The shadows giggled.
Shadows, as a rule, were not supposed to giggle. Lurk, perhaps. Menace, certainly; shadows were permitted to menace. Threaten and loom and torment and imperil; shadows, or at the very least, things in the shadows, were allowed to do those sorts of things.
Giggling was right out.
Lurcher scowled ferociously in three directions at once.
A chorus of small voices said, “OooOOOOoooh!” in a fashion which utterly failed to be impressed.
Lurcher’s ears drooped. All six of them.
The shadows giggled again, then began to roil.
Roiling, Lurcher had to admit, was reasonably appropriate behavior for shadows. It bespoke of terrible dangers. It suggested death, doom, dismay and maybe even a little bit of dismemberment. Roiling was good.
Seven thousand, eight hundred seventy eight Kitlings roiled out of the shadows, overran him, and scampered away, shrieking maniacally.
Lurcher lay on his back, staring up at jagged, blacked-out buildings, and the violently bright band of stars visible beyond them.
Maybe roiling wasn’t so good after all.
“It was supposed to be a cush assignment.” Lurcher slid further into the rocking chair cushions like Big Bad Wolf pretending to be Grandmother. The cushions were embroidered, dusky roses on pale pink velvet, all tied with sturdy strings of velvet to the frame of the walnut chair. The best part, Lurcher thought, were the ribs that made up the back of the chair. Earth had very little in the way of civilization, but it understood chairs. It understood the need for somewhere to put a person’s tail.
The rocking part was even better. Not even his homeworld of Sirius had come up with chairs that rocked, and Sirius was unquestionably the height of civilization.
Well, if you asked a Sirian, anyway.
Lurcher tucked his tail up, a well-timed wag that matched the backwards rock of the chair, preventing the stunningly painful crush of delicate bones under the curved runner. It had only taken two ill-timed rocks – and once watching Mr. Campet, the six-legged cat, get caught under the chair – to develop that cautious rocking habit. Campet had sprung across the room with a yowl that would have done his Earth counterparts proud. Lurcher’s tail twitched as he remembered the feline-like alien’s run. It had taken everything in Lurcher’s power to keep him from chasing after Campet. He was just so cat-like. And Lurcher was, well . . . .
“I’m a tracker,” he said despondently, looking around the parlor with his middle head. The left head stared at the floor, its ears wilted. The right head stared up at an oil-lamp fixture with an absorption that belied its indifference to the tale Lurcher told. All three noses inhaled, the warm scent of baked apples in the air. It comforted him and he lifted his middle head, ears perking up.
“A bounty hunter,” Lurcher went on. A ripple of understanding went through the room, crossing alien faces, some familiar, some so peculiar even Lurcher’s sensitive noses couldn’t define their feelings and emotions with any certainty. “It was just supposed to be a round-up.”
Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus had only one purpose in life, and it was not, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to be thrown in jail for all eternity for crimes against what on Earth would be called humanity, and which in more civilized parts of the universe was called . . . humanity.
There were moments, Lurcher reflected, when he really hated the fact that nearly every race’s name for itself translated to ‘the people’.
He began again.
Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus had only one purpose in life, and it was to achieve that apple of golden apples, immortality. The land war on Aysha had merely been an attempt to extract a reputed elixir of immortality from its long-lived populace. The utter destruction of the planet’s biosphere was nothing more than a tragic accident, which Mariana sensibly fled at speeds previously only achieved by cuckolded husbands in pursuit of the cuckolders.
Going up against the Venusian Oracle (better known as the Venusian Blind) had seemed necessary to her; after all, death was on the line. That it proved to be the Blind’s death, resulting in twelve years of planet-plundering civil war, suited Mariana just fine.
What the Blind had told the Madame Doctor wasn’t Lurcher’s problem. Nor was the civil war, or the depleted planet, or the millions of dead Kittalicus left in her wake. His job was to capture her.
It should have been a cush assignment.
Lurcher crept through the hospital, his heads lowered and noses quivering against the astringent scent of antiseptics. The halls were narrow, the walls bright polished mirrors, and the ceilings very high. Every once in a while Lurcher stopped and sniff around, trying to locate mild light source that made the halls glow without overwhelming even Lurcher’s three pairs of eyes.
The resulting ambient light was really extremely attractive, if you didn’t mind the pleasantly-lit mirrors reflecting dozens upon dozens of copies of bounty hunters creeping down the halls. Lurcher was an old hand at tracking down renegades, and knew from sneaky.
This was not sneaky.
