Author: Chris Cook
USS Clitoral Hood
"Your ex?" Tara echoed.
"Doesn't that imply you actually stopped sleeping with someone?" Willow added.
"Hey!" Faith protested. "Okay," she shrugged after a moment's thought, "but hey, on principle... We went out for a long time, three... actually, closer to four hours. It was when I was just a deck hand on the Jolly Roger, learning my trade - pirating and the other stuff. Robin was sweet and all, and uh-huh, you bet he looked fine all right," a wistful smile crossed her face, "but he was one of those guys who sees a girl like me as a challenge."
"I gave you a chance, Faith," Robin's disembodied voice echoed across the deck. "I thought all you needed was the love of a good man, but-"
"I do!" Faith shot back. "Usually around about breakfast time. Then a woman about eleven, flip a coin for lunch, party in the hot tub in the afternoon..."
"You're wasting your life, Faith!"
"Since when do you get to decide that?" she shouted.
"Since I have a bigger ship than you do!" Robin shouted back.
"No question your ship's big," Faith grinned, "but I've handled bigger, and walked away in one piece. Walking slightly funny, granted," she muttered under her breath.
"It's pointless arguing with you, you never listen! Just hand over the porn, so I can deliver it to the rightful authorities." The Robin Reliant opened its gun ports and sprouted an impressive array of weapons.
"That's a lot more than normal for a ship that size," Tara noted, worried.
"He over-compensates," Faith smirked.
"You've got 'til the count of three," Robin warned. "One... two..."
"Shellie, fire the gun!" Faith ordered.
A white-hot jet of energy burst from the bow of the pirate ship and splashed over the Robin Reliant's hull, sending it spinning lazily away into the void. Willow and Tara looked around in confusion as the Clitoral Hood's power dimmed, though Faith seemed unconcerned.
"What was that?" Willow asked.
"That wasn't any armament I've seen before," Tara said.
"You know the phrase 'it's not the size of the waves, but the motion of the ocean'?" Faith asked.
"Yes," Willow said cautiously.
"Anything can be sexy, if you look at it in the right way." Faith chuckled to herself. "That's the Ocean Motion Gun - I just hit them with a psycho-plasmic burst that short-circuited the pleasure centres of every crewman on that ship. Right now they're being hugely aroused by, oh, bulkheads, blinking lights, the sensation of breathing, not to mention the many and varied possibilities open to them in terms of stickin' their hands down their pants and wiggling bits around."
"That'd be... distracting," Tara admitted, gazing at the out-of-control Robin Reliant as it tumbled end over end.
"Distracting ain't the half of it," Faith chortled gleefully. "Not my preferred way of getting a ship full of guys to pop their corks all at once, but it's a nice to have an ace in the hole, if you finished a chapter on a cliffhanger and have to get out of it in a hurry. Only problem is, it drains the ship's power plant for about a minute. Sci-fi tradition, can't seem to get around it no matter how much I tinker with the gun."
"How long do you think it'll take them to get themselves... organised?" Willow asked, following Tara's worried gaze to the distant enemy vessel.
"Oh, plenty of time," Faith said over her shoulder.
"I think they're righting themselves," Tara said.
"Huh?" Faith joined them at the rail and peered through a telescope. "What, did he get a crew of eunuchs this time?"
"They're targeting us, babe-ette," Shellbacca reported.
"They're firing," Tara warned.
"Our shields are good," Faith said confidently.
"Those are frigidity torpedoes, the effect will go through shields," Tara added. "Willow can use the Aww and my Babe Collective training can negate the effect, but you and the rest of the crew-"
"Screw that!" Faith protested. "Shellie! Warp speed! FTL jump! Hyperspace! Starburst! Transition! That... thing that Lexx does! Get us the hell out of here!"
"Warp power available!" the turtle reported.
The Clitoral Hood tore space a new one and vanished, a fraction of a second before the torpedoes hit it. Deprived of their target, they veered around and homed in on the Robin Reliant itself.
