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Pshaw-Ra the Spectacular, Mariner of the Stars, returned to his world in what he fondly imagined as triumph, bearing with him the seeds of salvation for his race, if not his entire planet.
Were he not the bold, heroic, cunning, adventurous, incredibly brave, fast talking, quick thinking, highly skilled, and of course devastatingly handsome cat he knew himself to be, all would have been lost. But thanks to his daring, his farsightedness, his willingness to spend month after solitary month in alien space cleverly tricking passing ships into unwitting participation in his master plan, his race would be saved. And so, more or less, would the remnant of the once-proud Barque Cats, now beaten and broken, bewildered by the betrayal that had befallen them at the hands of those they had once loved and served. It had been a useful object lesson that would make them, Pshaw-Ra thought, much more amenable to the plans he had in store for them.
Unfortunately, he had been obliged to accept the assistance of a crew of cat-friendly humans in transporting his cargo. He didn't see them as a major obstacle. In time they were bound to acquiesce to their place in the feline scheme of things.
Chortling behind his whiskers, Pshaw-Ra steered his pyramid craft to land upon the sands of his beloved homeworld. "Go, now," he said with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness to his recently recruited assistant, the only cat among his cargo he thought might cause him any difficulty. "Be with your boy. He is no doubt frightened and will need you to comfort him."
The half-grown kitten, whose long black coat with white chest and paws resembled an antique version of male human formal dress, flicked his fluffy tail, turned around twice to look at the hieroglyphic controls he was still far too ignorant to understand, and bounded back down the cat-sized corridor leading from the pyramid ship's nose cone into the larger portion of the ship.
Once the youngster left, Pshaw-Ra activated his communication device and announced his imminent arrival to his planet's people and especially to his queen. "Bring healers and groomers, bring the eligible queens and virile toms. Bring the most biddable and best socialized servants that they may choose among the new ones those most worthy of honor. For my part I bring kitten-capable breeders of great size, many toes, and somewhat regrettable furriness. Also, for my queen, delectable fishy treats."
He didn't listen for a response before darting out to wait for the triumphal procession that would escort him and his prizes through the city, according him a hero's welcome.
CHESTER, AS PYRAMID SHIP LANDS ON PLANET MAU
Entering the atmosphere of Pshaw-Ra's planet, it occurred to me that while we Barque Cats had been preoccupied with escaping death in the labs of Galipolis, perhaps we should have spared a thought for where we were going afterward.
Because now, here we were and there was no going back.
Our host, the tawny short-haired big-eared Pshaw-Ra, pilot of the pyramid ship, was the only one among us who knew anything about this mysterious world. And he had been far too busy smiling into his long black whiskers to provide a narrative preview of the place that he had promised would be our new home. All he had confided in me was that cats here were very advanced, worshipped as gods, and were bent on universal domination.
That was fine for him. Most of the other feline passengers who came with us were still in a state of shock from recent events. In the past weeks my race, including my mother and two of my brothers, had gone from being valued crew membersguardians of their ships' safety and beloved fur-coated surrogate children of their human crewmatesto being labeled the vectors of an unknown disease, incarcerated in dirty cages in a crowded laboratory, and threatened with mass extinction. Several Barque Cats, it was rumored, had already been sacrificed on the altar of scientific inquiry, and the others feared they would soon follow.
Then Pshaw-Ra decided that we two, who were traveling together at that time, should rescue them, not because he was such a benevolent cat but because (a) we fit in with his plans for the previously mentioned universal domination, (b) it was the fault of him and his accursed kefer-ka, the delicious keka bugs we all loved to eat, that we were mistakenly thought to have a disease in the first place, and (c) Jubal and I wouldn't have stood for any other course of action.
But once we were inside the ship, and the other cats had time to absorb the fact that they were no longer in cramped dirty cages in a strange place, but were now in cramped quarters, rapidly getting dirty, aboard strange space vessels, they immediately wanted to find something to hide under or to attack, each according to his or her nature. Desperation clawed every available surface, including some human ones, desolation yowled in ear-splitting decibels throughout the ship, despair shed carpets of hair that floated through the air as if fur could bond with oxygen. My fellow catscats who had saved a thousand ships (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but LOTS of ships)were thoroughly bedraggled, bewildered, and frustrated.
