Home Sweet Home

By Minna S. Lunney

Chapter Two
Delusion and the City


The next thing Wilykat knew, he was home again.

His eyes were still pressed shut as his consciousness slowly returned, but there could be no mistake. Running away again had just been a bad dream. Either that, or some benevolent force had magically plucked the twins from the heart of the storm and sent them safely back. No, it could not have been a dream; a part of him could still feel the sickening bob and heave of the ocean waves. But none of that mattered anymore. This was most definitely his bed. He felt the soft, clean mattress against the length of his bare body. Half of his face was jammed against a downy pillow. Several thick blanketsó many more than he was accustomed toó enveloped him in warmth. Snarf must be on his paranoia streak again, he reasoned drowsily. We always have hated when he bundles us up like this in the middle of the night. Somehow it doesnít seem so bad this time... but Iíll bet Kit has kicked off all her covers by now.

His desire to witness the mountain of wool at the foot of her bed forced his eyes open. That was when his happy illusion shattered, and reality burned a new image in its place. The strange room was the size of a large closet at Cats Lair, drab and scantily furnished. The walls, bereft of pictures, were paneled with dark wood-grain. The carpet upon the floor was a bumpy olive green material whose coarseness visibly rivaled that of asphalt and promised rug-burn to exposed skin. Tilting his head up slightly, his large pupils contracted to guard against the meager sunlight streaming from a porthole of a window. There seemed no other means by which the room could possibly be illuminated. Was this a prison of sorts, or something else?

Still half-asleep and fully incredulous, he twisted onto his back and propped himself up with his elbows, cranking his neck to take in the rest of his surroundings. In the left-hand corner of the tiny chamber he noticed his clothing spread along the circumference of a little nightstand, apparently arranged for the purpose of drying the various articles. And not two feet away from the table, sitting stiffly cross-legged in a chair that had to be uncomfortable, was a handsome lady.

Even from her seated position she appeared tall, and almost dangerously thin. Her complexion bordered between creamy and pasty, not unlike that of the Luna-Tak RedEyeís, oddly offset by the short, form-fitting dress she wore of purest white. The fingers clasped around her smooth knee were unusually long, and free of any nail or claw at their tips. Her bust was modest despite her frail physique; the small golden badge pinned upon it gleamed even amidst the shade in which she sat observing him. Her longish neck led up to a face that fascinated the kitten. It was neither square nor round, but a pleasing mixture of the two. She had a wide forehead, slender nose, small chin, and prominent cheekbones, above which rested a pair of almond-shaped eyes of a remarkable color: a random conglomerate of blue, magenta, and lavender that somehow seemed right. The silky hair of her head, eyebrows, and long eyelashes was also very exotic. It was primarily a shade between pink and blood red, with baby blue streaks throughout. Bangs fringed just above her brows, and the rest was fashioned into a thick braid that coiled luxuriously over her right shoulder. The style exposed her ears, large and pointed at their peaks, much like those of the typical Thunderian. Her lips were naturally bluish and on the full side, but one could never tell, the way they distended into the friendly smile she offered the young refugee.

Wilykat was speechless. He had never seen anything quite like her. Thankfully, she took the initiative. "Iím glad to see youíre awake, little one. We were worried about you."

Her speech was peppered with a pleasing accent. His continued silence was not surprising to her. "You must be so afraid... so confused. Iíll try to answer as many of your concerns as possible. But for now, lad, are you comfortable? Do you need anything?"

Brows furrowed inquisitively, mouth hanging open, he hesitated only a moment or two before shaking his head.

"Very well. You may ask of me anything you wish. Then Iíll want you to answer a few things for me. Is that agreeable?"

He nodded, then drew in a deep breath, exhaling before he spoke for the first time. "Who are you?"

It pleased her that this should be his first question. "My name is Lani. I am your designated nurse."

"Where am I?"

"You are currently in the sick bay of Border Patrol Station Twelve of the island nation Latcris."

"Ió Iíve never heard of it."

"Not surprising. At any rate, a couple of guards discovered you on the coast early this morning, and brought you here."

"Is Kit nearby, then?"

"Who?"

"My sisteró who was with me."

"No. She is not."

He bolted upright, as though an insect had stung his posterior. "Then where is she? Is she okay? She told me she thought the lightning made her blind! It didnít, did it? She has to beó"

"Shh!" the youthful woman hushed his frantic inquiries, bolting out of her chair and to his side. "You mustnít let yourself get so worked up," she soothed, gripping his bare shoulders. "Youíre still very weak, you realize. Calm yourself, and let me explain it all to you." Her soft voice took on an almost hypnotic quality as she eased him back gently into a supine position, stretching the multiple covers over him until they grazed his chin. "Both of you were discovered alive, but your sisteró Kit, as you call heró was far worse off than you."

He swallowed. "Is she really blind?"

