The Kitty Business

 

A Retelling of “The Feline Imperative”

 

By Sharon Best and JH, heavily revised by Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

 

Even with a Scribe's training and experience, beginning life on a new planet can be very strange. Shortly after my arrival on Terra, I learned that there was more than one set of priceless genes on this tiny blue planet, and about the lengths that other civilizations would go to get them.

 

I was living in Santa Monica at the time, spending a particular day air-walking while taking in the sights and listening to dozens of Angelenos, picking up their accents and speech patterns. Nobody noticed; my feet were only a quarter of an inch off the ground, and nobody was looking at my feet anyway: one advantage of being a Velorian. After my last assignment on Ursus Six, the freedom, the bright yellow sunlight and the crisp spring air were exhilarating.

 

I stopped in front of a sidewalk café to sort some things out and felt a furry swish along my ankles. It was a tabby street cat, who let out a pathetic little mew -- stage two of his begging routine. I glanced down as he stopped in mid-beg and stared at the little strip of light between my flat shoes and the concrete.

 

My first reaction was not, "How cute!" In fact, my first impulse was to leap into the stratosphere, and despite my best intentions and self-control I still ended up shuddering.

 

The literature on Earth had plenty of references to and pictures of house cats, but to almost everyone other than Terrans, pointy ears, fangs, feline eyes, twitching tails and purrs mean "KINTZI!" or "PREDATOR!" Except for the kitty cat, no feline species in this galaxy has ever been domesticated.

 

And frankly, Vels shouldn’t care much for cats anyway, cute as they can be. Sexual sublimation isn't in our makeup, and the genes that make for Protectors and Scribes are easy on the need for babies -- or baby substitutes. Maybe the cats resent the idea that we Vels might actually come close to their level of perfection. So we and the Terran kitties are usually quite happy to leave each other alone.

 

That had been my big mistake in Denver. A part of acclimatizing myself to Earth, so to speak, Kira Jahr-Ling had arranged for me to room temporarily with Cynthia Arnold, a Tyrrell researcher whose boyfriend had walked out on her and thus needed somebody to share the rent. I was introduced as a visiting sales executive from the French branch, which made sense because I’d been deeptaught French (among other languages). The idea was to practice fitting in, not giving any hint of who or what I really was.

 

Cynthia had the sweet, open disposition of a small-town girl from Tennessee. Unfortunately, she was also the housekeeper/chef for three cats: Luna, Sailor Moon and Red. That first night, after we talked until 2 a.m. about life – her real one and my cover story -- I shut the lights, stretched out on the sofa, relaxed my muscles, and went into meditation to sort out all the new impressions and data. So I actually was surprised when Luna materialized near my left ear and let out a growl that sounded like a Kintzi challenge.

 

Three things happened in about 150 milliseconds. I sprang at full force into alpha mode -- driving my legs right through the cushions and springs. My left arm swept to my side to fend off the attack -- propelling Luna at trans-sonic speed through the drywall and into the exterior cinderblock wall.. My eyes flipped through tachyon vision mode and right into full heat vision -- piercing the far wall, charring a kitchen cabinet and heating two bags of microwave popcorn and a catsup bottle, to incandescence.

 

Seconds later Cynthia appeared in the living room doorway, draped in a long nightgown with frilly bows and angels. Her jaw dropped as she noticed me, almost naked and knee-deep in a wrecked sofa, the splat-cat embedded in one wall and the blood-colored popcorn erupting out of the hole in the other wall. I had five seconds to explain before her synapses processed the data and ordered her vocal apparatus to let out a 120 decibel scream.

 

I lost the race. Adding to the fun, the neighbors interpreted the commotion as a felony in progress, and the County Sheriff just happened to have a squad car nearby.

 

Any conceivable explanation would expose me as a super-alien or as a danger to the public, not to mention my lack of local I.D., so I did what no Scribe had done before -- dissolving into tears and incoherent ranting about a team of thugs invading the apartment. It worked so well that in my thoughts I flipped a bird to my cranky old drama teacher, who was always nagging me about overacting. Then the deputies cuffed me for delivery to the County Hospital Psych Ward. As I couldn't foul up my new assignment only 48 hours after arrival by doing the strength and speed thing, I went.

 

Kira managed to get me out, and advised me to get the hell out of Denver. Although she didn’t have the authority to actually order me, it seemed like a good idea. Naturally, she told the cops that she was furious about my skipping. She also told them that I wasn’t the real Moēsette Saint-Clair from Europe, which was indeed the case -- but somehow managed to convince them that she was the innocent victim of my imposture.

