arms behind his back, the gray-furred tom's knee pressing hard and painfully on the small of the tabby's back.
"Now the real fun begins!" – Shard taunted as he raised his arm and prepared to deliver a knock-out punch to the side of T-Bone's head when something snapped inside the tabby! With an expertly orchestrated move, he managed to turn the tables on Shard, getting both of them up and reversing their positions! Now T-Bone had Shard's arms tightly locked behind the fugitive's back and his right arm – the one that had the glovatrix – was now around Shard's neck!
T-Bone had successfully managed to turn the situation to his advantage but had lost his weapon in the process. The glovatrix had slid away from his arm and was now lying on the floor of the alley, discarded. However, the situation was going to change rapidly, for Shard craned his neck and banged the back of his head against the tabby's snout. The pain was intense and T-Bone loosened the grip on Shard for a moment, which he took to set himself free by flinging the tabby over his shoulder and into a heap on the ground.
The tabby rapidly came back up on his feet and looked back at Shard, eyes narrowed in fury. He cleaned the trickle of blood flowing from his nose and suddenly realized that the glovatrix was right beside Shard. The villain followed T-Bone's gaze and then, never taking his eyes off the SWAT Kat, bent down to seize the gauntlet-like weapon.
"You're not thinking about using this toy on me again, are you?" – Shard taunted before crushing the glovatrix with a simple squeeze of his powerful hand. The gray-furred tom threw it aside like so much garbage – "'Cuz it seems to me it's a bit broken!"
The tabby looked down on the destroyed glovatrix and then again at Shard. He was still between the villain and the entrance of the alley. T-Bone sighed and assumed a fighting stand. No way was he going to let Shard escape, even if it meant engaging in a fist fight with him! Shard noticed the SWAT Kat's stance and a broad grin appeared in his face.
"Finally! Some action!"
Shard approached T-Bone, raising his fists to his head's height and curling his chin towards his chest, boxing style.
"No! I'll handle him alone!" – Shard suddenly muttered to himself but loud enough for T-Bone to hear it. The tabby couldn't help to think to whom he was addressing.
Shard stroke a preliminary blow that was never meant to inflict any damage but rather to gauge his adversary. T-Bone shrugged it off easily and countered with a kick to the side of Shard's gut, warded off by the gray-furred tom's knee. A few more blows resounded in the dark alley as they judged each other's strength before T-Bone decided to get serious!
The SWAT Kat made a reverse kick that hit Shard forcefully in the gut and caused the villain to lose his stand and fall on his tail. Immediately, T-Bone jumped into the air and rammed his fist with all his might against Shard's face, making him lie flat on the ground. After that, the tabby stepped back and hoped his mighty blow had ended the job his glovatrix had started. Surely Shard had to be already unconscious after such powerful a hit! But it was with surprise and growing uneasiness that he watched Shard get on all fours, cough up a gob of red spit and shake his head.
Shard slowly got up to his feet, his narrowed eyes never leaving T-Bone's, who had already assumed a fighting stance. The gray-furred tom wiped the thin thread of bloody saliva trickling down the corner of his mouth before spitting another wad of the reddish fluid to the side.
"Is that all you got?"
Shard moved rapidly now, almost catching the tabby off guard! He feigned a right hook to the SWAT Kat's jaw that made T-Bone raise his left arm in order to block it. But his jaw had never been Shard's target! The villain's right fist never made contact with T-Bone's arm or jaw as Shard fluidly spun in his heels a full circle, aiming his fist at the left side of the tabby's flank and landing a massive blow right in the brawny tom's ribcage.
The SWAT Kat doubled over as the formidable force of Shard's right hook hit him, the pain almost too much to bear! It took him a few moments to realize his attacker's cunning assault! Actually, it surprised T-Bone to see Shard's face at his eye level as he was hunched over, groping his aching flank.
"You're pathetic! I thought you were the tough guy!"
When T-Bone realized Shard was preparing an uppercut to his chin, it was already too late! The tabby was sent back flying to the ground, his back hitting the concrete floor with violence and knocking the wind off his lungs.
Dazed with pain and winded, the tabby nevertheless quickly scrambled up to his feet. But it was again too late! Shard moved like a devil and when the tabby noticed he'd been pinned up against the wall, his hands raised above his head and firmly held in place by Shard's vise-like grip.
"You're not the one to bring me down!" – Shard hissed maliciously in the tabby's ear. The gray-furred tom wasted no more time gloating! Instead, he rammed his fist deep in the tabby's midsection.
Bloodshot eyes widening in pain and surprise, red saliva sputtering from his mouth, the tabby tried to free himself from that vulnerable position but Shard was simply too strong! T-Bone was forced to double over when Shard locked his head under his right arm. He suddenly felt the overwhelming pressure of the villain's knee ramming him in the gut so forcefully his whole body was flung into the air and his back crashed violently against the wall, the stucco cracking in a spider-web pattern. The tabby was rapidly losing his senses! He wasn't able to fight back anymore or even to defend himself!
"Is this… the end?" – T-Bone thought, or thought that he thought, he couldn't really tell anymore! His senses were deceiving him already, making the dark alley look even darker! A powerful head butt later and his eyes rolled wildly, blood spilling freely from his nostrils and mouth! There was a moment when he felt like he was flying through the air, the world spinning incongruously around! Then the sound of wood breaking, an overwhelming pain in the back and, moments later, blessed unconsciousness!
Shard walked coolly towards the smashed wooden crates, to where he had flung the SWAT Kat after head butting him. He smacked his fist in his palm and popped the articulations, intent on ending this business with the tabby in a definitive way! He was already savoring the pressure of his brawny arm around the tabby's neck as he slowly strangled him to death when something smacked him on the back and flung him through the air against the brick wall, breaking it to pieces.
Back at the entrance of the alley, Razor stood beside the parked Cyclotron, a rocket launcher smoldering over his shoulder. He slowly lowered it to his side and rested it against the Cyclotron as he watched Shard frantically trying to get rid from the Octopus Missile the slim SWAT Kat had fired at him.
"Struggle all you want, Shard! You'll never break free from it!"
Razor was confidently striding towards Shard when the villain turned his grunt into a primal scream and tore the missile apart, releasing himself! Razor crouched into a shooting position, glovatrix immediately and expertly trained on Shard, ready to fire at a moment's notice. But the chance never came as the rest of the brick wall fell, raising a curtain of dust that impeded Razor's targeting. When the dust settled, Shard was gone! Razor gritted his teeth, intent on following the villain when he realized T-Bone might need his help. He muttered an imprecation and headed for the smashed wooden crates.
The slim kat reached the destroyed crates with a mounting sense of dread. First, T-Bone was nowhere in sight but then the sight of a bloodied gloved hand jutting from a mass of broken wood tied a tight knot on Razor's throat. He quickly made his way towards the tabby, removing the broken pieces of wood in his way until he found his partner. Blood covered the tabby's face and large black blotches stained his G-suit.
"Oh, no! T-Bone! Wake up, buddy! T-Bone!"
The tabby's eyes parted just an iota and the tabby murmured something in a tone so quiet the slim kat couldn't make any of it. Razor approached his ear to his friend's mouth and his eyes widened as they became moistened.
"I'm… sorry… I'm so… sorry…" – the tabby muttered.
"It's not your fault, Chance! It's not your fault!" – Razor whispered as he hoisted his friend from the wooden scrap – "Now we gotta get outta here, buddy! The cavalry's bound to have picked up all this racket…"
Chance looked at his bruised face in the mirror of the closet in the bedroom at the afternoon light, groping gingerly at his still aching chin. Jake had told him he'd passed out again on his way back from the old docks, that it had been the slim kat to take care of the cuts and injuries he'd suffered during his fight with Shard.
The tabby looked down on his unclothed brawny torso, tentatively feeling around the area where Shard had hit him in the ribs. Still painful as well but nothing extraordinary! Certainly no broken or fractured ribs! Jake had wanted him to go to the hospital, to make sure he was okay but he had refused. Crud, he knew his own body, he knew there was nothing wrong with him!
Or was there?
"I thought you were the tough guy!" – the gruff voice of Shard came back to his mind. He shook his head to clear his mind and put on a shirt before he pulled out a small backpack and put it over his bed.
"You're not running away again, are you? You're doing that a lot, lately…"
Chance turned to look back at Jake. The slim kat was at the door to the bedroom, arms folded over his chest, leaning towards the jamb. Jake's eyes were strangely profound, as if his stare was piercing right through the burly tom. It was one of those stares only a person with deep insight on the other could have. Suddenly, the tabby felt naked before those eyes.
"You were beaten up badly, yes, but that's not the first time it happened!" – Jake's voice was strange, cold, almost accusing. The slim kat walked towards Chance and looked straight into the tabby's eyes – "What are you gonna do about that, Chance?"
"I'm leaving for a while." – Chance looked down to their feet. For some reason he just couldn't stand the intensity of Jake's stare.
Jake closed his eyes and shook his head slowly – "You're running away."
"I'm not running away! I'm just going to the mountains for a while." – the tabby turned his back on Jake and resumed packing a few clothes and some personal items in the backpack – "You'll be dropping me there."
Jake's eyes softened. He laid a hand over the brawny tom's shoulder – "Buddy, it's okay! It's not your fault! Shard's a very strong guy…"
Chance turned suddenly around, facing Jake and wiping his friend's hand off his shoulder – "The day I let a thug like Shard beat me without doing anything about it is the day I hang my wings!"
Now it was Jake's turn to be surprised with the intensity in the tabby's eyes! He suddenly understood everything!
"This isn't a matter of running away. This is a matter of taking responsibility for my actions. I couldn't match Shard's strength and thanks to me he's still out there! Do you understand?"
"I understand that this is about hurt pride. You know I never really understood this macho attitude of yours, Chance. Are you trying to prove something?"
"I need to prove to myself that I can catch Shard but to do so, I need to get stronger!"
"Can't you get stronger right here? I mean, you've got the Reflex Room, the gym…"
"That I wrecked this morning!" – Chance said in a growl.
"You've got *me*!"
With that, Chance powered down a little, his eyes acquiring a softer look.
"Jake, listen. You're my best friend and nothing's ever gonna change that! But I need to do this on my own! If I can't get stronger than some two-bit criminal like Shard, then what use will I be to you, buddy? If you want to help me get through this, then just drop me off at the mountains, okay? I'll take care of everything else!"
"You're a city kat, Chance! What do you think you'll accomplish out there?"
"Oh, look who's talking!" – he scoffed.
"You're a teddy bear, that's what you are!"
"Bears have claws too…"
"Is there anything I can say to stop you from doing this?"
"No. You'll just have to respect my decision, Jake."
Jake sighed – "Fine! Get ready. I'll drop you off wherever you want."
Shard tottered his way through another dark alley. Seemed like all he had seen since yester night had been one dark alley after the other! The encounter in the docks had left him half paranoid, seeing SWAT Kats in every shadow.
He groped his throbbing face, feeling it somewhat swollen. At the time, it had seemed like the SWAT Kat had actually done nothing when he plunged against him, punching him in the cheek with all his might. Truth be told, he just felt a little tingle! Sure, the force behind the SWAT Kat's punch had been crushing. He'd lain in the floor for a good second or two before he could get up and even after that, he'd needed a few seconds to clear the dizziness. But it hadn't really hurt! Until now, that is…
"Yeah, so you've told me about a hundred times…" – he murmured to himself, a guttural snarl accompanying.
He leaned on the wall for support. The SWAT Kat had been tough but, quite honestly, he thought he'd be tougher! He'd soon noticed the small gimp on the SWAT Kat's leg, almost invisible to anyone but not to his keen eye. The SWAT Kat wasn't really at a hundred percent, he had quickly noticed that.
"I told you I never needed your help! The SWAT Kat was as good as gone!"
But still, the SWAT Kat had managed to free himself from his lock! He was so sure the SWAT Kat would forfeit when he saw himself in that helpless position, with his knee pressing hard on his back… Instead, the SWAT Kat had easily subdued him, even from that precarious position he'd forced him into!
"No, I shouldn't trifle with them. That's why I'm being so cautious."
The fact the SWAT Kat had been alone had been providential! He knew he couldn't take on both of them just on his own. From experience, he knew very well that two-on-one situations were very disadvantageous for the loner. And the other SWAT Kat, though physically less intimidating than his burly companion, seemed more trigger-happy! And, again from experience, two with guns on one unarmed made the probabilities of the loner getting out of the brawl alive even slimmer.
Fact was, he fought against the stronger of the bunch and won! The guy might not have been at a hundred percent but he was close. And he'd given him a beating like the SWAT Kat had probably never known. Most likely, the SWAT Kats had retired to lick their wounds and even more likely was the fact that *if* the SWAT Kat were ever to face him again, he'd probably be so scared he'd be an even easier picking than before.
Yes, all was well… He just needed to avoid detection from the Enforcers. The SWAT Kats were surely no longer an issue.
The Turbokat rocketed over the green and gray expanse of the Megakat Mountains as the slanting rays of orange light from the setting sun borrowed a dark blue tinge to the water of the lake they were heading to. Razor set the jet in hover mode before popping the canopy.
"Okay, here we are, the only place in the mountains where I can lower the jet just enough for you to get off…" – the slim SWAT Kat grumbled – "Are you sure you wanna go through with this?"
"We already discussed this back at the body shop, buddy! Don't worry!"
"Like hell, I won't worry! I may have to respect your decision but it doesn't mean I have to like it!"
"I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm going now."
"Wait a sec. Take this." – he handed T-Bone a small triangular communicator, much like the one they gifted Miss Briggs years ago.
"Just *take it*, please! And *use* it to warn me if something happens!"
Grimacing a little, T-Bone grudgingly accepted the proffered device and hoarded it into one of his G-suit's pockets.
"Hey…" – the slim kat extended his hand to the tabby. T-Bone looked at Razor's grave countenance that betrayed the slim kat's concern for his friend. The brawny SWAT Kat took Razor's hand and gave it a hearty shake as he looked into the slim kat's eyes, wordlessly reassuring him. Then he turned and jumped out of the cabin, landing with a roll on the pebbled margin of the dark pond. By the time he came to his feet the black jet was already rocketing over his head. The burly SWAT Kat stood there as he watched the jet make a broad U-turn and hurtle into the sunset.
"Don't wander off too far, Kevin! It's already nightfall!" – Ryan shouted to the little tom playing in the sidewalk. It was an unnecessary warning. Kevin, his uncle's son, never left the sidewalk, never wandered more than just the end of the block and always played well away from the curb. Being six years old still made the world look very, very large… And sometimes scary.
As Kevin was playing with a set of brand new toy cars his cousin had bought him, Ryan watched as the last rays of orange sunlight bathed the rundown three-story building behind him. It was a luxury to be able to see a sundown in Megakat City from such a low building and Ryan was very glad for it. He had made it a ritual to watch the sun go down behind the city skyline whenever he could. It would have been even better if Uncle Bill had been there with him but he was working and he'd get home late in the night.
He looked back at Kevin, content with playing with the toy cars, safely away from the street. Not that there was much traffic but better safe than sorry, right? And then, his eyes glazed over in horror as he watched the large dog running towards Kevin at full speed! He could see the golden flakes of foam dropping off its snout, the insane gaze of the animal's eyes.
"KEVIN, LOOK OUT!" – Ryan managed to shout as he finally got over the shock and scrambled to his feet, sprinting towards the helpless kitten.
Ryan saw Kevin looking back at him, a blue and gray enforcer cruiser tightly secured between his thumb and forefinger, an inquiring look upon the youth's face. Kevin followed Ryan's gaze and was dumbstruck with the charging dog, so close to him! Ryan knew he'd never reach his cousin in time! And if he reached, what could he do? And yet, he darted on only to see the animal open its jaws, teeth glistening in the orange twilight, ready to attack Kevin!
And then something happened! He just saw a flurry of activity to the left corner of his eye. The next thing he noticed was something rolling over the sidewalk, barking and growling and, finally, a light snap from the orange-highlighted gray mass that had stopped just a few feet from him. Only when the form stood on his feet, did Ryan manage to recognize the shape of a burly tom dressed in some dark orange pants and sporting a grubby, once white, tank top. In the sidewalk, at the tom's feet, stood the unmoving rabid dog, still with the foam flowing from its mouth, tongue lolling out slightly.
"Are you okay, kid?" – the tom asked. It was a deep, warm and reassuring voice. He took a couple of steps towards Kevin before the youngster scuttled towards Ryan, hugging his cousin by the waist and burying his snout on Ryan's stomach, where he cried. The tom looked back at the two young kats and turned to leave.
"Wait, sir!" – Ryan called – "My cousin's okay but what about you? I see some red fur in your arms and I'd bet that dog's claws made some nasty scratches on your torso as well. Come on in! The least I can do is dress your wounds!"
The tom looked at his scraped elbows. There was a nasty-looking gash on his left forearm too. And he could definitely feel the abrasions on his back from the concrete of the sidewalk. Not that he'd die from that but he sure could use some treatment, yeah…
"I don't want to be a nuisance…"
Ryan gave a nervous laughter – "After what you did just now? You're a hero, that's what you are! Now don't be silly and get in!"
The threesome got in and mounted the stairs to the second floor. After ushering everyone in, Ryan went for the first-aid kit.
"You can sit anywhere. I'll just be a minute."
The gray-furred tom decided to seat in one of the kitchen's chairs, taking a good look around the house as he headed there. The living-room was very small, with just a two-seat sofa and an armchair, a small TV-set perched atop an equally small table and a shabby carpet. The kitchen wasn't all that large as well. A cupboard over a counter, a table, a microwave oven, a fridge and a sink was everything in it.
Kevin followed close behind the unknown tom. He'd always been told not to talk with strangers but this one had just saved his life, so…
"Um, mister?" – he started, sheepishly – "I wanted to… I wanted to thank…"
"Don't mention it, kid!" – Shard said as he sat – "I'm just glad you're okay!"
Shard gave a quick ruffle on the youngster's mane, making Kevin giggle softly, scurrying then off to the living room.
"Ah, there you are! You could have stayed in the living-room, I wouldn't have minded that!" – he put the first-aid kit on top of the kitchen table – "Take off your shirt, please."
Ryan rummaged through the contents of the first-aid kit, selecting some sterilized rubbing alcohol compresses and iodine. He looked back at the tom, who had, in the meantime, taken off the tank top, showing his perfectly sculpted torso in all its glory.
"You've got some impressive muscles for a derelict, you know?" – Ryan smiled a little and showed him the iodine and the alcoholic compresses – "I'm sorry to tell you that I've only got these, so I'm afraid it's going to hurt a lot…"
"No pain, no gain, isn't it? Bring it on!"
Ryan started to clean the wounds with an ethanol-soaked compress and was surprised when the tom didn't even flinch for a second! He knew by experience that rubbing alcohol burnt like hell!
"I'm Ryan, by the way. The little one you just saved is Kevin."
Ryan was polite enough not to ask for the tom's name. He knew he'd tell him in a few seconds. People always told their names after the other had introduced him or herself. Whether people used their real names or not was another question altogether!
"My name's Rex. Rex Shard." – the tom said after a pause where Ryan could see the uneasiness in his face.
"I know." – Ryan said as he continued to clean the scratches the dog had made on the tom's chest and midsection – "I caught your escape act in the news, last night."
Shard was taken aback with that statement and started to get up.
"Relax! I'm not going to tell the Enforcers! You're safe here!"
Shard glanced back suspiciously – "But I'm an escaped convict, a dangerous criminal…"
"Kevin doesn't have to know that so speak down, okay? Come on, sit down. You're making a scene!"
Shard diffidently returned to his seat and allowed Ryan to continue his work.
"Why are you helping me if you know who – *what* – I am?"
"Isn't it obvious? For Kevin you're not a criminal, you're a hero! You saved my cousin's life and that's something I'll owe you for the rest of my life." – Ryan stared straight into Shard's eyes – "A person that does what you did can't be all bad. And, right now, I don't see evil in your eyes! Turn around, please. Let me take care of your back."
Ryan disposed of the reddened gauze and took a fresh one from its sterilized packet before starting to clean up the abrasions on Shard's back.
"My dad used to tell me that the eyes are the windows to a person's soul and that if you look deep into the other person's eyes, you'll be able to see the color of that person's soul…"
"And what color is my soul?"
Ryan looked down, his smile vanishing for a second.
"It's hard to tell… There are specks of blue but most of it is tinted in red…"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"That you're a good person that has some serious issues unresolved!"
Shard looked down, pensively. An awkward silence fell between the two as Ryan finished cleaning Shard's wounds. When Shard spoke again, it was so softly it was barely a low rumble.
"I've never been a rich kid! I've always roamed this city's streets, picking fights here and there. But that doesn't mean I wanted to be a nobody! I attended school and even went to college! And I did fairly well in my studies, despite my roughhousing manners…
"Fifteen years ago I was dating this she-kat, Susan. She had a golden pelt and this beautiful auburn hair that made her eyes change from hazel to ginger as it swung before her face! She was so beautiful I asked myself many times how had a guy like me managed to get such a monument, such an angel!
"I was fresh out of college, having taken my degree in Geoengineering. I had been approached, at the time, by an important company interested in people with a major like mine. The income would be good and I'd be working in what I've always wanted to do. The only problem was that I'd have to move to another state.
"And that's what started everything… I invited her for some coffee so I could share the good news with her. She supported me all the way but when I told her I'd have to move to another state, her looks took a turn for the worse! She didn't want me to leave Megakat City, let alone the state! But my mind was made; I wanted to take the job, period! We argued, we said some nasty stuff to each other and she stormed out the coffee shop…
"I was brooding over what we had said to each other and felt we needed to talk some more. I got up, left a few coins on the table and stormed out of the café, running towards the parking lot at the side of the shop to see if I could still catch her. What I saw left me speechless! There was this guy trying to mug her purse! She decided to put up a fight but the guy pulled a gun on her and shot! I screamed her name and the guy saw me and ran away. I didn't follow him, I was worried about Susan! I went to her and kneeled beside her body."
Shard gulped and his next words came somewhat suffocated – "There was a pool of blood underneath her and her breast was covered in blood. Her eyes were glazed and she didn't respond when I shook her. I then saw the revolver beside her and stupidly picked it up! I was so crushed I wasn't thinking straight! That's when the Enforcers showed up. They saw me with the gun in my hands and that was all it took to convince them I'd been the one to kill her…"
Shard sighed and closed his eyes – "Long story short: the other guy must've been using some gloves 'cuz the only fingerprints they found on the gun were my own. Everyone in the coffee shop had witnessed our argument and testified against me. Some of them were my own college pals, buddies I've known since junior high! And so, I'd been given a life sentence on account of murder two."
"That's one shameful streak of bad luck… Okay, your back is done. Now turn around and let me see that gash on your forearm."
"A few years ago, I was testing a prototype of a mining machine as part of a prisoner working program at Megakat Max, the second tightest maximum security facility in this state, right after Alkatraz. There was a malfunction and I was hit by a burst of electromagnetic energy that somehow reconfigured my atomic structure to mimic that of the gems I was mining. I started to transform into a crystalline entity with a sort of Midas' Touch: the atomic structure of everything I touched was reconfigured and turned into a crystal.
"In my rage against the system that so unjustly incarcerated me, I turned my vengeful desire towards the warden of Megakat Max, a scuzzball named Cyrus Meece. Although I did crystallize the warden, it was the inventor of that mining machine prototype I was testing that did the shattering! Fortunately, he testified in my favor in court or I'd be charged with murder one, to which the penalty is death by lethal injection! The SWAT Kats had, at the time, put an end to my vendetta and I was recaptured and sent back not to Megakat Max, which I had partially destroyed, but to the joint with the tightest security in the state, Alkatraz, from where I escaped just last night."
"And what do you intend to do now?"
Shard fell silent and looked back at the living room, where Kevin stood, watching some TV. The tom closed his eyes and curled his chin to his chest, a determined look in his face.
"There! All taken care of! That gash looked worse than it really was."
Ryan closed the first-aid kit, picked up the used items and stuffed them in the trash bin. He went to the kitchen sink and washed his hands of a few remains of iodine.
"Can I offer you something to drink? Eat?"
"If you'd happen to have some beer around…"
Ryan went to the fridge and returned with a couple of pleasingly chilled cans in his hands. He handed one to Shard and was about to pop open his when the brawny tom gently placed a hand over the top of the can.
"Legal drinking age in this state is twenty-one. Show me some ID."
Ryan looked at the smiling face of the tom. Shard was teasing him! Amazing! An escaped convict serving a nine-life sentence was actually messing with him! Ryan decided to play along and, also smiling, reached for his wallet and handed his ID card over to Shard.
"Oy, I was just kidding!" – he said, earnestly, but Ryan pressed the card into his hand anyway. He took a quick look at the ID and expressed surprise when he learned Ryan was already twenty-three. He raised his can for a toast – "By all means, then! Let's drink as two adults!"
They clanked the cans and took a long swig of the refreshing golden spirits. Shard sighed. It was as good as he remembered it! Distractedly, he flipped the ID card in his hands, reading out Ryan's full name.
"Ryan Spencer Mendoza Junior." – he mumbled before he took another drop of beer. He suddenly widened his eyes in surprise and gawked at Ryan – "You're Ryan Mendoza's son?"
"You knew my dad?"
"We had some classes together, yeah! We had different majors. I can't really remember his, but I knew him well enough, yes! I didn't know he'd married! How's the old rascal?"
"Dead, I'm afraid…"
It seemed the surprises would never end for Shard. This one, however, had the taste of a low blow.
"Dead? H-how? Why? When?"
"That's impossible! He had an eye for spotting geohazards! He'd spot a lahar from a mile away!"
"He did. It was in his home village, some fourteen years ago. He stayed behind to try and convince his parents to evacuate the village but sent me and my mom ahead. We were still caught up in the mudflow but somehow we managed to stay afloat. Dad ultimately gave his life to save ours."
"Mendoza… dead? Caught in a lahar, of all things? It's hard to believe…" – Shard mumbled to himself. If anything, he seemed a little crushed over this news. He sighed. – "That's, of course, the nature of all things, after all…"
"You know, it's weird that you, of all people, know what a lahar is! Regular folk wouldn't know what the heck I was talking about if I asked them about a lahar!"
"Not every criminal is uninstructed! And some that are instructed are put there for all the wrong reasons…" – Shard sighed in an obvious reference to his situation.
"You seem overly strong for a Geology geek!" – Ryan said, trying to change the subject. However, Shard's countenance turned darker still.
"What do you think fifteen years in prison do to a tom, Ryan? Besides fear and anger, I can barely remember what an emotion resembles to! I can barely feel anything at all! This body, these muscles, this strength I've developed are the result of countless assaults and humiliations. You think a nerd like me would be spared by those guys in Megakat Max? I had to struggle with everything I got to prevent them from making me their personal bitch! And when I'd accomplished that in Megakat Max, I had to start it all over again in Alkatraz! It's been fifteen years of hell for me, Ryan! Hadn't I gotten stronger I'd be just another corpse rotting in the sewers of Megakat Max or Alkatraz! It makes one wonder what kind of sick people gets off on incarcerating an innocent tom together with so much *scum*… Only another kind of *scum*, I concluded!"
Shard crushed the empty beer can in his powerful hand as to emphasize his point. He hadn't noticed he'd gotten up as he was talking. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath to calm himself down. He opened his eyes and looked back at the youngster's eyes and was surprised to see such sadness in them.
"You were wronged, Rex … Can I call you Rex?" – Shard nodded – "Your heart is full of anger but it's not too late to change that sentiment! I know you have a kind and gentle soul buried very deep beneath all those layers of resentment and hatred! I know you're so much better than anyone thinks you are… I may be young but I've already been through a lot! I won't pretend to understand what *you* have been through! I'm sure I can never even begin to imagine the pain you felt, the pain you're still feeling! But I *know* you're better than this!"
Ryan looked Shard straight in the eye. If anything, he seemed to have had a calming effect on the gray-furred tom. He suddenly felt Shard's hand pressing on his shoulder.
"Ryan, if I told you to leave the city in about four weeks of time, if I told you to get as far away as possible from Megakat City, preferably to another state… Would you?"
Ryan could see in Shard's eyes he was practically begging! Whatever Shard was planning to do, it would be big… *Very* big…
"Whatever it is that you're planning – and I'm not asking *what* you're planning – do you really *have* to do it?"
Shard's eyes acquired an even sadder look. He closed his eyes and slowly nodded before staring Ryan straight in the eye with a determination he'd rarely seen displayed in anyone's face.
The brawny tom's voice was an incongruent mix of resentment, resolve and just a little hint of hesitation. Ryan sighed, nodding as well.
"Then you must include me, Kevin and my uncle in your death toll calculations."
Shard took his hand off Ryan's shoulder. Bending over to pick up the shirt that had slumped to the floor when he had gotten up, he swiftly put it on and turned to leave. He stopped at the kitchen's door.
"I am glad to have met you, Ryan! Words can't express how grateful I am for you taking me in, cleaning my wounds and even offering me a beer! We're squared! For your sake, as well as mine, forget my identity."
Shard stepped into the living room and headed to the front door.
"I'll find a way to free you of all your charges! I'm sure I can set you free!"
Shard turned slowly, his hand on the doorknob.
"Don't throw away your life because of a wretch like me!"
"Will I see you again, mister?" – Kevin asked, his eyes, full and round, staring deeply into Shard's. The tom's expression softened for less than a second before acquiring a stony look again. Without saying a word, he closed his eyes and turned to leave as Ryan and Kevin watched silently.
The birds flew away scared as Razor raced over the pine needles covering the forest ground as silently as he could, tracking the blue flashing dot showing up on the triangular screen of his glovatrix. Just ahead, a large boulder of granite blocked his path but the slim SWAT Kat just jumped on top of it and launched himself in the air, grabbing onto a branch of the nearest pine tree, swinging his body forth and flinging himself into the air, somersaulting over the fast running stream and landing smoothly on the granitic outcrop sitting on the other margin.
He got to his feet and began to walk. From the bundle of closely spaced parallel lines shown on the topographic map displayed on the glovatrix's screen, he understood he was approaching a cliff, not a large or very steep one but it was an obstacle to be reckoned with anyway. Just beyond that bluff, the blue-glowing flashing dot remained almost stationary. He had reached his quarry. Kneeling behind the dark green brush, he made his way to the edge of the cliff, where he could see clearly the smooth and gently sloping ground of the cirque left behind when the last ice age's glaciers retreated.
He scanned the natural amphitheater and, for a moment, he didn't see him. There was a shabby log cabin to his left, plots of thick-trunked pines bordering the whole cirque and a glacial-blue lake to the right, which ended in a moraine. The middle was flat and bare, with gray granite low hills here and there and spotted with granite stones. It was only when a boulder about the size of a chest freezer started to move very slowly that he spotted T-Bone. The tabby was so hunched over he was almost completely hidden by the large granite rock.
Razor lowered his helmet's visor and zoomed in. He opened his mouth in awe with what he discerned. T-Bone had chained the boulder to his torso and was pulling on it. The slim kat turned his attention to his friend's face. He saw the tabby gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes in a fierce mask that told Razor of the brutal effort his friend was making. His black mask was soaked wet with perspiration and large droplets ran down and dripped off the tabby's nose and chin at a fast rate. With increasing amazement, he saw as the boulder slowly started to move behind the tabby. T-Bone was actually managing to heave the large stone up the slope.
Razor raised his visor but continued to stare down at his partner in admiration. In his head he could hear the low grunt as the tabby yanked at the chains, his eyes burning with purpose, the fur in his bare torso matted and shaggy with perspiration as the chains rattled ever so slightly and the boulder groaned almost silently as it was dragged throughout the floor of the cirque. He felt a shiver, a tremor deep within himself. He suddenly realized he was gushing with pride, seeing his friend work so hard. Instead of denying the obvious truth, like most regular toms would, the tabby had acknowledged his weakness towards Shard and was *indeed* doing something about it. Razor knew Chance could be determined but he never imagined he'd be *this* strong-willed.
"I've never been more proud to call someone my friend than you, Chance!"
Razor watched as T-Bone kept hauling the large boulder behind him when something happened that nearly prompted Razor to break his cover and rush to help his friend. It took a large dose of self-restraint to force him to stay put when the tabby somehow slipped and fell on all fours. T-Bone had been *very* specific yesterday, when they were flying to the lake, several hundred yards below that spot. The tabby had nearly made Razor swear he'd leave him alone while he was in the woods. Razor had agreed but he never intended to leave the tabby unattended. Without his knowing, Razor had slipped a small locator in the tabby's clothes. That was how Razor had found him here, way up in the mountains, so far away from yesterday's drop point. He wanted to help T-Bone but if the tabby knew he was here, spying on him, he'd surely feel betrayed.
