The Queen's preferred boudoir: Interrogation Chamber 1
Shane Gooseman had been in worse situations – at least, that was what he kept telling himself, despite his inability to recall one right now – though probably not much worse.
The shielded monofibers in the tight bands that secured his limbs in addition to the hardened iridium steel cuffs across chest and loins that held him on the bent steel plate in a decidedly uncomfortable sprawling position posed a serious problem to his escape.
On the other hand, the chest band ran right across his badge. If he strained his breast muscles enough, he should be able to activate the implant, but...
His eyes wandered the room. He'd have preferred to know what was behind him, but one of the bands was strapped across his throat and he wouldn't risk sparing the Queen the work of cutting off his head. The same psi dampening fields the Queen used methodically in her interrogation chambers that kept Niko from detecting him kept also his self-healing abilities from working properly.
Damn, how had he got himself into this?
He had to get out of here. Immediately. He knew too many things better not fed into a psychocrystal. There was only one way to get out of the monofiber bands: becoming small enough to slip out without tightening them.
The set of crossed bars that covered the only non-forcefield-shielded opening in this room was another obstacle. If he judged the Queen right, then it was either prepared to blow up if someone touched it - or at least to shock freeze the room and ring the bells. There weren't many forms beyond a snake capable of squeezing through that...
Outside the big dome, Zach pulled the tattered hodgepodge clothes of his disguise closer around his face as they stomped, seemingly looking neither left nor right, along the ramshackle row of cowering buildings forming this side of Sorry End's main street – actually, Sorry End's only street – which led to one of the most frequented entrances to the vaulted inner city. His eyes watered from the glass dust the dry wind blew into their faces.
'You don't know what things are worth until you lose them,' the saying said – something Zach could only confirm. They'd cursed at the Zangwell costumes, but now that the Crown troopers regularly shot Zangwells on sight, they weren't an option any longer, and they sorely missed the protection the slave hunter clothes had provided in the harsh outer climate of Tortuna.
"Zach..." Niko's hand brushed across the muff of cloth that hid his arm. "Over there."
He narrowed his stinging eyes and glanced in the direction of the great dome she indicated. Something was causing serious turmoil in one of the small dirty side alleys, and it was coming closer.
"Lay low." Zach decided. "The ever busy spydroids aren't likely to let that uncovered."
"Yes, oh captain mine," the ragtag doll that hid Doc muttered. "And there are only ten times more of them than ever."
"Shh. Get lost."
Niko cowered between a stack of cracked crates as if resting against them – not unusual for the less fortunate people on Tortuna's streets – while Zach and Doc took serious interest in the display of the shop just behind them, though the Captain certainly wished it weren't one of the businesses taking care for the more... unusual entertainment tastes of what passed as Tortuna's upper class. He certainly feared that if he took a closer look he'd learn more about certain body functions than he ever wanted to know.
Luckily, the turmoil breaking out of the side alley saved what was left of his innocence, though it had him blinking at least twice. And not because of the dust.
A tall cat chased out of the alley mouth onto the main street, skittered to a brief halt with claws scratching over the shattered concrete, then raced diagonally across the crowded street, straight for their hideout.
The reason for the noise followed suit: a set of yelling, firing, – and huffing – crown troopers burst onto the main street, hot on the cat's tail in spite of the soldiers being ill-equipped with their heavy armor for chasing something as small and agile as the sandy cat dodging and whizzing through the traffic.
A cat on Tortuna!?
Which had just come to another skittering halt and then wound itself around Niko's ankles, meowing only slightly less loudly than an air raid siren. So much for their hideout. The crown troopers didn't care about the citizens between them and their prey. The first blaster bolt melted the concrete next to Niko's boot behind which the suddenly hissing and spitting cat dodged.
"RETURN FIRE!" Zach bellowed, all too aware that the animal had revealed them for whatever reason. "RETREAT!"
"But Goose–!" Niko screamed.
"We're coming back to get him." Zach snapped. "He knows the emergency plan!"
The cat hissed with flattened ears, staring down the street at the approaching crown cohort. Zachary had noticed them, too. Damn. A lot of effort for a single cat! He gave Niko a hard shove down the street. "No buts, Lieutenant. RUN!"
"We should leave her here." Doc said, eyeing the cat, who sat on Goose's painfully vacant chair watching the controls as if she could understand their meaning. "She's caused enough trouble already."
