From the Darkest Hour of the Night...
Author: Kristen Sharpe
Date: August 21, 1999
Finished: February 12, 2000
Thanks to Crash, Sage, Beth, and Worthy for encouraging me to finish this thing. Crash, thanks for letting me lob this at you in pieces over ICQ when I still thought it was a mad idea. Sage, the ending exists as is because of that brilliant idea of yours. Beth, you live with me... You put up with my rambling. Love you, oh bestest roommate in the whole wide world! No, I don't want the food in your half of the fridge. Worthy, hearing someone wanting the end is an incredible motivator! Thanks to you all!
Oh, and while this fanfic was first devised long before I even learned of this techno-wonder called the Internet (before I learned how to use it at any rate), this writing does follow my reading of Terra Chang's "Refugees," which works with the "A Bright and Shiny Future" concept as well. I surely hope I haven't copied her here, but I do owe her for some inspirations I'm sure. Besides, it was a good fanfic!
The skeletal sorcerer glared at the cityscape before him. The ominous buildings shimmered in the foggy view of his scry.
"Why?" the PastMaster murmured. "Why was I fool enough to bargain with those cursed Metallikats?!" His voice rose in anger. "I was blind enough to think they were too stupid to double-cross me. But, not again." He glared at the watery image of Metallikat City again before waving a dismissive hand at the scry. It shuddered and dissolved, melting into wisps of fine smoke that trickled away.
The hooded figure turned back to the spell he was preparing. The rubble of the abandoned warehouse stood in stark contrast to the roiling green surface of an ephemeral "pool," seemingly set in the floor. Scattered, tiny fires lit the pool's waters, throwing eerie emerald-tinged light across the concrete floor.
The PastMaster hurried to the pool's side, noting how the verdant light of its water had started to pulse with an inner urgency.
"This would be so much simpler if I still had my watch," he hissed in frustration, mentally gauging the spell's readiness.
If he'd had his watch, he wouldn't be trapped in this dimension, and he wouldn't be seeking the aid of enemies. If he had his watch, vengeance would be so much simpler.
Swearing to himself in a language long lost, the PastMaster studied the pool. It was ready. He drew himself erect and murmured the ancient rune, the first spell he'd ever learned. That which parted time and space.
The pool's waters shuddered in response to the ancient words, rising abruptly in a tower of water. The PastMaster didn't see it, his single eye blind with the force of his concentration. This would take every ounce of raw energy his skeletal frame possessed.
The waters rose higher and higher. Then, a dark form began to take shape in their midst. It gained solidity, assuming a kat-like shape. Suddenly, the figure snapped fully into the universe and time to which the PastMaster had summoned it, lunging from the pool.
The green waters fell as the figure exited their embrace, the spell broken. The robed sorcerer jerked at the shock of being forcefully flung back into reality. Briefly, he allowed himself a twinge of gratitude for the dubious "gift" of his less-than-living state; the jolt would have been excruciatingly painful for the living. It was little more than an irritation to him.
Refocusing on the task at hand, the PastMaster searched for the being he had called. Two glowing red eyes met his as he gazed across the pool, now little more than a steaming tank of fetid, murky run-off.
A monstrous feline crouched there, face twisted in an animal's snarl... and something else... The beast leaned forward, spittle spilling from his cavernous maw. Partially illumined now, his distorted face became visible. Half of it was normal enough; the other half was a lumpy mass of partially-vegetated flesh.
But, it was a SWAT Kat. There was no mistaking the flight suit, shredded as it was. The PastMaster frowned. It was the big tabby - T-Bone. He looked like he'd been on the receiving end of one of Viper's experiments. His right arm was green, coated in more half-vegetable material. His right leg was the same color, leading down to a viciously clawed, frog-like webbed foot.
The assessment only took instants, but it was long enough for the mutant to lunge at the hooded being.
"Get back, brute!" the sorcerer snarled, waving a hand.
The simple gesture was enough to send the mutant SWAT Kat hurtling backward. He connected with the warehouse's far wall with a dull thud and slid limply to the floor.
"Stupid animal!" the PastMaster hissed, slumping to the floor himself as frustration and exhaustion claimed him.
For a long minute, his focus was inward as he pulled the remnants of his power together.
"But, I need you," he murmured at last. "This world is so frail... the ancient harmonies so weak and shattered... only one like yourself could I call. One whose place in this world is empty... And, one who will blindly fight my enemies because of your own convictions... Help me save this world then, SWAT Kat. Help me save it... and myself."
His voice died away into a rasping moan as he focused his power. Emerald light gathered around the skeletal figure as energy pulsed from deep within his being. His voice rising to a scream, the PastMaster flung the magical energy into the unconscious SWAT Kat.
T-Bone jerked spastically, his red eyes flashing open, unfocused, as the rush of magical power surged into his body. The great kat's scream of pain, of awakening, mingled with the sorcerer's. Then, he collapsed again, his red eyes suddenly purest green as he tried to seek the source of his torment, of his blessing.
The PastMaster released a final wail and fell in a heap, the last of his power exhausted. Slowly, the verdant light died away as the last shimmering strains of magical energy trickled from both creatures.
T-Bone gazed at the robed figure, uncomprehending. Then, he let his head slump to the floor, too tired to seek answers. Too tired to understand that his kat's mind was restored... in a monster's body.
The big kat watched the less-than-pure water dribble from his viciously clawed right hand as he finished his drink. The stained plastic trashcan that some ingenious soul had rigged to catch rainwater brought through a twisted conduit from the roof was hardly sanitary, but he was too thirsty to care. As he eyed his monster's paw, his marred face twisted further into a mask of sadness and regret.
"Don't dwell on it," a voice advised behind him. "This is the world of the distorted."
T-Bone looked over his shoulder to find the PastMaster perched high in the antiquated warehouse's rafters. A dark look flitted over his face.
"I want more of an explanation," he demanded, his words still slurred despite the sorcerer's best efforts to restore his mutant's frog-like tongue to a more normal one. Pointedly, the heavy mutant swung his wide frame around to face his "benefactor."
"I expected as much," the PastMaster returned, his manner strangely serene.
T-Bone held the robed being in a level gaze and pondered for a moment before speaking.
"I can't say I'm not grateful," the big kat muttered, searching for the right words. "You've... you..." He gave up. "You know what you gave me. You know how much I owe you. But, why? Why'd you do it? And, where is this? What happened to the city?! Everything is...!"
The PastMaster held up a hand to ward off further questions.
"Let me explain first, then we can play this... twenty questions game." He hesitated only momentarily over the modern term.
T-Bone nodded and settled into a sitting position, waiting. With an effort, the SWAT Kat suppressed the burning questions he felt within. He'd fought the PastMaster enough not to trust the diminutive gnome. And yet...
He closed his eyes and let the images come. Razor leaping out of his way. Himself pursuing. T-Bone's eyes flew open. Most of what had transpired between that minute when he'd reached back to scratch the mutant bite for the last time and when he'd woken in the warehouse was hazy at best. His memories were fuzzy images and feelings. But, he knew enough. He'd tried to kill his best friend, tried to eat him.
T-Bone shuddered. He owed the PastMaster. He was himself again, a gift without price. Now, hopefully, he would learn why it was given... and what was asked in return.
Noting the flood of emotions that flashed across the tiger-striped kat's face, the PastMaster waited for the torrent to pass before beginning his tale.
"We are currently ten years beyond your own time in an alternate universe. Here, the Metallikats rule." The sorcerer paused briefly. "I won't deny my own part in this. I freed them. I restored the metal bodies that had been destroyed. I helped them find the technology to rule this city. And, I was there to ensure the death of our mutual enemies - the SWAT Kats. That was why I came - to create a nightmare realm in which to lure SWAT Kats I fought in the 'present.' For I couldn't bear for you to live - past, present, or future. It was a moment of unreasoning rage, I grant you. My last defeat at your hands was still fresh and the need to destroy you - in any way, in any time or world - was all-consuming."
"So, there are no SWAT Kats in this world because you killed them... and now you've called another here?" T-Bone asked darkly, anger churning in his altered frame. A surge of adrenaline so powerful it could only be strengthened by the Katalyst X-63 that had created his mutant form shot through his veins. His mutant body was sensing his anger and preparing him for battle the only way it knew how. Shaking with the effort to control the chemically-charged fury, T-Bone launched his challenge. "Am I here to feed your bloodlust, PastMaster?" He subconsciously shifted into a fighting stance. "Cuz I won't die without a fight..." His slurred words rumbled with a growl the like of which no kat should have been capable.
