Author: Chris Cook
Orbit of Capsicum
Willow watched from the station's embarkation deck, offering a panoramic view of space and the planet below, as the TCS Kitten's Paw moved slowly into its berth, between the new Fleet Flagship TCS Accordion, with its revolutionary stretch drive, and the spaceframe of the partially-constructed TCS Excel 3.0. Umbilicals and retractable walkways snaked out towards the cruiser and locked on, linking it to the station.
"Totally Cute Starship Kitten's Paw has completed docking," the station's automated announcer confirmed over the speakers. "Diplomatic passengers are cleared for boarding." An airlock cycled open, and Willow picked up her shoulder bag and made her way across the access bridge to the ship.
Her eyes lit up when, as the Kitten's Paw's airlock opened at the other end, she caught sight of Tara of Nine standing ahead of her senior staff. The Captain's lips quirked into a pleased grin, and she stood aside from the airlock.
"Permission to come aboard?" Willow requested formally, winking covertly at Tara.
"Granted," Tara nodded, as an Ensign played a rising note on a kazoo, as protocol dictated. As Willow stepped forward, Tara leaned close to her and whispered: "I'll make sure you do come aboard."
She walked ahead of Willow, affording her a moment to control her blush, then turned and waved an arm at the collection of oddballs in uniform lined up in the hallway.
"My officers," she said proudly. "My science officer you already know."
"Hey Sixty-Nine," Willow nodded to the curly-haired blonde, whose entire wardrobe was a metal bikini.
"Hi Cutie," she replied. "I don't suppose you've changed your mind on threesomes?"
"Sorry," Willow shrugged.
"Down, girl," Tara jokingly ordered. "Willow, this is my new first officer, Tattoo."
"My tribe welcomes you," the man said in greeting, bowing even lower than he stood normally. "May the great cuddly puppy spirit of the sky bless your mission."
"Uh, thanks," Willow smiled bemusedly, casting a questioning glance at Tara.
"He says stuff like that a lot," she explained. "Our engineer, Connery."
"Welcome, lass," the white-bearded man said, saluting smartly. "Och Aye. Top of the morning to ya."
"Thanks. Uh," Willow hesitated, "isn't 'top of the morning'-"
"He's from Sigma Iotia," Tara took her arm and moved on. "He just likes pretending he's Scottish, but he's got a way to go getting the colloquialisms right. Our pilot, Pilot." A formidable-looking woman in shiny steel body armour saluted with one of her four arms. "And our tactical officer, Adequatus Integer."
"Greetings," an eight-foot-tall bright red robot intoned.
"Thank you everyone, dismissed," Tara ordered. "Tattoo, a moment. Willow," she gave Willow an apologetic look, "I have to take a message from the President before we get underway, is it okay if Tattoo escorts you to my quarters? And I'll be along to, uh, brief you, as soon as I can."
"I'll be waiting," Willow nodded. Tara beamed a smile at her, then beamed out, leaving Willow and Tattoo alone.
"This way ma'am," he said, indicating. Willow fell into step beside him.
"So, you know the Captain?" he said curiously. "I only transferred to the Kitten's Paw a couple of months ago."
"Yep, we're married," Willow nodded.
"You are?" Tattoo asked, surprised. "So when she took two weeks' leave on Capsicum last month, and came back looking all glow-y..."
"Uh-huh," Willow grinned.
"The records we got from the Cutie Order didn't mention you being married," Tattoo mused.
"Yeah, it's a secret," Willow said airily.
"You mean, as a Cutie you're not allowed to marry?"
"Oh, no. We had a big ceremony last year, everyone was there, even Master Osca. We just didn't put it into the Order database."
"Well," Willow explained, "so long as the records indicate that we're both single, when we're assigned to missions together we automatically get twice the allocated hot water rations for showers. It's handy - it means we can... um, take our time."
"Ah," Tattoo nodded, wondering.
"I've got six months' more at the Order Temple, training Paddingtons, then I qualify for permanent field status," Willow went on happily. "And I can transfer here full-time."
"Paddingtons?" Tattoo asked.
"Trainees," Willow nodded. "You see, you need a certain level of cuteness to be a Cutie, obviously. Younglings are inherently cute, 'cause they're, y'know, young. When they get to adolescence that fades in most cases, and they have to become cute under their own power. Until they can, they wear Paddington Bear duffle coats. That helps them look pretty cute, until they've got the hang of it on their own."
"I see," Tattoo said. "And when a Paddington graduates?"
