A writer by the name of Lawrence M. Schoen once said every SFF writer must eventually write a cat story. I’ve written two, of which this is the second.
Swirling Beneath One Thin Ring isn’t long–only 2200 words. It originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Martian Wave. It is my 22nd published story.
SWIRLING BENEATH ONE THIN RING
<create document journal.doc>
Here in the gas mines of Jupiter, the humans keep themselves busy trying to maintain earth’s supply of exotic gasses. Usually, I just try to stay out of their way, but sometimes I get the call. Most of the humans don’t think I know what they’re up to, but I know. I’m really part of the crew.
My name is Bester, and I’m a genetically engineered Persian cat. I’m not like some engineered cats. My fur is lackluster, my whiskers don’t sense as well as they should, and my night vision stinks. I’m here because I can think. That’s where they enhanced my family’s bloodline. It’s a good thing, too, because these humans wouldn’t survive a week in this gas mine without cats.
I know what you’re asking yourself, why send a cat when a perfectly good dog would do? Well, let me tell you something about dogs. Dogs pee on the mining pods, dogs dig in the carbon granules of the air purification filters, dogs make too much noise, and dogs just plain smell bad.
Why not genetically engineer a dog, you ask? The answer should be obvious. A dog is, well, a dog. This is a job for a cat.
I’m typing this on my human’s computer. She doesn’t know I can type, much less keep a journal. She isn’t that good on computers, either, so I can hide the files. Oh, here she comes.
<save as journal.doc>
Was away a rather long time. My human, Kendra is her name, she just got off shift and had the weekend to relax. She never went out, so I had to wait until her next shift on Monday. That’s today.
I’m not frustrated or upset. It gave me time to spend with that cute Cheshire on deck 14. She works in Argon. I’m assigned to Methane, so I hardly ever see Jandra. That’s her name. I learned that this weekend.
Unfortunately, I probably won’t be seeing much of Jandra. She doesn’t think a Persian should be working in a gas mine, not even an enhanced Persian. She says Persians are too pretty–not rugged. What does she know? I figure that I’d have–
I know I left that last entry incomplete. I had to make a quick get-away because somebody came into the room. The most terrible thing happened to Kendra.
One of our methane pods wouldn’t release all its latches. Kendra suited up to spacewalk and fix the thing. One thing you’ll learn about cats if you hang around the gas mines long enough is that we hate to spacewalk. Spacewalking makes a cat think she is constantly falling, and we continuously try to land on our feet. That’s why humans do almost all the spacewalks.
This time, however, things didn’t go so well. Kendra made the repair, all right, but it somehow caused the cable to retract. That pulled the gas pod almost all the way into the recessed dimple, trapping Kendra but good.
All that happened before they came for me. The methane foreman sent a runner to bang on Kendra’s door, and that’s what interrupted my journal entry. Actually, he had orders to bring me to the airlock. Did I mention how much cats hate freefall?
Before taking me to the airlock, we detoured to the foreman’s office. Now, the foreman knew about my enhancement. The reason, no doubt, that he called for me. After my briefing, the foreman wished me luck. The man who knocked on Kendra’s door then helped me to suit up.
As the pump removed the air, my vertigo kicked in. When the door opened, I couldn’t help but look toward Jupiter. Dozens of tendrils dangled from the mine, cables disappearing into clouds that obscured the pod on the far end. Only two cables terminated above the atmosphere, pods hanging like a pair of plumb bobs.
Despite being attached to the mine hull with magnets, my feet instinctively tried to orient themselves toward the planet, and a feeling of panic spread through my body. I had to look away for fear of falling, or at least fear of panic. Irrational, I know. On to the task. Keep looking at the hull, not the planet.
I worked my way around to Kendra’s pod and inspected the situation. The pod protruded more then usual at the bottom, probably blocked by Kendra’s body.
The gap at the bottom looked like I might be able to squeeze myself through. Only problem, I had to look down toward Jupiter if I wanted to see where I was going. No choice. Bright bands of yellows, oranges, and reds, all swirling beneath one thin ring.
I crept toward the opening between the pod and the hull, fighting wavering legs confused by the planet far below and the magnets holding them to the hull of the mine. Oh, the vertigo!
Ker-klink, ker-klink, ker-klink. I plodded with relentless purpose. My Kendra’s life depended my actions. Once I reached that gap, my legs settled down. My stomach settled down, too.
The gap turned out to be smaller than I thought. In an instant, I went from confidence to reluctance. I could get stuck. Although feline vacuum suits are designed with our native agility and flexibility in mind, the helmet limited my options. The helmet consisted of a hard plastic enclosure fronted with safety glass. It didn’t give. If the helmet wouldn’t fit, I wouldn’t fit.
With my first try, I couldn’t get my ears through. Despite pinning them back, it still marked the widest part of the helmet. I searched for a larger gap, but I already tried the widest. That left me with only one choice. I had to try moving the pod.
It took some time for me to think of a strategy. I finally decided to slip into the gap backwards, tail first. No problem that. I slid inside with my feet toward the pod, and kept sliding until my shoulders came even with the hull of the mine. I only had to move the pod a few millimeters to get past.