"You are here to help me!" the PastMaster declared. "My rage, with my powers, is nearly spent. The Metallikats sought to kill me once my usefulness had ended." His skull's face split in an ugly parody of a smile. "You can see how much luck they had." His second of humor died stillborn. "But, they did take my watch, rendering me nearly powerless."
"Powerless?!" T-Bone roared, his fury ebbing slowly.
"Yes. The spell that brought you here took months of preparation. I had no source of power to tear time and space asunder at will as I am accustomed. I had to wait - wait until the boundaries were at their weakest. The power that brought you here, the power that healed you came from myself."
"But, if you can do that,...!" T-Bone sputtered, becoming increasingly more confused than angered.
The sorcerer cut him off, abruptly appearing directly in front of him.
"I did it at the expense of draining myself." His gaze bored into T-Bone's eyes. "I cannot die like you, SWAT Kat - I was denied that right long ago - but, I can... expend... my life source." He broke off, his one-eyed gaze staring through the SWAT Kat to something only he could see. At last, the PastMaster spoke again, backing away.
"I am nearing the end of my energy... There is none to draw upon in this world. It is devoid of magic, all such things have been abolished, destroyed as waves of 'technological progress' have destroyed this world..."
T-Bone regarded the diminutive figure for a long moment, slowly sinking back to a sitting position as his body at last banked its own flames.
"So, you're saying that you're dying - in the only way you can?"
"Yes," the PastMaster nodded shortly. "We sit in the heart of the destruction of which I spoke. All the world is dying in this age, but MegaKat City will be the first to go thanks to the Metallikats' stupidity. They've created a world for robots here... and few living creatures survive it long..."
T-Bone digested that piece of information for several minutes.
"So, you want to appeal to my... what? Honor? Sense of duty? Want me to become a hero again and bound off to save this poor little world, hoping I'll save you in the process?" He lapsed into a long silence. Then...
"So, what about my world?" The voice escaped his lips hoarsely. It was his final question. The last thing he had to know before...
"They couldn't save your city," the PastMaster began as T-Bone's head sank to his chest. "But, your partner did survive. Your Callie Briggs was adamant that you both be found and went out alone with Feral's niece to find you. She found your partner, and he was airlifted from the city in critical condition. He would never have left had he been conscious." The skeletal gnome shrugged.
"Wa... was I there? Did I hurt them? Did I hurt Razor?" T-Bone demanded.
"You... were the cause of his injuries, but you broke off just before killing him and vanished into the swamp the city had become. They never found you. Your partner recovered and, together with the former deputy mayor, returned to search for you and any survivors. They found several half-mutated kats whom they sent back to attempt curing. But, there was no hope for MegaKat City... Your partner and the deputy mayor protested to the last, but the city was ultimately branded a threat to the rest of katkind... and destroyed..."
"So, I was supposed to die," T-Bone murmured to himself, the comment not a question.
With a muted snarl, T-Bone turned from the PastMaster and reached up to rip off his helmet. The vegetable-like flesh that had grown over it during his mutation tore away in a searing burst of pain that only augmented his scream of anguish.
'I should have died... I should have died back in my own world...'
The words echoed in his head as he flung the helmet away from him and sank to the floor, clutching his throbbing scalp. At last, he spoke, his voice choked.
"I'll do it, PastMaster. I'll try my hardest to save this MegaKat City. You were right when you brought me here - I can't not do it. Being a SWAT Kat is all I have left."
For there was nothing else. His city was gone. His life was gone. He was a kat in mind only, his body that of a distorted monstrosity with an animal's instincts. All he had left... was... his soul. And, long ago it found its calling as one who fought for the sake of those in need, as a hero. So, he would fight for this city. Fight to the bitter end. Because it was all that was left to him. And, if Chance Furlong was going to lose his life in any way but by natural causes, he'd long ago promised himself that it would be in trying to accomplish something worthwhile.
"Your partner eventually married and raised a family." The PastMaster's voice held a soft tone T-Bone wouldn't have thought possible as it broke through his thoughts. "Though I tried to summon him too, he failed to come... And, I had thought you both dead in his world..."
It was several endless minutes before the implications of his words breached T-Bone's tortured mind. Breathing heavily, almost afraid to ask lest another fragile hope be shattered, he found the sorcerer over his shoulder.
"What... do you mean?" he asked gruffly, his voice rumbling.
"I mean... your partner is likely still alive in this world."
"Where? How do I find him?"
The sorcerer presented him with a grave face.
"I know of only one place that might hold the answers you seek..."
T-Bone's bare feet squelched in the muddy earth. All around him the twisted skeletons of metal structures marked the sprawling machine graveyard. In the distance, a featureless gray building bounded by a fence marked the "work camp" of which the PastMaster had warned him.
The big kat pinned his ears to his head in anger. Work camps...! Then, he saw it.
Any other villain, excepting Viper perhaps, would have found another fate for it. Dark Kat would have displayed it as a gruesome trophy or destroyed it as warning and a way of depriving mourners of even a gravesite to visit. But, not the Metallikats. Mac and Molly were singularly unimaginative. It was here because they had spared it from destruction with thoughts of setting it up to gloat over, but had soon forgotten.
T-Bone would never forget.
The shattered hulk of the TurboKat loomed before him, a rusting mound of debris. Her nose was shattered, unrecognizable until halfway down the length of the cockpit. A single wing trailed limply in the mud, broken, the fuel that was its life's blood long since drained away.
Feeling suddenly empty inside, T-Bone stepped up to what had been his most prized of material possessions to stare past the shards that remained of the canopy. He jerked away in a rush of nausea. The sight in the front of the cockpit sent him stumbling back, clutching his stomach and retching spastically for several minutes. Be it the sheer horror of the sight or a paradox of his nearness to the husk of the T-Bone of this world the big tabby knew only that the fit of retching was the most intense he'd ever felt.
It was long minutes before he could face the jet again, breath still coming in ragged gasps. He wiped his mouth on the bare "skin" of his mutated right arm and staggered closer to the jet. The pilot's seat was inconsequential to him now. It was the weapons officer's seat his eyes searched.
It was empty.
Something inside T-Bone leapt. Empty. Razor was alive. Could be alive, he amended quickly. And, yet... He could sense it. Razor was alive. He had to be alive. The scattered ashes that littered the big kat's soul self-ignited in a spontaneous fire of hope.
Desperately, oblivious now to the corpse at the front of the jet, T-Bone searched. Searched for any indications of where his partner might have gone or if he had even been able to climb out by himself.
His hands found Razor's safety harness... and stopped. The straps he held had been cut. Ragged ends trailed from where the top half of the harness straps terminated prematurely. T-Bone debated. Had Razor been forced to cut himself free?
The big kat thought quickly. No. The release mechanism Razor had built for that harness was too simple to have been rendered useless by a crash that didn't kill the seat's occupant. The single clasp into which the multiple straps interlocked would have to have been crushed, in which case, Razor's abdomen... T-Bone shoved the thought away and sought out the harness's release mechanism.
He found it on the floor of the cockpit, all straps still firmly locked in, the severed ends of the shoulder straps trailing free and the lower straps still connected to the ejector seat. Tentatively, T-Bone applied a firm even pressure to three specific, indented points across its face. The mechanism clicked and the remaining harness straps were released.
"It works...," T-Bone breathed, not entirely positive what to make of it.
Thoughtfully, he extricated himself from the shattered jet, leaning against its fuselage to think. Then, he saw it. Fluttering amid the jagged shards that remained of the canopy. T-Bone plucked the weather-beaten piece of white cloth from its home and stared at it. He was sure it was nothing of Razor's. The only white either SWAT Kat wore was under his flight suit. The suit would have to have torn first. Instinctively, the big mutant sniffed the shred of material.
T-Bone's head jerked up as the scent registered, his green eyes widening.
Unbidden, the images played in his head, his mental voice playing back in the only language his mind had been able to record at the time.
Hunger. Food. Desperate. Must eat. Hunting. Fish? Yes. Fish in water. Murky water loomed before him and he watched it hungrily. Movement! He was upon it, leaping into the water, pursuing. Grabbing, eating. Then, he emerged. His fur was wet, his hunger sated.
Wet. Need dry. Need rest. More fish soon. Need more. Hungry. So hungry. He lay across the top of a half-submerged tractor trailer truck, basking in the warm sun.
Then, he felt something approaching. He leapt to his feet, snarling.
Something. Attack. Fight first.
Then, he saw it, standing over him on the ledge of one of the city's hundreds of flooded buildings and eyeing him curiously. He growled a warning.
Small one. Not large. Can kill. No fear. No fight now though. Go away.
The creature didn't heed his less-than-articulate warning and instead leapt down in front of him. He lunged to attack and was met with a stunning blow to the head as the creature swung around and whipped him away with its powerful tail.