The sandy cat turned instantly, stood front paws with claws digging into the padding of the weaponry console chair's armrest, her tail twitching agitatedly back and forth while she glared at the hacker squarely out of glittering eyes.
Despite her anxiousness about Goose, Niko thought –not for the first time – that she was a beautiful animal, sleek muscles rippling in perfect rhythm under smooth sand-colored fur tabbied with a darker shade of gold on the back and giving way to creamy white on throat and belly. Somebody obviously had taken good care for her; aside from a fresh cut on the left front paw she'd likely gotten on her flight from the crown troopers, she was all brushed and glossy.
"No, we won't." Zachary, occupying the pilot's seat and hurrying through the emergency startup routine said determinedly. "A certain authority sent a cohort to get that animal, Doc. That alone makes her interesting for us, if only for the question of 'why'."
"But we have no clue where she comes from or what she's doing here. What if she's ill?" The cat's tail whipped even more furiously, her ears flattened, green glowing eyes sparkled dangerously. "See? She's a wild animal!" The cat spat at the hacker. Niko scooped her off the seat and petted her, and a soft purring arose.
"Not wild, Doc. Can't you see?" She ran a finger under the cat's throat and was rewarded with an increased purr. Doc hesitated and extended a shaky finger towards the cat. The cat hissed.
"See?" The hacker protested. "She's wild."
"Nonsense. Maybe you should stop calling him 'she', males are sensitive about that." The cat's head bumped under her breast as she leaned over to check the weapons console's screens. "We better hurry, Zach. Looks as if the Queen's sending some heavy cavalry after us."
"So much for this camouflage of the ship." Zach ground his teeth. "Ready for takeoff."
Doc shook his head as the lift off pressed him into his seat. "Poss'll have our heads if we bring such a big rival home."
"Let me worry about that," Zach sighed fatalistically, dodging the blockade fire of Queenie's satellite belt. "We have to contact BETA and tell them we need an emergency plan for Goose."
"Yes, mon capitaine."
Twelve hours later, they were approaching Earth.
"You better go back and secure the cat for landing, Niko. We'll have to bring the animal through decon at arrival, and he responds best to you."
"Of course, Zachary." The telepath unbuckled swiftly and went to the rear cabin where they'd locked up the cat, cautiously preparing to blocking the door with her body before triggering the locking mechanism. She'd really prefer to avoid chasing the agile creature through the whole ship!
Niko released a deep breath as the door closed behind her. She needn't have worried, the tall cat slept peacefully curled up in the middle of the reg bay bank, his pink nose tucked neatly under his tail, tall ears twitching slightly at the sound of her steps.
The head had gone up, ears pointed in her direction as she slowly approached the bed. "Hello, you." She ran a soft hand over the silky back and sighed. "Sorry, Purr. I'm not good company at the moment. I'm missing my boyfriend, you know?"
The cat meowed again. Involuntarily, Niko smiled at the animal's 'reply'. "He's missing back at the place where we found you," she told the cat, "and–"
She stopped, frowning. The cat wasn't looking at her, he stared, apparently fully occupied at the blue LEDs of the wall chrono, suddenly shivering. The fur on his back and tail stood on edge as he retreated in the farthest edge of the reg bay.
"What's wrong, Purr?" Niko said softly, trying to coax the cat close again. "Does the vibration of the hyperdrives bother you?"
The cat dug under the reg bank, pressing himself into the darkest corner at the back wall.
She sighed and tapped her badge. "Sorry, Purr. I'd hoped to spare you this." A deft telekinetic pulse transported the struggling cat into the cargo container and closed the lid.
"Wow!" QBall pushed his electronic reading aid closer against his nose and studied the data with awe. "No wonder the Queen was interested in this cat."
"What did you find?"
"See for yourself." He switched the sensor data onto the big holographic display above the conference table.
The body of the squirming cat appeared as a wavering red frame with orange and yellow blurring organs – their pulsating revealed the real time nature of the data – and a glowing bluish-white skeleton. An eerie sight.
