Author: Chris Cook
TCS Kitten's Paw
"WHAT?!?" Tara yelled.
"You... heardme... Captain," Admiral Shatner said blithely, leaning heavily on one arm of his command seat. "GeneralOrderOne... clearlyrequires... yourship'sdestruction."
"What's General Order One?" Willow asked quietly.
"'Do anything the President tells you to do,'" Tara replied.
"People follow that order?"
"Not usually. Certainly not since Glorificus's term started."
"Inaddition," Admiral Shatner interrupted, "Iamyour... superiorofficer. I'morderingyou... tolower... yourshields... andtransferyour... commandcodestome. It'llmakeit... easierto... blastyououtofspace."
"Accordion's shields raising," Adequatus said.
"Admiral," Willow said, slipping off Tara's chair to her feet. "I'm sure this is just a misunderstanding. As you can see we're a consular ship, on a diplomatic mission, and obviously there's been a foul up, well, when I say 'foul up' I mean a tremendous spanner in the works, but we're working on it, and-"
"She's babbling," Tara murmured, relieved. Admiral Shatner seemed to be wavering under the assault of Willow's cuteness.
"-see, we're just trying to figure out what happened, and yes the Kilkrazi are understandably upset, but this isn't our fault, and we're actually in the best position to figure out who did do this, so don't you think, all things considered, when you take it all into account, that actually disregarding that silly general order would be a really good idea? Huh?"
"Well... whenyouputitlikethat," Shatner began.
"No," said a blonde woman, stepping into view on the Accordion's bridge. "Admiral, carry out your orders." Shatner blinked, then turned and nodded to his tactical officer.
"Multiple weapon locks, Captain," Tattoo warned. "Accordion and the Kilkrazi."
"Don'ttry... torun... Captain," Shatner said confidently. "Ourstretchdrive... ismuchfasterthan... yourconventionalengines."
"Captain, recommend we go to warp," Sixty-Nine said quietly. Tara looked at her questioningly, glanced at Willow, who was frowning at the new arrival on Accordion's bridge, then she nodded slightly, and rested her head on her hand, subtly tapping the controls on her EyePod.
"Captain!" the Admiral insisted. "Yourcommand... codes!"
"Here it comes," Tara assured him blankly. Willow glanced back at her, surprised at her acquiescence, and seeing the warning in her wife's eyes she moved slowly aside, out of the viewscreen's range, and held on to a safety rail.
"Now!" Tara ordered. Pilot jammed the helm throttle forward, and the Kitten's Paw leapt forward, between the two vessels around her, with the engines complaining at the effort of producing warp speed Bat Out Of Hell.
"Big... mistakeCaptain," Shatner warned, still on the viewscreen. "Helm... engage... stretchdrive."
Tara shot Sixty-Nine a look, and received a wink from the android in return.
"Do we have a plan?" Willow asked.
"It's taken care of," Tara nodded. "Somehow."
The Accordion bridge disappeared from the viewscreen, replaced by the view of space ahead, with stars streaking past the fleeing ship.
"Is that normal?" Willow asked.
"Newest drive upgrade," Tara nodded. "It makes stars look like they're not wearing their photosphere when we go past at warp. Just a visual distortion from the warp field." The entire bridge crew ducked reflexively as the front half of the Accordion, apparently no longer attached to the back half, went rocketing overhead and tumbled off into the void.
"Change course, make sure they can't track us," Tara ordered Pilot. "Sixty-Nine?"
"What the heck happened to them?" Willow added.
"When the Accordion targeted us, I assumed hostile intent on their part," Sixty-Nine explained. "They didn't raise their shields until a moment later. Anticipating our need to outpace them to escape, I took the liberty of transporting a quantity of liquid nitrogen into the core of the Accordion's stretch drive, causing the elastic component to quick-freeze and become brittle. Then, when they attempted to use the drive..."
"...the rubber band broke," Willow finished with a grin.