"Sssssooo... A SsssWAT Kat joins my army of creaturesssssss?" the thing hissed. "Perfect..."
T-Bone leapt to his feet and charged anew. Only to find his prey gone, vanished into the water. With a growl, he resumed his nap uneasily, filing the creature's scent away as one to be watched.
T-Bone jerked as the memory flash ended.
"That's what I thought like? That's what I was?" he murmured to himself, shocked at the memory of his time as a mutant beast roaming the abandoned MegaKat City. Then, he shook it away. It was another lifetime, one he wanted to forget. All that mattered was that he remembered the scent.
"Viper," he hissed darkly. "If you've hurt a hair on Razor's head,... I already owe you one..."
"Halt. Non-metallic lifeform, stop."
The synthesized voice blared from nowhere.
T-Bone's head jerked up to find a bulky, square vehicle of some form hovering above him.
"Crud!" he growled, leaping away from the TurboKat into the cover of another metallic hulk. He crouched there on all fours, searching for a way out.
The drone hesitated, its scanners probing wildly. The heat signature was all wrong to be a kat. Too cool. Not reptilian, which the robot was programmed to ignore, but not a kat's body temperature either. The machine's meager artificial intelligence went into overdrive. Only the one heat signature was to be apprehended. Others were to be ignored. Yet,... this one was dangerously close to a kat...
An urgent summons ended the debate. It was being called to a disturbance elsewhere. The aberrational heat signature would be ignored and classed as animal. It would transmit its findings to the Central Matrix for re-analyzation.
T-Bone watched in surprise as the drone suddenly pivoted on its axis and then sped off.
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, I guess...," he murmured as he cautiously made his way back to the warehouse. He had more important things on his mind as it was.
"Alright, Viper! I want answers!"
Felina Feral was no less intimidating upside-down than she was right-side up. Dr. Viper, however, was not easily intimidated. Moreover, being dangled from a tree limb by his tail, upside-down had the very undesired effect of making him especially surly.
"Forget it!" he snarled. "When I get free of thisssss,...!" He struggled violently, bouncing on his tail and the rope secured to it wildly. Only his legs were free to kick, his arms were bound tightly to his body.
Felina lunged forward to grab the nearest of the cords that held him.
"I mean it, Viper," she hissed. "Three of my kats are missing, and I know you're behind it!" She narrowed her eyes and spoke slowly. "Where... are... they?"
"They're at my placsssse of courssse," Viper returned. He caught her look of triumph and added calmly, "Not that you'll ever learn where that issss..."
Felina growled in a fury and shoved him away, letting him swing freely.
"A few more hours of the blood running to your head and you'll talk," she snapped. "Henderson, Clarke!" she shouted to the two kats behind her. They stepped forward quickly.
"Yes, Ma'am?" Clarke asked.
"Watch him... He may try to lose his tail - chew if off for all I know - to get free. If he tries, remind him that our blasters still have working power packs."
"Yes, Ma'am!" The two saluted smartly, albeit awkwardly.
Felina sighed as she walked away. Yes, they still had power packs and raids on Metallikat outposts and work camps had given them the time and ability to charge those packs... But, at the cost of how many kats? She could only name twenty Enforcers among the ranks of their resistance fighters. Ninety percent of their kats were recruits like Henderson and Clarke, willing, but untrained.
And, every day, they lost more kats to the robot drones, which shipped them to work camps... or killed them if they struggled too much.
She sighed deeper as she let a hand trace the ragged patch along her battered field uniform's shoulder where Viper had got in a lucky blow while they tied him.
They were losing, and she knew it all too well.
T-Bone picked his way through the swamp, mulling over his situation. His only clue to finding Razor was Viper. It narrowed his possibilities on one hand and made them infinite on the other. Everyone had always known that Viper hid in MegaKat Swamp, but the swamp was no small area; it was a vast jungle stretching for several hundred acres along the coast. It was a perfect hiding place... and not just for Dr. Viper. T-Bone sighed, the PastMaster's words sounding in his head.
"The last of the free kats escaped to the swamp where the robots' sensors can't find them. There they hide in relative safety eking out the frailest of livings."
"How many are there?"
"Only several hundreds. They live in camps of twenty-five spread throughout the swamp on any portion of dry land."
His webbed right foot slipped into the boggy mire he was tentatively skirting, ending the train of thought. T-Bone jerked it free and shook it, sending mud flying.
"Like more mud could hurt," he mumbled, picking his way past the bog.
Numerous encounters with the nearly invisible bogs had left him little better than a walking mudball. He had tried to make himself presentable, hoping it would improve his fierce appearance. Under the PastMaster's smirking gaze, he'd sought the cleanest water not suitable for drinking and tried to wash away the grime collected from months of living like an animal. His fur had emerged clean enough, but nothing could help his tattered flight suit. Half of it was submerged beneath the plant-like growth that covered the right side of his body. The visible portion was a ragged mess. Nonetheless, his immortal benefactor had forbidden his trying to find better clothing.
"You may look monstrous, but they will recognize your suit. You SWAT Kats are legends now."
His fur clumped with mud, half his body green and vegetated, the big kat hardly felt like a legend.
Abruptly, a sound reached his sensitive ears. T-Bone pricked them forward, searching. The sounds of the night jungle came to the forefront of his attention. The steady hum of a thousand insects, the regular rhythm of frogs,... and the hesitant tread of footsteps.
Subconsciously, the big tabby slid into a fighting stance, his tail growing rigid and still. He slowly sank into a crouch. With any luck, his "mudbath" would help conceal him.
He had hardly settled onto his haunches when a cautious figure crept through the bushes. The form was average height and slim. T-Bone squinted, tilting his head back in hopes of seeing a face. The effort was wasted, a visored hat obscured the visage he sought.
The curious figure froze abruptly, turning ever so slightly toward his hiding place. Wasted effort and he'd given himself away.
Smooth, Chance, T-Bone growled at himself as the kat before him slowly produced a blaster from the folds of his clothing.
On near silent feet, his new stalker slipped forward. Not three feet from T-Bone, the figure lunged forward, thrusting the weapon at his assumed position. Caught off guard by such a move, T-Bone reacted blindly on instinct. He grasped the blaster's muzzle and twisted it around, using its owner's impetus to send the other kat sprawling.
The SWAT Kat's would-be attacker landed on his back with a startled 'oof!' as the air rushed from his lungs. T-Bone was an instant behind, throwing himself onto the surprisingly small figure and pinning him.
"Now, listen! I don't want to hu..."
The scream of his own name, his own callsign, sent the big kat's train of thought into abrupt derailment. Stunned, T-Bone looked down upon the face of his captive.
Callie Briggs' lips shuddered as though speech was stopping just before reaching them.
Her tone was hesitant, questioning now. She'd seen. Seen his hideously distorted face at least.
"Callie," the tabby murmured, rising away from her slowly. Then, he realized his mistake. "Miss Briggs," T-Bone corrected, half-standing and offering her a hand, his left.
She accepted it and let him pull her to her feet, wide green eyes never leaving his.
"T-Bone," she repeated softly, one hand reaching forward to brush the vegetated flesh of his right cheek.
He trembled at her touch, conflicting emotions tossing in his brain.
"Did this happen when the TurboKat crashed?" Callie asked softly.
"When th...?" T-Bone started to respond, confused. Then, he knew what she meant. "No," he murmured miserably, wishing he could say her theory was so. "Viper... one of his...," he began. His voice slurred unintelligibly. Mortified, T-Bone let his speech trail off.
Callie sensed his distress.
"It's okay," she soothed, cutting him off. "You've been through a lot... Haven't we all?" she added, her wan smile weakening. For the first time, T-Bone realized how aged her face was. Heavy lines surrounded her eyes, which looked infinitely tired. Her blonde hair was considerably shorter than he'd ever seen it and pulled into a limp ponytail. It was dingy and could have used washing, but it was as golden as ever.
The golden she-kat noticed his appraisal.
"It's been a couple years," she commented softly.
"Since the TurboKat...?" T-Bone started, speaking slowly and pronouncing each syllable with care.
Callie's finger on his "lips," such as they were on his twisted face, stopped him.
"Yes..." Her green eyes stared into his for a moment, searching. "Explain everything only when you're ready," she told him gently.
She was a saint! An angel! She thought he was her world's T-Bone. One who had fought to save the city and nearly died in the effort, lost his partner, and suffered unspeakable torments since! What would she say if she knew? Knew he was from another world? Knew he was sent by the PastMaster who started this nightmare? Knew how much a monster he was?
Again, his turmoil, his sadness were written on his face - a book for her to read.
"Come," Callie urged. "I'll take you to the camp."
