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Fuzzy Nation Part 2

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Chapter Four.

If I were this thing, why would I be in here? Holloway thought. Animals weren't terribly complicated creatures; anywhere you went in the universe, they tended to want to do one of three things: eat, sleep, and have s.e.x. Holloway concluded the last two of these were out. Food, then. Holloway thought. Animals weren't terribly complicated creatures; anywhere you went in the universe, they tended to want to do one of three things: eat, sleep, and have s.e.x. Holloway concluded the last two of these were out. Food, then.

He glanced around the mess of his cabin; on the kitchen counter, next to the sink, was the plate he kept fruit on, covered by a plastic bell to keep out the local insects. In the rumpus, the plate had been moved but the bell had not been dislodged. Underneath it were two apples and a bindi, a local fruit that was shaped like a pear but tasted not too far off from a banana. Both apples and bindi kept well, which was why Holloway had them.

Holloway slowly walked back toward the kitchen area, keeping his eye on the cat thing, but taking it off momentarily to lift the plastic bell. He reached for an apple, but then thought better of it and took the bindi instead. The bindi was local fruit; the cat thing was a local animal. He'd never known an apple to kill an alien creature, but why take that chance.

Holloway opened a drawer and took out a knife. The cat thing notably s.h.i.+fted at the sight of it. Holloway kept the knife low and quickly quartered the bindi, and got a reminder that bindi were sloppy fruit; juice and soft pulp ran through his fingers. He ignored this and conspicuously set the knife back into the drawer and closed it. He'd clean it off later.



The cat thing seemed to relax a bit, but then got more apprehensive as Holloway approached the bookcase again. The creature was at one corner of the top of the bookcase; Holloway pathed himself the long way around to stand by the other corner, too far away to grab the animal. The cat thing crouched there and stared at Holloway, unblinking.

Holloway took a quarter of the bindi and popped it in his mouth, chewing it slowly and obviously and with apparent satisfaction, watching the cat thing watch him. He swallowed and then placed another quarter of the bindi on the far top corner of the bookcase.

"That's yours," Holloway said, as if saying so would make the action any clearer to the animal. Then he placed the other two bindi quarters on his work desk and conspicuously turned his back on the cat thing, moving to pick up the mess in the cabin.

Holloway had no idea whether the thing would understand he was offering it food, or even if the creature would like bindi. If the thing really was like a cat, it'd be a carnivore. Well, Holloway had some lizard cutlets in the cooler. He could try those next.

One part of Holloway's brain, which fancied itself the sensible part, was currently yelling at him. What the h.e.l.l are you doing feeding a wild animal? What the h.e.l.l are you doing feeding a wild animal? it was saying. it was saying. You should have opened the door and let Carl chase it out of the cabin. You never acted this way when the lizards got in You should have opened the door and let Carl chase it out of the cabin. You never acted this way when the lizards got in.

Holloway had no good answer for this, other than that for some reason, the creature interested him. Most of the land animals on Zara XXIII were more reptilian than not; mammal-like creatures on the planet were few and far between. In fact, Holloway couldn't remember seeing one, either live or in a database, that was as large as this one was. He'd have to check the database again.

But what interested him the most was the way the creature was acting. The cat thing was obviously terrified, but it wasn't acting like a terrified animal. It seemed like it was smarter than the average wild animal, especially here on Zara XXIII, where the local fauna never struck Holloway as having developed an evolutionary premium on brains.

Also, the thing looked like a cat, and Holloway always liked cats. Holloway's internal sensible person smacked his virtual forehead at that.

Holloway took the papers he'd collected, tapped them together, and placed them on his work desk, glancing up at the cat thing. It was busily devouring the bindi slice as if it hadn't eaten in days. That answers that, That answers that, Holloway thought. He reached down and turned over his spare infopanel, preemptively wincing as he did so, preparing for a cracked screen or something worse. To his surprise, it appeared unharmed. He powered it up and it came to life, fully functional. He breathed a sigh of relief and looked again at the cat thing, which had finished its fruit slice. Holloway thought. He reached down and turned over his spare infopanel, preemptively wincing as he did so, preparing for a cracked screen or something worse. To his surprise, it appeared unharmed. He powered it up and it came to life, fully functional. He breathed a sigh of relief and looked again at the cat thing, which had finished its fruit slice.

"You're lucky this thing still works," Holloway said to the creature. "If you broke it, I might have had to let Carl eat you."

