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Lusts of the Cat Queen: A Dash Manning Adventure

Originally published in Helix (July 2008)

Doktor Erik von Dredd cackled to himself as he made some final adjustments to the giant death ray. "I do so enjoy running live tests," he said, swinging the ray around so that it pointed at his prisoners. As an afterthought, he threw the intensity switch to KILL. "Not that you'll stay 'live' for long, ahahaha. And now, Herr Professor Jenson, any last words?"

Chained to the lab's cinderblock wall, Professor George Jenson and his beautiful daughter Iris strained at their clanking bonds. "You'll never get away with this, Dredd!" the professor cried. "The Galactic Rangers are already on your trail!"

Dredd sneered, revealing a row of teeth that only had a passing acquaintance with oral hygiene. "Please, professor — I'm the greatest evil genius of all time!" he said. "The Rangers will be looking for a secret hideout under an active volcano, or perhaps on a remote asteroid. They'll never look for me here — in the basement of a hardware store in Des Moines, Iowa!"

Behind them, a door slammed open. "That's what you think, Dredd!" a heroic baritone announced.

Startled, the evil genius turned to his lab's blast door, where a broad-shouldered silhouette now stood. "No!" von Dredd croaked, clutching his chest. "You're dead! I had you killed!"

"You know the old saying — if you want a job done right, do it yourself," Captain Dash Manning said, striding into the lab. "Your henchmen never found the secret lock pick hidden in the buckle of my belt, and I'm pretty darn good at climbing out of lava tubes, evading piranha and dealing with maddened space weasels from the planet Orynx." A shiny flat device appeared in one hand. "Now unlock the Jensons, you twisted villain!"

"Bite me, hero boy!" Dredd screamed, pulling out a blaster and firing.

Like a coiled snake, Dash whipped up the flat object, deflecting the blaster beam towards the death ray and destroying its control mechanism. Caught in the beam's backwash, Dredd howled in pain and collapsed to the floor.

Shaking his head, the Ranger plucked a pair of titanium handcuffs from his belt and cuffed the groaning villain. "Even evil geniuses should know that crime never pays, Herr Doktor," he said sternly, before turning to free the Jensons.

"I knew you would save us, Manning," Jenson said, grabbing the Ranger's hand and shaking it. He stopped, glancing at the object in their clasped hands. "By George, son, what is that thing?"

"Eh? Oh, that's my compact," Dash said, holding up the mirrored disk. "My dear mother gave it to me on her deathbed, and I never go anywhere without it — it's useful for peering around corners, signaling overhead fighters, and reflecting death rays. Plus, I can check to see if my hair is mussed after a battle with evildoers. And now," he turned to the professor's beautiful daughter, "are you all right, Miss Jenson?"

The girl blushed as she rubbed her wrists. "Oh, I'm fine," she murmured. "And you can call me Iris."

"Iris. What a lovely name for a lovely girl," he said, gazing at her warmly. "You know, Iris—"

"Yes, Dash?"

He bit his lip. "I hope this doesn't sound forward, especially since we've just met and all—"

She swayed forward. "Yes?"

"But I just wanted to say—"

"Yes?"

"Well, pastel blue really doesn't suit you. Tone-wise, you're a winter — you should be wearing jewel colors like royal blue or deep purple. And if you let some strands of hair sort of, well, tumble out of your bun—" He loosened two locks of hair, arranging them around her face. "Yes, that does wonders for softening your jawline. And remember, only tramps and evil alien queens wear bright red lipstick — stick with a light rose shade and you'll have a nice boyfriend in no time."

Patting her on the shoulder, Dash turned to her father. "I've already arranged for transport, Professor — a cab is waiting for you outside," he said. "And now if you'll excuse me, I need to get this scum to Ranger Headquarters for processing, then pick up my new jumpsuit — I designed it myself, and I can't wait to see what they did with the epaulettes. Ad astra!"

With a salute, he shouldered the groaning villain and left. A stunned Iris Jenson stared after him.

"Dad?" she said in a small voice.

"Yes, dear?"

"Is it my imagination, or is there something...unusual...about Dash?"

Professor Jenson blinked. "You mean, apart from the fact that he's gay as an Easter frock?"

###

"Yes, it's probably one of the best-kept secrets of the Galactic Rangers," Roger Bilton said, scratching at his bald pate. "We've known about Dash's, um, proclivities for years, of course. And as the Rangers' PR arm, we've done everything in our power to downplay his little adventures. After all, it's our job to maintain his public persona as a real man's man."

