Author: Chris Cook
"How do you suppose we find some transport?" Tara wondered.
"Ask a local," Willow said promptly. "Excuse me?"
A passing sandy-haired dirt farmer reined his lumbering mount in.
"Whoa Dewdrop... Will this take long? I'm after some power converters, those things sell out like you wouldn't believe."
"No, not long - we need to get to Mos Tunseemly," Willow explained. "You wouldn't know anywhere we could hire some transport, or get directions, would you?" She gave a cute grin, just to be sure.
"No problem, just thumb up a taxi," the farmer said, nodding to a stall on the edge of the district, by the open desert.
"Thanks," Willow waved goodbye.
"I thought the phrase was 'thumb down', not up," Tara mused. They crossed to the stall, and read the attached notice: 'For taxi service, activate a thumbper and wait.'
"Nope, looks like up," Willow shrugged. She and Tara hefted one of the heavy thumbpers from the stall to the sand, and peered at its controls.
"Let's see, 'two to five blocks, one mile or less', 'next suburb, one to three miles', 'to city centre, three to five miles'..." Willow read the options.
"'Desert Odyssey, up to 2001 miles,'" Tara said, skipping ahead and pressing the appropriate button. The thumbper began to belt out a slow rhythm into the sub-surface: dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum...
The pair stood back as the ground began to tremble, then a gigantic sandworm, with a few tattered seats attached to its back, burst out of the desert and drew to a halt.
"Youse wanted a cab?" the worm rider called, tossing down a rope for Willow and Tara to climb up.
"We're headed for Mos Tunseemly," Tara said as she and Willow hauled themselves onto the sandworm's back.
"Ah, hive of scum and villainy," the cabbie nodded. "Very popular, nice place, you won't find better scum and/or villains on the planet. Imported scum, you know - last year's scum crop wasn't so good, on account o' them Tuscan raiders out of Mos Italia, so they sent off for some scum from Adigeon Prime. 'Parently their scum has been pretty good, for off-worlders. They was gonna get it from Nar Shada, but there was some strike or sumfin, and it got cancelled. Mos Tunseemly, 'at's a long trip, youse got the cash for it?"
"Is a Republic credit card okay?" Tara asked. "Capsican Express?"
"Yeah that's fine," the cabbie nodded. "Strap yourselves in, okay? Youse prefer surface or the subway?"
"Uh, is surface alright?" Willow asked, looking worriedly at the sand still streaming off the worm and its rider.
"Yeah fine," the cabbie said good-naturedly, shaking sand out of a broad-brimmed hat and wedging it onto his head. "Jus' keep your hoods up, youse can get a nasty sunburn. Seatbelts done up? Okay then... hi-ho Duranium! Away!"
Willow and Tara clung to their seats as the sandworm thundered off across the desert at an alarming speed. Their driver kept up a running commentary all the way.
"Youse from off-world? I mean I see youse dressed like dirt farmers, but there's like fifty dirt farmers on the whole planet, and about, what, a couple a' thousand Cutie Knights who all dress like dirt farmers, so youse know, odds are. It don't matter, I like off-worlders, it's good for business, is tourism. Hard currency, yannowaddamsayin? Locals all pay in water, which youse know, fine if you're a dirt farmer, but Republic credits is more useful. S'not like you can use water for buyin' stuff off've the galactinet, other planets got oceans full of it, it ain't economically sound, is what I'm sayin'. Government orta do sumfin about it, yannow? But nah, I knew this new governer, he was never gonna be no good. Oh sure, he's all square-jawed and muscley, and sayin' stuff like 'vote for me if you want to live' but they never keep their promises once they're in office, do they? I mean, promisin' to 'terminate high taxes', yeah, sure, I'll believe that when I see it, yannowaddamsayin? And I tell ya, not five minutes he'd been in office in Camandakeen, what happens? 'Oh, wait a minute, my personality inhibitor's been shut off, I'm experiencing compassion, I can't terminate taxes anymore 'cuz terminating is wrong.' Huh. I wasn't surprised. All the city folk, they're all complainin', but who voted for him in the first place? Not me. Don't blame me, I tells 'em, I voted for Kodos..."