"They become a fully-qualified Cutie Knight," Willow smiled. "Able to be cute at a moment's notice, under any circumstances. That's when we learn to use the Aww."
"The Aww?" Tattoo asked.
"The Aww is the force that binds the universe together," Willow said. "It's a kind of energy field, composed of cuteness. Every living thing, no matter what, responds to cuteness, and a Cutie who can tap into the power of the Aww can use that in all sorts of ways, like defending yourself, 'cause it's really difficult to attack someone who's irresistibly cute, and in negotiations to soothe tensions, and just generally to calm people down, put them in a good mood, and so on, which is really what interstellar diplomacy is all about, when you get right down to it. See, that there? That was babble. It's my specialty."
"It's very cute," Tattoo blushed.
"Thank you," Willow smiled. "I defused the replicant crisis in New New San Francisco by babbling, it can be very effective."
"Here're the Captain's quarters," Tattoo said, indicating a doorway. "She'll be along in a moment to... brief you..." He hesitated, realising the very probable subtext of what Tara had said.
"Thanks," Willow said, kneeling down and giving Tattoo a friendly kiss on the cheek. "I'll see you later on the bridge, okay?"
"See you," Tattoo nodded. The door swooshed closed behind Willow, leaving the first officer alone in the corridor.
"Wow," he mused to himself, "she's cute."
TCS Kitten's Paw
Tara took one last, lingering look at Willow, then the transporter beam surrounded her and she found herself in the ship's Omnidirectional People Transporter bay.
"Conference room, please," she instructed the self-aware system.
"Pleased to be of service," the device hummed as its beam enveloped Tara again. She suppressed the automatic wince of one who has had to listen to a blandly-corporate platitude every time she has used a transporter in the past several years.
The beam cleared with a 'Thank you for using this Omnidirectional People Transporter, available for all your intra-ship travel needs,' and Tara was in the darkened conference room, wondering once again if it would be cruel to deprive the vaguely-sentient artificial intelligence in the system of the ability to speak, as she'd heard most Captains did about five minutes after the devices had been installed. There were times her policy of compassion towards all beings not actively trying to blow up her ship was harder to maintain than others.
"Teletext One, online," she instructed. The ship's computer blinked into life.
"One call waiting," it announced. "Message from the President of the United Republic-"
"Yes, connect please."
"Accept charges for this call?" Teletext One asked.
'She called collect?' Tara frowned. 'Bitch.' Something about the President - or rather, everything about the President - got Tara's hackles up on every occasion she had dealt with the woman since being promoted to command.
"Captain Tara," Glorificus said as she appeared on the conference room's main screen, smiling her usual insincere smile.
"Madam President," Tara said, standing to attention.
"Tara, how many times must I ask you to simply call me Glory?"
"Just following protocol, Madam President," Tara replied stiffly.
"Such a stickler for doing things the proper way," Glorificus smiled condescendingly. "I wanted to add a few personal observations to the standard briefing you've received about your upcoming mission. TC Command will have told you everything you need to know, of course, but as has always been the case, a little extra information can't go astray, can it? I do, of course, retain my personal interest in your career, and I've been gratified to see you prosper thanks to my advice."
"Yes Madam President," Tara replied.
"This Kilkrazi situation is... delicate," Glorificus went on, oblivious to Tara's actual attitude. "Naturally the Empire wishes to appear friendly, given their current crisis - I understand hairballs the size of houses are raining down onto the capital city. I think it would be entirely wise for you to assume the best of them and their intentions in this upcoming mission - they'll be extremely unwilling to do anything which might jeopardise their chance at getting Republic aid."
"Oh-kay," Tara said slowly. The President's private advice was generally a lot harsher, following a general trend of distrusting everyone and everything, shooting first and not bothering to ask questions at all, and generally behaving in as evil a manner as possible.
"I think it would be a useful show of faith," Glorificus added, "if you were to, say, shut off all your sensors during your meeting with the Kilkrazi vessel. To show you trust them, you see?"
"That'd leave us unable to detect anything unusual going on," Tara pointed out respectfully, with a subtle undertone in her voice filling in the 'you crazy cow' part of the sentence.
"And of course, leaving your cannons and torpedo bays in cold condition-"
"So they'd take half an hour to bring to battle readiness?" Tara interjected.
"-would reassure the Kilkrazi that they have nothing to fear from you."
