Maki Arikida has a talking cat. Or rather, Maki Arikida's cat is talking. It definitely was not a talking cat when Mayuri Arikida found it under her porch six years ago and elected to take it in, never mind that she was already working two jobs to keep herself and her kid sister under a roof. Marital complications between the two parental Arikidas had complicated (of course) familial arrangements in years prior to cat-adoption, leaving, eventually, the twenty-year-old Mayuri Arikida with custody of her five-year-old sister. Seven years later, she was still holding their little situation together, cat and all, and that is a great testament to her kindness and maturity.

However, Mayuri Arikida has nothing to do with her cat's talking, as she is unable even to hear it at all. Maki discovered this about an hour ago, when her sister came in her bedroom with laundry and paid no heed to the cat, sans an affectionate scratch behind the ears. She certainly didn't mention the garbled sounds that could only be described as radio reception that were, at least to Maki's ears, clearly pouring out of the black feline lump on the bed.

So the cat wasn't talking, not really, but Maki didn't know what else to make of the disjointed conversation, between, apparently, several parties, all basically incomprehensible or unintelligible except a few oft-repeated phrases – "N.O." and "Red7" and "Medical Mechanica." Oh yes. These people, whoever they were, had some serious concerns about Medical Mechanica, and were very keen, for whatever reason, on keeping the multinational hospital-equipment developer franchise out of whatever the hell they were doing with 'Red7.' Eventually, after about an hour of listening, Maki was able to piece together a location, quietly exit the house, and take a bus to that location – which, as it happened, was on the outskirts of town.

And so Maki Arikida finds herself, an incongruous blob of ill-fitting clothes and badly-cut hair, in the middle of what she suspects to be a highly unofficial meteor excavation site, feeling extremely out of place, extremely young, and extremely, extremely uncomfortable. But Maki is resolute. Her cat is talking. This is no time to be concerned with social adeptness. (It does occur to her, however, that her safety may be a concern when snooping around a possibly illegal organization's camp, but she puts that thought out of her mind.)

Nobody jumps her or even acknowledges her presence for ten minutes, so Maki approaches the nearest group of people – one man, with red hair and sunglasses, and two women – one, with dark skin and blonde hair; the other, with pink hair and, for some reason, a retro Vespa motorbike.

The blonde is closest, and looks friendliest.

"Excuse me, ma'am?" Maki says. Woman looks startled. "Um, yes?"

Something about the strangeness of these place, and these people, wipes away any inhibitions Maki had initially harbored.

"My cat. I heard it talking."

The woman stares. She turns to the red-haired guy.

"Hey, Commander, this kid said she heard her cat talking."

"Did she, now?" He glances down at Maki, with these ridiculous fake eyebrows-was that seaweed? – raised skeptically. "That's a pretty crazy story, kid."

"Shounds crathy to me," adds the pink-haired woman leaning on the Vespa, picking her teeth.

Maki is not swayed in the slightest by this display. She has heard their voices (Eyebrow Guy's and Blondie's) before, over the cat-communicator or…or whatever it is they're doing with her cat.

"I am not crazy."

"Hm." Eyebrow Guy is unreadable. If he's feigning his disinterest, he's doing it very well.

"So what, exactly, do you want us to do about it?"

"Well, for one thing, you can tell me what Red7 is and why you want to keep it a secret from Medical Mechanica."

That gets them. All three stare. Maki stares back. They hadn't been mistaken about the threat implicit in her tone – it's burning with certainty in her eyes. She doesn't know anything, not really, but she does have an unshakeable notion that this seemingly-random phrase she heard from her cat is very, very, important to these people and at least one other group of people; and if the ones in front of her won't tell her what she wants to know, she will go to whoever will. It's only a little thing she heard that's any real information – one word, one phrase, and Maki has no qualms about turning it over to Medical Mechanica if that's what it takes to get answers. These people, who possessed her cat or whatever they did- she owes them no secrets kept, no nothing.

It's not very much of secret, what Maki knows. Just a very little thing.

But it's enough.

Eyebrow Guy sighs. Pushes up his sunglasses. He's not looking at Maki, or anyone. It's as though the discussion is over, but not the discussion Maki thought she was having, and he's wrapping up; he's entertained her inquiry long enough and will allot her no more of his attention. She panics, briefly. But to her surprise he says to no one in particular (as far as Maki can tell, anyway, since he's still not looking at any of them), "Alright."

