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by Debra K. West

Leif the Lucky wasn't feeling particularly lucky, stuck in a cage with a padded foam floor that gave his claws only difficult purchase, and surrounded by sterile metal and the buzz and whir of strange machinery. To add insult to injury was the annoying-pitched metallic almost-human voice coming from part of the metal wall: "Beginning final countdown...ten...nine..." Leif had been forced to tolerate that voice for what seemed like eternity, and had already decided that if he ever managed to hunt down the human it belonged to, he'd shred every drapery and bedspread she possessed. (That is, assuming I ever get out of here.) He paced uneasily back and forth in the cage, bristling his short tortoiseshell fur. (Wish the stupid human would stop babbling.)

A thundering sounded somewhere beneath and the cage began to shake violently. Startled, Leif went straight up, only to be brought down flat on the cushion by crushing pressure, and held there. (The air gained weight! Get me out of here! Stupid humans! It would take a human to invent a way to make air get heavier! I want to go home!)

When Leif awoke from the strangest cat nap he could ever recall, he was floating in mid air in the cage. After a few minutes of total panic he'd managed to get back to the cushion and dig his claws in just far enough to hold on. He looked around the tiny room and sniffed at the air. Nothing had changed except which lights were on and which were blinking. (At least it's quiet. Maybe the heavy air crushed the stupid human.)

Two rounded metal tubes now extended into the cage. Leif recognized them as being like the ones his human and other humans in the big plastic-and-metal place had spent a lot of time coaxing him to drink water and eat fish paste from. The water was fairly tasteless and the fish paste didn't taste quite like real fish, so he'd only reluctantly gone along with their wishes. Now he sniffed at the tubes, and discovered he would have to let go of the cushion to reach them. (When we get home my human better have fresh salmon waiting for me. I want to go home!) Leif announced loudly, and his voice bounced from wall to wall before fading away.

Leif forcefully dug his claws even deeper into the silvery fabric covering the cushion, and waited. Hours passed, his human didn't come, and hunger forced him to eye the tubes with first annoyance, then desperation. Finally he risked floating again, this time closing his eyes before letting go of the cushion. He discovered that if he remained motionless he floated near the center of the cage; by moving his tail or paws slightly he was pushed abruptly in the direction of his choice. A bit of experimenting allowed him to reach the food and water tubes.

As he had expected, they contained only the tasteless water and the not-quite-fish paste. He ate and made his way back to the relative safety of the cushion. (I want to go home!) he informed the empty room. (I won't dig up the ferns anymore! I won't knock over the stuff from your desk! Just take me home!) There was no reply save the blinking lights, and he unhappily settled in for a cat nap.

A change woke him, teasing at the edge of his awareness. It was almost a sound in the utter silence, but not quite a sound. The room shifted ever so slightly, and was filled with a warm burgundy glow. The burgundy faded and was replaced a moment later with a turquoise glow that seemed to cut right through his very essence. (It's almost like the feeling when I swallowed that stupid round metal disk and my human took me to the vet. The vet put me in that box that made noise. This glow is like-not-like that. I didn't swallow anything!"

The turquoise glow faded, but the not-sound still danced at the edge of his awareness. He waited, claws fully extended, ears on end, prepared to pounce on any attacker.

Minutes passed, and a not-glow surrounded Leif; and he felt an internal change.

He lost a moment's awareness and found himself in a new cage, this one made of a clear glass-like substance, in the middle of a bigger room. Tall, hairless see-thru humans moved about outside the cage; even their skeletons were made of see-thru stuff. Leif sniffed. The air in the cage smelled funny, different than both the stale, closed-in air of the previous room, and the dirty smell of the air he was used to breathing. The strange see-thru humans were staring at him and glancing at each other, so Leif stared back at them intently. This seemed to intrigue one of them, and Leif and the see-thru human stared at each other for a long time while the inside of Leif's cage glowed several colors. It wasn't until a device came down from the cage's ceiling and shaved off a bit of his fur that the contest ended. Leif spun, crouched, and glared up at the ceiling, prepared to pounce on the next object that dared attack him.

Then the picture imposed on his awareness. It wasn't a clear image, but it was closer than any human Leif had known had come to communication. The second picture was a little clearer. The third attempt carried with it the sensations, smells, and associations necessary for communication. A little more experimentation and Leif and the aliens were almost communicating.

(What are you.)

"A cat. I want to go home!)

(We will return you to your spacecraft when we are done studying you. What is a cat?)

(I am a cat. I don't want to go to a spacecraft. I want to go home to my human.)

A pause while the aliens exchanged glances.

(If we are understanding..."cats" such as you are the dominant sentient species and you keep and train lesser species, such as these "humans"?)

(Somebody has to get the fish out of the wet places so we can eat it.)

(This spacecraft of yours is not very efficient.)

(I don't have a spacecraft, though I've seen a few on the warm noisy box.)

More glances. (Warm noisy box is device that produces puzzling energy patterns that when put together show these humans of yours.)

(Humans created warm noisy boxes. They use them as toys for entertainment.)

(Humans are a sentient species.)

(Humans are semi-intelligent. They know how to get fish out of wet places, but then they put it in cans. They babble but they don't know how to communicate. They spend all their time building toys that stop working when they need them.)

And more glances. (You are not interested in visiting other planets.)

Leif was puzzled. (What's wrong with the one we have? If humans learned how to communicate so we could get more co-operation out of them it would be perfect. As it is we have birds and fluff-tails to chase and warm safe places to sleep and fish to eat.)

(You are not interested in trade with us.)

Leif thought for a minute. (I do have this cage I'd be happy to trade for a fresh salmon...)

After re-establishing contact with the orbiting module scientists at Van Dyne Industries International Laboratories in Corpus Christi, Texas, brought the module down with no difficulty, only two hours behind schedule. The waiting vessel made the pick up without incident and returned the module to the labs without interference, thus successfully concluding the first corporate space launch test in history. It wasn't until the module was opened behind sealed laboratory doors, safe from the prying eyes of government agents and spy satellites, that it was opened, and a glitch discovered.

No sooner was the lock disengaged and the portal opened, than a streak of red, black, and cream tortoiseshell fur went flying past the startled lab assistants to hide under the nearest available low-slung piece of equipment. Further investigation of the satellite turned up a cushion, but not the silvery one provided for the mission, rather a thick dark blue velvety one of completely unknown fabric and origin. The cage was missing entirely, along with the food and water dispensing equipment. The skeletal and scale remains of a large, fresh salmon decorated the module's interior. The on-board computer had been reprogrammed to flash a message on the screen, "not put fish in cans," for a full second before responding to any command entered.

Three separate veterinarians swore on their licenses that Leif was a perfectly ordinary not-quite-purebred shorthair tortoiseshell cat, exhibiting no unusual genetics, behavior, or intelligence.

The inexplicable events were subject to a corporate cover-up and forgotten until a full week after the landing when Leif's human, Dr. Barker, was starting to think things might get back to normal. It was Leif's first night back in the house.

He got up in the morning, went out to feed the cat, and found the remains of a large salmon in the food dish. His oak dining room table and chairs were missing.

He decided it would be counterproductive to inform his employers of the new mystery.

By the end of the week, however, there was a question clawing at his mind, and even knowing the cat wasn't capable of answering, he had to ask. "Every step I take since you got back, you're underfoot. Are you deliberately trying to trip me?"

Leif just gave Dr. Barker a disgusted look, and continued to lurk underfoot for the next several months...

...during which time he traded every piece of furniture in the house for salmon, and never allowed his human the privilege of meeting the aliens.



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