"Good work, Sixty-Nine," Tara said. "Willow..." she lowered her voice, so no-one else would hear her. "I'm not sure what to do."
Willow nodded her understanding, knowing how seriously Tara took her duty to her crew, and the need for them to have faith in her. Vulnerability was something she could show only to Willow.
"I need a galactinet interface," she whispered. "One entirely separate from the Republic's systems... of the TC Fleet."
"We can't link in from the ship without revealing our position," Tara said quietly. "People," she raised her voice, "we need answers to what's going on. We need a safe, out-of-the-way port, and a way to access the galactinet without it being tracked back to this ship. Suggestions?"
"Captain, my homeworld," Tattoo spoke up.
"How remote is it?" Tara asked.
"It won Space Piston's 'Farthest From The Bright Centre Of The Universe' award nine years running," Tattoo said proudly. "You can't get more remote. And there's a sizeable smuggler population - if we need to, uh, 'circumvent' Republic monitoring on the galactinet, that's where we'll find the technology and expertise to do it."
"Good, make it so," Tara nodded.
"Helm, set course for Tattooine," Tattoo ordered. "Warp factor Fast But Inconspicuous."
Tara leaned closer to Willow, as the ship veered to one side and changed speed.
"You suspect something?" she whispered.
Before she could answer, an alert sounded on Adequatus's security monitor.
"Captain, unauthorised system login on deck four, crew quarters!"
"Have a security team meet us there!" Tara ordered, rising to her feet, with Willow by her side.
TCS Kitten's Paw
Tara, Willow, Adequatus, and his team of spherical security droids arrived to find the alert coming from Sixty-Nine's cabin. The droids rolled into position, in a line across the doorway, slightly hampered by the way the final droid to roll up knocked into the one beside it, sending the droid on the far side of the line rolling off again, at which it overcompensated and knocked back into its neighbour, and so on.
"Knock it off!" Adequatus ordered. "Transform!" The droids obediently unfolded into their humanoid shaped and covered the door.
"Teletext One, command override," Tara said. "Open the door to Lieutenant Sixty-Nine's cabin."
The door swooshed open, to reveal Mzkyti, wearing only a towel. To the varying degrees of embarrassment of the onlookers, the towel was on her head.
"Um, hi," she waved awkwardly. "This Food-o-matic isn't letting me use it. You wouldn't have a cat biscuit on you, would you? I'm feeling peckish."
TCS Kitten's Paw
"There's no way we fired," Tattoo protested. "Our razor cannons were on standby - they couldn't have fired without being activated from the bridge, or by manual override, which we visually confirmed had not been used."
"Nonetheless, a razor cannon did fire," Adequatus pointed out. "There were no other ships in the area - a cloaked vessel would have given itself away warping in and out, or been revealed by our warp burst when we fled. We were on full scanning of the whole area, there was nothing but us, the dreadnought, and the Accordion. We fired - and I think we need look no further than our stowaway to explain why."
Mzkyti, sitting at the far end of the conference table, and slightly more decently clad in a ship's issue Sexy Boxer Shorts And Tank Top ensemble, poked her tongue out at the robotic tactical officer.
"I can vouch for Mzkyti's whereabouts at the time of the attack," Sixty-Nine volunteered.
"How?" Tattoo asked.
"How graphic do you want this?" Sixty-Nine replied. Mzkyti sniggered.
"Okay, understood," Tara waved a hand. "So she had her hands full during the attack, and couldn't have sabotaged our razor cannons in any way, shape, or form."
"More like she had her hand filling m-"
"TMI, thank you, Sixty-Nine," Tara interrupted loudly. "PG-13 rating, remember."
"Sorry. Anyway, I've been reviewing our sensor logs, and I think there was another ship present." Various eyebrows, and Tara's EyePod, raised at the android's statement.
"Why didn't we see it when we went to warp?" Tattoo asked.
"I believe it went on board the Accordion as soon as the Flagship arrived," Sixty-Nine replied. "The Accordion failed to raise her shields immediately upon entering the area, and detailed examination of our records show that her secondary docking bay was opened and closed just before her shields went up. She took on a cloaked ship."