The whole place made him cringe. Its only saving grace was that there seemed to be not another soul in the entire hospital save Lurcher himself, and, buried somewhere in the depths of the building, Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus.
Actually, Lurcher’s life would be far easier if Kittalicus was literally buried. The problem was that she wasn’t. No, she was down in the bowels of the building, Experimenting Horribly on a creature that would—
“Pardon me, but Lurcher?” Mariana’s voice chimed out through a speaker system as difficult to pinpoint as the light source. “You’ve been crawling around up there for two hours. Could you hurry up with it? I’d like to Reveal My Creation, but it would be far more satisfying with an audience.” Melodic tones. A warm, honey-filled voice. Doctor Madame Kittalicus sounded as if she ought to be the most beautiful woman in the universe.
One of the many, many problems was that she was.
Every bounty hunter sent after her thus far had simply succumbed to her charms. A few had escaped. Most had taken up positions as doe-eyed serving boys in her household, with the doe-eyed part being rather literal. Mariana had a tendency to experiment with her prey.
Lurcher, he had assured his employers, was absolutely immune to Mariana’s considerable charms. Her elegant facial features, her long nose and dramatic cheekbones, her terribly blue eyes and her pouting mouth, were all lost on him. The coil of dark antennae that curled down the slender length of her back held no appeal to the Sirian hunter. He was utterly impervious to her soft, pale mint skin and her delicate elongated fingers.
It wasn’t his fault that the scent of the woman made him want to sit up and beg.
This time, Lurcher promised himself. This time, he would stick to his guns. He felt at his hips, nervously, to make sure the guns in question were still there, then remembered he was holding them. It was all that damned woman’s fault. She smelled like honeysuckle. She smelled like sex on the beach and rainstorms and chocolate, even if he’d never encountered chocolate before getting stuck on Earth. She smelled like crisp autumn nights and he was not going to let her saunter out of the room after scritching the particularly itchy spot behind the left ear on his middle head a second time.
Lurcher shot a mirror. It exploded and he felt much better about the whole prospect of facing down the Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Mariana said. The intercom system gave a sort of deep throbbing sorrow to her voice, as if her big blue eyes were welling up with tears that she was only just brave enough to hold back.
“I thought there might be a secret passageway to your laboratory,” Lurcher said with aplomb, and shot a second mirror, this time because he felt guilty.
“The secret passageway is the second hall to your left, fourth mirror in. Please hurry, Lurcher. This is very important, and you’ve been stalling.” The intercom clicked off softly, leaving Lurcher standing with his nostrils flared. He knew he’d been stalling. It seemed very bad form for his prey to point it out.
Lurcher trotted down to the second hall and shot both the fourth mirrors in. The one to his right shattered backwards, littering a staircase with shards of light. Lurcher paced forward a few steps, all three heads pointed attentively down the stairs. Reflective bits of light shone several feet down, faintly illuminating the lines of steps. Evidently the mirrors themselves were the source of light. Lurcher holstered one gun, stooped, collected a shard big enough to light his way, and trotted down the steps towards the comforting scent of fresh-baked bread.
Moments later he burst into Mariana’s laboratory. Like the rest of the hospital, it was walled in mirrors, testimony to the vanity of its creator. Complex equipment full of test tubes and bubbling liquids and flashing computer consoles were tidily packed into the lower third of the room. Cages of doe-eyed serving boys were scattered hither and yon, most of the caged creatures looking dizzily at Mariana Kittalicus, who stood in the second-most of three concentric rings in the center of the room.
The delightful scent of wild strawberries nearly undid Lurcher right then and there. He staggered, then straightened manfully and paced forward dangerously. “Doctor Kittalicus, I’m here to place you under arrest—”
“Shh, shh, not now, Lurcher.” Mariana swiveled her head, blue orbs looking earnestly down at him. She stood something over nine feet tall, even sitting on her haunches, and the way her mandibles moved made the five-foot-tall Lurcher feel like lunch.
The scent of a really nicely seasoned steak rolled over him. Lurcher forgot both the feeling of being a snack and the reason he was there, and instead smiled adoringly up at the giant mantis scientist. Mariana folded her forearms up happily and turned back to the innermost circle.
A gleaming white capsule leaned at a slight angle in the center of the circle. A faceplate several feet higher than Lurcher could look into was slightly fogged, obscuring any view he might have had. “What is it?” he asked nervously. It looked, he thought, like a cloning chamber.
“A cloning chamber,” Mariana reported in her rich voice.
