"How much for that pretty kittycat you got there, young lady?"
Janina started, jarring Chessie out of her brooding nap. Chessie laid her ears back, stretched, and gazed up into the face of the man who stood smiling down at them. He was a grizzled-looking spacer in the middle of the human life span, she judged, wearing a uniform, the arms of which sported a collection of ships' patches bearing insignias she did not recognize. But then, Hood Station, where they had just docked, was a backwater facility providing the interface between the agro-based planet Sherwood and the rest of the universe. A wide variety of human types roamed the corridors. Though the man didn't seem threatening, he certainly seemed ignorant about cats, as Janina, Chessie's Cat Person, immediately informed him. Had Janina been a cat, Chessie thought, she'd have been bristling.
"Excuse me, sir, but if you are referring to Thomas's Duchess, descendant of Tuxedo Thomas, the original Barque Cat himself, she is not for sale at any price." Janina tightened her arms protectively around Chessie's kitten-heavy body. "Beggin' your pardon, miss, I had no idea the lady was such a celebrity. She's just such a beauty and I'm looking for a cat for my kid. Looks like she's going to litter soon. How many kittens do you reckon she's got in there?"
"Dr. Vlast says no fewer than five and perhaps as many as eight!" Janina replied proudly. "Chessie is a good breeder and a good mother."
"Glad to hear it. Glad to hear it. Still, that's a lot of kittens. You'll be looking for homes for them, won't you?"
This fellow just didn't get it, did he? Chessie knew her kittens were far too valuable to be given away as pets! How could a spacer not know the history of Barque Cats? Had she been able to speak to Janina, she'd have asked, "Doesn't he know we save lives, that we patrol the tight areas of our spaceships, keeping rodents from eating the coating on cables, smelling hazardous gases and even escaping oxygen?" Chessie looked into Janina's face, which was flushing a pretty pink, and mewed her confusion.
"Chessie's-the Duchess's-kittens were spoken for three litters ago, sir," Janina informed him politely, then added, reeling off the little speech the crew's communication's officer had prepared for her, "They are highly prized, as her progeny are not only superbly bred but have all grown into the best ships' cats in the universe. The sire of this particular litter is Space Jockey, a cat as renowned as the Duchess herself for his breeding and spirit."
Hah! The truth was that although Jock was a handsome tom, he was a terrible brawler. That trait accounted for the rambunctiousness of these unborn babies of his. Chessie had never carried a more active litter, and that was saying something! She had borne twelve litters in fewer years, barely having time to train one kindle of kittens in the space ways before the next lot was born and the whole process began again. She couldn't actually remember many times when she had not been pregnant. It made patrolling the ventilation ducts and interior passages of her ship, the Molly Daise, a bit difficult at times, but there were always half-grown kittens to go into those few places where she could not fit her belly.
"Is that the truth? Well, I'll be. Could I pet her? Would she mind? She's such a pretty cat."
"I suppose it would be all right," Janina said, with a glance down at her.
The girl was already a bit more skittish than usual, and Chessie knew it was because she had opposed this latest pregnancy. Chessie couldn't agree more, but she graciously lifted her head to meet the man's fingers and felt Janina relax somewhat. The man had a gentle touch, and his fingers smelled pleasantly male and of a recent hearty meal. She gave the back of his hand a lick as he pulled it away.
"What a darlin' girl," the man said, smiling at her. He had a very nice white smile that made his rugged face look younger. Chessie approved. He could probably snap a rat's neck with a single bite with teeth like those!
Janina beamed. Chessie's young Cat Person took as much pride in Chessie and her babies as Chessie herself did. They had been together ten years, all of Chessie's life and over half of Janina's, who had been a mere human kitten when Chessie was born and the girl became hers. Some ships' cats considered their Cat Person to be a cross between a caretaker and a colleague. Chessie had thought of Janina as an older sister initially. But over the years, through her many litters, she had come to regard the girl almost as one of her own kittens. A grown kitten able to help with birthing the others, but still so young and in need of reassuring nuzzles and purrs.
