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The Two Faces of Evil - Of Mice and Vulturemen
By Demonprist


“Caaaawww, hold still you blasted rodent!”

 The frightened mouse refused to cooperate.  She bit his finger again
and immediately ran to the farthest corner of her cage, seeking escape
but finding nowhere to go.  With a volley of curses Vultureman squeezed
his bitten digit in pain and glared at his test subject.  He only had
two hours left and he still needed to harvest some of her eggs and
introduce the edited sperm from the other mouse to one of them before
hightailing it back upstairs.  “Listen you little vermin, I’m going to
get those eggs whether you like it or not!” he hissed.

 The mouse responded with a frantic squeak when he made another grab for
her.  She raced along the side of the cage to freedom—until Vultureman’s
other hand came swooping down to catch her.  Trapped, the mouse made yet
another attempt to bite him but found her head swiftly pinned by the
hand that had first tried to snatch her.

 Vultureman breathed a sigh of exasperated relief and carried her over
to his worktable.  “About time,” he snarled as he dumped the mouse into
a glass compartment and activated a sleep gas dispenser connected to it.

 While he waited for the unlucky mouse to be put to sleep he bandaged
his bitten finger.  The miserable rodent had gotten him in two spots;
though neither wound was serious his finger hurt like hell.  Spitefully
he considered the idea of gassing the mouse permanently to sleep as he
kept an eye on the meter measuring how much gas was being used.  He
sighed regretfully and tossed that impulse in the mental garbage
disposal.  If he didn’t need to watch his back so badly he’d have done
it, but a dead mouse could bring even the slightest suspicion crashing
down on him, and suspicion led to more sinister actions.  So that was
out.

 The mouse, now sedated enough for him to work with her unmolested, lay
still in the middle of the compartment.  Vultureman shut off the gas and
activated the laser probe he’d found, carefully maneuvering its tip into
the mouse’s ovaries.  Using its attached vacuum he withdrew two fertile
eggs and placed these in separate petri dishes.  Next he brought over
the dish that contained the male mouse’s sperm, one of which he had
edited to remove any inferior characteristics and add superior ones.

 It only took him a half-hour to change the genetic blueprints in one of
the female’s eggs.  He transferred the sperm to each of the first two
petri dishes and closed them up securely.  Then he set about returning
every item he’d used during today’s special playtime.  Kembri and his
gaggle of scientists were in conference with some other directors of
Genvironment’s board, or so they’d been told, and unable to resist such
a temptation Vultureman had immediately decided to make an impromptu
visit to the third-floor levels.  The risk of detection was extremely
high, as all available guards were on duty during Kembri’s absence, but
the thrill of potential payoff was too great a lure.  So far he had
succeeded in going unnoticed.

 He made sure to do a double check in case there was some minute detail
he’d missed.  Even one instrument a hair out of place would most likely
be noticed.  Satisfied he’d tidied up properly, he tackled his next
objective: what to do with the two petri dishes.  He couldn’t very well
leave them in the lab since they’d be discovered.  Yet he was leery of
taking them back to his room and having someone stumble across them.  He
periodically wondered whether or not Kembri had given orders for their
rooms to be searched.  He wouldn’t have been surprised if the general
had done just that.  Kembri was such an uptight jerk he made Slithe look
like a fairy godmother.

 Vultureman yawned and checked the clock.  Time to go.  He would just
have to take the dishes with him and hide them as best he could.  He
stuffed them in a pouch he kept concealed in his shoulder feathers and
left the lab, taking care to reset all alarms and spy systems to their
original positions.

                                                            *******

 “Look at that!”

 “Incredible . . .”

 “It’s really him . . .”

 He was not prepared for this, of all things.  Still somewhat in shock
Mumm-Ra stared at the array of faces welcoming him back into the world
of the living.  The ones that surprised him the most were clustering
around him now.

 “Rani!”  Oanahaptu flung her arms around him and squeezed him in a bear
hug.

 “How do you feel, sweetheart?” a blonde woman nearby asked.

 “Welcome back, son,” Durakkon said with a deep smile.

 Mumm-Ra looked at his relatives in confusion.  “What is this?” he
croaked out, and grasped his throat, startled by the sound of his
voice.  Good heavens, that had changed too!  No longer a gravelly rasp,
it had mellowed into a rich, sensual tone that still retained enough
throaty quality to it to make it quite pleasing to the ears.  He tried
using it again.  “Where . . . where am I?”

 “The white pyramid,” a voice to his side answered.  He looked over and
saw the woman whose own face had escaped his notice while he had been
studying his new reflection in her mirror.  “M-Mumm-Rana?”

 “Right the first time,” she teased gently.  “How do you feel . . .
Mau’Rahn?”

 He stared up at her, blinking in surprise.  He wiggled his toes
absently and gasped when he looked down to see them move.  Real human
feet, not taloned ones!  Eager to stand on them he tried to get up,
albeit rather wobbly as he yelped upon touching the cold stone floor.
Getting used to this mortal body was going to take some time.  But it
sure beat the former husk of flesh he’d possessed!

 “I—this is—it’s . . . it’s amazing!”  He craned his head all around to
inspect his healthy new form and was delighted to find everything in the
right place, as good as new.  He hugged himself and shivered, realizing
how scantily clad he was.  “A little chilly though.”  Realizing she’d
just used his given name he looked at the priestess curiously.
“Nobody’s called me Mau’Rahn in . . . well . . . ages.”

 “A fresh start deserves a new name, don’t you think?”

