Author: Chris Cook
TCS Kitten's Paw
Willow and Tara arrived slightly late, and slightly dishevelled, in the transporter bay, receiving curious glances from Tara's crew, with the exception of Sixty-Nine who covertly gave the pair a thumbs-up when no-one else was watching.
"Do I look okay?" Tara whispered to her science officer, as she and Willow took their places in the crew line.
"A few hairs out of place, no biggie," Sixty-Nine shrugged. "Not bad for three hours 'debriefing' your wife. I'm guessing you didn't really leave much time to compose yourself."
Tara blushed, despite being quite used to the android's bluntness with all things sexual, then noticed a strand of hair hanging down over her brow, which she pursed her lips and blew out of the way. Willow reached across and tucked it out of the way behind Tara's EyePod.
"You're sure this is a good idea?" the redhead asked in a whisper.
"They're almost here, now you ask?" Tara wondered.
"I didn't want to say anything on the bridge," Willow admitted. "You're the Captain, it wouldn't do if I seemed to be questioning your authority." Tara gave her wife a warm, grateful smile.
"Love you, sweetie," she murmured. "What about later, though, in private?"
"I had more important things on my face. Mind!" Willow amended quickly, but not so quickly that Tara didn't have to use all her self-discipline to stifle a giggle.
"It'll be fine," the blonde whispered, leaning forwards slightly so that none of her crew would see Willow imitating a red alert light. "Probably a bit tense, diplomatic functions always are - but we've done this before, and the new crew members are the best. I think it'll help smooth things over later on, when the real work starts."
"A formal dinner with the Kilkrazi delegation," Willow said, shaking her head slightly. "Well, if anyone can keep a fight from breaking out, it's you." She gave Tara a grin, and was warmed by the smile she received in turn, from her show of faith.
"I've never met one face to face," she went on quietly.
"There was a Kilkrazi in the Collective," Tara reminisced.
"Really? Oh, of course," Willow answered her own query. "The Babe Collective, cataloguing the hotness of ten thousand species. So, what qualifies as hot, for a Kilkrazi?"
"Silky fur, if she was any indication," Tara replied. "I never got to know her, she joined just before I left to join the TC Academy - though at least, I remember enough that I could give Chef a few pointers on what our guests might like to eat tonight."
"Incoming transporter beam, thank you for using Omnidirectional People Transporters, safely reassembling your molecules for thirty years," the system announced.
"'Ten-shun," Tara ordered smartly, as her crew straightened up. The transporter lit up and produced three Kilkrazi - General Fang in the centre, a hulkingly-huge warrior with curly fur, marred by several scars on such of him as was visible beneath his battle armour, and a short, curvaceous female, dressed in a silky outfit that revealed a significant amount of black and white fur.
"General," Tara stepped forward. "Welcome to the Kitten's Paw." She introduced Willow and her senior staff, to each of whom the feline aliens offered a stiff nod. General Fang turned slightly, and his two companions stepped forward.
"My chief of staff, Brigadier Curly," he introduced the warrior.
"Whoop-whoop-whoop," Curly rasped in a gravely voice.
"The Brigadier suffers from a slight speech impediment, as a result of injuries taken in battle," Fang explained. "And my daughter, Mzkyti."
"Hello," the female purred.
"Hel-lo," Sixty-Nine purred in reply.
"Oboy," Tara quietly sighed. "General," she said aloud, "Brigadier, Mzkyti - the dining room is this way." She took Willow's arm and led the party out of the transporter bay.
"This is complicated enough already," Willow heard her murmur to Sixty-Nine as they passed her.
"She's gorgeous," Sixty-Nine quietly countered. "Don't worry, I'll be tactful."
"Same old Number Sixty-Nine," Willow joked, quietly enough that only Tara could hear her.
"Sometimes," Tara sighed, "I worry that it was a mistake taking on board a reprogrammed sexbot as a science officer, on a ship where her original programming isn't really that necessary."
"And then?" Willow teased.