Camp. His first glimpse was a faint red-orange glow in the lush undergrowth of the jungle. Gradually, it grew brighter. Then, Callie froze in front of him and turned to face him.
"T-Bone,... these kats... remember the SWAT Kats... Not so much from experience, but by reputation... They... honor you... They'll expect..." she started.
The SWAT Kat knew what she meant. It was an invitation. An invitation to be snuck into camp, to give up his flight suit and SWAT Kat identity, and be another member of the camp, like anyone else. An invitation not to be looked to as a legend, but only for that which he was truly capable. T-Bone could feel the invitation hanging in the air. But, he couldn't accept it. He was a SWAT Kat. He wanted no new identity, could accept no new identity. He was T-Bone, now and forever. And,... if he could bring one spark of hope into this dark world...
"I know," he answered Callie softly, interrupting her. "But, I am a SWAT Kat... and nothing else now..."
She nodded, looking at him with soulful eyes before turning away and calling into the night softly.
Two sentries appeared through the foliage at her call. They paused, seeing the huge tomkat's bulk behind the petite she-kat.
"He's a friend," Callie assured them.
T-Bone could see the sentries darting curious glances at him even as they nodded to Callie and stepped aside. The glances became quiet mumbles and a gasp as he walked past them and the twosome saw the tatters of his flight suit. Mentally, the big kat steeled himself against such reactions; they would only get worse when they saw him in better light. Hopefully prepared, he followed Callie into the red-orange glow.
Camp. It was an apt term. Tents clustered around the smoldering embers of cooking fires. Armored vans and a bizarre collection of other vehicles made a protective circle around the tiny outpost of civilization.
The tiger-striped one looked at it, blinking. So, this was all that was left of MegaKat City?
His musing was interrupted as Callie took his right hand and pulled him toward the glowing embers of the largest campfire. The big tabby let himself be pulled along. He glanced down at their hands. Her small tan-furred hand looked diminutive wrapped around his monstrous right hand. How often he'd wanted that hand in his...
T-Bone turned his attention from the thoughts that roiled up from their hiding place in his soul. No. Like most of his life, that was in the past. She'd never have him now. If a mechanic with a sullied career in the Enforcers wasn't worthy of her, how could a monster ever be? The golden one could cheer the return of a warrior from the past, could welcome one whom she knew had come to fight for her people once more. But, that was it. She wanted, she and all the others needed his help. Very well. He was a SWAT Kat. Now, no more and no less.
The kats around the fire they were approaching looked up at the sound of footsteps. Several nodded to Callie and offered greetings. A couple squinted at T-Bone, trying to identify him.
T-Bone carefully freed his hand from Callie's and purposefully stepped forward into the light.
"LieutenantCommanderFeralma'am! They found a SWAT Kat!"
Felina stared down at the diminutive messenger, not truly comprehending.
The kitten's wide blue-gray eyes bored into her own. His head was tilted all the way back to find her face. The scruffy tomkitt's eyes danced with excitement and pride. It wasn't every kitten in camp who was sent to deliver this message.
"A... a SWAT Kat?!" Felina stammered at last. This couldn't be! Neither could have survived!
"Yes, Ma'am... He's huge!"
Felina regained her composure and bent down to the child's level. "Who says he's a SWAT Kat?" she asked, trying not to demand the information from the bright-eyed boy.
"Miss Briggs," the brown-furred kitten returned.
Felina's jaw dropped. If Callie Briggs called this kat a SWAT Kat...
T-Bone couldn't believe his eyes. Kats surrounded him. Kittens clustered about his legs asking a million questions a second. He hadn't thought there were so many kats in the camp. They simply kept coming. And, none seemed to even notice his mutation. Only that he was a SWAT Kat.
T-Bone was overwhelmed, astounded. His green eyes searched the sea of faces. Most looked haunted. Dull, sunken eyes and gaunt frames covered in matted fur marked the adults. These were kats who lived as refugees, hunted daily and continually. And yet, as they crowded around him, the big tabby saw hope dawning in their eyes. His heart leapt to his throat. They wanted him to help them - they expected him to help. Well, that had been his vow... He simply hadn't expected so much faith riding on his abilities... his abilities without the other half of the SWAT Kats...
The tiger-striped one's thoughts tumbled into a spinning oblivion as he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He twisted his head to find Callie smiling at him sadly. He nodded to her. He had been warned.
The call was hoarse with disbelief.
Breaking contact with Callie, the SWAT Kat spun to face Felina Feral. A giddy kitten was romping about her feet, pointing to T-Bone.
"See, Ma'am?!" he squealed happily before darting to join his fellows clustered around the SWAT Kat's feet.
The dark-haired she-kat neither had the time nor presence of mind to respond to the child. She paced slowly toward the stocky form of the tomkat, her eyes wide. As they had moved to let Callie to T-Bone's side, the crowd parted to let the new authority figure through.
"What happened to you?!" Felina gasped as she got a clear view of the mutant tomkat.
"I...," T-Bone stammered, his slurred speech worse than ever. Suddenly, after everyone else's reaction, he wasn't ready for that which he'd expected from the start. And, once again, he found himself asked to give the explanation he was unwilling to admit. "I... Can this...?" he started anew, wanting desperately to save the explanation for a more private chat.
"Later," Callie interjected. There could be no arguing with her tone; not even Felina would dare.
Felina nodded, backing down.
"Let him rest," Callie called to the collected kats, pulling the SWAT Kat free.
The group parted and let them through, scattering to whisper amongst themselves.
Some minutes later, T-Bone found himself seated on the bare metal floor at the back of one of the armored vans he'd noted earlier. Callie and Felina watched in silence as he devoured a plate of proffered food.
Devour was the right word. T-Bone's face was buried in the food for several long minutes before he realized what he was doing. The mutant tomkat froze abruptly mid-bite, embarrassment and shame playing across his emotional canvas. He could feel the re-hydrated potatoes he was eating sliding through the fur of his face. The plate looked like a small bomb had detonated in its center. Cursing his mutant body and its instincts, the broad-shouldered tomkat wiped his face and hazarded a glance at the two she-kats.
Callie was slumped against the wall, smiling at him encouragingly. T-Bone hesitantly smiled back, wondering just how hideous his toothy grin was these days.
"Haven't eaten in a while, have you?" Felina asked; she was smiling as well.
T-Bone started to reply when the rear door of the van suddenly burst open, causing them all to jump. "What's this I hear about...?!"
T-Bone's eyes met Commander Ulysses Feral's, cutting him off as surely as if he had spoken.
Feral's face was gaunt and sullen. His once neat crew cut had degenerated into a straggle of graying hair that trailed from a bald crown.
As the dark-furred Commander stared at him, T-Bone saw his gaze hardening; he knew what the old commander was thinking. The tabby fixed Feral in a steady glare and pointedly wiped his chin once more.
"Hello, Commander," he rumbled, forcing his words out as clearly as he was able. He paused and smirked. "I've come back from the dead to haunt you."
Ulysses Feral's jaw dropped, quite literally.
T-Bone set his plate aside and leaned forward, his green eyes locking Feral's yellow ones in a hard gaze. Callie and Felina watched the tiny drama play out in silence, waiting.
"That's right, Commander. I'm a freak and I can't half-talk cuz a' what this mutation did to my tongue and vocal cords, but I am not an idiot or an animal."
Slowly, Feral nodded, re-appraising the situation.
"We do have a chain of command around here, SWAT Kat," Feral commented at last, seeking the other tom's reaction.
The thought of taking orders from Feral again made something nasty appear at the back of T-Bone's throat, a foul lump of bile rising from within. He bit it down and nodded to the commander. This wasn't the time for his old wounds. Cooperation was key in a society like this; Feral couldn't afford to have his authority undermined.
"I know," T-Bone replied at last. "Just give me something better to do than watching kitts and cleaning the litterbox."
Feral hid his surprise better this time.
"I'll assign you later. After the raid I just led, we'll by lying low for a while."
Felina started, remembering. "How did it go?" she asked.
"We managed to get about forty kats out of the work camp, plus some weapons... But, I lost two good Enforcers doing it."
Felina let her head sink to her folded knees.
"O'Paw and Morris," Feral clarified before anyone could ask. He looked to T-Bone again. "Welcome to the warzone, SWAT Kat."
Some hours later found a restless T-Bone pacing the camp perimeter. He'd introduced himself to the last guard over an hour ago and could roam unmolested now. There was precious little light in the jungle now that every fire was banked or extinguished, but he had no trouble. Whether his night vision had always been so good or it was an added boon of his "condition," he didn't know. He didn't care either for the moment.