 “I’ve been used to being called Mumm-Ra for so long it doesn’t really
matter all that much.”  He shrugged offhandedly, loving the feel of his
hair sweeping across his skin with his movements.  It was so soft!  “But
it is nice to hear my own name again.”  He brushed the bangs out of his
eyes and smiled shyly at her.  A glance at the chattering Thundercats
aroused his curiosity.  “What are you doing here?”

 “We were in the neighborhood, so we dropped by,” Lion-O joked.  “Good
to see you up and about, Mu—I mean, Mau’Rahn.”

 “It’s okay.  I don’t mind it if you still call me Mumm-Ra.”

 “You look wonderful, Mumm-Ra!” Pumyra said, impressed.  “This is what
you used to be in your first mortal life?”

 “Thank you, and yes, this is me.”  He smiled and bobbed his head
self-consciously.

 Wilykat ran up to him and embraced him in a fierce hug.  “Welcome back,
Mumm-Ra!”

 Mumm-Ra hugged him just as hard.  “It’s good to be back.”  Surprised,
he studied the teen’s winsome face.  “You’ve changed too, I see.  You
look a little bit older.”

 Kat beamed.  “Yup.  Picked up a couple inches too while you were away,”
he announced proudly.  Maturity had kicked in and the Thunderkittens
weren’t kittens anymore, but on the verge of young adulthood.  “Wait’ll
you get a load of Wilykit.  She has to duck down every time she walks
through short doorways now.  She’s even taller than me!”

 “Birthdays have a way of doing that to you,” Tygra said with a
chuckle.  He stepped up to the sarcophagus and offered his hand.  “It’s
nice to finally have a new face to go with the guy I keep hearing so
much about.”

 Mumm-Ra hesitated, then accepted Tygra’s handshake.  “You know . . .
everything that happened?”  Tygra nodded.  “I’m sorry.  I’ve caused an
awful lot of trouble,” he said softly to the Thundercats.

 “Aw, come on, none of that was your fault.”  Lion-O patted his
shoulder.  “Certain others were responsible for that.”
 Violet eyes darkened in worry.  “And we know who they are, don’t we?”

 “We certainly do,” Mumm-Rana said.  “And it is because of them that our
destinies have been intertwined so.”

 Puzzled, Mumm-Ra frowned at her.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”  A
thought occurred to him.  “Why am I here?  How did I get back to being
my mortal self?”

 “One question at a time, Mau’Rahn,” the blonde standing next to
Durakkon said laughingly.  “All will be made known to you in good time,
my darling.”

 Mumm-Ra gave her a quizzical stare.  “Who are you?”

 “Aaahh, poor thing.  I forget that you have never known me before.”
The woman came over to him and hugged him tenderly.  “I am your mother,
Mau’Rahn.”

 Mumm-Ra stiffened in shock.  “Huh?”

 Durakkon spoke.  “It’s true, Mumm-Ra.  This is Malesenkha, your
mother.”  The proud parents shared an affectionate smile.
 He needed to sit back down in the sarcophagus to chew on that one.
Mumm-Ra looked up at Malesenkha’s warm gaze.  “The same Malesenkha you
used to tell me bedtime stories about?”

 “The very same,” Durakkon affirmed.  He held out an arm and a smiling
Mumm-Rana moved into his embrace.  “And this is your sister, Mosenkhana
Oanis . . . or, as you know her, Mumm-Rana.”

 Considering all that he had been through in the past two months Mumm-Ra
handled this bit of news with good grace, fainting neatly back onto the
sarcophagus amidst a billowing pillow of mahogany-red hair.

 Oanahaptu pursed her lips.  “I’d say he took that rather well, wouldn’t
you?” she asked Lion-O after a pregnant pause.

                                                 *******

 “Come on shake your body baby do that conga, I know ya can’t control
yourself any longer!” Quick Pick sang along noisily to the accompanying
music blaring from the stereo as he plunked at the keyboard in front of
him.

 Ben-Gali grimaced at the off-key singing.  If he’d had any brains
whatsoever he would have gone along with Pumyra to the white pyramid,
but Mumm-Rana’s orders had specified six Thundercats only, including
Lion-O.  So he’d volunteered for guard duty at Cats’ Lair, not knowing
that the irascible Quick Pick would shortly arrive afterwards to begin
another session of file deciphering.  “Can’t you keep it down?” he
suggested, none too politely as he cranked the volume lower several
notches, reducing it from a caterwaul to a faint lullaby.

 “Can I help it if I love a good tune?” Quick Pick responded jauntily,
typing a command.  He tipped his hat up to better view the monitor in
front of him, humming in time with the song.  “Check this out.  I think
I can get into the second half of the new file.”

 “Wonderful.”  Ben-Gali sighed.  “Where’s Mandora, anyway?  Isn’t she
supposed to be keeping an eye on you?”  In light of his semi-heroic aid
in the recapture of Captain Cracker, Quick Pick had been officially
pardoned and made Mandora’s part-time assistant by the galaxy governor.

 “She’s down in Calis hunting a report we got this morning of a Skeeter
Z flying around near the Phosphorous Desert,” the one-time king of the
pickpockets answered.  “She probably won’t get back till late afternoon,
if I know how long Wassey’ll drag his butt on it.”

 “Small wonder, too, if Wassey’s reputation is to be believed.  He’ll
stall her as long as he can.”

 “You got it.”  Quick Pick’s beady eyes scanned the screen as the words
ENTER PASSWORD scrolled up.  “Boy, these Genvironment people sure are
password-happy.  I’ve cracked five of ‘em so far.”