Fortunately, thanks to Pshaw-Ra's mouse hole, a cat-created shortcut through space, our trip was not a lengthy one.
One moment we were fleeing with Galactic Government attracker ships hot on our tails, the next we were surrounded by space empty of other ships, with a sandy colored planet looming ahead. In the far distance were one large star and two smaller ones, but no other ships that we could see. We passed a moon on our left. It seemed to be circled by a bristling cloud of something or other.
"What's all that?" I asked Pshaw-Ra, indicating the cloud.
"State-of-the-art terraforming equipment in its day," Pshaw-Ra replied. "It transformed Mau from an uninhabitable chunk of rock to the paradise you see before us."
I beheld the big planet, most of it a nondescript beige, growing ever larger in the viewport. It continued to fail appearing any more impressive. "Mrrrrumph," I said. "Some paradise."
"Once great cities and pyramids rose from the sand, but that was in ancient times. Ours was among the earliest colonies to be settled, and when the great colonial corporations decided they could do better elsewhere, they took many of our people to newer worlds. Mau serves its purpose quite adequately for the rest of us, however, at least until we are ready to rule the universe."
"Rrrrright," I said.
"Do not judge a planet by its surface, catling," he said sharply. "I have many wonders left to show you."
"I can hardly wait," I said, cleaning delicately under my tail.
"Just wait until we are given our heroes' welcome, the choicest tidbits placed before us, the most alluring mates offering themselves, our two-legged slaves providing every imaginable comfort."
What's that about two-legged slaves, Chester? My boy, Jubal, sent me the thought privately. The short-furred tawny cat couldn't have heard it because he was too busy gloating about the joys of his planet and all he expected to find there. I don't like the sound of that.
The boy and I can share senses, he seeing through my eyes, hearing through my ears, smelling, tasting, and feeling what I smell, taste, and feel, and vice versa.
He sat just on the other side of the hatch that separated the cats-only bridge of the pyramid ship from its docking bay. We were the only creatures remaining on the ship since our escape from the Galactic Government. Once Pshaw-Ra had threaded us through the mouse hole, we had entered the docking bay of the Reuben Ranzo, the ship Jubal had served on. The hatch was opened and the dozens of Barque Cats who had been packed around my boy inside the pyramid ship were released into the Ranzo to join the throng of cats who had been transported to the larger ship after being crammed into two other shuttles.
This was the result of our daring rescue.
As soon as we had unloaded our passengers into the Ranzo, Pshaw-Ra launched the pyramid ship into space once more, leading the way to his planet. "Why do they call your planet Mau?" I asked Pshaw-Ra.
"They didn't call it Mau, we did. The humans named it Bubastis, but that's not a word easily spoken by their godsnamely usso they had to change it," Pshaw-Ra replied.
Pshaw-Ra dismissed me shortly before we landed so that I could be with Jubal. Though I was somewhat surprised by the tawny cat's consideration, I was quick to take advantage of it.
I bounded down the catwalk leading from the bridge in the nose of the pyramid cone, leaped onto the deck and made for the small ship's tiny docking bay to share first impressions with my boy.
I sprang onto Jubal's knees shortly before we landed, and my boy unstrapped himself from his seat.
The Ranzo landed beside us. In a moment Pshaw-Ra paraded into the docking bay and activated the paw-pad control for the pyramid ship's hatch.
A few of the rescued cats peered curiously around the humans emerging from the Ranzo, but the rest, I suspected, were hiding under bunks and in ventilation ducts and the other places Barque Cats normally patrolled. They weren't in a trusting mood, hardly surprising under the circumstances.
My motherThomas's Duchess, aka Chessiestood beside me. "It's so open," she said when her paws touched the ground. We looked out over a landscape more featureless than an empty cargo hold.
