M e o w r r !

One of the Family

by Kate Thornton


I eased the throttle back slowly and the glider came to a smooth halt in front of Myron's Pet Shop. I jumped out, still proud of the way I looked in my tight-fitting uniform. When I removed my helmet and shook out my hair, I knew I could pass for twenty-five at a distance. I smiled.

I wasn't there to give Myron any trouble -- not that he didn't deserve it, the slimeball. I was there to see if the shipment of kitties had arrived yet. I wanted to get a nice little kitty to replace dear departed old Spot, my previous pet. I was wearing my Immigration Service uniform, but I wasn't on business.

I know, I know, I get a lot of rhetoric from the locals who think we should just drop our immigration restrictions and let every off-worlder in the whole damned universe move in and take advantage of our free air and water. But you tell that to the patient taxpayers who can't even afford a sightseeing trip to Mare Tranq, much less ... well, I'm sure you've heard all the arguments before, too.

Anyway, I was just there to check on the kitties. I went into the shop and was immediately assailed by the smell. It was a fecund mixture of rotting sawdust, stale lettuce, moldy pet foods and unclean cages filled with the excrement of a dozen species, including some very large reptiles. "Myron!" I called. "It's Elaine, got the kitties in yet?" Part of the smell was Myron, too. The worst part.

"Ovah heah, Sugarpants," Myron's heavily accented and wheezing voice came from a dim corner where the lights of fish tanks glowed in different colors.

Myron was short, about five-five tops, but what he lacked in height he made up for in girth. He was as wide as the aisles, which I knew for a fact had been widened recently just to accommodate him, never mind the customers. He was sweating and the scent that wafted from him made the neglected cages smell wholesome. He was also one of those specimens of humanity that made you question the definition of the term.

Our immigration restrictions seemed weird to some folks. I mean, if you were a family from the New Mars Colony and you still looked sort of human, you could move back to good ole Earth anytime. But if you were say, a family from Mare Tranquillitatis, the first moon base, and you hadn't lived on Earth for several generations, then things were a little different. And if you were a true off-worlder who had never been human, then you had to go through a laborious process to make Earth your new home. These cases were all pretty easy to figure out.

It was the In Betweens who made life difficult.

IB's were those folks who had one human parent or grandparent or who looked sorta human, but had something different about them, like Myron's girlfriend, the one who almost got sold by mistake in the shop one day when she was taking a nap in one of the heated reptile pens. Her scaly skin ... well, it was just a mistake.

Ever since we had simultaneously colonized our own moon and made contact with two other sentient species who came to congratulate us on this momentous feat, we'd had trouble with our immigration. At first, there were just prudent quarantine policies designed to filter out new and lethal viruses and diseases. But the Rigelians, who could interbreed, swarmed to Earth by the millions in the first few months. Fortunately, they were pretty easy to spot, what with their short stature and glowing blue skin.

Myron was an IB, the usual offspring of an Earth mother and Rigelian father, sort of. The Rigelians could mate with either sex of nearly all the mammals found on Earth, but seemed to prefer human women. Myron was at least half-human and born on Earth and could prove it, so he got to stay and I never hassled him over that.

But I did hassle him over his relatives and his countless siblings and the visas he reputedly sold over the counter in his shop. The kitties I was waiting for probably had some Rigelian in them. This was disturbing, but it was hard to find a domestic animal that didn't have some Rigelian in it somewhere. A hundred years of indiscriminate mating on the part of the Rigelians, not to mention the humans, too, had left the gene pool pretty muddy.

The Mating Restriction Act went into effect long after the damage had been done.

Once in a while Myron's mother, who was still around and still had a fondness for Rigelians, would try to pass off some cousin or something as half-human just to get a permanent residence visa. There was a thriving black market for these visas, especially to the other side, namely the Chorons.