"No one is certain right now. We were more concerned about the effects the cold ocean had on the both of you. We decided your condition wasnít as critical, so we brought you here. But Kit required more advanced treatment than what we could provide her. Latcris controls a subsidiary chain of islands not too far from this shore. One of them, Seleya, has an excellent medical facility. That is where she was taken. You can be sure sheís receiving the best possible care."

"Can I visit her?"

"Once youíre both well enough."

He relaxed visibly. "That wonít take long, will it?"

"Oh, I doubt it. Our medicine, even in minor clinics like this one, is highly developed." A smirk played on her features. "Are you aware, for example, that just an hour or so ago you had a dangerously high fever and frostbite covering most of your body?"

"N-no."

"You donít feel the symptoms at all, do you?"

He hesitated for a second or two, testing himself. "Theyíre gone, all right. My head just sort of hurts."

Lani smiled broadly. "Compared to hypothermia, that is no problem at all to remedy." Walking back to the nightstand littered with his clothes, she picked up a pair of green capsules and a tall glass of water that had been waiting there the whole time, but had mysteriously slipped past his observation. She returned to his bedside, and Kat dutifully swallowed down the pills and drink. "There now. Youíll feel much better soon. The medicine stays in your system, you know. What you just took should be enough to nullify any headaches you may have over the course of the next three months."

As his eyes widened, she patiently took the glass from his hands, smiling still. She could not resist tousling his mane with a free hand. "What a darling little thing you are! Working at this border patrol station, I never have the chance to take care of children anymore. I miss it terribly. My own dear children are all grown and gone." The further widening of his eyes caused her to laughó a pretty, melodious sound. "Why are you so astonished? I am well over fifty years old. I guess you canít tell, though, can you? Another fine example of Latcrisian science." She paused for a moment as he tried to absorb the impossible news. "Enough about that. Will you answer my questions now?"

"Uh-huh."

"What is your name?"

"Wilykat. Kat for short, if you like."

"Where are you from, Wilykat?"

"From? From Thunderaó a planet very far from here. Well, it used to be, anyway."

"Are you saying that you and your sister Kit came all the way from this... Thundera to Latcris?"

"Oh, noó not directly, anyway. We live here on Third Earth too, have been for some time now. Ever heard of Cats Lair?"

"I have not."

"Well... thatís our home."

"Does anyone live with you in this Cats Lair?"

"Sure. Four adults and a snarf."

"I see." She sounded confused. "There are just seven of you, then?"

"No. There are three other adults and one other snarf here too, but they live pretty far from us, in the Tower of Omens."

"All right." Lani remained silent for a moment or two, absent-mindedly tapping the glass in her hands with a nailless forefinger. Then she remembered. "Ah, yes... I couldnít help but be intrigued by that strange red symbol on your clothing, Wilykat. It does not seem to match with the rest of your attire. What is its significance?"

He let his guard down even further. These were simple enough questions. "Itís the symbol of the ThunderCats."

"Is that what you call yourself and your kind?"

"Yes. Weíre a group of nobles... Thunderaís finest." He blushed a little, feeling that he was being too much of a braggart. "We fight to uphold the Code of Thundera: Jusó"

"Children, fighting alongside adults?" He did not notice her brow lower in a most minute reaction of disapproval.

"Kit and I can handle ourselves pretty well."

"You engage in combat often, then?"

"Um, only when itís necessary. There are a lot of Third Earthlings who depend on us foró"

"Iíve heard enough. But I suppose I have just one more questionó that is, how did you and your sister end up here, so far away from your Cats Lair?"

Wilykat was confused. Why had she turned so curt? Had he said something wrong? And he wondered why she seemed so doggedly bent on hearing him out this one time, about this one dreadful query...

Then again, he supposed it was as legitimate as any. For all that she and her countrymen had done for him and Wilykit, she certainly had a right to know. Yet he was still reluctant. "I donít know if I want to talk about it."

Her gentleness made a sudden and full recovery. "Poor Kat. Please donít hold back," she fairly cooed, cupping the side of his face with a cool hand. "I cannot help you unless Iím fully informed."

He swallowed nervously, wishing he could turn away from the wide, parti-colored eyes hovering above and expel from his ears the lovely way she had sighed his nickname for the first time, the memory of which echoed over and over through his brain until it made him confused and uncomfortable. "Kit and I... we were running away."

Laniís face melted into a look of abysmal pity. It enraged Wilykat for a moment or two, but her voice calmed him to rationality once more. "Why? Tell me everything."

He felt he had no choice. "It was completely her idea this timeó"

"This time? Youíve abandoned your home before?"

The kitten nodded miserably. "I knew it was a mistake. But she was angry because the adults left us behind again." He thought he saw her eyes flash angrily for a split-second. "Uh... you see, Kit never likes being left out of anything. She said she wanted to go somewhere full of opportunity, so she made up her mind to leave. I couldnít just let her go off by herself."

The nurse nodded. "Pray continue."