 Ben-Gali watched the monitor with interest.  “You can break their
codes, though, right?”

 “Of course,” Quick Pick answered confidently.  “But if there are any
more of these buggers I might need to call up my Arisian contact.  She’s
a genius at code cracking.  See, these passwords get increasingly harder
to guess as you get further in, which means this information is so hot
it’s protected at all costs.”

 “Makes perfect sense to me,” Ben-Gali said, even though half of Quick
Pick’s ramblings went right over his head.  “We know that these
Genvironment people are involved with some sort of super-secret project
at least.  I wonder what else is so important in those files?” he asked
aloud.

 “I have a feeling whatever it is, it’s going to get us in big trouble
when we find out.”  Quick Pick bit his lip and frowned at the screen,
trying to think of the correct procedure to ferret out the latest
password.  “Benny, babe, they wouldn’t go to such lengths to load their
programs with passwords if it weren’t, and whoever is sending this stuff
to you guys is doing it with an awful lot of hush-hush, if you know what
I mean.”

 “Knock off the ‘babe’ stuff, okay?” Ben-Gali said coolly.  He stretched
his arms above his head.  “Surely the sender knows that he can be traced
eventually.”

 Quick Pick refused to be discouraged.  “Don’t get those blue pants of
yours in a wad.  I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said jovially.  He
swiveled around in the chair several times.  “Of course the sender knows
that.  Why do you think he’s taking such pains to cover his tracks?  He
knows if he gets caught he’s dead meat.  He’s just trying to stall that
for as long as possible until the secret gets blown wide open.”  Quick
Pick resumed humming as his face brightened in thought.  He reached over
and typed several letters on the keyboard.

 A new message popped up on the monitor: CHECKING PASSWORD.

 Quick Pick and Ben-Gali held their breaths as they waited.

 INCORRECT PASSWORD ACCESS DENIED.

 “Crap,” Quick Pick exhaled.

 “What did you put in?” Ben-Gali wanted to know.

 “’Forbidden.’”  The former pickpocket pushed back his hat and tapped
his hands together for a few seconds.  “Let’s try another one.”  He hit
a series of letters and clicked the entry button.

 INCORRECT PASSWORD ACCESS DENIED.

 “Did you try surfing?” Ben-Gali asked.  Opto-crystal chip surfing was a
popular hacker method of searching out access codes.  Easily available
to those who could make the financial arrangements necessary to procure
one, the chip was so accurate it could pick out the correct codes from a
vast network of one billion combinations, in less than five seconds.

 “Been there, done that, it don’t work,” Quick Pick said.  “Believe me,
if that were a feasible option we’d have these files opened in no
time.”  He scratched his knee and then entered another word: CREATED.
“Maybe this one will work.”

 Ben-Gali shook his head in frustration as the dreaded INCORRECT
PASSWORD ACCESS DENIED message was presented to them yet again.
“There’s got to be a way to plow through this mess!” he growled.

 “There is,” Quick Pick assured him.

 “Well, what is it?”

 “Enter the right password,” Quick Pick said cheekily.

 Swearing softly under his breath Ben-Gali took up position at one of
the smaller monitors.  “Try ‘allies,’” he suggested after a bit of
thought.

 Quick Pick did so but got nowhere.  “What else?  What else says
Genvironment?” he mused.

 “’Science?’”

 “Too generic.”

 “’Project X?’”

 “Too stereotypical.”

 “Huh?”

 “Everybody always assumes that a top-secret facility’s baby has a
standard name like ‘Project X,’” Quick Pick said.  “No, each of these
passwords has been unique.”  He reached into a folder he’d brought with
him and took out a sheet of paper, which he passed to Ben-Gali.  “I
wrote these down in case we ever need them again.  See how they form a
sentence?  We have to complete that sentence in order to get to the
files.”

 Ben-Gali read the five passwords aloud.  “’Unholy alliance below our
stars.’”  He raised his head and scowled at Quick Pick.  “Awfully vague,
wouldn’t you say?”

 Quick Pick sighed.  Patiently, as though he were a wise man trying to
explain what should be so painfully obvious to a simpleton, he said,
“Not really once you think about it.  Let’s look at the pieces.”  He
took the paper from the Thundercat and pointed at the first word.
“Okay.  The word unholy is describing something that’s really bad.  Now
we’ve pretty much agreed that the guy sending these files is someone
who’s getting ready to buck company policy, right?”

 “Right.”

 “Okay.  So this guy thinks that the information is so bad that unholy
is the best way to describe it.  Maybe it goes against his beliefs;
maybe he’s just pissed ‘cause the boss won’t give him the key to the
executive washroom.  Or maybe it really is nasty stuff, and by calling
it unholy he ensures your attention.”  Quick Pick indicated the second
word.  “Alliance.  It only stands to reason that something as big as
Genvironment would be comprised of a bunch of powerful bigwigs, all with
a common goal.  Third word: below.  That could mean several things,
especially when you look at the fourth and fifth words and stick them
all together.  ‘Below our stars.’  Notice how that goes.  ‘Our’ stars.”
Quick Pick’s beady eyes shone with something akin to religious fervor.
He was in his element.  “Personally, I think it’s talking about
Plun-Darr myself.”

 “’Unholy alliance below our stars.’”  Ben-Gali nodded slowly.  “That
does make sense now.  Plun-Darr rests underneath a belt of stars in its
galaxy, and—“

 “—And,” Quick Pick happily interjected, “the unholy alliance part has
to mean the scientists of Genvironment, because Sephi-vo-Notar is one of
them and he hails from Plun-Darr!”  He clicked his appendages together
and laughed.  “Damn I’m good!”

