(This is a sort of prequel to 2 stories I entered in last year's writing challenges.)
Technical Difficulties 0
The ship streaked across the morning sky, spewing smoke. Inside, the pilot clawed at the controls, fighting to keep the ship on course. He could see the landing site – a baseball field - just ahead, but he was coming in too fast. He had only one option: to deploy the landing gear and hope for the best.
He jerked the ship upright and batted a yellow button.
Four cardboard paws shot out of the box's bottom. The ship began to slow. Alarms went quiet and warning lights stopped blinking one by one.
The box continued to slow, until it hovered just above the pitcher's mound. The engine switched off, and the ship dropped the last few inches, landing delicately on top of the pitcher's mound.
Inside the ship, the captain purred in triumph. We always land on our feet.
He retracted the landing gear and swatted a red lever. A cardboard panel beside him swung open with a hiss.
The pilot, a huge ginger tom, sauntered through the opening, sat in the grass outside, and began to lick one paw. A cat, especially a council member, needed to keep up appearances. You never knew when the Enemy might be watching, waiting for a sign of weakness.
All right, let's find this prodigy and see what she's capable of. He hadn't gotten that information – his agent had rushed out of the meeting to take an urgent nap – but she'd told him it was something big, something that could speed up their invasion plans.
She'd also urged him to move quickly.
The ginger tom padded away, leaving the still-smoking box behind him. Finding a new ship shouldn't be difficult. The humans usually had a few stashed away in their homes somewhere. It had been a major turning point in their secret war. A few adjustments to a few box factories, and the humans had built the cats' invasion fleet for them.
Besides, if the humans found a burning box in the middle of a baseball field, they usually blamed it on "kids."
The ginger tom crossed the baseball field, slipped through a yew hedge and made his way across a well-manicured backyard.
He noted the graceful willows and goldfish pond with approval. They reminded him of the catnip plantations back on his home world... before the stuff had been outlawed, anyway.
The effect was ruined by a chain-link fence surrounding the side yard. The ginger tom padded close, sniffing one of the steel posts. It looked like recent construction - the dirt hadn't even settled yet. But that was unusual; people didn't usually build fences for cats. Fences were usually meant to hold in-
A brown-and-white terrier charged out of a bush, barking fiercely.
The ginger tom stood his ground as the terrier rushed the fence. It stopped just short of the fence and stood there barking at full volume, blasting the Watcher with saliva droplets and kibble-breath.
Whiskers of the Great Empress. What's that doing here? His agent hadn't mentioned that one of the Enemy was stationed here. But she was correct – he did need to move quickly. The terrier was a ridiculous animal with a ridiculous face, but it was still broadcasting his location to every dog in hearing range.
According to the most recent intelligence, there would only be two. But could that information still be trusted?
A bone-shaped tag dangling from the dog's collar read SCOUT. His name, or his job description? The ginger tom thought it was probably both.
He made his way along the fence at a leisurely pace, taking care to not show anything that might look like fear. The dog followed on the other side of the fence, dashing back and forth and barking. Or rather, the humans would have called it "barking". If anyone had asked the ginger tom to spell the sounds coming out of the dog's face, he would have chosen "burp."
The ginger tom had never understood why the humans would allow such disgusting, obnoxious creatures into their homes. His best guess was that they liked the illusion of loyalty, of control. They had not seen the truth. The Felid Empire had its Empress and its councils, but the dogs had their warlords. Many a world had despaired at the sight of the blood-streaked doghouses advancing across the sky.
The evolutionary joke on the other side of the fence was only part of the advance guard, sent to infiltrate and gather information. By the time the real threat arrived it would be too late. There would be one of the Enemy in every apartment, every backyard. No, it was better if the council claimed this world for the Felid Empire instead.
The ginger tom sat down and fixed the terrier with a withering stare. You are not a threat. You are merely an inconvenience.
The dog went ballistic, racing from one end of the yard to the other, letting out a stream of furious, high-pitched burps as it went. The ginger tom got up and continued on, heading for a nearby door.
Before he could reach it, the cat flap opened and a black kitten emerged. She hopped down the stairs, crossed the small patio, and pressed her face against the fence.
"Hey, Stupid! Did you get your face caught in a drainpipe, or were you born that ugly?"
The dog turned away from the ginger tom and charged. The kitten stood her ground with a disdainful expression that would have made a council member proud.
The ginger tom felt he should call her away – nothing the dog was saying was fit for a kitten's ears – but he waited until she grew bored with watching the dog. This was her turf; she would either greet him in her own time or ignore him completely.
She stretched, arched her back, and padded over to where the ginger tom was sitting. "Hah, too easy. And who are you supposed to be?"