"Ha-ha!" Faith cackled, watching the distant scene on the ship's monitor. "That'll teach him!" She made a rude gesture astern, then turned to Willow and Tara.
"So, how do you like the life of a pirate?" she grinned.
"Not for us, I think," Tara returned, allowing herself to smile back a little.
"I like my close shaves a little less close," Willow nodded.
"Speaking of shaves, do you want to see-"
"No," Willow and Tara said at once.
Willow, Tara, and Shellbacca materialised in a clearing in the forest, and the transporter beam - evidently reprogrammed by its owner - faded away with an enthusiastic "Hope you get laid down there!" in place of the usual bland corporate feel-good motto.
"It's, like, this way," Shellbacca pointed, taking the lead. "Can't beam down right on top of the gate, they have, like, security forcefields, and stuff."
"Thanks for going with us," Tara said as they set off.
"It's no biggie. The Captain dudette said she's got something she needs to do, but there's stuff she needs dispatched through the Subway, so I do this, y'know, all the time. 'Sides, I like to get back to nature, and stuff, every now and then. Ender's not home - the surf sucks, and they totally don't know how to make pizza here - but the trees are kinda pretty. Mind the Labion root monster. Hey Frank."
"Hey," a tentacled monstrosity sprawled over a fallen log replied, waving several of its assorted appendages. "Faith around?"
"Sorry dude, no. I'll tell her you said hi."
"Thanks man." Willow and Tara skirted around the creature's perimeter, and deliberately resisted picturing it and Faith together.
"The Subway doesn't mind Faith," Shellbacca went on. "They just, y'know, prefer she stays away. Last time they let her into the SGC, she like tried to open a looped wormhole, so she could meet herself. Took the tech dudes like a week to get the system cool again."
"Why'd she want to meet herself?" Willow asked, while Tara thought ahead a little faster, guessed the answer, and reddened. "What?" Willow asked her. "...Oh."
Shellbecca zoned out a bit, admiring the scenery. Willow walked closer to Tara, studying her face as her blush faded, replaced by a pensive expression.
"You okay?" she asked.
"Hmm? How come?" she replied.
"Little frown," Willow shrugged. "Adorable of course, but still frowny, and a frowny Tara is an unhappy Tara."
"It's nothing. Nothing much, anyway." She grinned sheepishly. "I miss my ship. But there's nothing we can do about it, just now."
"They'll be alright," Willow assured her.
"I know," Tara nodded. "Tattoo's a good exec - if I had to trust my ship to anyone, it'd be him. But... it's still my ship. It's not easy to be away from it, when it's in trouble."
Willow nodded her understanding, and took Tara's arm, hugging it softly.
"Thanks," the blonde smiled. "How did you go online? Anything useful?"
"Oh, yes!" Willow nodded excitedly. She produced a notepadd from her robes. "I accessed the Cutie network, covertly of course, and got to work on the sensor logs from the battle, with a bunch of neat cuteness filters... Here, look at this."
Tara watched the notepadd as it played a recording of the encounter between her ship and the Kilkrazi dreadnought.
"Now if we freeze here," Willow went on, pausing the image, "see how the razor cannon shots seem to come from the Kitten's Paw's weapons array? But, if we zoom in and enhance..." She did so, and Tara smiled in admiration.
"There was a cloaked ship," she said. "The shots come from just in front of the ship's cannons... That Bubble Bath woman must've sat right on our hull, to make it look as if we fired."
"Presumably she got the plan explained to her in very easy-to-follow stages," Willow agreed. "But I went one better. Look at this." She tapped a command into the padd, and the centre of the image blurred and cleared to reveal the ugliest spacecraft in all of recorded history.
"Ugh!" Tara exclaimed. "What's that, and who sneezed it onto my ship?"