"So you'd like us to go into a delicate, perhaps dangerous situation," Tara translated, "with no ability to defend ourselves, and no ability to even record what's going on?"
"Exactly!" Glorificus smiled. "You're such a bright young girl, you catch on quickly. Well, it's been a pleasure advising you, goodbye. Er, not that this is the last time we'll speak, of course. Pleasure advising you, up until now. I'm sure I'll continue to do so in the future, as you'll certainly return safely from this assignment."
"Thank you, Madam President," Tara replied, suppressing a worried frown.
'Well, that was... more odd than usual,' Tara thought as she left the conference room. Fortunately it wasn't the first time she had to deal with Glorificus's unhelpful advice.
"Captain to Bridge," she said, tapping her eyepiece.
"Bridge, Connery here sir. Lassie, I mean. Cap'n. Aye."
"Have any instructions from the Presidential office arrived in the databanks?"
"Aye lass, we're instructed to shut off sensors and reduce battle readiness to-"
"Oh-kay," Tara sighed. "Implement Special Order 99, please."
"Aye, ignorin' everything the crazy bint says, as ordered Captain," Connery replied cheerfully. Special Order 99 had proved very useful over the years, and had incidentally always confirmed Tara's belief that the President was too lazy to look up anything with a number attached and find out what it meant when she found it referred to in the official ship's log transcripts.
"Make preparations to depart, and have Pilot lay in a course for our Neutral Zone rendezvous. Have the engine room ready for warp speed Dignified. Signal me when we're ready."
'Now, Willow...' Tara thought to herself, taking a deep breath. She headed back in the direction of her quarters, electing to take the stairs this time, with a definite spring in her step.
TCS Kitten's Paw
Tara stepped through the doors to her quarters, and was immediately jumped on by an amorous diplomat.
"I've... mmm... missed you... mmm! ... too," she managed to get out between kisses.
"I hate us being apart," Willow pouted, and immediately returned to kissing Tara.
"Only nine months more," Tara assured her, once she had moved on from lips to neck.
"Actually," she said mid-nuzzle, "only six... I qualified for accelerated promotion."
"That's wonderful!" Tara exclaimed, hugging Willow tightly. "Aside from the general wonderfulness that's you, how come?"
"Good behaviour," Willow smirked. "I can teach the advanced Paddington class without giving Annie a clip over the ear. None of the other tutors have managed that. I mean, I want to, of course - if you'd met him, you'd understand - but I just ignore him, and vent later on a galactinet forum anonymously. The 'Petulant Emo Trainees Suck' group. I'm the most frequent poster."
"That's my Willow," Tara smiled. "Finding the answer to everything on the 'net."
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded. "You know what else is your Willow? Loving you, that's what she is."
Tara gave Willow a tender kiss, then led her to her couch, where they sat cuddled close to one another.
"I wish we had more time," she lamented, "but we'll launch in about ten minutes."
"That's okay," Willow sighed, snuggling into Tara's embrace. "This is good."
"Yeah, it is," Tara agreed, stroking her hair.
"What's with the eye doohickey?" Willow asked.
"Hm? Oh, this," Tara put a hand to her brow, and detached the slim device framing her left eye. "I've gotten used to it, almost forget I have it on sometimes. It's an EyePod. Tactical linkage to the ship's systems, direct access to all the command overrides, plus it's got my playlist in compressed mp-pi format. I'm in a kind of power ballad mood at the moment."
"Neat," Willow said, inspecting the gadget. "Where'd you get it?"
"Pod People," Tara replied promptly. "They sold their entire shipment of EarPods to some Mondasians for full price, and now they're branching out into all kinds of Pods with the revenue from that. There's even a..." She leaned even close, and whispered the last word into Willow's ear.
"Really? What does that do?" Willow asked, surprised and intrigued. "I mean, obviously it goes on your... but then what?"
"I'll show you later," Tara winked.
"Tease," Willow accused.
"I learned from the best," Tara replied, unfazed. "So, how's Capsicum?"
"Oh, the usual," Willow shrugged. "Political unrest, back room double-dealings, unfeasibly large buildings being built."
"Population explosion?" Tara wondered.
"Not really - I think the President is just compensating. Which given that she's a she, is kind of worrying in the way it's manifesting itself. Of course, rumour is that her childhood was a bit weird, too."
"Ah, edifice complex," Tara nodded.
