Wyld FLASH – November 27th 2020
By Robert Bagnall
That D’Abru was dead was obvious.
“We can’t have a body in here,” Brill said. “You’re putting us all at risk.”
“He’s one of us. He deserves a proper burial.”
Four of the Leyburn’s crew had made it to the escape pod, but only three had made it alive. Engineer Garth D’Abru, mellow in life, was now the source of considerable tension. Cadet Reed Hannigan balled his fists tightly to hide their trembling as career silverbacks, Captain Carl Brill and navigator John Gideon stared each other down.
“I was captain on board ship. I’m captain on this pod,” Brill threatened.
Gideon looked away, stepped back from the brink. Hannigan could breathe again. All three moved D’Abru’s body from the pod, back into the airlock.
“Do you want to say some words?” Brill asked placatingly, his hand over the button that would open the outer airlock door, releasing D’Abru’s body into space.
Gideon shrugged. “He was a Yoruba.”
“Is that it? He was a Yoruba. Brilliant eulogy.”
The three men looked at each other in confusion. None of them had spoken.
Wilson, the ship’s cat, sauntered from the escape pod’s head. “Well, if that’s all you’ve got, do us a favor and flush him into space. Go on, press the button.”
The mouser began licking its fur clean, stealing glances at its human companions, as if to say, I can lick my own genitals. And that makes me better than you.
“You spoke?” Brill said, staring in disbelief at the cat.
Satisfied, Wilson curled up on a padded seat, stretching a paw. It seemed to shrug. “Turns out, it’s always a good time to take the next evolutionary step. And right now just happens to be that time.” And then, fixing Gideon with a stare, “And, maybe, we’ve just leapfrogged some of you on the tact front.”
“I meant, I don’t know what words they use in his culture: he was a Yoruba,” Gideon said as if in a dream, having to explain himself to a cat.
“You spoke?” Brill repeated, more loudly.
Hannigan realized he had pressed himself up against escape pod’s side, as if trying to get as far away from this freak of nature as possible.
“Cats don’t talk,” Brill chanted, “Cats don’t talk. This is some stress-induced hallucination.”
“You used to be monkeys,” Wilson said with only one eye open, its tail flicking back and forth. “And before that fish.”
“CATS DON’T TALK.”
“Press the button,” Wilson mocked, disinterested.
Brill’s head was in his hands, mouthing his mantra over and over.
Hannigan reached over and released the airlock. Unseen, the body of D’Abru was sucked into space, a muffled knock the only evidence to the three humans and one feline within.
“Unless you were going to eat him,” Wilson suggested sleepily. “Missed a trick there.”
Brill made a leap for Wilson, but the cat was too fast, skittering under the seats, just a pair of back paws and a whipping tail.
“Did you feel that?”
Hannigan looked up, not understanding. As a cadet, he had only been on board The Leyburn to observe and learn. They had been adrift in space for five days. Stubble was turning to beard. Tempers were fraying. Boredom was constantly referred to, body odor too close to the bone to mention.
“That’s only two boosters,” Brill explained at the latest of the occasional knocks the vessel suffered.
“Meaning?” To Hannigan it felt like gently riding another craft’s wake in a dinghy.
“Meaning we could be corkscrewing through space,” Gideon said, expressionless. “The pod should automatically calculate a trajectory to the location that gives us the greatest chance of survival. Corrections should be minimal. The pod’s correcting itself too often. It thinks it’s pushing us one way, but it’s going another and is continually correcting back. It’ll be out of fuel before too long.”
Hannigan fell into a brooding silence. Seventeen years old. His first assignment, and it would end with his body entombed within an escape pod floating in the cold vacuum of space.
“Do you want to hear a joke?” said a familiar but unwelcome voice.
“NO,” Brill screamed.
“Are you jealous that I’ve evolved?” Wilson enquired, cocking its head.
“I don’t want to die in space with a talking cat.”
I don’t want to die in space, Hannigan thought.
“Okay,” said Wilson, cleaning its whiskers, “there’s this man who lives next to a cat. And the cat says to the man, ‘I’m better than you’. And the man says, ‘How so’. And the cat says, ‘At least I don’t have a fucking cat living next to me’.”