"That's her ship," Willow said triumphantly. "It's probably just a standard shuttle, with extra power for the cannon. But that's what it looks like with a Miffed Cutie anti-cuteness cloaking device running. It's so un-cute it's invisible to the naked eye. This is actually with a lot of extra cuteness artificially added to it, so we can see it."
"The mind boggles," Tara said earnestly. "But this is wonderful, Willow. This is irrefutable proof - we can present this to the Senate, and-"
"-and you and the Kitten's Paw will be cleared," Willow nodded. "And we can set about investigating the Miffed Cuties, and finding out how Glorificus is somehow behind it all."
"I was thinking that'd be a good place to start looking," Tara nodded.
"It seemed pretty obvious," Willow agreed. "But the Cutie Masters like to have all the dots connected before they recognise what's staring them in the face... Did you hear something?"
"What?" Tara asked, halting. Up ahead Shellbacca realised his charges had stopped, and paused, looking back curiously.
"Sort of a... clicking," Willow said quietly, turning slowly, scanning the trees around them. "Or a noise that a lizard would make."
"An animal?" Tara asked.
"I don't think so," Willow frowned. She did a double-take at a tree branch not far away.
"What?" Tara followed her gaze, but the branch was empty.
"I almost saw something... I thought I saw eyes," Willow said, shaking her head. Tara blinked, then stared.
"I thought I saw something," she said. "It's gone now... Just for a moment, it looked like a part of the forest moved..."
"Yo, dudettes?" Shellbacca asked, ambling back towards them. "What's the lowdown?"
"I think we're being watched," Tara said quietly.
"Huh... bogus. Like, flashback stuff, Foot Clan in the trees," the turtle frowned. "I don't see anything."
"Me neither," Willow said. "It's gone, whatever it was..."
"Whoa!" Shellbacca said, reeling back from a glance at Willow's padd. "That's totally non-heinous!"
"Is that good or bad?" Willow asked.
"Bad, I think," Tara shrugged.
"What is that thing?"
"That's what's trying to stop us getting to Capsicum," Willow explained.
"Whoa, bummer. Dudette! Get down!"
Willow glanced down to see a triple-laser sight on her shoulder, an instant before Tara tackled her to the ground, shoving Shellbacca out of the way in the same motion. Something whizzed overhead and splattered on a tree trunk, leaving a bright purple mark, but Tara was already rolling over, grabbing the blaster from Shellbacca's belt, and firing back in the direction the shot had come from. Her shot hit the side of a tree, blowing a branch off, and for an instant an exotically-armoured form was visible falling in the debris.
"Whoa," Shellbacca said, getting back to his feet. "Bogus."
"What was that?!" Willow asked, scrambling upright and drawing her sword.
"I don't know," Tara frowned, approaching the scrubby bushes where the debris had landed.
"Someone totally tried to shoot you, dudette!" Shellbacca said in dismay. He peered at the tree behind them, where the shot had hit. "Uh... with a paintball?"
Willow and Tara exchanged incredulous looks, then continued to advance on their would-be attacker. When they got close enough, they again exchanged a glance, confused this time, as the patch of ground where the branch had fallen was quite empty of anything besides bits of wood.
"It can't have gotten away," Tara said. "I saw it fall, and nothing got up, or moved."
"Maybe... it has some sort of camouflage," Willow said slowly. "It could be anywhere..." They both looked slowly around, then jumped as a loud clicking sound emanated from the bushes. Tara quickly picked up a stick and swung it, hitting something invisible in the midst of the debris.
"Ow!" a female voice protested. A patch of forest seemed to recoil, then blur and change colour, chameleon-like. At the point of Tara's blaster and Willow's sword, the patch of invisibility resolved into a young blonde woman, clad slightly in ornate armour but mostly in a fishnet body stocking, with a remote-controlled paintball gun attached to her shoulder plate.
"Uh... hi," she smiled sweetly. "Could you perhaps not kill me? Just wondering."
