The Way the Cat Pounces
by Robert Wenson
Part 1 appears in this issue.
“We’re in space now,” said Rackman. “I have to set up for the first fling. Where are we going?”
“Spaceport think you go to Panjandrum,” replied Papa Bear. “You go there. After fling we tell.”
“Let me get this straight, I set up the first fling as if I’m going to Panjandrum; after that you’ll tell me where we’re really going.”
“After fling we tell. Then you go to cabin.”
Rackman set the vector and entry velocity for the initial fling on the Panjandrum route. “It will take an hour or so of acceleration before the fling,” he said to Papa Bear. “Why not tell me now where we’re going?”
The main drive came on. Its rumble grew louder as the Amethyst built up velocity for her fling through p-space. After an hour the drive cut off. There was a brief period of dizziness, an uncomfortable inability to breathe, and the inside of the bridge seemed obscured by gray mist. Then everything returned to normal; the ship was at the other end of the fling.
“That was it,” said Rackman. “Now, where are we going?”
“We go to Cardan,” said Papa Bear.
“Glory to Cardan,” added Goldilocks.
“I don’t know how to get there. You’ll have to give me a course.”
“You not need course. We sail ship. You go to cabin.”
“But—” began Rackman. The Cardani gestured with their weapons. “All right.” Did Cardani take offence? “I go to cabin, true?” he mimicked in a falsetto screech.
“True,” said Papa Bear. Either they hadn’t noticed or didn’t care.
Rackman picked up Lilly’s carrier.
“You stop. We look in box.” The Cardani looked in at Lilly who backed up, crouched, and hissed.
“In box. Food, true. Mate, true.”
“False, false, false, you blithering idiots. Lilly is a friend.”
“You keep in box. Danger, true.”
“False. She’s harmless. I’ll tell you what: I’ll keep her in the box until we’re in my cabin. Okay?”
“Okay. We not understand word.”
“Okay means true.”
“Two words, same thing. We not understand.”
“Humans are funny. Get used to it.”
Covered by the weapons of the Cardani, Rackman went to the captain’s cabin. “Lilly,” he said. “we’re in a hell of a fix, true?”
“Mrauw,” said Lilly.
“Of course, you must be hungry. I’ll just—” He was interrupted by a mechanical clangor just outside the door. “What’s going on out there?” he called.
“We lock door.”
“Looks like we’re the passengers on this trip, old girl,” said Rackman. He activated the synthesizer and dialed up a dish of chicken liver for Lilly. “And for me, a dram of whisky.” Glass in hand, he lay down in the bunk. “And now to think.”
While the p-drive provided near-instantaneous travel over distances of several light-years, it had its drawbacks. P-space, it was conjectured, was turbulent. A ship flung through it did not emerge exactly at the target point but several degrees off, the discrepancy increasing with the length of the fling.
The ship also came out traveling in a different direction from the one in which it went in. It was necessary at the end of each fling to determine the ship’s exact location. Then the vector for the next fling and the velocity needed to enter p-space could be calculated, and the ship maneuvered on to the new course. These were not simple tasks.
If the Cardani could navigate, thought Rackman, why did they make me set up the fling instead of confining me at once? Well, we’ll see how long it takes them to set up the next one.
* * *
From telltales in his cabin, Rackman was able to some extent to follow the Cardani’s activities after the fling. They did not seem to be calculating. Instead, it appeared that they were making changes to the Amethyst herself.
They started by going to the cargo hold. Then the port airlock telltale showed that one at least had gone outside the ship. Faint bangs and thumps transmitted along the hull led Rackman to conclude that it was working aft. These sounds were followed by a high-pitched mechanical whine; an alarm sounded indicating that the hull had been breached.
“Drilling holes in my ship?” stormed Rackman. “By God, there will be the Devil’s own ruckus if I ever get face to face with those skinny, scaly, little creatures. I’ll tie them in knots! I’ll break them in pieces!”
The outside Cardani returned. The two of them took their activity to the engine room and then to the p-space drive chamber. But prolonged rage was exhausting; the cabin was comfortable; Lilly was purring; and the whisky took effect. Against his will, Rackman fell asleep.
* * *
A cacophony of alarms woke him. It took Rackman several minutes to gather his wits and several more to understand what was happening. One after another, the telltales from the bridge were flashing red and going dark.
“Now what are they up to, old girl?” he said. “They’ve shut down the scope... the computator...There goes the Doppler reader... The attitude jet controller... Good Lord, even the main drive and the p-drive. Do they mean us to drift in space forever?”