The cat thing said nothing (of course) but kept glancing from Holloway to the two remaining bindi slices. The thing was obviously still hungry and trying to figure out how to get to the bindi without getting near Holloway. Holloway reached over, picked up one of the bindi slices, and slowly moved it toward the animal, holding the slice by pinching the smallest amount of the fruit possible with his thumb and index finger.

"Here you go," Holloway said.

Oh, smart, said his internal sensible person. said his internal sensible person. Now you're going to get the Zara XXIII equivalent of rabies. Now you're going to get the Zara XXIII equivalent of rabies.

The cat thing likewise appeared dubious about this new development and shrank back from the proffered slice.

"Come on, now," Holloway said to the thing. "If I were going to kill you and eat you, I would have done it already." He jiggled the piece of fruit.

After a few seconds the cat thing cautiously moved forward, apparently hesitant, and then s.n.a.t.c.hed at the slice, using both its hands. And they were were hands; Holloway noted three fingers and a long thumb, riding lower on the palm than its human equivalent. Holloway blinked and the little hands were gone as the creature retreated to its far corner, never taking its eyes off Holloway as it began to devour its second bindi slice. hands; Holloway noted three fingers and a long thumb, riding lower on the palm than its human equivalent. Holloway blinked and the little hands were gone as the creature retreated to its far corner, never taking its eyes off Holloway as it began to devour its second bindi slice.

Holloway shrugged, turned away from the creature again, and then knelt and started shelving the books and binders strewn across the floor.

After a few minutes of this, he became aware he was being watched. He looked up and saw the cat thing peering down at him, blinking.

"h.e.l.lo," he said to the thing. "Done with your food? Want more?" The thing opened its mouth as if to respond, but no noise come out. Holloway saw the thing's teeth, which were decidedly not catlike, and were more like human teeth than not. Omnivore, Omnivore, said a voice in his head that was not his own, but belonged to someone he used to know quite well. The voice gave him an idea. said a voice in his head that was not his own, but belonged to someone he used to know quite well. The voice gave him an idea.

Holloway stood up and moved over to his work desk. He took the porkpie hat off his security camera, which he then righted because it had been knocked over while Carl chased the creature. The camera featured an omnidirectional image sensor; it could see in every direction except for directly below, where it was blocked by its own stand. He took his spare infopanel, clicked it into its own stand and turned it on, keying it to show the image feed from the security camera. Then he picked up the last slice of bindi and held it up to the cat thing. The creature, now substantially less afraid of Holloway, held out its hands to receive it.

"No," Holloway said, and placed the slice back on the work desk. Then he picked up the chair from the floor and positioned it so that if the cat thing were to work its way back down to the floor, it could use the chair to climb up and get the fruit. "You want it, come and get it," Holloway said. He put on the porkpie hat and then went to the cabin door, opening it just enough to let himself out without letting Carl in.

Carl was deeply displeased with this development and barked at Holloway in frustration. Holloway patted his dog's head and walked over to his skimmer. He reached in for his infopanel, powered it up and accessed the security camera feed.

"Let's see how smart you really are," he said. He adjusted the image to show a panorama view of the cabin.

For several minutes, the creature did nothing. Finally it started down the bookcase, taking rather more time to climb down the case than it had to fling itself up it. For a minute, Holloway couldn't see the cat thing, because the work desk blocked the floor. Then the chair moved slightly and the catlike head popped up, scanning for the piece of fruit.

It spied the fruit, and then suddenly gave a look of alarm and disappeared. Holloway grinned; the creature had just caught the image of itself in the infopanel he'd set the fruit in front of. Holloway had wondered whether the thing would recognize itself in a mirror, or in this case a video feed acting like a mirror. The immediate answer seemed to be that it did not, but then Holloway could remember times he'd been startled by his own reflection. What would be interesting was what would happen next.

The cat thing's head poked up again, more slowly this time, watching the "other" cat thing. Eventually it hauled itself up on the desk and walked over to the infopanel. It crouched down to peer at it, and then tapped on it. It moved a hand and appeared to watch its doppelganger do the same thing. After a few minutes of this, satisfied, it turned away from the infopanel, grabbed the bindi slice with both hands, and then sat down on the edge of the desk, feet dangling, to eat the fruit. It had recognized itself.

"Congratulations, you are now officially as smart as a dog," Holloway said. Carl looked up at the word dog dog. Holloway knew it was only his imagination that the dog appeared somewhat offended at the comparison.