Razor clenched his teeth fighting the urge to go and help his friend when he watched, in horror, the boulder starting to slide back downhill, dragging the tabby with it. The slim kat tensed the muscles in his legs, ready to jump down the cliff. It was only with an almost supernatural effort that he forced himself to stand his ground. He lowered his visor again and zoomed in. The tabby's expression showed even more the effort he was making. His claws had been drawn out and were scratching the rocky ground. He saw as T-Bone closed his eyes and drew out a loud guttural growl that he heard perfectly even from where he stood. Razor watched as T-Bone came back to his two feet and stopped the downward motion of the boulder. He could see the knees of his G-suit ripped and the trickle of blood snaking down the cuts he'd just made. A moment later, he was hauling the rock up the gentle slope once more as if nothing had happened. Razor let out a sigh of relief as he raised the visor, forcing himself to calm down.
"He's okay!" – he thought – "He's Chance Furlong, he's *T-Bone*! He'll be okay, I'm positive!"
Taking one last look at his friend, Razor crawled back out the brush and headed back to the Turbokat.
A hazy cloud of smoke billowed in the night air as the brawny gray-furred tom exhaled. Smoking had calmed him down as he knew it would – it always did. Shard was leaning to a large pillar of a freeway overpass towering over a dry storm drain. He looked up to the starry night and took another puff of the cigarette, the orange glow briefly illuminating his face. A light breeze pushed away the following cloud of smoke. He couldn't help to feel a little sting of loneliness. Just the other night he'd been so well received and taken care of and now…
"What's your real name?" – he suddenly said in a grunting low tone. A sinister low rumbling snicker echoed in his mind.
"Honestly, Rex, for a supposedly instructed tom you surely ask the dumbest questions…" – the same low rumbling voice in his mind answered, making him slightly narrow his eyes at the scornful tone – "Real names still hold much power even in this time of forsaken deities and demons. What makes you think I'd tell you my real name?"
A brief silence. Shard took another puff. A stronger gust of wind ruffled his hair and facial fur.
"Not that telling you my real name would avail you in any way… It is unpronounceable in any of your mundane tongues… You can call me what my worshippers and warders called me: Volcanus."
Shard shivered at the mention of the ancient fire demon although he didn't fully understand why. He took a long puff of the cigarette and threw the butt away to the middle of the storm drain, where it still belched smoke into the night sky.
"What is that you really want with me?"
A sigh whooshed in Shard's mind, both exasperated and condescending.
"Still using all the muscles but the one that matters? Well, I must admit I can't explain it well myself but I felt that you had a larger propensity to serve as my avatar than any other person. You have received the blessings of an alternate corpus, haven't you?"
"Some time ago, yes… I had a body made of some kind of mineral, diamond, I should think, and, for a time, I had the ability to transmute any kind of matter into different kinds of minerals."
Shard heard a sharp intake of breath, ending with something that almost sounded like a pleasured moan.
"From which demon had you inherited such an interesting ability?"
"There wasn't any magic involved! I was exposed to a blast of electromagnetic energy from a machine…"
"Ah, yes, this… science… of yours…" – Shard could almost taste the fire demon's disdain – "I confess this kind of magic you worldly creatures learned to wield is most intriguing. Of course, it's nothing compared with the magic the Elevates wield…" – again a low rumbling snicker – "Diamond, you say? Interesting… Can you return to that corpus, my dear Rex?"
"No." – Shard didn't hear the fiend's rumble but he felt it in his mind.
"Pity…" – the last exhaling sound grated deeply upon Shard's nerves.
"You still haven't answered my question."
"Quite right! Hmm… Perhaps there's still hope for you…"
Shard gritted his teeth. This demon could be a complete *jerk*!
"What do you wish to accomplish as my avatar, Rex?"
"Revenge." – he answered unhesitatingly.
"Then perhaps our intents don't diverge so much as we had judged…"
A long silence. A strong gust of wind raised small clouds of dust and debris.
"Electromagnetic energy, you say? Interesting..."
"What's the plan? Keep in mind I'm a fugitive, I won't dare to rob a vehicle, not for a while, anyway."
"The plan remains the same: you head to the great shrine my worshippers erected deep within the mountain you mortals call Blackstone Volcano, my greatest altar of fire."
"I still don't get why Blackstone! Didn't you get out of Anakata Volcano?"
Again a sigh that was a mix between exasperation and condescension rasped through Shard's mind.
"Anakata was never one of my altars. Rather it was my prison. Oh, don't look so surprised, don't be boring! There's a duality to volcanoes, you of all people should know that: they can both create and destroy."
"You know, it's funny. One should think that if ever there was such a thing as a fire demon cult, the best altar would have been the lava cascade at Megakat National Park…"
"Yes, well, I was in a good mood when I created that particular feature…"
"Blackstone, then… That's really far away, you know? It'll take us at least a week or so to get there on foot…"
"I can assure you that you'll feel little weariness at the end of this journey."
"And once we get there, what then?"
There was silence, although not a peaceful one. Shard felt it more than he actually heard it or seen it. He somehow felt the fire demon curling his imaginary lips in a deformed grin that made him shiver in a very realistic way. A moment later he shrugged and closed his eyes, taking out another cigarette and lighting it with a matchstick that he threw away, a minute starlet twinkling briefly in the air. After a couple of puffs, Shard sunk his hands in the pockets of his trousers and walked away, towards Blackstone Volcano.
Mr. Angus was feeling particularly up this morning. The weather was fine, just with a weak breeze and his joints weren't gnawing so much at his nerves. On top of that, the fruits and vegetables sitting in the stands outside his shop were so fresh they glistened brightly against the slanting white rays of morning sunshine sifting through the rugged skyline of Megakat City. He was particularly proud of the apples, so red, fragrant and tasty…
He sighed, contented, and went inside the little grocery shop that was in his family for quite some generations. The shop had outlived two MegaWars, the Great Depression and its greatest threat: Mayor Manx's absurd taxes. And, although it wasn't any gold mine, it was Mr. Angus' most prized possession. He was still wandering in those happy thoughts when he heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle approaching. Its engine's roar, however, was louder than anything Mr. Angus had ever heard in his life, and he'd been around for quite some time! He headed to the door and was about to poke his head out to see what kind of bike could make such ruckus when a black blur of movement tore the wooden fruit stands apart, fruit and vegetables flying everywhere in a hundred feet radius, frightening him so much that he fell behind over his rear. A few moments later, he saw a blur of red flash by in the street.
Mr. Angus stood up with difficulty, his joints protesting all the way up, and when he finally understood what had just happened, Mr. Angus ran outside and stood in the middle of the sidewalk staring in dismay at his ruined fruit stands and the torn remains of their contents. He bent down to pick up a carrot that was lying apparently unscathed at his feet and, as he brought it to his eye level to examine the vegetable up close, it broke in half.
Razor ventured a look back in order to assess the damages. Luckily no one had gotten hurt! He narrowed his eyes. This kat-and-mouse game had to stop before there were any casualties! He revved the throttle and dodged the light morning traffic, always keeping an eye on the strange-looking motorbike speeding along the sidewalk, causing the people to jump off its way.
"How am I gonna stop him? That thing looks like a friggin' Dodge Tomahawk on steroids! Damn you, Chop Shop! You had to bring matters to the middle of the city!"
Up ahead, Razor noticed they were coming to an intersection. If he was going to remove Chop Shop from the sidewalk it would have to be when they reached the intersection. He revved the engine, pulled a wheelie and blasted the rear thrusters, making the Cyclotron jump in the air. In the downside of the jump, Razor aimed at the side of Chop Shop's vehicle and fired a couple of missiles that rammed the side of the bike, forcing Chop Shop to veer suddenly so as to maintain control of the mechanical monster he was riding.
Chop Shop saw himself suddenly in the middle of the traffic, struggling to regain equilibrium. When he managed that feat and looked back, he was surprised to see the slim SWAT Kat so close behind him. He gunned the throttle and sped away, dodging the traffic. The spotted tom noticed as the four lanes almost seamlessly turned into six and then into eight. So did Razor.
"Good! We're in the Blue Manx Drive! More space to maneuver!"
The Blue Manx Drive was one of the main highways serving Megakat City. It cut through the great burg from East to West, with several knots scattered throughout its length, branching in the many arteries that dwell deep into the city. Presently, they were heading out of the city, so the flow of traffic was steadily decreasing. Razor accelerated and initiated the offensive mode. Twin missile racks slid out from each side of the Cyclotron's rear half. A crosshairs appeared in his helmet's visor and moved to center on Chop Shop's bike. When the lock-on tone sounded, Razor fired the missiles.
"Missiles locked. Institute evasive maneuvers." – the recorded female voice sounded on Chop Shop's helmet speakers. He grinned. Those Pumadyne lab coats were making it so easy these days! It was almost like playing a videogame! The visor of the helmet displayed everything, from the fuel to the environment temperature and, more importantly, maps and live video feeds of all the five cameras strategically located around the RoadWarrior, the prototype battle motorbike in Pumadyne's final stages of development that he had just stolen.
The RoadWarrior Project was all about firepower and ultimate defense mechanisms. Although it lacked the Behemoth Tank's repulsion field, it was basically a tank on two wheels. Supposedly, the RoadWarrior was to be a part of standard Enforcer equipment, allowing access where the Enforcer jets, choppers, tanks and cruisers could not go. However, no matter how well armed and protected it was, regrettably, the RoadWarrior was still just a fancy bike sporting all the weaknesses of such vehicles.
Although the engineers at Pumadyne tried their best to tone down the issues concerning the bike's stability, the RoadWarrior's greatest weakness was precisely its balance. Impractical was it was to put a fast-moving gyroscope between the user's legs, they had nevertheless tried to do it. And when a test pilot nearly got his legs chopped off, the project almost came to a halt.
Nevertheless, if the bike's stability was its greatest weakness, its greatest strength was its avionic-like weapons and defense systems. Boasting four rear-end and two frontal missile racks, each with a capacity for six mini-missiles, a frontal M134 Minigun, a wireless targeting system capable of targeting ten bogies at the same time and a light armor of ABA mega-alloy, the RoadWarrior was *indeed* an adversary to be reckoned.
Chop Shop saw as a small rectangle moved to the right side of the field of view, showing a live video feed from the two HD cameras mounted in the back. He could see the SWAT Kat approaching in his red bike, much similar to the RoadWarrior. He wondered how the SWAT Kats managed to get their claws on a V10 engine like the one his bike had. He saw a small cloud of smoke billow from each side of the Cyclotron. Rapidly, to the left of his field of vision, a map appeared showing the highway, his bike as a blue diamond and the SWAT Kat's bike as a red triangle. The two missiles just shot were no more than two red dots directed at the blue diamond and closing in fast. In an instant, a dashed line appeared from the diamond, indicating the best evasive route. The line was constantly being updated to always show the best escape route. Chop Shop smiled.
"Like I said: too easy!"
Razor saw Chop Shop suddenly veer his bike and the missiles impacted against the metallic side rail, destroying a portion of it and blasting metal shards out in every direction. Razor heard cars screeching to sudden halts behind him and, before long, a loud crash. He gritted his teeth in contempt. Chop Shop had shrugged him off like it had been nothing. He accelerated and tried to gain some ground on Chop Shop.
Razor was preparing to fire another couple of missiles when he heard the sound of sirens coming from the approaching entry access. As he sped by the entry and exit knot, he saw five Enforcer cruisers rush into the highway. Razor knew the cruisers were fast but he doubted they'd be able to catch up to Chop Shop and if they couldn't catch up to Chop Shop, they'd be little more than a noisy nuisance…
"Back off, SWAT Kat!" – a voice crackled through the com-link – "The Enforcers are handling this matter!"
Razor didn't even bother to answer, merely revving the Cyclotron and getting some distance between him and the Enforcer cruisers. What Razor never expected to hear was Chop Shop's voice over the radio.
Razor had barely had time to recognize what was coming towards him from the rear of Chop Shop's bike. His visor showed six dots, six mini-missiles, hurtling towards him. Pumping up the rpm's, Razor pulled a wheelie and punched the aft thrusters, sending him hurtling towards the sky, thus evading the barrage of mini-missiles. When he came down, he ventured a look back as all hell broke loose on the Enforcer cruisers.
One of the cruisers swerved hard towards the divider, crashing into it and spinning out of control as an explosion of concrete made debris shower over a large area. Two others veered towards each other, evading the missiles shot at them but crashing at one another. The wheels of the cruiser on the left of this crash somehow found purchase on the cruiser beneath it and, as such, the vehicle was sent hurtling on its side. A shower of sparks blasted from the side of the cruiser when it hit the asphalt and grated on it for a good hundred feet. The other two Enforcer cruisers were hit dead on and exploded in twin fireballs. The missiles that had missed the cruisers and the Cyclotron crashed against the pavement, the rails or the divider, mutilating the great highway.
Razor watched as six fireballs rose up to end in billowing columns of black smoke reaching for the skies. He gritted his teeth. If the Enforcers managed to get out of that attack alive it would be a miracle! He returned his gaze to the speeding motorbike in front of him. He had to put an end to this insane violence!
"Looks like you're still there, SWAT Kat." – Chop Shop's voice taunted him over the radio – "Not for long, I assure you!"
Razor saw Chop Shop hit the brakes, veering his bike sharply to the left and slowly stopping it as it skidded across the asphalt. The slim SWAT Kat also hit the brakes, the Cyclotron behaving much in the same way as the RoadWarrior. Chop Shop's maneuver had been so unexpected that he didn't have time to shoot a spider missile to capture the villain. Even more unexpected was the route Chop Shop took, revving the throttle all the way *back* towards the burning Enforcer cruisers.
Again, Razor was fast on his tail. He saw Chop Shop speeding towards the burning barrage of twisted metal and, much in the same way he'd done minutes ago, Chop Shop jumped over the fire and billowing smoke. Razor did the same and crossed the smoke curtain just in time to see Chop Shop exit the highway via the same access that the Enforcer cruisers had taken. Razor's heart thumped harder.
"He's got to be insane! He's heading the opposite direction of the traffic!"
"What's the matter, SWAT Kat? Don't have the guts to follow me?"
Razor narrowed his eyes at the dare. He revved the Cyclotron twice before he launched himself in pursuit of that demented psycho. As he entered the access ramp the wrong way, he noticed it was empty. As he climbed down, he saw the shattered remains of an Enforcer barrier and, beyond, the speeding RoadWarrior joining the oncoming traffic. Instead of joining the fray, Razor headed to the roadside and accelerated. Razor saw as the cars parted each way to let the maniac in the bike pass through but when trucks approached, their horns blaring, it had to be Chop Shop to dodge the incoming vehicles. Razor had to admit it: the guy was good!
Razor looked up when he recognized the sound of chopper rotors thundering above his head. The Enforcers had sent in for chopper back-up. Commander Feral was bound to be in one of the three choppers heading on to tackle Chop Shop. Although the presence of three Enforcer choppers was more than intimidating, he knew no Enforcer would dare to start a shootout in the middle of a road filled to the brim with traffic. Curiously enough, Razor progressively saw fewer vehicles filling the road, much like as if someone had closed a running tap.
"That's the efficiency of the Enforcers! They can command things Chance or I could never order."
Two of the helicopters had surpassed Chop Shop's bike and turned around in the air, flying backwards as they kept in front of the speeding bike. Razor watched as the two choppers descended until they almost contacted the asphalt, always keeping their backward trajectory. He felt impressed. It seemed the skill of the chopper pilots had risen considerably since they left the Enforcers!
"Chop Shop, surrender!" – Commander Feral's voice boomed over the loudspeaker from the chopper in the back – "We've got you surrounded!"
"Get out of my *face*, you annoying insects!" – came Chop Shop's aggravated voice over the com-link.
Razor was now side-by-side with Chop Shop's RoadWarrior and was about to aim his missiles when he saw the tip of the minigun protruding from the front panel and aiming at the rightmost chopper. Razor widened his eyes and rapidly retargeted his missiles but he was already too late! It was with dread that he saw the barrel begin to rotate and spew its 7.62 mm rounds towards the helpless chopper. The front windshields were immediately torn apart, as was part of the light armor. The chopper pilot was hit and the vehicle swerved out of control, turning over its side, its rotor's blades hitting the asphalt before the fuel tanks ruptured and the whole machine was engulfed in a blazing inferno.
Razor watched as the other remaining helicopters suddenly gained altitude, trying to move out of range but Chop Shop was already retargeting the minigun on the chopper to his left. This time, however, Razor was faster. He fired a couple of missiles that hit dead center on the machine gun, blowing it up. Chop Shop's voice rang tinny in his hears, over the radio.
"A good strike, SWAT Kat! See if you can evade *this* in return!"
Razor's visor lit up with thirty dots darting from the RoadWarrior. Chop Shop had fired the rest of his missiles towards him in three successive waves and was now speeding away. Quickly, Razor targeted six bogies, the maximum their targeting system could do and fired away as soon as the last lock-on tone sounded. That maneuver had destroyed a fifth of the incoming missiles but he still had to deal with twenty-four.
Pushing the throttle to the limit, he surpassed Chop Shop and headed into Megakat Tunnel, the missiles branching out of the way of Chop Shop's bike and bundling up behind the Cyclotron. Twelve other blasted on the tunnel's walls thanks to some quick maneuvering on Razor's part but there were still twelve more to deal with.
Razor thundered out of the tunnel as another couple of missiles found their way into the walls, blowing up closely behind him. He quickly called an inventory of missiles. There were ten left. Again, Razor targeted the missiles hurtling behind him and, as soon as the last lock-on tone sounded, he fired them. Nine enemy projectiles found their fate but there was still one after him, as well as Chop Shop and the Enforcer choppers that had been forced to go over the tunnel. Razor narrowed his eyes. He had no more missiles in the Cyclotron. What to do? His mouth curved downward in a grim, determined expression. The slim SWAT Kat hit the brakes and made a wide U-turn, doubling back towards the RoadWarrior, the missile following close. He narrowed his eyes even more, keeping his trajectory and increasing the speed.
"You wanna play chicken, SWAT Kat?"
Razor was in a collision course with Chop Shop. The SWAT Kat knew the Cyclotron was no match for the RoadWarrior in a full-front collision but, then again, that had never been his plan to begin with. Razor waited until he was sure Chop Shop couldn't escape to implement his deception. They were about to collide when Razor pulled a wheelie and blasted the aft thrusters, jumping over a surprised Chop Shop.
"Chicke…" – was all Chop Shop had time to say before he was hit by his own missile. The explosion sent the bike cartwheeling through the air before it crashed down in flames, scraping the asphalt as it slowed down its forward momentum. Chop Shop had been spit out of the RoadWarrior and landed in the middle of the road, breaking an arm and a leg and instantly losing consciousness. Razor hit the brakes of the Cyclotron and turned it around to admire his handiwork.
"He's all yours, Commander." – he announced over the radio and then added to himself – "I'm already late for an appointment."
It was almost noon when Razor got back at the rim of the glacier's cirque where he'd last seen T-Bone with a large boulder in tow about a week ago. Once again, he couldn't find the tabby anywhere at first until he heard a loud splash over by the lake. There he was, in the water. Razor cocked one eyebrow. Apart from moving his head around and side to side, T-Bone didn't seem to be doing anything! Soon enough, he watched as the tabby at last headed off to shore. When he finally got out of the water, Razor noticed something was odd with the tabby's hands and feet. Lowering the helmet's visor, he zoomed in and once again opened his mouth in awe. There were stones, large as melons, tightly tied to T-Bone's wrists and ankles. As he saw the tabby ridding himself of the makeshift weights, he slowly began to realize the depth of this workout. The tabby got to his feet and headed for a flat granite outcrop. Razor saw him give a couple of tentative jumps before jumping high into the air and applying a dazzling series of flying kicks at an astonishing speed.
"So I was right!" – Razor thought – "He was actually performing a kata in the water. The water resistance combined with the weight of the stones made wonders for his muscle strength! He's actually getting stronger and faster with each passing day!"
This time, Razor didn't feel just pride for having T-Bone for best friend. He actually felt a little sting of envy! He left the place with a determination *not* to fall behind his friend's physical prowess.
"Well, we're here…" – Shard huffed out as he reached inside his trouser pocket, fishing out the crumpled cigarette packet. He took it to his mouth and pulled the cigarette out with his lips. With the tip of his fingers he took out the lighter before he crushed the empty packet and tossed it aside with a sour look.
"Should have taken a few more packets…"
He tried to ignite the tip of the cigarette for several times until he threw the spent lighter away with a frustrated grunt. He stared up to the night sky, unlit cigarette dangling precariously from his lips.
"Should have taken a box of matches instead of a lighter…"
It had taken him a little under two weeks, longer than he had expected, to get from Megakat City to Blackstone National Park. Volcanus had been true to his word: he was feeling little weariness after the long trip on foot he'd just made. Still, he could use some rest. He hadn't slept for the last seven nights in a row and despite Volcanus' magic sustenance his body yearned for the blessed darkness of sleep. He sighed. The job was almost done. If only he could have a smoke…
"What are you waiting for, Rex? We haven't reached my altar yet!"
"What do you mean? This is Blackstone Volcano, we've reached it!"
"And what do you think I'm going to do with an entire *mountain*, you fool? My altar of fire is within the volcano!"
"Is there a way in?"
"No. You'll have to make yourself one."
"WHAT? Just *how* in Hell am I supposed to do *that*?"
Again that hateful raspy exasperated yet patronizing sigh grating through the depths of his mind.
"Oh ye of little memory… Just how did you escape from Alkatraz?"
Shard looked down to his hands.
"Yes…" – Volcanus sibilated – "Now show me what you can *really* do with the little power I've granted you!"
Shard stared intensely at his right hand, stretching out his index finger. Suddenly, a small flame came to life, dancing just above the tip of his digit. He sneered slightly as he approached the small twinkling flame to the tip of his cigarette. After a few puffs, he greedily sucked in the intoxicating aroma before he exhaled the fumes through his nostrils. He felt Volcanus' eyes rolling in his mind.
"You know those things will kill you, don't you?"
He shrugged at the demon's comment with a cocky smile in his lips.
"Let's get to work, then. Guide me to your altar."
Shard noticed the air in front of him waving in ethereal convolutes like it often does in a hot summer day. He also noted the low hiss and occasional crack the shrubbery around him was letting out. He reached out to the sloping wall of basalt and almost instantly his hand dove into the rock. He withdrew his hand and was a little surprised that it left a red glowing impression in the black featureless stone, drops of molten bright orange superheated rock dripping from his hand like a thick pasty glop. His smile broadened and he went on in. The rock quickly glowed from red to yellow and then white as he melted it without even touching it, effectively excavating a tunnel out of the solid rock just large enough for a tom to walk in.
"Correct your angle a little to your right." – Volcanus directed – "That's it. Now you must start to descend. My altar is several hundred feet under the base of the volcano cone."
"How did your followers get in?"
"I allowed them passage whenever they came to worship me. You must increase your rate of descent or you'll have to spiral down a lot."
"You opened them a doorway from the surface to your altar, just like that?"
"Well, no! The doorway would only open a few feet ahead of them and closed a few feet behind them. If any of them delayed their descent for any reason, they were under the serious risk of getting themselves walled in."
"Yes, I see… Like this poor guy here, probably…" – Shard commented as he passed by a blackened skeleton embedded in the basaltic rock.
"No harm in toying a little with your worshippers. The fear for a vengeful god, or demon, as the case may be, is a very good incentive to insure your worshippers' respect and, well, worship."
"I'm sure it is. Are we there yet?"
"We're getting closer."
"Good. I'm getting fed up with this tunnel alreadyyyyyyyyyyy!" – Shard's sentence ended with a loud thud as the ground gave way beneath his feet and he fell a good thirty feet into a hollow inside the depths of Blackstone Volcano. Groaning in pain, Shard got up and dusted himself off.
"You could have just warned me!"
"Now where would be the fun in that?"
Shard bent over to pick the smoldering butt of the cigarette and put it again in his mouth, looking around to get his bearings as he scratched the back of his head. There was an eerie orange glow illuminating the hollow coming from a hexagonal pit of bubbling lava located roughly at the center of the cavernous space, which incidentally was also hexagonal. The glow was palely reflected from the polished walls, which had sets of shackles in the four lateral walls. In the wall across the lava pit there was a sort of amphitheatre with large rungs carved in the black rock, probably the place where Volcanus' worshippers sat during the ritual ceremonies and black masses. In the wall in front of the lava pit and directly across the stands stood two hexagonal columns and, in the middle, an altar stone with carved out flames. On top of the altar there was a horrifying figurine made of a dark green stone that vaguely resembled a tom. Fire opal gems were fitted into the figurine's eyes and, at the eerie orange light from the lava pit they seemed to pulse with a life of their own. Shard gulped as his eyes settled upon the kat-sized statue.
"My true form, yes… Pray, Rex, if you actually still pray, that I never revert to my true form because if I do I won't leave a single stone unturned in this world."
Shard felt a very real chill of fear running down his spine. His eyes fled from the horrible figurine to rest at the narrow basaltic rock bridge that arched over the lava pit. In the middle, the bridge broadened into a circular shape that bore a smaller altar stone, to which were affixed two pairs of shackles. A groove ran through the middle of the altar stone.
"You requested blood sacrifices?"
"Feline blood sacrifices, of course. What kind of a demon would I be if I didn't require beautiful sacrificial she-kats just out of their puberty?"
Shard felt a wave of queasiness ravage throughout his being. He always felt there was just something viscerally wrong with feline sacrifices.
"You're not going to hurl, are you? A tough tom like you…"
"Enough! I've had it with this place! Let's just do whatever we have to do here and let's get out!"
"I'm afraid it's not that simple, Rex. I need you to get into the lava pit and there we must remain until I regain my full power. Since I am in an avatar and not in my true form, this will take time. Two or three weeks, at least."
"But I'll sink to the bottom…"
"Lava is molten rock, Shard…"
"Yes, yes, of course. I'm less dense than the lava, so I should float easily enough. But how can I last two weeks in there? And how do I get out?"
"You'll get out the same way you'll get in: by your own foot. The pit's walls aren't vertical. Actually, the pit has the shape of a cup, with just a narrow central vent from where the lava comes. Near the vent, you'll be up to your waist in lava, so when you sit it will reach your chin. Think of it as a thermal bath. You'll get out of it very relaxed."
"But two whole weeks? Or three even?"
"You'll be fine! Weren't you the one who just dug through hundreds of feet of basalt without even touching it?"
Shard sighed – "Okay, let's do it. The sooner we get it done, the sooner I'll get out of this place."
"That's my good avatar!"
Shard threw away the cigarette butt and headed for the pit. This was crazy! Two weeks ago, if he had been asked to step into a lava pit he'd have judged the requester mad. He sighed again and moved into the pit. When his foot touched the lava a small quake ravaged through the cavernous space.
"What was that?"
"The volcano acknowledging the return of its master. Now step inside."
Shard did as he was told. Volcanus was right: the lava felt just like a hot spring bath! He headed for the center and sat there. The lava actually reached just to his upper chest. Shard decided to close his eyes and rest. Volcanus was in charge of operations now. As he relaxed his body, another small quake tore through the altar of fire of Volcanus, the fire demon.
T-Bone plopped down on the warm face of the granite outcrop, panting. He had the top of his G-suit tied securely around his waist and his once white tank top bore now many stains: dust, chlorophyll, sweat and even some blood. It had been a warm day in the mountains, which, at that altitude, almost never happens. And, given the redness of the skies around the setting sun, tomorrow would probably be a warm day too. He got up on one elbow to better appreciate the twilight. As he stared at the distance, the words that had prompted him to this self-imposed exile came to his mind, bringing a snarl with them.
"I thought you were the tough guy!"
So did T-Bone. Until he met up with Rex Shard. As humiliating as it was to admit someone else's superiority in terms of physical strength, T-Bone wasn't the kind of tom to let such a thing pass without retribution. He balled his fist and smacked it against the granite, making a small spider web of cracks appear in the rock.
As the sun completely set beneath the horizon and the first stars began to twinkle in the night sky, the face of a she-kat appeared in his mind's eye. The image was so powerful that it brought tears to the tabby's eyes immediately.
"Mom…" – he whispered as a light chilling breeze ruffled his mane – "I'm trying, I swear I am!"
"You're my tough guy, aren't you, Chance?" – his mother's words from many years ago returned to his mind – "You must always strive to be the top kat, son. Just like your father is. You have to be the toughest, the bravest, the kindest."
"I'm trying, mom! I'm trying! And I know I will be!"
"And this is what we call volcano-related seismic swarms…" – Dr. Paula Robertson said just before the bell rang and all her students began packing up their stuff and rising from the chairs of the amphitheater. Paula bellowed over the uproar – "Don't forget to deliver your assignments! And there'll be a pop quiz on this subject in the near future."
Paula picked up her transparencies, gathered her notes and stuffed them in a plastic file folder as her students, one by one, crammed the in-tray on the desk with their assignments. When they finally left the amphitheater, she had a hefty pile of reports to check and grade. Sighing, she picked up the pile and placed it on top of the file folder before taking everything under her right arm. With her left one she flung her large bag over her shoulder. When she finally left the amphitheater as well, she had to struggle to keep her bag over her left shoulder and the pile of reports and the folder under her right arm as she first picked the right key and then tried to lock the door to the auditorium only with her left hand. She thought she'd accomplish that feat without an incident when the plastic folder slid out and fell to the ground, spreading papers and transparencies all over the floor. She sighed, closed her eyes and silently counted to ten so as to keep her from losing her temper and making a scene in front of everyone. That's when she felt someone taking the key from her hand. She opened her eyes and found her husband's smile.
"Trouble, dear?" – he asked as he locked the door, after what he knelt and started gathering the spread-out transparencies – "Still using this old stuff?"
She knelt as well, putting down the pile of reports and helping her husband gather her belongings – "You know I'm old-fashioned that way."
"Honey, when will I convert you to the wonders of the flash drive?" – David semi-rhetorically asked as he handed the lot of transparencies he'd gathered to Paula with one hand and with the other reached inside his trouser pocket to retrieve a minuscule 32-gigabyte flash drive – "I've got here all your transparencies plus over a hundred animations and movies, all conveniently arranged in several multimedia presentations."
"Now you're being condescending…" – she said as she again put the folder and the reports under her right arm and walked away towards their office. He had to run to keep up with her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be. But there's something else in this flash drive you'll definitely want to see."
"What is it?" – she asked as she waited for David to open the door to their office. With a loud thud, she dropped the pile of reports and the plastic folder over a pile of field books that was cramming her desk.
"I've been compiling some seismic data on Anakata ever since the volcano's last eruption, about three weeks ago. Out of curiosity because of our absurd idea of a reenactment of the Blackstone Event, I compiled data on the fifteen volcanoes of Blackstone National Park and 'big daddy' Blackstone Volcano itself."
"Looks like someone has too much free time in his hands…" – she taunted as she booted up the computer.
"Do you want to know what I found out or not?"
"Sorry, go ahead!"
"Plug this in and open the file named 'Compilation_1'. It's right there in the root folder." – he handed her the flash drive.
Paula did as David told her. In a few seconds, she was looking at a multimedia presentation with only one slide containing seventeen condensed seismograms. The topmost was that of Anakata Volcano and the bottommost was that of Blackstone Volcano. In-between were arranged the fifteen smaller volcanoes of Blackstone National Park. In the uppermost part of the screen was a timeline divided in thirty days.
"Don't you find it odd?" – David asked.
Paula wasn't sure just what should she find odd when it struck her. At the second day, only Anakata Volcano registered a visible tremor, the remainder sixteen volcanoes had little seismic activity. The quake thus coincided with the eruption of Anakata Volcano. From the second day to the tenth day, all volcanoes registered reduced seismic activity. On the eleventh day, while Anakata Volcano remained seismically 'quiet', there was a visible tremor in Blackstone Volcano that appeared to have spread progressively to all the other fifteen volcanoes of the park. From that day on, although Anakata Volcano remained with reduced seismic activity, Blackstone Volcano and the remainder fifteen smaller volcanoes of the park presented continuous appreciable seismic activity, with peaks of stronger quakes on Blackstone Volcano that spread progressively throughout the other smaller volcanoes.
"Yes! Yes, it *is* odd!" – she responded, bewildered – "What is the meaning of these readings?"
"Is Blackstone clearing her throat?"
She looked back at David with a frightened look before she returned her eyes to the computer screen. Paula stared at the slide for a little longer. The ominous question David left hanging in the air could be an answer to what she was looking at. She even pulled the seismogram pertaining to Blackstone Volcano up, so it was followed by the seismograms of the other fifteen volcanoes instead of being at the bottom. In this position, the pattern shown even clearer but somehow she couldn't believe her own eyes. Paula turned to her husband.
"Are you completely sure of this? Couldn't you have made a mistake?"
David snatched the mouse from her hand. He minimized the multimedia presentation and went online, to the netsite of Blackstone Observatory, the branch of the National Geological Survey charged with the monitoring of that area. Once there, he quickly navigated the page until he found the link to an interactive applet that presented a general seismogram of Blackstone Volcano, which was updated every thirty seconds.
"See for yourself."