Footsteps approaching him sent the big kat pivoting around, body rigid, claws unsheathing. A growl bubbled up from some deep recess, rumbling in his chest before he forced it down.
The SWAT Kat eyed the nearing figure. Feral. He could smell him. T-Bone shuddered with that revelation; he was relying on his newfound instincts far too much for his tastes.
"Evening, Commander," he commented, refusing to dwell on the dark thoughts and forcing himself into a calmer stance. His claws returned to their homes and he made an effort to still his twitching tail.
Feral nodded curtly in response to the greeting as he stepped up to T-Bone. "Do you not sleep?" he asked gruffly.
"Sometimes lately, no," the tabby grunted in return. "This body won't let me sleep when I'm restless. Takes it as a sign I'm in danger and need the extra adrenaline."
Feral's permanent scowl deepened. "And, you don't know how you came to be this way?"
"I was bitten by a mutant creature of Viper's." T-Bone shrugged, curbing the resentment and agitation the question sent billowing through him in waves. "I don't care to discuss the particulars... if that's alright... Sir," he added as a final afterthought. The present was as good a time as any to start thinking like an Enforcer again.
Feral nodded slowly and let the subject go. He'd had his doubts about the mutant tomkat. But, T-Bone's earlier speech and his words now had at last put him at ease. The SWAT Kat was cognizant and clear-headed, whatever form his body might have become.
"So, what brings you here? Your shift or you have something to say to me?" T-Bone queried, bringing the Commander's distant gaze back to earth.
Feral cut to the chase quickly. "Did you mean what you said?" he demanded, eyes narrowing a bit. "About following my orders?"
"I'm not an idiot, Commander," T-Bone snapped. "I can see enough of how you guys live to know that you have to maintain order. I'm not here to upset that, Feral. I'm here to help you fight for this city."
Feral studied T-Bone for several minutes.
"Very well... See that you do," he murmured at last, turning to leave.
T-Bone's call froze Feral in his tracks.
"My name was Chance Furlong - Enforcer lieutenant, Enforcer pilot," the SWAT Kat stated. "I don't suppose you remember the name?"
Feral's entire body had grown rigid where he stood.
"I remember you, Furlong," he growled.
"T-Bone, Commander... Furlong died with the life he knew..."
Feral turned to face the burly tomkat slowly. "I know what I did, Fur... T-Bone." His jaw tightened. "It was your job or mine and I chose in my favor. I know it means nothing to you, but I've always regretted that choice. It proved I was nothing but a coward. Perhaps someday I can convince you I've changed..." He paused.
Only the sounds of the nighttime jungle passed between them for some time. A chorus of insects and frogs sang their unfathomable medley as the twosome studied each other, each searching for something only he knew or understood. At length, Feral resumed.
"You... and Clawson..." He hesitated on the name, realization of both Clawson's dual identity and the likelihood of his death dawning. Then, he found his voice once more. "You were my best... for all that you wouldn't obey my orders."
T-Bone's rock-like visage softened. "Give me better orders this time."
The corners of Feral's mouth just barely tipped upward.
"I'll see what I can do." With that, he made as though to leave for a second time.
"Commander,... don't tell anyone else who I am... who I was...," the mutant tom whispered.
The Commander treated T-Bone to a revival of the intense gaze of earlier.
"There's no one to miss you? No one to care...? His voice trailed away as T-Bone shook his head.
"Only... my partner... if I can find him..."
Feral spun to come fully face to face with the SWAT Kat. "He's alive?!"
"I think... I hope... Dr. Viper is my only clue..."
"Viper?! Felina and her men captured him this morning!"
"They what?!" T-Bone stared at Feral, astounded. It couldn't suddenly be so easy...
The sound of laser fire ripping through the night reiterated his thought. It was never that easy.
The two tomkats whirled simultaneously to find a squad of three attack craft hovering over the camp. The crafts' searchlights lit the tiny clearing brightly. Several fires already flickered in the brush courtesy the Metallitack crafts' "warning shots."
"How could they...?! They must have followed us!" Feral yelled, a lump of lead settling in his stomach. His best efforts to organize a retreat and get his men back safely... They'd taken a roundabout route, paused often to watch for pursuit, and even sent decoys out to lead any followers far from camp. All of it for nothing.
T-Bone's gruff voice shook him from his shock.
"However they did it they're here now. You got a weapon I can use?" the SWAT Kat barked.
Wordlessly, Feral tossed the other tom his sidearm and the two charged into the fray.
Callie and Felina were already evacuating the kats from the camp. There was a certain precision in their manner and in the others' flight. The refugees snatched up children and the odd, hastily grabbed bundle and plunged into the swamp unhesitantly, no doubt moving along pre-arranged escape routes.
T-Bone saw them only peripherally as he aimed for the nearest craft, checking Feral's weapon and ramming its power setting to full. If he was lucky, he could buy the kats some more time to collect what of their supplies they could.
"Aim for their weapons," Feral shouted as he dove into one of the vans to get a new weapon. There's a slim chance you can overload the lasers. It's the only way to stop them - there's too much armor to penetrate anywhere else!"
"Roger!" T-Bone affirmed, re-aligning his shot.
Crud! This was a shot worthy of Razor, not him. Green eyes narrowing, T-Bone tried to focus. He took a deep breath... and strafed the side of the nearest craft.
Well, he had its attention, in the worst way. The Metallittack craft spun to face him, what he'd wanted in the first place. Then, it opened fire with two separate batteries of lasers, not what he'd wanted. Fire rained down around him, but the SWAT Kat froze, standing his ground, waiting. Maybe... If it would come closer...
A blast sliced through his left sleeve. The big kat winced as it met skin, hot fire of his own boiling from deep within. They had destroyed the city he called home, Viper had destroyed another. Everything gone. And, finally, before him was an embodiment of all he wanted to lash out against. Finally. Rational thought clouded beyond recognition, T-Bone subconsciously called on fury and instinct in its place.
The vehicle was nearly upon him when he finally snapped from his thoughts and levelled an angry sneer at its metal "face." Eyes blazing red, he screamed, "Eat this!"
His blast only strafed the craft again. And, something inside him snapped. Incensed, T-Bone lunged at the offender, fury pumping in his veins, claws fully extended. The vicious weapons, so deadly against flesh, only raked the vehicle's smooth metal surface harmlessly. Then, a flash of searing heat licking his muzzle drove him back. With a growl, the mutant leapt from the craft's face and dove for the thick underbrush that ringed the clearing.
There he crouched, shaking with mixed rage and fear. Slowly, T-Bone came fully to himself, his bare feet sinking into mud, his claws shredding the vegetation
beneath them reflexively. Desperately, he shook his head to clear it, snarling at his own lack of control.
'Fight with brains! I have to! Can't let this mutant thing beat me! I can't let it beat me!'
Struggling to assume full control, T-Bone surveyed the situation. Before him was a battlefield, red-tinged by fire of natural and not-so-natural origin. Shadows danced and twisted across his vision. Figures fell, screaming. Everything was bathed in a red miasma. T-Bone shuddered. The screaming. The fire.
He looked toward the sound of his name. There was no one nearby. The field was gone, before him was only a stretch of flame-tinged water as the thick chemicals floating atop the mutagen-laced liquid burned.
"T-Bone,..." The voice was pleading now.
T-Bone looked to see the kat pinned beneath his claws. Razor.
"T-Bone, snap out of it," Razor pleaded. A line of bloody, jagged welts ran along his cheek, a slash the big kat couldn't even remember delivering.
T-Bone tried to speak, tried to stop himself, but he wasn't in control of his own body anymore, the monster was. His wickedly clawed right hand raised over Razor's bared neck... and abruptly fell, dropping to his side. No. Not Razor.
The orange-furred kat smiled at that.
"See?" he whispered. His eyes fluttered. He would pass out in a minute. T-Bone remembered that. Then, Razor's eyes snapped wide, amber irises bright.
"T-Bone, snap out of it," he ordered. "Snap out of it!"
Then, the voice was real.
"Snap out of it!" the PastMaster ordered, his skeletal face looming before T-Bone. "I gave you your mind back, but it's up to you if you are to keep it."
The present returned with a jolt. T-Bone found himself back in the mud. Breathing heavily, he watched the Metallittack crafts' searchlights warbling over the clearing wildly as they hunted their prey and traded fire with the Enforcers. The PastMaster was gone, but his words were not.
"This isn't beating me!" T-Bone snarled aloud, snatching up the blaster he'd dropped and charging forward.
Ten more attack craft had joined the first three and they were blasting their way through the defending kats with ease. Even as the SWAT Kat watched, one of the vans the Enforcers were hiding behind took a direct hit and exploded. T-Bone winced and tried to form a plan as he watched the kats scatter. Several were tossed in the air like rag dolls, landing just as limply in the sodden ground.