"And then I remember how we usually have to turf five or six men and women out of her quarters every time we finish a shore leave," Tara grinned. She favoured Willow with a sly glance. "All in all, she's probably the second most 'satisfied' officer on the ship."
"Captain," General Fang said loudly, "I wonder if I might enquire, what meals your staff are preparing? We have fairly... selective palettes."
"We've secured all the necessary ingredients for a Kilkrazi feast, General," Tara promised. "You'll have the opportunity to let our Chef know your preferences."
"Nyuk nyuk nyuk," the Brigadier noted.
"Indeed," General Fang nodded noncommittally.
"Here we are, General, ladies and gentlemen," Tara added, stopping by the door to the dining room and gesturing for the guests to enter. Inside was a complicated mini-kitchen, overseen by a robot, and a sweeping dining table.
"Mood music: Mozart. Table off," Tattoo said quietly. The table stopped sweeping itself, and folded its self-cleaning arms away beneath various hatches. Soft classical music wafted out of the room's sound system.
"Mozart... I dinna believe I ken the gentleman," Connery said, frowning.
"From Earth," Pilot said quietly.
"Oh, Mo-zart, right... yeah, o'course, I know 'im. I'm no an alien," the engineer muttered defensively.
"General, Iron Chef Gort," Tara introduced the Chef robot. "Gort was previously the head chef at Milliways."
"Please select your menu style," the robot intoned politely. "Primordial soup, Kentucky Fried Dentic, fish of the day, Soylent Green, or Pizza Hutt."
"Fish!" Brigadier Curly nodded enthusiastically.
"Today's fish is trout a la crème," the robot said.
"Acceptable," General Fang admitted.
"Good," Tara smiled. "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto. If you'll all be seated, this will only take a moment."
The diners took their seats, with Tara at the head of the table, General Fang to her right with the other two Kilkrazi beside him, while Willow sat to Tara's left with the senior staff along that side of the table - except for Sixty-Nine, who was already cozying up to Mzkyti on her side of the table. The speaker in Iron Chef Gort's chest produced a tinny gong sound, and the robot began preparing the night's meal at phenomenal speed, with ingredients and saucepans flying in all directions, yet somehow managing not to get out of control.
"Thirty microseconds have elapsed," the speaker said in a pleasant female voice.
"Half-way," Tara translated. Fang and the Brigadier peered at their napkins curiously, while Sixty-Nine spread Mzkyti's on her lap for her, rather more enthusiastically than she had to.
"Sixty microseconds have elapsed," the robot's speaker announced. "Allez cuisine! Enjoy your meal," it added in its regular voice.
"Soitanly!" Curly said, grabbing his plate and tucking in with relish. Fang showed rather more restraint, eating politely while avoiding any indication that he was enjoying himself at all, and occasionally shooting baleful glances at his daughter, who was being fed by Sixty-Nine by hand, and seemed to be as interested in licking her fingers as the food in them.
"We agreed to this 'dinner' as a courtesy," General Fang said after a moment, "but I confess, this is an unfamiliar custom to us. You often share meals with potential enemies?"
"Food has always played a vital role in life's rituals," Tara replied diplomatically. "The breaking of bread-"
"Or, I understand, the last meal of the condemned man," Fang nodded.
"Lots of bonhomie going around," Willow murmured too quietly for anyone but Tara to hear. The Captain gave her a reassuring squeeze on her thigh, and kept up the conversation.
"Do you have the custom of toasting?" she asked Fang.
"We forgot to bring the toaster," Mzkyti said apologetically, handing her a loaf of bread.
"Oh, not to worry, I've got this neat gizmo," Willow offered, reaching for the sabre hilt on her belt.
"I understood that TC officers didn't carry personal weapons," Mzkyti mentioned, as Willow sliced and toasted the bread - slightly shakily, as Tara didn't seem interested in taking her hand away from Willow's thigh any time soon.
"Willow is a Cutie," the Captain explained. "She's on board especially for this mission."