"That's an energy scan," QBall explained. "The brighter the color, the more energy." He indicated the skeleton glowing bright enough to almost light the room. "Normally, bones are low energy components but these..." He shook his head, wiping his forehead. "The energy stored in them is almost beyond the scale. It's a miracle it doesn't blow up like a ton of TNT." He hesitated as he spotted a strange feature lying around the fragile skull bones of the animal, almost invisible in the eerie glow, revealing its presence only because it didn't share the flickering of the biological components. "Wait a moment."
He zoomed in on the cat's head and paled suddenly. "Oh my God!"
Walsh was half out of his seat. "What's wrong, QBall?"
"That's an implant!"
"The cat's a cyborg?" Zach asked, frowning deeply. "A trap maybe?"
"Not quite..." QBall said shakily, fidgeting with his hands about, and tossing more than one look at the container that still held the squirming cat. He swallowed. "I know that implant."
Four sets of eyes – three rangers and a commander – burnt into the scientist.
"Just what are you trying to tell us?" Zach asked, threateningly calm.
"That you can call the emergency plan off. You brought Gooseman home."
Walsh visibly paled.
In the eerie silence that followed, the angry cries of the caged cat filled the room.
It was Walsh's nerves that snapped first: "For Heaven's sake, Q, get him out of there!"
Office of Commander Walsh
"Try not to cause trouble, boy!" With that the door slid shut behind the commander who returned to QBall and the others working on a solution for this mess. The hiss which followed indicated unmistakably that the forcefield shield on the outside of the door had been activated.
For a moment, he sat on the floor halfway between door and desk and wondered what the heck 'not to cause trouble' meant for a cat. Should he avoid sitting on the keys?
Goose snorted, which ruffled his whiskers and tickled. He snorted again, but that did little to help.
His gaze swept the room for a place to rub on. Without much consideration he turned for the desk. Any sharp edge would do.
Ah, that was better. Ok, now what? He sat back on his haunches and looked up at the desk looming above him. Maybe, he'd get a clue with a better sight of the things at hand... err– at paw. A moment – and a coffee cup plus saucer pushed over the edge because he'd forgotten about the inability of claws to provide suitable traction on ceramic surfaces – later, he sat on the commander's desk set, his tail folded neatly around him, and wondered briefly if that had been such a good idea.
The usually familiar office looked rather strange through a cat's eyes: stripped of the red and most of the green, it had a strange note being all in pale blue and yellow. Bright yellow...
His ears pointed, whiskers spread wide, and the tip of his tail twitched, brushing a lightpen off the desk into the coffee puddle on the floor caused by the cup which had been in the way of his ascent.
He'd never noticed how tasty the goldfish in the round fish tank on the corner of the desk looked when the afternoon sun glinted on their scales...
A pink tongue whizzed over cat's lips. A wet nose touched the thick glass, leaving a little smear.
The tail tip's twitch increased. Another lightpen left the pen holder and joined its colleague on the ground. He propped his paws on the broad, rounded rim of the tank, now lurking above the fish scurrying for cover at the bottom.
His claws slashed through the water.
Fuck! Missed. He shook the wet paw violently, spraying half of the desk with water droplets. His whiskers trembled. He would get this tiny, tasty morsel or...
"Why do you think he can't retransform?"
QBall sighed, scratching his bald head. "No idea. Probably because the implant wasn't fully manifested in this form. The head's too small for it. Or maybe the extreme energy load in the bones prevents the emergency trigger from allowing re-transformation when the charge gets too low. But that's nothing more than an educated guess at the moment."
The muscles in Walsh's jaw worked heavily. "Well, you had better get an idea what to do, Q. I seriously detest the idea of giving him a flea collar and shots against feline distemper!"
The scientist turned back to his instruments, muttering under his breath.
"What did you say?" Walsh demanded to know.
"I said you might want to worry about the litter box first."
Office of Commander Walsh
He sat in the commander's chair in the sunshine still gleaming in from the outside. Warm. Cozy. The old, comfortably worn black fabric of the command officer's chair creaked.
There was a loose thread.
Boooring. What the heck did a cat for entertainment?
Scratch. This body wasn't exactly designed for martial arts.
Scratch. Maintenance with paws wouldn't work either.
Scratch. He couldn't get out of here anyway.
Scratch. He could write his report.
Scratch. If these keyboards were designed to work with paws, that is.
Scratch. They weren't. He'd tried it on the computers in Ranger-1.
Scratch. What was why Zach had banned him into the reg bay.