"There's been a lot of crises lately," Willow went on, frowning. "Always someone or other supposedly making aggressive moves into Republic territory. The Senate is giving more and more power to the Presidential office, which is doubly weird, seeing as everyone knows that the last thing you'd want in a crisis is the President getting involved. Glorificus's cronies have been suggesting that the Republic should form an army, instead of just relying on the Cuties and the Fleet."
"That's odd," Tara noted, a furrow appearing on her brow, which Willow obligingly kissed.
"Well, the frontier has been relatively quiet," Tara explained. "The usual Xylon raider attacks and Vogon system beautification campaigns, of course, but nothing with any strength behind it. And the Kilkrazi have been very quiet lately, we'd barely heard a peep from the other side of the Neutral Zone for six months before Hairball blew up."
"So what's got the President so riled up?" Willow wondered. "She's been making proclamations left and right about galactic security. I mean, she's a President, so obviously she's all with the insane self-aggrandising fear-mongering speeches, but these are different. It's like she actually expects people to agree with her."
"That's not good," Tara worried. "The whole point of having an insane President is so everyone knows who to blame whenever anything goes wrong. No-one's supposed to agree with her."
"Have you heard anything about the Fleet being redeployed, or something?" Willow asked.
"There've been some changes to the roster," Tara noted. "Captain Riley Skywalker of the Farmboy got transferred to sector command, which is ridiculous for a man who can't tie his own shoelaces, and they gave the new Battlestar Gesundheit to some guy who used to be a vice cop for House Betrayme on Floridan."
"Obviously not a trustworthy candidate," Willow agreed. "See, what worries me is there was a rumour that the Fleet was being stacked with officers loyal to the President."
"There are people loyal to the President?" Tara asked sceptically.
"I know, I didn't believe it at first either," Willow shrugged. "But things are getting difficult for the Order. It's like diplomacy is being pushed out."
"And here we are, on a diplomatic mission," Tara mused. "Which I suspect the President is ambivalent about at best.
"We should be careful," Willow suggested.
"We will be," Tara promised. "We will be." Her EyePod beeped, and she put it back on.
"C'mon," she said, extricating herself from Willow and offering her a hand as she got up. "Time to get underway."
Even More Space
The Kitten's Paw appeared in an expensive burst of special effects, and settled into a stately cruising speed. On the bridge all the officers were at their stations, calm but expectant, while Willow stood beside Tara's chair, discretely tracing patterns on her back with one hand.
"Captain, sensors report an incoming vessel," Adequatus Integer said in his echoing metallic voice. "Intercept course."
"Kilkrazi dreadnought, Doofus-class," Sixty-Nine added. "Her shields are down, weapons not targeting us."
"Steady," Tara said calmly. "Our weapons status?"
"Inactive, but prepped for five-second power-up," Adequatus replied.
"Recording everything," Sixty-Nine responded.
"Power on," Pilot reported. "Standing by for warp speed Run Away! if necessary."
"Good," Tara eased back in her seat a little, turning her head slightly so that Willow's hand brushed her cheek as she withdrew it from the Captain's back.
The crew watched with mixed apprehension and awe as the huge alien vessel passed above them, affording them an excellent view of its many, many torpedo tubes, its banks of energy cannons, its massive power plant and engines, and, inadvertently, a small sticker attached to the rear collision buffer reading 'Sylvester/Garfield in '06'.
The warship turned lazily ahead, finally coming to a dead stop facing the comparatively small Republic cruiser.
"They're hailing us," Adequatus announced.
"Here we go," Tara whispered. She stood, accepted a quick kiss from Willow, then nodded to Adequatus and turned to face the viewscreen, with Willow beside her.
"I'm Captain Tara of Nine, commander of the TCS Kitten's Paw. This is Willow Wilco, Knight of the Cutie Order. We're here to transport your delegation to Capsicum."
The viewscreen flickered momentarily as it locked on to the returning signal, and then Tara's crew got their first look inside a Kilkrazi warship, and of the fierce, muscular feline warriors who crewed it. The most imposing and aggressive-looking of them was in their bridge's centre seat, and seemed to have been caught by surprise by Tara's quick response, given that he was hunched over, had his back leg stuck straight up into the air, and his tongue was still poking out of his mouth from licking himself.
With as much dignity as he could muster, given his starting posture, he swivelled around and got to his feet.
"I am General Fang," he announced. "I am the ambassador."
Be tense! as General Fang meets Willow and Tara!
Suspect everyone (except Willow and Tara)! as treason rears its head!
Exclaim, like this! as the Kitten's Paw is targeted for annihilation!