"The Cutie Order wishes to monitor us?" Fang asked slyly.
"To mediate," Tara explained smoothly, "as an expert in interstellar diplomacy."
"'As the Vulcans say, we're here to serve,'" Willow quoted.
"Ah," Fang sat back in his seat. "You have not experienced Star Trek until you have read it in the original Kilkrazi."
"nuqDaq 'oH puchpa''e'," Curly intoned.
"Down the hall, second door on the left," Tara replied promptly.
"Nyuk," Curly said, rising and leaving the table.
"You speak Kilkrazi," Fang noted. "Very impressive. That is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain."
"'Where's the bathroom?'" Tara asked sceptically.
"In general terms," Fang continued smoothly. "With the loss of out Hairball satellite, it seems we will be reliant on the Republic for proper disposal of our excess hairballs for some time to come. Some say, too reliant. They suggest the Kilkrazi way would be to declare war against the Republic."
"How would that help?" Willow asked.
"It's what we do," Fang shrugged. "Get annoyed, declare war. It's worked so far."
"Urk!" Connery uttered suddenly, going into spasms. Willow looked alarmed, but Tara shook her head, sighing wearily as Adequatus and Pilot held Connery still. After a moment, a bulge appeared in the engineer's stomach, there was a tearing noise beneath his uniform, and a small snakelike creature slid up out of his vest and slithered away into a ventilation duct.
"Connery, I've asked you before not to bring your pet to diplomatic functions," Tara said, casting her engineer a mild glare.
"Sorry lass," Connery said sheepishly, adjusting his vest. "But the wee bugger gets lonely all cooped up in his cage."
"Is he okay?" Willow asked, still slightly alarmed.
"Yes, he's fine," Tara smiled, speaking loud enough for Fang to hear her too - the General was staring in shock at Connery - then lowering her voice to add, just for Willow, "Just be glad it didn't sing 'Hello My Baby' this time."
"General, surely the benefits of Republic membership-" Tattoo began, trying to restart the conversation.
"Oh, Kilkrazi as part of the Republic? Please," Fang scowled, regaining his equilibrium. "The Republic would never admit us as equal members - it's nothing but a homo sapiens only club."
"Actually, I'm Capsican," Willow noted.
"I was manufactured on Tetris III," Sixty-Nine added.
"My ancestors were the star-walkers of the Rubber Chicken People," Tattoo said gravely.
"I'm from Toysrus," Adequatus spoke up.
"I'm Canadian," Pilot said.
"Isn't Canada on Earth?" Mzkyti asked.
"Canadian from Canadia," Pilot clarified. "The Xenon system. People often get them mixed up."
"I'm Scottish!" Connery said proudly.
"Does that mean he's human?" Fang asked, a bit bewildered.
"He's Iotian, really," Tara shrugged.
"And what about you, Captain?" the General asked. "Are you from some outer space colony the Republic has brought under its wing for 'mutual protection'?"
"No, I'm from Alabama," Tara smiled. "I only work in outer space."
"Bah!" Fang snorted. "Bad example, you're just one of those ships with a deliberately varied bridge crew."
"Actually, who is watching the bridge, seeing as you're all here?" Mzkyti wondered.
"Remote control," Adequatus said, tapping the dual antennae built into to his head. "I don't need to eat, so I'm multi-tasking."
There was a flushing noise, and a moment later Brigadier Curly reappeared.
"Nyuk?" he asked, seeing his General fuming.
"Sit down you idiot," Fang growled.
"Whoop?" Curly asked.
"Please don't," Fang glared.
"Whoop whoop?" the Brigadier persisted.
"Oh, go on father," Mzkyti said. "He wants to do the thing with the knife," she added, for the benefit of the others.
"Nyuk!" Curly said triumphantly, selecting a steak knife and weighing it carefully in his hand.
"How far back do we need to stand while he does this?" Tattoo asked politely.
"No need for concern, my databanks recall this from a movie," Adequatus assured him. Curly held the knife in one hand, placed his other hand flat on the table, fingers splayed, and with great deliberation rammed the knife into the back of his own hand.