The roar of engines engaging drew T-Bone's widened eyes from the carnage for an instant. Two attack craft rappelled from the clearing, vaulting into the air and rocketing off over the trees, presumably after the kats who had fled earlier. Watching helplessly, the SWAT Kat prayed the others could hide from their sensors.
Remembering his first meeting with one of the hovering nightmares, T-Bone quietly stepped toward the nearest drone, walking slowly and deliberately.
"No time like the present to test this," he whispered to himself.
Feral alone of the Enforcers saw him, a broad-shouldered figure stalking oblivious through the battlefield. The former commander blinked. Not a blast touched T-Bone, not a Metallittack craft heeded his presence. And, on he came, jaw set, eyes almost... red. He might have been a ghost or a vision of vengeance.
The old commander shook his head quickly. The SWAT Kat was neither. He was, however, in danger of getting shot.
Seeing Feral about to shout an order or a warning, T-Bone threw up a hand to withstall his cry and strode closer. As before, the craft were ignoring him.
'Only half-kat, huh?' T-Bone murmured in his own mind. 'Then, I might as well use it!'
Carefully, he raised his borrowed weapon... and caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He was barely in time to catch the grenade Feral tossed to him. Quickly, lest the drones wisen up, the big kat ripped the pin free and lobbed the grenade at the nearest craft. And, in the ensuing explosions, the kats gained the upper hand. Three more craft joined the first in short order, courtesy a few more well-placed grenades. T-Bone had joined them in routing or destroying a fifth drone when he heard the screams.
The brawny mutant spun to find two more craft low in the clearing. One was driving kats into the other's holding bay with a series of well-aimed blasts. A snarl bubbling in his throat, T-Bone charged toward the herder. The plan he formulated in the few seconds of his rush wasn't brilliant, but it was fast.
He'd half-slid just beneath the herding drone before he realized he had trouble. Before the big kat had time to react, he was slammed flush with the soggy ground, pinned in the powerful force of the craft's VTOL engines. T-Bone growled as a rock bit into his abdomen. But, such nuisances fled his thought path as the Metallitack craft released a fresh volley. The SWAT Kat refocused on his mission. With effort, T-Bone twisted his head to find the engines just above, built into the bottom of the machine.
'VTOL... But, where's the intake?'
Debating the possibilities, he thrust a hand free of the wall of air and upward. Cautiously, he let his hand creep up the side of the craft, feeling. There! The intake!
Fighting the inexorable downward push all the way, the SWAT Kat freed the rock beneath him and sought out the intake once more. Upon finding it, he slammed the big rock into the opening... and rolled clear as fast as he could. Tumbling, he regained his feet and race toward the nearby kats, screaming, "Get clear!"
The words were hardly from his mouth when the rock did its work and one half of the craft's VTOL engines died. Systems wildly trying to compensate, its unsupported side drove hard into the ground even as the remaining engines went into overdrive. The crippled craft hurtled end over end, gouging deep furrows in the wet ground.
The others running before him, T-Bone brought up the rear of the fleeing kats, urging them forward as the gyrating metal monster pursued them even in its death throes. A child stumbled and fell in the tabby's path. Quickly, the big kat swooped the kitten into his arms and raced on, following those who knew the way.
The damaged Metallittack craft succeeded in clocking its counterpart resting in the clearing as it foundered. The second drone, now bereft of any kats it had held, attempted to take off at the impact, its artificial intelligence unprepared for this contingency - being "attacked" by its own - but demanding action.
Commander Feral and his men intervened. Focusing their blaster fire on the undamaged vehicle, they drew its attention. As the craft spun to return fire, its wounded compatriot flipped into it, sending both down.
T-Bone turned from his retreat with the refugees, the kitten on his shoulders, to see the two explode.
"Hooray!" the child he carried cheered, hugging T-Bone. "You did it!"
"We did it," T-Bone corrected, reaching up to pat the kitten's leg before vanishing into the jungle.
Hours later, the kats had regrouped and everyone was accounted for. Everyone... except Dr. Viper.
"Crud!" Felina fumed, glaring at the tangle of shredded cords lying on the ground, illumined in her flashlight's beam. "I shouldn't have called Henderson and Clarke to come back us up."
Mutely, T-Bone turned from the sight to slump against a moss-covered tree. Bracing his forehead against one raised arm, he let his weight sag forward heavily. The big kat could feel himself sliding into a downward spiral of despair. So close. So very close to his only key to finding Razor.
"He'll be back."
The soft voice once more pulled T-Bone free of his roiling emotions.
"Viper raids our supplies frequently. He's not surviving well in this metal world either," Callie continued.
Felina snorted softly. "He can't even risk being seen," she explained. "The Metallikats think he's dead. They hunted all the other supervillains down."
Slowly, T-Bone turned to face the others in the clearing as Felina spoke. Listening, he leaned his back into the tree.
"Hard Drive's working for them... under pain of death," the dark-haired one continued. "Dark Kat... we have his death confirmed." She shuddered. "I saw the body."
"So, Viper will be back? He can be caught again?" T-Bone's voice was husky, distorted. His pleading eyes sought out the face of Callie Briggs alone.
"Yes," she assured.
T-Bone nodded, acknowledging. He would have to wait.
"Let's get back to the others," he rumbled.
Sensing the SWAT Kat's unvoiced desire to be alone, Callie and Felina slipped away, long practice making them soundless in the nighttime swamp. T-Bone watched the bobbing glow of Felina's flashlight disappear before starting off in his own direction.
As he stepped from the glade, Feral caught the tabby by the shoulder. Surprised, T-Bone met the other tomkat's gaze. Was there to be a reprimand for his actions that afternoon?
"I know how badly you want to find your partner," Feral began. He abruptly seemed to shift gears. "Viper's a danger to us as long as he's loose." His yellow eyes narrowed. "I've settled on your assignment, T-Bone. Find Viper."
For an instant, T-Bone was dumbfounded.
"Where's the Commander and what did you do with him?" the SWAT Kat quipped.
Feral smiled. "Glad to see you like the assignment," he pronounced, the rare smile shining. His face returned to its old scowl. "But, you're getting some rest first."
T-Bone only half-heard the final statement. Something was drawing his attention. Carefully, he stepped around Feral, back into the glade. Pupils dilated wide, he crouched by the bundle of cord, his nose wrinkling. The cord reeked of Viper's hated scent... and something more. Picking up a length of ragged cord, he probed for the source of the curious metallic odor that was triggering his instincts. There. That wetness on his fingers.
Feral's light helped his concentration rather than destroying it as the Commander came to investigate his silence. Green. Thick, green metallic-smelling goo was on his fingers.
"Viper's blood," Feral murmured, staring at the now-lit green sheen on the other's fingers.
"Fresh," T-Bone slurred. "He escaped just before we got here..." He looked up at Feral. "I can track him now."
It was a request. Not, "I'm gong to track him," but, "I can." T-Bone was leaving Feral the option of calling this one.
"Then, go," Feral returned. "And, good luck."
T-Bone rose to salute and vanished into the underbrush.
"He went where?!" Callie demanded.
"Alone?!" Feline chimed.
"He went to find his partner," Feral stated firmly, stepping past the two.
"Razor's alive?!" The two she-kat's voices rang loudly in the still, chilled air of pre-dawn. Too loudly. None else needed to hear that dubious possibility.
Feral's glare shushed them quickly. But, nothing could silence the wide-eyed looks of shock and confusion. And, the Commander knew it. Slowly, he turned to once more face Callie and Felina. He prayed they would understand, prayed he had done nothing rash in his desire to help Furlong.
"T-Bone thinks he's alive... and Viper is his clue."
"So, he's left us to track down Razor," Felina commented, her tone hinting at a sense of betrayal. And, it was not lost on Feral.
"And, how many kats here haven't pleaded we raid work camps where they thought family might be held?" the graying tom demanded, yellow eyes narrowing.
Felina said no more, instead focusing her dark eyes on some distant image that likely wasn't within the smog-choked sunrise she studied. Feral's face softened as he watched her, the rock cracking. It did that too much these days it seemed.
"Felina,..." He laid a huge hand on her shoulder comfortingly.
"I... you're right," the ebony-haired she-kat began. "I... I would have done the same... If Dad hadn't been..." Her speech faltered and the tired female slumped into her uncle's waiting embrace, her sobs muffled in his battered uniform.
Callie stepped away, leaving the Ferals alone. She knew what drove T-Bone and that he would be back - if there were any way. Looking to where pink and orange tints were valiantly fighting their way through the smog, she prayed that the big kat would return safely, even if it must be alone.
The sun was high in the sky, a smear of yellow light piercing the vile clouds that never left the air, when T-Bone lost Viper's trail. Cursing the mutant's healing abilities, which he seemed to share as his seared shoulder had stopped burning hours ago, he searched for that peculiar "Viper scent." He had found his way to the edge of a sizable bog, questing the scent, when he paused. The scent was gone. Straightening, the big kat looked across the bog.
"Well, I feel stupid," he muttered, surveying the sight before him.
In the center of the green-brown murk rose a great mutated tree. At a glance, it was an oak, yet the gnarled mound of feet-like roots at its base owed their allegiance to a mangrove. Halfway up, a structure seemed nestled in the tree's branches, or perhaps the tree had grown around it or it into the tree. Either way, the composite was pure organic, a twisted, altered medley of symbiotic oddity.
"Only a neon sign could make this place scream Viper's name any louder," the SWAT Kat hissed to himself.
His green eyes slit, he stepped to the edge of the water. His mutant instincts had helped him track Viper. Grimly, he prayed they knew how to swim. The prayer echoing in his head, he plunged into the water... and, flailing, sank.
Conscious thought returned to him halfway to the tree. Startled, T-Bone froze and started to slip beneath the thick water once more. Desperately, he splashed his way to the surface, clawing at the water. For long seconds, he held himself afloat that way, trying to regain the rhythm of swimming he'd lost. Then, he found it. Awkwardly, T-Bone let himself settle into the steady paddling. It was easy enough once he was moving, and the mutant kat found his way to the soggy patch of earth on which the tree sat without further incident.
Feeling weed-clogged mud beneath his feet, T-Bone stood and stepped from the water. The little island's "shore" quickly proved to be a sloppy mess of dark slit. Floundering through the sticky mud, the kat scrambled to the tree's base and onto its roots.
"Now, how do you get in this monstrosity?" the SWAT Kat wondered aloud.
Carefully, he fought his way higher onto the prodigious, above-ground roots and began to circle the twisted profusion of flora. His claws gripped the fungus-encrusted wood as his focus centered on the trunk. Surely a creature like Viper entered near the base. But, even careful inspection with both hands while his feet claws alone kept him steady found no openings.
It was a half-hour later, three-fourths of the way around the tree, that he found what he sought. A tiny doorway greeted him. No door or facsimile thereof attempted to bar it. Cold, stale air whispered from its impenetrable darkness.
T-Bone's ears flicked at the faint whisper. It seemed almost to speak to him.
"Come in, come in."
The kat's face contorted in confusion and he pulled away, shaking his head. Wind did not talk. He was hearing either figments or a trap of Viper's. The trap concept seemed the most likely as the door was so obvious. Yet, it was just the sort of hole a snake would like.
"Come in, come in," the whisper persisted, its tone increasingly inviting. Or was it in his head? "Come in, come in."
The SWAT Kat's mind churned, trying to decipher the conflicting urges he felt. At length, he gave up the fight and plunged into the opening. As his shoulders met the rotted wood, it pulled away, widening to admit the large kat. Such an obvious hint was now lost on T-Bone. Come what might, he would face it. All that mattered was that he find Razor.
Within the tree was only darkness, unending night. But, it was alive with sound. Creaking, faint shudders, and a myriad of undescribable sounds fluttered around his ears. The stygian darkness was tangible. The tree around him more living than he'd ever thought anything so sedentary as a tree ought be. The very wood rubbing his shoulders pulsed with life. It was alive. Alive and as distorted as he.
"We are kin," the voice of the tree seemed to sing.
No, no, NO! This was all wrong, all a trap. Yet, it drew him forward inexorably. Then, seemingly brilliant light dazzled his distended pupils. Confused, T-Bone blinked.
"A SsssWAT Kat?!"
T-Bone's head jerked toward the hated voice... and his body followed instants behind. When his senses returned, the big mutant found a writhing plantimal pinned beneath him. Viscous green blood was welling around his claws. Shuddering, T-Bone watched the creature take a final, stuttering gasp and go limp. A low hiss of a chuckle broke his horrified gaze away.
"You ssssee, SsssWAT Kat? If you were fully one of my creaturesss, you wouldn't worry over ssssuch thingssssssss."
T-Bone searched the room, seeking the source of that voice. He saw the chamber in a flash. Organic. That was the only word for this room. Everything was plant-like. Columns of knotted vine ran from floor to ceiling, more growth than architecture. Each column had a match, creating a series of dark entryways. Above, "galleries" ran around the room on a second level.
The search ended abruptly as Viper's supple tail entwined itself around the SWAT Kat's neck. Frozen, the big kat was locked in its iron grip.
"Ssssso, SsssWAT Kat," the hissing voice slithered in his right ear, "how issss it you're alive?" I sssaw you, you know."
T-Bone made a token squirm of protest, his body refusing him more control. The living vise tightened around his trachea with casual ease.
"I found your jet after the crassssh, SssssWAT Kat,...," Viper continued. "You were very, very dead. But, you're not now. How interessssting."
The big tabby's vision was growing black around the edges and still his numbed limbs refused to obey him. Viper's dry chuckle answered his confusion.
"Come now - I control all my mutationsssss... At least enough that they can't fight me," the snake chortled before adding his final jab. "Yourssself included."
"No...," T-Bone found his voice at last, "you... don't!"
With that, he drove his claws into the offending tail, tearing, shredding. Viper screamed in pain, and the big kat snapped fully free of his control. He threw his weight hard to one side, pulling Viper with him. Then, he spun to meet the other mutant's hurtling body with fully unsheathed claws.
His left hand was a normal kat's. Fully unveiled, his right sported vicious, hooked talons the like of which could shame any beast of Viper's.
Realizing, T-Bone jerked his right arm back. His left claws scored Viper's side cruelly. The right narrowly missed gutting the good doctor as T-Bone retreated. No. NOoooo! He would not kill Viper like an animal!
Viper again used the SWAT Kat's hesitation to his advantage. The limp tail tightened its grip on the big kat's neck anew as Viper slashed at T-Bone's face. The SWAT Kat was forced back; the white-hot flame dancing across his twisted face was incomparable to the crushing pressure threatening to collapse his larynx.
The voice sliced through T-Bone's brain with crystal clarity, freeing him of Viper's control once and for all. Then, the pain at his throat vanished as he and Viper were sent flying apart. T-Bone twisted in midair, landing in a crouch and looking for Viper. He found the snake mutant thrashing madly, his body suspended in the air at the far end of the room. Hovering ten feet above Viper's writhing form was the familiar hooded figure he'd been expecting.
"Took you long enough," the striped one grunted to the PastMaster.
The sorcerer treated his flippancy with a leer of amusement and spun gently, floating, to eye his captive.
"This one is not your's, Viper," he murmured, his single eye glowering at the mutant doctor. "I summoned him to this plane to rid us of the Metallikats. A goal we share incidentally..."
"I won't work with you, sssssorcerer," Viper hissed.
"Then, you shall not work against me," the PastMaster stated, his calm voice belying the charge T-Bone could feel in the very air. "I can kill you there, Viper," the skeletal sorcerer continued softly. "It would take so little effort to tighten that band of energy around you..."
"Don't...," T-Bone started, rising from his crouch.
The surprise of his own actions stopped him. Why prevent it? Viper was the source of all his woes. The one who destroyed his old life. And still, he could not watch him die. Too many had died already. In more worlds than one.
"Go find your partner, SWAT Kat," the PastMaster whispered, breaking his thoughts. "I'll deal with him... as I always dealt with you."
T-Bone hesitated, confused. Realization came slowly. The PastMaster was bluffing! If he could have killed the SWAT Kats like that, why hadn't he? Because, for whatever reason, he couldn't!
The sorcerer must have seen the light dawn on the big tabby's face.
"Yes," he stated softly, his lone pupil locking with T-Bone's two. "Now, I sense another sentient presence that way." The skeletal gnome pointed down a corridor to T-Bone's left with one hand.
T-Bone nodded and stepped to the doorway slowly. The dark entryway was lit dimly by some manner of glowing fungus. It was all T-Bone's eyes needed. Unhesitatingly, suddenly urgent, he hurried down the faintly outlined path. He followed neither scent nor sound. He simply ran until he knew he had reached the goal.
The hallway had ended in a rounded "room" of sorts. In its farthest corner was a dark, tiny hole of a room barred by thick fungus. T-Bone's ears flicked, seeking any signs of life. His nose wrinkled. Damp, moldy air wafted into his widened nostrils. Yet, there was a hint of kat in it. And,.. a sound... Or was it only the living tree? No. He felt a presence as sure as one can tell when any room isn't quite empty.