"Well, he's certainly a man's man," Second Lieutenant Ginny Mardon said, flipping through a manila folder heavily labeled with "TOP SECRET" stickers. She plucked out an 8" x 10" and whistled. "Especially this man — I didn't know humans could bend that way."

Bilton flushed and grabbed the picture. "In any case, as Dash's new partner, it will be your job to gloss over any occasional lapses in behavior," he harrumphed.

"You mean, be his beard."

"Well, er, yes. But in a very natural way."

Ginny sighed. When she'd received the summons to Ranger HQ, she hoped it would be about her long-delayed promotion. But this

"Look, Mr. Bilton," she said patiently, "I'm a five year veteran of the Galactic Rangers, a crack shot, one heck of a pilot, and I broke up a smuggling ring all by myself last year, not to mention that I'm bucking to get my own ship and patrol sector. Why should I give that up just to play girl sidekick?"

Bilton shook his head. "I bet you really think you'll get that ship, too," he said fondly. "Look, dear, the public just doesn't feel comfortable with the idea of a woman running around and being in harm's way like that. It tends to come off a bit too, er—"

"Butch?"

"Yes." Bilton looked worried. "Um, you aren't — I mean—"

The second lieutenant tried not to roll her eyes. "Not that it's any of your business, but I like boys."

"Well, that's just swell!" Bilton said, relieved. "And as to why you should be Dash's partner, well, let's just say that none of his previous partners are hurting for plum positions in the Rangers." He tapped the side of his nose and winked. "Spend a year with Dash, dear, and who knows what could happen?"

Ginny smiled humorlessly. "I'd like something a little more concrete — say, in writing? And with my new rank on it?"

It was Bilton's turn to sigh, but he pulled out a Compu-Pad with a roster list. "Anything in particular, First Lieutenant?"

###

Two hours later, with pre-signed transfer to the illustrious training cadre at Acheron Prime waiting in her personnel file, Ginny stood at the door to the GRHQ landing pad.

"Lieutenant Mardon?"

Dash's voice was unmistakable — she'd heard those mellifluous tones over too many sub-ether broadcasts by now. Taking a deep breath, she turned and saluted. "Lieutenant Ginemera Mardon, reporting for duty, sir."

Dash returned an even crisper salute. "I just received our orders, so why don't we get you squared away on the Achilles, and we can blast off?"

"Yessir."

He gave her the blinding smile that had graced recruiting posters across the galaxy. "Discipline is a good thing in a Ranger, lieutenant, but we'll be working closely together for the foreseeable future, so call me Dash. May I call you Ginemera?"

"Ginny, if you don't mind," she said, shouldering her duffel and following him down to the dish-like landing pads. "Is that—"

"Yes. That's the Achilles," Dash said, waving a proud hand at the spaceship parked on Pad 3. "Fastest ship in the Rangers, not to mention one of the most heavily armed for its size. It's got two fixed laser guns, a sonic cannon and the latest in deflector armor. If it wasn't for the Achilles, I never would have been able to capture the Black Comet gang."

"Wow." Ginny squinted at the sleek silver craft. "Uh, what's painted on the nose?"

Dash beamed. "That's the ship's namesake — Achilles, one of the greatest warriors in history. I commissioned the artwork myself."

Ginny stared at the painted warrior's flowing blond locks and bulging muscles, not to mention the skimpy white tunic that did nothing to camouflage another strategic bulge. "It's certainly...impressive," she muttered, picking up her duffel and following Dash on board.

From the outside, the Achilles looked like the standard Ranger two-person scout ship — just enough room for a cockpit, head, double bunk area, mini-galley and a small storage hold, with the rest of the ship devoted to the mighty atomic engines that would fling it across the vast depths of space.

The interior of the Achilles, on the other hand, was anything but standard. Cream-colored fabric lined the hull in thickly quilted diamonds, the overhead lighting was recessed, and the deck tiles were some sort of ridged linoleum in a luscious caramel beige. "I wanted to go for a look that would be practical in space flight, yet still have an organic flow to it," Dash explained as he led Ginny to the bunk space. Instead of the spartan Ranger-issue bunks, these were custom-built Reclin-O-Beds, with lighting, air and sub-ether radio controls, plus recessed brackets for Ranger-issue blasters and personal Scanamatrons. Thick, fluffy Martian flannel sheets completed the sense of spacefaring luxury.