Indeed she saw. The line of a seismogram is never a straight one, for the planet is constantly in a state of unrest. So she wasn't really surprised to see such a spiky seismogram. However, when she actually looked at the scale of the oscillations being displayed and updated almost in real-time, her eyes did widen. The ground was definitely shaking with more fervor than usual.
"There's no mistaking this, all right…"
Both scientists stared at the slowly shifting seismogram for a couple more minutes before Paula decided she'd seen enough. She moved the cursor towards the upper right corner in order to close the application. In the second it took her to do it, the seismogram was updated and her finger froze in mid-air. Both stared at the screen in horror.
"Kat's alive, David!"
"Get under the door jamb, NOW!"
As Paula and David hurried towards the relative safety of the office's door jamb and crouched there, surprising the occasional passer-by in the corridor, the seismogram changed again, revealing even wider oscillations than those that had startled both scientists. They had just crouched when the earthquake hit them.
"Still in the wake of yesterday's launch of the GeoKat-1 satellite, Pumadyne's and MASA's latest multimillionaire endeavor, we went outside to ask our viewers how they feel about the GeoGuard Program…" – the TV set mounted on a wall of the Geosciences Faculty cafeteria drone on over the light chatter of the semi-empty room. Ryan, who was sitting at a table directly across from the TV set, stared at the moving images without really seeing them, his mind drawn to the unknown whereabouts of a certain tom that had saved his cousin a few weeks ago. He suddenly felt his arm being shoved.
"I'm talking to you, Ryan! Wake up!"
"I'm sorry, Karen. I was in another world… What were you saying?"
"I asked you what you thought of the GeoGuard Program."
Ryan straightened up in his chair – "Well, I think that if this project is able to save at least one life from being lost due to geohazards, it's worth it."
"Don't you think it could be dangerous?"
He frowned – "There is a risk, yes. The MegaBeam that comprises most of the GeoKat-1 satellite is a *very* powerful weapon."
"Yeah! One might think Pumadyne would have stopped research on it when that giant robot used it to destroy Lorn Mountain!"
"…give it to the people who need it instead of spending so much money in these things…" – the rather strident voice of an elder she-kat coming from the TV set cut through the cafeteria for a moment.
"They must have had their reasons and, for my part, I'm glad they didn't stop their research. They've been set back a few years by the destruction of the original MegaBeam but it took them much less time to put this second one together. I hope this MegaBeam can be put to a good use and actually stop earthquakes from orbit with surgical precision, like it was their original intent."
"But how would that work?"
"Well, you know how tectonic earthquakes occur, don't you?"
"Yes, of course I do." – she said, slightly annoyed – "The movement of the tectonic plates transfers stress into the rocks, which accumulate it over the years. When the stress is too much for the rocks to stand, they rupture and move suddenly, releasing the energy stored in them all at once. It's much like snapping your fingers: the sound you hear is the result of the sudden release of energy."
"Okay, the idea behind the GeoGuard Program is that by blasting through areas that show intense stress with a shot from the MegaBeam, we may be able to release that energy in small amounts rather than all at once. We won't rid ourselves from earthquakes, that'll only happen when Gaia no longer has any internal heat capable of shifting the tectonic plates, but we can control the amount of damage an earthquake can do!"
"Even so, isn't there a risk of letting loose an earthquake of mythical proportions? Imagine there's a sort of chain reaction or something…"
Ryan shrugged – "It could happen, I suppose… That's why the MegaBeam is only one part of the GeoGuard Program. Also in the GeoKat-1 satellite is a plethora of state-of-the-art sensors that, together with the GSN…"
"Right, the global seismic network of seismometers set from the MegaWar II days till now!"
"Exactly. Now together with the GSN and the mega-sensors of the satellite, the GeoGuard computer program can alert the scientists of any buildup of stress virtually anywhere in the world. Then, a series of well aimed shots from the MegaBeam can be fired when the satellite reaches that area and, hopefully, instead of one devastating earthquake, there'll be several minor ones, saving people and property from destruction."
"But wouldn't that goal require a whole *fleet* of GeoKat satellites?"
"Indeed it would! However, the cost of such endeavor is just too great for any one country to support it on its own. The GeoKat-1 satellite is one of its kind for now and it will remain that way unless it can deliver us from any geohazard in a more effective way than any of the existing methods. I've heard in the news that Eluropean, Siamese and Sinitic governments are interested in this program but need to be reassured."
"Well, given the prohibitive cost, I think it's only understandable… Wait… Are you feeling this? Looks like a truck…" – she started but was cut short when everything started to rock back and forth.
"EARTHQUAKE! EVERYBODY DUCK UNDER THE TABLES!" – Ryan shouted as he urged Karen to protect herself.
The young tom widened his eyes in disbelief as he saw the glasses on the window panes rippling slightly in distinct waves before shattering into a thousand shards. He quickly joined Karen as the ground beneath them shook fiercely. Everywhere around the cafeteria Ryan heard glass breaking and, with a loud clang and the sound of sparkling electricity from the fallen TV set, it all came to an end, roughly thirty seconds after it started. Only then did Ryan notice Karen shivering in his embrace.
"Karen, are you okay? It's over now!"
"A-are you sure?"
"Well, with an earthquake of that intensity we always have to account for some strong aftershocks…"
"Oh, thanks for easing my mind, Ryan…"
"Sorry! More importantly, we have to get to the meeting point. We have to follow the emergency protocol. Come on, help me out! There must be a lot of frightened people around here."
"Yeah… I'm one of them…"
Another tom that was caught by surprise was Jake. The slim kat was working under the hood of a car, waist deep in its interior, when the tremors began. He only noticed that when the opening on the radiator's water tank suddenly moved aside from the steady stream of coolant he was pouring into it. Jake had barely acknowledged what was really happening when the shaking got worse, knocking the hood down on himself. Throughout the rest of the quake, Jake kicked the air, trying to get out of that trap. In time, however, he managed to open the hood and drag himself out. By the time he freed himself, though, the quake was over.
Jake went outside the garage and contemplated the Salvage Yard. He frowned. For such a strong quake, there was little damage! A few piles of metallic litter had tumbled over and the parasol on top of the garage had fallen. Inside, a few shelves had fallen, spewing their contents all over the floor but nothing worse than that. When he went down to the hangar, it seemed as if nothing had happened: everything was in its proper place. Well, everything except a fluorescent lamp that was now dangling precariously over his workplace…
"The hangar's strong structure must have prevented larger damage…"
He was about to head upstairs to clean up the mess from the fallen shelves when he suddenly remembered Chance, alone in Megakat Mountains. He dashed for his locker and suited up. In less than five minutes, he was already on board the Turbokat, heating up its engines and running pre-flight diagnostics. Minutes later he stormed out of the underground hangar and headed towards Megakat Mountains.
As he flew over one of the oldest parts of Megakat City, he saw that the buildings there, unlike the Salvage Yard, had not escaped unscathed. The preliminary reports he was getting over the Turbokat's radio stated that it had been a Richter 6 earthquake and that much of the damage seemed to have been taken by the older structures. Much to Razor's bewilderment, he saw that Old Megakat Bridge, some eighty years old, was still standing proudly over the smalt waters of Megakat River, as was the recently inaugurated Millennium Bridge. However, some of the Blue Manx Drive pillars had been thrown down and the great highway overpasses had collapsed on top of each other, making up a ghastly sandwich of broken concrete and twisted metal.
Razor was still contemplating this disaster scene when his helmet's radio crackled to life.
"Buddy, do you copy? I could use a lift!"
"I hear you, pal! I'm on my way. I'm locking on to your communicator's signal. Just hang in there, buddy!"
"I'd urge you to hurry. I'm okay for the time being but I don't know how long I'll stay that way."
I'm going! Just hang loose! Razor out!"
Razor was banking the jet towards the mountains when, to his right, a building partially collapsed and was suddenly engulfed in flames. The slim kat stood still for a moment, as if hesitating between rescuing his friend or the people that might be trapped inside the collapsing building. The split-second decision he made to fly over the ruined building and drop a Foam Bomb to douse the flames would haunt him all the way to the Megakat Mountains, fearing that the scant minutes he'd spent saving thirty kats that were sure to die in the blaze if he hadn't rescued them might have sealed his friend's fate.
Although T-Bone was all way up on the mountains, in perhaps one of the farthest points from the quake's epicenter, the solid granite rocks picked up the seismic waves and sped them up, so there was still quite a bit of energy when they reached the cirque where he was training.
At first, he didn't notice it. He was busy focusing his blow. He was aiming at a tall and broad-trunked pine tree. When the blow fell it was as if a meteor or a lightning had struck the poor tree for it split up in two before crashing down to the ground, adding tremor to the quake. It was only a few moments after the tree crashed down that T-Bone felt the ground trembling still… And, actually increasing in intensity! He looked down, trying to understand whether *he* had done that or something else was causing it. When a large weathered chunk of the granite cliff fell down on the furthest point of the cirque, he was sure he had nothing to do with it. It had been then that he'd run to the log cabin and radioed Razor for a pick up.
By then, of course, the earthquake had stopped but the cliff walls hadn't exactly stopped falling. The higher pinnacles were precisely those that were the most fragile and so, one after the other, the weathered and shaken granite walls gave in to gravity. The log cabin and the clearing were sufficiently far away from the cirque's walls to actually be hit by the falling debris but some of the rocks actually rolled downhill and ended up in the lake, far away from their fall points.
T-Bone, who, in the meantime, had picked up the few belongings he'd carried there nearly four weeks ago, ran outside the log cabin just in time so see the large pinnacles flanking the moraine that dammed the lake give in to the power of gravity and crash down forcefully on the somewhat loose glacial sediment. At first, it seemed as if the blows the natural dam had taken had been inconsequential. But soon enough, T-Bone managed to discern a preferential motion of the lake water. It was running *towards* the dam!
"Crud! That can't be good!"
Fifteen minutes later, T-Bone saw the Turbokat approaching in the late morning sky. Within moments, the VTOL engines raised all kinds of particles around the tabby as the jet slowly came to a halt in front of him. Razor popped the canopy and jumped down.
"Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine! But we've got work to do! Come on!"
"Humph. Whatever happened to 'thanks for the backup, bud'?" – Razor muttered as he followed T-Bone into the Turbokat. Soon enough, they were airborne. T-Bone flew over the lake and doubled back, so they were facing the steep U-shaped valley that was carved along the side of the mountain. From that point, they could see several structural weak points on the natural dam.
"I know for a fact that there's a small village inside the glacier valley. If that dam breaks up, the lake water will rush down the valley and devastate the village."
Razor quickly brought up a topographic map of the area on both screens, quickly confirming T-Bone's suspicions. The lake wasn't huge but it had more than enough water to cause some severe damage to the village. Certainly more than enough to cause the death of some if not all the villagers.
"So, what you think can be done, Razor?"
"We can try cementing the weakest places and try to stop the leaking. But it'll be like putting a band-aid on a broken leg."
"Will it hold up long enough for the people to evacuate the village?"
"I have no idea! This is a mound of both fine and coarse-grained materials and I don't know how bad the seepage is. It may buy us a few weeks or just a few moments!"
"Most of the material is surely quartz. Can't we fuse the grains together?"
"With what? The Match-Head Missiles do carry flaming tips but their temperature surely isn't enough to fuse quartz!"
"Okay. Cement Machinegun it is, then."
The weapon slid out the belly of the Turbokat and Razor aimed at the structural weak spots he'd identified earlier. In a rapid succession, the gun's muzzle rotated as it shot slug after slug, spattering quick-drying cement along the natural sedimentary dam.
"There. That should hold the dam for a while."
"Roger! We head to the village now."
As the Turbokat roared down the vale, T-Bone looked down to the valley floor, only to find it covered with glacier flour, a very fine sort of glacial sediment.
"If the water from the lake comes down the valley, it'll mix with this clay."
"That'll cause a mudflow!" – Razor responded, horrified.
"Yeah, it will. We *have* to get the villagers to safety!" – T-Bone said before hitting the afterburners.
Razor looked around and could only see steep rock walls flashing by on either side of the Turbokat. Above, just the bright green sky. Who would say disaster was about to befall on such a glorious day? And, in fact, a couple hundred yards above them, the water pressure was becoming too great for the improvised mending Razor had provided. Suddenly, the natural dam couldn't hold any more and broke up completely, letting loose a torrent of water that raced impetuously down the valley.
"Huh? T-Bone, I'm picking up a seismic disturbance."
"It's too shallow. Oh, crud! The dam broke! It's the lake water!"
"NO! We can't possibly evacuate all those people in time now! CRUD!"
"Double back! Hurry!"
"JUST DO IT!"
T-Bone did as he was told. He banked the jet up, making a half-loop and a barrel roll, leveling the jet again with the valley's walls. The Turbokat was now facing the incoming torrent of water, still high above them and quickly soaking the loose sediment covering the ground of the valley. Slowly, the water torrent was turning into a giant mudflow.
"Whatever you're gonna do, buddy, do it fast!"
"I'm on to it! Blowtorch Missiles deployed!"
Three missiles shot at once from the bomb bay of the black jet, directed at the ground of the valley in front of them. With that, Razor managed to excavate a trench from wall to wall.
"I think we're gonna need…"
"Banshee Missiles deployed!"
Two Banshee Missiles were launched, one after the other, at each of the walls of the valley, where they released their sonic power against the rocks, making them crumble towards the ditch he'd dug before and thus creating a weir of granite boulders.
With the remaining cement slugs, Razor cemented as best he could the wall he'd just created. After all, it did no good stopping the mudflow if it turned into a rock avalanche…
"Keep your fingers crossed, pal, 'cause if this doesn't work, we're gonna have all those villagers' lives on our heads!"
Now all they had to do was wait for the inevitable impact, which came only seconds after the machinegun had been pulled back into the slick jet fighter. The impact was impressive and mud splashed against the improvised dam and the valley's walls, even spattering the jet some. But Razor's plan worked! The dam held the first impact and seemed to be holding the pressure of the mud piling up behind it. It helped that the place Razor chose to build the barrier was somewhat flat. The mudflow was contained. The villagers were safe. For now…
"Whoa, buddy, that was too close…" – T-Bone said as he wiped his masked forehead with the back of his hand – "By the way, thanks for the backup, bud!"
"Yeah, you're welcome but I'm wondering…"
"… what caused this earthquake!" – T-Bone finished Razor's sentence – "Yeah, I've been mulling it over ever since back there, at the cirque."
"Everyone knows that Megakat State isn't prone to having earthquakes! There aren't any major active fault lines in this state!"
"But it *is* a rather volcanic state! Look at Anakata Island, Megakat National Park and Blackstone National Park!"
"Can volcanoes cause earthquakes even without active fault lines?"
"How large an earthquake are we talking about?"
T-Bone hesitated – "Not sure…"
"Who would know?"
"Any volcanologist, I guess. Can you pinpoint the epicenter of this quake?"
"I'm already scanning every news radio frequency. The minute a report is out we'll know it."
"Okay. Let's warn the authorities that these villagers will need some help! This improvised dam won't hold on forever…" – T-Bone said as he pushed the throttle all the way and directed the bolting jet towards Megakat City.
Shard abruptly opened his eyes as he straightened himself up from the lava pool. He stood there, gasping for air, trying to get a bearing on his surroundings, suddenly unsure of his whereabouts.
"What happened now, Shard?" – that hateful voice inside his mind rasped, surprising him. He lost his footing and fell tail first into the liquid rock.
"V-Volcanus?" – he stuttered as he slowly but surely started to set his thoughts in order.
"No, your mother! Of course it's me!"
Shard stood up and tottered towards the rim of the pool.
"Just where you think you're going? Get back to the center of the lava pool." – Volcanus' voice grated inside his head. Almost like a sheep, he did as he was told, sitting down when he reached the center. A moment passed before Shard addressed his inner demon.
"I've had this… this nightmare… I saw… I felt… a great tremor… The whole landscape squirmed as if to rid itself of something offensive! I saw buildings fall into gaping cracks into the ground, railways and trains become twisted masses of metal and fire! I saw people falling into the darkest chasms I've ever seen, or become bloody masses beneath the rubble of the buildings!"
He paused. In his mind's eye, Shard was reliving the episode that woke him up so violently just minutes ago. He was in one of the ruined streets of Megakat City, in one of the suburbs, away from the bustling city that now was as silent as the darkest night. He was staring at the ruins of an old building. Beneath the rubble there was a single arm jutting out. Blood matted its reddish brown fur. He rushed there and started removing the pieces of rubble. He didn't know why he was doing that but he was sure he knew who was down there. When he removed a large chunk of ruined wall he stared in shock. The young tom's chest had been crushed by the falling debris and was but a gory mass. Hugging the older tom's leg for dear life was the corpse of a younger tom, not seven springs of life yet. He recognized them immediately. And that recognition was what had startled him in the first place.
"I saw Megakat City tearing itself apart!" – he said in a whisper as an involuntary tear ran down his cheek.
"And you got scared because of that?"
"It was overwhelmingly realistic, okay?"
"Well, as it turns out, you're not far from the truth."
Shard narrowed his eyes – "What? What do you mean?"
"You've been fortunate, Shard! You have seen but a glimpse of things to come very soon!"
"Enough with the riddles! I want a straight answer for a change!"
"Then give me one yourself: what is it *exactly* that you want?"
There was a long pause, during which none spoke and the silence within the fire altar of Volcanus became almost unbearable.
"I thought I was sure… I've been planning this for fifteen years…" – Shard started, in a whisper – "I know I've had it rough, I know I was accused unjustly, I know that this city left me to *rot* in Megakat Max first and then in Alkatraz… For fifteen years, I've known nothing but *hate*! I was consumed by hate, so much so that I thought I'd die with all the hate running through my veins! I wanted to see Megakat City razed to the ground and all its inhabitants' carcasses piled up in the center square, with me standing proud on top. I've thought of this moment for so long!
"I wanted death! Nor for me but for the whole city!
"That's what I tried to do when I turned into that crystal colossus. I wanted to destroy *everything*!
"But I was stopped… I didn't have enough power… I was imprisoned again. And then, *you* came along. Using your power, I set myself free. Using your power, I could destroy Megakat City. Using *your* power, I could get my revenge and drink my fill of blood to wash away the taste of *hate* I've had flowing in me for so many years!
"And then, *it* happened…
"In a moment of weakness, I showed compassion… And, lo and behold! In return I was *shown* compassion… Like I never thought anyone but my beloved Susan could show… And ever since that moment, doubt crept upon me. There are people I want to destroy but there has to be more people worth *not* destroying…
"People like him…
"So, what do I want? I want revenge! But I will *not* level Megakat City to have it! I will not murder kind and innocent people just to sate my thirst for revenge!"
"So just *who* will you target?"
Silence again, deep and dismal.
"WHO WILL YOU TARGET?"
"I DON'T KNOW! I don't know anymore… Before everything seemed so black and white, so clear! I was going to destroy the city and that would be that! But now… Now I see many shades of gray and everything is a blur! Things are not as simple as I at first thought…"
Shard's shoulders sagged as his head abated over his chest, his eyes closing in sadness. Silence crept back into the cave before it was interrupted by the most unimaginable sound: laughter! In a hateful explosion, Volcanus' laughter resounded in the enclosed space, a maniacal yet derisive laughter that utterly confused Shard.
"What's so funny?"
"YOU!" – the fire demon bellowed – "Actually, that's not right! You're not amusing, you're *pathetic*!"
"Pitiable! Feeble! *Weak*! Shall I continue to enumerate synonyms?"
Volcanus continued to snicker as Shard abated his head and drooped his ears, narrowing his eyes and baring his teeth.
"I truly thought you'd be harder than this… A single stupid kid shows some kindness and you grow soft like this…"
"You have no right to judge me!" – even as Shard was saying it he hated himself for sounding so feebly – "I gave you a straight answer, as you requested! Now give me one yourself!"
"Oh, spare me your self-righteous accusations! I have no use for them! Yet, I will open my game to you. It *is* too late for you or any of your kind to do anything about it, anyway!"
Shard shivered. Volcanus' voice had changed! It had lost any hint of sarcasm, of malice, of disdain. It had been dark and deep and dreadful as he'd never heard before! He suddenly went stiff, as if something forced him violently to stand straight. His eyes were wide open and a very tangible fear overtook them before they became glazed. He managed to open his mouth, as if to scream but only a hollow sound escaped, as wind forced through a gap.
"See the horror I have in store for this world, my pet!"
Burnt into his brain, he saw the images of an ashen sky interweaving itself with the gray landscape. There was some sort of dark snow falling slowly from the sky and, amid the low ceiling of gray billowing clouds, he saw the flash of electricity as thunder rolled briskly in the distance, together with a permanent low rumbling that permeated the ambience.
He stretched out his hand and caught some of the dirty falling flakes. They were the same color as his pelt but were not cold. If anything, they were even a bit warm and wouldn't melt. Then he suddenly understood! It was not snow he was holding in the palm of his hand!
It was ash!
He turned around and finally saw it, in the distance. A large conical mountain, its summit briefly adorned in shades of bright orange and red and above that a thick column of ash as dark as the night and wreathed in blue and orange lightning. Truly, a breathtaking spectacle to behold!
He understood now. That was Blackstone Volcano. That was what the Blackstone Event must have looked like three million years ago. But three million years ago, this area wasn't as densely populated as it is in the present. Three million years ago there was, however, already a large settlement of a few hundred prehistoric kats that hunted with crude weapons and dwelled in primitive huts and worked the land with archaic tools. And it had been completely wiped out! Some of them had died long before the main eruption had even begun.
Shard suddenly saw the whole path that led to that settlement's destruction in front of him. The first signs of life coming from the volcano were not small eruptions or streams of molten rock coming down the sides of the mountain! There weren't even earthquakes announcing the impending doom! No, the first sign was the massacre that took place in the small pond between the settlement and the volcano. The crude brains of those prehistoric kats could not have conceived a reason why so many fish appeared dead in the shores of the small lake.
Other signs had manifested there, as well. Shard could see them well. The line of dead trees leading from the lake to the mountain, the result of sulfur and carbon dioxide poisoning, the yellow powder found around some cracks, near the mountain, the water in the settlement's well becoming acidic, brownish and warm… All signs a twenty-first century Volcanology student would immediately recognize as precursors to a large-scale eruption.
And so, many had died from sulfur poisoning by eating the contaminated fish or the other tainted animals found in the dying forest. Others died agonizing deaths by having drunk the acid water from the settlement's well, their mouths, throats and stomachs burnt as the low pH liquid cascaded down them. Yet, these few had been the luckiest ones…
One day, the ground shook violently for a few moments before the eruption began. The sound from the explosion was so violent that many of the settlers had their eardrums blown out. The blast from the explosion was so violent that few huts were left standing. For those that had survived the first moments after the beginning of the eruption, fate had even a crueler ordeal in store for them.
Indeed, Shard realized, fate had taken many gruesome forms for the unfortunate settlers that day. After the eruption had initiated, dozens of horrified eyes witnessed the terrifying spectacle of the burning mountain, the ear-wrecking noise and the lava bombs that descended from the skies to beat the unfortunate settler or hut to kingdom come. As the black column of ash rose towards the skies and took the form of an anvil as its summit was carried away towards the east by the prevailing winds, the day grew darker and darker as the ash spread around them. In an hour, maybe less, Shard reckoned, day turned unnaturally to night. And with it came the black snow.
The ash fall was intense and the flakes were still warm but worse than that, they were acidic due to the sulfurous gases emanated from the eruption that dissolved in the atmospheric water vapor which, in turn, clung to the ash. Wherever it landed, the settlers would shake the ash off immediately after the microscopic droplets of acid started to eat their way through their skin. There was no cover to be had, nowhere to hide from the merciless ash. Some perished from prying and scratching the open wounds made by the acidic ash. Others met with a more dismal fate as the finest particles of ash were inhaled and started accumulating within their lungs.
Shard knew that volcanic ash was unlike any other kind of organic ash. Seen through the magnifying glass, it would resemble minute glass needles. The ash pierced mercilessly at the poor settlers' respiratory tract, causing massive edema. And that would lead to an even more horrifying outcome. When the dry particles of ash met with the liquid coming from the respiratory tract, they would turn into slush that slowly but surely clogged the airways and led to respiratory failure and death. Shard had heard it would be like filling someone's lungs with wet concrete.
Ironically, the ash that killed many of the settlers had encased them and served as their tombs. If it weren't for the next onslaught that Blackstone had in store, they would probably have been preserved to this very day, a sort of prehistoric Pompeii.
A few hours into the initial eruption, the sound had almost come down to a bearable level and the eruption itself seemed to be receding. The few remaining settlers must have thought that the worst had already passed. But the worst was, actually, yet to come… After showing signs of a near stop, the eruption re-intensified. The new eruption was many times more powerful than the first. But this time the remaining settlers didn't have to relive everything they'd already been put through. This time, the eruption was directed entirely towards *them*!
The viscous lava, Shard reasoned, must have solidified inside the crater and must have clogged it. He remembered studying that it happened time and again: Mount Vesuvius, Mount Peleé, Mount Saint Helens… And the result had always been the same as it had been three million years ago with Blackstone Volcano. The mounting pressure within the volcano's cone had to be released somehow. If it couldn't go up then it would have to go laterally. Finding a zone of structural weakness, the pressure tore through the side of the mountain and raced down towards the lowlands. Towards the settlers.
Shard witnessed as the billowing wall of ash rode down the mountainside on a cushion of hot air with staggering speed. In less than five minutes, it had covered the ten miles that separated Blackstone from the ruined settlement. Ahead of the billowing cloud of ash came the air, heated to three hundred degrees Celsius, perhaps even more. Shard saw as the wall of scalding air hit the remaining settlers. They were instantly set ablaze. Even before any of them realized what was happening, the wall of ash hit them, scattering their charred remains. It was the last thing Shard saw before he too watched as his fur was suddenly burnt to a crisp, as well as his skin. His muscles bubbled as the water in his cells boiled and evaporated. He still saw specks of charred muscle being sloughed off his arms by the broiling winds. And then, darkness.
He fell on his knees amid the churning lava pool, eyes glazed and wide open, mouth hanging slightly from shock. A couple of minutes passed before Shard could regain enough composure.
"Why did you show me this?" – he asked, his voice shaky.
"Do you know what it is you saw?" – again, that dark and fell tone that made his neck fur raise.
"You showed me what Katkind has come to dub the Blackstone Event, didn't you? A mega-eruption that occurred about three million years ago."
Shard got himself up – "My question stands: why did you show me the Blackstone Event?"
"Isn't it obvious, by now? Why did you think I brought you *exactly* to this volcano when I could have recharged myself in any other? True, this *is* my largest altar but if my intention had been a simple refill of energy, I could have done that from anywhere in this planet that harbors a volcano.
"You see, Shard, I can show you what happened on that day because I *was* there that day, three million years ago. Did I cause the Blackstone Event? No! That was a natural disaster, it simply occurred."
"Can you deliberately cause something as horrifying as the Blackstone Event?"
"My dear Shard, why do you still doubt the extent of my powers after the little taste I'm giving you?"
A shiver ran up the gray-furred tom's back.
"Listen closely, Shard. Do you want to know why I picked you to be my avatar? Because we're alike in one thing and one thing alone: we were both imprisoned unjustly! You were imprisoned for a crime you didn't commit. I was imprisoned for wanting to rule over this world! You *wretched* kats couldn't bring yourselves to lose what little freedom you thought you conquered and *somehow* you found a way to seal me for a thousand years inside Anakata Volcano! Now, with the talisman stone finally broken I can rise again and make you *filthy* kats pay for *daring* to imprison me!
"What do I want, Shard? I want to reenact the Blackstone Event right here, in modern-day Megakat State!"
"But that would devastate the city! Thousands will die!"
"Oh, your reckoning is off, Shard! *Millions* will die around the globe! After Megakat City has been razed to the ground, the ash clouds will spread eastward over the continent, over the ocean and onto the remaining northern hemisphere. Thousands will die from lung problems. Thousands more will die of famine when the rooftop of ash makes crops around the world wither and die from lack of sunshine. Acid rain will pour from the heavens and burn every fertile spot of soil in the northern hemisphere."
Volcanus laughed maniacally.
"Make no mistake: *hundreds* of millions *will* die at my hands just as soon as I finish amassing under Blackstone Volcano the magma I've been secretly gathering over the centuries underneath the other neighboring volcanoes. And when that time comes… BOOM!"
Shard was simply at a loss for words, horrified as he was with what he just heard. Even in his wildest dreams he'd never have guessed Volcanus' plan was to cause murder on such a vast scale! And *he* would be held accountable for that as well! The gray-furred tom felt something that was very similar to nausea. He felt disgusted at Volcanus, of course, but essentially he felt disgusted at *himself* for allowing the fire demon's plan to advance so much! He felt he needed to do something, he needed to stop Volcanus or he'd never forgive himself for helping in the slaying of so many kats!
"I can't let you do this!" – Shard stated in the most resolute tone he could muster. Volcanus simply cackled.
"I thought this was what you wanted all along! What are a few more million lives to you? After all, a slaughter is a slaughter!"
That last sentence had single-handedly crushed Shard's resolve.
"A slaughter is a slaughter… He's right… I was ready to kill thousands of people in Megakat City! Just because I wanted to kill less kats than him, it's still carnage… I'm no better than him…"
Shard closed his eyes and knelt again. Tears ran down his facial fur, freely. What righteousness did he have? Wasn't he a murderer as well? Wasn't he ready to massacre nearly everyone in Megakat City? What morality did he have to oppose the fire demon?
"Is that even the Rex I knew? The one I called 'king'?" – a female voice resonated through his mind. Shard suddenly opened his moist eyes, staring into the distance.
He continued to stare but her voice came no more. Yet, it had been enough. Shard remembered a talk he once had with Susan. She had told him his name was Latin for 'king'. She told him that his was a fitting name, since she considered him to be gentle, kind, wise, strong, just, relentless and passionate.
"The qualities of a king."
"What are you blabbering on about, you fool?"
Shard stood up – "I said I can't let you do this."
"Oh, spare m… Wait! What are you doing?"
"Please! Isn't it obvious? I'm leaving the lava pool."
"NO! I *order* you to get back!"
Shard smiled as he continued to walk towards the rim – "You see, you sometimes talk too much! Now *why* would it scare you so much that I got out of the lava pool?"
Shard heard no reply but he did feel, in his mind, something very similar to grinding teeth.
"I figured it had to do with whatever you're doing here. If you're not here to recharge yourself, as I first assumed you were, then it has to be related to your plan to devastate the world. And, if I can encumber or even stop that plan by simply stepping out of the lava pool, then I will!"
Shard hoisted himself off the lava pool, landing heavily and shaking the bits of lava off his pelt. He then headed towards one of the walls.
"And, since I never liked it down here, in this sanctuary of yours, we're leaving… Right *now*!" – he said before he put his hands against the wall, intent on melting a tunnel towards topside.
However, nothing happened! The wall remained solid!
"What's the matter, Shard? *Can't cut it*?"
"WHO GAVE YOU THOSE POWERS?" – Volcanus bellowed, which made Shard cringe at the thunderous vociferation – "Do you really think I'd stand idle while you attempted to thwart my plans? You think a being that is *millions* of years older than you IS THAT STUPID?"
Shard gulped. His eyes traversed the room, seeking for a possible way out. He was sure that now that he had incurred the fire demon's wrath, his future would very likely look much bleak. However, before long and without any warning, Shard felt a lacerating pain envelope is whole body, making him curl into a ball.
"WHAT'S HAPPENING?" – he managed to ask amid the screams of pain – "WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME?"
Shard saw as every fur fiber on his body stood on end, as if static electricity attracted them towards some unseen source. Then, very slowly, Shard noticed that every single fur was turning into a crystal needle. Soon, his whole body was crystal, inside and out. Volcanus was turning him into the crystal colossus again, Shard reasoned.
But it went beyond that.
When his whole body had finally turned into a living crystal figurine and the pain had finally started to lessen, another kind of pain took over, excruciating as the first had been.
It could only be described as an out-of-body experience, what Shard was undergoing, as he slowly started to see his crystalline form detach from himself. Inside the haze of pain, he was amazed at the level of precision of his crystal figurine. Even his small scars, that only he knew about, had been replicated with the finest detail.
And then, as it started, it came to an end. Shard fell to the ground on all fours, breathing heavily from the agonizing experience. His vision, still blurred by the pain he'd been subjected, slowly started to focus. He looked up, towards the dark green crystal life-sized figurine of himself as it inquisitively checked its arms and hands. Even still dazed with pain, Shard thought something was wrong.
The figurine was moving! And he wasn't controlling it! When the crystal figure looked straight at him and a sneer appeared in its face, a chill ran up Shard's spine.
"Nice body, my dear Shard!" – Volcanus' voice came from the crystalline lips of the entity in front of the gray-furred tom – "Much better than my previous one. Just a few cosmetic improvements and it'll feel just like home!"