Tara, having overcome the urge to hang onto her seat with both hands, reached for Willow's hand and held it. They exchanged an amused glance, as the cabbie's endless socio-political opinions continued to wash over them, and Mos ESPN vanished over the horizon behind them.
Ma Kent looked out of her kitchen window as a landing pod rocketed by overhead and buried itself in the nearest dirt paddock.
"Clark, Connor, Kara, Karen!" she yelled. "We got another mouth to feed!"
By the time the family had gathered up shovels and reached the crash site, they discovered the mound of dirt was already being disturbed from beneath. Before they could start digging a glowing red blade punched through, and the blonde last seen on the bridge of the TCS Accordion cut her way out, spitting out dirt and brushing off her dress as she did.
"I hate landing!" she cursed, before looking around at the assembled Kents. "What? Never seen anyone miscalculate a flight vector before?"
"You're not wanting to be adopted, are you?" Ma Kent asked, with some reluctance.
"With you yokels?" the blonde asked disbelievingly. "Shyuh! As if."
"Who are you?" Clark asked good-naturedly, the insult passing him by without registering.
"My original name is Dis Harmony," the blonde said, "but you should properly address me by my Dark Name of Bubble Bath."
"Bubble Bath?" Karen repeated, stifling a giggle.
"Shut up," Harmony glared. "Okay," she added, looking around, "I'm in the middle of nowhere. Damn. Do you hicks have any means of transport I could steal?"
"Hey, what makes you think you can just steal stuff?" Connor protested.
"Easy, I'm a semi-major character," Harmony sneered. "Whereas you're a cameo at best - it's screw up several chapters if I got beat to death by you idiots, but you all being dead, wouldn't matter at all. Here, watch."
Harmony dusted her hands together in satisfaction, as the bodies of the former Kent family lay at her feet.
"See?" she asked. "It's called jobbing, get used to it. Now hand over some transport, or that scene ends up in the final version of the story."
"Fine," Kara said sullenly. "There's a chocobo ranch out back."
"Ooh, what kind?" Harmony asked gleefully.
"White, milk, or dark," Clark said. "Or carab, if you want."
"Ugh, I hate carab chocobo," Harmony groused. "Okay, consider yourselves poorer one milk chocobo. Seeya suckers!"
"Well, that wasn't very nice," Clark complained, after self-proclaimed-Bubble Bath had stolen their prize chocobo and ridden off into the desert.
"I didn't see you helping any," Kara sniped back. "Being all good-natured, and stuff."
"Well it's not like we'd ever have sold the chocobos anyway, everyone's buying those riding dinosaurs from Yoshi Station-"
"Oh shut up. Dad was so right about you."
"Kids!" Ma Kent barked. "Quit bickering and get to your chores. Those new droids aren't going to clean themselves, and if I don't see them out on the south range by sundown, I'm pulling out the kryptonite!"
"Yes Ma," the quartet morosely promised, slinking away to their assigned chores.
"And then," the cabbie went on, in his fifth hour - Willow has privately concluded that his voice was some sort of sonic amplifier necessary to help the sandworm carve through the desert at such blinding speed - "this guy wants to know if Duranium here," he patted the worm's rock-hard hide, "could get up to eighty-eight miles per hour, so I says sure, but ain't no way youse is gonna stick no flux capacitor to my worm, I don't care what sort of doctor youse think youse are... Those scientist types, man, they're the worst. Couple a' years back, this bunch turn up, says they can make rain. I aks you, rain? Isn't that great, they says? Look, I says, I'm a sandworm rider, okays? Ain't nowhere on my license it says 'mudworm rider', on account of me not being a mudworm rider, 'cuz there ain't no mudworms here. You want rain, go to Kaminouttatherain, see? Easy. 'At's why they calls it that, ain't it? Sheesh, scientists..."
"What's that?" Willow asked, pointing to a dust cloud on the horizon.
"Eh, s'just a storm," the cabbie shrugged without looking. "They ain't no trouble, I gots a little rhyme I can teach youse about goin' through storms, well, ain't a rhyme as such, on account of it don't rhyme, but it works anyway, learned it from this guy from Floridan..."
