Author: Chris Cook
Void. Nothingness. Emptiness. A Wagnerian soundtrack. And one very large explosion. Don't believe it? Wait five seconds.
More Space (there's plenty to go around)
The sleek starship Excel 2.0 moved through the potentially-hostile space like a sleek predator, with only a hint of wariness signalling that her crew were well aware that there had been an Excel 1.0, and that the past tense wasn't a typo. On board, the bridge contained a hive of activity. The vessel's roguishly handsome Captain emerged from the Omnidirectional People Transporter, looked around, and moved over to his seat, which his first officer hastily vacated. Before sitting, the Captain produced a Handi-Vac and cleaned the seat of its coating of fur.
"Excel 2.0 ship's log, Captain Solo commanding," he said, taking his freshly de-furred seat. "We continue to patrol the border of hostile territory, with no sightings of Kilkrazi warships to report. In other news- ow!" He broke off to smack at the insect which had stung him, and subsequently glared at the bridge's hive of activity.
"In other news," he continue grimly, "I'll be recommending to TC Command that hives no longer be kept on the bridge, even if they can't figure out how to get the Food-o-matics to create artificial honey. The damned things are just too much trouble to..." He paused again, this time to stare at the Handi-Vac, which had begun to vibrate its way across the deck, in spite of being switched off. After a moment he glared over his shoulder at his first officer.
"Number One, if you're trying to get me to stop using that," he growled, "consider brushing yourself more regularly before you sit in my seat."
"Woooorrrrrggghhhh!" the first officer howled in reply.
"I don't care if your hair tangles, use product!"
"Woooorrrggghh!" the creature howled rather more urgently, pointing past his Captain to the bridge viewscreen.
"What about Timmy? We don't have a well on board. You mean a lift well?"
"How many syllables?"
The furry creature threw up its paws in dismay, then strode forward, grabbed the Captain's head, and pointed it forward so he could see the massive maelstrom bearing down on the ship.
"Holy nerf dung!" he swore, leaping out of his seat. "What's that?"
"Sensors report an energy wave of class nine magnitude, originating from the Kilkrazi homeworld," the stoic science officer reported. "Approximately fifteen point two five seven seconds from contact."
"With us?" the captain bawled. "That's going to hit us?"
"Yes sir, in approximately thirteen point nine one-"
"Open fire!" the Captain demanded. "Razor cannons! Neutron torpedoes! Fire at will!"
The Captain watched in satisfaction, the rest of the bridge crew in growing consternation, as the various projectiles and beams impacted on the approaching space storm with no visible effect.
"Right then," Solo said, relieved, as the ship began to shake violently. "I fired first. You all saw it. Let the official ship's log record that I fired f-"
"I'm sorry, could someone slow this thing down? I can't read that fast."
The scrolling yellow autocue text paused, rewound a bit, then continued at a more sedate pace. At her podium the URP President Glorificus harrumphed and continued reading, while the assembled Senators and TC Admirals pretended not to notice the interruption.
"One URP vessel... yeah yeah, we did that bit... here we go, single counterpart from the Kilkrazi Empire, and take on board an Imperial Envoy, who will then return here on board our ship and lay the groundwork for full diplomatic relations. Any questions?"
"This is suicide," Admiral Ozymandias complained. "I don't trust the Kilkrazi. I hate cats."
"That's 'cause you're a dog, Oz," Glorificus glared. Oz pointedly ignored her, hefted a leg up into the air, and began scratching behind his ear. The President covertly signalled to his neighbour at the conference table, who rolled up a newspaper and whacked him until he settled down.
"Right!" Glorificus continued. "Any real questions?"
"What exactly are we discussing here?" Senator Rupert asked. "Beyond the immediate hairball clean-up aid... dismantling the Neutral Zone? Allowing Kilkrazi warships to enter URP space?"
"The first frozen milk planetoid they saw, they'd ignite the war all over again," Admiral Oz grumbled.
"Obviously there are going to be high tensions," Rupert went on, "and not just on our side, I'd venture to guess. This vessel we're sending, no doubt her crew are capable, but under these circumstances... Well, I don't see that we have any choice but to attach a special emissary to the command for the duration of this mission."
"I've personally selected the vessel," Glorificus said smugly. "And my office has drawn up plans to requisition the aid of a contingent of Mad Monks. I can personally vouch for their diplomatic credentials."
"But they're mad!" Oz pointed out.
"Actually their last psychological assessment by my office indicated that we can downgrade them to merely vexed-"
"I think we all know who we need," Rupert interrupted, drawing various nods and noises of agreement from the conference. "We must sent a Cutie."
Glorificus made a face. The assembled dignitaries, knowing of her habit of impromptu clay sculpture when stressed, waited until she had finished, and tossed the clay scowl aside.