"Small enough to fit into a class-two docking bay?" Pilot frowned. "No ship that small has a cloaking device."
"The Empire has a class of transport that does," Mzkyti offered. "Braca-class scout ships. But they're meek vessels, not designed for combat - they're all engine and cloak, minimal weapons. They'd never be able to power a razor cannon."
"Why tell us that?" Tara asked. "That must be classified information in the Empire."
"Captain," Mzkyti said, "after what I've just learned, about the 'attack' on my father's ship... I believe you've been set up. And my father was involved somehow. I overheard him say to our Captain, before we came here, that the Kitten's Paw would give him cause to destroy her - at the time I thought it was a prediction, but now I'm not so sure."
"You're saying General Fang is part of this 'set-up'?" Tattoo asked.
"I'm saying my father is working against the best interests of your people, and mine," Mzkyti replied. "As long as that's the case... I'm on your side. I want peace." She looked imploringly at Tara, who thought for a moment, then gave her a reassuring nod.
"That doesn't change the fact that we've apparently been framed by an impossible cloaked ship," Adequatus said.
"Unless one of these 'Braca' ships has been refitted with a razor cannon," Pilot suggested.
"It's been tried many times," Mzkyti said, "with weapon systems of comparable power. The attempts invariably failed."
"And in any case, a Kilkrazi ship docking in the TC Flagship?" Sixty-Nine wondered. "Even if there is a conspiracy at work, that would raise so many questions among the Accordion's crew..."
"Tara," Willow whispered, "I know Sixty-Nine is okay, and Mzkyti is effectively a prisoner anyway, but the others here - how well do you trust them?"
"With my life," Tara said. Willow met her gaze, and nodded.
"I think I can explain this," she said out loud. "But this information can't leave this room."
"We're agreed," Tattoo said, after glancing around the table.
"Alright," Willow said. "Not many people know this - in fact, I shouldn't know it, but I'm naturally inquisitive and I like poking around in databanks that, perhaps, I'm not strictly speaking allowed to be poking around in... See, a long time ago, in a galaxy... well, in this galaxy, actually... there was a war within the Cutie Order."
"A war?" Tattoo asked.
"This isn't public knowledge," Adequatus said.
"Well duh, she said it's secret," Sixty-Nine pointed out.
"About a thousand years before they started changing the names and making movies out of it," Willow went on, "there were two factions of Cuties. One faction believed as we do today, that every living being has the potential to be cute, in their own unique way. The other faction..." she paused, and grimaced at the thought. "They believed that their kind of cuteness was the only real cuteness. Their leader, Cordelia Bath, wanted the Order to only recognise individuals who conformed to her standards of beauty and adorability, and that all other kinds of cuteness should be destroyed. She and her followers attempted to take control of the Order by force, and when that failed, they left, kinda peeved at how things had gone. Miffed, in fact - they became the Miffed Cuties. Cordelia decided, to make them harder to track down, there would be only two, a master and an apprentice. Then, according to legend, someone asked what would happen if the master and apprentice were both on a shuttle and it had an engine failure, or if they met at a restaurant and both had the chicken, and got food poisoning... anyway, long story short, it ended up with there being six of them. One master, one apprentice, four backups. They call themselves Baths."
"Wait, call themselves?" Tattoo asked. "Present tense? These Miffed Cuties still exist?"
"We think so," Willow nodded. "We've tried to find them, of course, but it's difficult - unless they use their Miffed powers, they can pass as ordinary people, or even as regular Cuties, unless you know what to look for. We're as certain as we can be that they've never managed to infiltrate the Order's hierarchy, but we believe they're still out there somewhere."
"The blonde, on the Accordion's bridge," Tara said.