"Nyuk," he said proudly.
"That wasn't exactly the way my databanks recorded it," Adequatus said, as the v-shaped panel on his forehead rotated around to resemble a frown.
"Not to worry," Fang said wearily. "The Brigadier was involved in the Fifth Star War." Curly pulled the knife out, and resumed eating his seventh helping of fish, his glove occasionally pulling open at the newly-cut hole as his hand flexed to reveal a prosthetic beneath it.
"He lost his hand?" Tattoo asked.
"Everyone did in that one," Pilot said. "There were a couple of accidental hand losses early on, then it snowballed and everyone started doing it. The war actually ended because once all the combatants had lost their hands and replaced them with detachable prosthetics, both sides acknowledged that it had just gotten silly, and they all went home."
"I'm afraid the Brigadier thinks that his little trick is funny," General Fang apologised, sharing a rare look of empathy with Tara, as one commander to another when one of their underlings has done something embarrassing.
"That's quite obscure knowledge, outside of the Empire," Mzkyti said to Pilot. "You're a student of Kilkrazi history?"
"I don't get out much," Pilot shrugged, "so I read."
"Whoop?" the Brigadier asked.
"Seasoning," Mzkyti translated.
"Here y'go laddie," Connery offered, passing the seasoning dispenser across the table.
"Don't take the red pill," Tattoo advised as Curly poked at the various flavour pills on offer.
"Why not?" Fang asked suspiciously.
"It mixes badly with fish," the first officer explained. "Eat both of them, and half an hour later you'll be having an unpleasant experience in the bathroom, thinking 'Why oh why didn't I take the blue pill'."
"Captain," Fang said quietly to Tara, in a voice that - not knowing how the Aww could hone senses - he probably thought Willow couldn't hear, "tell me truly, one... warrior, to another. This peace initiative cannot have the support of your people. Surely, there can be no peace in our time, between the Republic and the Empire. It is not the place of soldiers to deal in diplomacy."
Tara's hand on Willow's thigh stilled; Willow covered it with her own, offering the reassuring contact as Tara met the General's level gaze.
"I'm not a soldier, General," Tara said quietly. "The Fleet's mission has always been one of peace, freely offered to anyone who wants it."
"I've studied your record," Fang noted. "You've fought your fair share of engagements on the frontier. Successfully, I might add."
"I've defended myself, my ship, and the people under my protection, when necessary," Tara nodded. "Only when necessary. Never in cold blood."
"In space," the General said, as if quoting, "all warriors are cold warriors."
"Not this one," Tara said simply. "General, I hope you'll give peace a chance. That's all I'm saying. The Fleet and the Republic are not a threat to you... but nor are we a target."
"Huh," Fang smiled thinly. "Well said, Captain."
TCS Kitten's Paw
Tara, Willow, and the bridge crew filed back to their stations, in various states of unease.
"The Kilkrazi delegation has transported back to their vessel," Adequatus reported, taking the science station in lieu of Sixty-Nine, who was absent. Tara sat down heavily in the command chair, and Willow perched on the arm, with one arm around Tara's shoulders comfortingly.
"That... could have been better," the Captain lamented.
"You did great," Willow assured her. "Take it from someone who's done this sort of thing for years, the first meeting is always a frost. It's actually a good sign that anything meaningful got said, even if it wasn't particularly friendly - at least there's communication. When you don't get anything but bland, formal politeness, then you're not getting anywhere."
Tara offered her a tired smile, then leaned over and rested her head on Willow's chest.
"I'm very glad you're the one 'engagement' I didn't fight," she murmured.
"But you did succeed," Willow grinned. "And General Snooty-pants isn't the only one who's been keeping an eye on your career. I'm proud of you."
"Thank you," Tara smiled. "Well, I suppose, now we just have to wait for Fang to get his bags packed and get back here, and we'll be off to Capsicum-"
A tremor passed through the hull, accompanied by a high-pitched whine.