Even as the last light went dark, a familiar rumble sounded as the main drive came to life. A few minutes later came the staccato burst of the attitude jets. Rackman had sailed in space for many years. Even without data from the bridge, he could tell that the Amethyst was being maneuvered onto a new course, and by a master hand.
Course change completed, the ship accelerated.
A rattle and a click came from the other side of the door. “Not locked,” came a Cardani voice. “You come out. You not danger now.”
You hope, thought Rackman. He unlocked the door from his side and went out into the passage. Goldilocks stood there, weapon in hand. “Oh, I’m not a danger? Maybe not, as long as you’re armed. Put that weapon down and you’ll find out how dangerous I can be.”
Goldilocks utter a long squeal that sounded like an off-key clarinet. “You fight me, true?”
“Damn true. Both of you together.”
“Funny.” Goldilocks squealed again. Rackman concluded it was laughing. “True. Fight both, then fight one. Danger, maybe true, maybe false. We learn.”
“Any time, any place.”
Goldilocks scurried down the passage to one of the cabins aft. It went in and came out again with Papa Bear. Both Cardani were unarmed. “We fight here,” said Papa Bear. “We fight now.”
Rackman looked into his cabin. Lilly was crouched on the bed, ears back. He closed the door. “Lilly is very sensitive,” he said. “Seeing us might upset her... Ready?”
“True. You fight first.”
Rackman interpreted this as an invitation to make the first move. Though not a scientific fighter, he was a big man, light on his feet and, in his youth, had taken a leading part in more than one barroom brawl. Goldilocks stood slightly behind Papa Bear. They might be expecting him to go for the nearer target. He dove for the farther one. The passage spun crazily about and he found himself flat on his back with both Cardani sitting on his chest. “Best two out of three?” he asked.
The first time he had gone in high. This time he went in low. A moment later he was lying on his stomach with Goldilocks sitting on his back and Papa Bear sitting on his head. “All right, two to one you can take me. Let’s try one of you.”
He quickly found out that one Cardani could put him on his back as easily as two.
“Fair enough. I guess I’m not that dangerous after all.” Beathing heavily, Rackman lurched to his feet. The Cardani turned their backs to him and walked aft. He charged from the rear.
“Good. You smart,” said Papa Bear from his perch on Rackman’s chest. “But danger: false, false, false.” Both Cardani squealed in unison.
“False. I get it,” said Rackman. Will you please get off my—” He stopped. His captain’s instinct had told him something was happening. That was it: the main drive had stopped. Then came disorientation, breathlessness, gray mist. The Amethyst had been flung again. “And you’re both here,” he said. “Who the hell is sailing the ship?”
Papa Bear and Goldilocks conversed briefly. “You come. We show,” said Papa Bear.
Bruised in a dozen places and already stiff, Rackman took his time standing up. Goldilocks went to the Cardanis’ cabin and returned with their weapons. One ahead of him, one behind, they escorted him to the bridge.
Rather, to what had once been the bridge. Every instrument and control was gone. All that remained were dangling wires and scorched ends of supports cut short.
“We throw away,” said Papa Bear. “We not need.”
“We have self-steerer,” added Goldilocks.
“An autopilot?” asked Rackman.
“Where? The bridge is gutted.”
“So that’s what you were doing. But why outside? And why scrap the bridge?”
“Humans tricky,” said Papa Bear. “We cannot plan all things to happen. Now you tricky, not problem. You not steer. You not hurt self-steerer. You not go out. We throw away suits.”
“All right,” said Rackman heavily. “You’ve got me behind the eight-ball. Now—”
“Eight ball. We not understand,” said Papa Bear. “Ball here, false.”
“Never mind,” said Rackman. The hardest part of learning somebody else’s language is the idioms, he thought. They’re not there yet. “As I was saying when you interrupted me, will you please tell me why?”
“We tell,” said Papa Bear. “Good story. Glory to Cardan.”
“Glory to Cardan,” echoed Goldilocks.
Rackman looked about the bridge. “You know, taking out the pilot’s seat was overkill. Can we go somewhere a bit more comfortable?”
“Overkill,” said Papa. “We not understand.”
“Skip it. I mean, forget it. Not important.”
“You go last cabin.” Papa Bear gestured.
“Starboard side,” said Rackman. “’Right’ if you’re a landlubber. Two words again.”
Rackman left the bridge and started aft. Just past the aftermost cabins was the crossbar of a T-intersection. If he could move fast enough to dodge into one side or the other, he might be able to get to the engine room. When they reached the cabin, he bolted and was immediately tackled.
“Okay,” he said. “‘Humans tricky.’ Your words.”