"I don't think that's wise," she said at last. "The Cutie Order and their 'Aww'... They have been hard-pressed to protect the Republic of late. I believe their power has gone out of the universe, and-"
"This Republic," Rupert said gravely, "was founded on three principles: the adorableness of the Cutie Order, the spunkiness of the TC Fleet, and the megalomaniacal insanity of the Presidential office. Are you suggesting we forego our very founding principles?"
Glorificus pouted, then sighed and shrugged ill-temperedly.
"Fine," she snapped. "We'll send a Cutie."
Capsicum, homeworld of the URP
Willow activated her blade, gazing with narrowed eyes at her target, her concentration total. In a series of swift strokes she sliced through the object in front of her, then deactivated her blade and sheathed it on her belt in one fluid motion. The small crowd of Younglings and Paddingtons applauded respectfully.
Willow picked up a slice and showed it to the crowd.
"As you can see," she said proudly, "the bread gets sliced and toasted, all at once. Neat, huh? C'mon, give it a try." She took a bite of toast and watched as her audience rushed forward, grabbed the handful of toast blades on offer, and started making a mess of the loaves of bread scattered on the demonstration table.
"Even slices, Obie," she corrected them. "Annie, it's bread, you don't have to beat it into submission before you slice it." Out of the corner of her eye she spotted an ancient, green-furred alien sidle into the kitchen stadium.
"Class, keep practising," she announced. "We'll move on to buttering this afternoon." She left the young students at their task and met the old, wise Cutie Master at the edge of the stage.
"Master Osca," she said, bowing respectfully.
"Cutie Willow," he replied, motioning for her to ride. "A task, you have been assigned. The Kilkrazi diplomatic mission, you are aware of?"
"Yes, I saw the last scene," Willow nodded.
"Meditated in my dustbin I have," Osca said gravely. "Advanced your skills are. Impeccable your cuteness is. Adorable your babble is. And this mission in particular, suited for you are."
"I are?" Willow asked. "I mean, I am?"
"Decided the Senate has that TCS Kitten's Paw this mission will conduct," the Cutie Master replied. "Been assigned to the Kitten's Paw in the past you have. Performed excellently in the company of her Captain you have. Good working relationship you have with her, I believe."
"Uh, yeah," Willow mumbled, looking away to hide a blush.
"The Kitten's Paw being recalled to Capsicum is," Osca finished. "Report to her Captain upon arrival you will. May the Aww be with you."
Yet More Space
The Kitten's Paw, an elegant cruiser with an aqua-coloured hull and new-age-y kind of crystal highlights, was by all appearances not having things her own way, surrounded as she was by a swarm of robotic Xylon strike craft, which swooped and blazed at the larger vessel's shields.
Inside the bridge was a sea of red alert lights and smoke, as each impact caused a console or two to erupt in a shower of sparks. The ship's Captain held the arms of her command chair with an iron grip, remaining in place as the deck shuddered, and stared witheringly at the fighters zipping back and forth on the viewscreen.
A particularly large spray of sparks shot across the bridge, and she turned to cast an idle glance at her engineer.
"Could we turn the fuses on?" she asked.
"Aye Cap'n," the engineer replied in a thick brogue. Immediately the sparks died down, and subsequent hits by the Xylons registered only as tiny lights blinking out one by one on the fuse board.
"Better," the Captain said to herself. "Cut main engine power by half, covertly charge the magnetic cannon and give me firing control."
"Hyperdrive signature!" the tactical officer warned. "Incoming vessel, very large!"
"Here we go," the Captain smiled, settling back in her chair.
Outside the fighters ceased their bombardment and formed a rough sphere around the Kitten's Paw, while ahead a rift in space appeared and disgorged a huge saucer-shaped vessel.
"Xylon heavy carrier," the Kitten's Paw's first officer announced, "Xylophone class."
"She's where these pirate fighters have been operating from," the Captain said. "Hail them."
The viewscreen switched to an interior view of the Xylophone, which was crewed by shiny silver robots, each of whose single, menacing red eye scanned continually left and right, back and forth across its visor. The Captain of the Kitten's Paw got to her feet and addressed the apparent leader of the robots.
"I'm Captain Tara of Nine, commander of the TCS Kitten's Paw, and... Excuse me, would you mind looking at me when I'm speaking to you?"
The lead Xylon's eye stopped moving back and forth, and fixed Captain Tara with a robotic glare.
"Thank you," she said. "As I was saying, you're in violation of the Xylon-Capsicum treaty. You're hereby ordered to stand down and surrender your weapons, then depart this sector immediately."