Bracing my shoulders against the hull, I pressed against the pod with all four feet. It wouldn’t budge. I took a deep breath and pushed again with everything I had.
The pod moved–just a little, but it moved, indeed. I kept pushing until I felt a twinge in my hip. Pulled a muscle, or worse. The pod did move, but did it move enough? If I hurt myself using four limbs, I couldn’t possibly move the pod with only three. Only one way to find out if it moved far enough.
I used my three good legs to slide further down. Inside the cavity there was plenty of room–recesses for cables and electronics would allow me to work, even without a catwalk. All depended upon whether I could get the helmet past the lip. I slithered deeper until I heard the twin klunks of my helmet hitting on either side. Not enough room. Poor Kendra.
Not willing to give up that easily, I reached up with my paws and felt around. The gap wasn’t too small by very much. I could tell by touch that the smallest of margins held me in place. Maybe I could force it through.
Thankful that I hurt a back leg and not a front, I pressed on the hull and the pod to try pulling my helmet through the not-quite-large-enough gap. At first, nothing happened, but with persistence, I felt it start to slide. The sound inside my helmet made me queasy, like my claws would make if scraped across slate.
One last push and I sailed backwards, colliding with a bundle of cables. I grabbed the bundle with my one good rear leg before the recoil sent me back into the pod. At least I made it through the gap.
For a moment, I just held the bundle and caught my breath. A moment later, I heard Kendra over the radio inside my helmet.
“Bester, is that you?” she asked.
“Meow,” I said. I’m enhanced and as intelligent as any cat, but I don’t have the physiology for speech. No cat does. I’ve tried, but it always comes out sounding like meow to the human ear.
“I’m so glad you are here,” Kendra said.
I meowed again. She couldn’t see me. Her upper body disappeared behind the curvature of the pod, her back-side toward me.
“My foot, baby,” she said. “It’s caught in these cables.” She slurred her words, as if she were losing consciousness.
Her foot did appear to be stuck but good. Before untangling her, I needed to survey the situation. Pushing myself around our small gap using my three good legs, I discovered the foot tangled in the cables to be the least of her problems. Kendra’s hard helmet held the pod from retracting completely into the gap. If I freed Kendra, the pod would retract further crushing her softer parts. It looked as if the pod held her helmet tight. I didn’t know how I could free her.
This required some thought. It wouldn’t do to get us both killed. I had to get that pod off of her and send it back toward Jupiter, at least a few meters.
The main cable that held the pod to the mine ran past us both before winding itself onto a spool. “Meow”
No answer. “Meow?” I wished I could say her name.
Still no answer. She must have passed out. I had to do this alone. With the emergency, I didn’t have time to review any schematics. How did these spools work?
My leg began to throb. That took my mind off the problem, dangerous in this situation. I forced myself to ignore the pain of my leg and inspect the spool. The spool’s axle disappeared into a gear box mounted on the hull. My vacuum suit came equipped with several cat-sized tools that pop out of what would be the wrist of a human suit.
I popped out the screwdriver and worked the cover of the gear box free. I had never worked on a gear box before, but the thing didn’t look all that complicated. If I could pry one of the gears loose, the pod should just float away with a push.
I tried to reach Kendra again, but she still didn’t answer to my meows. No time to waste. I stuck the screwdriver between the top and second gears and pried until something snapped. The screwdriver, not the gear.
What else did I have? Wrench, Hammer, blade. If the screwdriver broke, what chance did the blade stand? I had to try. I didn’t have the strength to break a gear with the hammer, and the wrench wouldn’t fit between the gears.
I retracted the nub of the screwdriver and opened the blade. With the thinner metal, I had to pry in the direction of strength, that is, twist the blade instead of push up or down on it.
It worked. I didn’t need to remove the gear, just get it away from the gear with which it meshed. Careful prying paid off, and the gear slipped free. The spool should pin freely without those gears meshed.
Fatigue caught up to me, but I couldn’t rest yet. The pod needed a push. I found a place to rest my rear legs and stretched to put the front legs on the pod. My hip burned as I pushed the pod clear.
I’m not that strong, muscles aren’t where my enhancements went. The pod moved anyway. It moved slowly, but it did move. Kendra floated free save the foot tangled in the cables. Her body pivoted around her ankle as I maneuvered my way back to her foot. Freeing her turned out to be a simple job. Getting Kendra back inside the mine concerned me. When the brass sent me out here, Kendra had been conscious. Magnetic boots or not, I could never carry Kendra back to the airlock. I expected she would do that herself.
I pressed the emergency button on her vacuum suit and waited for a human to come join us on our walk.
Three days now since I freed Kendra. The doctor thinks she will make a full recovery. They bandaged up my leg and told me to keep off my feet for a while, but I can’t type without standing. I tried it sitting and it makes typing uncomfortable. Oh, the things I go through to tell this story.
Kendra asked me to chronicle the entire event in my journal. Yes, she apparently knows about this document, though I’m not sure how. Perhaps I leave a few too many hairs in the keyboard. Whatever the reason, I’m sure glad she doesn’t mind my journaling. An off-duty enhanced methane mining cat can only stand so much boredom. I have no interest in yarn or scratching posts. What else would I do with my time? I have a full two hours before I’m supposed to meet with Jandra.