 “Not so fast, beanpole,” Ben-Gali reminded him.  “We still need to find
this latest password and see what the file says.”

 “No problem, my friend!”  Quick Pick, taking no offense at Ben-Gali’s
name-calling, clattered away at the keyboard.
“’Guards.’”

 “What?”

 “’Guards.’  It’s probably too easy, but what the heck, it’s worth a
try.  Genvironment’s guarding a big secret, right?”

 “Ah,” Ben-Gali said now that he understood.  He watched and shook his
head as once more they received an INCORRECT PASSWORD ACCESS DENIED
message.  “How about ’Keeps?’” he offered.

 Quick Pick entered the word.  “Nope,” he said as the file rejected his
input.

 “’Holds?’”

 “Probably still get the same response.”  The escape artist tried it
anyway but did indeed get the same answer.  “Hmm.  ‘Unholy alliance
below our stars’ . . .” Quick Pick tapped his feet in time with an
imaginary beat, his music forgotten.  Suddenly his face brightened.  “Oh
yeah oh yeah I’ve got it!  I’ve got it!” he exclaimed, and rushed to
enter his idea.

 Ben-Gali jumped up and went over to him, infatuated by his mania now.
He read what Quick Pick had typed.  “’Trains?’”

 “Yeah.  I just have a feeling about this one,” Quick Pick said,
grinning madly.  He hit the entry key.

 His lucky guess paid off.  This time, instead of INCORRECT PASSWORD
ACCESS DENIED the screen read PASSWORD APPROVED ACCESS GRANTED.

 “Open it up!” Ben-Gali encouraged.

 Quick Pick did so and the file loaded quickly.  While they waited for
the information Ben-Gali asked, “How’d you come up with ‘trains?’”

 “It just occurred to me that perhaps Genvironment isn’t guarding
something—well, in truth they are, but that’s beside the point.  By
‘trains’ I mean that they’re teaching somebody to do something.  Of
course I could be wrong about that, the password might be referring to
Captain Bragg’s stolen circus train instead.”  Quick Pick shrugged and
turned back to the monitor when a soft blip announced that the file had
been successfully opened.  “All right, let’s take a look at our booty!”

 They read the opening statement:

 In the last five files I fear I have not provided enough information to
convince you of the seriousness of this situation.  Immediate action is
imperative if we are to survive.

 Enclosed is a detailed summary of the main players.  The first two are
dangerous and must be treated with extreme caution.  The third seeks to
aid you in any way possible inasmuch as he is permitted, given his
constant subjection to close scrutiny.  The fourth, and last, is the one
you seek in connection with several brutal murders on the planet New
Thundera.  Beware, for this one is truly lethal.  He cannot be
controlled and will resist any attempt at detention or capture.  Should
you succeed in sighting this particular individual, I strongly urge you:
DO NOT CONFRONT HIM!

 “Whoa!” Quick Pick whistled.  “This is major heavy-duty intrigue here.”

 Ben-Gali felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.  “I wonder .
. .” he murmured softly to himself.  “Keep scrolling,” he told Quick
Pick.

 I dare not risk sending any more files for fear of discovery.  Should
an opportunity arise I will do my best to contact you one last time with
the necessary evidence you will need in order to publicly prove the
accusations I have previously made.  Again, I beg you not to dismiss
this information.  Your lives depend upon it.

 “Pretty desperate,” Quick Pick commented.

 “Never mind desperate.  He just said our lives were at stake here,”
Ben-Gali said, worry creeping into his tone.  “I bet his bosses are onto
him.”

 “I don’t think so.  If they were he wouldn’t have sent this latest
one.”  Quick Pick scrolled on.

 Even now an intergalactic bounty hunter has been hired to permanently
silence your investigation into these affairs.

 “Son of a bitch!  Get Mandora on the communicator now!” Ben-Gali
ordered.

 “Calm down,” Quick Pick said.  “Look, he’s just given us a name to go
on.”

 Safari Joe has been fully outfitted with the tools of his profession.
He is already on the prowl.

 “Shit!” Ben-Gali roared.  “So that’s why that scumbag hunter suddenly
resurfaced.  These Genvironment people are paying him to kill us for
Jaga’s sake!”

 “Told you so,” Quick Pick said knowingly, though there was no hint of
mockery in his voice.  “The Thundercats are officially in deep doo-doo.”

 “Quick Pick, I want you to contact Mandora right now,” Ben-Gali said
urgently.  “Tell her you’ve cracked the sixth file and we’ve got
important info for her eyes only.  After you call her try to get a hold
of Lion-O and warn him about Safari Joe.  I’m going to read the rest of
this stuff and find out just how much doo-doo we’re in.”

 “All righty.”  Quick Pick gave up his seat and went to the other
station.  While he dialed up Officer Mandora’s pager Ben-Gali sat down
and scrolled further through until he reached four selections.  He
picked the one marked KEMBRI and opened it.

                                                           *******

 Durakkon sat beside his son, gently stroking his forehead as Mumm-Ra
awoke.  “Father?” he murmured sleepily.

 “You seem to have a habit of doing that now,” Durakkon chuckled.
“Fainting, I mean.  You never used to faint when you were a little boy.”

 “Oh Father, I had the most bizarre dream.  I dreamed that I was in
trouble with the Ancient Spirits of Evil, and there was this nasty clone
called Emanon who looked like me.”  Mumm-Ra yawned.  “And then he killed
me, and I came back as my mortal self, and somebody told me that the
priestess Mumm-Rana was my sister.”

