Cat's Cradle

'Do you think Zard would mind if I... kissed... him?'


Zard jerked awake, fending off the oncoming-

He looked around.

There was nobody there.

The bridge was deserted. And undamaged. Did this mean...?

He started to get a very, very bad feeling in the pit of his stomachs.

[98% probability we will be destroyed.]

[be destroyed.]



Silence. For an eternal, heartstopping moment.


Zard let out a sigh of relief. 'We made the time jump sucessfully?'

[Well... sort of.]

Zard felt the bad feeling start to eat at his stomachs again. 'Sort of?'

[Umm... you're not going to believe this, but...]

[We're being towed.]

'...' Zard sat down in his chair. 'Towed?'

[Very nice couple, you really should meet them, noticed we were having problems, and, well, we _were_ heading in that direction, and, well...]

'You are telling me that someone _stopped_ in the middle of a time jump to give us a lift?' Zard didn't say. I-Z just read his expression.

[Umm... well, that's the *other* bit I didn't mention. Umm...]

'Where are they?' Zard eloquently didn't say.

[On the bridge. Um. Their bridge. Umm... Want me to open the doors?]

'That would be nice, thank you _so_ much...' Zard didn't say again.

Instead, he waited until the ship's doors were open. Then he left.

A few seconds later, I-Z caught the sound of an intake of air, commesurate with the amount needed for a seven foot tall reptile to gasp.

And grinned to herself.


Excited whispering and nudging.

Zard tried to avoid looking at the ship's controls. Not because they were disturbing, or anything like that... but because he had the strangest feeling he'd seen them in a holo-drama somewhere...

'You do it...' 'No, you do it...'

Eventually the tall blond man got shoved out of his chair by the short black woman, landed on the floor, and walked up to Zard, grinning bashfully. 'You honour me...'

Zard just *looked* at him.

The man started to look embarrassed. 'I _did_ get that right, right? That _is_ how you say it?'

'Fat chance...' the woman muttered.

'Maybe it's... "you honer me..." No, that's not right...' the man mumbled.

'Oh, just get the picture taken, will you?'

'Oh. Oh. Right. Sorry, Sarah...' The man grinned bashfully again. 'Just a moment...'


And a full-size replica of Zard stood in the doorway.

The woman - Sarah - looked at it critically. 'Didn't come out that well..._Cwej_...'

'Not me. Holo-camera's on the blink again...'


'...Should have had that thirty thousand year service, but do you _listen_? *Noooo.....*'

'*Ahem.*' Zard repeated.

The woman looked up. 'Sorry about this...'

'Yes... Might I know who you are?' Zard said patiently.

The man slapped his forehead. 'Oh, that's _right_, personal introductions... I'm Chris Cwej, and the lady over there's my wife, Sarah. Lucky we came along when we did...' he added. 'Your ship was about to fall apart... Honestly, how you ever got by without adamantinum I don't know... Luckily, your ship's computer was able to give us directions, and it _was_ on our way... Y'know, she's in good shape for an antique, you could get one well-smart price for her...'

He trailed off as Zard continued *looking* at him.

'Of course, keeping her around for sentimental value's good too...' Chris hastily added.


'Yeah, Sarah?... Oh, sorry.'

Sarah shook her head. 'Grief... All right. The simple explanation is... "We're from the 57th century, and we were on our way to a holiday in the 20th century - Cwej has family there. Why we stay with them I honestly don't know... - and we'll be able to drop you off in the 21st century on our way." That okay?'

'Yes.' Zard said. 'But... why are you telling me about my future?'

Sarah shrugged. 'Because you wouldn't have believed it, otherwise... _And_ because my husband's always wanted to meet you...'

Zard was about to ask why, when Chris turned around from the panel he was looking at. 'Pulling up on 21st century. Change here for legendary heroes and universe-saving battles!'

'Oops. Cue to go...' Sarah said. 'Oh, one last thing. We've listed all the improvements we made to your ship - insurance purposes, you understand. She _was_ in pretty bad shape...'

'_What_ improvements?!' Zard finally yelled, as Sarah pushed him back to his ship.

'She'll fill you in. We've just pulled up... Quickly, Chris' relatives get *antsy* if we're late...'

'Antsy?' Zard said, as Sarah prodded him back on board his own bridge.

Sarah shuddered as she turned to leave. 'You wouldn't _believe_ it... Strap yourself in, it may be a bumpy drop.'

[Have a nice time, mon capitaine?] came I-Z's cheery voice.

'You _might_ say that...' Zard said.

[Bit surprised though. I mean, I certainly wasn't expecting _that_...]

'What? That time tourists from our future happen to show up and tow us along?'