"I suspected, but I had to be sure," Willow agreed. "But this theory of a cloaked ship... Miffed powers revolve not around creating cuteness, but destroying it. Over the centuries, the Order has recovered Miffed ships with anti-cute cloaking devices - they make a ship seem so un-cute that it's impossible to detect, and they don't need much power - a cloaked Miffed ship could still fire a powerful weapon, like a razor cannon. And then, just now with the Admiral on the Accordion, that woman who showed up nullified the Aww power I was using to get him to let us go. Only a Bath could do that."
"So..." Tara thought out loud, "...the Miffed Cuties are manipulating the Republic and the Empire. Trying to start a war, which would give them the opportunity to destroy the Cutie order."
"We have to get your sensor logs to Capsicum," Willow said. "I know a few tricks about defeating anti-cute power, I might be able to show up the cloaked ship. If we can get that evidence to the Senate, maybe we can stop them and the Empire going to war over this."
"Do you think the President might be mixed up in this?" Tara asked. "She ordered us to have our weapons cold, and sensors off, during this whole encounter. If we had, even if we'd escaped we'd have no evidence. And Shatner practically admitted that she'd told him to destroy the ship."
"Could be," Willow mused. "But is she being manipulated because she's an idiot, or is she in this willingly because she's evil?"
"She's a President," Tattoo said glumly. "Could be either."
A transporter beam deposited Willow and Tara, both dressed in the lightly-coloured robes common to the populace, in the middle of a marketplace and faded away with a faint 'Glad to be or service...' Tara looked around speculatively, while Willow blew a trio of notes on her tri-recorder, and studied the results.
"That way," she pointed. "This tourist handbook Tattoo gave us pinpoints the techno-scavenger district pretty well, we shouldn't have trouble finding it."
"Thanks Tattoo," Tara said, her EyePod picking up her words and transmitting them to the orbiting Kitten's Paw. "We'll check in every two hours. Keep the comms on a secure frequency, I don't want anyone to track us down here." She offered her arm to Willow, who looped hers around Tara's elbow, and they set off through the bustling city.
"According to this," Willow went on, reading the tri-recorder's tiny screen, "we shouldn't have any difficulties with the locals - with no tribal tattoos no-one will have any reason to pick a fight, so if we just look inoffensive and slightly confused, we should do fine."
"I am inoffensive and slightly confused," Tara pointed out. "The second because the first makes it so unlikely that my own government would try to kill me."
"We're dressed as dirt farmers," Willow explained. "Tattooine's primary agricultural industry. Mos ESPN is a big sporting centre - gladiatorial droid fights, zero-g foozball, pod-person racing, you name it. Farmers often come into the city to watch."
"Dirt farmers?" Tara asked. "They have especially good dirt on this world?"
"Nope," Willow shook her head.
"Oh," Tara frowned. "That's... depressing."
"Yup," Willow nodded. "Highest suicide rate for any career besides spoo ranching. But because so much of the population turns to crime to stave off boredom, they have the galaxy's most thriving smugglers' guild, and all the usual clandestine workshop activity to go with it. We shouldn't have any trouble finding a galactinet scrambler."
"Good," Tara said, glancing at Willow. She gave a sad smile. "I'm sorry you got dragged into this."
"Hey, no," Willow shook her head vehemently. "There's no such thing as danger I'd want you to go into without me. Remember what I said on our wedding night?"
"Woo-hoo?" Tara grinned.
"Hot mamma yamma?"
"Get out of my sight or I'll weld you to an ore freighter's waste hatch?"
"Besi- when did I say that?"
"When that room service droid interrupted us," Tara smiled fondly.
"Oh, yeah," Willow giggled as she reminisced. "But what you know darn well I meant was, I'm yours and you're mine. No-one threatens my wife without me getting in their way. And if I'm the one in trouble, there's no-one I'd go to for help before you."
"Sweetie..." Tara said, obviously controlling herself with difficulty, "they're... keeping a biosigns lock on us from the ship... so if I drag you into a secluded corner and do what I'm really tempted to do, they'd know, and Sixty-Nine would tease me for a month."
Willow grinned, and leaned over to steal a quick kiss.