Scratch. For his attempt of communication.
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Shit.
Scratch. He laid his head to the side. He actually could look at the door.
Scratch. While peering through the desk's kneehole.
Scratch. Would be kind of funny.
Scratch. If the commander had left the door open and only activated the forcefield.
Scratch. As it was, it was rather....
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
How long could it take till they figured out they had to trigger the implant to allow auto-retransform, eh? The cat yawned wide, tiny needle-sharp fangs glittered in the sunlight.
Scratch. Apparently an eternity.
Scratch. Were these foam rubber flakes blue for human eyes, too?
Scratch. Stop. Foam rubber flakes?
He stared at the gaping hole in the seat upholstery in front of his right paw. Shit.
A silky cat ear twitched. Guess that qualifies as trouble.
Recharging Platform for the Series-5-Implants
The bright glow of the recharging platform faded to a light bearable to human eyes. The body kneeling on hands and feet in the center of it was unmistakably human, as he got cautiously up, stretching and examining himself as if to make sure no furry spots were left.
The door from the observation lounge burst open. The commander tossed a uniform in Goose's general direction which the ST caught effortlessly. Walsh watched him out of narrowed, scrutinizing eyes. "You okay?" was all he asked in the end.
Goose, pulling up his pants, nodded mutely.
"We have to fit you with a new badge."
Another nod. Goose hastily buttoned his shirt.
"You were more vocal in cat form," Walsh said dryly.
That gained him a straight, almost shocked look.
The commander sighed. "What did you find out on Tortuna?"
"There are more spybots than ever, but fewer slaverlords. No direct information. They trapped me on the way to the target."
"I figured as much. What happened?"
The ST ran a hand through his short-cropped hair, slightly embarrassed. "Stupid accident, sir." He finally admitted. "The often quoted 'blunt object on the head'. I don't think it was part of the combat, guess it just fell off the roof." He shook his head. "When I woke up, I was in one of their interrogation chambers, strapped to a plate with monofibers. I don't know how, but their forcefields somehow affect the bio defenses' less invasive properties such as self-healing." He sighed. "Only the transformation cocoon's strong enough to block their effect. So that was my only choice. I needed to become small enough to slip out of the fibers and agile enough to get through the bars."
"But reducing your size–" Walsh shook his head. "You took an incredible risk, boy."
"Not really. In the transformation cocoon I'm all energy anyway. So when I reduced the size, I altered the skeleton to work as a capacitor for the difference. I had a lot of time on that table to work out the details before I triggered the transformation." Goose studied his boots closely when he added faintly: "I couldn't know that the deformed implant would read the stored energy in the bone as a charge and fail to delete the transformation when the charge wore off." He swallowed. "Or that I'd be more cat than I planned. I'm just damned glad that it's over."
"Ah yes, now that you mention it, there's still the ruined upholstery of my chair." He arched a brow at the discomforted young trooper in front of him. "You also might want to go and remove all the hair you shed in my office."
"Yes, sir." Gooseman saluted, appearing like a man who desperately wished for a paper bag to hide his face in, Walsh noticed with an amused glitter in his dark eyes and fought to keep the malicious smile off his face.
"And before I forget... I'm missing two of the goldfish in my aquarium." The boy's face turned visibly green. "Do you know anything about their fate?"
Epilogue: BMMP Apartment 219
"Goose..." Niko patted onto the cushions next to her, offering him a seat. "What's wrong?" she asked at the frosty look her offer had brought her.
"I'd prefer if you stop treating me like a cat. In case you didn't notice, the transformation's gone."
"Come, sit down." She laughed out faintly. "You're overreacting."
"Yes," she stated.
Goose grunted, following her offer. "You would be, too, if Doc had suggested declawing you to save the furniture."
"Poor Goose." She ran her hand slowly across the short cropped strands of his neck hair, sending a silent thank-you to whatever deity was responsible for STs – and cats – that he hadn't caught Doc's comment about neutering to prevent uncounted STJ-propelled kittens, when she finally got him to relax on the couch with his head resting on her lap. After a moment, she frowned slightly. "Are you sure the transformation was properly undone?"
"Yes." He looked up at her, his head still on her lap. Lying there was certainly more satisfying now that he was... a little less feline. "Why–?"
Her giggling stopped his question as she intensified her stroking.