Holloway rewound the images of the cat thing, recorded them, and kept the security camera on RECORD RECORD. He put the infopanel back down and went back into the cabin, once again slipping through the door to keep the increasingly annoyed Carl on the outside.

The cat thing noted Holloway's entrance but didn't move, or even stop kicking its feet leisurely as its legs dangled. It had apparently decided that Holloway wasn't a threat. Carl appeared at the window behind the desk and barked at the creature. It looked over casually but didn't stop eating its fruit. It had figured out that Carl couldn't get through the window and, for the moment at least, represented no threat.

Carl barked again.

The cat thing set its fruit down, pulled its legs up from the edge, grabbed its fruit and then walked over to the window. Carl stopped barking, confused by what the creature was doing. The cat thing sat down, millimeters away from the windowpane, stared at Carl, and then very deliberately started eating its fruit in front of the dog. Holloway could have sworn it was intentionally chewing with its mouth open.

Carl went nuts barking. The cat thing stayed there, eating and blinking. Carl dropped from the window; two seconds later, there was a thump as Carl's head hit the dog door. The manual lock was still on. Carl showed back up in the window a few seconds after that, no longer barking but clearly annoyed at the cat thing.

"Now you're just getting c.o.c.ky," Holloway said, to the cat thing. The cat thing glanced back at Holloway, and then went back to staring at Carl, finis.h.i.+ng up its fruit.

Holloway decided to push his luck. He walked over to the work desk and opened one of its drawers. The cat thing watched with interest but didn't move. Holloway retrieved a dog collar and a leash from the drawer. He almost never put them on Carl, but sometimes they were necessary when the two of them went to Aubreytown. He closed the drawer and then went back to the cabin door, slipping out before Carl could change his position from the window. Holloway went over to the dog and in full view of the creature slipped the collar around Carl's neck and latched the leash onto the collar.

Carl took in the collar and the leash and glanced up at Holloway, as if to say, What the h.e.l.l? What the h.e.l.l?

"Trust me," Holloway said to Carl. "Heel!"

Carl was frustrated, but he was also well trained; any dog that could wait for an order to detonate explosives was one that knew how to listen to its master. He reluctantly came down from the window and stood next to Holloway.

"Stay," Holloway said, and walked back the length of the leash. Carl stayed. Holloway glanced over at the cat thing, which seemed to be taking this all in with interest.

"Sit," Holloway said to his dog. Carl actually glanced over to the cabin window and then back at Holloway, as if to say Dude, you're embarra.s.sing me in front of the new guy Dude, you're embarra.s.sing me in front of the new guy. But he sat, an almost inaudible whine escaping as he did so.

"Down," Holloway said. Carl lay down, dejectedly. His humiliation was complete.

"Heel," Holloway said again, and Carl got up and stood by his master. Holloway was still looking at the cat thing, which had watched the whole event. Holloway slid his hand along the leash so that Carl was close by his side, and started walking toward the door of the cabin. The cat thing stared but didn't move.

Holloway opened the door to the cabin but stayed outside with Carl for a minute. Carl got ready to burst through the doorway but Holloway cinched him close, compelling him to heel. Carl whined but then quickly calmed down. He had figured out how this was going to go.

The two of them walked slowly through the doorway. The cat thing remained on the desk, eyes wide but not making any panicky movements.

"Good dog," Holloway said to Carl, and walked him right in front of the desk. "Sit." Carl sat.

"Down," Holloway said. Carl lay.

"Roll over," Holloway said.

Holloway swore he heard his dog sigh. Carl rolled on his back and lay there, paws up, looking at the cat thing.

The cat thing sat there for a moment, looking at the open door and then back at the dog. Then it walked over to the edge of the desk and slid itself down into the chair. Carl made to move himself into an upright position, but Holloway laid his hand on his dog's chest. "Stay," he said. Carl stayed.

The cat thing slid off the chair and onto the floor less than a foot from Carl's muzzle. The two animals regarded each other curiously; the cat thing glanced up and down Carl's p.r.o.ne form while Carl, for his part, snuffled madly, trying to process every last particle of the cat thing's scent.

The cat thing edged closer and then oh-so-very-carefully reached out a hand toward Carl's muzzle. Holloway surrept.i.tiously put a little more pressure on Carl's chest with one hand and tightened his grip on the leash with his other, ready if Carl overreacted.

The cat thing touched Carl's muzzle, withdrew its hand slightly, and then touched it again, stroking it softly. It did this for several seconds. From the other side of Carl, his tail thumped lightly.