Lurcher hated it when he was right. “You cloned yourself? That’s illegal.” He also hated it when he said really stupid things. Mariana gave him a patronizing smile.
“Of course it’s illegal, my dear. I’m an evil genius, aren’t I? But don’t worry. I didn’t clone myself. I tried,” Mariana admitted, dismay darkening her wide eyes to an oceanic blue. “But my exoskeleton appears too fragile for the process. Would you like to see some of the mistakes?” she asked eagerly.
“No!” Lurcher barked with all three heads, then growled deep in all three throats. Much as he didn’t want to see the grotesqueries Mariana had created, he shouldn’t lose vocal modulation and revert to the yips and snarls of his native language. “No,” he repeated more moderately. “What did you clone, if not yourself?”
“Two dozen of the most beautiful women in the universe,” Mariana answered promptly. “I’ve taken all of their best features and created an utterly empty-minded adult to download my psyche into. It isn’t a perfect immortality, but I believe I have the process perfected and should be able to repeat it at whim. I’m so very glad you’re here, Lurcher,” she said sincerely. “This is ever so much more exciting with an audience.” She reached forth a long finger, permitting it to hover over a glaring red button on the white chamber.
This was Lurcher’s cue. He knew it. The moment was at hand. He should shoot Mariana, or at the very least the chamber, and arrest her for crimes against humanity.
Still, he was awfully curious. What did the amalgamation of the two dozen most beautiful women in the universe look like? Surely another few seconds couldn’t hurt. Surely nothing could go terribly wrong in the moment or two it took to see Mariana’s creation. Besides, there was a scent of baby powder in the air, soothing, and Lurcher’s finger eased off the trigger.
Mariana stabbed the button.
The chamber hissed gratifyingly, parting slowly, dramatically, down the center. Mist billowed out of it in waves. White light shone down from the splitting center, two half moons so bright Lurcher wanted to avert his eyes. From the mist stepped a figure, unsteady on its bipedal feet.
It was a most peculiar figure. A full half of its body was made up of legs, not entirely unlike Lurcher, although it was instantly clear the figure’s knees bent the wrong way. They bent forward as it – she – moved, and the very idea made Lurcher’s own knees hurt. She wobbled a little, unsurprisingly, for there was clearly no tail to help her balance, and besides, Lurcher reminded himself, it was an entirely new-born creature, even if it was an adult in form. Her hips narrowed into a waist not nearly as narrow as Mariana’s own, but it looked reasonably sturdy, then broadened again into ribs upon which were set an excellent set of mammary glands, even if there were only two of them. Her shoulders and arms were in the appropriate places, and she had elbows in a somewhat peculiar place. At a glance her hands were better designed than Lurcher’s own, with the thumb much shorter and closer to the rest of the paw than a Sirian’s would be.
Her face was quite flat, a small slightly pointed chin and a turned-up nose that only poked out a bit further than the chin; not much muzzle, Lurcher thought, but nothing was perfect. Her mouth was small and pink and had, Lurcher immediately suspected, inferior teeth, particularly compared to his, but Mariana’s people got by without teeth at all, so he supposed to each his own.
She had extraordinarily blue eyes, much like Mariana, although hers were placed a third of the way down her head and took up only a small percentage of her face, where Mariana’s face was dominated by her faceted blue eyes. A mop of short brown fur on top of the clone’s head displayed an evident desire to flop into the very blue eyes. Except for some tiny, peculiar light brown spots on her face and arms, she was pale, although not mint green like her creator.
She looked, in short, entirely unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was not elegant or beautiful or exotic or stunning. She was not any of the things Lurcher expected from the compilation of the universe’s two dozen most beautiful women.
What she was, he slowly came to realize, was really . . . cute.
The clone smiled, first at Mariana, then at Lurcher, revealing the expected flat, inferior teeth, and then her blue gaze focused beyond Lurcher on the dark hallway he’d entered from.
In a voice of true reverence, the clone whispered, “Ooooh, shiny,” and as Lurcher watched, dissolved into hundreds upon hundreds of tiny replicas of herself.
They thundered, en masse, between Lurcher’s feet. They ran, as a collective, over Mariana’s slender legs. They climbed, as a group, up Lurcher’s body, several of them stopping to stick their heads in his jaw-dropped mouths. They built ladders out of their own miniature bodies and conquered Mariana’s nine foot height and pulled her carefully coiled antennae out of their coils and then out of her head entirely. To the sound of their creator’s shrieking, the crush of little women poured out of the laboratory and picked up pieces of the glowing mirror, then ran, yammering gleefully, into the night.