 Durakkon grinned.  “I wonder where you could have gotten such ideas,”
he laughed.

 Mumm-Rana came to stand next to him.  “Certainly not from his father,”
she said with a light laugh.

 Mumm-Ra’s eyes widened when she came into focus.  Instantly the mind
fog evaporated.  He knew exactly where he was and what had happened.
Sitting up suddenly he uttered a shrill cry.  “You!  What do you want!
What did you do to me!”  He scurried backwards and slipped off the side
of the sarcophagus, landing with an “Oof!” on his backside.

 “Relax, Mumm-Ra,” she said soothingly.  “You need have no fear in my
presence.”

 Mumm-Ra just stared up at her, watching her with a nervous violet
gaze.  “You—you—“ he stammered.

 “I gave you back your mortal body,” Mumm-Rana affirmed.  She glanced at
their audience with a smile and amended, “With the help of our friends
and family here, of course.”

 “We can’t be related.  It’s impossible,” Mumm-Ra gasped.

 “Oh, but it’s very possible.”  Mumm-Rana said calmly.  “Mumm-Ra, you
never knew anything about me because the Ancient Spirits of Evil kept
you from the full truth of your past.”

 “We don’t even look anything alike,” Mumm-Ra said, purposely flicking a
length of his hair at her to prove that point.

 Mumm-Rana shook her head and handed her mirror to Durakkon.  While he
held it up for them she walked over to her brother and knelt next to
him.  “Take a good look.”

 Mumm-Ra struggled to find some way to deny her claim, even as he looked
in the mirror at their faces and silently acknowledged that they bore
more than a passing family resemblance to each other.  “Okay, so it’s
coincidence.  Sheer coincidence.  It happens.  People are born who look
like each other, yet they have no familiar ties at all.”

 “Then how do you explain those violet eyes?” Durakkon said with a hint
of a sly smile.  “You know in your heart she’s telling the truth, son.”

 Mumm-Ra stared helplessly at his family, unable to refute the
evidence.  “How can it be?  I’m an only child!”

 “Not so,” Malesenkha said as she stepped forward.  “If you will allow
us to explain you will understand how this came to be.”

 Mumm-Ra brushed a skein of hair out of his eyes as he continued to
stare in confusion at them.  A hand touched his shoulder, and he
flinched in surprise.  Then Cheetara was kneeling in front of him,
offering that hand in assistance.  Hesitantly he slipped his hand into
hers as she helped him back to his feet.  He blinked.  His chin came
almost to the top of her head when she hugged him, her mane of silky
hair nestled in the crook of his shoulder.  “I’m glad to see you alive
again, Mumm-Ra,” she said softly, the heat of her breath on his chest
giving him goose bumps.

 He felt funny as he returned the embrace.  It was as if they had been
intentionally crafted to fit each other perfectly.  What in the name of
Amon was this all about?  He couldn’t begin to explain it, let alone
fully understand it, but some instinct was telling him that this was
right, so right, even though his stomach was doing cartwheels and his
heart—was it his heart?—was throbbing just a little bit faster.
Something inside him had clicked when he felt the warmth of her body
against his.  “You kissed me,” he blurted, and then cursed himself for
saying the first crazy thing that popped into his mind.

 To his surprise Cheetara blushed.  “I guess I did,” she laughed,
somewhat embarrassed.  “It was all part of that ceremony Mumm-Rana had
us do.”

 Mumm-Ra looked at the priestess.  “What ceremony?”

 “The Opening of the Mouth.  The ten gifts of heart,” she answered.
“Mumm-Ra, you don’t realize what you’ve got here.  You’ve been given a
second chance.”  Mumm-Rana positively beamed with delight as she spoke.

 “A second chance?  To do what?”

 “To live the life you were intended to live before the evil
interference.”

 Mumm-Ra looked around at all the smiling faces surrounding him.  “You
mean I get to be human again?  Forever this time?”
 “That’s right,” the priestess said.  “Free from evil slavery.”

 Joy blossomed within him.  “That means I don’t have to be the
Ever-Living anymore!”  Wide violet eyes shone brightly at Cheetara.  “I
can . . . I can . . .” He furrowed his brow in puzzlement.  “Well, I can
do something.”  He threw back his head and laughed with sheer
excitement.  “I can do anything I want to!  My enemies are gone!”
Impulsively he hugged Cheetara again, unwilling to relinquish her.

 Cheetara smiled to herself.  She was in no hurry to be released from
his exuberant clutches.  Then again, what female would want to be, if
confronted with this masculine paragon?  Affectionately she stroked the
glossy mane cascading down his back.

 Mumm-Rana interrupted their brief moment of celebration.  “Not quite.”
Her tone was abruptly serious.

 Mumm-Ra shot her a scowl, still holding Cheetara close.  “Of course
they are.  You got rid of Emanon, didn’t you?”  When she didn’t respond
immediately he got impatient.  “Didn’t you?”

 “I removed him from New Thundera.  That and no more,” Mumm-Rana
answered him, her own violet eyes darkening.

 “Why didn’t you just kill him when you had the opportunity?”

 “She goes by the same code of ethics we do, if I’m not mistaken.  She
wouldn’t have killed Emanon,” Tygra reminded him, and the priestess
nodded her agreement.

 “Oh.  I guess I can understand that.”  Mumm-Ra sighed in
consternation.  “Still . . . don’t you realize how dangerous he is?”  A
new and doubly frightening thought suddenly occurred to him.  “The
Heart!  What happened to the Heart?” he asked frantically.