"I multitasked!" – the demon laughed briefly at his own wit – "While I was amassing magma beneath Blackstone, I tried to find a way to replicate the same conditions that turned you into crystal, thanks to the information you gave me earlier on, when we were still in Megakat City! And once I knew how to recreate those conditions, it was rather easy to turn you back into a crystalline entity, so I could take over the mineral portion of you, thus furnishing myself with a new and powerful corpus, as you can plainly see! I was actually planning to do this later on but your recent and most unfortunate choices left me no whether alternative! But all of this is not important, Shard… What *is* important, however, is that I no longer need you!"
The last thing Shard saw was Volcanus slowly growing in size before a wall of spear-like crystals projected from Volcanus' chest towards himself.
"Dr. Robertson! Dr. Robertson, please wait!" – Ryan called out as he dodged the kats that filled the corridor that led from Paula and David's office to the auditorium, trying to catch up to his teacher.
"Bad timing, Ryan! I'm in a hurry! I have a press conference to attend to." – she responded without either looking back or easing her stride.
"It was Blackstone, wasn't it?"
Paula froze – "How did you…"
"C'mon, Dr. Robertson! An earthquake in a state without recorded seismic activity and no major active fault lines? No aftershocks so far? Even the most dimwitted of my colleagues could see this was a volcanic tremor."
"You're forgetting about…"
"Intraplate seismic activity? I could bet good money this isn't the case! Besides, Blackstone's the only volcano around that's large enough to cause such a massive quake."
Paula sighed – "What is it exactly that you want, Ryan? I'm already late for the press conference."
"I'd like to go with you when you go study this phenomenon! That's just it! I promise I won't get in the way!"
"Come on, Ryan! You know that's absolutely out of the question! You're still one of my students! I can't show favor to you, even though you're the best! Besides, if magma caused a tremor of this magnitude, then this field work will surely be very dangerous, so I cannot take you with me! Please understand! Now, excuse me."
"You could consider I'd be working for extra credit!"
"Ryan, don't insist! It's too dangerous out there! Believe me, I know!"
Paula turned on her heels and walked off, leaving Ryan in the busy corridor. As he watched his teacher disappear around the corner, heading towards the Geosciences Faculty grand auditorium, his shoulders sagged and his ears drooped, sadness washing over him like an unrelenting tide. He then felt someone touching his shoulder. It was Dr. David Robertson, Paula's husband.
"Don't worry… Ryan, isn't it?" – Ryan nodded an affirmative – "Leave Paula to me. I'll see what I can do. The important thing is that you keep asking."
"I think it's no use… Dr. Robertson thinks I'm just a geek, like everyone else in my class…"
David frowned – "You don't have any classes now, do you?"
"No, sir. Dean Paine said that the University's President gave us the rest of the day off because of the earthquake. There are many rooms that need to be cleaned before classes can restart."
"Then come to my office. I think there's something you need to know."
David motioned Ryan to accompany him. As they walked, David looked intently at the young tom, who was a good couple of inches shorter than him.
"How old are you, Ryan?"
"I'm twenty-three, sir."
"Please, call me David. You should have finished college already."
"I got held back a couple of years in junior high. Personal issues."
They had reached David and Paula's office. David waved Ryan in after he'd unlocked the door.
"Can I get you something? Coffee? Tea? Soft drink?"
"Nothing, thank you, sir. I mean, David."
"Well, I'll have some tea."
David poured some tea in a Styrofoam cup and blew on the smoldering liquid a couple of times before taking a sip. He sat down behind his desk and looked straight at Ryan.
"You know Paula doesn't see you as just some geek, don't you? I heard it from her very mouth, just moments ago. She said you were her favorite student, the best she had! And I know she meant it!" – David quickly added before Ryan could articulate an argument – "I'm her husband, I know how disappointed she's been for the past years for not having what she'd call 'a worthy student'.
"Now, we can argue about the pedagogical and even ethical implications such an expression and such viewpoint can carry but the truth is that every teacher dreams about finding a student that shares the same passion he or she has. In my case, it is Petrology, subject at which you kinda suck, I know. But in Paula's case, that passion is Volcanology and you excel in that! Take my word for it, Ryan, you are the best student that she's had in her hands for a long, long time!"
"If that's true, then why won't Dr. Robertson allow me to accompany her to the field?"
"That, Ryan, is another matter. A matter that has absolutely nothing to do with how good a student you are."
David got up from his chair and finished his tea in one gulp. He then crumpled the cup and threw it to the trash bin as he rounded his desk and leaned against the front of it, crossing his arms over his chest.
"You know Paula is just trying to protect you, don't you?" – Ryan nodded, yes – "Do you know why she cares?" – the young tom nodded a negative – "It concerns an outing we did, years ago. We went on an expedition to Mount Rocha, on Elurope. You know of it?"
"Yeah! It's your typical cinder cone. A lot like Mount Stromboli, including its non-stop eruption style."
"That is now! When we went there, Mount Rocha had been dormant for more than a hundred years. And, lo and behold! It had to wake up *exactly* when we were near the crater…"
"Oh, no!" – Ryan cringed – "I've heard of the fateful Mount Rocha expedition but I didn't know you were there!"
"Yeah, I was… And so was Paula. It was there that I knew what getting hit by a lava bomb felt like." – Ryan's expression was one of sheer terror – "Burnt and with both legs broken, it was Paula that managed to keep me alive until the rescue team reached us. I'll spare you the sordid details but that expedition changed Paula. The fact that she nearly lost me to the volcano was unthinkable to her. From that point on, she took all the chances to herself and wouldn't allow anyone close to her to risk him or herself for her."
David left the desk and crouched in front of Ryan.
"Do you understand now why Paula acts the way she does? She knows, as well as you know, that whatever caused this earthquake, it was volcanic in origin. Now, the only thing that can cause a volcanic quake of this magnitude is the movement of millions of cubic meters of magma, which could mean that Blackstone Volcano is ready to blow." – David's voice fell down an octave – "And we both know there are few things more dangerous than a stirring volcano!"
"She once told us that death is the constant companion of any volcanologist. That if we were to be successful volcanologists, we'd have to embrace our fear of death and welcome it as a natural part of our lives, of our profession."
Ryan paused, as if pondering something. Then he looked straight into David's eyes.
"You trusted me enough to tell me something private. I feel I must return the favor."
The young tom turned his back on the black-furred professor and pushed the back of his shirt up, exposing his lower back. There David could see a large diagonal scar running across Ryan's lumbar region. The young tom pulled down his shirt and stared back at David.
"How did you get that huge scar?"
"You're not the only one who has a survival story to tell! And mine also involves an erupting volcano…"
In the next minutes, Ryan briefly told him of his father, of his trip to his hometown, of the erupting volcano in the distance and of the lahar and how his father's warning allowed him and his mother to survive, how a floating branch had dug deeply into his lower back and ripped a huge gash and how he nearly got killed by blood loss and infection. When Ryan finished, David's expression was a dazed one.
"I see we've both been scarred by volcanoes. That means we're more aware of how treacherous volcanoes can be!"
"Yet, I do not hate them! I understand their character's duality. They're creators and destroyers of life. They're the beginning and the end."
"The alpha and the omega, as Paula once put it…" – David clapped his hands as he got up from his crouching position – "It's settled then. I'll be waiting for you tonight at nine in the Seismology lab."
"W-what?" – Ryan was dazed with the sudden change of topic – "What are you talking about?"
"The Seismology lab! You know where it is, don't you?"
"Then be there! Unless you have something else to do!"
"But what about Dr. Robertson?"
"*This* Dr. Robertson is inviting *you* to show up there. Nine o'clock! Don't be late!"
"Looks like this is it, buddy!"
Jake raised his eyes from the Turbokat's control board and the systems diagnostic he'd ordered and looked to the giant screen fitted on the wall of the hangar, in front of which stood Chance, hands on his hips.
They had just arrived about half an hour ago. They had jumped off the cabin and headed for their lockers, where they deposited the helmets and the bandannas. Chance had complained about the mud spots all over the jet's nosecone and, unzipping the upper part of the G-suit and tying it up behind his back and around his waist, he decided to give the jet a little scrub. Razor had done the same with his G-suit but had climbed back aboard to run a system's check instead.
Jake got out of the cabin and onto the wing before jumping down to the ground. In front of the glimmering screen he could see the burly form of his friend, drying off his hands in a cloth. Suddenly, his vision got blurred for a second or two and he felt dizzy. However, just as soon as it happened, it went away. Dismissing it with a wave of his head, he just went to his friend.
"The newscaster just announced they'll be going live to a press conference in Megakat State University about the quake."
"Let's see what this has been all about…" – Jake muttered. For some reason Jake himself couldn't explain, there was anger in his voice, which much surprised the slim kat.
Both toms were now watching in silence as Callie and two unknown kats sat at a table and began adjusting their microphones. After the initial greetings made by the Geosciences Faculty Dean, Thomas Paine, he gave the floor to the other unknown she-kat, whom he introduced as Dr. Paula Robertson, head researcher and senior volcanologist of the Geosciences Department of MSU. Dr. Paula cleared her throat before beginning to speak.
"At ten-twenty four, this morning, an earthquake of magnitude six on the Richter scale, occurred. Preliminary reports indicate that its epicenter was located within the Blackstone National Park area, having occurred at an estimated depth of ten to eight kilometers."
Some of the reporters exchanged worried glances amongst them. Jake noticed Chance's head snapping back, as if something offensive had been thrown at him. He looked at the big tom's face and saw it harden with lines of concern.
"So far, damage has been confined to the oldest areas of Megakat City, where the construction quality is less than ideal and do not conform to the rules every building erected since 1990 has had to follow.
"Now, before I continue, there is something I have to explain. We can divide earthquakes in four major categories, according to their origin. First we have tectonic quakes, which are due to the accumulation of tectonic stress along major fault lines. When the rocks can no longer cope with the amount of stress they're subjected, they fracture, suddenly releasing a given amount of energy that we perceive as an earthquake. Indeed, these are the most common quakes and account for a large percentage of every earthquake registered.
"Then there are impact quakes, caused when a mass collides with the surface of the planet. Now these can be caused by meteors or simply by the fall of rocks down a slope. These tremors account for a very small percentage of the registered earthquakes.
"Much more common are volcanic earthquakes, which are caused by the rising of magma, molten rock, from the planet's interior. Volcanic quakes are commonly used as predictive tools of an imminent eruption but, sometimes, they may mean nothing.
"And finally there are artificial quakes that we, katkind, cause. The most common cause is the use of explosives.
"Now, concerning this morning's earthquake, we think it falls under the third category, volcanic earthquakes, although we're not entirely sure about this. The seismic network we have planted in Blackstone National Park didn't give off any warning of rising magma so we're not entirely sure this earthquake even falls under that category. Chances are that it may have been indeed a tectonic quake but as of now we'll be studying this phenomenon as though it actually was volcanic in its origin."
In the hangar, they saw the Faculty's Dean give the floor to Miss Briggs.
"Let me break it down to you, folks. From what I've understood, we don't have exactly a clear idea as to why this earthquake occurred but we do know that it happened within the area of Blackstone National Park. Now we've all heard rumors that a new eruption of Blackstone Volcano should have already occurred…"
"Nonsense!" – Paula interrupted.
"… an idea that is rejected by the scientific community, as we saw. In such short amount of time, all these fine toms and she-kats could do was pinpoint the location of the tremor's epicenter. Let's give them time to study this phenomenon properly before we give in to absurd ideas. Nevertheless, if you *do* feel compelled to leave the city, then I urge you to leave in an orderly fashion via the designated emergency routes, which you can find on the maps of your phone books or in City Hall's netsite on the InterWeb."
"Thank you, Deputy Mayor Briggs. We'll now answer some questions. Yes, please!"
"Dr. Robertson, is Blackstone Volcano gonna blow?"
"Yes, definitely!" – everyone looked back at the scientist with horrified expressions – "Just not today! Understand that volcanoes will always erupt at some point in Feline History, so never ask that question to a volcanologist! Now, regarding Blackstone Volcano, despite the mega-eruptions it has had in the past, the volcano shows absolutely no signs of unrest. I could delve deeper into this matter but it wouldn't avail us anything. The point is: Blackstone is not going to erupt any time soon. But it *will* erupt… someday…"
"What signs would you be looking for, as far as an eruption is related, Dr. Robertson?"
"That would depend greatly on the volcano being monitored. In this case, I'd be searching for microseismic swarms, enhanced gaseous activity, modifications in the slopes' tilt, changes in regional temperature…"
"And none of these signs have been shown by Blackstone Volcano, Dr. Roberston?"
"With the exception of this morning's earthquake, which, I repeat, we're not sure it is related directly to Blackstone Volcano's activity, we've seen no such signs recently."
"Deputy Mayor Briggs, given Dr. Robertson's statements concerning the stability of Blackstone Volcano, do you have any comments on your evacuation order?"
Callie bit her lip, trying to control herself. She knew the media circus inside and out and she wouldn't give in so easily to this little provocateur.
"There is no evacuation of Megakat City. Neither the Mayor nor I have issued such orders. However, if people want to leave, they will obviously be assisted in that process."
"Will the Mayor be staying in Megakat City during this crisis?"
"First of all, this crisis you speak of simply doesn't exist. We've had a nasty earthquake this morning that destroyed a part of our city, so now is the time to rebuild what's been damaged. Second, Mayor Manx and all his staff will remain fully in function. In fact, I'll personally accompany Dr. Robertson and her team to Blackstone National Park in their investigation of this phenomenon."
"When will you go to Blackstone, Dr. Robertson?"
"Thanks to Deputy Mayor Briggs, we'll be able to go in two or three days of time. We'll be setting some more advanced equipment that will enable us to get a picture of what's going on underneath Blackstone Volcano. Maybe after that we'll have some more answers to give you."
"Are there no more questions?" – Dean Paine asked before Chance turned off the giant screen. He looked back at Jake, concern filling his mien.
"Blackstone… It's too much of a coincidence…"
"What's on your mind?"
"A month ago, Anakata Volcano erupted. Now Blackstone Volcano is about to erupt. It can't be just coincidence…"
"Maybe the eruption on Anakata triggered Blackstone."
"I dunno… I can't help thinking something else is behind this… Something… unnatural…"
"It can't be him, you destroyed him!"
"Can a mortal kat really kill a demon?"
"Sorry I'm late, people. There was a lot of traffic because of all the closed streets." – Paula announced as she stormed into the Seismology Lab. She quickly took off her light wool cardigan and donned her white lab coat, buttoning up just the middle button – "Shall we get started?"
"Of course, we were just waiting for you." – David crooned as he headed for the rectangular conference table that stood in the middle of the lab.
The Seismology Lab of Megakat State University was situated, just like the Volcanology Lab, inside the building that housed the Department of Geosciences. However, it was unlike any other in the Department. The differences started with the room's size, easily twice that of any other laboratory. Another difference was the central conference table, capable of comfortably accommodating six persons. The table itself was uncharacteristic except for the central three foot wide circle, which seemed to be made of white plastic. In one of the corners there was a mainframe computer, another asset that was exclusive to MSU's Seismology Lab.
There were already three other kats in the room. Paula recognized immediately Dr. Jessica Fern, who operated the mainframe computer and the specialized software of the lab, and Dr. Scott Harris, Senior Seismologist. But the third kat, she didn't recognize until he finally looked straight at her.
"Ryan? What are you doing here? This is…"
"Calm down, Paula. I invited this young tom to join us. I think it'll be good for him to see what we do as scientists, not just as his teachers."
Paula sighed but, in the end, acquiesced. She cleared her throat.
"Okay, let's get down to business. We've got the epicenter fixed on Blackstone National Park."
"We've got better than that, Paula." – Dr. Scott said – "We've narrowed it down to an area near Blackstone Volcano."
Paula took a sharp intake of air – "And the hypocenter depth?"
"Seven to ten kilometers, as we first predicted." – informed the seismologist.
"This is not looking good, ladies and gentlekats… This is looking more and more like a volcanic earthquake… And I don't like it a single bit…"
"What about the remaining parameters?" – David queried. It was Dr. Jessica that spoke, after consulting her palmtop computer.
"All within the normal variations."
"What about microseismicity?" – Paula questioned.
"Nothing out of the ordinary. There is microseismic activity but there hasn't been an increase neither in frequency or intensity." – was Dr. Scott's reply.
"This doesn't add up… Why only *one* large quake? Why isn't there increased microseismic activity?"
"Maybe it's nothing…"
"Oh, come on, David! Earthquakes don't occur for nothing, you know that as well as I!"
"Then how to explain this?"
"Could it have been a pulse?" – Ryan spoke for the first time in a meek tone. All the eyes in the room suddenly turned to him and he felt like sinking in his chair.
"What do you mean?" – David encouraged the young tom.
"Well, Blackstone is sitting right on top of one of the largest magma chambers in the world. Maybe the tremor was caused by a large pulse of magma rising to fill that chamber."
The scientists exchanged glances between themselves before Dr. Jessica spoke.
"It's an idea we haven't delved into yet."
"That would mean Blackstone is priming up." – Paula said – "Last we've checked, the magma reservoir was almost full. If it really was a pulse that caused this earthquake, it would have to be carrying a huge amount of magma."
"Why don't we check the status of Blackstone's magma chamber?"
"Can you do that from here?" – Ryan asked, curious.
"Sure! We have seismic tomography equipment. It would take a little while to compile the seismographic data, though. Half an hour, perhaps."
"Get to it, Jessica." – Paula ordered – "Is there anything else you've discovered, Scott?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid. Like I said, there's no increase in microseismicity. The best we could do was refining the range of the epicenter." – he hesitated for a moment – "Well, now that you mention it, I did overlap the epicenter's area to the plotted area of Blackstone's magma chamber with the GIS software. I know I made an image file with it… Let me search for it…"
As Dr. Scott got up and headed to one of the computer terminals to search is work area for the elusive file, Paula called David aside.
"What were you thinking, David?" – she bawled in a whisper.
"What? About Ryan? Come on, Paula! The young tom is good and you know it."
"That's not the point!"
"What *is* the point, then?"
"The *point* is that we're talking about delicate stuff here! We're talking about a possible eruption and we *both* know how Blackstone's eruptions are like! He's bound to panic!"
David looked Paula straight in the eye. She really *meant* what she was saying, he realized. He shook his head.
"Paula, I told Ryan about the Mount Rocha expedition."
"And he told me his story."
For the next minutes, Paula listened in silence and awe Ryan's survival story as told by her husband. She gradually understood why Ryan wanted to take this course, why Ryan had convinced David to let him in a private meeting, why Ryan possessed wisdom beyond his age.
"Besides, the kid knows what he's talking about! A magma pulse? Why the hell didn't *we* think of that?" – David finalized just as Dr. Scott let out a triumphant hoot.
"Found it! Please, come take a look, Paula!"
Both Paula and David headed for the computer terminal where Dr. Scott sat at. He stepped aside to show them a map of Blackstone National Park. Ryan also peered at the computer screen but there was little he could see with all three kats standing in front of him. On screen, a large red triangle signaled the location of Blackstone Volcano. Smaller red triangles pinpointed the locations of the smaller fifteen volcanoes of the park. A dotted line delimitated a roughly oval shape that comprised most of the park's area. A dashed red circle pointed to the location of this morning's earthquake epicenter. It was situated directly underneath one of the smaller volcanoes that was close to Blackstone.
"What do you make of it?"
"Well, the fact that the epicenter isn't located directly underneath Blackstone is of little consolation. After all, we're pretty sure that many, if not all these volcanoes must be connected at some level. It's almost a statistical impossibility for such a close array of vents *not* to be sharing at least *one* magma chamber!" – Paula said after letting out a sigh.
David concurred, touching the dashed circle on the computer monitor with his finger – "That's right. And if this little guy here happens to be connected to 'big daddy', then its eruption might trigger Blackstone's. It's not uncommon!"
"Damn, this is still speculative work! I want *answers*!"
"We may have them!" – Dr. Jessica said as she rose from her chair in front of the lab's mainframe – "I'll patch the info through the 3D table."
The 3D table was a small contraption built into the central conference table to where they all converged once more, taking their previous places. The central white circle lit up and, within the radiance emitted from it, ethereal shapes began to appear in midair as the images from the specialized software Dr. Jessica was using loaded up.
Ryan was awestruck! He never imagined MSU would have something that seemed taken from a sci-fi movie! Oh, he definitely wanted to work *here*, all right!
The first image that appeared, floating in midair was a revolving tridimensional representation of Blackstone National Park. The first thing that Ryan noticed was the massive form of Blackstone Caldera, a gigantic, almost circular ring-like shape, albeit low in profile. Surrounding it and dwarfed by the caldera's massive size, were the fifteen smaller volcanoes of the park. In the center of the caldera stood the conical shape they called Blackstone Volcano. As the program continued its fly-by view of Blackstone National Park, Dr. Jessica came closer to the conference table. She slid open a panel on the table, revealing, inside of a small compartment, a keyboard and a trackball. She pressed the return key and the aerial view immediately panned to a cross-sectional one, where the volcanoes were shown as small grayish elevations. Running straight down from each of the volcanoes were thin orange lines. Ryan raised an eyebrow…
"Are those orange vertical lines…"
"Vents, that's right." – Dr. Jessica explained – "They're idealized, though. We know they're not straight vertical lines but for the purposes of this illustration, they simplify the calculations."
Meanwhile, the program had started a descent into the depths of the planet, with the cross-sectional view accompanying this downward motion. The scale on the side of the hologram showed a depth of five kilometers. Ryan watched as each of the vertical orange lines ended up in a relatively small magma chamber, equally idealized as a round blob. The only line that kept descending into the depths was also the thickest and it obviously belonged to Blackstone Volcano.
"I thought you said you didn't know whether the smaller volcanoes were connected to each other or not!" – Ryan intervened – "Here you clearly show they're not!"
"Once again, this is an idealized, simplified view." – Paula pointed out – "There are two reasons that explain why we don't know exactly what's going on down there. The first is that the few seismic tomographies we've done of the smaller volcanoes all came out strange, as if something out there is scrambling the return signal to the geophones. Secondly, we didn't do as many runs as we did for Blackstone Caldera itself. Since grant money is always a problem for us, we have to choose very carefully our priorities and Blackstone is unarguably a priority."
In the meantime, the program had continued its descent. It was now reaching the mark of seven-point-five kilometers and, suddenly, a large orange blob appeared. Of course, Ryan knew the numbers by heart and he, like few, knew just how immense Blackstone's magma chamber was but to actually *see* its vastness was simply awe-inspiring! It completely dwarfed all the other volcanoes' magma chambers *put together*! The program continued its descent and, at a depth of about ten kilometers, it stopped abruptly, leaving only a handful of thin orange lines continue downwards, towards the source of Blackstone's magma. The program then zoomed out in order to reveal the whole ten-kilometer cross-section of that region of the planet's crust, Blackstone's magma chamber resembling a huge orange balloon buried inside a box of gray sand.
"This was the situation prior to this morning's earthquake. Now, I'm going to superimpose the situation as it was analyzed minutes ago."
A fancy-looking loader bar appeared in the center of the hologram, slowly revolving around itself as the software began uploading the latest data it had compiled and converted into a graphic format. Ryan was astonished with the speed of the program. There must be terabytes of information being processed right in front of his eyes! There was a moment of waiting when the loader hit 100% in which everyone held their breath involuntarily, only to release it in a subdued exclamation that mixed surprise with indignation.
The updated image showed that Blackstone's blob had grown! And very much! It now extended to well below the eleven kilometers mark!
The muffled sounds of grunting filled the small space of their gym as Chance performed another one-arm push-up. His face was pointing forward, straining his neck muscles to the point it was painful. Large droplets of sweat fell down from his forehead and nose to the floor as he performed yet another push-up.
The tabby's eyes were dead set in some point in front of him. In his mind, he continued to relive the fight with Shard, now more than a month old. He continued to feel not only the brute force behind the ruffian's fists but also the effectiveness of each blow. The tom knew what he was doing…
Another rep. Another grunt. Another droplet of sweat giving in to gravity.
Of course Shard knew what he was doing! He'd been imprisoned for the better part of his life! How could he have survived both Megakat Max and Alkatraz if he didn't know how to fight? And his body… Holy Kats, his body seemed made of stone, so hard were his muscles! Each of Chance's blows felt like he was hitting a concrete wall.
The tabby blushed. Now he was admiring the body of another tom? Please…
Truth be told, Chance was perfectly capable of punching through a brick wall. But brick walls didn't fight back and that was exactly the issue with Shard. Chance's size had always been imposing. In his adolescence days, he was constantly getting into fights, a brawler more than a real fighter. However, many of those brawls were started by somebody else from his group of buddies. Fortunately, he was good enough and strong enough to finish them all. He was never really defeated but there were some times when the other guy was as strong as he was and the brawl ended up more or less in a draw. Those were the times when he woke up in the ER, stood a week or two recuperating and then he went off to another fight.
Such was Chance Furlong during his teen years.
The fact was that Chance had become quite aware of the power of a strong body. And since there were few guys stronger than him in his neighborhood, he became aware of his own power. In a way, it was a bit narcissistic, that he'd nearly idolize his body, working hard to keep himself in peek physical condition. It was no wonder he'd became a jock when he entered high-school. The best quarterback ever to set foot in his school. A title no one had taken from him yet.
Another rep, another grunt.
Was it any wonder why Chance had been so much affected by his defeat at the hands of Rex Shard? Narcissistic or not, he'd always been the strongest! He'd never been defeated! And now Shard, who was nothing short of a brawler, like the ones he'd turned to a pulp in his adolescence, had defeated him? Just the thought of it was pure nonsense!
The tabby wanted a rematch! Just one opportunity with Shard again! He wanted the 'title' back, even if that 'title' only existed in his head. Egotistic? Conceited? Vain? Maybe.
But he was resolved to do it anyway!
Jake finished his own session of bench-pressing as the tabby did his last push-up. Chance leapt up to his feet as he stretched his arms up. Jake took a good look at his friend. He saw as each of the tabby's muscles rippled under his fur, without an ounce of fat in sight. The tabby was in peek condition. It was unimaginable to think that Chance had been severely punctured in his thigh a little over two months ago and even less conceivable that he'd been beaten by a thug like Shard about a month after that.
"Here" – the slim kat said as he tossed a towel to the brawny tom, which he caught in a graceful move, not wasting one joule more of energy than that strictly necessary to do the deed – "You're looking better by the day, buddy."
"Hey, was that a compliment I heard from you?" – the tabby grinned his trademark smirk as he wiped his forehead – "I thought I'd never see the day…"
"Yeah, well, I'm still better than you, though." – Jake blurted after drinking some water.
"Now, we can't have that, can we?" – Chance said as he threw the towel aside and lay down on the floor, on his back, preparing to do some crunches – "Can you do me a favor, bud?"
"Stand on my gut."
"I wanna do some crunches, so stand on my midsection, please!"
The slim kat wasn't really believing what he was hearing so he just stood there, water bottle in hand and towel hanging around his neck, waiting for Chance to give off his typical smile and call the joke. But he soon realized the tabby wasn't joking. He really *wanted* Jake to do what he asked.
"You're really serious about this, aren't you?" – Jake's voice betrayed his incredulousness. He closed his eyes and shook his head – "Just don't tell me later I didn't warn you."
Jake tried to step onto Chance's midsection as gently as he could but he soon realized he needn't have any fear. The tabby's abs were solid as rock. Soon, Jake's light frame went up and down gently as the tabby raised, paused and then slowly lowered both his upper torso and his legs at the same time. Jake shook his head again.
"You know, buddy, there's something called 'obsession'!"
Chance didn't hear. He was concentrated on not getting eviscerated by his friend's weight! Sweat started to drench his forehead again. Grunts of effort resounded through the small space of their gym once more.
Egotistic? Conceited? Vain? Maybe.
But he was resolved to do it anyway!
Paula stared outside the window, to the sun slowly rising in the eastern skies. Below, fast moving blots of land and vegetation ran by swiftly as the Enforcer chopper stormed above the slowly awaking landscape. She took her eyes from the window and what lay beyond to briefly glance at the she-kat seating across of her. If that she-kat wasn't known throughout the state, practically a celebrity, Paula probably wouldn't guess she was Megakat City's Deputy Mayor the way she was dressed: a pair of jeans, hiking boots and a light yellow t-shirt under a pink sweater. Paula thought one couldn't get more casual than that and, for once, she was glad there was a city-bred she-kat that knew how to dress appropriately for a field trip! Even her abundant golden mane was tightly secured in a ponytail behind her head. The only things that showed her as not belonging there were her pointy-framed green-tinted sunglasses (a precise replica of the glasses the Deputy Mayor wore all the time) and the very slightest hint of make-up, which Paula dispensed absolutely. And the completely out-of-place purse tucked away securely on her lap.
Paula was astonished with the Deputy Mayor and with how quickly she'd gotten things on the move! In just two days of time, she'd arranged for the Enforcers to lend to the expedition two helicopters with their respective pilots and co-pilots in order to carry all the necessary equipment and personnel. If left in the hands of MSU, Paula knew she'd have to wait at least a couple of months, at best, in order to have everything moving. Damn bureaucrats! Science doesn't wait! She sighed mentally, trying to relieve the anger that had suddenly built up inside her. Science, like everything else, waits if it must and she knew it perfectly.
Still, it was unquestionable that the Deputy Mayor knew what she was doing. However, thanks to the promptness of the Deputy Mayor, she'd barely had time to put a working crew together. What she was taking to the field was no more than a skeleton crew, mustered at the last minute from the personnel available in the Department of Geosciences: herself, David and their three Master students. Well, and Ryan, too. David had insisted on bringing along the young tom, despite Paula's protests.
Truth be told, after seeing the current state of Blackstone's magma chamber the other night, her resolve not to involve the youngster in the expedition only became more adamant. But her husband *always* knew how to polish that rough diamond that was her wife. So much so that she'd allowed Ryan to tag along so long as he'd keep to himself and didn't get in the way. Deep down in her heart, she knew this would be a good experience for the young kat.
Still, what she saw in the 3D table the other night scared her almost out of her wits. So much magma had accumulated in such a short period of time! The simulations they'd ran after the initial shock had passed had confirmed her fears: the amount of molten rock now filling the magma chamber was similar to the one they calculated had existed three million years ago, when Blackstone last erupted catastrophically, a typical VEI-8 eruption. She closed her eyes.
"The Blackstone Event all over again." – she mumbled, inaudible under the roar of the chopper's rotors. The radio crackled.
"Approaching target area, now. ETA in five minutes. We have confirmation on clear skies and ground."
Paula looked outside the window intently, hoping to see the dark triangular shape of Blackstone Volcano appear against the eastern sky, which happened almost immediately. The dark conical shape seemed gloomier than ever against the eerie glow from the rising sun behind it. She looked down to the ground and saw only a barren place. Were it not for a small visitor's lodge somewhat apart from the cone and it could almost be mistaken for a lunar landscape. Indeed, other than weeds there was almost nothing growing there. And there wasn't a kat in sight as far as the eye could see. Yet another stunt the Deputy Mayor had managed to pull! The park would have no visitors for as long as the expedition lasted. Just how much power did that she-kat have?
"It imposes quite a bit of respect, doesn't it?" – Callie asked, pointing at the mountain.
"With all due respect, Deputy Mayor, the sheer size of the caldera and the massiveness of its magma chamber impose a far greater deal of respect than this cinder cone, in my opinion."
"This 3000-foot high cone was the result of a smaller eruption that occurred about a hundred thousand years ago. A volcanic hiccup, if you will." – David intervened as he showed the Deputy Mayor a map of the area – "Although larger than any of its fifteen brethren, it's nothing compared to the stratovolcano that was here three million years ago." – a black-furred finger roughly traced the outline of the caldera in the map, hinting at the area occupied by the base of that ancient volcanic cone – "Judging by the size of the caldera and the type of lava erupted, we estimated that cone would have risen at least 20 000 feet above the ground, making it one of the largest elevations on this planet at the time."
Callie let out an appreciative whistle.
"Yeah!" – David concurred as he folded back the map and returned it to his backpack – "It must have been a daunting sight when it exploded…"
"Exactly what kind of damage are we to expect if this thing goes off?" – Callie asked. She saw Paula and David looking at each other with a frightened look, their ears drooping – "That bad, huh?"
"What happened, Chance? Did you fall off your bed or something?" – the slim kat taunted his burly partner before he let out a yawn, showing off series of razor-sharp teeth.
"Yeah, well, I really couldn't sleep anymore."
Chance gulped down the rest of the coffee in his mug – "I don't know! I just felt… restless, that's all."
Jake finished pouring some milk into a cup before he looked back at his friend. He saw his eyes were distant and his ears were sagging. From where he stood, he couldn't see Chance's tail but he knew its tip would be twitching. He sat down in front of the burly kat.
"You're thinking of *her*, aren't you?" – Jake's voice was soft as a breeze but, again, such an insight on the brawny tom's intimacy made Chance feel as though he was naked in front of Jake. He stared into the orange kat's eyes for a moment before looking down on his mug and nodding an affirmative.
