Félicette




            I felt like a passenger. My spacecraft, the recently refurbished Félicette (Mark 3), was out of control. One of the engine nacelles had blown and was venting gas, causing the craft to spin around like a whirligig. The pads of my paws were sore with thrashing at the console, but the entire thing was completely unresponsive. I could only hope. Hope that the self repair systems were still functioning. And hope the substance leaching into space wasn’t anything to do with the life support system.

            Glancing at the viewscreen, I noticed two threats approaching fast. Firstly, the ship which had attacked me and caused the damage. And secondly, the shower of meteors, which I figured my shields could hold off for about a minute before they ruptured my hull. Clearly, my craft was as doomed as the cat whose name it bore.



            Being a ranking commander in the Feline peacekeeping fleet, I’d been sent to this sector on a reconnaissance mission. We’d received reports about hostile activity, with a few of the Gemeinwesen ubertransports subjected to damage which ran into the millions of Marks. As a result, the Spaceway 6798 had been diverted for the time being, with the route necessitating a slingshot around a nearby red giant. Which made for a slightly interesting journey, particularly if your shields weren’t up to it. Or your nervous systems for that matter.

            I’d been sent on such exploratory missions before, which often resulted in waiting around for days or weeks until the perpetrator appeared. More than often these were pirates, usually of our own species, piloting ramshackle vessels which offered little resistance to our superior firepower. This time, however, when I’d arrived at the location, the trouble had started immediately: a spacecraft had set on me the moment I’d burst my hyperbubble.

            Before I’d had a chance to extend all my sensor arrays, the craft had fired some kind of exotic matter at the Félicette, which her shields had struggled with. Being adaptable, they should have worked this out, but clearly this substance was too strange for their semisentient systems to deal with. And the pilot of the craft seemed to know what it was doing, plugging away at the same point of the shields covering the aft engine, until they gave and it blew.

            So there I was, spinning around, wondering if I’d had my last ever Gourmet beef and tomato ration. Or if I’d ever catch a mouse again. I concentrated on the viewscreen, keeping my gaze steady as the ship’s vortex did something to my inner ears. ‘Know your enemy’, was a phrase which ran through my mind, and when the console flicked back into life, I punched magnify.

            The vessel wasn't one I recognised. It certainly wasn't of feline origin, which made things difficult. Anticipating the somewhat less predictable behaviour of aliens was challenging, but I had both the experience and the training. This alien ship was wedge-shaped, the surface mostly smooth and featureless, apart from some dimples at the thick end of the wedge, which I assumed were some kind of propulsion system. Its composition was metallic, according to the on board spectrometer. I saw it as a grey colour, but as I’m sure you are aware, feline sight isn’t as colourful as human’s.

            There was a deep shudder as another beam of the exotic stuff hit. But now the spin seemed to be helping me: my attacker couldn’t maintain a sustained attack on one area and wear down the shields as it had before. However, the meteor field was coming ever closer.

            The aft engine then began to flash something at me on the console, suggesting that it was now useless, but other systems were now online. I took a calculated risk, ramping up the thrust of the front engine, hoping this wouldn’t make the spin worse. But instead of disaster, the ship kicked forward, the controls suddenly responsive - I was back in control.

            The first salvo issued from the Félicette was intended to disable, sticking to protocol. The weapons powered across the space between us, making short shrift of the distance. The primary wave overpowered the hostile ship’s shields, and then the secondary penetrated its structure. At this moment, something very unusual began to happen to the alien vessel. For a split second I thought it was breaking apart, that there’d been some kind of weapons malfunction. Then I noticed the change in its conformation: the wedge shape seemed to split and squid like tentacles began to issue from the thick edge – I realised with a shock that this wasn’t a mechanical craft, but a live creature. With a co-ordinated flick of its multiple appendages, the lifeform shot into the asteroid field. I swore, because I knew I’d have to follow.

            Piloting through an asteroid field is relatively easy if you have both feline reflexes and a functional ship. Lacking one of these components makes things slightly trickier. Soon my paws were sweating onto the console as I wrestled with the controls. Part of me was telling me to stop and lick my fur, the evaporation of my saliva cooling me down as the water removed its latent heat from my torso, but this was just my genetic hardwiring kicking in. Instead, I knocked the cockpit temperature air conditioning down by a few degrees.

            As we danced around the asteroids, I began to have an odd feeling. Many of the rocks were similarly sized, almost as if they had been placed there deliberately. I asked the ship’s computer to plot them and log them against any known asteroid fields in the vicinity. It was then that I noticed the markings, the pattern of grooves which was similar to each rock. Or what I initially had thought to be rocks.