"It's getting closer," Tara frowned. She tapped the controls of her EyePod, which opened a tiny hatch on its side and produced a delicate fold-up telescopic lens.
"It's someone riding... some kind of bird," she said in surprise.
"Eh?" the cabbie asked, reining Duranium in. The huge worm slid to a halt, and dug its head beneath the sand for a moment, emerging with the world's largest nose-bag in which it munched happily as its passengers watched the new arrival as she sped up and skidded to a stop.
"Hey!" Willow shouted. "It's the Miffed Cutie from chapter four!"
"That's Bubble Bath to you!" Harmony shouted up. "Now are you going to come down and get massacred, or do I have to come up there?"
"Willow?" Tara asked quietly.
"I'm trained for this," Willow assured her. "I'll handle her."
"I'm coming with you," Tara said. "Sir, we'll take care of this," she added to the cabbie.
"Hey, be my guest, I ain't got nothin' to do with no dizty chicks in leather dirt farm outfits."
"I heard that!" Harmony yelled. She pulled a metallic hilt from beneath her robes and activated it, producing a long, crimson energy blade.
"Whoa, my cue to leave!" the cabbie exclaimed, whipping up Duranium just as Willow and Tara finished clambering down to ground level.
"Hey, that's my toast blade!" Willow complained, as she sized up Harmony. "You copied my toast blade!"
"We have our agents within your Order!" Harmony boasted. "You'll never know who they are, but nothing you do can ever remain a secret from us-"
"It's Annie, isn't it?" Willow frowned.
"How did you- I mean, no!" Harmony recovered, badly. "We'd never be... so obvious. Yeah."
"I saw that coming," Tara pointed out. "And I don't even know the kid."
"Yeah, well consider yourself lucky," Harmony spat. "Now I went to all the effort of stealing an escape pod and coming down here to kill you, so are we going to fight or what?"
"Wait a minute," Tara interrupted, stepping in front of Willow and giving her a wink as she passed. "What do you mean you stole an escape pod? Weren't you giving Admiral Shatner his orders?"
"Yeah, but... see, the Miffed way... stealing is more, you know, evil..." Harmony said defensively.
"But wouldn't it have been smarter to have the Accordion stay in orbit?" Tara asked. "Then you'd just be able to transport back up once you're done killing us. Whereas now, I assume, you're going to have to ride that ridiculous bird back to some settlement, and find a ship, and-"
"Yeah, well... shut up!" Harmony countered. She swung her blade, Tara raised her left arm casually to block the strike, and it was cleaved in half, the severed end falling with a dull thud onto the sandy ground.
"Well... crap," Harmony muttered, looking in consternation at the bottom half of the blade which she still held, while the top half flickered and disappeared on the ground.
"Titanium sheath," Tara smiled, pulling back her sleeve and revealing the thin metal mesh covering her arm. "It's handy for carrying heavy grocery bags, too."
"But..." Harmony spluttered. "My evil glowy sword..."
"Oh come on, it's for cutting bread!" Willow exclaimed. "How tough did you think it was supposed to be? Now this," she added, producing a different hilt from her belt, which extended a brilliant blue blade, "is a sword. I've tested it on foot-thick tank armour."
"...oh," Harmony's face fell.
"And," Willow went on, "I'd like for you to think very carefully about my probable attitude to people who try, even ineptly, to hurt my wife."
"That's me," Tara smiled.
"Think carefully," Willow repeated. "But quickly, unless you want to find out whether you're more damage-resistant than foot-thick plasma-bonded hyper-steel."
"Uh," Harmony hesitated. "Right. Then. I'll just be... going..." She took a couple of dignified steps backwards, then turned and leapt onto her riding bird, which vanished with a faint 'meep meep' in a cloud of dust.
"I guess that confirms that she's the apprentice Miffed Cutie," Willow said thoughtfully.
"How come?" Tara wondered.
"If she was the Master, there'd have to be one worse at it than her," Willow replied. She took out her tri-recorder, blew a chord, and studied the screen. "There's a settlement of some kind a couple of miles east, hopefully we'll be able to get some kind of transport to Mos Tunseemly there."