"We left Cats Lair on our space boards and took a route that put us over the ocean. After a while, we set down on the water, but then a bad storm came through and so we started flying again. I canít explain what happened nextó it was like the lightning struck right in front of our faces, though I donít think it can do that in wateró anyway, it startled us both so bad that we crashed. Eventually we managed to find and hang on to one of the space boards, but Kit kept saying that she couldnít see because of the lightning. Then we fell asleep, and now Iím here." He could no longer help himself; suppressed tears began to congregate about his eyelids.

"Thereís no need to cry," Lani whispered, smearing a thumb along the bottom of his lids. "Youíre safe here. Weíll take good care of you." She stood from the bed and strode over to the roomís exit, situated along the far right wall. "Try to rest and relax. Youíll be released from the infirmary the moment our resident medic believes it to be safe."

"Okay."

"Sweet dreams. Poor dear." She shut the door quietly behind her.

Wilykat settled into his bed. He felt just fine, but apparently there was still something wrong with himó at least, that is what Lani seemed to hint at with her constant sympathetic sighs. He never enjoyed staying out of action for a prolonged period of time, especially without a friend or book to keep him company, so he was intent on recovering quickly. Besides, the sooner I get out of here, the sooner Iíll see Kit again, he comforted himself.

He was glad the nurse had asked him about the ThunderCat symbol. The Sword of Omens, he realized, had most definitely warned Lion-O of their danger and whereabouts by now. Though he was less than thrilled by the prospects of punishment at the hands of his elders, the concern took secondary precedence in his mind.

Iíll bet theyíre on their way right now.

***

"I just spoke to Ro-ber-bill," Cheetara announced breathlessly as she jogged to a halt within the control room of Cats Lair. "No one has seen them there either."

The small shred of hope lingering in the minds of the seven ThunderCats already present within the room visibly extinguished. Now the tense, weary expressions they all wore seemed to intensify. None of them had slept well the night before, and were fatigued from the numerous search missions they had conducted. "Weíll be hard pressed to find them," their Lord asserted grimly, glancing at the weapon clenched tightly in his right hand. "First the Sword of Omens refuses to show anything, and now no leads."

"It seems that theyíve built upon their previous experience," mused Tygra. "Disturbing as it may sound, that suggests to me that they truly donít wish to be found."

"Sure... maybe they took off without leaving a trail," growled Ben Gali from his seat at a control module, "but you canít convince me that theyíve blocked the Eye of Thunderaís power. They really could be in trouble right now, and we would never know it."

"Oh snaaaarf, why would they put us through this again?" Snarf lamented. "I thought they were happy!"

"And if they werenít, why didnít they talk to us like we made them promise they would?" Panthro may have conceded the first time around; however, a second foul-up, especially a preventable one, was something he rarely tolerated. His eyes narrowed as he waited for someone to formulate a response.

"Did you ever stop to think that maybe they found us unapproachable?"

Pumyraís pondering, though stated quietly, nonetheless drew the full attention of the room. "Unapproachable? Hell! Weíve done nothing but cater to them all this time. Theyíve never wanted for anything, and look how they act!" the gray warrior countered.

"Well," she continued nervously, "maybe thatís not how the kittens see it." She fell silent again under the pantherís glare.

"Keep going, Pumyra," Lynx-O encouraged.

"We always assume we know whatís rightó whatís best for them," she resumed after a moment or two of thought gathering. "We constantly make their decisions. Should they stand guard, should they come along, should they help out with this or that... and whenever they raise the slightest objection, we subdue them before they can get a word in edgewise. After all, we know whatís best."

"Why do you say that with such sarcasm?" Cheetara questioned gently. "We may not be perfect, but weíve lived longer. We have more experience with life than they. Of course weíre better qualified to decide in their interests."

"Sure, I canít argue with that. But donít you see? We give them the message that theyíre incapable of making their own proper judgments. Itís as though weíre... dictators, or something. Whatever we say goes, end of story. They must be afraid to approach us when they think nothing will come of it anyway. And thatís why they resort to such irrational measures. Thanks to us, they donít know what else to do."

There was a long pause as the remaining ThunderCats contemplated Pumyraís insightful diagnosis. "Assuming youíre correct," Panthro eventually stated, "that still doesnít give them the right to just up and leave at leisure."

"Weíll sort it out later," Tygra assuaged. "Right now our goal is to locate them before they land themselves in trouble."

Lion-O sighed noisily. "I have a bad feeling that that may already be the case."

"Somebody must have seen them," the snarf offered. "If not any of the Berbils... well, then we can at least assume that they stayed pretty far from their village."

Lynx-O brightened. "You may be on to something, Snarf!"

"What do you mean?" Ben Gali inquired.

"I think I understand," Cheetara began slowly. "We should concentrate on what we donít have."

"Exactly," continued the eldest of them. "By determining who hasnít seen the ThunderKittens, we can eliminate possible routes they may have taken from Cats Lair, thus reducing the amount of area weíll need to search."