"I'm sorry, but I really need to keep moving," Janina told the man. "We're on our way to Dr. Vlast's clinic now for her prenatal checkup."
"A prenatal checkup for a cat? She must be really special," the man said, keeping pace alongside them.
Chessie wanted a bath but couldn't start one while clasped in Janina's arms. The kittens were trying to pounce each other while still inside her, judging by the way it felt, and bouncing about the space station wasn't helping. She shifted her weight so her pretty fluffy tail draped over Janina's arm, making more room for her pretty fluffy rear. She mewed up at Kibble, as the rest of the crew called Janina. Apparently, a lot of Cat Persons on other ships had the same name, but Chessie was sure none of the others were as sweet and kind or took such good care of their Barque Cats as her Kibble did.
The man seemed to have appointed himself as their escort, walking easily beside them when the way was clear, breaking up clusters of thoughtlessly chattering people when it wasn't with a cheery, "Gangway! Pregnant lady coming through!"
Janina said, "Thank you. Poor Chessie and her kittens have such a great reputation, and fetch such a big price that she hasn't been given enough time to rest between litters, in my opinion. I want Dr. Vlast to check her over and make sure she's okay. I thought her previous litter should have been her last for a while but I was outvoted."
Chessie wished Janina had won. Motherhood had always been easy for her before, but this litter was disturbing. She dreamed of these kittens all the time-she couldn't remember doing that before. Or having the cravings she'd had with this pregnancy, like those deliciously crunchy shiny beetles she'd discovered in the last shipment of fresh fruit from Jambago Trine. She couldn't seem to get enough of them. Just thinking about them made her hungry.
"Those kittens must be worth quite a bit for the crew to risk stressing out Mrs. Puss here like that."
Janina told him what the babies from Chessie's last litter had fetched-a price that made the man whistle in appreciation.
"As much as that, eh? I knew that some of the Federated ships had cats, but I never knew they were so important, or that some were so much more special than others."
"Oh my, yes. Chessie and her kind have been specially bred for service on shipboard and have saved countless lives! Having the right cat is like having the right engineer, or the right navigator."
"That's amazing," the man said with the proper degree of awe.
Chessie was amazed too. This man must be serving on very low-class ships not to know the importance of Barque Cats, to have missed the story of the founding of her breed and profession. The entire crew loved to tell the story, over the com or when getting together with the crews of other ships. A ship's Barque Cat was a great bragging point for the crew, especially since kittens from the most remarkable cats were highly prized and went to the best homes and earned the crews extra treats. Even Janina, who never preened herself, was apt to carry on at nap-inducing length about Chessie's ancestry, breeding, history, personal qualities, and job performance. Chessie liked it that her friends boasted about her, but there were limits!
Janina had become so nervous about taking her to see Dr. Vlast-as Chessie could tell from her rapid heartbeat-it was as if she was the one who would be poked and prodded and have a thermometer shoved up her bum. Since Dr. Vlast had taken over the clinic, Janina seemed much more concerned about her health than ever before. Since the arrival of the good-looking young vet, she and Janina usually visited the clinic several times at each docking, even if she felt perfectly well. This time, the girl seemed to be welcoming the distraction of being able to talk to the curious man about her favorite subject-Barque Cats in general and her in particular. Kibble launched enthusiastically into the familiar story as they made their way through the space station to the clinic.
"Chessie's many times great-great-grandsire, Tuxedo Thomas, originally belonged to a lady named Mrs. Montgomery, the wife of Captain Mason Montgomery," Janina told the man. "She and Thomas lived on PS Station until she was killed in a ventilation accident. Thomas must have blamed himself for not preventing the death of his mistress, because when Captain Montgomery returned to the station, he found Thomas patrolling the ventilation ducts, apparently looking for leaks. Thomas didn't stop the behavior when the captain, out of respect for his wife's love of the cat, took him aboard his cargo ship, the SS Flamboyant."
"I can see where the cat might have been a big help on cargo ships with foodstuffs," the man conceded. "Maybe keeping down the vermin, the rodents and bugs, but surely any cat could do that-and traps and sonic deterrents and other devices would serve the same purpose."