[No... Perfectly within reasonable probabilities.] I-Z sniffed. [No, I'm talking about the kiss, remember?]

Zard's habitual frown deepened. 'What kiss?'

[Oh, come on, how could you forget a snog like that? Drool _everywhere_. Thought you were going to _drown_ in the stuff...]

'I-Z... *what kiss*?!'

[Oh... Here we go!!] I-Z announced. [All ashore who's going ashore!!]

There was a *clunk*.

And then-


Back in the near future...

'Hello, are you the Dragon's Bride?'



363 times so far.

And it had seemed so _easy_ too...

Knock on the door. Ask if the Dragon's Bride is there.

When someone says 'Yes', knock them over the head and take them back with you.

No problem. Right?


Knock knock.


'Is the Dragon's Bride there?'

The man standing in the door sighed. 'Just a moment... Charley, it's one of your "friends" again....'

Grumbling from upstairs.

Thud thud of someone coming downstairs.

'Yeah, Dad? What is it...?' Teenage girl voice, depressed and sulking.

'Someone out here wants to know if you're the Dragon's Bride.' The man's voice again.

'What? Lemme see...'

Teenage girl looks out from behind door. 'Yes...?'

'Are you the Dragon's Bride?'

'Not that I've noticed, no...'

Slumping of shoulders. 'Oh _poot_. Come on, Linx...'

The teenage girl steps out from the door. 'Um... who're you looking for again?'

Start the story. 'The Bride of the Dragon. A maiden betrothed to the great Dragon who oversees our land.

'A few... moon-cycles?... back, the latest one disappeared. We were able to trace her to this region, but no further. So we were sent to bring her back.'

The teenage girl nods. 'Right... And how're you gonna recognise her?'

'She will be the one who says "yes" when we ask her if she is the Dragon's Bride.'

The teenage girl blinks. 'Sorry? Is she under a compulsion to tell the truth or something?'

'The ...truth?' Stare at the girl. 'I do not understand. Why speak something other than that which is? The only magic which lies upon her is the one that requires that, should she ever lie with _anyone_ else, they shall be devoured within the moon-cycle by the great Dragon.'

The girl says 'Ah.' There's not much else she _can_ say. 'So... what do you get in return?'

Stare at the girl again. 'Return? The Dragon simply asks that we return his bride... otherwise he will destroy our land. Again.'

'Uh-huh...' the girl says. 'And she looks like you, right? Couldn't be hard to miss...'

Sniff. 'Unfortunately not. This time, the honour fell on one of those frivolous elves, rather than one of the most noble and honourable Oni...' Undercurrent of 'How could anyone, even the most noble Dragon himself, choose one of *them*?'

'Did you say... _elf_? Pointy ears, slitted eyes, that kinda thing?'

'You have seen her?' Excitement.



'Are _you_ the Dragon's Bride?'

Angel eeped.

Then she turned around and said 'I don't have a _clue_ what you're... talking...'

Two Oni were standing behind her. Short, squat, heads like... what were those things again? Potatoes, that was it. And standing behind _them_...

Was a deeply embarrassed Charlotte Pollard.

Who blushed, and said 'Sorry...'

'I'll give you sorry...' Angel muttered. She turned her brightest smile on the two Oni. '_So_ sorry to disappoint these kind gentlemen, but no, I'm not.'

'You have pointed ears and slitted eyes,' one of them pointed out. 'Are you not an elf?'

'Sorry. Just cosmetic surgery...' Angel explained.

The two Oni looked blank. Which wasn't too hard for an Oni, Angel reflected. It was widely said (but not to their faces) that an Oni could lose a riddle contest with a stone. If the stone was having an off-day.

'Whoops. Sorry to have wasted your time...' Charlotte said. 'C'mon guys, obviously she's not the one you're looking for...'

'But if we have made a mistake,' one Oni pointed out, 'then what is to stop the elf searcher from making the same mistake? We should at least...'

'Wait, wait a minute... Did you say "elf searcher"?' Charlotte asked, with a growing sense of impending doom.

The Oni nodded. 'Remorseless, unstoppable, and unscrupulous. She would stop at nothing to achieve her goal.'

'She?' Charlotte asked. Again with that sense of certain impending doom.


All of them turned round... see a girl who looked exactly like Angel, down to the slitted eyes and pointed ears. Exactly. Well, except for the dark hair. And the whacking great crossbow pointed in their direction.


'Bit excitable, isn't she...?' Charlotte murmured.

'Hi, sis...' Angel said weakly.


'Wed?' a new voice said.

Charlotte started blushing.

Vislor turned his hardest gaze on Angel. 'Is there something you want to tell me... _dear_?'