"Who are-" Willow began. A device on the blonde's waist produced the clicking sound again, and she heaved an exasperated sigh.
"Sorry, one moment, I have to take this," she said, holding up a hand as it being held at gunpoint was a minor inconvenience. She retrieved the device, flipped it open, and held it to her ear.
"Hello? Mum! How many times have I asked you not to call me when I'm on a hunt? Because it's really difficult to be stealthy with my phone buzzing, that's why! I know, but if I put it on silent I'll forget to take it off again after, and I'll be missing calls for like a week. Well, what is it that's so important? See, that totally could have waited until I got home! Mu-u-um, I'm on a hunt, this is important!"
"Excuse us?" Willow asked.
"Mum, I'll call you back... yes, it can wait... no... yes, I know... yes, I'll call my sister... no I won't be nasty to her... yes, I'll feed the sarlacc when I get home... no, I promise I won't feed Dawnie to the sarlacc... mum, that was only one time, and it spat her out, she was fine... mum I have to go... no, seriously... okay... okay, bye mum. Later. Yes, I promise. Bye. I'm going now. Yes, I know. Bye." She flipped the phone closed. "Sorry. Parents, huh?"
"Who are you and why did you shoot at Willow?" Tara asked severely.
"Chill! Those things just sting a bit, she'd have been fine." The blonde stood up and brushed herself off. "And I want it on record that you did not find me on your own. I have an A++ stealth rating, I'm not losing that just because you lucked out with my mum calling, and... You're not locals."
"No," Willow said.
"Oh," the blonde said, perturbed. "So, you wouldn't know about the hunt, and... Okay, I can see how you'd get the wrong impression."
"What impression?" Tara asked.
"You're on a paintball range," the blonde shrugged. Willow and Tara looked accusingly at Shellbacca, who looked uncomfortable.
"Well, technically, the whole, like, planet's a game zone," he explained. "You know, Ender's Games? They televise it... But I totally thought no-one'd be out in the forest like this, I promise, dudettes."
"Fine," Tara sighed, handing his blaster back.
"Sorry about, you know, shooting at you," the blonde said to Willow.
"Don't make a habit of it," Willow replied.
"No, course not. I'm Buffy," she introduced herself. "Yikes," she added, before anyone else could speak, "it that yours?"
"Huh? Oh." Willow noticed Buffy's gaze had fallen on her padd, still displaying the anti-cute ship. "No... just something we ran into."
"Never thought I'd see one of those again," Buffy shivered.
"You've seen it before?" Tara asked, as Shellbacca shrugged and waved for them to follow him as he set off again.
"I'm good at seeing through camouflage," Buffy boasted. "Pretty hard to make a living as a hunter otherwise. Yep, some ditz turned up a few months ago in that hunk of ick, and y'know, bought some stuff..."
"Stuff?" Willow persisted.
"Genetic samples," Buffy clarified. "She said she was from the Republic Museum, and she was cataloguing the finest predators in the galaxy... and... she was lying, huh?"
"Uh-huh," Tara nodded.
"The plot thickens," Willow mused. "What would the Miffed Cuties want with her DNA?"
"I don't know," Buffy declared heroically, "but I intend to find out! So, I can come along, right? To save the galaxy from... whatever it is... going on... these Miffed whatsies are threatening the galaxy, aren't they?"
"So it seems," Tara said, regarding Buffy warily.
"Well then I'm saving it!" the blonde said, resuming her heroic posture. "It's my duty, to see that... my DNA... look, if I'm off-world that's a valid excuse for not having to babysit my sister, okay? Can I please come along and help save the galaxy?"
"What do you think?" Tara asked Willow in a hushed voice, as Buffy looked imploringly at them.
"She may have innate Aww powers," Willow replied. "That's at least a level three pout, untrained of course, but there's talent there. I guess the Temple wouldn't mind having her drop by. And if she does have something to do with all this..."
"Okay, you can join us," Tara told Buffy.