“Something,” Mariana said, her dulcet voice rendered sharp and tight and ragged with pain, “has gone terribly wrong.”
Lurcher arrested her anyway.
The trial was a media hit. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. A weeping Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus was lead away in delicate filigree handcuffs to a life of incarceration until death, or until genuine repentance as verified by a reputable telepath, whichever came first. They brought her to the prison moon of N’Goth Nine, from whence no one had ever escaped.
Mariana’s first visitor arrived three hours after her lockup. The visitor, as recorded by not only the prison cameras but also the permanent news feed that the media ran on celebrity criminals, was an impossibly cute young thing with a turned-up nose and short brown hair. The live broadcast showed the cute young thing being ushered in to Mariana’s cell. The guard stepped out of the picture.
Mariana and the cute young thing regarded one another for a few moments. The cute young thing chirped, “Hello, Mother. I see your antennae have grown back.”
“Yes,” Mariana replied guardedly. “They have.” The mad scientist doctor did not quite huddle in the corner, but it was a near thing.
“I’ve come to rescue you!” the cute young thing said brightly. Off-camera, the guard laughed.
And the cute young thing did it again. Dissolved into thousands of tiny replicas of herself. Lurcher watched the instant replays over and over again, with his noses pressed against the screen, trying to see just how she did it.
It seemed to start from the feet and work its way up. She dissolved outwards, shrinking down at an astonishing pace, pooling out like a melting witch, but from the meltoff, tiny women sprang up, ranging from between three and eighteen inches in height.
The media dubbed them Kitlings.
The Kitlings took the prison apart.
All of it.
They were like ants, Lurcher thought, staring at the screen in fascinated horror. Like ants, only much more deliberately destructive. It was as if their sole purpose in existence was to wreak havoc.
An immeasurable number of the little creatures carried tiny light fragments from Mariana’s mirrors. Periodically they would become jealous and fight each other for them. Choruses of, “Oooh! Shiny!” rang up from all over the prison planet.
The wiser prison wardens took ships and fled.
Numerous of the prisoners tried to take Kitlings as pets. The Kitlings acquiesced, sometimes for whole minutes at a time.
The media tried valiantly to count the Kitlings.
The Kitlings got down to the surface of the planet beneath the prison, found no more glass or metal or shiny bits to dissemble, coagulated again and stole a ship with hyperspeed. Four hours later they landed on N’Goth Prime, the world which the former prison planet circled.
The Federal Galactic Government blamed Lurcher for the consequent disaster.
Lurcher, to save face, had only one choice.
He had to capture the Kitlings.
The denizens of the O’Leary’s parlor rumbled with sympathy. Lurcher sighed morosely with one head and lifted two chins bravely. The scent of roasted turkey wafted through the room and he considered pausing in his tale to examine the boarding-house dinner. The odds of someone else beginning their story after dinner were exceedingly good, and that would mean not having to tell the rest of his.
Then again, maybe it was best to get it over with.
The Kitlings were not, at least, difficult to find. All Lurcher had to do was follow the trail of destruction.
After fourteen worlds, two nuclear accidents, the implosion of an empty starship and the implausible draining of two-fifths of an ocean, Lurcher figured out the method to the Kitlings’ madness.
He met them on Ankoraj Six, the biggest supplier of diamonds in the quadrant. He sat quietly among the sparkling gems, studying the hues that ranged from clear blue through to a sickly sort of yellow favored by a reptilian race; against their mottled brown and green skin, he understood, the yellow diamonds glowed with a luminescence rivaled only by the dreams of distant stars.
The yellow, Lurcher thought, wouldn’t look at all good on Kitlings, but that would hardly stop them. After all, diamonds sparkled.
So he waited, amongst the diamonds. And with one brief detour to collect dragonflies big enough for them to ride on, the Kitlings came to him.
They rarely arrived in swarms. Then again, they rarely had dragonflies to ride. Lurcher was one part astonished the shimmering-winged creatures had survived the starship journey, and two parts horribly distressed they had. He had a plan, dammit! A good plan! An excellent plan! A plan with a net!
The plan didn’t account for an air contingent of Kitlings.
They buzzed. They swooped. They swarmed. Several Kitlings launched themselves off their dragonflies and hung from Lurcher’s ears. He shook his heads violently; the Kitlings squealed, trilled, and hung on for dear life, happy as . . .