In the cabin Rackman seated himself on the bunk. The Cardani remained standing. “Now tell me why you’ve taken my ship.”
Instead of answering, the Cardani began speaking in their own tongue, slowly and rhythmically. First they spoke together, then antiphonally, then again together until they finished. “Song of conquest,” explained Papa Bear. “Cardani have many songs. Meet other people, fight them always. Win always. Glory to Cardan.”
“Glory to Cardan,” echoed Goldilocks.
“You say, ‘Glory to Cardan’,” said Papa Bear to Rackman.
“And if I don’t?” asked Rackman.
“Go to...” began Rackman and stopped. “Wait a minute. Let me explain something. Humans have more than one word for some things. True. We have many words for ‘glory.’ One of them is ‘nuts.’ Nuts to Cardan.”
“We meet human people. Fight them, false. Many humans. More than Cardani,” said Goldilocks. “We fool humans, talk, make them think maybe we not want fight.”
“We have good idea,” said Papa Bear. “Humans have many sicknesses. We come to Earth, hide, make new sicknesses from old. Try on humans, humans die. Glory to Cardan.”
“Glory to Cardan,” said Goldilocks.
“Flapdoodle to Cardan,” said Rackman.
“Now we bring new sicknesses to Cardan. Make much more. We take to all human worlds. Humans die. We fight, we win, true. Glory to Cardan.”
“Glory to Cardan.”
“Bugger-all to Cardan.”
The Cardani fell silent. “Is that it?” said Rackman. “Very impressive. I must return to my cabin and meditate on the balderdash of Cardan.”
* * *
“Dear Lord, I need a drink,” said Rackman to Lilly. Glass in hand, he lay down in the bunk and chuckled. “That was fun, but it didn’t get us anywhere. I really do need to meditate.” Lilly jumped up and tried to climb on to his chest. “Ouch. Sorry, but not right now, old girl. I’m a little sore there. You’ll have to settle for being next to me.”
Rackman’s meditations were not entirely fruitless. The problem was there was only one fruit on the tree and it was bitter. From every starting point he tried, he came to the same end. They have us in a box, he thought, and there’s only one way out. From time to time the Amethyst was flung through p-space.
Rackman realized that he didn’t know which would be the last fling, the one that landed them close to Cardan. “We’ve got to make our move now, old girl,” he said. He picked up Lilly, went to the door, and opened it. Papa Bear was on guard outside. Lilly hissed. “Calm down, Lilly,” said Rackman, stroking her violet fur. “It’s okay.”
He addressed the Cardani. “Hey, you. Call Goldilocks — I mean your buddy — that is, I need to speak to you both. I have some important information to give you — very important. It will add a whole new verse to your song of conquest.”
Soon the two Cardani were there. “You tell,” said Papa Bear.
“I will,” replied Rackman. “But first a question: have you ever visited Manichee?”
“We not know,” said Papa Bear. “What is Manichee?”
“It’s a world. One of the human worlds. Lilly is from there.”
“We not go there. This is important, false.”
“No, very true. Another question: the mice there are many times the size of a Manichean cat such as Lilly; yet the cats kill them with ease. Do you know how?”
Papa Bear and Goldilocks looked at each other. “We not know. We not understand. You hurry, you finish.”
Rackman looked down at the cat cradled in his arms. “Let’s show them how, Lilly. Pounce!”
Lilly pounced and showed them.
* * *
“Good cat,” said Rackman, surveying the shambles. “No, don’t eat that — it can’t be good for you. Come back inside and I’ll get you some liver.”
He placed the dish of liver on the deck. Lilly crouched over it. For a moment, he had difficulty seeing. He wiped his eyes and got himself a drink. “I’ll just pop out for a little while. I have some work to do. I’ll — I’ll be back in a minute.”
Carefully carrying his drink, Rackman went aft to the engine room. The main drive was roaring, accelerating the ship for the next fling. It’s so simple. Disable the fail-safes, bollix up the governor... Just enough time to swallow the whisky and then...
“No, by God,” he said. “There’s a Plan B after all.” He reached out and shut the fuel valve. The roar of the drive dwindled to silence. Still carefully carrying his drink, he went back to his cabin.
Lilly was still eating. “Forgot to swab, old girl,” he said. “Need to clean up the mess out there. We don’t want to live on a dirty ship — especially since we’ll be here for quite a while.”
When Rackman returned from swabbing, Lilly was curled up in the bunk, snoring. The captain took a chair, raised his glass, and said, “Well, old girl, it’s a hell of a way to save humanity.”
Copyright © 2021 by Robert Wenson