The ginger tom flicked his tail. It would be unwise to reveal his true name – or his mission - in front of the dog. "My name is not important."
The kitten flattened her ears. He was off to a bad start. "Well, you're sitting in my yard, Mister Not Important. Or is it..."- she squinted at his collar - "Freddie Purrcury?"
The kitten was hardly in a position to criticize (the tag hanging from her own collar read CUPCAKE), but it would be unwise to say so. Instead the ginger tom flicked his tail disdainfully, as if the name dangling from his collar was of no consequence. "The tags are only camouflage. Humans are easier to manage when they think they're in control."
"Uh-huh. And why are you here?"
"We should speak someplace... quieter." He gestured towards the still-frenzied dog only a few feet away.
She hissed. "It's my yard. We can speak right here."
The ginger tom was unsure how to proceed. From his agent's report, he had expected a secret genius of some kind, not a kitten with the manners of a dog.
"We really-" He stopped, pricking up his ears. Somewhere nearby, a dog had answered the terrier's furious barks. It didn't sound like a yappy little terrier, either.
A second dog joined in, and a third. And they all sounded like they were getting closer.
The fenced-in terrier did a sort of insane dance, burping in glee. "I told you! You're finally going to get what's coming to you!"
The ginger tom switched off the translator in his ear and turned to the kitten. "We should get inside. Now."
A small pack of large dogs came tearing around each side of the house, all howling for blood.
Both cats bolted through the cat flap. The dogs, all too large to follow, crowded around the door, barking furiously.
The kitten hissed. "Okay, now will you tell me who you are and what you're doing here?"
"They call me the Watcher." The ginger tom hopped up on the sofa and peeked out the window. He could see seven dogs outside. No collars, no manners, and plenty of dirt and burrs in their fur. A gang of local thugs, by the look of it. "And I'm here because one of my agents tells me you have a special talent."
"Don't know of any 'special talent'." She paused. "Hold on. You're one of those council members my mom told me about, aren't you?"
"Well, then you can shove off. I don't need you bringing your war here."
The Watcher waved a paw towards the window. "The war is already here."
The kitten hissed. "That's because you brought them here!"
"They're here for you."
"Me! What did I do?!"
"You taunted that dog out there. You heard him."
"He started it!"
The Watcher wasn't going to argue with that – dogs always seemed to want a fight – but they needed an exit strategy. "Never mind that. Are there any spare boxes around?"
There was a loud thud. The dogs were trying to break down the door.
"Ooh, bad timing. They got dumped off at the recycling center yesterday."
The Watcher's ears drooped. So many valuable ships, wasted. "All of them?"
There was another thud. A dent appeared in the door. The kitten was starting to look nervous.
"Think so. The garage is this way, if you want to look."
They padded down a short flight of stairs and into the garage, wrinkling their noses at the smells of gasoline and fertilizer. A quick look around told him the kitten was telling the truth: the garage had been cleaned out recently. There were no boxes for them to fly.
A lone box had been shoved in one corner long ago and then forgotten. The Watcher padded over and looked up at the stained, frayed cardboard. One of the side panels was torn and crumpled. There was no way it was going to make it all the way up to the mother ship. But there were other places where humans stored boxes.
"Is there an attic? A basement?"
"No basement. The attic's through a trapdoor."
The Watcher growled. They were trapped, surrounded, and their only hope of escape was a cardboard box that probably hadn't been spaceworthy since the Eisenmeower administration. It might last long enough for them to find a better ship, just so long as it wasn't weighted down with something heavy, like – he peeked over the top – dinner plates.
Any other box, even the flaming wreck he'd left in the baseball field, would have a better chance.
He considered his options. He could call for backup, but then the dogs would know they were dealing with a council member. Then they could for their own backup. And if their backup turned out to be a warlord's death squad? No, he needed to be somewhere out of reach first.
There was a whirr as the garage door began to open. The Watcher looked down at the kitten.
"Did you do that?"
The kitten shook her head.
The Watcher growled again. One of the dogs must have figured out how to get it open. They had no time to go box-hunting. He boosted the kitten into the box and leaped in beside her.
He seated himself on a stack of plates and rubbed a stained, dusty panel with one paw. The cardboard shimmered and swam, revealing a control panel that only cats could see.
The box emitted a low hum and rose, hovering about three inches above the cement floor. A wave of sunlight was made its way across the floor as the garage door rose. The Watcher could see a number of long, skinny shadows moving across the floor as the dogs outside paced back and forth.
He slid a paw forward.
The box coughed.
The Watcher suppressed a yowl. Just as he feared, the box was just going to shudder and die, leaving-
The box coughed again and shot forward, scattering the pack of dogs outside the door. Both cats sank their claws into the cardboard to avoid sliding over the edge.