The Chorons were the other species that made contact. While the Rigelians were squat, smelly and somewhat humanoid, willing and able to mate with anything that would stand still long enough for it, the Chorons were completely different. They were planal, like glass, and cerebral, controlling their external world through a complicated series of electrical commands that translated into a kinetic energy. They communicated with humans by means of electrical impulses directed to the brain. It was efficient and effective and felt like a snowstorm inside your head when they were doing it. They had no interest in sex whatsoever and seemed to have no need for reproduction as their population did not appear to fluctuate.

But they liked life on Earth -- they seemed to have an immense capacity for sensory appreciation when it came to beautiful views, fine music and the like. They were just too different from us to communicate in any way that would make us like them.

Of the two, I am embarrassed to say that humanity seemed to prefer the randy Rigelians. So much for lofty intellectual pursuit.

Nearly 15 years in the Immigration Service had shown me a few things you wouldn't want to know about, and taught me a few lessons no one should have to learn the hard way, but it had also been a good way to learn about the off-worlders. And it instilled an appreciation for the planet that could border on fanaticism if I let it.

"I'm looking for the kitties," I said to Myron. He had a hand in a fish tank, feeding something to a glowing blue fish. There was something oddly familiar about the color.

He saw my expression and laughed. "Don't even think it, Sweetpea," he said. "This is a fish. We don't do fish. It comes by this color nachurly." He finished feeding the fish and dried his hands on a towel. "They right back heah," he said, motioning to the delivery room.

The delivery room was a large bay, with exposed rafters and unfinished walls. The floor was poured concrete and cold under my boots. There was a large crate in the middle of the floor with air holes in it. I saw a little paw wave through a hole and then a tiny pink nose try to push out.

The kitties!

They were so cute I almost forgave Myron for being such a sack of rotted mulch. There were about eight of them, all mewling and squirming and trying out their tiny claws. I looked for an orange-and-white one, but those big ginger-tom types had sort of disappeared in the last decade or so, replaced by big blue-and-white ones. There was a small all-blue one with a pink face and white little paws. It looked up at me and I knew it was the one.

I picked him up and he was wonderful, purring like a glider engine in my ear, little needle claws digging into my uniform.

"Okay, Myron," I said, "I'll take this little guy." I was thinking of a name for him. I didn't have anything picked out.

Myron looked uncomfortable. "Whyn't 'chall take this one?" he said, holding up a little bundle of white fur. It was cute, too, the smiling little furball. But I had made my choice.

"Nope," I said. "This is the one. How much I owe ya?"

Myron was sweating, not that he didn't always sweat. He moved from one foot to the other and refused to meet my eyes. "Please pick another one," he begged.

"Why? This is the one I want." I stared at him with irritation, my good mood rapidly evaporating. "Is there something wrong with this one, Myron? Is there something wrong with this whole shipment of kitties?" I had one hand on my pistol belt.

"N-no, go ahead, take whatchu wan'." He backed away from me.

I went back out into the main pet shop and swiped my card through the reader, authorizing the cost of the cat. Then I put the little baby in my luggage compartment, put on my helmet, and gunned the glider.

Over the course of the next few weeks I broke up a Choron visa ring, busted a Rigelian smuggler, put through visa applications for 16 miners from the Mars Colony who had been born there but didn't like the work, and fed the growing kitten. The kitten grew like nothing you have ever seen.

I named him "Roger," after an old friend. Roger weighed 14 pounds when I took him to the vet for his shots.

"You can't be serious," the vet said when I mentioned that Roger was only a couple of months old. "This cat looks full-grown, maybe a year or a year and a half."

"No, he was only a tiny baby a few weeks ago," I explained. "I think he just grew fast." The explanation sounded a little lame to me, too. But it was true. Roger had grown tremendously in a short time.

Roger was the most affectionate kitty I ever saw. He was smart, too, and he grew more beautiful every day. And bigger. He was just like one of the family.

In less than two months after I got him, Roger was the size of a small mountain lion and still growing. I stopped feeding him canned cat food and started buying farmed meat from the local market. He liked it and continued to grow.