"Statement: your vessel is surrounded and exhausted of power," the Xylon said flatly. "Further statement including self-aggrandising propaganda: you are no match for the might of the Xylon Empire. Query that is rhetorical in nature, thus requiring no answer, though allowing that if answer should be provided and prove accurate, query and preceding statements regarding Xylon superiority would be regarded in hindsight as embarrassing: how do you intend to force us to surrender?"
"Do you really want to know?" Tara asked, leaning forward and resting her chin on her palm, with her fingertip tracing the edge of the metallic arc over her left eye.
"Derisive statement that is needlessly emphatic, thereby concealing fact that we consider your reply to be suspicious in light of your apparent situation, and potentially the prelude to a means to secure our surrender that we have not anticipated, but which we shall not acknowledge due to Xylon intractability-"
"Thank you, I think we get the point," Tara nodded, pressing a tiny button on her metal faux-eyebrow. Several decks below the ship's magnetic cannon cycled into life, and the Xylons found themselves yanked off their feet and smacked against the front of their bridge. Tara addressed the screen again, which now consisted of a very close-up view of the leader's somewhat crumpled face.
"About that surrender?"
Tara twirled a tiny control, sending the Xylon crew crashing into the back of their bridge, and then to the front again.
"Sullen grumble: we surrender."
"Weapons please," Tara smiled, releasing the battered robots. The viewscreen switched back to space, showing the Xylophone and its fighters jettisoning their assorted weaponry, before turning and limping back into hyperspace. Tara nodded in satisfaction and sat back.
"Tactical, tractor in anything out there you like the look of, then destroy the rest. Helm, lay in a course-"
"Captain, incoming transmission from TC Command," her diminutive first officer interrupted. The tribal markings on his face crinkled as he frowned.
"What is it Tattoo?" Tara asked.
"We've been ordered to return to Capsicum for reassignment," he said.
"Darnit," Tara muttered. "We're just getting settled in out here, couldn't they have found someone else?"
"And we're to take on a special agent for our new mission, a... a Cutie," the first officer added, in an awed tone. "Willow Wilco."
"Helm, lay in a course for Capsicum, engage at warp factor Real Fast!" Tara ordered.
The church was ill-lit, dusty, and clearly long forsaken by its cadre of Jenova's Witnesses - the perfect place for a clandestine meeting between conspirators with too much style for an abandoned warehouse, such as was about to take place. Two cloaked and hooded figures detached themselves from the shadows and slowly approached each other in front of a large stone statue of an angel, missing one wing.
"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight," said the more slender of the two, in the manner of one speaking in code.
"Make my day, punk," replied the other, whose shape was clearly too large and muscular to be human.
"In space no-one can hear you scream."
"You will believe a man can fly."
"Surely you can't be serious."
"I am. And don't call me Shirley."
The pair nodded in recognition, and drew back their hoods to reveal themselves as President Glorificus, and a fierce-looking Kilkrazi officer.
"President," the feline alien growled.
"General Fang," Glorificus replied. "You requested this meeting?"
"My spies tell me a Cutie has been assigned to the peace mission," the General snarled. "That was not part of our arrangement. You know the perils of dealing with the Order!"
"A minor impediment, but already accounted for," Glorificus assured the alien. "I have dispatched additional instructions to my Baths to-"
"Grrr!" the General exclaimed convulsively.
"Don't use that word."
"Sorry. I've instructed my... agents... to ensure that Willow Wilco will... bleh," Glorificus paused to untwist her tongue, "that the Cutie will not have the chance to report back to her superiors in the Order."
"You're certain?" the General demanded.
"Of course. The loss of the Kitten's Paw was not originally planned, and is regretful... but it is now necessary. And we are both committed to doing what is... necessary."
"Very well," Fang snarled. "See that you do. Because I will not allow the Empire to be drawn into war with the Cutie Order. That would be suicide!" He turned on his heel and marched away.
"Just do your part, General," Glorificus muttered to herself. "And then it matters not whether your Empire dies by 'suicide' or by conventional means..."
"What?" the General snapped, looking back over his shoulder.
"What? Nothing! Sorry. Just... I have a cough." Glorificus coughed unconvincingly. General Fang peered at her through slitted eyes.
"Why is it every time we meet, you always mutter something and chuckle to yourself while I'm walking away?"
"Uh... for luck?"
"Huh. In my experience, there's no such thing as luck." Turning again, he stalked out of the cathedral.
"Your experience is..." Glorificus paused, and waited for Fang to reappear. When he didn't, she continued: "...soon to come to an end."
Gasp! as Glorificus's diabolical scheme is enacted!
Thrill! as the Kitten's Paw faces the savage Kilkrazi!
Curse the PG-13 rating! as Willow and Tara meet!