Well. Happy as Kitlings. Nothing in Lurcher’s experience was as happy as a Kitling, except possibly several thousand Kitlings together, hell-bent for leather.
Or, more to the point, hell-bent for diamonds.
Kitlings zoomed in over his heads, making him duck. The Kitlings on his ears squeaked gleefully. The hallowed halls of the diamond factory buzzed with the reverberations of dragonfly wings and the echoes of small Kitling shrieks.
Briefly, Lurcher wondered if Kitlings could together reach a tone and pitch that would shatter diamonds themselves. They certainly managed a tone and pitch that shattered his nerves.
Lurcher sighed and resolutely stalked down the corridor after the Kitlings. He had a net, and by every god in the Sirian skies, he was going to use it.
Two of his ear passengers dropped to his shoulders. One of them started crawling down his back, using the short brown fur as handholds. Lurcher’s two outer heads whipped in opposite directions, snapping uselessly at the little creature along his spine. Focus lost entirely, Lurcher’s feet went out from under him and he slid to the floor, growling and snapping and wrestling around, trying to get the adorable monster off his back.
Dozens of Kitlings gallumphed up to him like particularly cute Lilliputians. Lurcher’s middle head actually barked. His left head closed its eyes in shame, and the right one snarled and bit at the delighted Kitling who was now pulling fistfuls of fur out of his spine.
A compendium of Kitlings arranged themselves at his hip and liberated his gun. Holding it above their heads, they shrieked, “Chaaaaarge!” and staggered off down the corridor. The Kitling in the lead tripped. The rest gleefully tumbled off their feet, sending the gun skittering across the floor. It spun. It whirled. It came to rest, upside-down, muzzle pointed squarely at Lurcher.
Lurcher thought, “Oh, shit.”
A Kitling launched herself off the wall, diving headlong at the gun. Lurcher leapt to his feet and flung himself at it.
They arrived at precisely the same moment. Lurcher snatched the gun into his hands, holding the barrel. The Kitling caught the trigger-guard and clung to it desperately. Lurcher shook the gun violently, trying to loosen the Kitlings. She yelped and renewed her grasp, jouncing forward as Lurcher rattled the weapon.
She grabbed the trigger, squarely.
A net burst forth, sticky and gooey and very large. It caught Lurcher squarely in the faces, and the force of the projectile flung him up against a wall. One of his heads hit hard enough to lose consciousness briefly. The other two gagged and spit and completely failed to dislodge the sticky net lodged between their teeth. He flailed and twisted, yanking at the net with his hands.
His hands stuck, too.
Five hundred Kitlings, armed with razor-sharp bits of diamonds, shaved him from the necks down.
It had been an excellent plan.
Three and a half hours later, a shivering, goosebumply Lurcher extracted himself from the remains of the sticky net. Naked, with his ratty tail tucked between his legs, he crept down the hall collecting the pieces of his equipment the Kitlings hadn’t seen fit to keep. His leather belt, hand-tooled and soft, no longer had a shining wooden buckle, but he picked it up anyway, tying it around his waist. His left boot, also without its gleaming silver buckles, lay several feet further on. Two ordinary laser guns lay yards apart, one pointed towards a still-smoking hole in the wall. Lurcher crouched and collected the weapons, determinedly not looking into the hole, half afraid something would leap out of it and put his eye out.
As he straightened, a Kitling leapt out of the hole, armed with a diamond shard, and stabbed him in the ankle. Lurcher howled and kicked the Kitling down the hall. It shrieked happily, bouncing end over end until it splatted against a wall with a slightly wet sound.
Lurcher felt ever so slightly vindicated.
The Kitling peeled off the wall and staggered away. Lurcher skulked down the hall after it, laser gun in one hand, his boot in the other. Neither would do noticeable damage to Kitlings, but he held out hope the right boot would turn up and he would at least be shod, if also naked and furless.
The second laser pistol, stuffed haphazardly into his belt, bumped against his naked, furless hip. The pistol was even colder than his newly bared skin.
Lurcher paused a moment to savor his pure and utter hatred of the Kitlings.
Tracking the Kitlings wasn’t difficult: diamond dust liberally coated the floors in places, and Kitling tracks either ran through it, or sparkled beyond it. Lurcher stalked along, wishing he’d been left his pants.
Ominous thrumming and a steady, dull thud slowly grew louder as he made his way deeper into the diamond factory. Ominous thrumming was not at all how the plan was supposed to go. The plan should have been wrapped up (Lurcher smirked at his own pun) in the entrance, where the endless diamonds were supposed to collect the Kitlings into one place. The net would have worked, dammit!