"I dreamed about her…" – the tabby's voice was shaky – "I dreamed Katanya and I had married and we had a son…" – Chance looked straight at Jake – "I was playing with my son, Jake! We were in the park, playing catch. She was under a tree, sitting over a picnic blanket, getting stuff out of a large straw basket. She called us and we ran there. We lunged and landed just short of the blanket. I gave him a mock arm lock… We we're both laughing like fools…"
Chance's voice failed. He looked down to his mug again. Jake got up and rounded the table, putting an arm over the tabby's shoulders.
"It was just a dream, buddy…"
Chance gave out a harsh short sniff – "You know what, Jake? I think *that's* what hurts most! That it was just a dream…"
Jake could see a tear beginning to form in the tabby's eye but it stubbornly refused to obey gravity. Moments later, Chance wiped his face with his sleeve and got up.
"How about we hit the Reflex Room?"
"So, what are you doing here, exactly?" – Callie asked the reddish brown-furred youngster. Ryan put down the crate he was carrying and wiped his hands on his khaki-covered buttocks before answering.
"Well, most of the equipment we brought consists of seismometers…"
"I thought you already had that here!"
"We have an old network of seismometers, yes. It's enough to enable us to know what's happening down there. But it's somewhat ancient equipment. This new equipment will enable to get a better picture of what's really going on. Think of it as a signal booster for your old TV antenna. The signal booster will enable you to clear the 'rain' and get a better picture on your TV set. This should work much in the same way!"
Callie nodded, getting the idea – "What about the rest of the equipment?"
Ryan shrugged – "Well, there's really not much left. We've brought some GPS-assisted altimeters and tiltmeters as well as some gas sampling equipment, in case we happen to find a vent. As I said, the better part of what we'll be doing here will be related to monitoring the microseismicity of Blackstone and try to determine whether or not 'big daddy' is priming up."
"And if you come to the conclusion that it is?"
"If we come to that conclusion, there are two possible outcomes: either Blackstone erupts or it doesn't!"
"What do you mean?" – Callie asked, truly lost.
"In Volcanology, like in Seismology, we can only speak in terms of probabilities, odds. So far, that's the best we can do! For instance, we could determine with ninety percent certainty that Blackstone was going to erupt tomorrow. Now, that shows we're pretty confident that tomorrow this volcano is going to erupt but we're still not a hundred percent sure! There's still a ten-percent chance that it *won't* go off tomorrow and, while a minor probability, it still has a chance to occur! You follow me?" – Callie nodded – "Now, we seldom make a ninety-percent prediction. It usually is more like a fifty-fifty or a sixty-forty prediction, seventy-thirty at best! So, the bottom-line is, even with all the technology we have available to us, we still can't make a prediction that's a hundred percent sure!" – Callie slowly nodded an affirmative.
"Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Blackstone *does* erupt tomorrow. What were we to expect?"
Ryan shrugged again – "Depending on the percentage of silica present in the magma we could have several different scenarios. We know that there is a large rhyolite lopolith underneath most of the caldera so, even if the magma has a low percentage of silica…"
"Wait, you just lost me!"
"Huh? Oh, I'm sorry! Too much geo-slang, wasn't it? Well, the bottom-line is this: the higher the percentage of silica in the magma, the higher its explosivity index. Now, despite most of the park being comprised of basalt, which has a low silica content, Blackstone has ever been known to expel very siliceous lava, hence to have very explosive eruptions, at least in the beginning."
"Isn't that a contradiction? How can a volcano expel lava with both high and low silica content?"
"It's kinda complicated but it's really not impossible at all! But that's a little beside the point. You asked me what were we to expect if Blackstone erupted. Well, since it *always* started its eruptions with a bang, I'd say we could expect a huge explosion, ash plumes stretching into the stratosphere, severe ash fall throughout the state and even the country, pyroclastic flows that would incinerate anything organic instantly… Basically, all hell set loose!"
"What would become of us, here?"
"We'd be instantly wiped out!"
"Hey, Ryan! We need those cables *pronto*!" – someone called. Ryan excused himself, picked up the crate he was carrying before and left. Callie turned around, frightened, and stared straight to the mountain looming over her, taking off her sunglasses.
"What the hell am I doing here?"
Hours later, after all the equipment had been assembled and set and all the connections checked and tested, Paula gave the order to begin collecting data. As soon as the equipment started to work, sound waves radiated from the emitters in all directions and very soon echoes started to return to the geophones. The process was much similar to that of a sonar or echo-sounding but in subterranean conditions. Minutes later, the computers had processed the raw data and began showing the first images.
"Good, good! Everything's working fine! Maybe now we'll have some answers." – Paula turned to one of her Master students – "Keep everything in reconnoitering mode for a couple more hours until we get a broad draft picture of the conditions underneath the pipe. Then switch to the narrow-beam sweep."
"Yes, Dr. Robertson!"
She looked outside the window of the visitors' lodge where she and her crew had installed all the computer power. In the harsh midday sun, Blackstone seemed blacker than ever. She narrowed her eyes and looked down, mentally following the hidden main vent until it connected, seven kilometers down, to the top of the magma chamber.
"Let's see what you *really* got there in store for us…"
The sun had begun its downward curve in the sky when, far below the surface, the crystalline whiskers of a dark green crystalline form who was sitting inside a hexagonal pool of bubbling lava began twitching almost imperceptibly, as if picking up something that shouldn't be there. A sneer of annoyance appeared in those crystalline lips, revealing the creature's razor sharp crystalline fangs. The form suddenly opened its crystalline eyelids and two triangular-shaped hollows tinged in a bright yellow luminescence stared into the distance.
"Intruders." – the creature said in a low rumbling voice before its sneer turned into a mischievous grin – "Good!"
"These are intriguing images, Dr. Roberston! Don't you think?"
"Yes. They show the rock underneath the volcano is somewhat fragmented…" – she said, stroking her chin – "It's possible that we're looking at the epicenter of last day's earthquake."
Paula and two of her students were closely watching the computer monitor inside the visitors' lodge, completely engrossed with the stream of data they were gathering. The third Master student was in the other computer, gathering data from the tiltmeters. In the lounge area of the visitors' lodge, away from where the scientists were, the four Enforcers who had flown them there that morning were entertained around an animated snooker game, enjoying what seemed to be the easiest mission Commander Feral had given them in a long time. David, Ryan and Miss Briggs were outside, contemplating the conical format of Blackstone Volcano's cinder cone.
"So, what do you think about field work so far, Ryan?"
The youngster sighed – "It's… physically demanding."
The black-furred tom let out a short laugh – "That's one way to put things. Personally, I love it but I also like being indoors, behind a petrography microscope, observing a thin section."
"I have to say, David, I really dislike staring through a microscope for hours on end. That's what threw me off Biology…"
"Yes, it can become a fastidious task. Nevertheless, you really have to brush up your Igneous Petrology if you want to pass that exam! You'll need this cathedra in order to major in Volcanology."
Ryan sighed – "I know… But this…" – Ryan made a wide arc with his arm, encompassing all the area around them – "This is what I really like, to be out collecting raw data and then analyze it, think it over and come to a conclusion…"
"Or not… It's not often that you can come to conclusions from the data you gathered from field work. Sometimes you can't even make heads or tails from the data you've acquired! The natural world has a way of messing with our neatly prearranged models that more often than not forces us to revise everything we thought was solid work… Of course, it would be tedious otherwise!" – David concluded with a broad grin that was reciprocated by the young reddish brown-furred tom.
Callie shook her head – "Why you scientists always like to take the harder road is something that'll always escape me…"
David and Ryan laughed at that remark and soon enough even the Deputy Mayor was giggling. Ahead of them, Blackstone's cinder cone was bathed in the bright golden light of the afternoon sun. They watched it in silence, contemplating the three thousand foot high mountain. There was complete silence in the air. Not even an insect was letting out a sound. The idyllic feeling slowly started to abandon David and he grew more concerned by the moment.
It was just *too* quiet!
He'd heard this very same sepulchral quietness on several other occasions and it always had been a premonition of…
Suddenly he heard Paula screaming his name from inside the visitors' lodge. They were about to turn tail and go inside when she ran out the door and towards them. Before anything else had happened, they felt the earth shaking softly beneath their feet and a rumbling sound filled the previous quietness.
He knew it! It was just *too* damn quiet!
"Holy Kats! What's going on?" – Callie asked, her eyes almost glazed with fear.
David forced himself to calm down and think rationally. The tremor wasn't that severe. If anything, it was barely perceptible. But there it was, nonetheless. Relentless, unyielding, persistent. It didn't conform to anything he'd felt before in his life.
Paula stopped midway the group of three kats and the lodge. She had seen the seismogram increase in intensity and had been alarmed by that. Usually earthquakes happening at a volcanic location aren't good signs. She thought the volcano could be clearing its throat, getting itself ready to blow. But then, the earthquake remained exactly the same during this whole time! It didn't make sense! It would have either to increase its intensity or decrease it, not keep it at a steady level! She looked at David, calm and collected while Ryan tried to calm down the Deputy Mayor. She felt a sting of surprise! It seemed Ryan had come to the same conclusion they had: something wasn't right!
"This isn't normal, Paula!"
"It should've erupted by now!" – Ryan said, forgetting for a second that he should try to calm down Callie, not scare her.
Five minutes had passed and the earthquake had remained steadily. Now her three students were rushing towards her with the four Enforcers in tow. No single earthquake had ever occurred for so long! It was impossible! What was happening was impossible! But then, something even more impossible happened.
The low rumbling sound was suddenly replaced by a large crashing noise that came from the visitors' lodge. When they all turned to see what was happening, they saw a giant green spike protruding violently from the roof, followed suit by several other identical green spikes that tore down the wooden lodge.
"What the heck is that?"
"They look like… crystals!" – David said, not really believing his eyes.
"That's impossible! Crystals don't grow that fast!"
Unexpectedly, the next sound they heard was coming from one of the Enforcers. The poor tom screamed as he was skewered by another razor-sharp crystal, spattering blood in every direction. As the crystal dug deeper into the tom's body and lifted him off the ground, his screams became more and more desperate until, with a liquid squelching sound, they stopped altogether.
Paula buried her face in her husband's chest, horrified with what she just saw. David embraced her as he watched the skewered Enforcer's red blood streaming down the green crystal facets. Ryan was also dumbfounded as he stared at the fresh corpse. Callie averted her eyes and covered her mouth with her hand as the other quickly searched the interior of her purse for a triangular item. When she pushed the button in the center, she had no doubt about who was responsible for such atrocity. One question remained unanswered, though: how did Rex Shard manage to turn into the crystal colossus again?
Going into the Reflex Room was always a big challenge, not only because you never really knew what the room would throw at you but also because you never knew how long a Reflex Room mission would take. Sometimes, it would be over in less than an hour. Other times, like this one, for instance, it took almost a whole day, testing their endurance under some of the severest combat conditions. Of course, the difficulty of the tasks to be done would vary in the inverse proportion of the time given to accomplish them. That didn't mean there weren't any difficult tasks in a day-long mission.
Right now, T-Bone and Razor were racing through that narrow corridor they already knew so well. Their glovatrixes' shields were already deployed and they raced as if their lives depended on that. Well, actually they did… Razor jumped over a stretched rope that suddenly had appeared in their path, his burly partner following suit. Not two steps after that, a pair of flamethrowers jutted out the walls and discharged a crossed torrent of flames. Razor rolled beneath them but T-Bone had to stop and wait until the flames were no more in order to cross that segment of the corridor.
"Is he gonna beat me again?" – his heart raced with the thought, as well as the effort from the day-long session.
Just ahead of them, a metal door began its descent. Razor had to throw himself through the air in order to reach the other side before it closed down with a clang. Razor's voice came through their com-link.
"Looks like I win again, buddy! You got yourself enclosed!"
T-Bone continued to run and aimed his glovatrix at the door – "Not if I have anything to say about it! You better step away from the door!""
He fired three Mini-Megatons. Razor had come up with the small missiles after having seen their evil counterparts firing them in that other screwy alternate dimension and they were as effective as the ones their evil counterparts used. The door blew open and from the flames appeared T-Bone, his fur singed in some places but otherwise unhurt.
Razor had moved away from the door and lunged to the ground just before it was torn open. Pieces of searing shrapnel flew over him and he counted himself lucky none had met his flesh. When he opened his eyes, he saw the burly tom pass him by in a flash before he too got up to his feet and ran after him.
"Are you nuts? You could've killed yourself! And me, for that matter!"
"You're just a sore loser!"
In front of them the corridor suddenly ended in another closing metallic door. This time they both managed to reach it just in the nick of time. The room that lay ahead of them was one both of them knew well… and dreaded…
"The maze…" – T-Bone groaned – "Swell…"
"Hang loose. The glovatrix will tell us the right way."
As Razor's glovatrix whirred, trying to assess the correct way to circumvent the five-inch thick concrete walls that comprised the maze, T-Bone's glovatrix emitted a frantic signal. Both toms looked at each other.
"Callie's in trouble! We gotta get out of here!"
"We have to finish this room first! Only then can we terminate the program! There, I know where the exit is!"
"Twenty yards straight ahead! Now, if we take the next right turn and then a left…"
"I don't have time for this crud! STEP ASIDE!"
T-Bone took a few steps back and then ran towards the concrete wall, roaring as he went. Razor wanted to ask the tabby just what the hell did he think he was doing when he saw his partner smashing into the concrete wall… And going through it like it was made of paper! Like a halfback running against his opponents, the tabby tackled every concrete wall the maze threw at him, smashing them to smithereens with his fists or his shoulders.
Razor was dumbfounded! T-Bone was like a panzer, smashing everything to bits and leaving behind a clear safe path for him to go through. By the time Razor had reached the other side, T-Bone had already accessed his glovatrix and terminated the program. A set of twin doors opened and they exited the Reflex Room.
As the slim SWAT Kat immediately went for the equipment beneath the giant screen, trying to pinpoint the origin of Callie's signal, the tabby collapsed on his knees. He took off his gloves and saw his knuckles dyed in red. His shoulders hurt like hell too. But that would have to wait! Callie was in trouble! He quickly pulled himself together, put his gloves and glovatrix back on and joined his slim partner.
"What's the deal?"
"It's a signal from her transmitter. Digital beacon only. Wherever she is, she's not alone. Hello! That's odd…"
"Her signal's faint! It's as if something's blocking her, at least partially! There! I've locked on her coordinates. Let's see…"
Razor looked up at the giant screen. Topographic maps of Megakat State cascaded down the screen until a red blipping dot appeared in one of them.
"Whoa! She's all the way up in Blackstone National Park! I'm also picking up some strong electromagnetic interference coming from there. Maybe that's what's blocking her signal. Wait…" – Razor looked back at the tabby – "You don't think…"
"Let's go! LET'S GO!"
Not five minutes later, they were already airborne and leaving the underground hangar but T-Bone was still alarmed.
"Even with all three engines we're still gonna take too long to get there!"
"Then let's add *four* more engines to the equation! Go to Speed of Heat!"
T-Bone quickly maneuvered the Turbokat up and, as soon as the jet entered the stratosphere, at the touch of a button, metallic shields unfolded over the canopy of the slick jet fighter as its wings turned back against the jet's frame, giving it a more triangular shape. Finally, four auxiliary thrusters slid from the rear of the jet, two on top and two at the bottom. As the seven thrusters roared to life, the jet hurtled forward at an astonishing speed. They wouldn't take more than fifteen minutes to go from Megakat City's Salvage Yard to Blackstone National Park at that speed but T-Bone still feared they couldn't reach the Deputy Mayor in time. Secretly, Razor prayed that they could.
T-Bone and Razor's fears had cause to be. The attack on the straggled kats had but intensified. Callie, Ryan, David and Paula ran towards the choppers, following the remaining three Enforcers and her three students. Several green spikes protruded from the ground, seemingly in a random fashion, Paula noticed. They didn't seem to be following them. However, random hits sooner or later would eventually hit a target and standing still seemed too much to Paula like being sitting ducks ready to get hit.
"There doesn't seem to be any pattern subjacent to these attacks!" – Callie informed, having come to the same conclusion by herself.
"Still, I think we've somehow overstayed our welcome!" – David blurted.
Only twenty yards separated them from the Enforcer choppers when it happened. A large crystalline spear protruded from the ground directly underneath one of the helicopters, javelining it through its fuel tank. Some odd spark must have then flared because the next second, the flying machine was engulfed in a fireball. Everybody except the Enforcers stopped dead in their tracks. The Enforcers veered sharply towards the other chopper, just like a school of fish evading some unseen predator. Two of them actually reached the machine but for the third it had been too late. Callie and the others saw as two more bodies were lifted up in as many bloodied crystalline green spears, that of the Enforcer and one of Paula's students.
"This is Blackstone Mission Leader to Enforcer Headquarters, Blackstone Mission Leader to Enforcer Headquarters. We're taking severe damage. We've got casualties, civilian and military. Request backup immediately. I repeat…"
But he never got to repeat the message. The first thing he noticed was the jolting impact that hit the chopper on its side, making it tilt wildly. Suddenly, the two Enforcers that had gotten in saw the world upside down before they forcefully crashed on the overturned roof panels. Muffled exclamations of pain had barely been uttered when yet another jolt rocked the frame of the helicopter. They felt pinned down as the chopper began to lift up. Before any of them could even make heads or tails of what was happening, their bodies exploded in a gory reddened mass.
Callie had watched in horror the destruction of the other helicopter. She saw as first one crystalline spear had grazed the machine, making it roll over its side. The next one, however, hit the chopper dead center, raising it up with it a good dozen feet in the air. What happened next, Callie couldn't fully understand. She could only describe it as though a crystal cotton ball had puffed out. In fact, thin needle-like crystals projected outwards from every direction from within the destroyed chopper. It could almost be admired as some beautiful post-modern crystal sculpture, weren't it the fact that a thick red liquid had started to ooze from the destroyed chopper and down the crystal stalk. When Callie's brain finally realized what had just happened, she turned away from the gory scene, trying to stifle a sudden and strong urge to heave. Still, in her dazed state of mind, she searched inside her purse with her free hand and once again pushed the center button on the triangular communicator. If that wouldn't qualify as a SWAT Kat emergency then she just didn't know what would… And, just as she retrieved her hand from her purse and started looking around surreptitiously, confirming no one had seen her calling her heroes, she heard a booming sound coming from above. She looked up, unsure of what had caused that noise. She noticed everyone around her was also looking up trying to see what had caused that boom. Then she heard Ryan shouting as he pointed up.
"Look! It's the SWAT Kats!"
Paula squinted, trying to see something. High, very high above them, a small black dot began growing up in size. Yes, it was definitely the Turbokat, she thought, smiling. But her smile was short-lived. Upon hearing her name being shouted, Paula looked down towards their students, who were running back to them. They too had heard the sonic boom and the approaching Turbokat and, with all the Enforcers dead, they didn't want to be all by themselves. They were just about five yards away from them when the ever-present tremor – Holy Kats, the tremor! It had lasted all that time, so long Paula didn't even notice it anymore – intensified a hundredfold. They all fell down to their knees or on their tails as the earth shook like a wild horse.
With a horrifying ripping sound the likes of which Paula had never heard before, the ground opened up in a deep fracture. She watched as her students tried to regain their footing, one of them actually succeeding. The other unlucky tom had simply fallen into the chasm that had formed. Paula got up and ran towards her only surviving Master student. The gap was spreading across the landscape, towards them, at an astonishing speed. Paula saw has her student lost his foothold and started to fall into the gaping crevice. Her throat shouted, her lips moved but she was unsure whether or not her student heard her. Yet, her outstretched arm spoke louder than any words she could utter. She lunged at him, beseeching him to grab her hand.
He did. And Paula stopped and pulled. Her student was about to fall, one foot dangling over the abyss, the other stubbornly refusing to leave the rocky edge of the gap. She saw his face loosening up, reassured that his teacher wouldn't let him fall. Paula knew she was beginning to smile too, the way she felt her facial muscles shift. Everything was going to be okay, she was sure of it.
So it was with surprise that she saw the greenish crystal horn jutting out from the middle of her student's forehead. She was about to ask him where had he gotten such a stupid piercing when she felt – and saw – her student being lifted up, escaping her grip. It took her several seconds to actually understand that her student's skull had been savagely pierced by one of those crystal spears. As the young tom was lifted away from her reach, a rain of blood dripped over her face.
It took both David and Ryan to get her away from the precipice. Paula was bordering hysteria, shouting her student's name over and over. It was only five minutes later, the time it took the SWAT Kats to land and come running towards the frightened kats, that a small measure of lucidity had entered Paula's brain. Enough to rapidly begin the process of regaining her composure.
"We came as soon as we could, Miss Briggs." – Razor said in a low tone as he made sure the Deputy Mayor was okay – "I'm sorry we took so long…"
"It's okay, Razor. It's not your fault. Blackstone is far away from Megakat City. I'm even surprised my communicator's signal reached that far." – she reassured the slim kat, touching his arm softly. The slim SWAT Kat shook his head.
"The signal was strong enough, don't worry. But, yes, we were far away… Are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm fine. Just a little frightened, that's all."
Razor boldly took her hand in his. His heart raced. Hers too but he'd never know.
"If anything had happened to you I'd never forgive myself!"
Then, as suddenly as it came, his boldness disappeared. His cheeks turned red under his fur and he quickly let go of her hand, turning and walking away towards T-Bone and the other kats. Callie watched as he walked away from her.
"I'm telling you, they just grew out from the ground! WHOOSH!" – Ryan mimicked the crystal's action of growing up with his arms – "But I've never seen any crystal grow this fast! What about you, doctors?"
"It's impossible! Simply put it's just not possible that a crystal would grow up like that!" – Paula stated.
"And yet they did… I have to say I've never seen anything like it before… and I've seen a lot of weird stuff in my time…"
T-Bone patted one of the green giant spear-like crystals before he and Razor exchanged glances. The tremor had now come to a full stop. No more crystalline projections appeared. Everything was calm. Even some birds had started to sing in the meantime!
"Razor and I are certain that we've encountered crystals like this in one of our missions. It was a few years ago."
"So you know what caused this?" – Paula queried, somewhat disbelieving the tabby's words. How could a couple of vigilantes know something she didn't? Then again, she reasoned, she didn't really know who they were! It was possible that they had been military scientists…
"It's not a matter of 'what', doctors, but 'who'!"
Ryan felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Of course! It could only have been *him*! How could he have missed it?
"You're implying that a *kat* did this?" – Paula gave out a short laugh – "C'mon! And Selene is made of cheese, right?"
"Rex Shard could be behind this. He's escaped from Alkatraz about a month ago, which is more than enough time to find someone that could help him turn back into his crystal form."
Paula and David exchanged glances. They've heard about the crystal colossus raid on Megakat Springs a few years back. David almost kicked himself in the rear for not being able to collect a sample to study, unlike what passed with Volcanus.
"Then this is not natural! All our models, all our calculations are useless! Our knowledge is useless here!"
"I wouldn't discard your role in this just yet! The crystal colossus was created by science!" – Razor explained – "Dr. Greenbox's gadget turned Shard into some sort of living mineral, giving him the ability to rearrange matter into different minerals. We must assume he somehow found a way to return to this strange crystalline state."
"We've defeated him before! We can do it again!" – T-Bone stated as he punched his left palm.
"How will you find him?" – Ryan asked, nervous. He wanted to see Shard again, to talk to him. The tom that saved his little cousin about two weeks ago didn't seem capable of such atrocity! And, if he actually did this…
The thought was there, unwelcome but seared into his mind nonetheless.
If Shard actually did this, could he be responsible for the other day's earthquake? And if he was indeed responsible for the earthquake…
Ryan didn't want to go down that lane of thought. It led to an end much too horrifying to even be contemplated!
"I remember the Turbokat's compasses experienced a severe electromagnetic interference. Whatever the reason, Shard's crystalline form emits electromagnetic radiation that we can pick up with the Turbokat's sensors."
Razor pulled up the upper side of his glovatrix, revealing a keyboard. After punching a few keys, the Turbokat's control panel lit up with activity. The slim SWAT Kat closed the glove-like apparatus and looked into the triangular display that had appeared in the meantime. T-Bone did the same. Moments later, a map of the surrounding area appeared, bathed in several tints of electronic green.
"We're picking up high levels of electromagnetic radiation from within the volcano." – Razor stated as he turned to look at Paula and David – "Could it be in any way related to something natural going on inside the volcano?"
"Sometimes we can get some readings just before an eruption but not all eruptions show electromagnetic interference."
"In other words, we don't know for sure."
"Let's use the X-Ray Beam, buddy!"
T-Bone ran towards the jet fighter and hopped aboard, turning on the VTOL engines. Slowly, the Turbokat rose up in the air. They saw the jet turning around as a spherical contraption protruded from underneath the jet.
"X-Ray Beam?" – Paula queried. David was also looking at Razor, silently asking the same question.
"Well, it's not exactly an X-ray beam per se…"
"Then what is it?"
"I can't tell… It's classified…" – the slim SWAT Kat turned to the jet – "Talk to me, buddy!"
Well, that was embarrassing… No one had ever asked how that round contraption did what it did but Razor knew that emitting X-rays wasn't all it did. What they called 'X-Ray Beam' was actually something Razor had salvaged from a failed prototype reconnaissance drone, from Pumadyne. Razor simply didn't know what kind of technology could allow them to see through rock and concrete as well as it was made of glass and he'd been hardly willing to tear down the device in order to find out!
"I'm transferring the images I'm receiving to your glovatrix. It looks like there's some sort of tunnel spiraling down the volcano… Oh!"
"What the… Make a few passes over the volcano, bud!"
Moments later, Razor released an exclamation. Paula and David ran over to the SWAT Kat. Ryan stayed behind, sunk in his thoughts. Paula, David and Razor stared at the triangular screen of the glovatrix. It showed a hexagonal shape, deep underneath the volcano.
"What is it?"
"A hollow space… A hexagonal hollow space… Doctors?"
"Basalt forms hexagonal columns when it cools down. It's called a 'pipe organ' or columnar hexagonal joints. It's common in several types of extrusive igneous rocks, like basalt or rhyolite. But I've never seen a hollow made in that shape!"
"So it's kat-made… Buddy, can you point us a way in?"
"Sure thing! There, on the east side. Looks like the entrance to that winding tunnel we saw before."
"I'll meet you there! Razor out!" – he turned to the other kats – "You stay here, all of you! Is that understood?"
And with that, Razor activated the jetpack and left. Just as soon as the SWAT Kat disappeared from sight, Ryan and Callie ran after Razor. Paula and David exchanged glances and shrugged before following the twosome.
"Ready." – T-Bone said as he primed his glovatrix.
The tunnel that opened before them was only large enough for a single well built tom to pass through at a time. Razor took the lead, the tabby following the slim form of his friend close behind. After a couple of yards, Razor turned on his helmet's light. The tunnel continued onward, always dark and never varying its size. The brawny SWAT Kat passed a gloved hand over the smooth walls of the tunnel. He stopped to shine his helmet's light on a particularly smooth place.
"This isn't right, buddy…"
"This rock is obsidian! It forms when lava cools down very rapidly! It looks like this tunnel was melted instead of carved in!"
"I've noticed! It's way too smooth for any digging machine I know of…"
"This rock is basalt! It takes way more than two thousand degrees Fahrenheit to melt through basalt!"
"So, what's your point?" – Razor asked as he resumed his descent. T-Bone followed a moment later.
"My point is I don't remember Shard being able to melt rock!"
"What about his laser trick?" – Razor asked as he waved his hand in a similar way Shard had when he'd attacked the Turbokat and the Kat's Eye News helicopter, years before.
"There are no sun rays here to focus into a laser!"
"Are you saying he found some new tricks?"
"I don't know… Maybe…"
Razor stopped and turned around to look at the tabby.
"You're not afraid of Shard, are you?"
"Of course not! I just think this may have been done by someone else…"
"You know who!"
Razor stared into his partner's eyes for a moment. The mask changed some things in their facial physiognomy, altering them just enough so they'd avoid being recognized. But Razor knew those eyes inside and out and what he saw there, the tremor, the flicker he saw in them wasn't that of fear but it came very close. It was concern! Razor closed his eyes, breaking contact and looked down.
The tabby said nothing.
"Volcanus is destroyed! *We* destroyed him!"
"I don't need to be convinced, buddy…"
They continued their descent in utter silence. The darkness around them was almost stifling. The air, instead of getting moister and colder was getting progressively dryer and warmer. Razor peered into the glovatrix screen. They were several hundred feet below sea level and they continued to descend. Suddenly, the triangular screen showed a large hollow space. They were approaching the end of the tunnel. Effectively, Razor started to discern a somewhat red glow tinting the dark obsidian walls of the tunnel. He turned off his helmet's light, almost in sync with the tabby. Cautiously, they approached the mouth of the tunnel. They peered inside, their faces bathed in the red glow from the lava in the hexagonal pit. Silently they reconnoitered the six-sided room and immediately, their eyes set upon the large green crystalline form turned towards some sort of altar, facing away from them.
Razor looked at T-Bone, as if to say 'I told you so'. They retreated to conference in a low tone.
"It's Shard, alright. You were right all along, buddy."
"Here's the plan! We jump in and nail him with a Spider-Chain Missile from the jetpack. As soon as he's out cold, we use a Banshee Missile to crack him open."
T-Bone acknowledged and readied himself for the jump.
The entrance of the tunnel was so small they nearly missed it. The only true giveaway was the fact the SWAT Kats' jet was standing a few yards away.
"It's over here! Look!" – Ryan called everyone – "This rock was molten!"
"That's…" – everybody looked back at Paula with disapproving stares – "Okay! It's not impossible!"
"So, are we going in?"
"I don't think that's a good idea! In the end, what could the four of us do? We'd probably just get in the way…"
Ryan acquiesced silently. David was right. After all none of them was anything similar to a hero. Well, David might hold his own in a fight, considering the black-furred tom's build, but him, Paula and the Deputy Mayor? No, the SWAT Kats were the experts, now, not them! His mind was then drawn to other matters. He turned his back on the remaining three kats and stared into the gaping dark maw that opened before him. Deep down there, at the end of that tunnel, was Rex Shard.
Or was he? Ryan still couldn't believe the gray-furred husky tom could be behind all this. Shard had warned him he was planning something big. But Ryan's wildest nightmares couldn't even conceive of the horror that was being prepared thousands of feet under his snickers.
The young reddish brown-furred tom leaned on one arm at the edge of the tunnel entrance, lowering his head to his chest and closing his eyes. He'd always been a good judge of character. Could Shard have eluded his clarity of judgment? Could he be such a fiend that even saving his cousin's life had been nothing but a clever deception? If so, to what purpose?
No! Shard wouldn't do a thing like that! Maybe he thought the eruption would be smaller, maybe he wanted to cause just a small pyroclastic flow or something like that! But it still didn't make sense! There were smaller volcanoes nearer Megakat City that he could have used to cause devastation to the city. Why Blackstone? Why one of the largest megavolcanoes in the world? Why would he want to destroy the better part of the northern hemisphere, possibly the whole planet? Surely his grievance wasn't that great!
"Something's wrong… Shard asked me to leave the state but the amount of magma amassed down there is enough to wipe out life in more than just Megakat State… Something's amiss…"
"I don't know what the SWAT Kats will be able to do anyway! All our equipment was destroyed but nothing changes the matter that there's surely enough pressure down there to cause another Blackstone Event!" – Ryan heard Paula comment.
"Pressure!" – Ryan muttered and something snapped in his mind – "THAT'S IT!"
Ryan turned around from the tunnel's entrance and jumped over a dried bush to rejoin his companions. His eyes were wide open and one could feel the excitement radiating from the young tom. Ryan had a plan! He didn't know whether Shard was behind all this or not but there was something they could do to prevent disaster from happening.
"What are you talking about, Ryan?"
"Pressure! Volcanic eruptions occur due to too much pressure in the system, right? If we were to somehow release some of that pressure, we could contain the eruption!"
"Or hasten its occurrence!" – Paula interjected, after what she paused for a moment – "But, if we can release some pressure before it reached critical point, the resulting eruption wouldn't be as devastating… We've got a chance!"
"What chance are you talking about?" – Callie intervened, furious – "You're talking about choosing to let it blow up or to blow it up! What kind of choice is that?"
"VEI, Deputy Mayor!"
"IRS! BEA! See? I can do that too!"
"VEI stands for Volcanic Explosivity Index. It's a scale used to gauge the size of a volcanic eruption based on several measurable characteristics, such as the volume of ash produced, the height of the volcanic plume and the time the eruption lasts." – David explained – "It's much like the Richter scale of magnitudes for earthquakes, in which a variation by one degree in the magnitude of an earthquake actually represents a tenfold variation in the energy released."
"The short-hand is that a VEI-4 eruption is ten times larger than a VEI-3 eruption. For instance, Anakata Volcano's eruption last month was only a VEI-2 whereas Blackstone's last eruption a thousand years ago was a VEI-5, the same as Mount St. Hellens at its worst." – Ryan continued where David left off – "A thousand times more potent than Anakata's last month eruption!"