"Assuming they traveled in a straight line," cautioned Tygra.

Pumyra shook her head. "I donít see why not. After all, itís the fastest way for them to get out of our range, and they probably set out with no clear destination in mind. Wouldnít you have done the same in their place?"

The architect hesitated, then shook his head slightly. "I still donít think itís conclusive enough."

The Lord of the ThunderCats, however, was aptly convinced. "Never mind that, itís all we have right now. Cheetara, contact Snarfer at the Tower of Omens and ask him to start opening communication with our allies to the south and west. Panthro, youíll do the same from here for the northern and eastern sectors. Whether they know anything or nothing about the kittens, theyíll still be of some assistance."

"The three of us will return to the tower assist Snarfer," Lynx-O suggested, motioning toward Ben Gali and Pumyra as Panthro and Cheetara sprang into action. "If by chance Wilykit and Wilykat are discovered in that region, weíll be able to reach them quickly."

"Good idea. Get back to us as soon as youíre throughó and good luck," he added as the trio exited the control room.

***

"Wilykat... that with two Ls, an E, and a C?"

"How should I know? Just sound it out."

"Hmm... W-I-L-Y-C-A-T, how about that?"

"Fine, I suppose. You can always verify it later."

"All right. Wilykat of the ThunderCats... young male, ran away from Cats Lair with sister for second time," Hanovik dictated slowly as he scribbled furiously upon a small notepad in sprawling script. "Neglected... forced into dangerous combat situations by eldersó any of them his parents?"

"Not that he mentioned. He only talked about a sister."

He nodded, then continued. "By elders, and... snarfs, did you say?"

"Yes."

"What the hell is a snarf?"

"I donít know. It sounds... dangerous, though."

"Okay. Caught in storm, washed up here," he finished with a flourish. "Anything else?"

"No. Except that I told him his sister is in Seleya."

"All right then. How soon do you think he can leave?"

"In my opinion, all he needs is a few hours of sleep, a little food, and a warm bath. I believe I can have him ready by late afternoon. Of course Iíll have to put it by the doctor, but Iím sure heíll agree with me."

"Great. It will take me at least that long to write this report anyway." He scratched the top of his head. "Quite frankly, I donít know where to begin. Never had to draft something of this nature."

"Well, if there exists no precedent, you canít be wrong, can you?"

"Guess not." He stuffed the notepad and writing implement away in a pocket. "Iíll send someone down to pick him up. Thanks for your cooperation."

"My pleasure. I must say, I will miss him when heís gone."

"Enjoy him while you can, then." He cracked a crooked grin. "Goodbye, nurse."

"Goodbye, sir."

Lani watched carefully as the patrol overseer made his way down the spotless corridor and swiveled around a bend. Confident that the coast was clear, she turned around to face a nearby broom-closet and opened its door. "Satisfied?"

"Beyond my wildest dreams," the occupant breathed. Sliding a handheld recorder into a thin briefcase, he stepped out of the tiny, dark chamber and handed her a thick wad of flashy currency. "This kidís gonna be big newsó and to think that Iíll be the one to crack the story first!"

"Youíre sure to get a hefty raise," she replied slyly.

"Donít I know it. Thanks again, lady!"

"My pleasure. Do you still have your security pass?"

"Sure I do."

"Remember the clearance codes?"

"Of course."

"Then you shouldnít have a problem getting out of here. If you do run into a snag, have Security page me down. Iíll just tell them youíre my uncle or something."

"How about your boyfriend?"

"Donít push your luck."

"All right." He bowed graciously. "Have a nice day, madam. Do treat yourself to something expensive."

"I plan to," she replied with a smile as the reporter took his leave, walking as though on air.

***

"You all right back there, son?"

"Yes," Wilykat answered uncertainly, tugging at the safety harness strapped across his chest as the high-rising four-wheeled vehicle, manned sloppily by an expendable patrol sergeant, pulled away from the vast compound situated at the aquatic border. Fidgeting in his seat, he began attacking the oppressive collar of the new set of clothing he was given to wear after bathing. It was of a dark blue, starchy material. The short-sleeved shirt, which reached down to his thighs, was thinly trimmed with white and, though he did not know it, of a very Oriental style. It buttoned down the front; the collar spread an inch or so up his throat, and closed off at the base with fancy white sewn-on embroidery encircling a pair of needless buttons. The slacks were nondescript, but a few inches too long, making him seem shorter. On his feet were a pair of black velvety slippers, which made them sweat profusely. As the vehicle rattled down the off-road drive, he looked somewhat longingly at the travel case sitting beside him, inside which rested his original costume. Lani had urged him not to wear it, saying that it was all still a bit damp.