"She won't know if it happened between scenes," she pointed out. "It'd be bad writing to refer to a key event that happened off-screen like that."
"True," Tara nodded. "How long has this scene got to go?"
"Should be over any second now," Willow said, studying the tri-recorder.
"Tattoo?" Tara asked. "Is Sixty-Nine sniggering at all?"
"No Captain," the reply came. Tara and Willow both breathed a sigh of relief.
"I wasn't entirely sure that'd work," Willow admitted. "It was worth the risk, though." Tara smiled slyly at her.
"This looks like a likely place," Willow suggested, surveying the building they had come to a halt outside. Beyond the gate attached to it, they could see a junkyard cornucopia of discarded technology.
"Hello?" Tara called as she and Willow went inside the small, badly air-conditioned shop that adjoined the yard.
"Huh? Customers!" An unfortunately odorous blue-grey-skinned alien with eye stalks and a five o'clock shadow that was heading well into evening popped up from behind the shop counter and grinned alarmingly at his two clients.
"Blatz is the name, ladies, Fester Blatz, at your service," he introduced himself with a pretentious hand on his scrawny chest. "What can I possibly help two such lovely dirt farmers as yourselves with? We got everything here, all at very reasonable prices, I might add. Salvaged droids? I know losta people would tell you they're just junk metal, but no siree, I say they are too droids, and they can come in very useful. I know, a repair pod! Got one here from a Discovery-class ship, only been used once, found just floatin' in space if you can believe that, turns out the pilot couldn't get back through the pod bay doors of the mothership, how stoopid is that? Nothin' wrong with the pod though, I guarantee it. Are you two together? 'Cause we got a good deal on vibrating-"
"We're here for a scrambler," Willow interrupted quickly.
"A scrambler, eh?" Blatz scratched his chin, causing a small cloud of dust to float off it. "Hmm, lemme see what we got out back... C'mon, I'll show you the selection." He lifted into the air on a pair of biologically-implausible wings, and hovered over to the door leading to the yard, with Willow and Tara following.
"Here, you're in luck," Blatz said, picking a piece out of the general junk pile. "This here scrambler is so good, you plug it into a galactinet socket, you can make an omelette on the other end, that's how good it is. Yours for the low, low price of ten bars of pig-latinum, or equivalent acceptable currency."
"That's pretty steep," Willow frowned.
"Doesn't matter, I'll put it on the ship's credits card," Tara shrugged. "Ultimately the President ends up paying for it - kind of fitting, seeing as this is her fault."
"Hey, did you say credits? I don't take no credits," Blatz protested, crossing his flabby arms over his chest. "I have a moral objection to any society that can't think of no better name for its currency than 'credits'."
"Let me handle this," Willow said quietly, stepping forward. She put on her most adorable expression, and batted her eyelashes at the alien.
"Credits will do fine, won't they?" she asked sweetly.
"No, they won't," Blatz said.
Willow looked a bit confused, then tried again: "I said, credits will do fine, right?"
"No, they won't," Blatz insisted.
"Darn it," Willow muttered, "you'd think the Order would keep a record of species the Aww doesn't work on. Seems like that'd be a useful thing to know, wouldn't you think?"
"What, you think you're some kinda Cutie?" Blatz asked.
"Well, yeah," Willow nodded. "Cutie Knight, Willow Wilco."
"You are?" Blatz's face lit up, which was an alarming sight. "Oh man, that's different! Here, take the scrambler! No, forget payin', I owe you guys!"
"Thanks," Willow said, as the scrambler was dumped into her arms. "Um... you owe us how?"