"Okay," Tara agreed. "You're desert-trained, lead the way."
"C'mon," Willow said, extending her arm. Tara looped hers around Willow's elbow, and they set off. "It's best to keep to the ridges," Willow went on.
"Plus the view's nicer. Why'd you step in back there? I mean, I know you can take care of yourself, and you were awesome and all, but..."
"I set my EyePod to record," Tara smiled. "Then she admitted to being a Miffed Cutie, and of being in charge of Admiral Shatner's attempt to destroy my ship. That'll be a lot of help when we get to Capsicum - it's one thing to show evidence that the attack on the Kilkrazi was a set-up, but it's a lot more convincing when we can prove who was behind it."
"Smart girl," Willow grinned, then her face lit up as a thought struck her. "Hey wait - do you realise what this means?"
"We're not going to be wanted fugitives forever?" Tara suggested.
"Annie's going to get kicked out of the Order!" Willow exclaimed, doing an impromptu spazzy dance. "Goodbye Annie! No more emo! No more petulance! No more 'I'm gonna be the most powerful Cutie ever' without actually listening to a word in the philosophy and morals classes- yipe!" she exclaimed, as she suddenly vanished downward into the sand dune.
"Willow?!" Tara started in shock. The sand settled back into place where the redhead had vanished. Tara took a quick, slightly panicked look around, then put her hand over her face and jumped on the same spot, likewise plunging into the sand.
She felt sand press around her for a moment, then it was gone, and she landed heavily on something soft, which proved to be Willow and a bean bag. The two disentangled themselves from each other and awkwardly got their feet.
"Are you okay?" Tara asked, helping Willow up.
"Yeah," Willow nodded, brushing sand off herself. "Not the first time I've had a Tara land on me, nor do I hope it's the last... ew, eck, sand in my mouth!" she spat fitfully.
"My hair, too," Tara frowned. She made an adjustment to the metal mesh covering her left forearm, producing thin spikes from the tips of her fingers, and set about combing her mussed hair.
"Where are we?" she wondered.
"No idea, one moment I was rejoicing, the next I landed on a bean bag," Willow shrugged. "I don't know, maybe this is the settlement we detected? I didn't expect it to be underground, but then again it makes sense in a desert environment-"
"Ahem... uh, hello?"
Both women spun around towards the source of the voice, which proves to be a group of odd-looking creatures some distance away behind them. They were humanoid, with snouts protruding from their faces, short hair all over their bodies, powerful legs, and long, muscular tails.
"Are either of you the Hand of God?" their apparent leader asked, after a brief hesitation. His companions cringed slightly, as if expecting fire and brimstone at any moment.
"How do we handle this?" Tara whispered to Willow.
"Well there's a Cutie directive saying that if someone asks you if you're a god, you say yes, but I don't think that's one of the better ones," Willow replied. "At least, I've never heard of anyone actually doing it." She stepped forward and raised her voice. "Um... no?"
"Oh thank Shai-hummus," the creature said, as the group relaxed visibly. "Sorry, no problem - he's supposed to be along at some point. So, if you don't mind us asking, who are you?"
"Willow Wilco," Willow introduced herself, "and Tara of Nine. We're on our way to Mos Tunseemly, and we just sort of... dropped in."
"Right," the creature nodded, "sorry. We should put a warning sign up, or something. I'm T-Stilgar, nice to meet you. Call me T-Stil. So, Mos Tunseemly... let me think..."
One of his companions spoke in a strange, clicking sound.
"What's that Skip? Oh yeah, I remember it, thanks. Yep, we know the place," T-Stil said to Willow and Tara. "'Hive of scum and villainy'... we get the tourism brochures every now and then in the mail. C'mon," he waved a hand, "I'll show you to the hangar, you can rent a 'thopter."
"Thank you," Willow smiled, rewarding their strange benefactor with a dash of cute.
"That's very kind," Tara added, contributing her own home-grown cuteness. "So, you're all here waiting for the Hand of God?"