"There it is," Holloway said. "See, that's not so bad."

Carl turned his head a bit, flicked out his tongue, and gave the cat thing a very wet slurp across the face. The creature backed up, sputtering indignantly, and tried to wipe off its face. Holloway laughed. Carl's tail thumped more.

The cat thing's head snapped up suddenly, as if hearing something. Carl squirmed at the movement, but Holloway held him down. The cat thing opened its mouth and wheezed for a moment, as if having trouble catching its breath. It looked at Holloway, then at the door. It bolted and was out of the cabin and gone.

After a minute, Holloway took the collar off Carl. The dog leapt up and raced out the door. Holloway stood and followed at a more leisurely rate.

The dog had stopped at the edge of the platform, looking up into the foliage of one of the eastern spikewoods, tail wagging lazily. Holloway suspected their guest had made its way off the platform in that direction.

Holloway called Carl to him, headed back into the cabin, and gave his dog a biscuit once the animal came through the door. "Good dog," Holloway said. Carl thumped his tail and then lay down to focus on his treat.

Holloway walked over to his desk, picked up the infopanel, and watched the video of their guest. By now he was sure that he had been the first human ever to see a creature like it; if someone else had found one, they'd almost certainly be pets by now, given their intelligence and friendliness. There'd already be breeders and pet shows and advertis.e.m.e.nts for Little Fuzzy Food, or whatever. Holloway felt fortunate his own strain of avarice didn't run in that direction. Breeding pets was more work than he would want.

Be that as it may, the find of a previously unknown mammal that large was significant. Not for Holloway, who would be hard-pressed to make any money off it, nor for ZaraCorp, whose own interest in the local flora and fauna was largely limited to when their remains turned into oily and exploitable sludge. But Holloway knew one person who would be very interested in this cat thing. Strange cat things were right up her alley.

Holloway saved and closed the video file, and smiled. Yes, she would be very happy to see this video.

The only real question was whether she'd be happy to see him him.

Chapter Five.

At any one time, there were perhaps 100,000 people on Zara XXIII. More accurately, 100,000 humans; there might be an occasional Urai or Negad, brought in by ZaraCorp in a minor, mid-level management capacity to show that the company was committed to sapient diversity in its hiring and staffing practices. But they rarely stayed long, and neither ZaraCorp nor its human employees did much to convince them to stay. Zara XXIII was a "man shop" all the way through.

Sixty thousand of the people on Zara XXIII worked directly at the few hundred E & E camps, in crews ranging in number from fifteen to two thousand, depending on the size and complexity of the exploit site. The majority of these people were laborers-the men and some women who operated the mining or harvesting machinery, hauled the product off of mountains or out of mines or up from wells-and a few managers and supervisors. But each site also had its support roles, including cooks, IT, janitorial, medical teams, and "happy staff" of both s.e.xes.

These E & E camps dotted the planet from equator to poles; they sent raw materials to Aubreytown, the planet's sole city, located on a high equatorial plateau to save the cost of a few miles of beanstalk construction. Aubreytown sent back supplies, relief crews, and coffins for some of those whom the relief crews were relieving. One could spend an entire life working at ZaraCorp E & E camps, and some did.

Twenty thousand of the people on Zara XXIII worked the beanstalk in Aubreytown, taking the raw materials s.h.i.+pped in from the E & E camps and preparing them for transport, first up the beanstalk and then to the s.h.i.+ps docked at the 'stalk s.h.i.+pping terminal, at geostationary distance from the planet. The s.h.i.+ps represented the ma.s.sive and inequitable transfer of raw material wealth from Zara XXIII to Earth-or would, if there were any native sapient species on the planet to recognize the inequity. There weren't, so it was all good from the point of view of ZaraCorp and the Colonial Authority.

Fifteen thousand people on Zara XXIII were contracted prospectors/surveyors, like Holloway. These contractors paid an annual franchise fee of several thousand credits to ZaraCorp and were given a territory to survey for the company. If they found anything exploitable, and ZaraCorp landed an E & E camp to exploit it, the contractor shared the wealth to the tune of one quarter of 1 percent of the gross market value of the materials extracted.

If your territory included rich seams of sunstones, you could get wealthy, as Holloway was about to. If it included ores or rare woods, you could make a comfortable amount. If like most surveyors you worked a territory that included no raw materials in a high enough concentration for ZaraCorp to bother extracting, you'd go broke, fast. Most survey contractors lasted a year or two before they s.h.i.+pped earthside, flat busted. ZaraCorp required every contractor to prepay the return trip. Independent surveyors were not tolerated planetside.