It was all the dragonflies’ fault. Lurcher resolved to pull their wings off. He kicked a diamond-dust coated lump and sent it skittering, and it occurred to him that the Kitlings had probably gotten the dragonflies to do what they wanted by threatening just that.
The lump bounced into a wall and dust sparkled off it, leaving behind Lurcher’s gritty net-shooting pistol. He stared in disbelief, then ran forward with a whoop, abandoning his left boot in favor of scooping up the gun. Weapon cradled against his chest, he set forth much more boldly, despite the thrumming, the thudding, and the now-audible occasional high-pitched squeal of glee coming from the depths of the factory.
He was utterly unprepared for the yawning chasm of doom that the hall stopped in, some goodly distance further in. The source of the thrumming and the thudding became visible, terrifically tall, well-oiled machines, bashing stone apart and releasing diamond dust into the air. They looked terribly dangerous. Lurcher was uncertain if they had any purpose beyond looking terribly dangerous, but they encouraged him, at least, not to go into the gaping chasm.
The bashing machines had not, however, discouraged the Kitlings. Lurcher looked down, almost straight down, to see thousands of Kitlings happily leaning over an enormous round tank, many feet below him. The liquid in the tank shimmered. It glistened. It gleamed. Diamonds lay at the bottom of the tank, an uncountable number, an astonishing array of colors. Lurcher found himself leaning precariously far over the edge of the pit, peering down into the slightly reflective surface well below him. Kitlings clutched each other’s arms and pointed excitedly, jabbering with admiration as diamonds piled up.
From his vantage point, Lurcher couldn’t see where the diamonds were coming from, but every few moments the oily, soft liquid burped slightly, and new diamonds appeared. They were being forced up from the bottom, he thought, into a treatment of some sort.
And every single Kitling was perched around the edge of the tank.
Lurcher, grinning viciously with all three heads, took aim with his net-gun. He clicked the settings up until the goo the gun sprayed would spit out its largest possible net, some eighteen feet across. At that setting, the net had less strength than was ideal, but Kitlings, like ants, weren’t abnormally strong for their size unless they worked together, and the excitement of being shot with a net gun would probably prevent that from happening.
It was an excellent plan, after all.
The net exploded out in a wildly satisfying fashion, parachuting out over the chasm and dropping down towards the vat-distracted Kitlings. It spun gently as it accelerated towards them. It landed, stickily, knocking hundreds upon hundreds of the little monsters into the vat. Hundreds more thought that looked like fun, and leapt in after their sisters. Within moments, the vat bubbled with the energy of thousands of Kitlings kicking and squirming and tangling in nets.
Lurcher knew better than to hope they’d all drown. He squinted down the pit wall in front of him, and began climbing down a rough-hewn ladder in the stone. He would collect the wretched creatures, collect his bounty, restore his good name . . . .
He leapt the last few feet to the floor, feeling confident and arrogant, even if he was naked. He turned to the vat, which was burnished silver and had ladder rungs attached to the side, rising up some twenty or twenty-five feet above his head.
Markings in the silver caught the light. Lurcher paced around the vat, examining the cross-grain lettering.
Then he went back and did it again, nausea rising in all three of his throats, burning a hole in his belly.
In beautiful dark silver, tall letters spelled out REPLICATION TANK.
Seven thousand, eight hundred, seventy-eight. That was the dire number, the end result. That was the number spoken bitterly when Lurcher slunk by. That was the number that rang out accusingly in his every dream; that was the number that the Federal Galactic Government tattooed across his shoulders before the fur grew back. It was a number to go down in infamy. It was a number Lurcher could never forget. It was the number of the Kitlings.
Bizarrely, inexplicably, impossibly, the Kitlings still amalgamated into one medium-sized extremely cute biped who often smelled of fresh oranges or butterscotch. This medium-sized biped moved, unmolested, from station to station, from planet to planet, and left disaster behind, and yet not one station official, not one planetary guard, could bring him, her, or itself to stop her. She was winsome. She was charming. She had very large blue eyes, and legions fell before the flutter of her eyelashes.
And Lurcher was supposed to capture her. It. Them. Even when the Kitlings were one, Lurcher thought of her as them. Them. The Enemy. Them. He could no longer prick his ears up in pride. Instead, day in, day out, he thought of Them. His fur grew back. He skulked about in a hole his four-footed ancestors would have shunned. He thought of Them.
He could not, for the life of him, figure out how to capture Them.