 “It is safe,” Mumm-Rana said.  She went to the cauldron and pulled an
object out of one of its spires.  When she returned to Mumm-Ra he
screwed up his face in extreme distaste as the hated puzzle box
malevolently hissed once at him and shifted back into a simple cube.

 “There, you see?” Mumm-Rana said sweetly.

 She offered the Heart to him but Mumm-Ra let go of Cheetara and backed
away.  “Keep it away from me.  I never want to see it again!”

 “I second that!” Wilykat put in.  “I almost lost my nine lives because
of it.”

 “Mumm-Ra, you’re really going to have to get over this phobia of
yours,” his sister told him.  “You can’t run away from your fears or
they’ll follow you right into your hole.”  Again she held out the box.
“Take it.”

 “Forget it.  I’ve had more than enough of that rotten thing.”  Mumm-Ra
crossed his arms, stubbornly refusing.  He waited for her to press the
issue but she didn’t.  “You’ll learn,” Mumm-Rana said with another sigh
as she withdrew the offending object.

 “It’s too bad you can’t destroy that ugly little box,” Mumm-Ra said,
looking ready to spit in disgust.  Even thinking of its name left a
yucky taste in his mouth.  “Why don’t you get rid of it once and for
all?  Zap it into some alternate dimension where nobody can find it.”

 “I cannot do that and you know it.  That’s not the way the game works.”

 “What game?  Hello, this is reality here.  The reality is that box
holds the power to kill off everybody on Third Earth and then some.”

 “That’s why you have to take it.  It is your destiny, decreed by the
gods themselves.  You are the keeper of Set’s Heart.”

 Mumm-Ra’s eyes flashed a deep purple.  He couldn’t quite believe her
words.  “Excuse me?”

 Mumm-Rana’s calm demeanor rattled him further.  “When you hear the
whole story then you’ll understand.”

   “Understand what?  Mumm-Rana, you’re spooking me!  Look, Emanon’s not
here right now, but if he’s still alive he’s going to come looking for
the Heart.  Do us all a favor and get rid of it!”  Mumm-Ra pounded his
chest with a fist.  “If the Heart’s out of the equation then we have a
chance.  Emanon won’t recognize me in my new body, and if the
Thundercats—“ he cast a pleading look at Lion-O and the others—“if the
Thundercats lay low for a while he might get discouraged and give up and
go crawl back into whatever cesspool he climbed out of.”

There was a long pause.  “You’re not going to like me for this,”
Mumm-Rana said quietly, her voice echoing in the chamber.  Sunlight from
the open panel overhead glinted sharply off the golden lines etched onto
the ebony surface of Set’s Heart as she slowly turned it around in her
hands.  “Because I’m about to shatter that illusion.”

                                                            *******

 “They got the file,” Tradyk whispered to Aluro as they passed each
other in the hall.

 Thank the moons! thought Aluro with some relief.  “They know how
important this is?”

 Tradyk nodded.  “Can’t stay.  I’ve got to deliver this report to Sephi
or he’ll have my hide,” he explained quickly, still whispering as he
patted the folder in his other hand.  “I just thought you’d like to know
that.”

 Aluro tipped his head in acknowledgement and watched the slender
Thunderian leave for the dreaded Sephi-vo-Notar’s office before going in
the opposite direction, toward his own room.

 So the Thundercats had gotten the sixth file.  Good.  The sooner they
broke the code and read what Tradyk had sent the sooner those do-gooder
cats could get to work on breaking them out of here.  Aluro was on pins
and needles waiting to see who would act first—the Thundercats or
Kembri.  Tradyk had warned him that they didn’t dare send any more files
out.  Kembri’s good will (what there was of it) was fast declining.  So
far since yesterday he’d chewed out Safari Joe, Jackalman, and Tug Mug
in quick succession.  Even Sephi had tread lightly around the general.
Slithe’s revolting cousin stayed in one of the labs on their tour for
the day, supervising tissue processing jobs, the most notable one being
the grinding-up of a bunch of sandy-tailed hooji brains in a giant
blender till they were the consistency of a strawberry milkshake.  Not
exactly a fun way to spend leisure time, but then again Mutants were
overly fond of such practices.

 Then, as if Kembri’s temper wasn’t already foul enough, Vultureman had
made a bad situation worse by ‘accidentally’ (so he said) pushing Luna
into the gut-grinding machine after she’d made a remark about the low
intelligence of certain Mutants.  Only because of Sephi’s close
proximity and his fast reflexes was Luna prevented from being turned
into a colorful pulp (aww, too bad), although she’d lost a nice chunk of
her massive hairdo to the slicing and dicing gears.  She wasn’t left
totally bald but her new style looked like a Mohawk from hell.  He’d
wanted to burst out laughing hysterically but Aluro was wise enough to
keep his mouth shut when he’d seen her later, knowing firsthand her
wrath could have rivaled that of Kembri’s.  Vultureman had gotten his
ass bitched out royally by the general for that one.  Still it had been
pretty funny all the same.  Especially when Sephi had to have Monkian
help him pry back the gears after the machine was shut off and they’d
hauled a raving, ranting, half-hairless, tissue-drenched Luna out of
it.  She’d looked like some reject from a bad low-budget horror movie.

 Thinking along the lines of those disgusting things Aluro remembered
Vultureman again and shuddered.  That turkey was going to get all of
them in hot water if he kept screwing around.  Sooner or later Kembri or
Sephi would be alerted to the ever-growing number of security breaches
Vultureman was committing, and then it was bye-bye Genvironment and
hello body bags.  Aluro shivered every time he thought about Tradyk’s
warning.  Not that he’d mind leaving Genvironment.  It was how he’d be
departing that had him worried.

 He neared his room, pausing as he heard the sounds of a telescreen from
the dwelling down the hall.  Chilla must be as bored as he was.  She
spent a lot of her time watching any movies she could get her hands on.
In Genvironment that was no problem—entertainment was imported just as
easily as everything else was.

Aluro decided to visit her.  Lately for some weird reason he’d found
Chilla occupying his thoughts an awful lot.  Maybe it was because they
were in the same frighteningly unstable predicament; each of them needed
a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.  Maybe it was basic biological urges
kicking in—she was a woman and he was a man, a no-brainer there.  Maybe
it was the fact that sitting in front of the telescreen consuming a
bunch of snacks most of the time she’d gained a few pounds and had
started to look pretty good, filling out into a shapely form.  He liked
her better that way, he decided.  Because of her cold outer physiology
clashing with her warmer inner body temperature she sometimes had
trouble with her metabolism, and in fact needed to take special diet
pills once a month for a potentially dangerous sugar condition.  She
tended to burn more calories than she ate, so she’d stayed skinny all
her life.

He poked his head in and found her watching a soap opera.  “Kayle bite
it yet?”

“Wrong one.  That was Monday’s soap.  This is Wild Hearts’ Desires,”
Chilla said as she reached for a handful of cheese balls on a shelf
above her bed.

Aluro noticed as she stretched that her breasts had plumped out nicely.
Before a perverted suggestion could slip its way out of his mouth he bit
his tongue.  Chilla offended was not a fun thing to experience.  “I can
never remember who’s on these dopey things.  I never could see how women
can sit through them.”

“Because you’re a typical man,” Chilla sneered.  “Men don’t appreciate
these kinds of romantic things.”

Not again, Aluro inwardly groaned.  Her complaining always aggravated
him, but it seemed like it was wearing on his nerves more so than
usual.  Yet another lovely benefit of Genvironment-related stress for
him to enjoy.

He had no idea why but Chilla genuinely seemed to be down on all men.
Either she’d latched onto an extreme feminist mantra or she’d had some
seriously lousy dates.  Okay, so a few bad experiences would naturally
sour a person for some time.  But to lump all men into the scum category
was plain foolish, just as believing all women were harpies was stupid.
Of course, being near Luna any length of time was bound to make a guy
rethink that one . . .

Aluro wondered what Chilla was like when she let down that ice princess
guard of hers—assuming she ever did.  Surely she was just like any other
woman, with dreams and plans of her own.  He thought it over for a split
second and figured he’d throw caution to the wind.  “Uh, you want to
hang out in the gym or something?”

Chilla didn’t even bother to take her eyes from the screen.  “No
thanks,” she said flatly.

“Okay.  I’ll be around . . . if you change your mind later.  It’s boring
here.” Aluro still hovered in the doorway.

This time Chilla did look at him, and the expression on her face wasn’t
pleasant.  “What do you want anyway?  You’re standing there like a
brainless Mutant,” she hissed.  “Go play with Vultureman, he’s more your
little mad scientist type.”  She stuffed a pillow behind her back and
returned her attention to the soap.

“That asshole?” Aluro snorted.  “Not bloody likely.”

“Caaawwww, who are you calling an asshole, Lunatic!”

Shit, shit, shit.  Aluro pasted a smile on his face before turning to
see Vultureman coming out of the dorm lavatory.  “It was just a joke,
for Plun-Darr’s sake,” he muttered.

The bird Mutant’s beady eyes narrowed.  “Is that so.  Better be careful
how you toss those jokes around, Al.  The walls have ears, you know.”

Aluro bristled.  He hated to be called Al.  One of his teachers had
relentlessly insisted on calling him that when he was a kid and the
whole class had taunted him with it.  At the end of the term he’d taken
revenge by using his powers to make the guy moon a faculty assembly,
then run streaking through the town.  From then on his teachers made
sure to always address him by his full name.  Aluro was elegant, suave;
it personified coolness.  Al was hicksville.  Al was a name for fat
nerds who were stuck in underpaid dead-end loser jobs as peons for
creeps like Kembri.

“It’s Aluro to you if you don’t mind,” Aluro said tightly, ignoring the
voice of caution in the back of his head telling him not to antagonize
Vultureman.  “Like I said, it was just a joke, so don’t get your
feathers ruffled.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Vultureman said, giving him a haughty
glare.  He waved at Chilla.  “Packing a few extra pounds there, aren’t
you honey?” he said snidely.

“Screw you, Vultureman!” Chilla hissed, and blew a thick stream of ice
towards the door.  Aluro jumped out of the way and the opening behind
him became a rectangular sheath of ice.  He cracked it into pieces and
saw Vultureman standing just outside of reach, snickering loudly.

That did it.  There was no call for him to insult Chilla like that.  “I
think you look pretty the way you are,” Aluro said loyally to a
surprised Chilla before walking out and towing Vultureman away.

                                               *******

The little freak struggled and squawked the whole way but he was no
match for Aluro in the strength department.  Aluro dragged him back to
his own room and slammed him up against the wall.  “Why don’t you pick
on someone your own size!” he snapped.  “You didn’t need to be so nasty
to her.”

“Lay off Lunatak!” Vultureman shot back.  “Just remember, Aluro, I can
do away with you any time I feel like it.”  He smiled smugly as he made
his threat.

“Do that and I’ll take you down with me, I promise,” Aluro said softly
but menacingly.  Opponents usually cowered when his voice dropped like
that, for he meant business when he spoke in such a manner.  “I’m not
taking your crap anymore, Vultureman.  Who do you think you are,
anyway?”

Vultureman shoved at him in a futile attempt to escape.  “I’ll tell you
who I am, Aluro!” he screeched angrily.  “I’m the creator of the new
master race!  The entire universe will bow to my will by the time I’m
done with Genvironment!”

Is this for real or what? Aluro thought, certain that Vultureman had
stooped to a new level of insanity.  He let him go and stood back.
“What kind of mumbo-jumbo are you babbling about?”

“It’s not mumbo-jumbo,” Vultureman said icily, withdrawing something
from underneath his pelt of shoulder feathers.  He undid the twisting
string on the leather pouch and two large petri dishes slid out into his
hand.  “See these?  Caaaww, my experiment’s working!” he crowed
triumphantly.

Aluro warily peered closer.  Inside each dish a tiny cluster of cells
was multiplying.  One dish, however, looked like it had gone berserk,
dividing and multiplying right before his eyes even as he observed its
quivering gelatinous mass.  “What the hell . . .?”

“I’m making vulture clones,” Vultureman bragged.  “These are just mouse
prototypes though.  I had to test Kembri’s formula first before I use my
own genetic material.”  He proudly caressed the dishes he held.  “It
won’t be long before I start breeding the purest vulture warrior beings
the universe has ever seen!”

I’ve got to tell Tradyk! Aluro’s mind screamed in horror.  There could
be no doubts now of Vultureman’s lack of sanity.

“What in the name of all the moons of Plun-Darr do you think you’re
doing!” Aluro gasped.  “Kembri will skin us alive when he finds out
you’re fooling around with his stuff!”

“We’ll see about that,” Vultureman cackled.  “You have any idea how fast
these clones grow?  By the time Kembri learns of my little plan I’ll
have enough super-clones to send him packing back to New Thundera air
freight.  In very small packages.”  He snatched away the petri dishes
and stuck them back into the pouch.  “And don’t bother informing your
buddy Tradyk about this.  You breathe one word and I’ll see to it that
Sephi’s gut-grinder gets a new tissue sample,” Vultureman sneered, his
ugly face feverish with his bravado.

Aluro schooled his own face to remain calm.  “What makes you think I’m
going to tell anybody?” he said, hoping he sounded indifferent.

“Puh-leeze.  I know what you and that Thunderian talk about when you
think no one’s listening.”  Vultureman grinned evilly.  “I happen to
know that you and he have been transmitting S.O.S files to the
Thundercats.  Let’s see, you just sent off your sixth one, didn’t you?”
he smirked.  “Shame on you, leaking corporate strategy to the
competition.”

“You bastard!  You’ve been spying on us!” Aluro snarled, unable to
contain his rage.  He moved to punch the Mutant but Vultureman held up a
hand.  “You tell on me and you’re a dead man, Aluro.”

Aluro stopped in his tracks, teeth grinding in frustration.  Damn
Vultureman!  “You’re just as dead as I am if you snitch.”

“Not necessarily.  I have proof.  You don’t.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Am I now?”  Vultureman’s eyes danced with wicked glee.  “Would you like
me to give you a tour of my homemade computer?  It has copies of all six
files you’ve sent out.”

“Damn you!” Aluro spat between his clenched jaws.  His eyes burned
furiously.  “I’ll get proof then.”

He went for Vultureman, intending to seize him and shake those accursed
petri dishes out of the bullying Mutant.  Vultureman waited until he was
almost on top of him before quickly sidestepping Aluro’s attack.  His
foot shot out and Aluro tripped on it, sprawling in an undignified heap
on the floor.  The Lunatak flipped over and found himself face to face
with an unpleasantly familiar object that immediately caused him to
freeze.  The talents of this object had been thoroughly demonstrated to
them by Tradyk at Kembri’s order, and he feared it just as much as his
comrades did.

“Stay,” Vultureman said, instructing Aluro like he was a dog.  “Good
boy.  Well what do you know?  You can teach an old dog new tricks.”  His
laughter was a tubercular noise.

Aluro’s heart pounded as he stared into the clear glass orb of the
Pepper Spike.  He could see his own sweating reflection superimposed
over the dark brown jelly bobbling inside the weapon.  “You wouldn’t
dare use that thing,” he whispered nervously.  “Not here, not in the
room where anyone can hear it!”

“It’s not an explosive.  This one’s a nerve poison that kills instantly
on contact.  Absorbed by the skin.  Disappears without a trace when it’s
done.”  Vultureman’s cruel smile stretched out from each end of his beak
as his finger remained poised on the trigger.  “Still feel like
squealing, Al?”

Aluro swallowed hard.  Damn Vultureman!  He was trapped and they both
knew it.  He slowly held up an arm in surrender, using the other to pull
himself across the tiles and away from the deadly spike.  “All right.
You win,” he said grudgingly.  For now, he thought, furious that the
miserable Mutant had gotten the best of him.

“Clearly.” Vultureman sniffed and backed away, still keeping the Pepper
Spike aimed at the floored Aluro.  “Sorry I can’t keep you company, Al.
Got some more scientific learning to catch up on if I want to meet my
clone-making deadline.”  He slipped his pouch and its revolting contents
back underneath his feathers, chuckling self-assuredly as he strode
confidently out the door.

“Remember what I said about those loose lips of yours, Aluro.  I’ll be
watching you.”



                    Next Chapter



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