"Um," Ginny said, nonplussed. "I wasn't expecting something this...nice."

Dash sighed. "I keep trying to talk Ranger HQ into adopting some of these changes," he said. "It would make a huge difference in Ranger freshness and attitude after a long trip. That way, you're ready to meet the Grand Potentate of Kosatka or track down a gang of uranium smugglers, whatever happens first."

She blinked. "The Grand Potentate—"

"Lovely man — I'll have to introduce you. Oh, speaking of that, about our orders," he held up some plasheets. "We'll be acting as official bodyguards for Crown Prince Rigel of Erastes at his coronation ceremony in three days."

"Erastes?" Ginny grunted, slinging her duffle underneath the bottom bunk. "Didn't they just join the Union of Known Worlds?"

He nodded. "The Erastesians are a very noble people, and terrific warriors. It took our ambassadors quite some time to convince them to join the Union — something about cultural issues. And of course our being there will be seen as a diplomatic coup." A wrinkle creased Dash's perfect forehead. "You did pack your dress uniform, right?"

Ginny blinked. The gilt-encrusted dress uniform of the Galactic Rangers was currently rolled into a ball and shoved in the bottom of her dufflebag. "Um, yes, but—"

The captain chuckled. "You thought we'd be going after space pirates and overthrowing evil tyrants right off the bat, didn't you?"

She blushed. "Well, yes."

"You'll learn. And your uniform is rolled in a ball and shoved in the bottom of your dufflebag, isn't it? That's all right — the sonic shower has a dry cleaning plug-in, and I'm a dab hand at steaming pleats. Now, let's get ready for blast off!"

###

As the Achilles dropped into orbit, Ginny mused that Erastes looked more like a tropical getaway than a military world. Lush swathes of green and yellow vegetation covered much of the land mass, and the water appeared almost cobalt blue from orbit.

A troop of the Erastesian army was waiting in formation at the landing field, plastileather breastplates gleaming in the sun. As soon as the Achilles landed, a pudgy man wearing what appeared to be a copper-dipped chiton leapt from their midst. Ginny recognized him as George Federow, the Union's ambassador to Erastes; the local costume didn't suit him at all.

"Captain Manning! Thank the Deities you're here!" Federow cried as they descended the gangplank. "Crown Prince Rigel has been kidnapped!"

Dash's expression sharpened. "Kidnapped? By whom?"

"Um...Her Majesty Queen Feleena of Tigris IV," the ambassador mumbled, fiddling with his draping.

Dash grimaced. "AKA Queen of the Cat People. Who in their right mind let her anywhere near the crown prince?"

"Er, that would be me," Federow said miserably. "In any case, she was here for the coronation, and claimed that she wanted to show the prince a particularly fine installation of, er, erotic art in her spacecraft. The next thing we knew, she'd taken off with Rigel still on board and went straight into the sub-ether. The Dowager Queen is frantic — if Prince Rigel is not crowned in three days, it could plunge the entire planet into civil war!"

Dash's eyes grew steely. "I understand, Ambassador." He stepped forward, facing the Erastesian soldiers. "I will not rest until we have found Prince Rigel," he announced. "I swear to you all, on my personal honor and for the honor of the Union of Known Worlds, that he will be rescued and returned in time for his coronation."

Federow looked relieved, and the troops cheered Dash with the famous Erastesian battle trill.

"Ahem." Ginny raised a finger. "Before we go haring off, do we have any idea where Feleena went?"

"None at all," the ambassador said.

"Hmm."

Dash turned to her. "What are you thinking, lieutenant?" he asked. Federow and the troops looked at her expectantly.

Ginny blinked. "Well, Feleena's reputation is unsavory—" which was a polite understatement, as the sultry queen of the Tigrisian cat people made Messalina look like a nun when it came to handsome men, "—but she's not stupid. There's no way she'd return to Tigris IV with a kidnapped foreign royal in tow — it's the first place we'd look."

"Good point," Dash agreed. "We don't have time to head off on a wild goose chase. We need to figure out where Feleena would take him, and fast."

"I might be of some assistance there."

The Rangers turned. The Erastesian troops had parted, allowing a tall, regal-looking man to pass through their ranks. The newcomer wore a chiton of spun gold, the symbol of the Erastesian Royal Family, and gold-dipped oak leaves crowned his chestnut curls, lending his alabaster skin and hazel eyes a warm glow.