Them made it theoretically easier by arriving on his doorstep one bright winter afternoon. A tap on the door brought Lurker slinking, re-furred tail between his legs, to the porch, where a bright-eyed, charming, cute young woman stood, a small purse clutched in both hands. “You haven’t come out to play,” she said mournfully, while Lurcher gaped.
“I’ve been waiting,” Them said. Lurcher’s tongues lolled out of his mouths in bewilderment. “It’s the most fun when you’re there,” Them went on. Lurcher’s heads began to ache.
Them pouted cutely. “Everything is much more fun when you’re there!” Them leaned in towards him, scenting of fresh cut oak. Lurcher smiled dizzily. “I’ll give you a head start,” Them said helpfully. “I’m going to Sector Zeeque’eb. You should see their fish,” Them said longingly, then smiled brightly. “I hope I’ll see you there!”
Them patted Lurcher on the cheek and bounced off towards the street.
Lurcher stood, pole-axed. Some minutes after Them disappeared, he turned, crept back into his hole, and crawled back into bed.
He caught up with the Kitlings in Sector Zeeque’eb. The native fish population was decimated. Local officials blamed Lurcher. The media declared him in cahoots with the Kitlings. Lurcher thought he’d probably be having a lot more fun if he was.
But no. Instead, there he lay, staring up at the stars, trampled by nearly sixteen thousand Kitling feet. His blaster dangled uselessly from one hand. His tail curled between his legs so high it touched his bellybutton. His two outer heads closed their eyes and waited to die.
After several minutes, Lurcher began to suspect he wasn’t going to simply die, and for a while all three heads stared at the stars.
A distant pinpoint of light sparkled in the corner of Lurcher’s outermost left eye. He turned that head towards it, and it faded away. He looked straight up again, and the glimmer reappeared.
The very faintest inkling of an idea took root in the base of Lurcher’s skull.
Everything was more fun if Lurcher was there.
Lurcher didn’t have to catch the Kitlings.
He just had to get rid of them.
And there were an endless number of planets out there without intelligent life.
The star shone ever so quietly, off in the corner of Lurcher’s eye.
It was almost certain that nowhere in Lurcher’s bounty hunter charter did it permit him to leave Sector Zeeque’eb in someone else’s cherry red, curvy, high-end spaceship. On the other hand, Lurcher was fairly sure it didn’t specifically say he couldn’t do something like that, and he was fed up with playing by the rules.
He heard the broadcast from the planet: “Ooooh. He took the red one.”
They caught up with him a hundred parsecs later. Their spaceship was shiny and silver-blue. As they caught up, Lurcher saw hundreds of tiny faces mashed up against the windows, wide eyes admiring his speedy little red ship.
Lurcher grinned with all three heads, and in a fit of smugness, waved.
Several thousand Kitlings waved back.
Their ship was an average rocket-shaped speedbug, with a particularly pointy spire on its bulbous front end. It was intended, Lurcher guessed, to carry four or six medium-to-large sentient beings. The thousands of Kitlings within looked crowded, but they clearly weren’t so uncomfortable as to re-amalgamate.
Lurcher brought his zoomy little ship alongside the Kitling ship. They waved again, eagerly. He waved back, then punched a claw-iconed button on his stolen dashboard.
Two dozen magnetic grappling hooks shot out of the side of his shiny red ship and latched onto the side of the Kitlings’ ship.
Lurcher flung his ship into full reverse.
To his absolute utter shock, the door on the Kitlings’ ship exploded outward with the force of reversal.
Hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of Kitlings went schluck! out the door. Lurcher sat, dead in space, watching the little creatures erupting into the vacuum. He waited, with a sense of horrified obligation, for their final explosive demise.
A Kitling thumped against his front viewshield and waved madly.
And then another.
Like little bits of space garbage riddling the paint, Kitlings thudded against the red spaceship until the sound of their landing became one continuous noise. In the moments before the viewshield was entirely covered, he saw hundreds of happy Kitlings breaststroking through the vacuum towards his ship.
Impossibly, the ship filled with the scent of warm apple cider.
Lurcher sank down into his chair. Despairing. The depths of dischair, he thought incongruously, and hid his face in his hands. When he dared look up, a thousand Kitlings beamed merrily at him through the viewshield.
Warm apple cider was joined by the smell of fresh yellow cheese.
Lurcher crept down to the airlock of his ship, and let the Kitlings in.