"Now, Blackstone's eruption from three million years ago left a mantle of volcanic ash that was more than three hundred feet thick in the area around the crater. That means this volcano can deliver a *VEI-8* eruption, which, by the way, is the *top* of the scale! If we can reduce its VEI by at least two degrees, we'll still have a catastrophic explosion but at least it will be a *local* catastrophe!" – Paula concluded – "But knowing this won't avail us… There's no way we can relieve that much pressure. Heck, we don't even really know what would happen if we tried to reduce the pressure!"
"There is a way to do it!" – every eye turned to Ryan – "The GeoGuard Program!"
Everyone's looks turned from suddenly lost to understanding and finally to disbelief.
"You want to fire a particle beam from space onto Blackstone Volcano? Do you even realize how small a target it is? I mean, we don't even know where its rupture point will be!"
"But you suspect, don't you? C'mon, Dr. Robertson, I think I know you well enough by now to know you're holding back something!"
David looked at Paula and shrugged – "I concur…"
The she-kat sighed and closed her eyes – "Before our equipment was destroyed we concluded that the rocks underneath the volcano and around the main pipe are fractured. We reasoned that the other day's earthquake must have had something to do with that. Probably that's the weakest point of the whole structure. Everything points that the same pipe that was used for Blackstone's last eruption, a hundred thousand years ago, will act as a primary route. Of course, a VEI-8 eruption would pretty much blow up half the caldera together with this cinder cone…"
"So we have a target." – Ryan turned to face the dark slope ahead of him – "Blackstone Volcano's cinder cone."
"We still have a problem, though… How are we going to order a strike? I have no such connections!" – Paula stated as she turned to her husband.
"Don't look at me! I'm just a university professor!"
Callie cleared her throat – "I believe *I* can help a bit. But can I trust you to keep a secret?"
"You want me to do *what*?" – Feral's voice boomed out from Callie's triangular communicator – "Are you… well, Deputy Mayor?"
Callie twitched her nose, annoyed – "I thank you for inquiring about my well-being, Commander but I really need you to talk things over with MASA to redirect the GeoKat-1 satellite."
"What's going on in Blackstone National Park, Miss Briggs? We've received a garbled call from the Mission Leader I assigned to escort you this morning. There was interference and we couldn't make much of what was said. We've tried to communicate with him or the other team members but we didn't get any response."
Callie closed her eyes. Her next words were full of grief - "I regret to inform you that the expedition has suffered several casualties. All of the brave Enforcers that you sent to escort us are dead, as well as three of the seven civilians."
For a moment, even the cool-tempered Ulysses Feral was at a loss for words. When his voice returned over the radio, however, it was the hardened voice of the Enforcers' Commander.
"We believe Rex Shard is involved."
"But we're not sure!" – Ryan shouted in the background.
Callie then proceeded to describe the deadly events that had passed in that beginning of afternoon, including the arrival of the SWAT Kats and their sortie into the volcano and their plan to expedite Blackstone's eruption in hopes that it would mitigate its destructiveness.
"So you see, Commander, the only way to quickly excavate a well to cause a somewhat less violent decompression of the magma chamber is to blast through Blackstone Volcano's cone with the GeoKat-1 MegaBeam."
"It would do more than excavate a borehole, Miss Briggs! Even though the particle beam isn't wider than a dime, it'll still release a lot of its energy around the target! It would destroy everything in, at least, a half-mile radius!"
Paula snatched the triangular white object from the Deputy Mayor's hands – "Commander, this is Dr. Paula Robertson, senior Volcanologist at MSU. Even if we manage to reduce the pressure inside the magma chamber, the volcano will undoubtedly erupt. If we can reduce its VEI by at least two degrees, we'll still have an eruption that's not too far short of colossal so I wouldn't mind much if the MegaBeam's energy isn't perfectly concentrated on the target!"
A brief silence – "Acknowledged! Deputy Mayor Briggs?"
Paula handed the device back to the blonde she-kat – "I'm here, Commander!"
"I will need an authorization code to put things on the move. I'm currently accessing the GeoKat-1 orbit via the Interweb. It's coming very close to your current location. I'd estimate you have fifteen, maybe twenty minutes before you see the MegaBeam's bright light and then nothing else… ever more."
"Okay, this is it! Ready?" – Razor asked. T-Bone nodded an affirmative.
They prepared to jump down into the hexagonal space, drawing in their breaths. Suddenly, their helmets' com-link buzzed with static and Callie's voice rang in their ears.
They quickly took a step back from the mouth of the tunnel, acknowledging Callie's call.
"Miss Briggs! This really isn't a good time!"
"And it will get worse if you don't hear what I have to tell you. You have only fifteen to twenty minutes to get all our tails out of here before this place gets blown up sky high! Ever heard of a particular weapon called MegaBeam? They're positioning the satellite as we speak and in less than twenty minutes, they're going to shoot it against this volcano to try to coax a less destructive eruption."
"Understood, Miss Briggs. Razor out!"
"So, no pressure, huh?"
"You know you like it this way! Let's get over with this! Ready?"
T-Bone nodded again. They took a deep breath together and jumped through the opening, falling squarely on their feet. The crystalline figure heard them landing and turned around, heading towards them. Both SWAT Kats fired a Spider-Chain Missile each, both projectiles finding their mark and enveloping the crystalline creature in its electric chains. The air sizzled with electricity for a minute as the missiles' batteries drained their charge, making the figure drop to its knees, its face turned away from the heroes.
"Now! Deploy Banshee Missiles!" – Razor said and, from another compartment of their jetpacks, each SWAT Kat shot one of the sonic weapons.
"NOOO! THE SOUND! THE SOUND!" – They heard the creature utter in complete despair as it squirmed madly, trying to get rid of the chains and the sound that enveloped it. Moments later, the creature stopped squirming, its torso leaning down towards the floor, its head abated, nearly touching the ground.
"Is it over?" – T-Bone asked, suspicious.
"Something's not right! He should be shattered already!"
The creature's back started quivering almost spasmodically. The SWAT Kats tensed their muscles but they were prepared for everything but what came next. The crystal figurine knelt before them started to laugh, slowly at first but increasing into a guttural loud laughter. The Banshee Missiles were still circling the crystalline creature and emitting their high-pitched sound. Suddenly, when both missiles crossed in front of it, the creature suddenly looked up, opened its mouth and let out a torrent of fire, so hot that it instantly vaporized the missiles. Not even a twisted slag remained from them! The SWAT Kats had to duck to avoid the tongue of fire and, although it passed several feet above them, they felt the terrible heat nonetheless.
"Whoa! Where did he pick up *that* trick?" – Razor asked as he rapidly regained his foot, training his glovatrix on the creature.
"Oh you insects of little memory, throw yourselves at the mercy of your slayer!"
"That's not Shard! Look at his face!" – T-Bone shouted. Razor looked and his eyes nearly glazed. The face was indeed not that of Shard's but rather of an ancient foe whose face Razor would never forget for as long as he'd live.
"Yes, that's it! Look past this polished exterior, this glorious and luminous representation of the darkest of demons and see your adversary!"
"No…" – Razor uttered, softly as a breeze – "You're dead! I killed you! You're dead!"
"It would appear the rumors concerning my demise were grossly overstated!" – Volcanus declared as he snapped the chains restraining him with seemingly the greatest easiness – "But you raised an interesting point, indeed! It was *you* who destroyed my previous corpus. I should thank you, really! It was thanks to that that I managed to find this new corpus. By the Four Hells, it *is* wonderful, is it not? And useful, too! But I'm not really one to thank anyone. I'm rather one… TO KILL!"
Several crystalline projections ejected from Volcanus' outstretched arm, directed at the SWAT Kats. The spears would have javelined the heroes where they stood if it hadn't been for the single fatal idiosyncrasy apparently inherent to every villain! While Volcanus was bragging about his new body, the SWAT Kats had readied themselves for a hasty retreat. So, when Volcanus had stretched out his arm, they'd been half a second ahead of him, activating their jetpacks and rocketing out of there.
"YOU THINK YOU CAN FLEE FROM MY WRATH? NONE CAN ESCAPE VOLCANUS!"
What happened next could be described as endowed with an incredible beauty – if its purpose had been a decorative or artistic one! Thousands upon thousands of thin needle-like crystalline projections extruded from the ground of the hexagonal room and into the tunnel, completely coating its walls with the deadly crystalline needles.
T-Bone was leading the way out, rocketing through the winding tunnel, the obsidian walls rushing past just inches from his shoulders, the tunnel ahead of him a blur of glossy black rock poorly illuminated by his helmet's light as he sped along it with his partner closely in tow, the slim kat's vision blocked by the bulk of the tabby. Behind him, Razor heard a strange sound, like a diamond cutting through glass but magnified a hundred times. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the crystalline needles accelerating through the tunnel, coating the smooth glossy walls with green razor sharp needle-like crystals. He couldn't really tell the distance between his bare feet and the front of advancing crystals but he could tell it was damn close. Little did he know that the crystals were a little more than an inch from impaling his feet.
"Must go faster, buddy!"
"I can't hit the afterburners! It'll burn you to a crisp!"
Razor remained silent for a few moments. The front of crystals advanced further, gaining on them. It now stood less than an inch away from Razor's feet. The digital map on his glovatrix's screen changed constantly and the tunnel almost always made a curve to the left but he saw that a somewhat long straight stretch was coming ahead.
"I've got an idea. Move up just a bit."
There wasn't almost any space to maneuver but T-Bone didn't argue. He did as his partner asked.
"That's good! Now slow down just a little bit."
Again, the tabby complied. Razor, in the meantime had turned over himself and was now flying with his back turned to the floor. Trying to keep flying at the same velocity as T-Bone, Razor managed to pair up with the tabby and just in time too: the current straight path of the tunnel was coming to an end before it resumed its soft left curving.
T-Bone didn't need any more instructions. When the slim SWAT Kat was at his chest height, he embraced him and engaged the afterburners. Razor did the same.
The maneuver had been successful. They had gained speed and left the oncoming crystalline front coating the walls with needle-like projections back but only by about a yard or so. Now there was absolutely no space to maneuver and both jetpacks grazed the smooth walls, releasing, occasionally, a shower of sparks. They both looked up, a mask of complete concentration in their faces, tunnel vision adding up to the vision of the tunnel. If they stumbled hard against something, everything would be over for them and for Callie and the other three kats out there.
So it was with immeasurable glee that they saw light at the end of the tunnel. In seconds they had reached the end and were hurtled into the afternoon sky on the shaded side of the mountain. Behind them, a veritable pincushion of deadly green crystals had puffed at the entrance of the tunnel. Fortunately for the kats there, the crystals had stopped growing as they reached the end of the tunnel.
The SWAT Kats freed from each other's embrace and landed close to the Turbokat. Callie, Paula, David and Ryan came running to them, troubled looks upon their faces.
"SWAT Kats, we have less than five minutes to get the hell outta here!" – Callie said. She was beginning to lose her cool, which was always a sign of how serious the situation was.
"Okay, time to go then!" – Razor said as he opened the top panel of his glovatrix and pressed a combination of buttons in the inner keypad that made the bomb bay doors open – "Get inside, quickly."
T-Bone too pressed a combination of buttons in his glovatrix that made the canopy slide open. He quickly jumped aboard and ran a pre-flight diagnostic.
"You first, Deputy Mayor!" – Paula insisted. With the help of Razor she hopped aboard the Turbokat's bomb bay. It was a tight space but four kats could be squeezed in there if the situation called for it.
As Razor turned to help Ryan, who Paula had insisted to go before her, he saw something that left his mouth hanging open. Volcanus! He was at the mouth of the tunnel.
"Crud! LETS' GO! LET'S GO! HURRY! BUDDY, WE'RE OUTTA TIME!"
The tabby turned on the engines as Ryan scrambled aboard. Next was Paula. It should have been easy for her to get inside the bomb bay but T-Bone had started the VTOL engines and the jet rocked a little. It took more time than Razor would have liked for the scientist to enter the Turbokat.
Fate was now in motion. David looked back at the crystalline form when two crystal darts were launched towards the Turbokat. Both missed for scant inches. David turned to help Paula get inside.
"Go to your partner!" – David shouted to Razor – "I don't need your help to climb aboard! GO! I'll help my wife!"
Razor reluctantly acquiesced and jumped onto the wing and from there into the cockpit.
David now jumped towards the gaping bomb bay, holding on to the edge of the hatch, trying to hoist himself aboard. It would have been a simple task for a tom with his build but Fate, it seemed, had other plans for David: when he was already halfway up, a crystal spear finally found its target, burying deeply in David's back and skewering David's chest cavity. The black-furred tom's eyes widened with the pain and he coughed a gob of blood. Paula opened her mouth in disbelief. David's strength faltered and he began falling. Paula lunged forward and grabbed him.
What followed was nothing short of a tragedy. Two more spears buried deep into David's flesh. The tom vomited some more blood before he looked up to the face of the she-kat he loved so much, large threads of blood oozing from the corners of his mouth. She was crying, calling out his name but it seemed to David as if every sound was coming from so very far away. He looked her straight in the eye. David didn't have any strength left even to speak but his stare spoke volumes.
The weight was too much. David was slipping from Paula's grip. She looked back at her husband's eyes and saw in them all the love that tom had for her. David finally slipped and fell on the ground, not before a fourth crystal spear impaled him, this time through his midsection. Paula lunged towards her husband, intent on getting him back aboard but Ryan and Callie managed to stop her.
From the cockpit, Razor and T-Bone saw the drama unfold, staring with disbelief. Razor closed the canopy and the bomb bay doors. There was nothing left to do. The tom's torso had been mortally pierced by four crystal spears. If he wasn't dead yet, he'd be very soon and there was nothing any of them could do about that. It was, then, with heavy hearts and dulled senses that the SWAT Kats and their passengers left Blackstone Volcano, dodging incoming crystal spears launched by Volcanus.
"GUYS, IT'S TIME!" – Callie shouted. That snapped T-Bone and Razor from their dulled state of humor.
"Max afterburners NOW!"
"HANG ON EVERYONE!"
The jet's wings slid back and it suddenly jumped forward when all three engines roared, crushing the poor unprepared and unbuckled kats in the bomb bay. One by one, they all began to see the darkness spread from the corner of their eyes until they passed out.
David was still alive when he saw the bright light coming from the heavens. It seemed to be descending very slowly. He had all the time in the world to admire the straight beam illuminating the high atmosphere like a second sun and suddenly fall over the cinder cone of Blackstone Volcano.
Another one who saw the bright light was Volcanus but, unlike David, it all seemed to happen *very* fast. There was a bright straight beam coming from the heavens and then everything turned white.
The particle beam had taken less than a second to cross Gaia's atmosphere and reach Blackstone Volcano after it left the MegaBeam Cannon muzzle. As it touched the ground, part of its energy was diverted around its target, creating a hemisphere of pure, blinding white light spreading outwards in every direction with devastating force, melting the first centimeters of the basaltic surface in seconds and forming small streams of liquefied rock in an eerie revival of the planet's birth. The beam itself, however, had lost little of its potency and continued down, into the rocks of Gaia's bosom, nearly unbridled. When it reached the top of Blackstone's magma chamber, it still had enough power to force its way through half of the thickness of the dense molten rock accumulation, causing it to ripple in every direction. The beam's trip from the satellite into the colossal pocket of magma had been over in a matter of scant seconds.
The bright white hemisphere was still spreading out when the eruption began. A sound louder than that of the MegaBeam's explosion resonated throughout the landscape, the deafening roar of a volcano exploding. As the shattered and shaken rock beneath Blackstone Volcano's cinder cone domed up because of the force of the expanding trapped gas behind, the sudden decompression finally let out all the violence and power of Blackstone Volcano. In a moment, the top half of the cinder cone ceased to exist as thousands upon thousands of tons of pulverized rock and gas were hurtled towards the atmosphere with the brute force only an explosive volcano such as Blackstone could muster. Gigantic winding spiders of lightning lit the outside of the rising eruption plume. Large chunks of debris were launched high into the air, over-heated by the colossal temperatures being liberated from underneath, only to give in to gravity and descend upon the surface with deadly intent. Only then did the lava make its appearance in the form of large spatter and lava bombs ranging from the size of cars to fists. As it was very siliceous in nature, the volcano didn't form rivers of lava that cascaded down the volcanic cone. However, since it was so viscous, it started to cool down as soon as it left the crater and even inside the crater. Soon, a plug of lava had formed and the eruption furor calmed down.
T-Bone had done the best he could to avoid the fast-spreading hemisphere of light, keeping ahead of it by just scant yards but now the tabby was more worried with the rain of lava bombs, over-heated debris and lightning bolts that threatened to pummel the Turbokat to kingdom come. Inside, in the back seat, Razor saw, through the monitor, as the blinding white hemisphere faded away only to be replaced with yet another horrific spectacle.
Inside the bomb bay, Ryan started to wake up, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs from his mind. He looked around and saw both she-kats still out. Leaving them be for the moment he explored his surroundings. There wasn't much to explore but there was a little line of light coming from a crack just above his head. He knocked as hard as he could. Moments later, the ceiling above him opened and he felt being pulled up by a pair of strong hands. In a second, Ryan had been pulled into the cockpit and quickly conducted to the back of Razor's seat as the slim SWAT Kat repositioned his seat back in place.
"Do you know anything about volcanoes?" – the slim kat asked, looking over his shoulder to the youngster.
"Huh, yeah, yeah I know a thing or two about volcanoes…"
"What am I seeing?" – he motioned Ryan to look over his shoulder into the display of the instruments panel in front of Razor. Ryan gasped and stared at the screen for a few moments in silence.
"What happened before you pulled me up? It's important!"
"The MegaBeam hit the volcano and started the eruption." – the Turbokat veered abruptly to the right in order to avoid a falling lava bomb the size of a car – "Quite a blow, I have to say! I've never seen an explosion so large and I've seen my share of detonations!"
"Judging by the falling debris and the eruption plume, it must have! But the eruption seems to be receding now…"
"Did you make it? Is this all there is to Blackstone's eruption?" – T-Bone voiced what was on Razor's mind.
"A large explosive eruption with lots of debris and ash… This means the lava is very rich in silica, as we expected, given the rhyolite lopolith underneath the caldera…" – Ryan muttered, more to himself than to the anyone else – "But now the eruption seems to be receding… No! Oh, no!"
Before Ryan could say another word, Blackstone exploded again, an even louder detonation than before, producing a massive eruption plume. However, instead of going up, this particular eruption plume was moving horizontally… *Towards* the Turbokat.
"The lava was so viscous it sealed the crater. The pressure accumulated so much that it escaped the only way it could, by blasting through the weakened sides of the cone. Damn, I bet the lava plug is also adding a spray effect!"
"It's like what happened with Mount Pelée. A lava needle formed and plugged the crater and when the lava went out through a small opening between the crater and the lava plug, it behaved just like a spray, puffing out aerosolized lava at tremendous speeds and creating a fast-moving pyroclastic flow!"
"Fast-moving? How fast? How fast do pyroclastic flows move?"
"Well, Mount St. Hellens 'pyroflows' were plotted between 50 to 100 mph."
"That's not fast!"
"But Mount Pelée's were thought to have moved at about 500 mph!"
"We shouldn't stay here! That 'pyroflow' is getting bigger by the moment!" – Ryan said, pointing to the monitor.
"We're maxed out!"
"Holy Kats! That's the fastest 'pyroflow' I've ever seen!"
"It's gaining on us!"
"Don't let it get near the jet! That's volcanic ash we're dealing with! It'll clog your engines permanently! And that's the least of our worries!"
"What do you mean?"
"The temperature inside a 'pyroflow' easily exceeds 300 degrees!"
"CELSIUS!" – Ryan shrieked.
The tabby shrugged – "How much is that?"
Ryan was dumbfounded. He shook his head, thinking - "I dunno! Almost 600!"
"That's hot!" – Razor interjected.
"We're about to get cooked and you're making *jokes*?"
"Relax! Buddy, let's go to Speed of Heat. See if we can calm down our hyperactive young friend!" – Razor's thumb pointed back, a gentle smile curving his lips.
"Engaging Speed of Heat."
"You'd better brace yourself: this is gonna be intense!"
Ryan did as he was told preparing for the moment the G-forces would crush him again and make him faint. At least if he passed out he wouldn't have to endure the agony of being fricasseed alive by the advancing pyroclastic flow. But several moments passed without anything happening. Then he heard the words he dreaded the most.
"Hum, buddy, I think we have a problem…" – T-Bone said, not without a slight tremor in his voice – "There's not enough fuel to engage the Speed of Heat thrusters!"
"Crud!" – Razor leaned forward towards the instruments panel, his face dead serious – "Keep it floored, bud! We've got civilians with us! We have to get them to safety!"
"You don't need to remind me but we're pretty much pinned down!"
"Stay away from it!" – Ryan urged.
"It's too late to get out of its way! It's breathing right down our necks!"
"Go up!" – Ryan said – "Pyroclastic flows always tend to stay close to the ground, even giant ones!"
"Up it is, then!"
T-Bone pulled the control stick towards him and the Turbokat was sent in a forty-five degree angle ascent, crushing Ryan. The billowing cloud of ash pursued them as they rose and the thermal sensors inside the jet fighter were already giving off their high-pitched alarms. The jet would get itself engulfed by the broiling walls of ash at any moment. Razor and T-Bone had their teeth gritted, the tabby keeping the control stick all but glued to his stomach, feeling the G-forces crushing them against their seats. Ryan was about to pass out again when the sirens died out and a collective sigh of relief broke the tense atmosphere in the cockpit. The Turbokat finally began to increase its distance to the pyroclastic flow behind. T-Bone looked behind through the mirrors and confirmed that the scalding billowing clouds were beginning to look smaller as they got away.
"I think we did it, buddy!"
"Next stop: Megakat City!"
Ryan got up when T-Bone leveled the jet and tried to peer into Razor's screen. At that height, he could have a good view from nearly all of Blackstone National Park. He saw the deadly pyroclastic flow slowly grinding to a halt well within the boundaries of the park. The view to the volcano was obscured by the ash clouds but he could see the eruption plume rising into the atmosphere. The eruption was still occurring and it seemed that Blackstone had shattered the lava plug that had concocted that large and very fast-moving pyroclastic flow.
That wasn't a VEI-8 eruption! Not by a long shot!
They've done it!
Commander Feral pressed a few keys on his computer keyboard. On the large flat screen to his left was a live feed from the GeoKat-1 satellite. The software had superimposed the boundaries of Blackstone National Park over the satellite image. Usually, Blackstone National Park harbored tens of thousands of trees, conifers mostly but there were also large pockets of angiosperms. Nevertheless, regardless of the kind of tree, a satellite image of Blackstone National Park always presented itself with an army-green tint, except for the immediate area surrounding Blackstone Volcano's cinder cone, which was similar to a lunar landscape, only punctuated by the odd plot of brownish-green bush.
That was the usual. But what Commander Feral was looking at was all *but* usual. The image showed a large plume of grayish ash swiftly drifting east, down the prevailing winds. The cloud was so large it covered at least a third of the park area already and it was spreading rapidly and unyieldingly… towards Megakat City.
The Commander pressed a few keys, inserting a line of command. Several red dots appeared scattered through the satellite image, superimposed. The last one marked Megakat City itself. He scowled. There were a few towns and villages directly in the path of the ash cloud. He picked up the telephone and barked a few short concise orders into the mouthpiece before replacing it. He stared at the monitor for a few moments before he inserted another line of command. Vector arrows appeared in bright yellow over the satellite image, accompanied with numbers that were constantly being updated. A fast calculation. Another frown.
Commander Feral rose from the chair behind his desk and went for the hanger, retrieving and donning his coat. Hastening his pace, he quickly left his office, his eyes dead set on some unseen spot ahead of him.
Time was of the essence.
In less than two hours, he reckoned, Megakat City would be enveloped in the dark suffocating mantle of Blackstone's volcanic ash cloud.
"The winds are strong, buddy." – T-Bone informed as he peered at the giant glowering at his left. At the edges of the ash cloud, he could see the sun's auras running through the landscape, only to be replaced by a dark shadow as the cloud moved forth.
"We have to get home soon, T-Bone. We don't have that much fuel left and we have a precious payload to deliver!"
"Stay away from the ash cloud!" – Ryan warned – "People don't realize that ash clouds are one of the biggest volcanic hazards there is! Especially to jet engines like the ones the Turbokat has!"
"But they won't have the same effect on engines that run cooler than a jet engine, right?" – it was Razor who asked the question as he peered into the monitor in front of him. He was looking at a satellite image much similar to the one viewed by Commander Feral.
"It won't but it can clog an engine, nevertheless! Remember: you're not dealing with soft organic ash, like the one you get by burning a log! This is *volcanic* ash! It's pulverized rock! Better yet, it's pulverized glass! *And* it's corrosive!"
"Lovely…" – Razor crowed – "Looks like the ash cloud is heading the same way we are!"
"Then let's put the pedal to the metal! I want to beat this sucker home!"
"Careful you don't consume all our fuel, hotshot!"
"Hurry! Take only what you need! Run to a shelter!" – Sergeant Wilfred barked to the scared townsfolk as he and a team of another three of his mates from Enforcer Headquarters, together with the local Fire Department and Enforcers Division, coordinated the town's evacuation.
The evacuation was running smoothly enough. The townspeople knew they lived in a volcanic area, so when the early warning system's alarms began wailing throughout the town, everybody just dropped what they were doing and ran towards the shelters. Not that they had been doing anything for the better part of the last half hour! The townspeople had clearly heard the deafening boom of the eruption and, as such, had been wondering what had happened. The answer had taken less than five minutes to make itself obvious in the form of the eruption plume rising in the air, far away due west. Even before the alarms had gone off, some people were already preparing.
So the evacuation was running smoothly enough. Sergeant Wilfred looked at the gigantic cloud looming above them as though it was preparing to swallow them all alive. It was daunting to see such an enormous thing approaching and stretching over the entire sky above the town, from horizon line to horizon line. It was half past three in the afternoon but it became dark as midnight on a moonless night. Then the dirty snow-like flecks began to fall. Illuminated by the headlamps of the Enforcer cruisers, it was much similar to a real heavy snowfall.
Sergeant Wilfred climbed on board his cruiser, together with the remaining three of his colleagues and started the windscreen wipers in order to shove aside the ash that had accumulated in the meantime. It seemed the Fire Department and the local Enforcers Division had everything well in hand. He took one last look at the line of people heading towards the shelter.
Then he felt something shaking the car. The water inside the plastic bottle over the dashboard trembled as circular waves radiated from the center. All his colleagues exchanged nervous glances. It had been just the other day they'd seen 'Jurassic Park'. They dismissed the idea with a tense wave of their heads. No way would a dinosaur be out for a stroll! That was fiction!
But there was another impact tremor! And another! And another still! Increasing in intensity! The last one was so large that the cruiser itself bounced up and down an inch. Sergeant Wilfred looked outside. The people were scared but continued to move.
There was silence, only interrupted by the windscreen wipers as they pushed aside the falling ash. Everyone was tense, in full expectation of what would come next. They daren't move a single muscle, though.
The cruiser was facing west, its headlamps turned towards the oncoming ash cloud and the falling ash. The light helped little in piercing the darkness around them. Visibility was limited to a scant two yards.
Then it happened. Another impact tremor, this time so strong that the cruiser was sent off the ground by a few inches. They saw the flicker of electricity as something snapped the high voltage cables several yards in front of them. In the twitching spiders of electricity, they saw something green. It looked like a green glass. Whatever it was, however, was huge!
The next thing they saw was a gigantic green glassy block land right in front of them, illuminated by the cruiser's headlamps. There was no time to properly analyze what the hell had just fallen in front of them because the green glassy mass rose again, as abruptly as it had come down. But Sergeant Wilfred's and his colleagues' luck had just run out. As the mass rose, it also moved forth, hitting the Enforcer cruiser and sending it rolling like a discarded tin can several hundred feet down the road. When the vehicle finally immobilized, it was more compacted than the most compact car. A red thick liquid began to pour out as the ash continued to fall over the deserted town.
"There you go! They're all yours, lieutenant!" – T-Bone said as he helped Paula get down from the bomb bay. The trip from Blackstone National Park to Megakat City had taken more than an hour. They've beaten the front of the incoming ash cloud, a giant wave of darkness looming the great burg to the west so there was no need to put their occupants to the strain of high G-forces.
Paula stumbled a little before Lieutenant Feral offered her arm for support. She and the Deputy Mayor were a little worse for the wear but they were alright. Physically speaking, that is. Callie had said that the scientist hadn't spoken a word during the whole flight. Indeed, even now her eyes were somewhat vague, looking to the emptiness more often than not.
"I think Dr. Robertson will need some psychological counseling. She just saw her husband die right in front of her." – Razor whispered after Felina had conducted Paula, Callie and Ryan to Dr. Konway, who was also in the tarmac of Enforcer Headquarters.
Razor nodded. He looked away, towards the west. He went to T-Bone, who was at the end of the tarmac, also turned to that direction. For a few moments they contemplated the looming darkness ahead, like a gigantic wave ready to break. Lightning sparkled occasionally and illuminated the city in an ethereal otherworldly blue electric light that accentuated all shadows for a moment. Felina joined them moments later, after Dr. Konway and a detachment of three Enforcers had conducted every civilian away from the roof.
"Where's your uncle, Lieutenant?" – T-Bone asked before another lightning bolt crossed the ominous cloud of ash.
"He's out there, supervising the evacuation."
Felina nodded – "Your insane plan worked but not completely. Yes, you've managed to reduce the volcano's explosivity index. Several geologists agree that this isn't what they expected from a VEI-8 explosion, although no such explosion was ever recorded in Feline History."
"So, what's the problem?"
"The problem is that, while you managed to avoid a VEI-8 eruption, this is still a VEI-6! Mount Pinatubo-like explosion! The ash cloud that is coming…" – Felina pointed – "The geologists say it will cover Megakat City in a layer of volcanic ash with at least five inches of thickness. They say it'll be a brutal overload that the buildings that were shaken by the earthquake will have to support. They expect many buildings to collapse due to the weight of the ash."
"Hence the evacuation…" – T-Bone concluded.
"Every bunker will be full until the ash fall ceases and we're able to clean up the city." – she sighed – "Let's hope Blackstone doesn't feel like prolonging its eruption for more than a few days… It will be disastrous as it is but if the eruption goes on for months, and the geologists say that it is *common* for volcanic eruptions to go on for *months* and even *years*, it will be downright catastrophic…"
As they talked, the ash cloud had already overtaken the western outskirts of Megakat City. The ash fall was so severe that it looked like the cloud was actually touching the ground. Again, lightning crossed the skies in front of the cloud. A moment later, however, they were confronted with another flare, this time, crimson in color.
Something had just exploded!
Razor and T-Bone turned on their heels and ran towards the Turbokat. They jumped aboard the plane with a single powerful flex of their legs. T-Bone rapidly closed the canopy and positioned the jet for takeoff.
"May I remind you we don't have nearly enough fuel for a prolonged flight, hotshot?"
"We have to check it out! The Turbokat's the only jet that can get there fast enough!"
"Not if it's running on fumes, it can't!"
"We still have enough fuel to go check it out and rescue anyone who may be in trouble!" – T-Bone rammed the throttle till the end.
"We can't save anyone if we crash!" – Razor sighed – "Avoid any unnecessary moves! And we *cannot* engage! Understood?"
They took less than five minutes to reach the area in question. An old fertilizer factory was burning out of control amid the falling ash. Razor scanned the surroundings. Nothing. Either there were no casualties or everyone had died in the blast.
"There's nothing we can do but drop a Foam Bomb, buddy. I'm not detecting any bio-signatures from anywhere close to the fire. Besides, we shouldn't go any further! Remember Ryan's warnings against penetrating a volcanic ash cloud with the jet?"
T-Bone gritted his teeth and slowly acquiesced. He put the Turbokat in position for dropping a Foam Bomb when something crashed down violently amid the inferno, forcing T-Bone to max the jet out of there. The tabby took the jet away from the flames and engaged the VTOL engines. They floated in the air a little more than a dozen yards away from the raging fire.
"What was that? Did you see what caused that?" – T-Bone queried as he looked down to the flaming inferno that was avidly consuming the remains of the former fertilizer plant. He squinted, trying to discern anything amid the blaze. For a moment, the flames died out a little and he managed to see a dark mass in the middle of the blazing ruined factory. Between the bright light from the fire and the falling ash, he could barely make anything of it.
Then a sudden change in the wind must have occurred for the volcanic ash and the smoke from the fire began to clear, moving towards north. As the ash fall diminished and the smoke dispersed, he managed to make out more of that dark form. He noticed it wasn't just a mass lying in the middle of the blaze but it rather continued up, towards the continually clearing skies.
Then he discerned a color.
Dark green! Glossy dark green!