"Report," Tara snapped, sitting upright.
Before anyone could say anything, a flash lit up the viewscreen. All eyes watched in horror as a purple beam shot forward, striking the Kilkrazi dreadnought amidships.
"Razor cannon!" Pilot exclaimed.
"Red alert!" Tara ordered. "Shields up!"
"Confirmed, TC Fleet standard razor cannon discharge," Adequatus reported, as the bridge lights went red.
"Captain, the ship! The ship!" Tattoo pointed. Tara looked back at the viewscreen, where a second razor blast tore through the dreadnought's shields and hammered into its belly. The Kilkrazi vessel slewed off course, rolling end over end and swinging dangerously close to the Kitten's Paw as it tried to compensate for its failing engines.
"Evasive!" Tara ordered. "Tactical, was that us? Did we fire?" Sixty-Nine appeared and took her post at the science station.
"Unknown, checking," Adequatus said.
"Kilkrazi vessel is restoring main power," Sixty-Nine reported. "But, Captain, that last razor blast got through their shields. It's possible it may have affected the crew-"
She was cut off as the viewscreen flickered to an image of the dreadnought's bridge, populated as before with its senior officers, and General Fang. What wasn't as before was that all of the feline aliens were entirely bald, standing in small puddles of their own hair which had spontaneously and completely shed itself.
"How dare you!" Fang bellowed. "For this insult, I shall blow you out of the stars!"
"I did that on the pleasure world Risotto once," Sixty-Nine reminisced quietly.
"General, I give you my word-" Tara managed to say, before the furious and follically-challenged General cut the communications link. "Damn!" she swore. "Tactical, did we fire?!"
"Tactical systems report razor cannons on standby," Adequatus frowned. "No activation."
"She's coming around," Tattoo warned. On the viewscreen, the dreadnought had righted herself, and was bearing down on the small Republic cruiser.
"Willow..." Tara said quietly. Willow put a hand on her shoulder, and stroked the back of her neck tenderly.
"Do what you have to do," she whispered. Tara nodded.
"Signal our surrender," she said levelly.
"Kilkrazi vessel is refusing to acknowledge our surrender," Adequatus responded. "They are powering weapons and targeting us."
"What?" Tara asked, dismayed. "But that had to work! That worked in the movie we're ripping off at the moment!"
"I guess they're not following the same script," Tattoo said bleakly.
"If you can get them to establish visual contact again, I could try using the Aww," Willow offered quietly. "It's a long shot, but..."
"If we need to," Tara nodded. "Helm, can we outrun them?"
"I believe so," Pilot said. "Plotting an escape course aft-"
"Incoming vessel dead astern!" Adequatus interrupted. Everyone instinctively turned in their seats and looked back - a trait so common that the bridge had a viewscreen in its back wall, for just such an eventuality.
"Not good," Tara muttered. Willow took her hand and held it tightly.
To their surprise, the front half of a Republic starship zoomed into view behind the Kitten's Paw, with an extended concertina-like structure stretching off into infinity behind it. A moment later the concertina contracted, and the back half of the imposing ship snapped smartly into place.
"The Accordion," Tara said in surprise. The bridge crew heaved a collective sigh of relief as they recognised the TC Fleet flagship, easily a match for the Kilkrazi dreadnought.
"Captain," Adequatus said, his metallic voice resonating with shock, "the TCS Accordion is... targeting us!"
The viewscreen switched to a view of the Flagship's spacious bridge, and Tara stared at the ship's Captain with mixed confusion and betrayal.
"TCS Kitten's Paw," the other Captain announced. "ThisisAdmiral... ShatneroftheTCS... Accordion. You're... inviolationof... GeneralOrder... One. I'mherebyauthorised... todestroy... yourvessel."
Worry! as the Kitten's Paw faces her own flagship!
Nod knowingly! as they inevitably escape certain death!
Recall that scene in chapter one! as Willow and Tara uncover a conspiracy!