"Oh, a while back I had this kid workin' here," Blatz said, with the easy air of one recounting a problem that's no longer his. "Had this stoopid idea that he'd build some kinda super-engines out of the junked racer parts. I said to him, I said they make those things in industrial clean-rooms. They use all kindsa fancy tools and parts that don't get thrown away, cause even if they break, just the metals they're made of are too valuable to chuck. I said to him, there's no way you can open up the insides of an engine, in a backyard with sandstorms comin' and goin' and just a tarpaulin over the top of it, and get it to even start up after, let alone go fast enough to compete. But would he listen? No. Mad, the kid was drivin' me crazy, I swear - I even stopped payin' him, told him if he wanted to work in the shop he'd have to be a slave, and he still wouldn't go away! Then this Cutie comes along, some tall guy with this apprentice or whatever who's totally into him, like givin' him these lovey-dovey looks, and he says the kid has Aww potential, and takes him away! This whole suburb, I swear, threw the biggest party, you wouldn't believe..."
"I think I know the kid," Willow said, glumly. "He's one of the trainees I teach."
"Wha- you teach him? He's not here is he?" Blatz glanced around worriedly.
"No, he's on Capsicum," Willow assured him. "Easily a thousand light years away."
"Phew! How's he doin'?"
"I think," Willow told him, after thinking, "you probably saw him at his best."
"Aw, man, I'm sorry," Blatz commiserated. "Here, you want a cup of coffee?"
"Thanks, no, we're in a hurry," Willow said.
"Thanks," Tara added, as the alien showed them out. "What was that all about?" she asked Willow once they were out in the street again. They stood against the side of the shop as a pair of lingerie-clad nuns of the Bene Hill Sisterhood went past, jogging in the sped-up motion their faith demanded of them, then started walking slowly back towards the edge of the city.
"I think he meant Annie," Willow shrugged. "You remember, the annoying one? He was one of Master Qui-Gon Fishin's pet projects. The man had a knack for disaster."
"Oh he meant well," Willow said quickly. "He was very noble and self-sacrificing and all that, but... well, everything he did just blew up in his face. This one time he rescued a swamp creature and got it appointed to the Senate - it spent three years annoying the heck out of everyone, and then it ended up unwittingly handing over five systems to an insane dictator. Not Qui-Gon's intention of course, but that's how everything he tried turned out... Well, there's a statue of him in the Temple, and the inscription says, 'We shall not see his like again'."
"That's not so bad," Tara said.
"It took the Council three months to decide to be polite rather than accurate, and leave the 'with luck' off the end," Willow added. "That was after he started claiming he'd found a new way to become a ghost. Turns out it was just the old way, getting killed."
"Oh," Tara grimaced. "Oh, well... at least it helped us out here." She reached to activate the communicator in her EyePod, but was interrupted before she could.
"Captain!" Tattoo's voice said, sounding agitated. "TCS Accordion in scanners, incoming!"
"The Accordion?" Willow asked, shocked.
"They've duct-taped her back together - she's firing!" There was a distant thump of beams impacting on shields. "We can't lower shields for transport. Captain, can you get to a shuttlecraft of some kind? We could try holding her off until you're back here-"
"Belay that," Tara ordered. "I'm leaving you in command, Tattoo. Keep my ship safe."
"That's an order, Commander." There was steel in Tara's voice - Willow found her heart racing with attraction, as well as from the tense situation.
"Aye Captain," Tattoo replied after a pause. "Don't worry, we'll make sure they follow us away from here. Where should we rendezvous?"
"No rendezvous - go where you have to to keep safe," Tara ordered. "We'll get the evidence to Capsicum ourselves. Fly safe."
"And you, Captain," Tattoo said. "Captain - get to Mos Tunseemly, you'll be bound to find a smuggler ship there. Kitten's Paw out."
The comms channel went dead, and Tara stared up at the sky for a moment. Then she took a deep breath, and reached for Willow's hand.
"Well," she said, "here we are. On our own, I guess."
"They'll be fine," Willow assured her.
"I know," Tara nodded, smiling at herself. "C'mon, let's find out how we get to Mos Tunseemly."
Be amazed! as Willow and Tara cross the vast Tattooine desert!
Sigh exasperatedly! as the Miffed Cutie makes another appearance!
Probably see it coming! as our heroines find a scoundrel to fly them to off this dirtball!