Hmph, Chessie thought, revising her opinion of the man downward. He must be a dog person!
"Up until then, animals were only cargo, not crew members," Janina continued. "But Tuxedo Thomas proved himself over and over, finding tiny oxygen leaks and breaches in the hull and drawing the crew's attention to them, as his descendants like Chessie do today. Of course, he caught vermin too, but before long he mostly acted as a self-appointed morale officer. He would visit sick crew members, sit beside others of the crew during long watches, again, all the things Chessie and her colleagues do for us today. Which is why they're so carefully bred and expensive." "And your regular kind of cats don't do those things?" the man asked. Chessie's ruff bristled. His posture, which had initially seemed protective and now felt predatory, and his light teasing tone, indicated that the story was not as new to him as he wanted Janina to believe. There was excitement in his scent too, anticipation, which was odd. It was a good story, but most people didn't react to it that much.
Janina, focusing on her story, didn't notice. Chessie knew that in spite of herself, her girl was thinking of Dr. Vlast. She liked him because he was a good doctor, with a way about him that made each of his patients feel as if he was their person. During the few times when Chessie had stayed at the clinic, she'd heard other cats and even dogs and horses each talking about how if anything happened to their humans, they knew they'd be okay because Dr. Vlast would take care of them. She liked him, but he affected Kibble a bit like catnip affected Chessie.
It had more to do with the fact that unlike the previous vets, he was young, only a few years older than Janina, and he smelled good in a strong male sort of way. Janina was always sneaking looks at him when she should have been paying attention to her, so Chessie supposed that by human standards he looked good too.
Whatever the reasons, Janina seemed to come in season every time she was around Dr. Jared Vlast, though it was difficult to tell with humans. When Chessie was in season, she was in season. With most humans it only seemed to happen when they were around specific other humans. They were an odd, unpredictable race, even the best of them. "Oh no!" Janina said to their new acquaintance, and Chessie could tell that the girl's emphatic denial amused the man. "Why, these cats are so valued that every ship carrying a Barque Cat is required to bear a chartreuse sign with the legend 'COB'-Cat on Board. That way, if the ship is wrecked and the humans all perish, other ships coming by will check to see if the cat found a last tiny chamber of oxygen and was somehow saved."
"Huh," the man said. "If the cat is the only one left, seems to me it might not have been doing the job you said it does-you know, finding leaks and such."
Janina shifted Chessie so she couldn't see the man's face anymore. The girl was quivering a little as she came to the defense of Chessie and her kind. "With all of the patches on your uniform, sir, how can you fail to understand that there are many hazards in space that even the most experienced human crewmen-much less a cat, however specialized her breeding and training-could do nothing to stop-meteors, unfriendly fire, all manner of things. Thank you for walking me to the clinic. It is time for our appointment."
Well, that told him! Chessie was sure she heard the man chuckle as he walked away. She would have wondered at his odd reaction to Janina's snub except that Dr. Vlast was opening the clinic door for them, and the kittens had decided to play tag inside her swollen belly.
Chessie purred as Dr. Vlast took her from Janina's arms. Even the kittens quieted down. Despite his regrettable tendency to subject her to medical indignities, Jared Vlast was a great favorite of Chessie's as well as her girl's. The two older vets previously operating this clinic had been very brisk and businesslike, and not at all respectful of Chessie's importance to her ship. Janina, then little more than a child, had whispered to the kitten Chessie, "Never mind them, Duchess. Those kinds of doctors think only livestock animals are important-cattle, sheep, pigs, horses. A lot they know!"
For the first time, Chessie noticed that her doctor's heart was also beating fast and his pulses were thumping as he smiled at Janina, who was trying hard to look calm and professional but couldn't help how big and round her eyes got when she looked up at him.
Hmm. Well well. Good! The attraction appeared to be mutual! Chessie was surprised her human friends couldn't hear each other's chests pounding. Or maybe they could and just wouldn't admit it. Humans were so strange about mating matters.
From the Hardcover edition.