It's a surrender, that is certain, but what follows is not the explanation Maki demanded and expects. She will have to learn to stop expecting. Eyebrow Guy says, "Kitsurubami. Contact HQ and get the RO-U21 paperwork. And for god's sake will someone get the engineers to adjust the communication channel? If an undesignated cat three miles away is picking up signals, we won't need this girl to spill for Medical Mechanica to be all over us by tomorrow morning."

"Yes, Sir." She sounds weary, like somebody is soon going to be on the receiving end of a lot of bureaucratic bullshit and rage from upper-management, and that somebody is going to be her.

Eyebrow Guy heads toward a tent. Maki follows. She wasn't invited by words or even body language – not a glance thrown her way – but she is already starting to figure out that these people, whoever they are, are not going to hold her hand and walk her through this or even be straightforward at all; it will be up to her find the answers she's looking for.

Evidently, she made the right choice – Eyebrow Guy does not reprimand her for following - although, when they get inside the tent, her presence elicits some stares. Eyebrow Guy ignores them, and walks, Maki in tow, to one of the makeshift office stations in the back. This one, Maki observes, is made of filing cabinets.

"Yo, Takakura," Eyebrow Guy says, and a disheveled-looking thirtysomething with glasses pops out from behind one of the cabinets. He looks at Maki, but in a different way than the others, with more purpose.

"This the RO?" he says more than asks, and starts rifling through one of the bottom drawers. Suddenly, her presence is expected. Maki wonders how news could possibly travel so fast – not minutes ago did she arrive at this encampment, and not seconds ago was she an anomaly. Little things just weren't adding up right, and their unholy sum makes Maki's head spin. She is spiraling down the rabbit hole at an exponential rate and suspects that she's gone past the point of no return.

"Here." Glasses Guy shoves something in Maki's direction, still rifling through the drawer. It's a little plastic disc, shrink-wrapped, about the size of a bottle cap - flat on one side and rounded on the other, like button without holes.

"And this." He comes out of the drawer, finally, and hands her something else. This one, at least, Maki can identify – it's a standard, tortoise-shell guitar pick – but its purpose is still completely unknown.

"You're gonna take that" –he indicates the pick- "over to base, and find the guitar with a matching serial number. The white thing, you're going to stick to your forehead. But do it outside."

"What is it?" Maki asks, voice carefully measured. She's trying to maintain some degree of control over her delirium-lapin descent, but there's no stopping it now.

"It's for your N. O. channel. It's to-shit, we gotta find someone to tell you how to use this stuff; I don't have the time."

Someone a few desks away calls out, "Give her to Raharu, it's not like she's doing anything else!" Everyone laughs, and Maki has no idea why. At least a few of these new questions are answered immediately.

"What?" The pink-haired woman bursts through the tent flaps. Nobody is surprised; her shadow was plainly visible from inside the tent the whole time – a silhouetted caricature of someone leaning in to listen, ear-first. This woman – Raharu, Maki supposes - is not a very subtle eavesdropper.

Eyebrows Guy does not even acknowledge the interruption. "That's an excellent idea, Takakura." He turns to the indignant woman, still frozen in the position of her over-the-top entrance. "Haruha Raharu, I'm assigning you the care of our new RO. It will be your job to educate her in proper N.O. protocol, supervise her Recruitment procedures, etcetera etcetera…" His speech trails off, and Haruha's whining takes its place.

"C'mooon, Amarao, don't saddle me with this twerp!" She follows him when he walks past her out of the tent. Maki follows Haruha in turn.

"Now, now, Haruha, this arrangement makes perfect sense. You can't access N.O. yourself, and the RO doesn't know how to use hers. Show her what's she supposed to do, and between the two of you we might have a halfway functional agent. And you aren't doing any other jobs since you're here for probation-"

"-You're giving me to someone on probation?"

"-you might as well do this." Eyebrow Guy finishes, oblivious to Maki's interjection. He's unflappable. He and his seaweed eyebrows. There's the slightest hint of smugness when he says probation, and Maki has a very random passing thought that he wouldn't be so in-control (in the situation or in his demeanor) if not for Haruha's apparent restricted status.

Maki feels that her query - this time, at least - is definitely worth reiteration. "You're leaving someone you're supposed to be in charge of, in charge of me?"

Amarao and Haruha stop dead and stare, as if they've just remembered Maki is there. Haruha's face contorts with a wicked grin. "That's right, yah little brat," she cackles, and then her grin fades just as fast as it appeared. "So don't get in my way, kid." Haruha grumbles something and storms off towards her bike in what Maki can only describe as a temper-tantrum. Though she has to be at least twenty-five, Maki notes, with mounting apprehension, Haruha Raharu behaves like a child.