"In a sense," T-Stil nodded, leading the two women along one of the tunnels branching out from the entry cave. "Not so much 'waiting for' as 'hiding from', really. I mean, having the Hand of God show up - that's like a visit from the landlord, only ten times worse. And the prophecies of the Reverend Bad Mother-f... our prophecies are a bit R-rated," he interrupted himself apologetically, "say that Johnny Muad'oh the Hand of God will lead us in holy war, and the sands of Tattooine will run red with the blood of off-worlders. It just sounds like a huge pain in the butt. I mean, what's wrong with off-worlders? And holy war? Good Shai-hummus, what's it good for? Absolutely nothing. So we stay out here, beneath the desert, and hopefully Muad'oh won't be able to find us."
"So this 'Shai-hummus' is a kind of god, for you?" Willow asked.
"Oh, no - Shai-hummus is the sandworm," T-Stil explained. "We just use it as a kind of exclamation, because... well, when you live underground in the same area as hundred-ton worms that burrow all over the place without looking where they're going, they tend to leave an impression on your culture. They've got their good points, though - they eat sand, and leave spicy hummus in their wake. We've got a special technique for harvesting it, that gets all the sand out, and we turn a tidy profit with a few restaurants in the major cities. It's a pretty good arrangement. Another reason we're trying to avoid the whole 'holy war' thing, it'd be bad for business. Here we are."
The trio emerged into a hangar, beneath a large clamshell-type roof which was slowly opening. A variety of spindly-looking winged vehicles were scattered about.
"It's about two hours to Mos Tunseemly, that'll be fifty credits to rent a 'thopter," T-Stil said, producing a currency reader from a pouch on his bent. Tara handed him her Capsican Express card. "Thanks. Just park it outside the Cantina, the owner knows us, he'll keep it safe until one of us goes into town to do the shopping."
"Thank you," Willow smiled. T-Stil gave them a grin, then handed Tara's card back and wandered off.
"Do you know how to fly one of these things?" Tara asked Willow.
"I know the theory," Willow said. "Plus I'm good with technology, shouldn't be a problem. These look like your basic model hornithopters, so instead of fuel they're powered by psychic emanations from the pilot."
"Psychic emanations?" Tara said, grinning as she guessed where this was going.
"Uh-huh," Willow said, lifting the canopy of the nearest craft and jumping into the pilot's seat. "See, I sit here, and then... well, I think horny thoughts... and the machine revs up and that powers the wings. They usually come with a few issues of Playbeing in the glove compartment, but," she leaned back in the seat and gave Tara a smouldering look, "I was thinking we might be able to come to an alternative arrangement?"
"We just might," Tara agreed. "Sit forward." Willow did so, and Tara slipped into the seat, reaching around Willow and pulling her back to lie against her chest, sitting comfortably between her legs.
"How's this?" she purred into the redhead's ear, idly stroking Willow's stomach.
"Mmm... and we're ready for take-off," Willow replied, as the 'thopter's systems powered up, reading maximum energy. They had just enough time to strap themselves in and pull the canopy shut before the craft shot up into the air and whirred away across the desert.
After an enjoyable, if occasionally erratic flight, the hornithopter set down in a small car park outside a dome-shaped bar in the bustling smuggler port of Mos Tunseemly. It continued rocking for some time, then the canopy opened, and Willow got out, straightening her robes.
"What a way to fly," she grinned.
"Uh-huh," Tara smirked, zipping up her uniform. She attached a Gaffi-Stick Lockô on the 'thopter's controls and sealed the vehicle's canopy, coming to stand beside Willow, facing the bar.
"'The Star Wars Cantina'," she read off the building's neon sign. "'No farmboys-with-a-destiny allowed'."
"Beats me," Willow shrugged. "Well, let's go find us a ship."