Toward the south, though, the endless expanse of golden brown sand and white-hot sky was interrupted by a strip of silver-green river, lined as far as we could see with a fertile strip of trees, grass, and some mud-brick structures, most of which were in ruins. A single yellow sun burned overhead, the heat soaking through our dense fluffy coats. We all had long beautiful fur, being descended from a feline race once known for some arcane reason as "Maine coon."
"How would you know where you were out there, away from the river?" Mother asked, nervously surveying the surrounding fields and sand.
"That's why we don't go away from the river!" Pshaw-Ra told her. "The river is life. And it is long. But the city is large enough for most of us, and that is where my people await your arrival and where your new lives and families will begin."
"I kind of like the wide-open spaces myself." That was my milk brother, Bat, racing toward us from the Ranzo. Bat and his brothers were born to be wild. Their mother was Git, a barn cat who befriended my mother. The two queens had birthed their litters hours apart, Bat and his brothers only slightly older than my siblings and me. When Git was killed, Mother nursed Bat and his brothers Doc, Wyatt, and Virgil, alongside her own. Jubal's father then took all of us into space to serve aboard different ships. All except Mother and me, who were sold back to Mother's original ship.
Bat plowed sand until his paws came to a stop, whereupon he stood stiff-legged and lashy-tailed beside me. "I've got your back, milk bro," he told me. "In case the locals don't all share old Sandy Britches's enthusiasm for us."
"It's too big," said Hadley, the Ranzo's ship's cat who was still in the arms of Sosi, Captain Loloma's daughter and the ship's self-appointed Cat Person. The Ranzo's passenger hatch was still open, and while a few more cats and crew poured out, Hadley suddenly wriggled from Sosi's grasp and bolted back inside the ship, leaping over the cats coming the other way. "I'll just be in here when we're ready to leave," he told us.
Pshaw-Ra spat, "Foolish feline, do you think I have led you all this way to the promised place for you to leave? You are all here to stay. This is the planet of the cats and you are a cat. Accustom yourself to your new life."
"It's very warm," Mother said, and she was right. The humans, who had no thick fur coats, were leaking water from their pelts. Sosi's face was wet and Beulah's was as red as her hair. None of them spoke cat, however, so they were merely uncomfortable, not alarmed by Pshaw-Ra's words.
Jubal of course understood him as well as I did.
The Ranzo can go whenever it wants to though, right? he asked me openly enough that Pshaw-Ra could hear.
Pshaw-Ra turned with twitching tail to regard my boy impatiently. He had heard the thought through me but was becoming adept at sorting out whose thoughts were whose. And no wonder. The kefer-ka, the shiny beetles that had caused our psychic link, were his creatures. I didn't fully understand what they wereother than deliciousor what all that eating them could do, but Pshaw-Ra claimed they were responsible for the link between Jubal and me.
"Ask the boy where he thinks the ship that allowed diseased cats to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Galactic Government can go," Pshaw-Ra said. "Our other human minions have been sent for. They will assist the Ranzo's crew in acquainting themselves with their new homes and duties."
"See here, Pshaw-Ra," I said. "It's good of you and yours to hide us here until the Galactic Government humans come to their senses. But you can't make the cats stay here if they don't like it. And you are not going to force the Ranzo's crew to"
"Calm yourself, catling," Pshaw-Ra said. His tail had stopped twitching and he sat calmly grooming his paws. They needed it, surely. All that sand blowing around out there made us all instantly very dusty. The coats of the horde of cats milling around outside the ship had all begun to look almost as tawny as his, with a coating of the surrounding environment. "I was merely pointing out that they will need refuge from their authorities until further notice, and the resident humans will be happy to offer them accommodation. Human food is less plentiful than ours, however, so the duties I spoke of will involve acquiring that as well as helping their hosts tend to our needs."
"What are they to be then?" I demanded. "Bringers of food we can hunt for ourselves and litter box changers?"
Pshaw-Ra snickered behind his whiskers, then planted his front paws wide and stared out into the vast tawniness that so closely matched his coat.
"Behold the desert!" he said. "The largest self-changing litter box in the galaxy!"