He gulped, raising his head, his eyes following the shapes of two massive legs. Soon enough he found a torso, still partially covered by the retreating ash and smoke but clear enough to make out its silhouette. As he looked higher and higher, he finally got to the head. Two malicious eyes glowed in bright yellow light, fiery gems from the Damned Halls beneath.
"No way…" – T-Bone muttered. Razor recognized the giant and vocalized it for him.
"You didn't surely think you could escape me!" – a voice that was a mix between a dying tom's wail and a guttural snarl boomed over them. Before anything else was said, Volcanus raised up one of his arms in a swift move, a giant green crystal spear shooting up from underneath the Turbokat on cue.
T-Bone didn't know if he actually saw the spear or if it were actually the scant milliseconds that the crystal took to grow up after Volcanus' signal. The fact was, the tabby engaged the frontal VTOL thrusters to the max, which caused the nose of the jet to point up sharply, after what he cut off all VTOL engines and engaged all the rear thrusters, sending the jet hurtling towards the heavens in a vertical climb as the crystalline spear passed just inches away from the Turbokat's underside. The burly SWAT Kat kept the control column glued to his stomach as the sky and the ground switched places before his eyes. He leveled the jet and tried to put some distance between them and Volcanus while new giant crystalline spears projected upwards from the ground, pursuing them.
In his seat, Razor gave thanks for the straps tightly pinning him to the seat. Once again, T-Bone had delivered them from certain death. But, in doing so, he sealed the outcome of this match.
"That's it, T-Bone! We're out of the game! Engine three is flaming out! The other ones are running on fumes!"
"Okay. Let's see if we can make it to the Salvage Yard in one piece" – even as he said it, a sinking feeling took over the big tabby. The Salvage Yard was on the other side of the city!
"Those crystal spears are still on our tails!"
"There's not much I can do about it, bud!"
"Understood! Deploy smokescreen!"
Reddish smoke belched out from the rear of the jet fighter, covering up their escape. Through the monitor in the panel in front of him, Razor managed to see the gigantic form of Volcanus getting behind, as well as the crystalline projections that had threatened them.
"You think you've escaped me but you're *doomed* anyway!" – they heard Volcanus scream, an eerie reminiscence of one of Shard's lines from years ago. Finally, Volcanus was completely out of view, covered by the reddish smoke.
Razor sighed and closed his eyes.
Another crystal colossus was on the loose…
Lights came to life all over the Turbokat's cockpit, warning against the impending total engine failure. But the tabby somehow managed to keep the jet flying for what seemed to Razor as a miraculous amount of time. At last, when the Salvage Yard loomed in the distance the slim SWAT Kat let out a sigh of relief.
But then all engines flamed out. The jet fighter suddenly became a glider.
"Crud! Hang on!" – T-Bone's voice was hard as stone.
Razor watched the Salvage Yard coming closer by the moment as the Turbokat sank too rapidly for the slim kat's taste. He opened his mouth to appeal to the tabby's common sense and bail out before they crashed together with the jet but not a word left his mouth. He calmed down. Although without any fuel left in the tanks, the jet's fall wasn't an uncontrolled one. The jet was all but gliding in the air but T-Bone wasn't giving up on the Turbokat! He saw the tabby reaching for the remote control that opened the door to the underground runway. They were so close that Razor, from his back seat, saw it clearly opening. That also meant that the jet was all but nose-diving! Worse than that was the approaching pile of metallic litter, rushing towards them with killing intent. They were too low! The jet would miss the opening for scant yards.
"BRACE YOURSELF!" – T-Bone barked as he swung back the jet's wings.
Razor felt the Turbokat plunging forward at a greater speed. He saw the gaping square entrance getting larger by the second as the threatening pile of metallic litter suddenly and unexpectedly rushed by them, not without scraping the jet's underside. The slim SWAT Kat blinked and next he knew he was inside the tunnel that led to the underground hangar, green lights bordering each side of the hidden runway.
A jolt rocked the jet's frame as its landing gears bumped against the tarmac, waking up Razor from his stupor and making the jet slide slightly to the left. An explosion of sparks shot from the left wing as it scraped the wall, taking several of the wall lamps with it. T-Bone quickly corrected the jet's trajectory before deploying the chutes. Razor was flung forward in his seat as the chutes decreased the jet's speed greatly. Still, the Turbokat was hurtling towards the end of the tunnel. The chutes were working but weren't enough to completely immobilize the jet in its launching pad. T-Bone pressed a button that released the rear hook, hoping it got stuck in one of the several elastic cables they had at the end of the runway. The hook didn't latch on to any cable tightly but every near miss slowed down the jet more. In the end the jet missed the launching pad and only stopped completely when it hit the wall at less than a tenth of the speed it had when it hastened through the tunnel's entrance. Enough, however, to send both SWAT Kats off their seats, their straps the only thing keeping them from being projected towards the controls.
Razor groaned as he rubbed the back of his neck – "Not one of your best landings, buddy! Fast thinking back there!"
"Thanks!" – T-Bone strapped out of his seat and opened the canopy. He lost his stand and fell back tail first into the seat.
"You're okay, bud?" – Razor queried as he jumped down using the wing as a step.
"Yeah, just a bit light-headed." – he shook his head briskly – "What a rush!"
"Yeah! Can you take care of the refueling, bud?"
"Where are you going?"
"I think I may have something for our big green friend out there."
T-Bone headed to the hydraulic lifter system under the garage's tow-truck and pressed the button that made the vehicle descend. He quickly towed the jet back into its place on top of the launch pad before it lifted the machine up to the upper level. There he quickly took care of the refueling operation before he went to refuel himself: it was nearly five o'clock in the afternoon and the only meal he had taken had been his breakfast. As he chewed on a granola bar, waiting for the refueling to end, he switched on the giant screen.
"This is Ann Gora, Kat's Eye News, live at the scene of a dramatic battle between the Enforcers and what appears to be the Crystal Colossus Rex Shard!"
"Come on, get closer!" – Ann Gora verbally spurred the MBC helicopter pilot – "We have to get the exclusive for this!"
"After what that crystal monstrosity just did to those Enforcer choppers? Not even if you paid me double!"
"What you think, Johnny?"
"I think it's a slaughter down there!"
A slaughter that he had been filming for the past few minutes. Volcanus had made a relatively small progress, still being confined to the outskirts of Megakat City. But what he had failed to accomplish in terms of penetrating the city limits he more than made up in victims. In his wake laid more than a dozen of destroyed Enforcer choppers and another ten Enforcer jets.
Like buzzards flying around a carcass, two dozens of Enforcer choppers circled the massive crystalline form of the fire demon, firing missiles every now and then or a spray of bullets from their twin machine guns. Both had little effect against the high-density mineral that Volcanus' body was formed but they effectively delayed his progress.
So much so that the fire demon lost its patience.
He suddenly raised both his arms and several hundred crystal spears projected from the ground all around him in a circle. Every single Enforcer chopper was pierced by one of the crystalline projections. Yet, they did not explode. It appeared Volcanus had aimed not to destroy the machines immediately. Enforcers were scrambling now to get away from the imprisoned helicopters.
Volcanus wouldn't give many of them time to flee to safety.
"Be gone with you, miserable insects!"
He opened his mouth and let out a torrent of fire that destroyed the left-hand half of the imprisoned choppers, the fire so hot that the machines didn't even *melt* but were rather *vaporized*! The remaining choppers were destroyed by a powerful swing of his right arm, whose fist smashed and destroyed in several bright orange explosions the helpless machines. In less than thirty seconds, nearly fifty Enforcers died.
"You puny insects are no match for the might of Volcanus! Why don't you call in the SWAT Kats?"
He stepped forward, melting through the barrage of crystals he'd erected not a minute ago without so much as touching them and leaving liquid red puddles of molten materials wherever he stepped. The MBC helicopter passed in front of the fire demon in an attempt to get away from danger.
"No interviews!" – the fire demon stated before he sent a fireball from his fist towards the helicopter. The pilot managed to avoid it but the heat was so intense that the blades were partially melted and the helicopter suddenly lost its main rotor. When the pilot realized he could no longer control the aircraft, he ordered everyone to grab a chute and jump.
At the hangar, T-Bone was looking intensely at the wobbling images being broadcasted as Ann Gora and her crew were falling down. Johnny managed to somehow steady the cam as he filmed their helicopter crashing down in a ball of flames. Then the image wobbled some more as they hit the ground, Johnny hitting it tail first, it appeared. He panned the camera around and a sigh of relief came from T-Bone's lips when he realized everyone was okay.
"What's going on?" – Razor asked as he pushed a cart with an odd looking missile on it. T-Bone went to his friend to help him out.
"Volcanus just destroyed some twenty Enforcer choppers all at once!"
The color drained from Razor's face – "Crud!"
"Crud indeed!" – T-Bone concurred as he pushed the heavy cart along with Razor towards the Turbokat – "That guy has all the powers he already had *and* those of Shard's." – he shook his head slowly – "Whatever this does, I hope it's enough to bust this guy, buddy, 'cause he'll be a *very* tough nut to crack! Say, what *is* this, anyway? It looks kinda familiar for all the wrong reasons!"
"It should… This is a cluster bomb. Don't worry, it's loaded with improved Banshee Missiles!"
"Screw the Banshee Missiles! That's not the point! Where the hell did you get a damn cluster bomb?"
Razor sighed – "You *really* wouldn't believe what one can find in a military Salvage Yard…"
"Crud…! Anyway, Banshee Missiles? Come on! Those things won't stand up five minutes against Volcanus!"
"These are my latest version of the Banshee Missile! You saw them in action a few days ago, when we stopped that mudflow. I think these are going to make a difference, this time!"
"And have you considered Volcanus' fire tongues? They're the hottest thing I've seen! Those Enforcer choppers I mentioned earlier? They weren't melted! They were *vaporized*! Instantly! Will these scrawny missiles stand up against Volcanus' heat?"
"With any luck at all, they won't even need to… We'll shatter Volcanus up like a light bulb and then we'll attack with a volley of Baby Boomer Missiles! We'll blast that sucker to smithereens!"
"I hope you're right and that everything turns out the way you said…"
"BRING HIM DOWN!" – Commander Feral bellowed before a volley of missiles was fired against the approaching giant form. But, as countless others before, that volley of missiles did no more to scratch Volcanus' hide than a mosquito would. When the roar of the explosions finally faded away and the smoke cleared enough, the Commander heard a rhythmic sound, reverberating from within the depths of the crystal colossus.
Laughter! A derisive rumbling laughter!
The son of a bitch was *mocking* him!
"Artillery, are we primed yet?" – Commander Feral inquired into his transmitter. The answer came after a brief crackle of static.
"Just about, sir! Only a few more seconds!"
"Fire when ready! Feral out!" – he holstered the transmitter back into his coat's inner pocket and glared up at the advancing monstrosity – "Let's see who has the last laugh!"
Back on Enforcer Headquarters, Felina was looking through the binoculars, posted at the end of the runway. She saw as yet another chopper exploded in mid-air when a fireball collided against it. Suddenly, a loud whirring sound coming up from both her sides startled her. The domes capping the two small towers that bordered the tarmac opened up, each revealing a cannon humming with electricity. Felina watched as the smaller – and less potent – replicas of the MegaBeam Cannon present in the GeoKat-1 satellite slowly turned and trained on the far away green giant. The humming became louder by the moment and Felina eventually had to cover her hears. Ultimately, all the power accumulated in each of the weapons was released instantaneously in the form of a white streaking linear beam of energy. The simultaneous firing of the cannons had been so energetic that it struck Felina down on her tail. When she looked up, the twin beams of light had reached their target and a bright white sphere had engulfed the upper part of the crystal colossus. The light was so bright that Felina was forced to lower her visor and engage the anti-glare tint.
For about thirty seconds, Megakat City was bathed in the bright light of the twin shot from the MegaBeam mini-cannons. Thirty seconds was also what it took for the blast of the explosion to reach Enforcer Headquarters. Felina had to lean forward to prevent herself from falling again on her tail, raising her arms over her face in order to have some protection from the flogging winds. When the light and the wind passed, she peered through crossed arms into… Well, she didn't know *exactly* what her eyes were seeing. She brought up her binoculars again. It was still hard to define what she was seeing. But for a moment, a smile appeared on her lips.
The upper half of the crystal colossus, that is, his head, shoulders, upper chest and arms, had been destroyed, that much was clear. Only the lower part of the giant's chest, his midsection and his legs were intact. The wound, if you could call it that, looked like a jagged broken crystal.
They made it! They destroyed Volcanus! There was no way he could still be alive!
She noticed something strange, though. Although the giant was still without his upper body, it somehow seemed that there had been less of his chest just a few seconds ago. She changed the settings on her binoculars and the image came closer. She dropped her chin.
The wounded section was moving. She noticed what appeared to be needle-like crystals rapidly growing and remodeling the injured area. She gritted her teeth in utter contempt.
The son of a bitch was *regenerating* himself!
In less than thirty seconds, Volcanus was whole again. She could imagine her uncle's state of mind. He'd surely be breaking his baton in two, right now! Suddenly, she heard the roar of some very familiar jet engines. To her right, she saw the Turbokat racing towards the regenerated Volcanus.
"Looks like Feral's been adding some new toys to the Headquarters' defense array, heh, buddy?" – T-Bone pressed the throttle to the end.
"I must say I'm impressed that Pumadyne actually managed to build a miniature of the MegaBeam Cannon! It's usually easier to build large but miniaturizing it… Well, that's something else…"
"SWAT Kats!" – the radio crackled – "Come in, SWAT Kats!"
Razor picked up the radio – "Lieutenant Feral! What can we do for you?"
"The bastard can regenerate himself!" – she said tersely – "Pretty fast too!"
"Yeah, we saw what happened! But the first crystal colossus was also able to regenerate his crystal shell when we cracked it with our Banshee Missiles."
"Not like this one! His torso was blown to smithereens and yet he regenerated everything!" – if anything, her voice seemed a bit frightened.
"We saw… But even regeneration has its limits! And we'll put *his* to the test!"
"I hope you succeed! This could be the greatest single threat we've ever faced! Good luck, guys!"
"Thanks! Razor out!" – he discontinued the link and addressed his partner – "Get closer! It's about time we polished some crystal!"
The jet rushed towards the green crystalline form that, in the meantime, had reduced to a cinder some of the dwellings in front of him. He noticed the approaching Turbokat and immediately released a fireball that T-Bone expertly dodged. Neither the following fire tongue nor the crystal shuriken look-alikes that were hurled towards the incoming jet fighter were a match for the tabby's flying skills. Soon, the Turbokat was finally within shooting range and with a last barrel roll to dodge an incoming fireball, Razor finally released the cluster bomb over Volcanus. Several dozen Banshee Missiles sprayed all around the giant crystalline form and immediately started emitting their high-pitched sound waves.
Almost instantly, cracks began to form in Volcanus' outer shell. Small pieces of crystal began sloughing off the giant's body, slowly at first but then with increasing velocity. Suddenly, his left arm fell off, breaking into a thousand pieces as it crashed on the ground. All that seemed to be sustaining the crystal colossus were his regenerating abilities. It seemed as though Razor's plan had worked even better than he expected! Volcanus was simply falling apart!
But things are rarely that easy…
When just moments ago it was accelerating, the colossus' disintegration now seemed to be slowing down. Actually, Volcanus seemed to be changing colors, from a deep dark green to a more bluish green shade.
"Clever bastard!" – Razor uttered, almost under his breath but loud enough for T-Bone to hear it.
"What's going on, Razor? Looks like the Banshee Missiles aren't working anymore!"
"He's altering his composition in order to form another mineral!"
T-Bone remained silent for a moment, pondering. Then it hit him – "Resonance!"
"Yeah, that's the secret and the flaw behind the Banshee Missiles. They can be programmed to emit sound waves in a specific frequency or in a narrow range of frequencies. When the sound waves of a given frequency resonate with a given material, what is actually happening is that they're increasing the natural vibration of that material's particles exponentially, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the material. I usually program the Banshee Missiles to emit a set of common frequencies, enough to make rock, concrete, steel or glass break. With these, I programmed them to analyze and lock on to the frequency of Volcanus' body crystal matrix. By changing the mineral his body is comprised, so does he change the resonance frequency and the Banshee Missiles are no longer effective because they're locked on the former frequency and can't be unlocked."
"Crud! We were so close!" – T-Bone punched the side of the jet in frustration – "It's been all for nothing!"
"I wouldn't say… LOOK OUT!"
A crystal spear darted from the ground below the jet. T-Bone quickly banked the jet towards the left, avoiding in extremis the offensive crystalline projection.
"Nice try, SWAT Kats! But I'm older and more cunning than you!"
Suddenly, Volcanus turned his whole body into one giant pincushion as needle-like projections puffed out, piercing every Banshee Missile that surrounded his body, destroying them. Returning to his dark green color, he smiled, mischievously, before he shot every crystalline needle in every direction.
"CRUD!" – T-Bone's short invective was all he had time to say before he maxed up the thrusters and made a run for it. But it was already too late. Several crystal needles pierced through the jet's wings and stabilizers but, fortunately, none had hit the fuel tanks or the underside of the jet. Still, it had been enough for the jet to slowly lose altitude.
"We must go up, buddy! We can't allow ourselves to get walled in between the buildings!"
It was as though Volcanus and Razor shared a mind link for as soon as the jet became enclosed in the artificial canyon of Megakat City's towering buildings, dozens of large crystal spears began sprouting from the ground, chasing the Turbokat.
"I can't pull up! There's something jamming the controls!"
"Go faster, then!"
"She's maxed up!"
A crystal spear bumped against their rear, making the jet bounce. T-Bone gritted his teeth and engaged the afterburners. The speed increased and they got crushed against the back of their seats. Still, the razor-sharp pointy crystals were closing in on them from behind. T-Bone still wasn't able to pull up. Lights of warning came to life in his panel, informing that something was wrong with the rear stabilizers. He looked back through his mirrors and saw the advancing wave of greenish crystals coming closer. Another jolt rocked the frame of the jet as yet another crystal had rammed against the jet's tail.
"We're running out of road, buddy!"
Razor saw as the avenue where they were flying suddenly ended in a T-junction a few blocks ahead.
"Go either way, then!"
"Figure out what's keeping me from pulling up, will you?" – he said, almost commanded, as he banked the jet sharply to the right and engaged the VTOL thrusters as they reached the T-junction. The jet curved abruptly and continued down the lateral avenue, which ended several blocks ahead in a dead-end.
"There's a piece of crystal jamming the rear stabilizers!" – Razor announced.
Razor saw as the large office building loomed over. They were nearly touching the street now and the crystal spears were still in hot pursuit of them.
"Crud!" - Razor engaged the upper missile launcher – "Try to keep the jet steady, bud! I've only got one chance!"
"I'll do what I can but in a minute it won't matter anymore!"
Razor wasn't hearing. His mind was concentrated on the crosshairs. If he missed, he'd destroy not only the rear stabilizers but the whole rear of the jet, including the fuel tanks. He couldn't miss! Of all times, he couldn't miss *now*! Taking a careful aim he fired a Slicer Missile.
It was a near miss but Razor wasn't aiming for the Turbokat's tail, anyway. The Slicer Missile cut the jamming piece of crystal.
"I've got control!" – the tabby said as he pulled the control column towards his gut with all that he got. The jet complained and almost refused to obey the tabby's input but, miraculously enough, the Turbokat pulled up and began a nearly vertical climb. Occasionally, the underside of the jet grazed the building and a shower of sparks blasted from the jet's frame. The fighter jet finally climbed over the building but a fireball was inbound for them. It was another extreme stroke of good fortune that allowed T-Bone to see the incoming threat and initiate a vertical barrel roll, avoiding the incandescent projectile by the skin of his teeth.
"We have to pull off, buddy! Head for that cloud bank!"
"Crud! Are we done for, Razor? Will this demon get the better of us?"
Razor studied the monitor in front of him – "Not if we have anything to say about it!"
"I WANT ANSWERS!" – Commander Feral bellowed as he punched the top of his desk.
He'd gotten back to Enforcer Headquarters as the SWAT Kats had been fighting off the crystal colossus. As soon as he reached his office, Felina and Dr. Konway were already waiting for him, as he had instructed. The outburst had been directed at the doctor.
"I'm afraid I can't help you here, Commander! This is not my field of expertise!" – the old tom said apologetically. He took off his glasses and started cleaning them on his lab coat – "That thing isn't alive, at least, not in the sense a biologist would define life." – he looked at the lenses of his spectacles at the distance of his outstretched arm. Satisfied with the results of his cleansing, he put them back on – "So I can't kill it!"
"I'm not asking you to kill it, Konway! At least slow it down!"
"I told you, Commander! Minerals and rocks are not my field of expertise! Now a *geologist* or a *physicist* would probably give you the answers you so desperately need!"
Felina snapped her fingers – "Dr. Robertson is a geologist! And she's still here!"
"I would advise against that, Commander! That she-kat suffered a severe trauma with the loss of her husband. She's in no condition to help!"
"Someone once said that if you're too much occupied holding your head, then your hands can't do the job!"
Commander Feral looked past his niece and Dr. Konway, who had turned around to see who had said that. They were surprised to find Paula Robertson at the door of Feral's office. Behind her was Ryan. Dr. Konway went immediately to her.
"Dr. Konway, I appreciate your concern but the best medicine for me right now is to dive headfirst in my work." – she looked outside the large window, to an explosion that lit the distance. Her eyes narrowed when she saw who had caused it – "And right now my job is to find a way to destroy that monstrosity!"
"I wouldn't have said it any better!" – another voice said from the door.
Feral rolled his eyes. With so many Enforcers out there trying to stop Volcanus, the guard inside Headquarters was next to none. And it would seem everyone and their mothers were converging on his office today.
"I believe we can help each other!" – Razor continued as he and T-Bone stepped inside Feral's office.
The gang was all there…
"Its crystal composition is unknown to me. It looks like green tourmaline but to be that much resilient, it means it's at least as hard as diamond…" – Paula stated as she looked at Feral's computer flat screen. On it was a video recording from the Turbokat's nose camera that Razor had supplied them.
"In which case he'd be the world's largest fancy diamond!" – T-Bone said – "Imagine how much money we could make if we sold him!"
No one commented on that remark. The tabby kept to himself from that point on.
"The problem with this Volcanus…" – Razor continued – "… is that he can do *everything* the old Volcanus could do and everything that *Shard* could do! We can't even get close to him without risking melting the Turbokat. On top of that, he has *this*!"
Razor pressed a key and the video feed changed into a schematic view representing Volcanus. A green wave coursed through the schematic body, starting first in the right leg, then, almost immediately in the left, going up through the legs diagonally, then up the torso and head before diverting first through the right arm and then through the left arm. Then it started all over again.
"This is an energy spike that the Turbokat's sensors detected while we were fighting him. As you can see, it takes about three seconds to run through the whole body."
"What does it do, this energy surge?" – Feral asked.
"I'm not sure but I suspect it has something to do with his regeneration. I think it may be some sort of regenerative wave that courses throughout Volcanus' body. Lacking more empirical evidence, it's the only explanation I can find for him to resist the attack of so many Banshee Missiles. Their combined attack should have turned Volcanus' whole body into a pile of sand! Unfortunately, that's not all he can do! He can also change the kind of crystal he's comprised. Since it changes the natural resonance frequency of the mineral, my Banshee Missiles can no longer destroy him."
T-Bone raised an eyebrow at the possessive pronoun although it really was just the truth: he'd never had much to do with weapons' development…
"It's not really surprising that he can do that!" – Paula intervened – "In the natural world we often find minerals that have the exact same chemical composition but have completely different crystalline structures!"
"Polymorphic minerals!" – Ryan said.
"Like diamond and graphite." – T-Bone exemplified.
"If he can change between minerals, then trying to increase the atomic movement in order to disrupt the atomic bonds will prove very difficult. And, you tell me, he has a very high internal temperature. That means the atoms in his body are already used to violent shoving."
"What do you mean?" – Felina queried.
"Well, temperature can be explained as the rate of atomic vibration of a body. The atoms of any one body are vibrating around a median position. When that body's temperature is high, it simply means that its atoms are vibrating more violently around that median position. The opposite is also true. That's why, in physical terms, the concept of 'cold' doesn't exist." – Paula explained – "The large atomic vibrations of Volcanus' body must also be responsible for the wave of energy that periodically courses through his body. Most likely, if we had a thermal camera sensitive enough, we could also view that wave rippling throughout his body."
"And his regenerative wave ultimately renders any attack against him utterly useless." – Razor concluded, crossing his arms over his chest.
"That's all very well but you've given me nothing with which to fight Volcanus!" – Feral said as he let himself fall over his large chair, behind his desk – "You're telling me the bastard is *invincible*!"
Razor and Paula looked down. Indeed, they'd done a good job of analyzing Volcanus' strengths but they've pointed out no weaknesses to be explored. An awkward and heavy silence fell in the room.
Tucked in a corner, Ryan twitched his ears and perked his head up, as if someone had just slapped him.
"The problem is his regenerative wave, isn't it?" – the youngster asked.
"Yes!" – Razor said before he sunk back in his thoughts.
"So just take it away from him!"
"And *how* exactly do you propose we do that?" – Feral queried in a voice that didn't show much patience for idiocies.
"No, seriously! Dr. Robertson, you said it yourself that the regenerative wave could be explained by the high rate of atomic vibration!"
"It's a possibility, yes. In order to reconstruct his damaged parts, the atoms had to be moved and pulled together. That can't happen unless there's a high rate of atomic vibration."
"Then just reduce the vibration rate!" – Ryan said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"No, Ryan has a point!" – Paula interrupted Commander Feral as she looked at her student, already aware of where Ryan's train of thought led – "Explain us your plan, Ryan!"
"Temperature is a measure of the rate of atomic vibration, right? The higher the temperature, the higher the vibration rate. But the opposite is also true: the *lower* the temperature, the *lower* the vibration rate!"
"I get it!" – Razor snapped his fingers – "If we reduce Volcanus' temperature, we reduce his atomic vibration rate, nullifying his regenerative wave and leaving him vulnerable to attack!"
"There's only one problem with that plan!" – Paula intervened – "In order to nullify completely Volcanus' regenerative wave, we'd have to decrease the temperature until we reached absolute zero, which is a physical impossibility!"
"How low is absolute zero, exactly?" – Razor queried.
"Negative 273,15 degrees Celsius. About minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit." – Ryan responded.
"That's cold!" – T-Bone said after whistling.
"Like I said, it's physically impossible to reach zero Kelvin, the absolute zero."
"But we can come very close to it!" – Dr. Konway intervened for the first time – "And quite easily, too!"
"We can use liquid helium!"
"Don't you mean liquid *nitrogen*?" – Feral inquired behind interlaced knuckles.
"Not if you want to get close to absolute zero!"
Paula concurred – "Liquid nitrogen is cold but it's not *that* cold! I'm unsure of helium's boiling point, though…"
"I'm on to it!" – Ryan said as he snatched the keyboard from Feral and went online. A few seconds later, the youngster let out an appreciative whistle.
"What did you find?" – Paula queried as she moved in closer to the screen.
"Helium's boiling point is roughly around 1 Kelvin! That's about negative 270 degrees Celsius, negative 460 degrees Fahrenheit!"
"Where can we find liquid helium?"
"MRI units use liquid helium as a cryogen for creating superconductivity effects on the machine's magnets!" – Dr. Konway stated – "We have a ten-liter Dewar in our med-lab storage down there. Extremely expensive stuff, however…"
"Does the University have some liquid helium to spare?"
"I'm sure the Quantum Physics Lab may have something like that! But exactly how much will we need?"
"I'd say all we can get our hands on! I mean, just look at Volcanus!" – Razor pointed outside the window, just in time to see another explosion bathe the greenish form of Volcanus in a bright orange glow – "He's not exactly small!"
"I'll call the head of investigation…"
"Way ahead of you, Dr. Robertson! I've accessed the Physics Department netsite. They've got a 2000-liter Dewar."
"English system, please?" – Felina asked.
"About 525 gallons."
"We needed about a thousand gallons of super rocket coolant to destroy Dr. Viper's plantimals." – T-Bone recalled.
"Super rocket coolant. That's liquid nitrogen." – Feral intervened.
"But Dr. Viper's plantimals were living beings, made of cells, which are mostly water. This guy's different! He's a living mineral! He won't freeze so readily!"
Razor shrugged – "A thousand gallons should do the trick!"
"We'll need another 2000-liter container, then. But where can we get it?"
"Why not go to the suppliers?" – Dr. Konway threw in – "I've got their address!"
"I just remembered something!" – T-Bone interrupted – "How much weight will two containers be? I mean, the Turbokat's engines are strong but…"
"It'll be about five tons… Eleven thousand pounds, give it or take."
T-Bone made a face as he exchanged glances with his slim partner. It was just under the jet's carrying capacity.
"We'll just have to go unloaded, buddy!" – Razor shrugged again.
"That's all very fine but we still have a problem!" – every eye in the room turned to look at Felina – "What are we gonna do with Volcanus once he's frozen?"
"She's right! He won't stay frozen for long! We'll need something that destroys him to the atomic level, so he can't regenerate anymore!" – Razor said with a frown. But the answer to that was plain to everyone. They all exchanged glances before they looked back at Commander Feral.
"The MegaBeam Cannon on the GeoKat-1 satellite…" – the husky brown-furred tom spoke slowly and in a low tone.
"It's the only way to end this, Commander!"
"Wait a second!" – Felina interjected – "Didn't that monstrosity out there survive a shot from the GeoKat-1 satellite's MegaBeam *and* the eruption of Blackstone Volcano? What chance does another MegaBeam shot have?"
"He won't be able to regenerate this time!"
"Did it occur to you that a shot from the MegaBeam will destroy an area with no less than a hundred city blocks?" – Feral queried.
"Did it occur to you that if we do nothing or if we fail to completely destroy Volcanus, there won't be *any* city blocks left?" – T-Bone countered, placing a huge hand over the Commander's desk. Father and son stared at each other for a long tense moment before Feral finally conceded.
"Very well…" – he snatched the keyboard from Ryan and punched a few keys. The computer gave out a small blip a few seconds later – "I've got control of the satellite. I'm engaging its thrusters." – he sighed – "You must understand that repositioning the satellite in orbit may damage its targeting scope! It was never designed to be pushed around from one place to the other, much less be used as a weapon…"
"If all goes well, this should be the first and last time we need it to do something it was not intended to do…" – T-Bone said before he motioned to leave with Razor close behind.
"Are you ready?" – T-Bone's helmet radio crackled with static. It was Commander Feral.
"We're almost done here. We're attaching the payload to the Turbokat as we speak."
T-Bone had the jet in hover mode as Razor hooked and secured the two giant bottle-like containers to the underside of the jet fighter. The slim SWAT Kat did a last check. He'd soldered the safety release valves with copper from some piping he found lying about so the two giant Dewars of liquid helium were now two giant bombs ready to blow at any minute. With one last inspection of the quick-release grapple, Razor nodded and hoisted himself aboard the jet fighter.
"Everything's set!" – he said as he strapped himself in – "Let's go!"
T-Bone increased the thrust from the VTOL engines and slowly the Turbokat hefted its heavy payload. When they'd reach a few yards above the chemical factory where Dr. Konway had sent them, the tabby engaged the rear engines but let the VTOL thrusters on. The jet slowly gained a forward momentum.
"How's it handling, bud?"
"Sluggish… Like a wet sponge…"
Razor smiled at the tabby's cinematographic reference – "Let's end this thing once and for all. Volcanus has done enough damage to our city already…"
"I can't imagine the tragedy if Commander Feral hadn't issued an evacuation order…"
"Our people is safe in the underground bunkers, buddy! Focus on destroying Volcanus! He's all that matters now!" – Razor ended the sentence in a low growl.
T-Bone looked through the glass of the canopy to the skies. Fortunately, a change in the winds had carried the menacing ash cloud from Blackstone's eruption away from the city. The skies presented a continuum from black to gray to yellow as he swept his eyes from north to south. In the middle, stood the giant form of Volcanus, sometimes glinting when a forlorn ray of sun managed to escape from the curtain of ash or when a thunderbolt crisscrossed the black northwestern skies.
"This is it! We're beginning the operation!" – the tabby said into his radio. He lowered his visor and adjusted his oxygen mask to his face. Razor mimicked his moves.
"Roger that, Turbokat! You carry the fortunes of us all with you!" – Commander Feral's voice came through the radio accompanied with the familiar frying of static.
"So, no pressure, huh? Turbokat, over and out!"
T-Bone shoved the throttle all the way and cut off the VTOL engines. The Turbokat rocketed forth towards the green giant.
"Steady, buddy! Dropping a 5-ton bomb isn't the same as targeting a missile."
Razor inspected intensely the screen in front of him, his finger on the control handle. The crosshairs slowly moved towards the green crystal form of Volcanus. His thumb fluttered nervously above the red capped control. The crosshairs finally rested upon Volcanus and turned red. Razor quickly uncapped the control stick.