A cat swearing is stranger than a cat talking, Hannigan thought, closing his eyes, a futile attempt to make the nightmare go away. Why is that? How could anything be stranger than a talking cat? And does that mean there’s a degree of strangeness beyond a swearing cat, of which we are yet unaware?
Opening his eyes Hannigan found Gideon’s face next to his. He could taste his breath. He found his lip involuntarily curling. Not that his hygiene was any better.
“I thought it was okay,” Wilson was saying dismissively. “Is it in the telling?”
“We could be rich,” Gideon whispered, eyes wide, spittle at the corners of his twitching mouth.
Hannigan pushed himself up on one elbow.
“Think about it. A talking cat.”
“Here’s another one,” Wilson said, fully aware that all were trying to ignore him. “Brill dies… no, stay with me… Brill dies and he’s at the pearly gates. Saint Peter asks him what he’s there for, and Brill says that he’s there for Jesus. Saint Peter turns and says, Tell Jesus his taxi’s here.”
From the corner of his eye, Hannigan could see Brill shaking, barely able to keep it all in.
“Rich,” Gideon whispered.
“Ah, suit yourself,” Wilson said, and twisted itself around, its head between its back legs and proceeded to lick.
Twelve days. Three since they had last heard a booster. They were adrift.
“Time to open another ration pack,” Brill said starkly.
The packs were stowed in sealed overhead lockers. The ceremony of displaying the plasticized seal to the others had become more perfunctory each time. Now Brill, as the senior officer, merely pulled the scarlet seal off and flipped up the hatch. And froze.
Inside the locker Wilson stretched, fat and happy, rolling on clawed-open wrappers, as if inviting its belly to be tickled. “My, oh my,” it yawned. “That was good.” And then, as a jocular afterthought, “Hey, how do you stop Gideon spitting? Simple, turn the grill down.”
Then everything happened at once. Brill lunged at Wilson, who transformed from a feline Falstaff weighed down with feasting to a missile of fur and claws. And then Gideon was on Brill, a battering tackle that sent the senior officer into Hannigan, and Hannigan, winded and dazed, into the side of the escape pod.
Gideon and Brill were caught up in each other, wrapped tight, with too little room to pull a fist or elbow back. Each shift in position was met by the other closing the gap, forcing them into the corner of the pod.
With a throaty grunt Gideon appeared to change tactics, burrowing into his opponent. Muffled cries, effort made vocal. And then he rose, almost coital, scarlet around his mouth as a black fountain arced and sprayed from the hole in Brill’s neck, spattering Hannigan, painting the pod interior scarlet. Drowning, Brill flapped underneath him, the fight leaving him, writhing becoming shaking becoming mere twitching.
Gideon fell back, slipping in the congealing blood as he pushed himself away on his elbows from the now still and silent Brill. “He tried to kill Wilson,” the blood-soaked Gideon said by way of pathetic explanation. “He tried to kill our cat.”
Before Hannigan could answer, the pod lurched with a dull echo of metal on metal. A wrench and the airlock opened with a sigh. Two figures in spacesuits, another two behind. Helmets were twisted, lifted. Hannigan glimpsed the corrugated silver innards of an umbilical stretching away to their rescuers’ craft. Uncomprehending faces took in the blood around Gideon’s mouth, down his front, across the floor of the pod in thick black smears to where the still-warm Brill lay lifeless.
“Jesus,” one mouthed.
“He tried to kill Wilson,” Gideon said. “He tried to kill Wilson.” A looping plea.
“Who’s Wilson?” the second face asked, concerned, looking at Hannigan.
Hannigan shook his head. “The cat,” he heard himself explain, as if from a million miles away. “Wilson’s the cat.”
“The cat?” the first repeated, disbelieving.
As if on cue, Wilson was at the feet of their rescuers, rubbing itself against them, neck stretched, face up, eyes half-closed.
“Tell them, Wilson,” Gideon screamed, his breaking voice echoing inside the pod. “TELL THEM.”
But Wilson just purred and arched its back and eased back and forth against the metallic crumples of their suits. And said nothing.
Author Bio: Robert Bagnall was born in Bedford, England, in 1970, and now lives in Devon, between Dartmoor and the English Channel. He is the author of the novel ‘2084’, and the anthology ‘24 0s & a 2’, which collects two dozen of his thirty-plus published stories. He can be contacted via his blog at meschera.blogspot.co.uk
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