 

A few months later, as I said, I had settled into L.A., and was quietly going about my business of observing and recording the strange customs of Angelenos, when my cell phone rang.

 

“SharaLynn,” came the voice on the other end. “Meet me in Ouray, ASAP. I need you.” And then, “Meow!”

 

It was Kira, of course. Who else would be calling me? This time I was living alone in a small bungalow, rent and other expenses paid from a dummy account of a dummy market research firm fronting for Tyrrell. I had put myself on probation: no room mates. Yet even without friends, let alone lovers, I was collecting good data: foreigners always notice things natives take for granted. When I was through here, I’d be sent to another part of the world. All for the edification of Velor, and cultural dissemination to seeded worlds that longed for a connection, however tenuous, to Manhome.

 

What was Kira up to? It was too soon for reassignment here, and much to soon for her to have prevailed on Daxxan to recall me. Anyway, she had sounded friendly enough – so her signoff didn’t make any sense: why rake up the past? 

 

Well, at least ASAP gave me some wiggle room. Leaving immediately for the rural Colorado rendezvous point would have caused a problem -- flying women aren’t part of the American cultural experience, even in La La Land. So I drove my 2007 Subaru – it just doesn’t look right not to have a car in Southern California, and it’s paid for out of the same dummy account anyway – to a remote canyon and took off from there. Hopefully, it would still be there when I got back.

 

I winced mentally as my Prada outfit first sheared into ribbons and then burned away as the air resistance heated my skin to a toasty blue-white glow. Maybe I should have left that behind, but it was time for a change anyway – there was this really hot new designer in L.A. Got to keep up.

 

Kira wasn’t surprised to see me arrive naked in the box canyon outside picturesque Ouray. In fact, she held out a spare uniform for me.

 

”No time to shop for civvies here, but I have some waiting where we’re going,” she explained.

 

“Which is?” I wondered.

 

“Provence.”

 

I was still wondering why as we soared into the sky, but all Kira would add was that it had to do with our “red friends,” which of course meant the Scalantrans. Only the Scalantrans didn’t visit Earth. They weren’t supposed to, anyway. It had to be some sort of rogue operation. That could be a problem, for us and the Terrans and the legitimate Scalantrans.

 

We landed at a secluded cottage in the Vosges Mountains, one of Kira’s getaways, and switched to civvies. We flew the rest of the way very carefully. I figured our ultimate destination wasn’t that far off, But I was confused when Kira landed a few hundred feet from an old stone barn in a rural backwater of Provence.

 

A black man wearing a yellow and green stocking cap over his ears and dressed in green jeans, a plaid shirt and boat shoes was talking with a young girl holding two white kittens by the barn. A sign near the road announced that the kittens were free to a good home and the man with the odd fashion sense was assuring the girl in the worst possible French that he would take care of them like his own children. 

 

When the child ran back into the house, kitten in tow, calling for her mother, Kira sprang forward. By the time the man turned his head to investigate the whooshing sound, it was too late. Kira and her human cargo were flying into an olive orchard hundreds of meters away. I followed. The moment his feet returned to earth, the man began an arm-waving, saliva-spewing tirade.

 

“Super bitches! Flying whores!” the man shouted. “Don’t you have your hands full with Near Earth Command?” He had to be a Scalantran Adopt; no ordinary Terran would know about the NEC unless he was really, really high up in the government.

 

“Take me to your leader, Boris,” was Kira’s response. “Interpol has you on its watch list, even if it doesn’t know why. And they share surveillance data with us, even if they don’t know it. Sol’s got his ship parked around here somewhere. I could find it myself, but why waste time?”

 

That seemed to take the wind out of him. Eristratov – that was his last name, I learned later – took us to his Citroen parked down the road. The only real problem was the two of us squeezing into the back seat of the tiny vehicle. We managed as best we could while Boris drove us over a series of bumpy back roads to the Scalantran lander.

 

The ship was cloaked, of course, but we could make out the shimmer in the air that Terrans would take for a mere heat mirage. Kira ordered Boris to sound his horn and, after a few moments a strange figure emerged from the shimmer.

 

It’s hard to read expressions on Scalantrans, given that their faces are nothing like humans’. I could see that this was a male, given his huge ears with long earlobes like on the Easter Island statues I’d seen in a book, but that wasn’t saying much since rogue operators tended to be male anyway (Sexual equality was the rule with legit Scalantran traders.). When Sol Estis saw us with Boris, however, he had to know the jig was up, no matter how inscrutable his face might seem to me.

 

Even so, he tried a desperate ploy: “Could trade you rare Tetrite rose crystal for discretion in this matter,” he boomed in Velorian – not very polished Velorian.

 

“You wouldn’t be trying to bribe us, would you Sol? Anyway, I figure you must have already made enough in the kitty business – assuming you had the brains to breed them back home.”

 

“Breed them myself? I hate cats. Anyway, that would reduce their value. That’s why I sell only one to a customer.”

 

“Well, you’d better put some of those customers in touch with one another. Or find a clone bank, because you’re through with the kitty business here. In fact, you’re through with any business here, unless it’s my business. Terran surveillance is getting better, and I don’t want somebody else to catch you next time you come fishing for historical relics or whatever. You got away with that Russian moon lander, but only because the Russians didn’t want to admit they had one in the first place.”

 

“You’re ruining me!”

 

“Actually, I’m saving you, even if you don’t know it yet. You were riding for a fall, but if you promise to keep your nose clean I might put in a good word for you with the League, get you back in their good graces.”

 

Kira had Sol Estis buffaloed, and he knew it. But she wasn’t through with him yet, or with me. She ordered him to bring out half a dozen kittens he already had on board, seemingly not noticing that they put my nerves on edge.

 

“We’ll find good homes for them,” she promised, and then proceeded to take one of them out of the carrier cage and stroke it gently. It was a remarkable performance, given that she was in alpha phase – the default state for any Protector, what with the demands and potential hazards of her calling. I could hear a strange sound, which she explained was called purring,

 

From Sol Estis came a low rumbling, which I knew was the Scalantran equivalent of laughter. He shouted something in his own language, and another Scalantran, evidently a female, emerged. I hadn’t taken deepteach in Scalantran, but Kira apparently had, because she translated for me what Sol was saying to the female.

 

“’Now that’s something you don’t see every shift – a Velorian petting a mini-kintz. This Kira’s a strange one, all right. I’ll have to tell Kor if I ever see him again.’”

 

When Sol gave us his attention again, he didn’t seem to be in the same mood. “I can’t say that it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. I suppose I was bound to run out of luck some time, and perhaps I should be grateful that you don’t kill us and smash up my ship. But I’m not.”

 

“Why should I do that? You won’t be causing any trouble for us again. And, who knows? I might find a use for you some time. If I can get you back in with the League, you’ll be subject to the Compact. If you haven’t heard about that, ask any travel captain or factor. Meanwhile…”

 

She turned to Boris, who was sitting disconsolately nearby.

 

“We’re going to need your car. For the kittens. They’re more than a handful.”

 

“But what about me?”

 

“You could walk back home. But if I were you, I’d hop ship with Sol here. You’re still on that Interpol watch list, and they can probably find something to pin on you if they ever catch you. I might even find that something. But if you go with Sol, you’ll get to see the universe, which I can assure you is a lot more interesting than the inside of a jail cell.”

 

This sparked some animated conversation, in Scalantran, between Boris and Sol. for which Kira didn’t offer a translation – except that Boris’ interjections of “Govno!” were not Scalantran, but Russian for “Shit!”

 

Still muttering, Boris finally disappeared into the shimmer with Sol and the female. We heard a faint noise – these anti-gravity shuttles are built for stealth – and the shimmer moved upwards and into the sky,

 

So there we were, with a Citroen and a carrier full of kittens. We had to see someone about finding homes for them, but before that Kira wanted me to get acquainted with the creatures. She insisted on me reverting to beta phase, which would make it safer – for the felines that is – and which also necessitated a stop at a bistro for a meal and… Let’s just say I thought I could have drunk Provence dry.

 

It took a while, but I actually got to like the kittens. I might adopt one myself, only I can never be certain of living in one place long enough. And, even now, I don’t want to get too sentimental about Earthly things.

 

 “This Protector shows great wisdom,” I recorded after our adventure. “She knows when to use subtlety as well as strength. Still, she has a sentimental streak that may create Prime Directive problems.”

 

Kira was like that. And not just with cats. She claimed to be able to speak with dolphins, having learned their language at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Plus, she had a weakness for fashion designers -- well, so did I, but she'd had a lot longer to get over that sort of thing -- going back to when she’d been a model (The story of how she got from being a model to a billionaire running a global pharmaceutical company must be told elsewhere.).

 

One fine June afternoon, she was particularly bubbly, taking a break in Italy and looking forward to a date with a Grimaldi -- some models she’d met working for a rival pharmaceutical firm at a recent trade show had insisted he was truly an interesting man. Anyway, there she was, taking in the sights of the Eternal City. Instead of returning in the hired limo, she decided to stroll back to the hotel through a leafy residential area.  

 

There are few places more civilized and calming than a well-to-do Italian neighborhood in early June. The plane trees lining the street still had soft, bright green leaves and shielded passers-by from the powerful sun. Vines bearing pink and blue flowers climbed up the walls bordering the sidewalks. From behind the walls came faint sounds of children playing, maids working and mothers chattering, but the street itself was empty and quiet.

 

 Sitting on a railing along the sidewalk as she soaked up the ambience, the near silence and Kira’s pleasant reverie were interrupted by a series of small cries from the leaves of a large tree. Sure enough, a calico kitten was trapped on a branch. After a quick all-senses scan to assure that no one could see her, Kira stepped next to the tree and drifted quickly upward into the branches, her white skirt and blouse gently waving. As she slowly approached, the kitten backed off and Kira paused with her eyes level with the branch.

 

She began mewing and cooing, as if she knew felinese. Maybe she did. Fascinated, the kitten edged forward along the branch toward her. She continued mewing so she could enjoy the kitten’s bemused look. Then it swiped at her glittering hair, only to entangle its tiny claws in her silken but unbreakable strands. The kitty began yanking its paw back, and a drop of blood emerged where a hair began to cut into its fragile skin.

 

 Sensing the pull, Kira immediately realized that the cat was in danger of amputating itself, and her right hand flew up to grasp its paw. With a screech, the kitten snapped at her head, and two fingers of her hand shifted to immobilize its head before it learned what dangers dental flossing with Velorian hair could bring. Well and truly trapped, the kitten redoubled its complaints and pushed its other front paw forward into her hair, tiny claws extended to give her the scratch of her life. That paw, too, quickly entangled itself hopelessly. There was no choice; she had to use her left hand too. The little calico thrashed and spat, trying to pull his rear paws into position to rake her head.  

 

At this moment, a nearby gate opened and a ten-year-old girl, with long, black hair, spunky brown eyes and a demure pastel dress, came calling for her kitty. She immediately looked up into the tree, seeing a beautiful blonde woman seemingly floating in air, with both hands struggling to hold her caro gattello, enveloped in her golden hair. She called for her mother, and almost immediately two servants or bodyguards came through the gate. Kira just had time to seat herself on the branch, using volatai to offset her mass and keep the branch from splitting.

 

While one man searched for a ladder, the other kept near the girl and unleashed a rapid interrogation in Italian. With the kitten squirming and hissing in her hair, her flying skills in careful balance, and her mind trying to respond to the rush of questions and imprecations in Italian, Kira was trapped. In minutes, private security cars, a fire truck, a dozen residents and two cars of the local police were clustered around the tree. Not to mention a local paparazzo. The pictures made all the European papers but didn’t get much play in the U.S. because a teenage girl singer was found in an L.A. car crash with her 35-year-old producer and an extensive array of funny substances, and another celebrity was involved with a freak accident with a Komodo dragon.

 

Still, my report with the picture of Kira standing back on the ground with a grinning fireman in the background, leaning over to the girl while trying to extricate the kitty with both hands tangled, while using her hips to block an approaching policeman with shears, is still being held in the secret files on Daxxan. She never got to meet Grimaldi, by the way. Just as well; as a billionaire she isn’t known as a fashion plate – after all, she has to look older than she actually is for her cover identity as Lisa Matthews, baroness of a global pharmaceutical empire.

 

 As for Sol Estis, word filtered to us a few years later that he had apparently taken Kira’s advice about breeding and/or cloning. Cats were all the rage on Enlightenment worlds but also in the Empire. It seemed that the fashionable crowd on Aurea had been introduced to pet cats and that they had quickly become a status symbol. The kitties’ aloofness and scorn toward Aureans (and everyone else) only confirmed their essential Aureanity. The trade was complicated by roving Kintzi, who considered it a moral outrage for any other species to confine a feline – never mind that they were supposed to be the Empire’s allies. As they also considered the existence of a competing cat species to be a moral outrage, they set out exterminating cat traders and hunting down their inventory for fun. 

 

But risky as it is, the trade continues. Business is business.