Deciding that the cabin of the vehicle was too drab to be worth studying, he instead turned his attention to the small window at his left side, keeping a forefinger lodged between his neck and shirt collar. The beachfront had melted into a thin forest, scattered with flora of all sizes and varieties that he readily recognized. Dead leaves and branches and mulch blanketed the floor, as well as a few large boulders here and there, whose strange minerals glistened elegantly in the sunlight that filtered through the thin canopy above. Pools of muddy water were strewn here and there in the divots of the landscape, and he wondered if they had been filled by the terrifying squall that had sent him there. The dappled scene looked complete enough, yet the kitten was surprised by the fact that there were not too many animals about; perhaps a bird here or there, and that was all. "Um, excuse me... whereíre we going again?" he questioned the chauffeur.

"Iím taking you to Barim."

"What about Seleya?"

"What about Seleya?"

"Thatís where my sister is... isnít it?"

"To be honest, I really wouldnít know, lad."

"Well... is there anyone in Barim who could take me to her?"

"Iím sure there is. Youíll just have to ask around."

"You mean, youíre not staying with me?" Wilykat grew increasingly nervous. How would he get along in this strange place on his own?

"Iím sorry," replied the soldier, feeling onerously significant for the first time in his life. "My orders are to take you to Barim and drop you off at the Ministry."

He tried to relax. The others are on their way... the others are on their way... the Sword will show them... they may even be here by now... probably in Seleya first for Kit... itíll take time... theyíll come... oh Jaga let them come...

The mantra cycled endlessly in his brain, and brought him little comfort. When he grew aware of his surroundings once more, they were on a smooth, paved road, barreling through an open plain. For some reason, the new scenery was disturbingly strange to Wilykat. His jaw relaxed into a small awed gape, eyes narrowed critically, he shifted slightly to view the spectacle from the windshield before him.

The road was only wide enough for their vehicle and no other travelers could be seen upon it. It must mean that no one comes through here very often, he reasoned. But he could not decide if that meant the patrol station was cut off from the rest of existence, or that Barim was. Another peculiarity about the road was that it was perfectly straight, on a perfectly level plain, stretching for what seemed like forever into the distance. No turns or irregularities of any kind, not even debris like a pebble or dead blade of grass. It was as though someone had painstakingly probed the entire path earlier that day to clear these things, aberrations so natural that it seemed almost inconceivable that the gentle wind blowing from the west had not stirred new ones along. The path remained flawless, and the driver flew over it like a demon. Wilykat settled back into his seat reluctantly, shifting his gaze from left to right without moving his head. Eternal fields of tallish wildflowers bordered the road on either side, flourishing under the sun in a cloudless sky. They were generally small despite the length of their stems, and most were a deep red in color, although he could pick out different shades of blue, purple, and yellow mixed in. They swayed happily in the breeze, and he thought he could see dull clouds of pollen streaming into the air from the great majority of them. Somehow, even from within the vehicle, he could faintly detect their intoxicating fragrance. He wondered what it would be like to run about in those fields, but sensed that no one had ever done so before.

After a time he began to feel drowsy, and dozed off.

The kitten was not sure how long he had been asleep. It had to have been a good long while, for as his eyes fluttered open, he could just barely perceive the setting sun in the distance. Groggily he de-suctioned the left side of his face from the window, rubbing it with the palm of one hand, and sat up straight. When he eventually craned his sore neck in the direction of the window once more, he started. The outside view had not changed a bit; it was but a few shades dimmer. His heart began to pound with nervous anxiety. "Where does it end?" he murmured, astonished.

"Awake again, are you?" His escort sounded surprisingly alert. "Weíll be there in about another half hour or so, give or take. Like the view?"

Wilykat did not respond. He stared down at his lap, half-hugging himself and curling his legs underneath him as far as the restrictive safety harness allowed. They tingled and felt numb from inactivity. No wonder itís taking them so long. This place is huge... one big endless meadow, and weíre just a little speck in it. I hope the same isnít true for Seleya.

And so he waited. He wanted to fall asleep again, if only to speed up the trip, but he could not force himself to. Each time he closed his eyes his mind wandered, eventually triggering some reminiscence or emotion as to force them wide open once more with a sudden jerk of his head. For some reason he felt like he was falling. He thought about guard duty. Who was watching over the Lair right now, and who had come along on the rescue mission?

We are in so much trouble...

"There, lad! Do you see it?"

He looked up and out the windshield wearily... then undid his harness and pounced forward, leaning between the two front seats of the cabin to have a better look.

The patrol sergeant laughed. "Easy now! Youíll see everything just as well from your place. Safety first, after all."

Reluctant to go back, Wilykat patted a hand on the vacant passenger-side seat. "Can I sit here instead?"

"I donít see why not."

Leaving his travel case behind, he climbed gingerly into the shotgun chair, and the driver obligingly reached over with a long arm and fastened him in. The young ThunderCat barely noticed the inconvenience, so fascinated was he by what had appeared in the horizon.

It was like something out of a myth or fantasy novel. A grand, irregular sprawling skyline with buildings of exotic design, some of which were easily a thousand feet high. They looked like fancy perfume flasksó at one time metallic and glassy, bathed in a supernatural verdant haze. It all seemed to fit in rather well against the nocturnal backdrop scattered with unusually bright stars. For a while he could not find words. How was it that he had never before heard of this place? "Is that Barim?" he questioned at length.

"Yes. Breathtaking, isnít it?"

"Iíll say." Wait until the others see this! Kit will go nuts!

"ĎAll roads lead to Barim.í Itís a very common phrase. I bet you can see why now."

He silently urged the patrolman to drive even faster, scrutinizing the massive metropolis as they drew ever closer. It was a good twenty minutes more before they reached the city limits, and now Wilykat was treated to all sorts of exciting new sights: traffic jams; tall lampposts; hordes of bustling Latcrisians, each more exotic than the next; stores; restaurants; sidewalk entertainers; vendors... A lot of it reminded him of Thundera, and yet it was all very different. His home planet had had none of this hustle-bustle to it, nor had it been so... glitzy. Flashing neon signs and light bulbs pervaded his vision, and he wondered if it all looked the same during the daytime. He marveled at the extremities of Third Earth: so rural and comparatively quiet everywhere else, and yet here... what had happened?

Their progress was slower now, as suspended beacons dictated the flow of a sea of vehicles. The streets had grown much wider, able to hold four lanes of vehicles each way, and yet there were still so many clogging the roads that it was mind-boggling. Each of them was just like the one in which he rode, only painted in a spectrum of different colors. Theirs was apparently the only black one among them. Maybe thatís important, somehow...

Onward they traveled, twisting and turning through alley and thoroughfare. Now there were at least ways to turn, although every intersection was a perfectly banal X. The streets had all been labeled with strange words: Rigel, Talos, Imihar, Organia. After a time it seemed that the crowds were thinning out, and the roads became less congested. They had reached the heart of Barim, home of the business district and governmental operations. Most of the buildings were closed for the evening; only a few were spotted here and there with lights streaming from oddly shaped windows. Eventually they reached a vast, deserted town square into which was imbedded a huge circular fountain, whose waters, colorfully augmented by laser lights, spewed high into the air like a geyser. At the edge of the square stood a dome-shaped megalith that dwarfed its structural neighbors. Across the front of its extensive curved facade were scrawled the words LATCRIS MINISTRY. "This is it," announced the chauffeur.

The kitten blinked. "Is anyone in there?"

"Oh, sure. A lot of people even make their homes in the Ministry." He drove onto the square, coming to a halt before the majestic fountain. "Here you go, lad. Best of luck to you."

"Well... canít you take me to wherever Iím supposed to go?"

In fact, these were exactly the sergeantís orders. But he was only Latcrisian, after all. Driving through the city he rarely had a chance to visit had titillated him; he wanted to return to the action that Barim promised, if for only a couple hours or so. There were a couple of clubs he knew whose very feminine cadre were more than eager to welcome an isolated border patrolman. Later he could explain that processing the boy through the Ministry had taken longer than expected. So, he began his lies there. "I never said Iíd be able to stay with you. Iím needed back at the station. Look, itís very simple. Just walk through those doors up there, and there will be plenty of good people around whoíll tell you what to do."

Wilykat capitulated. "All right. I guess it wonít be so hard."

"Thatís the spirit." He helped unbuckle the youth from his safety harness. "Donít forget your trunk back there."

"I got it," he promised, reaching back and collecting the travel case before opening the door beside his seat. "Thanks for the ride."

"No problem. Enjoy yourself!"

He jumped outside and shut the entryway. With a small wave, the driver pulled away and entered the street, turning back toward the busier parts of town. The kitten looked on as it disappeared into the distance, grasping the handle of his case with both hands and feeling very vulnerable. The air outside was hazy but mild, and smelled faintly sweet. A small breeze caused by the gushing fountain ruffled his mane. He turned to stare at it for a moment or two, impressed by the multicolored light show within. Its rim, a good six inches wide and three feet off the ground, tantalized him. Wouldnít Kit love to walk around on that...

So would he; but it did not seem right to do it alone, without anyone to appreciate showoff stunts, and the threat of being pushed into the water by a mischievous sibling. The breeze blew a wave of mist in his direction, as though to beckon him. The rushing water sounded very much like a waterfall. A strong shiver overtook him unexpectedly. Something echoed faintly in the recesses of his mind.

Opportunity...

The young ThunderCat reluctantly turned and headed toward the Ministry, occasionally tripping upon the hems of his slacks. He went up a set of ridiculously small steps, skipping them three at a time until he reached a set of translucent doors. Timidly, he reached forward and took hold of one of the cold brass handles, turning it slowly. It took all of his strength to push the door open, but finally he was within.

A huge rush of cold air overtook him as he took a few steps forward into the small, glassy foyer. The climate was one that only an ice Luna-Tak could love. He shivered again. Of all the wonders of Latcris, this was certainly the most boring. It was clean, but ordinary. A large unoccupied desk, bedecked with strange-looking machines, sat a few feet in front of him. There were a couple of potted plants lining the wall behind it, and strange sculptures flanking those. The place was ominously silent. He looked around for an entry into a corridor or at least another room, but could see none. Bewildered, Wilykat considered belting out a greeting, when suddenly a tall woman appeared seemingly from nowhere. She could have been Laniís twin sister, except for the dress she wore, which was navy blue instead of white, and much longer. He wondered if she, too, was in reality much older than she looked. "May I help you?"

"Uh... I was sent up here from the border patrol station."

"Are you the boy who arrived in Latcris this morning?"

"Yes," he replied uneasily. Why did she speak as though it were such a novel occurrence?

"Right this way," she beckoned with a warm smile, approaching one of the glassy walls of the room. A door otherwise invisible in the framework slid open obligingly, slightly disappointing the boy, who had half hoped that she would make a rather comical collision. He followed her down a long, straight hallway lined with door after door, likely to give even the staunchest of wills a twinge of claustrophobia. They eventually stepped onto an elevator, and the woman pressed a button for one of the top floors of the Ministry. "What do you think of Latcris?" she asked eagerly as the clear doors slid to a close and the box in which they stood lurched upward.

"Itís... very different." Tactful, and truer than anything else he could think of at present.

"Youíll grow to love it here, Iím sure."

That marked the end of their brief conversation. The elevator came to a sickening halt, and they started down through another straight corridor. This time, only the right half of the hall was plastered with doors; the left half was entirely missing, affording Wilykat an extraordinary view of the massive dome from within. From here, tilting his head upward, he could see that it was composed of some sort of permeable material, which allowed light to flow in but not out. The celestial sky was nearly as bright as it had been outside. He speculated that the dome allowed them to save a great deal of energy during the daytime.

Eventually the woman stopped at one of the miscellaneous doorsó how she had picked it out was a mystery, as none of them were numbered or labeledó and rapped on it three times. Still awed by the dome, the kitten just barely halted himself before he could run headlong into her. She apparently did not notice, responding only when a muffled "Yes?" came from behind the metallic panel.

"The boy is here, sir."

"Show him in."

The voice on the other side sounded remarkably like Alluroís, putting him on edge. His escort pressed a button on a nearby control pad, and the door slid aside. Part of him expected to see his elders on the other side, or Wilykit at the very least. He was disappointed on both counts. Instead he found himself looking at a kidney-shaped table in a small chamber, at which were seated five middle-aged men. All of them were of a lanky build and sinister expression, and wore blue robes and golden collars. Before each of them sat a ruffled stack of papers. That is where the similarities ended. Each of their skin tones differed slightly in shades of beige, and their eyes and hair varied in color and length. They stared at Kat as though he were a specimen.

The woman took his shoulders and pushed him forward encouragingly. He allowed himself to be led into the room with small steps. Once sufficiently past the doorway, she released her grip, bobbed her head respectfully at the gentlemen, and took her leave. The door slid shut after her. He was alone.

Without delay, the youngest of the men stood from his chair. He had a very feminine facial structure, and his long, dark bluish-purple tresses flowed after him as he approached the youth. "Welcome to Latcris, son: a nation where millions upon millions thrive," he greeted, and his voice betrayed him as the previous speaker. He gripped Wilykatís shoulders in much the same way as Laniís doppelganger had done. "I am Forn, the Executive. And these," he gestured with a tilt of his head, "are the members of my advisory staff."

Silence lingered for a moment or two. The man appeared a bit disconcerted by it. "You are Wilykat, are you not?"

"Yes... I am."

"Are you literate?"

"Wha... of course."

"Have we spelled your name properly?"

"Huh?"

Mechanically, the four seated men neatly gathered their stacks of paper and handed them forward. Forn took the documents from the advisor closest to him, then presented them to the kitten. "Right there. Is that correct?" He pointed to one of the many occurrences of his name on the page.

"Almost. Itís a K, not a C."

In almost any other instance, Wilykat would have found the events that followed humorous. The papers were whisked from his grasp before he could read much more of them as Forn tossed them back onto the table like so much trash. The four advisory staff members jumped out of their chairs as though they had turned red hot. Flustered, they shuffled their papers about, each trying to hand his to one, who in turn was trying to hand his to another, who believed that the first man was to take them, and so on. Eventually, the eldest of them muttered something angrily and began gathering the disheveled papers in his arms, then turned and stalked out of the room, a few pieces fluttering out of his hands along the way. The kitten set down his travel case and attempted to help gather them up, but the Executive checked him silently. "It will all be corrected, I assure you."

"Itís not that big of a dealó"

"Of course it is. Accurate records at this level are a must. Wonít you please have a seat?"

He was led to the table, where he sat obligingly at a very foamy chair. "Now, my boy, we would like you to tie up some loose ends for us, so to speak."

The missing advisor returned presently, resuming his place at the table before Wilykat spoke again. "What do you mean, Ďloose ends?í"

"We already know a great deal about you, but a few important issues have yet to be addressed. I shall simply ask you a few questions. Try to answer them as completely and truthfully as you can. Then I will lead you personally to a spare room in my own domicile. It is late and I am sure you are weary from your travels."

He really was not tired in the least; however, he thought it best to go along with the men. They seemed to be influential people. He gave a small nod of his head to signal his acceptance.

"Excellent." The leaderís slanted golden eyes narrowed, and his mouth betrayed the hint of a smirk. "Let us start with your people, the ThunderCats. How advanced are they? What are their capabilities?"

He thought for a minute. "Our technologyís pretty good. We have two state-of-the-art bases, good communication systems, and lots of ground and airborne vehicles, most of which we can use to fly though space."

"Are all these things youíve mentioned of a militaristic nature?"

"Well... they all have weapons systems, if thatís what you mean. We need them."

"What about your advancement in other areasó cultural, medical, for example?"

"Thereís the Code of Thundera." He figured it would not be necessary to outline it, as Lani had stopped him before. "And one of us has a decent medical background, but overall itís nothing like what you have here," he admitted humbly.

Each of the men nodded. "Very well," Forn remarked, folding his hands and placing his outstretched forefingers against his lips in meditative thought. "What about education? How do your elders instruct you?"

"Wilykit and I donít usually have time for that kind of thingó"

"Who?"

"My sister."

"Is ĎKití merely a truncation?"

"Itís a nickname."

The advisors jumped to their feet again. The Executive gestured toward one of them, who rushed out of the room as the others resumed their seats. "My apologies. Pray continue."

"Uh... like I said," the boy resumed, "We donít get a lot of time for schooling. But every once in a while someone will tutor or take us on an instructional trip."

"And what are you taught?"

"Um... a little math and science here and there, but mostly stuff about nature. Survival skills especially."

The advisors exchanged looks. The Executive appeared as placid as ever. "Now, describe to me, my boy, how your people are governed."

Wilykat was slightly puzzled. "Well," he began uncertainly, "we have a Lord: Lion-O."

"How long is his term?"

"What do you mean?"

"How many years may he serve until another succeeds him?"

"Uh, there isnít a limit. Heís Lord of the ThunderCats for as long as he lives."

Forn frowned. "I see. Go on."

"I donít know what else to say. Lion-O leads us."

"Does he make all your decisions for you?"

"Not necessarily for us," the kitten stumbled. "We have a Council that meets to decide things most of the time. But when he asks us to do something, we do it."

"And what if you donít want to do as Lion-O commands, son?"

"Thereó there isnít anyó I mean, none of us would think of not doing as Lion-O says."

The golden eyes flashed. "Totalitarian, is he?" Wilykat was unclear as to the meaning of the word, and said nothing in return. Forn took his silence as confirmation. "I suspected as much. Not to worry. Youíll see here that our system of government is far superior."

So far the Latcrisian had refrained from offering his own opinions. Except for the fact that he had obvious political ties, the youth could not understand why he did so now. "How so? Whatís so special about it?"

The Executiveís face relaxed into a patronizing half-smile. "Here, everyone has a say in the government. Everyoneís opinion counts."

"But I thought you said that millions of people live on Latcris," Wilykat challenged. "How can everyone be a part of the government?"

"Ah, thatís the true genius of our system. Representatives are elected every few years to voice the opinions of the masses for them. Each group of 200,000 people has their very own spokesperson, if you will, to work toward their interests."

"Youíre saying that one person has to pretend to be 200,000?"

"Indirectly. These people draft new laws and regulations for the good of all, and I either approve or disapprove them. But my decision is not necessarily final; it can be overridden, but that is a long story in and of itself."

"In such a large group of people, there have to be differences in opinion." He struggled to understand.

"Yes, I suppose thatís unavoidable. Thatís why we have decided that what most of our people want, everyone gets. The majority rules, as they say."

"All right... but how is that any better than what I have at home? Our decisions are made quickly and with everyoneís direct input."

"Yes, I suppose we tend to be a bit slow with our legislation," Forn replied condescendingly, "but donít you see? Itís more fair this way."

"How can you call it fair when a minority walks away ignored? We ThunderCats always try to reach compromises."

"Even so, the word of your Lord is law!"

"I never saidó"

"Thatís not a good way of running things at all. Itís very easy to see why you and your sister felt compelled to emigrate, and Iím now convinced that you were delivered here for a reason. It is my opinion that your rightful place is with us."

"What?"

As the kitten looked on with both awe and horror written upon his face, Forn signaled for a large viewscreen to descend noiselessly in front of the conference table. "Tell us how we may contact the inhabitants of your former dwellings, and then you may leave."




On to Chapter Three
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