The box exited the garage with the speed and grace of a bathtub, sailing down the driveway and around the corner in a turn so wide it almost put them out into the street. An oncoming truck honked-
"Car! CAR!" called one of the dogs.
A brown boxer peeled away from the pack and bounded after the truck, snapping at its back bumper.
The lead dog, a huge Doberman, snarled "Get back here!" The boxer paid him no mind.
One down, six to go.
A German shepherd charged forward and seized one of the cardboard flaps in its jaws. The black kitten yowled and swatted it on the nose, drawing blood. There was a sharp whine, and the box lurched forward once more.
They were never going to get out of range, not while they were hauling all this extra weight. And they needed a weapon-
That gave him an idea.
The Watcher brushed past the kitten, heading towards the back of the box. "Take the controls!"
"Dude, I don't know-"
"Just keep us up!"
The kitten placed one paw on the controls. The box dipped, one corner crumpling against the sidewalk. The box spun wildly, bouncing off a fire hydrant before becoming airborne again.
"I said UP! Rub it the other way!" He hooked his claws around the topmost plate and shoved. The plate seemed to hover for a moment – an actual flying saucer – before it shattered on the sidewalk.
The lead dog stopped short. The pack behind him was unable to stop in time. There was a storm of barking, biting and yelping as the colliding canines disentangled themselves. By then the Watcher had another plate ready.
The box plowed down the sidewalk, the Watcher slinging plates as it went. One hit the already-bleeding German shepherd on the nose. It yelped and stopped short, rubbing its muzzle with one paw. The Watcher allowed himself a short purr. They were finally starting to gain altitude. A couple more plates and-
"Hey, old guy! What's this blinking red 'E' supposed to mean?"
The Watcher's eyes went wide. When was the last time the box had been out in the sun to recharge?
As if in answer, the box sputtered and bucked. It tilted to one side and struck the ground, spilling cats and plates everywhere before tumbling to a stop on the sidewalk. The cats turned to face the pursuing dogs.
The Watcher drew himself up to his full height, preparing to fight. So this is how it ends-
Then the black kitten stepped forward. She sat down before the oncoming dogs, her pupils dilating to the size of food dishes.
The dogs slowed to a trot, then a walk, and finally sat on the sidewalk, looking glassy-eyed and confused.
In seconds, the entire pack was completely mesmerized.
The Watcher was impressed. Most cats could mesmerize a single target – a rodent or human, usually – but he'd never seen anyone successfully hypnotize a dog, much less a whole pack. This must be what his agent had told him about.
But the kitten was only safe as long as she didn't move... or blink.
The Watcher managed to slink away. He needed to find them a new box, and quickly.
He spotted a small package sitting on the doorstep of a nearby house. It was too small to seat both of them and it was taped shut, but it would have to serve. He leaped aboard and activated the controls with one paw. Now he just needed to remember that the controls were upside down...
He urged the box forward. The kitten was beginning to shake with the strain of not blinking. One of the dogs shook its head, as though trying to shake off the spell.
Come on, come on...
The box zoomed forward. The freed dog growled and leaped. The Watcher sank his claws deep into the cardboard-
The dog's jaws closed on empty air. The box shot up into the sky, the Watcher holding the kitten by the scruff of her neck.
The box began to shake. It wasn't meant to carry more than one cat, definitely not one on the outside. The cardboard started to tear under the Watcher's grip. Ignoring the kitten's purrs of glee, he tried to steer towards the roof of the tallest house.
The cardboard tore in the Watcher's claws, sending both cats flying. They landed heavily on the roof, but on their feet. The box flew on and crashed into a nearby oak.
The kitten made her way to the edge of the roof and hissed at the pack down below. "No one drives me out of my house. No one."
The Watcher hit a tiny green button on his earpiece. A passing catellite should pick up the signal, and send help.
He was still thinking about that trick with the dogs. If the cats could get a video of the kitten making that face, they could do much more than charm one or two primates. They could hypnotize the entire world.
"Ready for some payback?"
The kitten hissed at the massed dogs once more and made her way back to where he was sitting. "You bet. What do you have in mind?"
He told her about his idea for the video.
She purred. "Sounds like fun."
His earpiece beeped. A small fleet of boxes was soaring above the treetops, heading towards them.
"But first we need a real name for you. If you're going to be an agent of the Felid Empire, we can't call you 'Cupcake'."
The kitten blinked. "A real name, like what?"
"Who do you want to be?"
The first box landed and lowered a cardboard ramp. Its pilot saluted and stood to one side as the Watcher and the kitten made their way up the ramp.
As the box sealed shut, the kitten spoke once more:
"I want to be 'the Mesmerizer.'"