'Um... Honey? I'd like you to meet my sister Sammy...' Angel gestured in her 'twin's general direction. Carefully. Not having anything to do with the crossbow Sammy was pointing at them. '...and two old friends from the old country...' She indicated the Oni.

'What is the "old country"?' one of them said.

Charlotte slapped a hand over his mouth. 'Sorry. New to the language. You know the sort of thing...'

'You know, you never _did_ tell me where your family came from...' Vislor said.

Oh crap. Ohcrapohcrapohcrap...

Which was when a spaceship crashed on the school grounds.

Purely to break the tension, naturally.



The girl was asleep in his bed.

Fitz wasn't.

He'd prepared a 'bed' on the chair. Wasn't comfortable, but he'd slept on less comfortable things in his time...


(the burning, screamning pain as the power filled his bones)

(the girl's screaming as the power struck)

(the hollow emptiness as the power faded)

(the guilt rushing in)

Another crime to add to his list. He'd panicked, thought she'd been one of _them_, had lashed out...

...and hurt her.

Hurt. Her.

Hurt a girl, barely a toddler who'd wanted...

He frowned. What had she wanted?

What _was_ she?

_Her_ power sliced into his mind. It screamed, it tore, it *twisted* at space...

...and to him, who lived _in_ space, worked it, perpetually _aware_ of it... _burned_, _ate_ at him...

Oh, he _knew_ why he'd lashed out.

But he didn't feel any better for the knowing.

He'd found her mother's phone number in Laura's coat pocket, told her her daughter was staying at a friend's house, and as said friend's father, he just wanted to make sure...

He'd soothed, he'd apologised, he'd told her he'd let Laura know her mum was _worried_ about her, that going out alone was _dangerous_ for a girl her age, that he'd bring her back first thing in the morning...

Telling her mother that Laura was being looked after by one of the most famous idol stars in the world was, he considered, _not_ an intelligent move. On anyone's part.

He stepped onto the balcony and looked over the city, not seeing it.

Felt the burning guilt sink into his psyche, well-worn defences accepting it, storing it away, the guilt slowly fading...but still there, still waiting.

Waiting to be remembered.

He bowed his head.

A flash of silver at the edge of vision.

He looked up.

There was nothing there.

His senses went on alert. No. Not that. Not again...

Maybe. Maybe...

Again. Almost faster than he could see. A flash of silver across the night.

He backed into the penthouse.

Defence. Defence.

He concentrated, felt the power move sluggishly within.

Coaxed it, shaped it, pushed it out.

A shield.

...and this would cost him, cost him so much...

...pushing the power almost to the limit...

...pushed himself...

...had to be sure...

...had to be safe...


..then again...

...*there*. In his bedroom.


Can't... can't let her..

He pushed the emotions, the intellect, the tall, thin body _forward_, pushing _himself_ forward.

Pushing the _power_ forward.

His muscles *screamed* at the effort.

Too much...

...too soon...



Barely aware of his surroundings, barely aware of _himself_, he staggered into the bedroom.

A silver blur leaped into his face.

He staggered back, unable to attack, to shield, to do _anything_...

...sank to the floor...

...can't let this... can't allow this...

...pushed...pushed himself onto the bed...

..can't let...

...pushed himself off the bed...

...felt something squirm against his chest, saw the light bouncing off red hair, but there was no time for thought...

The blur came at him.

A jagged smile crept onto his face.

..and he pulled himself in...pulled the power in...

...and _pushed_.



Glass shards twinkle as they fall to earth.

A dark shape, barely visible against the night, tumbling through the air, the shards glittering around it.

From the shattered window, the silver cat watches them fall.

Then it leaps after them.


Back in the 39th century...

'So... you wanna kill him, or shall I?'

'Awwww.... Do we _have_ to?'

'C'mon, Nyss... He's after _you._ You think I'm gonna stand still for that?'

'We _are_ standing still...'



'Light of my life...'

The ninja raised his eyebrows. They really _were_ that sex-obsessed...

Then he raised his gun at the two embracing figures. Quick and simple. A shot to the head.

He sniffed. This would be too easy.

The shot that followed _was_ too easy.

For the pair embracing.

The ninja toppled backwards, a surprised expression on his face.

Nyssaias and Embericles lowered their phasers and waved to camera.

Then they got on with the X-rated part of the tape.


Fade sat back. And averted his head.

Although... 'You can do _that_ with custard? I thought you needed a chicken suit at least...'

He'd been through all the records (most of which Embericles and Nyssaias had sent back themselves... along with whatever remained of their victims).

All-out attack? Nope.

Double-cross? Nope.