He eyed the fungus barring the tiny chamber. A few violent swipes of his right hand shredded an easy opening and T-Bone stepped into the gloom of the diminutive hole. Green eyes searched the stygian hovel with the aid of the nearly imperceptible light from the "door." Distantly, he felt the fungus at his back repairing itself. But, that was unimportant. All that mattered was... There. Curled into a ball of faded blue fabric and matted brown fur in the corner.
T-Bone stepped to the woeful creature and stooped, crouching in a layer of what resembled filthy straw.
"Razor?" he whispered, not understanding why his voice suddenly refused to be louder.
A pair of amber eyes caught his own. They were lost, haunted, seeking.
The fungus at the door shuddered and the patch of light shrank. Tearing his eyes from Razor's, T-Bone scooped his partner into his arms and leapt through the swiftly closing opening. He paused on the other side and watched the green vegetation, oddly reminiscent of that on his own body, heal itself into a wall once more.
"Let's get outta here, buddy," he whispered to Razor, starting forward.
"Are you real?" Razor asked softly, his voice urgent.
The big kat paused. "Of course I'm real."
Razor had vaulted from his grasp and was crouched, claws buried deep in the far wall, before T-Bone could react.
"Razor! What is...?!" T-Bone started.
"They all said they were real!" Razor hissed angrily, a snarl infusing his voice.
"They who?!" the larger kat yelped, confused by Razor's erratic behavior.
"The others!" Razor growled. "The clones! The mutants! All Viper's tricks!"
With that, he lunged at T-Bone, claws wide as he rappelled off the wall. The other kat was unprepared and forced to the dirt floor beneath the assault. He found Razor's claws resting deep in the fur of his neck even as his heavy body connected with hard-packed earth.
"Go ahead!" Razor roared. "Plead with me! Swear you're the real T-Bone, then turn into a puddle of slime beneath my claws!" His amber eyes were wild, tortured. "If I let you live, you'll only betray me again..."
"When did I ever betray you, Jake?!" T-Bone begged for an answer.
"When?! A thousand dreams I honestly thought were real!" Tears were streaming through Razor's fur as he spoke. "I thought I'd gotten out! I... I almost believed you were still alive time after...!" His tirade ended suddenly and his claws pulled away from T-Bone's already abused neck ever so slightly. "Wha.. what did you call me?" he asked softly.
"Jake," T-Bone rasped. "And, I'm Chance."
Razor shrank, pulling away.
"Viper doesn't know our names," he whispered. "So, you're a dream again."
"No!" T-Bone lunged to his feet. "Razor, I'm real!"
"I saw you dead!" the smaller kat shrieked. "You can't be alive!" With that, he threw himself at T-Bone's throat.
His mutant body's obsession with self-preservation came to T-Bone's aid in that instant. Thoughtlessly, he caught Razor by the front of his tattered flight suit and spun, tossing the other kat to the floor and pinning him a second later. Growling softly, T-Bone eyed the smaller kat as he waged the inner battle with his instincts and the wild frenzy coursing through his veins.
"I... I..." T-Bone fought for words as he met Razor's stunned gaze. The flood of memories cascaded over him in a raging river of grief and anger. Again! He'd hurt Razor again!
"They never fight me."
The tiny, hoarse whisper couldn't have halted the floodgates had it been a scream. Yet, that alone snapped T-Bone back to the present.
"What?" he asked quietly, confused.
"The dreams... they don't fight me back," Razor murmured, searching T-Bone's face. His eyes widened abruptly. "He got you too. You weren't dead - just hurt like me."
"Who got me?" the tabby queried, more and more puzzled by this sudden change.
"Viper. Your face..."
The mutation. Razor meant the mutation! T-Bone's mind ground to a halt.
He got you too.
For the first time, the larger SWAT Kat saw. In the darkness, Razor's amber eyes were glowing faintly. There was a vegetated lump on his bare scalp. A second was growing through the shirt between T-Bone's hands, apparently affixed to the other kat's chest.
"What did he do to you?" T-Bone managed, shocked.
"Symbiotic growths," Razor responded. "One more or less replaces my heart - might be tied in to the lungs too."
"Wha... what about...?" T-Bone gently touched the growth on Razor's head.
"Repaired the brain damage - I don't want to know what else it does," the smaller kat whispered. Then, his clear eyes clouded, the moment of lucidity faded. For even as he spoke of it, Razor proved his thought was not unimpeded.
T-Bone felt his heart sink as Razor, dazed, struggled in his grasp once more. Then, the orange-furred feline calmed, searching his friend's face.
"Bu.. but, you're real this time, right T-Bone?" he asked, suddenly confused again.
"Yes," T-Bone returned softly, heartbroken. "I am."
His friend was alive, but clearly brain-damaged, or at least impaired. He was functional, but T-Bone could only wonder at how often he lapsed from normal to manic to this impaired child state.
Gently, T-Bone freed Razor and stood, helping the other kat up. Razor stumbled to his feet, looking around curiously as though he'd forgotten their surroundings. His eyes were fogged, but calm.
"C'mon," T-Bone urged, moving ahead into the passageway beyond the tiny chamber.
"Don't leave me!" Razor yelped behind him.
T-Bone spun to find the smaller tom staring bewilderedly after him, eyes wide and scared. Choking on a lump in his throat, T-Bone hurried to his side.
"Look, let me carry you," the big tabby asked quietly.
"I can walk," Razor offered bravely.
T-Bone ignored the protest and gathered Razor into his arms. Then, before his friend could react, he hurried back the way he'd come. Bursting into the comparatively vibrant light of the main chamber, he paused, blinking.
"PastMaster!" he roared.
"Yelling is unnecessary," the familiar voice assured him from several feet ahead.
The big SWAT Kat blinked again, forcing his agitated eyes to focus on the blurred purple image before him.
"Do for Razor what you did for me," he stated, his voice half plea, half demand.
The sorcerer caught T-Bone's gaze and held it for a long minute. Vaguely, T-Bone wondered how much of his soul he sold now. But, he'd already declared it inconsequential compared to those of the kats he'd sworn to protect.
At length, the PastMaster broke the lock and turned his single eye on Razor. "I see," he purred to T-Bone, a few instants' inspection informing him as to the cause of the big tabby's distress.
Razor was oddly silent at both the conversation and the scrutiny, either lost in his own mind or already under the sorcerer's spell.
"His trouble is a bit more... delicate than your's... but reparable," the sorcerer muttered, already gathering his powers. They were mere tattered shreds now, fragments of the power he'd once commanded.
'Can two mortal kats possiblystop a force I was powerless against?' he asked himself even as he burrowed into Razor's shattered mind. 'Yet, they understand and even use this technology I abhor. And, though I will not accept such absurdity as to believe that "right is on their side," surely a higher power guards them... Else they are exceedingly blessed with blind luck.'
T-Bone's eyes widened as the PastMaster's form flickered, dissolving, effervescing into the thick, hot air. In his arms, Razor convulsed violently, his body suddenly bathed in green light.
"Hang on, buddy," T-Bone whispered.
The PastMaster's consciousness whirled in Razor's mind, magic energy healing the broken synapses, repairing damaged tissue. Then, it was done. Razor lay limp in T-Bone's grasp as the PastMaster's form coalesced slightly.
"Remember why I help you... and save us all," the gnome muttered to T-Bone, his voice an echo. Then, he faded from sight, his face lingering before the mutant tabby for a second after his body had departed. "Save us all," the echo intoned.
T-Bone shuddered at the charge. He had agreed, out of gratitude and because it was his duty, but could he do it?
The weak voice drew him back to Razor.
"Yeah, buddy?" he mumbled, voice rough.
"You... aren't doing it... alone..."
With that, Razor's eyes drifted shut and he settled into much-needed sleep. Watching him, his burly partner smiled. For truly, he didn't feel alone anymore.
As he stared into the dancing fire, Razor felt every heartfelt word he'd meant to say stick in his throat. T-Bone stood at his side. But, the kat whose pyre he'd just lit was every bit his partner T-Bone as well. Blinking back tears, he tried to say good-bye to T-Bone... with T-Bone standing at his side. Conflicting emotions held him silent until T-Bone - the living T-Bone come to replace the other from a world away - hesitantly broke the silence with his deep voice.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound," he began, singing softly.
Fighting his tightened throat, Razor let his own tenor quietly blend with T-Bone's cracking bass.
"That saved a wretch like me." Two voices harmonized above the roar of the flames, growing louder, defiant. "I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see."
The leaping flames screamed for attention, but neither SWAT Kat cared. Let the Metallikats and their robots come. They had killed one SWAT Kat... and two more stood ready to die if called.
The End... of the beginning.