"Yay!" the predator skipped and clapped her hands. "So, fill me in, what are we saving the galaxy from, exactly? And are you establishment or rebels? It's usually rebels."
By unspoken consent Willow - able to shrug off Buffy's pouting and talk non-stop to keep her from interrupting - began to explain their situation.
"Wait," Buffy frowned part-way through, as Willow paused for a rare breath, "rogue starship? Doesn't your fleet keep track of its ships, or something?"
"They used to," Tara offered. "But it all got too complicated..."
"See, they used to just build a few models of ships," Willow explained. "It took ages for Utopia Deuteronopia to build a shipyard capable of constructing a fully-functional starship, but once they had, they could just keep churning them out one after the other.
"They the corps of engineers invented the Configurable Grid Interface," Tara continued. "Shipyards that could reconfigure themselves overnight. Just input a new set of blueprints, and the shipyard would be capable of constructing a completely new class of ship."
"So...?" Buffy asked.
"The TC Fleet used to just re-use the same models every time they needed a new ship," Willow clarified.
"But now they use CGI to produce new ships at the drop of a hat," Tara added.
"And consequentially, there's about a bazillion different classes, and no-one can remember them all."
"I heard it took six months searching the production archives to confirm that the Ha'tak At'tack Cruiser class were built by the Fleet," Willow said.
"They were?" Tara asked, surprised. "I thought they were some kind of mobile tourist attraction. They don't look like TC ships."
"Apparently they are," Willow shrugged. "Some file clerk accidentally sold the whole class to the Goa'nnas. They like parking them in deserts and sunbathing on the sides."
"And I thought I had problems," Buffy muttered to herself.
"Ladies, gate-a-mundo up ahead!" Shellbacca announced. The trio looked through the forest to see a large metal circle standing in a clearing.
"Oh, that thing," Buffy said dismissively. "It doesn't work."
"It does, if you know the code," Shellbacca grinned. "Stand back, this is gnarly."
"No probl-wah!" Buffy yelped, as her step back got her yoinked into the air by a rope trap coiled around her ankle.
"Are you okay?" Willow asked, as she and Tara scrambled underneath to hold Buffy's weight, while Shellbacca rolled his eyes and turned back to the gate's controls.
"Sure," Buffy said, with as much dignity as she could muster. "I meant to do that. Just checking if you were paying attention. Damn Ewok traps."
"Hold her steady," Shellbacca said over his shoulder. "This should get her down." He hunted among the various symbols on the gate's control device, and pressed several.
"Random doodles locked," the gate announced. "Please stand back." The metal circle flashed into life and generated an elastic pink film over itself, which swelled outwards as if being inflated from the other side.
"Is that bubblegum?" Willow asked, sniffing. The huge pink bubble intersected the rope holding Buffy aloft, vaporising it, then abruptly burst, leaving a liquid-like event horizon in the gate.
"Apple-flavoured, I think," Tara said, picking a piece of gum off her shoulder, waiting for Willow and Buffy to pick themselves up off of her.
"Wormhole extreme, dudettes," Shellbacca announced, striding up to the gate and vanishing into the event horizon, leaving ripples in his wake. The trio of women followed him up to the gate, and regarded it with various degrees of apprehension.
"It's not going to do that thing where the bird runs through it, and then it's solid when the coyote tries to follow, is it?" Willow asked.
"Only one way to find out," Tara shrugged, sticking her arm into the gate. Barring a few ripples, nothing seemed to happen. "Looks safe enough."
"Hey, look - this is cool!" Buffy exclaimed. Willow and Tara glanced at her, to see her drawing a smiley face in the event horizon.
"Come on," Willow sighed, taking Buffy by the arm and leading her through, with Tara beside them.
Cheer! as the Kitten's Paw makes a reappearance!
Boo! as Glorificus does likewise!
Complain about pretentious sci-fi! as we do the political subplot!