Maki jogs after her. "My name is Maki, not kid." Haruha ignores her. Maki tries once more.

"Can you at least tell me the name of this group I'm apparently joining?"

Haruha doesn't turn around, but she answers.

"Galactic Space Police Brotherhood. Welcome to the fukkin' club."

"Space Police? As in, aliens? Are you an alien?"

They reach the Vespa. Haruha finally turns, and stares for a beat. "You know, kid, you're kind of a whiner-" –she examines her gloved fingernails- "like Takkun."

"Who's Takkun?"

"Look, kid, if you expect me to teach you anything at all, you gotta show the proper respect. Address me as Haruha-sempai, for starters. Haruha-sempai-sama-sensei."

"Yanno, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, since it's already implied that we're speaking Japanese. What kind of tool just leaves one phrase untranslated like they think it sounds cool?"

Haruha is an exaggerated picture of nonchalance, if such a thing is even possible. She yawns. "Yeeep, definitely a whiner."

"I am not a whiner."

"You also said you weren't crazy, but here you are ready to throw away your entire life to follow a bunch of very untrustworthy people who won't tell you jack shit, not even why you heard your cat talking."

Maki doesn't respond, just glares. Haruha leans in, rudely invading Maki's personal space. "I'll tell you something else, too. You may not be crazy now but that's no guarantee you won't be later. The N.O., it does things to your head, things that can only happen when you go around poking great big holes in it." Haruha leans back, snaps her goggles over her eyes, and turns toward the sun.

"Y'start to feel powerful, more powerful than the people that make you who you are. Untouchable. But even for people with N.O., godhood is still just a delusion and there's always plenty of people standing by to bring you back down. And it's a crash landing, kid. Now get on the bike."

Haruha turns away from the sky and starts up the Vespa's motor.

"Haruha?" Maki ventures quietly, climbing on as the engine rumbles,

"what the hell are you talking about?"

"Let's hope you never find out, kid."

And with that, they are off.

Haruha Raharu is a terrible driver. Maki holds the older girl's waist in a death grip, but Haruha doesn't seem to notice. She is too busy concentrating, Maki supposes, on unnecessarily-sudden hairpin turns and abrupt stops and -jesus was that a red light they just shot through? The sound of enraged honking rapidly fading away behind them is answer enough. Haruha turns back (watch the road watch the road watch the road) and shouts something, but Maki can't hear her over the wind.

"WHAT?" she yells back, sure her own words are equally inaudible. But Haruha seems to hear.

"I SAID," Haruha shouts louder, competing with the roar of the turbulence. She then makes the most sudden stop of all, nearly flinging the two of them, bike and all, over the Vespa's front wheel. "WE'RE HERE!"

Maki rubs her ear. Evidently, not even Haruha's own vocal moderation can keep up with her driving – assuming she has any vocal moderation in the first place.

Maki looks around. They've travelled all the way through back to town outskirts, this time in the east. In front of them is an abandoned gas station; below them is a cracked and faded parking lot. "Where is here?"

"Weren't you listening, stupid? This is base. We're here to get you an axe. I'll wait outside."

Maki decides questioning again would be useless and only serve to piss off the temperamental woman further. As Maki starts climbing off the Vespa, Haruha stretches out and adds, "Look out, it might get kinda weird in there."

"I heard my cat talking. What could be weirder than that?" It's a challenge, one Maki hopes will draw information, in the form of bragging, from her childish mentor.

The ploy fails. "Yeah I guess you're right, what could be weirder than that." Maki is unsure if Haruha is being sarcastic. She senses that this will be a common uncertainty, over the next few days or weeks or hours or however long they're going to be together. There's no way to tell. Nothing about the Galactic Space Police Brotherhood has any rhyme or reason that Maki can follow, least of all Haruha Raharu.


Author's notes:

RO-U21 stands for 'Recruitment, Offseason; Under-21 years old'. In other words, Maki is a minor, and more importantly, the GSPB is not looking for new members at the moment. This is why dealing with the red tape from management is going to be so particularly annoying.

The N.O. buttons are featured prominently in Diebuster/Gunbuster 2/Aim For the Top! 2, which is another of Studio Gainax's works.

(And yes, Haruha's inability to access N.O. is related to her probation. More on that in future chapters.)