Two and a half minutes later Lurcher regretted that action more than he’d ever regretted anything in his entire life, including not arresting Madame Doctor Mariana Kittalicus the first time he had the chance, and even including knocking the Kitlings into the replication tank. Those words haunted his dreams, enormous silver letters which did nothing but loom, and yet his regret over that error was nothing in comparison to the regret he now felt.
The worst of it was they were doing nothing wrong. All seven thousand eight hundred seventy eight Kitlings sat piled on top of one another and mashed into his ship, watching him with wide, intent, adoring eyes. Once in a while, one of them trilled in admiration, but otherwise they were eerily silent.
They didn’t attack the blinking lights on the dashboard.
They didn’t moosh their faces up against the windows to watch the stars zip by.
They didn’t disassemble his ship from the inside out.
They did absolutely nothing wrong at all. For two entire solar days, they behaved themselves completely.
Lurcher couldn’t stand it.
He plotted a course to the nearest solar system, trying desperately to ignore the well-behaved Kitlings packed into every inch of his stolen ship. If the system didn’t have a planet that would support Kitling life, Lurcher vowed he would drive the gleaming red starship into the star, rather than spend another hour with the bizarrely silent, worshipful Kitlings.
It helped, of course, that their swim through space suggested that any planet he dumped them on would be ideal Kitling territory. Nevermind capture; Lurcher was no longer in the least bit certain the Kitlings could be harmed, much less destroyed or imprisoned.
The only thing in the universe that Lurcher wanted was for the adorable little creatures to be out of his life forever.
On the third solar night, as the ship hurtled through space, Lurcher fell asleep.
He woke up to the friction of atmosphere bumping the ship around. In the direction that now distinctly felt like ‘down’ lay a blue and green and white planet with enough yellow grit in the sky to suggest either a primitive industrial society or a great number of active volcanoes.
In the ship itself, Kitlings gleefully watched the planet come closer, leaning forward as if their combined body weight would make the ship go that much faster.
“Lurcher!” Several hundred of them squealed his name at once. “You’re awake! Look! Look where we’re going! Isn’t it pretty?”
Lurcher, watching the planet approach, suddenly had the sinking suspicion that he’d been had.
“Lurcher?” A Kitling clambered up his pant leg and stood on his thigh, beaming up at him. He looked down at it nervously.
“We’re really, really sorry about this,” the Kitling promised. The scent of clean warm happy puppies filled the ship, and something clobbered him on the back of all three heads.
Lurcher woke up staring at a lovely pale blue sky. Without moving his heads, he put his hands on his chest, then his stomach, then crossed his arms and checked them, too.
He still had all his fur.
Nothing else, Lurcher reasoned, could be that bad. Not if he hadn’t been shaved again. He was planetside. The Kitlings might not be captured, but they could at least be abandoned. If there was indigenous life on this planet, he felt sorry for it, but not sorry enough to hang around and try to catch the Kitlings again.
Lurcher took a very deep breath through all three noses and sat up.
There was no spaceship.
That was a bad sign.
It hadn’t occurred to Lurcher that he might be abandoned on the planet. He looked around in three different directions; immediately to his left stood a tallish stick with a Y in it, stuck into the ground.
The keys to the starship were hung neatly in the Y.
For an instant, Lurcher’s heart contracted with relief.
Then, beyond the keys, he saw a small glittering piece of metal that looked suspiciously like a distributor cap.
Some distance beyond that lay a filter. Lurcher didn’t know what it did, but he was very sure it didn’t belong in the middle of a grassy field.
He got up slowly and began following pieces of his stolen spaceship until they led to a road. He held them in his arms protectively, and looked both ways up and down the road, then sighed and began trudging away from the distant mountains.
A contemplative silence filled the parlor. “Did you ever catch them?” Mrs. O’Leary herself finally put in, perched on the edge of her chair.
Lurcher inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of rosemary and sage. “No,” he said resignedly. “I haven’t found all the pieces of my spaceship, either. I’ve been searching for them for eight years.” He rocked back in the chair. “I suppose I might never see them again, neither the Kitlings nor my spaceship. It’s a shame, really. It was a very fine color of red. Is the turkey almost done, Mrs. O’Leary? It smells stupendous.”
“Turkey?” The boarding-house mistress turned a startled expression to him. “I’m not making a turkey, my dear. I haven’t yet begun dinner.”
“But I thought I smelled . . . “
A high-pitched giggle interrupted him. Across the room, a bright-eyed, improbably cute young woman lifted her eyes and giggled again, then dissolved into nearly eight thousand Kitlings, and ran out into the Chicago night.