I knew there was something different about Roger, but I had grown to love him. I didn't want to lose him. Every evening when I got home, he would comb my hair with his claws, then he would knead the muscles in my back with his big, gentle paws. After I was relaxed, I would brush his fur until he purred himself to sleep. Then I would fix us both dinner, something frozen for me and farmed meat for him, and we would watch the video for a while. Sometimes I just fell asleep against his big warm body, his clean-smelling fur next to my face. Roger was all I wanted.

In the mornings, we played with an old pillow. I threw it across the room and Roger pounced, dragging it back and teasing me with it until I grabbed it and threw it again. Sometimes we wrestled a bit, but Roger always kept his claws in so as not to injure me. He was very strong by then, but all I had to do was cry out and he would let me go.

When he was the size of a tiger, I knew I would have to do something. Feeding him was expensive but not difficult, and his little litter box had become a regular waste-disposal system just like anything you or I would use. But I was too nervous to take him to the vet's again, even though I wanted to be sure he was in the best of health. I was afraid someone would see him.

I went back to Myron's.

"Ah bin espectin' y'all," he drawled. He finished feeding a head of romaine to a pair of hungry iguanas. "How's your kitty doin'?"

"That's what I wanted to discuss with you, Myron," I said. I shut the front door of the shop and turned the "Open" sign around so no one would bother us.

"They weren't regular kitties, were they?" I asked.

Myron kept his head down, watching the prehistoric creatures munch the greenery. He didn't answer.

"Myron, do you have any idea how big Roger is?" I asked. "He's the size of a tiger, for Chrissakes! What's wrong with him?"

"Ain't nuthin' wrong," he drawled. "Jes' got chu a big kitty is all. He a nice kitty?"

"Yeah, he's wonderful," I said, "he's the best kitty I've ever seen in my life, Myron, but he's not a normal kitty! He's bigger than I am!"

"Do he talk to you, Sweetpea?" Myron asked.

"Whaddaya mean, talk to me? No, he doesn't talk to me. He's a cat, Myron!"

"You sure, Sugar?"

Well, I was pretty sure that Roger didn't talk to me, but I wasn't sure he was a cat. I mean, I wasn't sure he was just a cat. "Myron, is there something here I should know about? Because if you don't loosen up right this minute, I'm going to poke your fat ass with a great big pin and listen to all the hot air come screaming out." I unhooked my baton from my pistol belt and pulled the endcap off it. A six-inch steel spike gleamed in the fetid air.

Myron backed up against a glass case full of tiny chirping birds. "Ah tried to git chu t' take anuthuh one," he whined. "Ah din't wan' chu takin' thet one!"

"Why, Myron? What was wrong with him?"

"Aw, shoot, Elaine!" he whined. "If ah tell you whut, you jus' gonna git mad and thet pore kitty ain't gonna have no home!" Myron's blue-tinged skin glistened with sweat.

I couldn't imagine Roger homeless. He would always have a home with me, no matter what. I loved that cat more than anything, more than any human, half-human, alien or what have you I had ever met. I understood all those elderly women who gave up the company of ornery and smelly old men for the company of sleek and beautiful cats.

"Don't be stupid, Myron!" I said. "Roger will always live with me. I love that cat. Now what's wrong with him?"

Myron told me.

"You're a liar!" I screamed. I ran out of there and vomited before I reached the curb, splattering my shiny jackboots with my lunch.

It's been three months since I saw Myron. Roger continued to grow a bit more, but seems to have stabilized at about the size of a lion. I keep him indoors all of the time now, but he doesn't seem to mind. He runs on my treadmill for exercise and climbs up and down the stairs. He eats well and still likes to play with the pillow. He's as affectionate as ever and still combs my hair and kneads my back for me. He doesn't talk, though.

But Myron was right. I guess I should get rid of Roger, but it's too hard to think about it. You see, Roger is nearly full-grown now, and will want a mate soon. And as much as I adore Roger, the thought of mating with Myron's brother turns my stomach.



Story copyright © 1998 Kate Thornton <kittyf@hotmail.com>

Illustration copyright © 1998 Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>




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