***



            I sit back from the laptop, resting my paws of the keys, momentarily distracted by the birds outside the window. I’m not sure I am any good at this science fiction writing thing: the genre doesn’t come naturally to me. Just look at that sentence I wrote about the evaporation of water – talk about a ham-fisted way to cram the science into science fiction… Perhaps I’m not as well versed in the nuances of its history as I should be when attempting such a project; my tall Slave, for all his lack of success at writing, doesn’t fall short in this respect – with his bulging shelves of tatty 70s paperbacks and tottering piles of hardback first editions littering my Castle. But I’ve never been one for research.

I think the problem is that the fiction I write is more contemporary real – more about the worlds in which we cats live. And there are enough strands of life woven across the metaverse to fill storybooks for an eternity. Stuff about space hardly factors in the various iterations of our world. In many, humans have been up there, but they haven’t battled with aliens, like in the story above. And only a couple of cats have been to space, but they weren’t exactly in control of their destinies.

            Félicette was the first to have made it up there and back. The way I heard it from my French cousins goes something like this. She’d been spending the day in Paris, hanging around Montmartre, enjoying the sights when she’d been cat napped by some crazy human. Thereafter, her life changed forever, as she was kept captive in a secret laboratory with a number of other felines. Even stopping time couldn’t help her – there was no way out – no way to escape the centrifuge tests, compression chambers and the rest. She goes down in history as being the first cat in space, but her life after that celebrated moment wasn’t long. Needless to say, many famous poems have been written about her fate since then and she has become a romanticised figure amongst the Caterati.

            In any case, returning to my fiction above, I suppose, given the almost infinite expanse of the metaverse, there is a chance that the commander of the Félicette exists. He just doesn’t figure in my worlds, apart from on these pages, in this story. And my intention in writing this fiction is to assist my Tall Slave’s efforts to be a published author - it pains me to see him struggle, when I have had so much success. Perhaps this effort will elevate him above the rest, perhaps not.

            I return to my scratching post, and shred it some more. Doing this sometimes helps me think, particularly when I’m trying to solve a difficult plot point. How very considerate of my Slaves to install it for me. Hanging next to the scratching post, over the banisters where they left it, is a new thing they’ve bought me. One of those drag-along-the-floor toys that they like me to run after, like I’m some brainless idiot. I entertain them occasionally, but only for short periods of time, because my interest wanders. This one is shaped like a squid with lots of tentacles, attached by a thread to a plastic stick. As if a cat would actually encounter a squid in daily life…

            Anyway, I realise that this thing’s arrival in my castle has obviously made an impression, since it has become an alien in this Science Fiction story. So I beat at it some more with my paws, claws out. Eventually a few of its legs fall off, and I’m happy. I also realise I now have an ending…



***



            It dawns on me suddenly – the rocks aren’t rocks at all. This isn’t an asteroid field. Instead, I realise, I’m surrounded by eggs. And presumably the alien, which has evolved to camouflage itself as some kind of mechanical craft, is one of its parents.

            The damage to the transport vessels makes sense now. And for the unreasonable, unprovoked attack on the Félicette – this parent was simply trying to protect its young. As parents tend to do. I recall being fiercely protective over my first litter – not so much with the second and third.

            I decide to call it in. Perhaps this is a new species and there will be some kind of finder’s fee. I’ve heard of the xenoc teams rewarding such encounters highly, as with every new species we encounter there is the associated smorgasbord of new technologies through which to rifle. But just as I begin to do so, I notice another spot on my radar.

            I look at the viewscreen, but can’t get a visual just yet. Instead, I spend some time zooming in on the alien I’m following, capturing as many images of it as I can for later examination. Finally the dot on the radar screen resolves into something in front of me.

            It looks to be a creature of the same species. Its body shape is identical to the other, prior to the transformation it underwent, with a similar wedge shape and grey colouration. But the perspective seems to be off. The ship seems to be the same size as the other but seems much further away. I paw at the radar, wondering if it has got something wrong.

            Then, as the craft gets bigger and bigger, I realise I’ve got it wrong. I’ve been led through the egg field to the bigger threat. As I begin to initiate the hyperbubble cycle in panic, the alien still grows in size until it dwarfs the other member of its species. Father has done his bit, drawn me towards his paramour. This is Mother, come to say hello, come to destroy anything that could harm her offspring.

            Her field shimmers as the exotic beam licks out towards my prone vessel. Around my ship, space turns a livid red. I wonder if this is because my hull has breached – could this be effect of the vacuum on my eyes? My thoughts seem to cloy. I imagine I’ve pressed the jump sequence, but it could just be my mind playing tricks on me. It is a similar pattern of thoughts that imagines my body freezing in the void, my fur sloughing off as my skin boils. The same imagination that also sees me getting home safely, to cheers from the xenoc team. The same imagination that seems to spin an endless second into an hour and then a day and then a week, where each possible scenario is slowly acted out, each possible ending considered.

            When time speeds up, I know exactly where I’m headed.



END












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