Stealth mission? Nope

Kidnapping? Nope.

In fact, as far as he could tell, every method in the galaxy had been used against the Despicable Duo, and they'd survived every one. Even the Planet-Buster.

Which left only one way for him to complete his contract.

He sighed. He really was _not_ looking forward to this.


'I believe you're looking for new crew? A band of the most vile, loathesome, downright dangerous cut-throats ever to disgrace the galaxy?'

'Yup.' Embericles said.

Fade stuck out his hand. 'Hello. I'm here to kill Nyssaias. I hope that doesn't get in the way of a successful working relationship.'

Embericles looked at her partner-in-crime. 'Well, that's the loathesome bit dealt with. What d'you think, Nyss?'

Nyssaias leaned forward. 'So... just when were you planning to kill me?'

Fade shrugged. 'Oh, there'd be friendly attempts during the voyage, but you'd slowly get to trust me as I saved your lives... and then, after the big job that would see us reviled throughout the galaxy by the forces of law and order, and hailed as heroes by the audience at home, I would, reluctantly, be forced to decide between my contract and my friendship, which would leave one or the other of us dead.'

Nyssaias nodded. 'Okay. When can you start?'

'Tomorrow?' Fade suggested.

'That'll do nicely. See you then.'

'See you.'


After he'd gone...

'Well, _that_ was a refreshing change.'

'Yep,' Nyssaias said. 'I _like_ that boy, know what I mean?'

Embericles nodded. 'Polite, honest, dressed smartly, projected himself well...'

'Yeah. I can really see us getting on well with him...'

'Shame about the messy corpse he's gonna leave.'

Nyssaias shrugged, letting her brown curls fall over her ears. 'Yeah. D'you have any _idea_ how difficult it is to clean out blood from shag-pile carpeting?'

Embericles gave her a sly look from underneath a fringe of red hair. 'We could always find out...'

Nyssaias looked at her watch. 'What the hell. It's been five minutes since the last time we tried... And the key to a good experiment _is_ repetition...'

Embericles would have answered that one.

If it weren't for the fact that her mouth's current location made it... difficult.


Moving swiftly on...

'Your uncle's on the line.'

Harry Sullivan jerked straight up. 'Put him through...'

The face of the CEO of Iownu came up on screen.

And it did _not_ look happy.

Harry swallowed. 'Umm.. hello, uncle.'

'Harold.' came the cold response.

Harry shuddered.

'I have received your latest report on the Room project...'

Harry crossed his fingers, hoping like _hell_ that the CEO hadn't-

'...and a more believeable fairytale could be told by a child of five.'

Harry sank down in his seat. He knew.

'Nevertheless, despite your... abject incompetence, and the... eloquence... of your report, I am minded to keep the Room project going.'

Harry gasped. 'But- But- but we _lost_ three of our people!! We've sunk most of the budget's into paying the workers off! We don't _have_ the money! Or the people!!'

'Money - and lives - are expendable. The Room is not.' the cold voice said. 'Remember that, Harold.'

Harry shuddered. He remembered. Remembered all too well.

'New technicians will be assigned to you, and your current budget will be tripled. Use it wisely. For your own sake.' the icy, remorseless voice continued.

Harry nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak.

'I expect an update by the end of the week. Is that understood?'

'Yes.' Harry mumbled.

'Then we shall speak later.' The image clicked off.

Harry pushed his secretary's button. 'Ms. Bell? Could you make sure I don't receive any calls for the rest of the day?'

'Yes, Mr. Sullivan.'

'Just tell them... I'm incapacitated, and will be for the foreseeable future.'

'Yes, sir.'


Far above Harry's office...

Ms. Cooper clicked off her phone, and steepled her fingers together.

Interesting. The CEO had a high stake in this 'Room project'. In seeing it succeed, at any rate...

But... she had to wonder.

What was so important about a room with no doors?

And how could you lose three people in it?


'Mr Sullivan? Mr Sullivan?!'

'I said "no calls", Ms Bell.'

'It's about the Room, sir.'

'What _now_?!'

'We've... We... Two people have come _out_ of the Room!'

'Yes... And?'

'They didn't go _in_, sir.'


'We didn't send _anybody_ matching their descriptions into the Room! They just... stumbled out of it!'

'Where are they now?'

'They... they were sent to Stacie's laboratory. We _did_ need to know if they were safe...'

'Oh my God...'


Stacie looked over at the tall thin man and the little redhaired girl slumped in the corner as she pulled on her medical gloves.

_Be with you in a minute. First, I just need to check this slice of cerebral matter... then Dr Stacie's going to give you a _thorough_ examination..._ Stacie said. _That *will* be fun, won't it?_




Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat