“Where’s the Cat?” came out of a writer’s prompt contest on Cowboy Logic Publishing’s website. It was later published in issue #24 of Nova Scifi Magazine in November of 2009. The illustration above was painted by Chelsea Conlin. I share the story with you here today as a free read. Enjoy!
Near panic set in as we looked at each other.
“Stay here and watch the sniffers,” I said, “I’ll go check the engine spaces.”
A missing cat can be a bad thing in space because spacers never found an acceptable substitute for detecting crygen gas. Ya sure, we had sensors, but crygen is heavier than air and nearly undetectable traces of it will kill you, so half the time a dead cat will tell you you have a leak long before the gas sniffers could. If you looked down at your feet, and the cat wasn’t there, you had to find out why—and now. They taught space cats to follow you around too, so you could keep track of them, and even though cats don’t always do what you teach them, Benny was pretty good about it.
“Hurry, Pauline,” said Jim. “We have to find her.” It was unnecessary; I was already heading there at a run.
That’s where I first met the stranger.
He sat on the power unit housing, stroking Benny’s fur as she lay curled up in his lap. Now, please understand my utter astonishment, I mean there we were, three days into our thirty-day Saturn run, and a stowaway suddenly shows up in the engine room? Jim and I had gone in and out of there numerous times and hadn’t seen him, and there was nowhere in that compartment, or anywhere else on the ship, for a cat to hide—much less a man, and cargo filled the hold to the last centimeter. The unanswered questions must have shown on my face.
“You came in here looking for Benjamin,” he said gently. “She’s been here with me; we’ve been talking.”
The cat’s original owners had named her “Benjamin”, before knowing she was a female, but almost nobody knew that. We had always just called her “Benny”. The stranger lifted her, to hand her to me, and I saw the strangest thing—she was smiling. It was a huge, very un-cat-like, ecstatic grin, as if every happy thought a feline could have had combined on her face.
I still said nothing. I didn’t take the cat from him. I didn’t move. It was all so weird; I had to be dreaming. First, I find a person in a place where no person could be, and next I find a grin on a cat’s face where no such grin should even be possible. The stranger smiled.
“You’re not dreaming, Pauline,” he said.
Great, he’s some kind of telepathic, alien super-race.
I sometimes read in fiction stories about a person coming home and finding an alien sitting on their couch, watching a vid. I never thought it would happen to me though.
“Look,” I said, in a somewhat shaky voice. “I don’t know who you are, but you are not supposed to be here.”
I walked over to the intercom panel and pushed the “talk” button.
“Jim, we have a code eleven; intruder on board. Repeat, intrud…” I said, but the button never pushed in, and the “active” light never lit. I tried pushing the button again several times, to no effect.
“Did you do something to this?” I asked him.
He looked over at it, then shook his head and looked back at me, smiling kindly.
His calm scared me. I didn’t know what he was capable of, and I couldn’t contact Jim for help. I grabbed for the drawer where I kept my laser welder, but my shaking hand couldn’t seem to grasp the handle.
“Alright,” I said, pointing a finger at the stranger, then at the door. “I figure you already know where the bridge is. I have to let Jim know about you, but I ain’t leavin’ you in here alone while I do it. Move!”
I wouldn’t usually have done that—stowaways of questionable origin have no place on the bridge—but the situation gave me little choice. He stood and walked to the door, allowing the cat to climb up onto his shoulder.
Jim was staring at the safety console. He must have heard us come in, because he started talking to me.
“It’s really weird,” he said without looking up. “All of the crygen gas detectors have gone into diagnostic mode for some reason. I can’t see why, and the computer won’t respond to my commands.”
“Jim,” I said, “we have a problem.”
He looked up and saw the stranger, and his eyes went wide.
“Oh, my God!”
That shocked me a little. Jim was very religious, and in four years of marriage, I had never heard him use the Lord’s name in vain. Then he shocked me again.
“Why have you come here?” he said to the stranger, but the inflection in his tone was off. He didn’t say, “Why have you come here?” but “Why have you come here?”—and I could tell from the look on his face that he seemed to recognize the man.
“What—you know this person?” I said, a little angry.
He looked at me for a moment and blinked, “Of course I do—don’t you?”
The stranger hadn’t moved or spoken, but Jim suddenly looked back over at him, as if the man had shouted and waved his arms. Then something unspoken took place between them, and Jim’s eyebrows went up. He nodded in understanding.
“That would explain a few things,” he said.
“What would explain a few things!” I shouted. My temper was beginning to get the better of me.
“Dear,” my husband said in a soothing tone, glancing between the stranger and me. “When you woke up this morning, did you notice anything…odd…in our room?”
“I didn’t even turn on the light,” I said. “I just came straight up here to the bridge. Could you please explain to me what’s going on?”
“Come on,” he said, with a hint of sadness. “Let’s go have a look.”
We all went to the cabin, and the stranger flipped on the light. Standing there in the doorway, I could see another Jim in the room, lying on the bed with me beside him. The cat lay curled up at our feet. It was surreal. The chrono on the wall was ticking, but everything else was as still as a tomb.
I walked in and looked closely at the cat on the bed. She lay motionless. The air circulators moved her soft fur, but the muscles in her skin didn’t react. She didn’t even twitch a whisker.
I went around the bed and looked at my own face, in still and silent repose. The eyes that I saw didn’t move beneath the eyelids, and I saw a couple of particles of dust balanced on the eyelashes.
“Are we…dead?” I asked.
“There appears to have been a crygen leak last night, while we slept,” Jim explained. “It was a very small leak; we were gone before the sniffers detected it.”
By then, the leak would have saturated the entire ship with crygen gas. With us being dead, the main computer had shut the sensors off and started the diagnostic on its own.
Slowly, I stood back up and turned to look at the stranger.
“And who are you?” I asked.
He came close and dropped the cat lightly on the bed next to my body. I saw an ugly scar on his hand as he reached over and touched my cheek.
“Pauline, I am called ‘The Shepard’.”
At his touch, a flood of memories came back to me, happy times—sad times.
I saw the hover car accident when I was a child, the one that killed my older brother—and nearly killed me. I had lain injured among the blood and wreckage for hours, frightened and alone.
But, I wasn’t alone. As I recalled the event, I could see my brother and the Shepard were there. They crouched beside me, the Shepard’s hand on my forehead, until rescuers arrived.
I saw many birthdays, the Shepard leaning close as I blew out the candles.
“If there was a God,” I saw myself say to a friend at college, “my brother would not have died.” I saw the Shepard there too, standing afar off, with a tear in his eye.
He attended my first marriage, and my second, and my third.
I saw him again at the birth of my only child, when I held her for the first time. She looked past me for a moment and looked at him—her tiny fist closed around his little finger.
When I got the call that told me of my first husband’s death, he and the Shepard were with me, comforting me. They were both there again, the day my second husband left me for another.
Through all the triumphs, trials, and tragedies of my life, he was there.
“My Lord and my God,” I whispered after the memories had passed.
“My child,” he replied.
He was glowing, and a light appeared in the wall as he took my hand.
“Come,” He said, taking Jim’s hand also.
I looked at the mirror on the wall and saw my reflection; an impossibly broad smile lit my face.
I gathered up the cat and followed Him.