After a beat, Ginny realized her jaw had dropped open, and forced it shut. All right, so he's gorgeous — I'm on duty, dammit. She sensed Dash's attention focusing on the handsome royal like a lovestruck death ray, and ignored a sudden urge to step on his foot.

The royal gave Dash a tense smile. "You must be Captain Manning," he said. "I'm Rigel's younger brother, Nigel. As I'm sure you know, one of the gifts of Erastesian royalty is inter-family psychic powers. It gets patchy with distance, but I'm getting the strong impression that Rigel is on a planet with a great deal of water."

"Well, that rules out half of the known worlds," Ginny muttered.

The royal's model-like handsomeness was spoiled somewhat by the glint of intelligence in his eyes. "That's just a starting point," he studied the silver insignia on her shoulder, "Lieutenant. The water is a very particular shade of seafoam green, and there's a very strong scent of julinia in the air."

Dash frowned in thought, then snapped his fingers. "Of course!" he cried. "Julinia is a flowering annual, double-petaled with an attractive deep blue tint, perfect for formal centerpieces and homes with a pest problem."

Nigel glanced at him. "Er...pest problem?"

"Julinia is slightly carnivorous — it likes to snack on insects and small lizards," Dash explained. "It's also native to the planet Zinthar, which has a large amount of copper in its water supply, tinting it seafoam green. The prince must be on Zinthar!"

Ginny racked her memory. "That's only a few parsecs from Erastes, and Zinthar has an unofficial alliance with Tigris IV," she said. "It also has a well-deserved rep as the armpit of the galaxy — lots of gambling hells, black ops companies and other sleazy organizations."

Dash waved off her comment. "We're Galactic Rangers — we're used to dealing with armpits," he declared. "Prince Nigel, can you give us any more information about your brother's whereabouts?"

The royal shook his head. "All I'm getting are general impressions — I need to be closer in order to get a good lock on him."

"You can come with us!" Ginny blurted, then coughed, ignoring Dash's sudden beam of approval. "Ahem, I mean, can you come with us? Or do you have to stay planetside, since you're second in line to the throne?"

Nigel made a face. "There are some...irregularities... that make me ineligible for the throne according to Erastesian tradition," he admitted. "I'd hoped to serve my brother as prime minister, but if he isn't crowned in three days, other noble houses will claim precedence for the throne."

"And whoops goes the civil war," Dash added. "Which means we don't have much time. Prince Nigel, if you'd be so kind as to step into the Achilles?"

###

Twelve standard hours later, during which Dash flirted shamelessly with the Erastesian royal and Ginny saw her shot at Acheron Prime circling the drain, the Achilles popped out of the sub-ether into realspace. Ahead of them lay Zinthar, innocently shining against the spangled blackness.

An orange light blinked on the control board. "We're being hailed," Ginny said.

"On screen," Dash ordered. Seated in the rear jumpseat, Nigel leaned forward to see.

The central holoscreen flickered to life with the image of a Zintharian orbital traffic controller. The large, heavily muscled biped could almost pass for human if you ignored his red-and-gold scales, curving fangs and tufted points on his overlarge ears.

"Welcome to Zinthar, jewel of the galaxy, please have your ship leave a docking fee on deposit with Zintharian Traffic Control, be advised that we are not responsible for any sentient being who is killed, maimed, mutilated, converted or seduced while planetside, have a nice day," he recited in a bored tone, before doing a double-take at Dash. "You!"

To Ginny's surprise, the Ranger blushed. "Ah. Hello, Controller Zarg—"

"You bastard!"

Dash sighed. "I was afraid you were still angry. I can't blame you, Zarg, but we're here on official Galactic Ranger business—"

"To what, break some more hearts?" Zarg demanded, glaring at him. "Crush some more dreams? Or maybe you just want to sneak out in the middle of the night again without so much as a good-bye? You heartless cad!"

Dash leaned closer to the screen. "Zarg, I'm so sorry," he murmured. "But the Galactic President had been switched with a robot, then I had to rescue a crèche of kidnapped Borian sproutlings, and by the time I go them back to Borus and replanted them in the spawning lands it'd already been a month, and I felt so awful about leaving you like that — but you're right, I should've called. And I've missed you so much."

The controller hesitated. "You have?"

"Of course." The Ranger wet his lips, giving the Zintharian a look that could melt icecaps. "Nobody ever made me feel the way you did — it haunts my dreams."

Ginny bit her lip, clamping down on an urge to shout Not in front of the guest, you idiot!

"Really?" Zarg toyed with an ear tuft. "Well, I get off at third shift, if you're interested."

"Oh, I am," Dash purred. "But first I have to wrap up the official business. Speaking of which, I don't suppose you've seen Queen Feleena of Tigris IV come through here?"

Zarg rolled his flashing brown eye. "That spacehag? Oh my Deities, you would not believe what she was wearing when she landed! And she had some poor toyboy in tow — he was practically in tears. I just wanted to cuddle the dear thing and tell him everything would be all right."

Prince Nigel leaned closer to the screen. "Where did they go?" he asked.

Zarg gave the Erastesian royal an appreciative once-over. "Well, since you asked so nicely, she checked into a suite at the Realm of Unutterable Delights," he said. "It's one of the newer gaming hells — very upmarket, very discreet, not to mention kinky as a solar flare. She's probably buckling her toyboy into something complicated and leather right now." He leaned on an invisible panel, giving them an insouciant leer. "You know, I could meet the both of you there after my shift. I get a governmental discount on their zero-grav rooms."

Not trusting Dash's response, Ginny leaned into view. "Does a zero-grav room fit four?" she asked sweetly.

Zarg recoiled, shuddering. "Um, on second thought you're here on Ranger business so you probably won't have time for a visit, good to see you again Captain Manning, have a nice day." He slapped a control and the holoscreen went blank.

"Well, that was effective," Ginny said. "Shall I look up the coordinates for the Realm of Unutterable Delights, captain?"

Dash shot her a sour look. "Do that, lieutenant."

###

The Realm of Unutterable Delights turned out to be a gleaming metal fortress situated on the edges of Zinthar's capital city. Excitingly curved spires striped with colored neon reached towards the wine-dark skies, and naughty statues of various species stood in niches along the Realm's facade, the better to whet the appetites of incoming customers.

Ginny rocked to a halt in front of an impossibly endowed humanoid statue. "Oh, my goodness," she murmured. "That can't be real".

Dash paused, studying the statue. "Ah, the Fhinnos. A brave, noble and loyal species, and particularly skilled at diplomatic encounters. As a matter of fact, my first partner, Lt. Tito, was a Fhin." A faraway look crept over his face. "Oh, Tito."

Not wanting to know, Ginny bounded up the brushed steel steps to the Realm's massive doors, followed by Dash and Nigel. Once inside the cavernous lobby, they stopped at the welcome counter where a pretty Agralian did a double take on seeing Dash, then blushed bright indigo.

"Captain Manning, it's an honor to have you here," she gushed before he could flash his Ranger badge. "Your room has been prepared. I'll have a bellboy take you here right away!"

Ginny frowned. "Room?"

Dash looked hopeful. "Bellboy?"

"And Prince Nigel!" The clerk blinked gold-lashed eyes at the Erastesian royal. "Crown Prince Rigel said that you might attend. He'll be so happy you made it! Now, the nuptials are scheduled to start at sundown, so you should have plenty of time to freshen up and change."

Dash gave the clerk a subtle smile. "Gosh, I don't know where my brain is these days," he said. "Remind me again, who exactly is getting married?"

The Agralian's compound eyes goggled at him. "Why, her Majesty Queen Feleena and Prince Rigel, of course. Her Majesty has had the hall booked for well over a local year. It's so romantic — all of the sub-ether shows have sent their society reporters, and the Realm has collected over five hundred dovewings to be released at the end of the ceremony." She tapped her chin. "Although it does sound like an odd thing to do. I usually prefer my dovewings broiled and served with a light ficata sauce, but if your people prefer them raw—"

Nigel had his mouth open to reply, but Dash held up a hand. "That sounds perfectly delightful, miss. We'll just take our room keys and go on up."

"Oh, you won't need any keys. And you aren't going up."

The clerk nodded, and Ginny suddenly found herself squirming in an iron grip. She struggled to look over her shoulder, and gasped. An enormous alien with thickly corrugated gray skin and cold slitted eyes sneered down at her. Two others held Dash and Nigel, and a fourth stood off to the side, keeping a blaster aimed at the tall Galactic Ranger.

"Fahlpians," Dash snarled. "By order of the Union of Known Worlds, I demand that you unhand us at once!"

The Fahlpian with the blaster chuckled, a wet noise that would have been at home in a swamp. "You Ranger boys always talk real big, dontcha?" he gurgled. "Lucky for you, Queenie don't like to be kept waiting, or I'd teach you a lesson about sassing your betters. Now you and her honeyboy's brother come along all nice and quiet, and I won't haveta pull off little pretty's head and use it as a chamberpot."

Ginny glared at the clerk, who gave her an apologetic shrug. "Don't worry about me, Dash," she said savagely. "Just take these scum down."

Dash shook his head. "That's brave of you, lieutenant. But we might as well go with these scum, as you so accurately call them, and find out what Queen Feleena wants." His eyes narrowed as he stared at the lead Fahlpian. "Hmm — you look strangely familiar."

"You probably saw me in your nightmares, sinner," the head Fahlpian said with a smirk.

Dash considered it. "No, I definitely saw you somewhere else—"

The alien snorted, but Ginny saw a flicker of something odd in his eyes. "We don't have time for jawing! Athon, take 'em down to the Pit."

###

Flanked by their guards, Dash, Ginny and Nigel emerged from a secret elevator into a cavernous sub-basement of the Realm. After a moment, Ginny realized it really was a cavern, carved from the living bedrock of Zinthar. Flickering torches roared in the damp, chill air, lighting a path from the elevator to a massive amphitheater at the center of the cavern. As they approached, Ginny saw that the seats were all filled with a variety of cheering aliens, while in the central pit two slug-like creatures dragged a limp body away, leaving a sticky-looking trail behind them. Over them all, a huge holoscreen showed close-ups of the last fight. Ginny gulped.

"Dash," she whispered. "This must be some sort of illegal gaming ring."

"Yes, Ginny, I know." Dash's handsome face was grim. "Not only is it brutal and cruel, but it violates Articles 823 through 831 of the Galactic Code governing sporting events. The monsters!"

The Fahlpian with the blaster spat a sickly yellow stream in Dash's path. "Ain't no one enforcing the Galactic Code here, Ranger boy," he growled.

"That's what you think, you fiend," Dash replied, straightening his jumpsuit. "A Galactic Ranger is always on duty. In fact—"

"The only time a Galactic Ranger is not on duty is when he's dead," a sultry alto purred from the darkness. "Or she, of course. Isn't that right, Lieutenant Mardon?"

Ginny peered into the looming shadows. "That's right," she snapped. "Your majesty."

A throaty chuckle sounded as Queen Feleena of Tigris IV sashayed into view. "Clever girl," she approved, casually licking one hand and smoothing back her raven-black hair. "And the famous Captain Manning. We finally meet." She silked up to Dash, running her delicate ivory claws across the Ranger's chest. "What a perfectly delightful coincidence that you and your partner should arrive just in time for my wedding."

Dash's blue eyes turned resolute. "It's no coincidence and you know it," he said. "We're here to retrieve Crown Prince Rigel and take him back to Erastes for his coronation."

"Ah, yes." Feleena made a sensual moue. "Pity that isn't going to happen. You see, my last fiancé died of, well, let's just call it exhaustion, so I need another bridegroom by tonight or I lose my deposit. And Rigel really is so adorable, you know."

Nigel lunged against the Fahlpians' restraining arms. "Where's my brother, you cat?" he snarled.

"Patience, brother-in-law-to-be," Feleena purred. "You'll see darling Rigel soon enough." She snapped clawed fingers, and the Fahlpians dragged Dash and Ginny to the pit's entrance, tossing them to the dirt floor. "But first, a little pre-wedding entertainment!"

As two Fahlpians hauled Nigel to the Queen's box, a bright yellow lizardy alien in a black and white striped tunic hop-sucked its way to the center of the pit. "Ladeeez, gennlemen and sentients of all ages," it croaked, "it's time for tonight's main event!"

The audience cheered as Dash rolled to his feet, giving Ginny a hand up. "Excellent," he murmured, fiddling with the sub-ether VidReceiver on his belt. "Things are going just as I planned."

Ginny stared at him in horror. "Planned? You planned for us to get captured, thrown into a death ring and be mauled by aliens?"

"Well, not the last part, of course," Dash admitted. "But the first two got us into Feleena's lair without a shot."

The referee glared at them, shaking its wattle in annoyance. "In this corner," it waved at the Rangers, "we have the cream of the Galactic Rangers. Weighing in at 220 pounds and a height of six foot two, I give you — Captain Dash Manning!"

The audience exploded in boos and hisses, leavened by some cheers.

"And some frail he picked up along the way," the referee added.

"Why, you—" Ginny's ears went bright red, and she lurched foward.

Dash grabbed her wrist. "Save it for the match, Ginny," he ordered. "We still have to deal with—"

"And in this corner," the referee continued, "weighing between 300 and 350 pounds, the deadly Tigris Trio — Leo, Felix and Numa!"

A hideous roar split the air, and the Rangers whirled to face a trio of male Tigrians. The huge catmen flashed razor-sharp claws, their oversized ivory fangs gleaming against sleek ebony fur. Even their pointed ears and quivering whiskers looked deadly.

"Them," Dash concluded, somewhat more subdued. "Oh, dear."

Swallowing hard, Ginny raised her balled fists, wondering how effective her Ranger fighting techniques would be against three enormous felinoids. At least she'd finally get a chance to see the great Dash Manning in action. "Well, you know what they say," she muttered. "Your honor guard in hell is determined by the number of villains you take with you."

Dash's lips quirked in her direction. "That's the spirit, Lieutenant," he murmured. "You take the one on your side, and I'll take the other two. By the way, Tigrian catmen possess certain weaknesses similar to Earth cats, so follow my lead."

He leapt forward. "What weaknesses?" Ginny yelled, her attention momentarily drawn to the catman advancing on her. She almost didn't notice Dash pulling a handful of something from his utility belt and flinging it at the Tigrians.

The catmen stopped, their whiskers quivering as they scented the air. Then, with groans of rapture, they dropped to the pit floor and began to roll on shreds of the flung material, pawing and licking at it. Their slit eyes dilated, taking on a glazed cast.

"Ginny, scratch yours under the chin!" Dash ordered. He reached the two catmen he'd singled out and dropped to his knees, rubbing them behind the ears. Both aliens rolled onto their backs and gave out a rumbling purr, their tails lashing like lazy snakes.

Staring at Dash as if he'd suggested she stand on her head and belt out a show tune, Ginny went to her Tigrian and crouched, hesitantly rubbing the bristly hair under his chin. The catman started wriggling and purring in chorus with his cohorts, batting gently at Ginny's hand with a massive paw.

The pungent smell from the shreds of matter reached her nostrils, and her eyes widened. "Catnip?" she said. "You threw catnip at them?"

Dash shrugged modestly. "Of course. Once I knew that Queen Feleena had kidnapped Prince Rigel, I made sure that I had a good-sized supply on me, just in case."

The referee hopped over to them. "A complete takedown of all three Tigrians. The Rangers win!" it blared. Above them, the amphitheater's audience howled and cheered, and credit chits rained down onto the pit floor.

In the royal box, Feleena leapt to her feet. "No!" she screeched. "Manning cheated!"

The referee gave her a solemn wattle-shake. "You never stated this was a fight to the death, highness, only that the last one standing wins," it called. "Thus, by Realm rules, Captain Manning and Lieutenant Mardon are the winners."

The audience jeered the feline queen, and she hissed and spat at them. "I don't care! You'll never take Rigel from me!" she screamed. "Phredd, kill them!"

The largest Fahlpian leapt into the pit, a jagged-tooth grin on his face. "With pleasure, Queenie. Prepare to meet your maker, Manning," he snarled.

"Oh, I don't think so," Dash said, thumbing his VidReceiver. The huge holoscreen over the pit fuzzed for a moment, then cleared.

Instead of the pit floor, the screen now showed a tuxedoed alien with a microphone. "Thank you all for coming tonight to the Steinfier System, home of the Rose Tint My Galaxy cabaret show," he said suavely. "It's my pleasure to introduce our first contestant, straight from Fahlp Prime — please put your grasping limbs together for the one, the only, Miss Blaque Whole!"

The sub-ether camera panned to a glittering stage, where a tall Fahlpian swathed in a flaming pink cocktail number, diamond necklace and a huge blonde beehive wig sashayed down the stage's runway. The Fahlpian flashed a familiar jagged-tooth smile at the camera, fluttering beaded eyelashes in a devil-may-care manner, then segued into a basso profundo version of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

Ginny stared at the oversized image crooning eternal devotion, then at Phredd. The Fahlpian had turned pale grey, gazing at the screen in a tangled combination of horror and reluctant pride.

"Holy cats — he does drag?" she whispered to Dash.

"He does drag," Dash confirmed. "I knew I'd seen him before — good thing I had the Steinfier System's broadcast schedule memorized. Somehow, though, I don't think his fellow Fahlpians are going to approve."

And indeed, the rough grey aliens had already turned on their erstwhile leader.

"You...you fibber!" one of them accused. "You told us you were going to a religious conference!"

"You prevert!" another one screamed.

"I...well...it was a religious experience for me!" Phredd said defensively. "Aw, slugs!"

As the audience catcalled and cheered, the frantic crossdressing alien ran for the exit, the rest of the Fahlpians hot on his trail and screaming for vengeance. Ginny turned and gave her partner a grin. "Call me naïve, but I always thought that defeating the bad guys would involve more...well, actual hitting," she said.

"Physical violence should always be used as a last resort," Dash said piously. "Besides, it plays havoc with your uniform, and don't get me started on how hard it is to cover bruises."

Above them, the Queen of the Cat People screamed after her disappearing bodyguards. "No! You can't leave!" she howled. "I'm not married yet! I order you to come back here and kill the Rangers!"

Dusting off his uniform, Dash indicated with a jerk of his head that Ginny was to follow him. Together, they exited the pit and mounted the steps to the royal box. "Queen Feleena of Tigris IV," he announced, "I arrest you in the name of the Union of Known Worlds and charge you with kidnapping the Union citizen Crown Prince Rigel of Erastes."

Hissing, Feleena turned and flew at him, claws extended to slash. Ginny stepped into the line of fire and threw a picture-perfect right hook into the queen's unprotected jaw. A now-gurgling Feleena went down like a sack of kitty litter.

"There," Dash said, "now you got to hit someone. Feel better?"

"Much."

As Ginny leaned over and cuffed the unconscious queen, the Erastesian royal stepped out of the queen's box and smiled down at them. "I should've known that the great Dash Manning would rescue me," he said.

Before Ginny could say anything, Dash stepped over Feleena's body and and gave the royal an elegant bow. "All in a day's work, Prince Rigel," he said.

Great -- now he's getting the brothers mixed up, too. "Um, Dash," Ginny whispered, "that's Nigel."

"Actually, your captain is correct." The Erastesian royal turned and drew his exact duplicate out of the queen's box. "This is Nigel, my younger brother by five minutes. And thank you for bringing the Rangers, Nigel."

"It was a close call," Nigel admitted. "Besides, you really should be thanking Captain Manning here."

Rigel turned to Dash, and Ginny could hear cherubs burst into the Halleluiah Chorus. She risked a glance at Dash; the captain had snapped to attention in more ways than one.

"Captain Manning," Rigel murmured, his eyes practically licking every inch of the Ranger's frame. "How can I ever thank you?"

"Well, gosh, it'll take at least half a day to get back to Erastes," Dash said, equally smitten. "I'm sure we can think of something."

Ginny groaned. And there goes Acheron Prime. As Nigel knelt her side, she tried to think of a way to make Dash's comments seem harmless. Too much catnip? Temporary space insanity?

"It's wonderful that Rigel finally found someone worthy of him," Nigel murmured to her. "And they make such a nice couple."

It took Ginny a couple of tries to get her mouth closed. "Y-ou mean, you don't mind that they're, uh," she searched for a polite term, then decided the hell with it, "interested in each other?"

Nigel gave her a puzzled look. "Why would I? Every Erastesian king is homosexual — didn't you know that? It's part of our cultural tradition, ever since our planet was settled by our first king Kristiaan the Fierce and his consort/advisor Tymothi. Makes reproduction a bit of a challenge, I admit, but we usually find a way." He looked wistful. "That's why I could never ascend the throne, you see. I'm afraid I'm strictly heterosexual."

He said the last as if confessing to a carnal fascination with small animals. Ginny's eyes went wide, and she slapped her hand over her mouth, making strangled sounds. And Bilton wanted me to be a beard. I don't think I can beard an entire planet...

Nigel seemed confused at her snickering. "Did I say something amusing?"

"Not really. I was just thinking..." She dropped her hand, beaming at him. "Some of my best friends are heterosexuals."

"Oh. Gosh, that's nice to hear." He gave her a shy glance. "Perhaps we could talk later? You know — about heterosexual things?"

Oooh, baby. "Your highness, I'd be delighted."

And suddenly she understood why Dash had gone to the trouble and expense of installing Reclin-o-Beds in the Achilles. In addition to the lighting, air and sub-ether radio controls, recessed brackets for Ranger-issue blasters and personal Scanamatrons, each Reclin-o-Bed had a soundproofing curtain that could be pulled shut for privacy.

It was going to be a very interesting trip back to Erastes.

 

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