The remaining five thousand people were miscellaneous: construction and maintenance crews for Aubreytown buildings and structures. ZaraCorp executives and white collar staff stationed planetside to keep track of materials and profits, and support staff for said execs. A Colonial Authority Judge and her two clerks. A well-armed if not hugely well-trained security detail, whose primary job was to break up the fights in the Aubreytown bars (that is, when they were not the ones starting the fights themselves). The owners and staffs of Aubreytown's sixteen bars, three restaurants, and one combination general store/brothel. The medical staff at Aubreytown's twelve-bed hospital. And finally, the single and somewhat lonely clergyman operating the ec.u.menical chapel at the edge of Aubreytown, which ZaraCorp had placed next to the waste incinerator. There were no spouses who did not themselves have jobs. There were no children at all.

The astute observer will have noticed that among the enumerated staff there were none engaging in pure science. This was by design. ZaraCorp's charter was for exploration and exploitation; of the two of these, the company preferred to focus on the second whenever possible. Exploration was farmed out to the mostly hapless contract surveyors, on whom the company turned a profit regardless of whether they discovered anything useful or not. Trained scientists were not needed for this sort of exploration, merely people willing to set acoustical charges, take samples, and then feed the data into specialized machinery, which did all the hard work of science. Exploitation required engineers and other workers with expertise of a technical nature, not lab guys.

Nevertheless ZaraCorp staffed three scientists at Zara XXIII, primarily to satisfy CEPA E & E charter requirements. They numbered one geologist, one biologist, and one despairing xenolinguist, who was supposed to be a.s.signed to Uraill but through bureaucratic snafus had been sent to Zara XXIII instead. He was obliged to remain until the paperwork could be cleared up, a process that had now consumed two standard years and showed no sign of resolution. The xenolinguist, paid but useless, spent his time reading detective novels and drinking.

Jack Holloway had met the xenolinguist once at a ZaraCorp function he'd been forced to attend. He learned from the somewhat lubricated man everything he'd ever possibly need to know about the phonological complexities of the various branches of the Urai language tree and how the Urai's three ancillary tongues had an impact on each. He told his date for the function that after an hour of that, that, she had d.a.m.n well better make it up to him. She had. She was the biologist. she had d.a.m.n well better make it up to him. She had. She was the biologist.

And the person whom Holloway was looking at now.

Isabel w.a.n.gai didn't see Holloway. She was staring down at her infopad as she stepped out of her office block, and he was across the street anyway, standing there with Carl on his leash. Carl had seen Isabel, and immediately his tail started thumping like mad. Holloway checked both ways down the street; there was nothing but foot traffic. He unhooked Carl from his leash, and the dog went bounding across the street to Isabel.

Isabel looked momentarily confused as a dog leapt at her, but when she recognized the animal she let out a cry of delight and knelt to receive her daily recommended allowance of canine face licking. She was playfully tugging on Carl's ears as Holloway walked up.

"He's happy to see you," Holloway said.

"I'm happy to see him," Isabel said, and kissed the dog on the nose.

"Are you happy to see me?" Holloway asked.

Isabel looked up at Holloway and smiled that smile of hers. "Of course I am," she said. "How else would I get to see Carl?"

"Cute," Holloway said. "I'll just be taking my dog now, then."

Isabel laughed, stood up, and gave Holloway a friendly peck on the cheek. "There," she said. "All better."

"Thanks," Holloway said.

"You're welcome," Isabel said. She turned to the dog, clapped, and held her hands out. Carl jumped up and put his paws in her hands for a double-handshake. "Are you in town for a reason, or did you just travel six hundred klicks so I could see Carl?"

"I have business with Chad Bourne," Holloway said.

"That should be fun," Isabel said, glancing over at Holloway. "You two still antagonizing each other?"

"We get along great now," Holloway said.

"Uh-huh," Isabel said. "I've heard you lie enough to know you're doing it now, Jack."

"Let me put it another way, then," Holloway said, and drew out the sunstone he'd brought with him. "I've recently given him reason to get along with me."

Isabel saw the stone, released Carl from his double handshake, and then held out her hand to Holloway. He placed the stone in it. She held it up in the sunlight, letting the crystals inside it glimmer.

"It's big," she said, finally.

"Not as big as some of the others," Holloway said.

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