The Star Wars Cantina
The pair came down the short flight of steps into the bar area, and took a look around. Some sort of unidentifiable smog hung about the ceiling, dulling the muted conversations taking place around the bar and in the various alcoves. An enormously varied assortment of aliens were currently engaged in bartering, negotiating, threatening one another, getting drunk, or in some cases fooling around under the table, which was embarrassing or physically distressing for bystanders, depending on their species. The general hubbub quietened for a moment, and various heads, eye-stalks, and other sensory organs turned Willow and Tara's way, then they were evidently deemed non-threatening and business resumed as usual. On the stage, a pair of drunk Talosians with a karaoke machine were holding forth at the top of their telepathic voices: "My, my, this here Anakin guy, may be Vader some day later, now he's just a small fry, he left his home, kissed his mommy goodbye..." A small band composed of nerf herders was dutifully accompanying them.
"First time in a spaceport bar?" Willow asked, noting Tara's mingled surprise and mild distaste for her surroundings.
"First time I've been in one for any reason other than hauling Sixty-Nine out by her ankles," she nodded.
"Wait by the bar," Willow advised, "I'll make the rounds and see if I can get word of any ships looking for passengers. I've done this before, you'd be amazed how much diplomacy happens in bars. Don't drink anything the tri-recorder can't identify," she added as an afterthought.
"I think that narrows down my options," Tara grinned. They went their separate ways, Willow vanishing into the crowd, Tara leaning easily against the bar, ordering a jynnan tonnyx from the burly bartender and telling him about their parked 'thopter.
"Hey hot stuff," a disreputable voice slurred from behind her. She turned around to discover she was being looked up and down - but mostly in between - by a grubbily-dressed spacer with either a very disfiguring scar, or bad acne.
"We're wanted men," he grinned lasciviously, indicating himself and his companion, for whom the description 'walrus-face' would be polite. "I have the death sentence in twelve systems."
"And?" Tara asked, raising an eyebrow - she'd found that this achieved a lot, in terms of expressing disdain, when she was wearing her EyePod.
"Well..." the man hesitated, "...isn't that kind of... exciting?"
"Grrough?" his companion added.
"Yer," he nodded, "chicks like dangerous men... right?"
"I'm a Fleet Captain," Tara said levelly, "which, you should know, gives me the authority to enact any outstanding death sentence under Republic law." She raised her arm and extended a blade, a wood saw, a screwdriver, and by mistake a ballpoint pen, from the mesh covering her hand. "Immediately," she added, with a slightly dangerous grin.
Her two admirers made themselves scarce.
"That was meant to be a corkscrew, why can I never find the dratted corkscrew," Tara frowned, retracting the assorted tools back into her arm sheath. On the stage the Talosians gave up the microphone to a trio of Neimoidians, who launched into an off-key rendition of 'I Been Through The Desert On A Worm With No Name.'
"Hi sweetie," Willow said, appearing at Tara's side. She gave a playful grin. "Do you come here often?"
"I was wondering how long it'd take for a hot woman to hit on me," Tara smiled back.
"I'm feeling lucky," Willow said. She indicated a creature standing nearby, which appeared to be a humanoid turtle, wearing a headband across its face with eyeholes cut in it.
"Hey Dudette," it waved at Tara.
"Shellbacca here says his captain is willing to take passengers," Willow explained. "I made a few discreet enquiries, and the ship's reputation is good. C'mon."
The two of them followed Shellbacca through the drunken crowd, arriving at a secluded booth where their would-be captain waited. She was lounged comfortably in her seat, with one foot up on the table, holding a drink of something corrosive-looking, and wearing black leather pants with a red stripe down the side and a black leather vest, both of which were so tight they looked to have been painted onto her ample figure. On closer inspection, it turned out that they had been painted on, and the only actual clothing she was wearing were a pair of heavy combat boots, and a holster strapped to her thigh.
Shellbacca leaned over and murmured in her ear, then sat next to his inadequately-dressed captain.
"So," she said with an appraising grin, "my first mate tells me you're looking for a ship. First mate in the naval sense, that is," she added. "Not in the, y'know, mating sense. My first mate was Starbuck... no, wait, it was Aeon. Or was it Servalan? Oh who can keep track." She shrugged, and turned her attention back to Willow and Tara.
"I'm Faith, and I'll be your captain for this flight."
Drool! as Faith continues to not wear a lot!
Say 'it figures'! as Willow and Tara's trip develops complications!
Reach for the popcorn! as we build up to yet another space battle!