The jet jerked ever so gently to the right. He heard his burly tabby make a sound that denoted irritation. A slight wind shear, perhaps, but still enough for the crosshairs to have moved away from Volcanus. Razor's finger froze in mid-air and he capped the red small button he'd just uncovered. He saw as the crosshairs slowly returned to the center of the screen.
Suddenly, Volcanus looked straight at him. The slim SWAT Kat recoiled ever so slightly, as if that stare equated to a slap to his face. He saw the giant grin mischievously.
"T-Bone! Get away!" – he urged.
Razor heard the muttered imprecation as the tabby quickly turned around, too slowly for the amazing flying skills of his partner. But it wasn't T-Bone's fault! The two giant containers dangling from the underside of the jet fighter made maneuvering extremely difficult.
"Damn it, Razor, I can't turn this thing on a dime, you know?" – T-Bone barked at his slim friend before he muttered to the jet – "Sorry I called you a thing, baby!"
Razor knew that but Volcanus' grin had chilled him to his very core. He just knew Volcanus was up to something and right now they were one big sitting duck, with their 5-ton suspended payload. If a crystal spear or a fireball hit the tanks… Crud! He didn't even want to think!
But nothing had happened. Volcanus merely stood there, staring and grinning at them.
No crystal spear! No fireball!
T-Bone maneuvered around the crystalline colossus, keeping a safe distance between them. Volcanus let out a low derisive laugh before his chest started to open up in sharp crystals much like a flower would, showing a kat-sized cavity in his chest. The creature's grin grew even wider.
T-Bone and Razor gasped. Inside Volcanus' chest cavity stood the immobile form of Rex Shard! The brawny gray furred tom slumped forward, tumbling over the chest crystals, inanimate.
"He is unconscious but very much alive, I assure you." – Volcanus stated as the crystals began to move again, closing the hollow in Volcanus's chest and enclosing Shard once more – "Will you have his death on your heads?"
Both SWAT Kats gritted their teeth in profound contempt. Was there no limit to this devil's malice?
"Damn! If we go through with the plan, Shard will be killed together with Volcanus!" – T-Bone smacked his fist on the side of the jet.
Razor's finger still hovered above the capped control handle of his instruments panel. His head clung to his chest. Yet another turnover of events! He rammed his fist against the side of the jet in a gesture so unlike him. The slim kat was frustrated beyond words!
"Razor?" – T-Bone called after having heard his friend's fist smacking the side of the jet.
The slim SWAT Kat had his eyes closed, his jaws tightly clenched. What an unexpected card Volcanus had just pulled out from his sleeve! And what a joke it was…
One tom! How difficult was the math? One tom in exchange for hundreds of thousands! Razor gritted his teeth. A familiar copper flavor filled his mouth. A thin line of blood trickled down the side of his jaws. His finger stopped fidgeting the cap of the control handle. He opened it.
A damn nuke! Why didn't he have a damn nuclear missile in the Turbokat? Why resort to this kind of kitten's play in order to disable your enemy? Why did he have to gamble his life in order to uphold his ridiculous *morals*?
Why couldn't he just *kill* the lot of them?
Rex Shard. The Metallikats. The Pastmaster. Dr. Viper. Dark Kat.
Why couldn't he just put a bullet between their eyes and call it a day?
Razor opened his eyes and briskly looked up, gasping sharply. There was a surprised look in his countenance as though he'd just been awakened by a smack to the face. He looked past the instruments panel and to the face of his partner. T-Bone looked fiercely at him, scolding him with just his stare. Razor couldn't stand his friend gazing at him so intensely! He had to look away!
"Are you okay?" – T-Bone's gruff voice was simultaneously a salve and a slap. He intended to tell his burly partner that he was alright but his voice faltered. It was only on his second attempt that he managed to ably reassure the tabby.
T-Bone turned back on his seat and turned on the radio again. As soon as he did it, a voice sprouted from the device.
"…in, Turbokat! What's your status? Over."
"Acknowledged, Control. We're okay. We experienced some technical difficulties with the radio." – the tabby explained – "The situation has changed. We've got a hostage situation in our hands, now. Volcanus is holding Rex Shard. Over."
"It wouldn't be much of a loss if you proceeded with the plan, Turbokat. Over."
"It wouldn't be *our* way, Control. Over." – T-Bone replied, not without some anger in his voice.
A single sentence! A handful of words! That was all it took for T-Bone to capably explain why they didn't have other type of armaments aboard the Turbokat, why they couldn't simply put a bullet between their enemies' eyes and call it a day.
It wasn't the SWAT Kats' way!
It wasn't *Razor's* way!
And to even *think* it could be a plausible course of action seemed now to Razor as the vilest and lowest thing in the world!
And yet, for a moment there, he'd thought of it…
"Blue Manx II to Turbokat. The plan continues. I'll rescue Shard!"
The newly refurbished Enforcer jet fighter crossed the afternoon skies as its two engines thrust its frame across the air with a speed that nearly matched that of the Turbokat and its three engines.
"BM-II, I say again, you don't have permission to take off!" – the monotonous voice of the air control commander rang through the com-link. There was a pause and then came a gruff voice that nearly blew her eardrums.
"LIEUTENANT, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
Felina smiled. She knew her uncle would throw a fit the moment he knew she'd commandeered the Blue Manx II prototype. Without losing her cool, she picked up the receiver and responded.
"This is Lieutenant Feral. In response to your question, uncle, I'm doing what I can to save our city."
"Lieutenant, it is not for you to decide what to do. Get your tail back here this instant!"
"Sorry, uncle! I can't hear you! There must be interference! I'll call you back when I finish up this guy!"
She discontinued the conversation and switched channels. She knew she was risking too much! She'd disobeyed her uncle too many times and although she had good reasons for it every single time, she knew the Commander couldn't bail her out of everything.
She'd worry about that later!
"Come in, SWAT Kats! This is Lieutenant Felina Feral!"
"Lieutenant! What's the deal?"
"You need help for this one. Proceed with the plan. Leave Shard to me!"
"Roger! Turbokat out!"
Felina watched as the Turbokat's backwash became fierier for a second before the jet hurtled forward towards Volcanus. She did the same, maxing the jet out. As she got closer to the crystal colossus, she brought the rain down on him. Several missiles found their mark exploding all over the green giant. The sudden attack seemed to have taken Volcanus by surprise. The conflagrations had been so large that one of his arms had simply shattered to bits. Felina turned the jet around for another volley when she noticed that Volcanus was rapidly regenerating his lost arm. She prepared another salvo of missiles but before she'd even get the time to fire them, Volcanus was whole again. He aimed his newly reformed arm at her and hurled several crystal spears against her. Electronic voices sprang from the cabin, urging her to institute anti-missile maneuvers.
While she was busy trying not to get the multimillionaire jet prototype impaled in crystal javelins, Volcanus had located the Turbokat on approach and had hurled several fireballs at the incoming jet fighter. It was with extreme difficulty that T-Bone managed to avoid all the scalding projectiles. Felina purred. T-Bone was one *heck* of a fly-tom! She saw the Turbokat pulling up into a vertical ascent. She understood what they were trying to do.
Death from above!
A dangerous gamble! Volcanus would undoubtedly know where they were all the time! All the crystal giant had to do was to shoot a few fireballs and they would almost certainly hit their mark!
It was up to her to make sure Volcanus was occupied enough not to notice the Turbokat racing down on him.
She engaged the double M134 miniguns, which slid down from each side of the jet. She gently squeezed the trigger in the front of the control column and a twin shower of 7.62 mm rounds hit the gigantic frame of the crystal colossus. Shards sloughed off Volcanus' hide as Felina continued her assault over and over again. In the long run, all that proved unfruitful in destroying the green giant but that wasn't her intent anyway. She succeeded in diverting Volcanus' attention from the SWAT Kats towards her and continued to spray the fire demon with her bullets.
Until something happened.
It was a double victory for Felina! Volcanus opened his chest cavity, exposing Shard! The fire demon obviously thought that exposing the fragile fleshling would halt her destructive endeavor. Little did he know that it had been *exactly* what she'd hoped to achieve since the beginning!
With her double miniguns still pouring a torrent of metallic fire, she maxed out the jet and headed straight towards the crystal colossus. Felina prepared everything cautiously. The lieutenant only had *one* chance to get it right!
She was prepared to go fishing!
The jet was flying low through the kat-made canyon of one of Megakat City's avenues at an astonishing speed. The only other kat she knew was capable to do that was on another jet, approaching inexorably from above the crystal colossus. Guns blazing, she punished mercilessly the colossus' feet and legs. A crystal spear that almost impaled her did little to break her concentration. Nor did the following two! She reached the colossus' feet and pulled up briskly, the jet obeying her as promptly and smoothly as though her brain had been hard-wired to the jet's computer. She rushed up, afterburners engaged, the green crystalline body of Volcanus rushing by underneath her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of Volcanus' hands approaching. It missed her by the skin of her teeth. She released the grapple from the bomb bay, its three metal fingers open wide.
Timing was of the essence now.
In her monitor, time seemed to slow down. A heartbeat seemed to take as long as a year. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Volcanus' other hand approaching rapidly. The center of her attention was the monitor, showing the grapple approaching the gray-furred tom.
The grapple's fingers touched Shard's flesh, surrounding his brawny torso. Volcanus' hand approached even more.
She pressed the button. The electric signal travelled from her console through the girded cable in a tenth of a second, free electrons bumping against free electrons in a cascade of motion, until it reached the servos at the end of the cable. The motor whirred to life and motioned the metallic fingers to move, to clamp shut around Shard's torso.
She yanked the still form of Shard just before the enormous palm of Volcanus smashed against the cavity, slivers of green crystals flying off in every direction. She quickly reeled her prize in before she made a barrel roll to level the jet and hurried up out of there and towards Enforcer Headquarters as Volcanus roared out a deafening and enraged negative, both of frustration and hatred. Her job was done.
T-Bone and Razor were descending at an indescribable speed. The Gs were crushing them against their seats and even T-Bone was starting to see the corners of his vision turning black. He hoped beyond hope his slimmer partner was okay enough to release their payload.
Come to think of it, if he passed out, it wouldn't matter whether Razor was awake or not! They'd simply crash and that would be that.
"Not today!" – the tabby cried in his mind as he grabbed the control stick with all the strength he had.
"Target acquired!" – Razor grunted – "Preparing to deploy!"
The jet squeaked and shook from the Gs it was being put through but T-Bone kept it steady enough for Razor. The radio crackled.
"Hostage situation neutralized, Turbokat!"
"Bombs away!" – Razor announced as he pressed the uncapped red button.
The quick-release grapple disengaged with a low metallic sound and released the two giant Dewars filled with liquid helium right over the still form of Volcanus. Inertia enabled the two containers to keep travelling down at the same speed as when they were attached to the Turbokat, humming down with deadly intent.
T-Bone banked the jet away. Razor peered at his screen, monitoring the trajectory of his projectiles. Flawless! He caught himself crossing his fingers. He was sure T-Bone would do that as well if he had any fingers to spare!
The helium inside the containers was already bubbling savagely from being in contact with the warm day but as it got closer and closer to the unbearable heat emanated from Volcanus, more liquid helium turned to gas, increasing the pressure inside the containers in a dramatic way. Ordinarily, that pressure would be relieved through the safety release valves. As they'd been tampered with, the pressure accumulated and accumulated until…
Volcanus looked above only to witness the explosion of two containers of liquid helium not one yard above his head. The resulting shower of liquid helium and super-refrigerated gaseous helium wasn't enough to reduce Volcanus' temperature close to 1 Kelvin, almost the absolute zero postulated by Thermodynamics. Rather, it fell short of 50 Kelvin, about negative 220 degrees Celsius, minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit. More than enough to hinder Volcanus' atomic vibration and prevent him from regenerating! Or, at any rate, enough to prevent him from regenerating *as fast* as he did! Although no one would bother with the math, the regeneration cycle would now last approximately three years, while it formerly lasted three seconds.
"Command, this is the Turbokat! Phase One completed!"
"Understood, Turbokat! Get your tails out of there *now*!"
"MegaBeam Cannon primed and ready to fire, sir!"
"FIRE!" – was Commander Feral's order.
Through the monitors of the Control Room in Enforcer Headquarters, Commander Feral, Dr. Konway, Paula and Ryan saw as a white streak of light came down from the skies and directly over the whitish frosted form of Volcanus. A blinding white hemisphere of light forced them all to close their eyes and turn away from the monitors.
If they had been able to see through the white blinding radiance and slowed down time, they'd have noticed Volcanus' body exploding in a million slivers from top to bottom as the white ray of light crossed his body. A millionth of a second later, they'd have seen those very splinters turning into a fine dust and, finally, they'd have witnessed their final and utter annihilation as the forces binding their atoms together were negated, allowing them to scatter in the superheated air inside the expanding white hemisphere of light.
The blast from the MegaBeam explosion tore through the city, destroying the buildings that had taken the most damage from the other day's earthquake. Even the sturdy structure of Enforcer Headquarters, one of the toughest buildings in the city, shook noticeably. In the Control Room, they heard as the walls moaned and reinforced windows broke all over the place. Some pieces of equipment sizzled and blew up. The pungent odor of fried electronic parts wafted over the room. However, something other than the strong odor superimposed like a heavy blanket over everything else.
They looked to the few monitors that were still working. The image displayed had some occasional rain and was distorted because of the heat waves emanating from the partially molten ground where Volcanus stood a moment ago. There was a crater some two miles wide, glowing faintly in orange, several small streams of lava from the molten bedrock slowly worming their way to the middle. The corners and tips of the ruined buildings around the fifty feet deep crater were alit in orange embers. Trees were charred or uprooted and laid down in every which way. Vehicles of every kind were tipped over, sporting multiple molten parts of the chassis and liquid tires. Truly a bad B-movie post-apocalyptic scenery…
But the most important thing was that Volcanus was gone! There was nothing left from him! Nothing at all!
The kats assembled there could not take their eyes from the flickering screen. They should be celebrating! Volcanus had been, indeed, the toughest and meanest villain that had ever been put in their way! And he'd been defeated! Instead, they watched in silence the vast destruction that had befallen their city.
Many lives had been reaped that day, particularly those of too many good Enforcers. They'd given their lives in order to achieve the most heroic and selfless of goals, to protect the lives of the innocent civilians of Megakat City, falling in battle against a foe vastly superior to their combined forces.
Too many good kats! Too much destruction!
Weariness claimed their tears, though, drying them.
It had been a long day! And it wasn't over yet…
"Control to BM-II! Please respond!" – the Flight Officer uttered in his monotonous tone – "BM-II, this is Flight Control! Please respond!"
It had been just five minutes before that they'd finally defeated Volcanus. After realizing the fire demon's defeat, Commander Feral had asked about her niece. The Flight Officer had said that she hadn't landed yet. Commander Feral understood it had passed too little time between her daring rescue and the MegaBeam strike. She'd have to fight off the blast wave as well as the strange electromagnetic pulse that had come from the explosion. That EM pulse had fried some of their circuitry but not all. He looked at his wristwatch and growled in contempt. The hands had become frozen in time at a quarter past five, the time of the strike that defeated the fire demon.
He rammed his closed fist into the wall, in a gesture of frustration so unlike him.
"Damn it, Felina!" – he thought to himself as he inspected intensely the few screens that were still working – "Why is it that everything has to be done *your* way? Who the hell cared for Shard's life *anyway*? Why did you have to risk your life to save the neck of a *criminal*?"
He breathed in deeply and let out all the air. It calmed him down a bit.
"That's not really the point, is it, Ulysses? The point is if she hadn't done that, the SWAT Kats wouldn't have dropped their freeze bomb and everyone would be in a stalemate."
He sighed again and closed his eyes.
"And since when have I started to think like the scum of this city? *Every* life is important… Even the life of such a scumbag like Shard…"
"… trol… M-II… ission to… nd…" – the radio crackled. Feral's ears bolted up and turned towards the source of the sound.
"This is Flight Control! Say again, pilot!"
"Control, this is BM-II! Request permission to land!" – Felina's voice came in at last, loud and clear.
"Permission granted, Lieutenant!" – Feral barked after he snatched the receiver from the Flight Officer – "And as soon as you take care of everything I want you in my office for debrief! Feral out!"
"Understood, sir! Lieutenant Feral out!"
Rex Shard opened his eyes suddenly. He tried to sit up straight but found out that something was immobilizing him. His eyes focused slowly and he gaped at his surroundings. It was dark. There were only a few cracks that provided an iota of light into the sepulchral space.
"Am I dead?" – he thought as his eyes focused and accustomed to the darkness. He could feel the coolness of steel pressing against his bare torso. He tried to move his arms but he soon realized he was bound by some sort of grappling device.
"Where the hell am I? Last I remember, Volcanus was getting ready to kill me!"
Suddenly, he felt a jolt crossing the hollow where he was. It startled him a bit. He felt his whole world shaking and heard as though a jet engine was shut off and cooled down. He started hearing voices, dulled by the metal between him and wherever he was.
Then, the doors opened and he fell down on the ground. Where once it had been scarce, now light poured into his world, blinding him. He closed his eyes forcefully but he could still see a bright orange glow behind his closed eyelids.
"Take him to a holding cell. My uncle will want to talk to him later." – he heard a female voice saying, after what a double 'yes, sir' rang.
He felt being thrust up by two pairs of arms. He tried opening his eyes but the light was still too strong. It was a yellowish light, though, so it meant it was late in the afternoon. For his sensitive eyes it was as bright as a Summer morning. He slowly got used to the new light conditions and looked around, allowing his captors to remove the grapple that bound him. His hands were gruffly forced behind his back and he felt the familiar cold steel of the handcuffs restraining him.
As he allowed himself to be cuffed, he looked at the retreating she-kat. She said her uncle would want to talk to him later. He looked around and finally recognized where he was. The roof of Enforcer Headquarters. He looked once more to the retreating female as she disappeared behind a door. So that must have been Lieutenant Felina Feral. Her reputation preceded her, even in such a slam as Alkatraz.
He was pushed forth and ordered to start walking. He obeyed. There was a gap in his mind that he desperately needed filling in. He looked around once more and, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the destruction over due to the west, where the sun was beginning its slow final descent into the horizon. He reasoned it must be five-thirty or something like that.
"What happened?" – he questioned but his captors said nothing. He was being guided down through a different door than that the Commander's niece had used. They got down several flights of stairs until they reached a long corridor illuminated with fluorescent lights. Gray tiles paved the floor, a tone similar to his own pelt, albeit a little darker. The bland white painted walls reflected the light from the ceiling and intensified it. It looked more the corridor of a hospital than anything else. He asked again what had happened but the only answer he'd gotten was a hard shove from one of his captors that made him stumble and fall down to the ground.
"Get up, you cop killer!" – one of his captors growled as he trained his gun on him. Shard complied and resumed his walk. He narrowed his eyes in confusion.
"Cop killer?" – he thought as he dragged his feet down the corridor – "I've never killed an Enforcer in my life! Did I kill Enforcers when I turned into the crystal colossus, years ago? No, I don't think so! What the hell happened here? What was that crater I saw outside? Did Volcanus manage to see his plans through? I *have* to know!"
Shard tensed his jaw as his eyes looked down almost desperately. They turned a corner into another insipid corridor. Enforcers had no taste at all, it seemed to Shard. The brawny tom looked up. Another party was coming his way. Great! More Enforcers! He looked at them with dull cow eyes, completely submissive. That was until his eyes met those of someone he knew.
Shard's eyes suddenly acquired a steely glint. Unexpectedly, he threw himself against the Enforcer that was on his left, the one who had called him a cop killer. The move was so unexpected and the force behind it so great that the horrible sound of a cracked rib was heard just below the grunt of pain that left the Enforcer's lips. Hardly being able to breathe from the pain, that Enforcer was incapable of joining the skirmish that ensued. His other captor had trained the gun on Shard but the brawny tom moved too quickly. Before any shots were fired, Shard had already kicked the back of the Enforcer's knees. Feeling the ground flee from under his feet, his finger twitched and pressed the trigger, the semiautomatic letting out a few rounds into the ceiling before it clattered on the ground as listlessly as its owner. A kick to the head promptly put the fallen Enforcer to sleep.
One of the two Enforcers that were escorting Ryan and Paula out of the building, the burlier one, quickly sprang into action. The second one, which was just behind the youngster, was already circling around Ryan in order to join his comrade. In a split second decision, Ryan threw himself against the Enforcer, crying out for protection from the enraged tom that was thrashing Enforcer after Enforcer in the narrow hallway. The Enforcer struggled to get rid of the youngster but Ryan clung to him with as much strength as he could. Eventually, the Enforcer fell over his tail and he fell over the Enforcer. Paula simply pressed herself against the wall before squatting down with her hands covering her head.
Shard smiled at Ryan's initiative! In the few seconds that it took for the Enforcer to cover the four yards that separated both parties, the brawny tom had disabled his captors and still had time to pull a stunt that left Ryan gaping. Shard tensed his muscles and pulled at the handcuffs behind his back. He roared out in effort and in pain, for the handcuffs where cutting his wrists. Droplets of blood fell on the floor as the weakest link of the chain that attached both cuffs together twisted and opened under the impressive strength of the gray-furred tom. His arms suddenly jerked towards his sides.
The beast was free!
The burly Enforcer jumped in the air, trying to cover the few last feet separating him from his quarry in a single bound. But it was already too late! Shard was already free and, roaring out in a display of raw power, he stretched out his left arm and grabbed the incoming Enforcer by the neck, stopping the other's flying motion dead in its tracks. The brawny body of the Enforcer stopped as though it had hit an immovable brick wall. He clutched and beat at Shard's arm, trying to loosen the tom's grip on his throat but it was like beating on a marble statue!
Ryan was astounded! Just how strong was that kat? Unfortunately, his moment of distraction was all the Enforcer that he was trying to pin down needed to get rid of the youngster. Throwing Ryan aside, the Enforcer jumped to his feet and drew out his gun, training it on Shard.
Behind the burly form of the struggling Enforcer he was now holding in mid-air by his throat, Shard saw his comrade training his firearm on him. With a grunt, he turned on his heels and, benefiting from the pent-up centrifugal force, flung the burly Enforcer against his partner, forcing him to lower his weapon and effectively blocking his field of view. The burly Enforcer flew two yards before gravity claimed him and he saw the gray-tiled floor rush to hit him in the face. He bounced twice off the floor before he finally came to rest at his comrade's feet, inanimate. By that time, Shard had already covered the few yards that separated him from his last opponent and, with a portentous right uppercut, he sent the bewildered Enforcer cartwheeling in the air a few feet back before he landed on his head and passed out instantaneously.
Ryan was getting up from the ground and saw the first Enforcer clumsily reaching for his radio and giving off the alarm. Ryan was still contemplating this when he felt being flung to his feet and roughly being shoved forth, away from the fallen Enforcers and down the hallway. The last word Ryan heard before they turned around the corner was something similar to 'hostage'.
"Commander, we've got a security breach!" – a voice crackled in the receiver over Feral's desk – "It's Rex Shard, sir! He's escaped and we believe he has made a hostage! That young tom that was with Dr. Robertson!"
"WHAT! HOW DID YOU LET HIM ESCAPE?" – this was Felina's invective. She couldn't believe that a bound Shard could have escaped from four armed Enforcers and even made a hostage!
"Unknown! We're converging on the corridor where the skirmish brewed as we speak!"
"YOU FOOLS!" – Commander Feral bellowed – "Shard's obviously attempting to get out of this building! Seal all exits immediately!"
The Commander terminated the connection and got up from his chair behind the desk. He cocked his handgun before he strode out the room with Felina following him close and also readying her gun.
"It's inevitable… If you want something done well…" – Feral muttered.
"… do it yourself!" – his niece concluded.
Shard and Ryan staggered down to the end of the corridor. Shard opened the door and swiftly inspected the landing. There was a winding stairway leading up and another leading down their current position. He looked down. It seemed to him that they were in the fifth floor. He motioned Ryan to the stairwell and they began climbing down. They had just gotten down two flights of stairs when they heard the sound of boot steps echoing in the staircase.
"Hurry!" – he whispered in Ryan's ear. They ran down the remaining flights of stairs. When they reached the bottom of the stairwell, Shard cautiously opened the door and inspected what lay beyond. They were in the Headquarters' underground parking lot. Dozens of Enforcer Cruisers were parked there.
Closing the door behind him with care, he motioned Ryan into the drab space. The floor and the walls here were made of unpainted concrete. A few water puddles formed under some leaky pipes. The ambience was dank and dowdy, like a large cavern. Their whispered words carried on by the echo. Slowly, cautiously, Shard guided Ryan towards the exit. With any luck, they might still slip by unnoticed.
"Stop right there, Shard!" – the Commander's voice bellowed through the ample space, startling them.
Shard turned around, his large hand forcefully gripping Ryan's arms behind his back. The youngster winced a little with this move. Shard let up the grip just a little. His other arm was planted around the youngster's neck,
"Don't come any closer, Commander!"
"There's no need to hurt that young tom, Shard!" – Felina said as she positioned herself side by side with her uncle. Slowly, she started to distance herself from the Commander, trying to outflank Shard.
"STAY WHERE YOU ARE!" – Shard bellowed, unsheathing his claws, which glistened briefly at the fluorescent lights that scantly illuminated the cavernous space – "TAKE ANOTHER STEP AND I'LL SLIT HIS THROAT!" – then he added in an inaudible whisper to Ryan – "Look scared, Ryan, or they'll see through my bluff!"
The young tom did as he was told and assumed his best terrified face, whining even a little bit. Shard was impressed: the young tom was a natural actor! Both Ferals stopped. It wouldn't help if the youngster panicked.
"Calm down, Shard! Let's just talk!"
"Drop your weapons!" – Shard demanded as he inched closer to the exit.
"We both know that's not gonna happen…"
"DROP YOUR WEAPONS! OR I SWEAR I'LL KILL HIM!"
"Please…" – Ryan whimpered, shuddering.
"Calm down, Ryan!"
"I DON'T WANNA DIE!" – he shrieked in a terrified voice.
Feral sighed softly. This wasn't going well at all! He saw no choice but to do as Shard ordered him. He bent down to place his gun on the ground in front of him and signaled Felina to do the same.
"Now step away from them!" – Shard ordered as he pressed his claws against Ryan's carotid. The youngster whimpered again, on the verge of panic. The Ferals did as they were told.
"You're not getting away with this, Shard! We'll catch you!" – Felina said with ice in her voice – "There will be no safe place for you to run!"
"Turn around and kneel! Keep your hands behind your heads!" – the gray-furred tom ordered. Feral signaled his niece to do as she was told. She grumbled but acknowledged.
"You wouldn't act so tough if you didn't have a hostage with you!" – Felina leered as she turned around and knelt.
That *almost* had the desired effect in Shard. At any other time, he wasn't a tom to take such offense lightly! However, such as it was, this was no ordinary time! He had to get out of there and hide somewhere in the great burg. He needed to buy some time to know what the hell happened. As quietly as he could, he inched his way towards the exit.
"How long are we to stay like this?" – Felina inquired after a while.
When five seconds had passed without a reply, both she and her uncle bolted up, turned around and ran towards the exit, not even slowing down when they doubled over to pick up their guns. They ran towards the exit, all but blasted through the door and almost came skidding to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, where they immediately found the unconscious form of Ryan, lying face down on the harsh concrete. Felina bolted towards the young tom and knelt beside him, turning him around. Apart from being out cold, Ryan seemed uninjured. Her uncle looked to one side and the other and across the avenue that ran in front of Enforcer Headquarters, looking for Shard.
Nothing! It was as if the earth had swallowed him!
The city was starting to move on, although life would take a lot longer to get back on its track than the paltry week that separated the destruction of the fire demon from the day the citizens had been given the 'all clear' signs and left the shelters. Commerce had reopened not even a week later and business went about almost as usual. All in all, Volcanus had claimed a quarter of the city's area. Now would begin a time for reconstruction and, hopefully, Megakat City would soon recover from its wounds.
Away from the cacophony and bustle of the rebuilding burg, Paula stepped into the quietness of the city's memorial park, a small bundle of white roses in her hands. She walked through the rows of tombstones until she reached one made out of polished pegmatitic diorite rock, where she hunkered down to deposit the petite bouquet near the headstone, like she had done every single day since David's memorial service. She lovingly passed her hand over the letters that formed her husband's name as a tear gave way to gravity and dashed down her cheek. David's body had been vaporized by the MegaBeam explosion back at Blackstone Volcano, so the gravestone didn't mark any remains of the black-furred kat. There weren't even any ashes left to be buried but Paula had been adamant about paying her last respects to the tom she loved so dearly. She got up and silently said a prayer as a merle flew over to the nearest tree and started singing loudly its melody.
Moments later, she went out of the memorial park and into her car. She still needed a few minutes to compose herself before she drove off after a brief last look towards the open cast iron gates. Half an hour later, she was stopping at MSU's Geosciences Department parking area. After glancing at her wristwatch, she quickly picked up her bag and entered the edifice, heading straight to the auditorium. When she went inside, she saw all her students already there. She greeted them and headed for the desk, fumbling with her bag's contents until she found the flash drive David had given her. Paula quickly boot up the computer, turned on the video projector and prepared to begin class.
One of Paula's students present in the auditorium was Ryan. The young tom paid close attention to what Paula had to say and took several notes but not once did he participate verbally in class. That was something that had changed for Ryan: where once he'd been one of the most participatory of Paula's students, he now walked in and out of his classes without saying a word.
When Ryan woke up, nearly two weeks ago, in a bed of the Enforcers' Infirmary, he'd been informed about the way he was found that very day outside Enforcer Headquarters. When he was asked what had happened between the time he and Shard had escaped and the time he was found, Ryan said that, aside feeling an intense pain to the back of his head, he couldn't recall anything else. The Commander told him that Shard must have dealt him a blow to the back of his head. The bulky tom explained that, if well delivered, such a blow could easily make a person faint.
He soon checked out of the Infirmary and was given permission to go home. His uncle had come to pick him up and he cried unabatedly when both toms embraced themselves. He hadn't known whether his uncle had survived the attack on the city or not and the glee to see the older tom okay, as well as his little cousin, had manifested into tears of joy.
However, Ryan never stopped trying to figure out just *why* had Shard acted the way he did, disposing of him as he would a pair of dirty socks! Didn't the brawny tom trust him, even after everything they'd been through? Did Shard actually plan everything, including his cousin's rescue from the rabid dog? Was even that story about his girlfriend being mugged and shot true? Was he really that bad a judge of character when it came to Shard? These unanswered and unanswerable questions tormented Ryan day and night…
When the bell tolled to signal the end of the class, Ryan packed his stuff and left the auditorium without a word. He went out of campus and to a café and sat near a window, a cup of warm cappuccino in his hands. He was soon joined by his friend Karen. She tried to make him open up his heart to her but he simply looked outside, through the window. She bit her lower lip before she took her hand in his and leaned closer to him, kissing him gently in the cheek, surprising Ryan. He looked into her eyes and saw something there that matched what he'd always felt for her. His eyes softened and they both leaned closer and kissed.
Outside, hidden in the shadows of an alley, a gray-furred brawny tom watched Ryan and Karen with a warm fatherly smile on his face before turning around and disappearing.
A toothy disgusted grimace appeared in the face of the dark form, white fangs glistening brightly in the murkiness of the interdimensional void. He closed his igneous red eyes.
"Yet another that disappears…"
"Still, he deserved it! The arrogant fool!" – a second dark undefined shape stated.
"Yes! He was careless! He allowed his votive figure to be broken in the eruption and then he allowed *himself* to be disintegrated by mortal's science!" – a third dark figure crooned.
"Indeed, it seems we shouldn't take the mortals' magic lightly…"
"No, we shouldn't! And neither should we look down on these mortals! Look at what it did to Volcanus! And to our herald, Katchu Pichu, before him!"
"Brother, are we really mourning the passing of a mere elemental demon and an even more insignificant half-demon? Shouldn't we be mourning the loss of our sister, the Goddess Hel, who passed away after leaving us such meaningful insight on the kismet of katkind?" – the second form uttered.
"Yes, Hel's shady prediction…"
" 'Many there were and few there are but no more than one shall it be!' These were the words our sister shared with us before her votive was shattered by our mortal enemies!"
"Horus and Osiris!" – the third form spat – "Curse them and their Envoys! It always took twice as much of us to keep balance with just half as much of them!"
The first form finally spoke again, still with his igneous eyes closed – "Fear not, brethren! Remember, they carry the instrument for their own undoing!"
"The weapon of the enemy…" – Pluto spoke.
"Our weapon…" – Hades continued.
"My was-scepter…" – Seth concluded as he opened his eyes, two bright coals on fire glinting in the dark void – "And our Envoy, our Prowler of Death, shall deliver it to us…"
- The SWAT Kats' Final Resistance;
- Purpose is All;
- MadKat and Me;
- The Tiny Bacteria;
- Inner Demons.