by Gill James
oak-matured red wine
"You know, I could even make you a tiger. Or what about a snow leopard?" Papa pointed to a soft white fur with subtle black spots.
Zena shook her head. "I just want Catbo back."
Her father nodded. "I know you're fond of him. But if he’s damaged his hardware wouldn't support the new software. Even if we found him intact we’d have to reprogramme him." He frowned. "I wonder ...."
"Well, he had an actual cat's animus. And it always was the domestic cat's prerogative to take itself off to die ...."
"No!" Catbo couldn't die, could he? Weren’t animus-machines meant to be eternal? "Papa, I really don't want another Catbo. Even if you made a new machine to look just like him it wouldn't be the same."
Papa sighed. "I know, I know, because it wouldn't have the same animus. Well let's hope that there's enough of that left to make him come home again. Domestic cats usually came back for just as little reason as why it left in the first place."
"Can't we go and look for him?"
"Absolutely not. You know what it's like out there. Remember. They can't actually harm him. He's really only a machine."
Hmm. But a machine with an animus.
“I'm tired now though. I'm going to bed," said Zena after she an Papa had finished their supper.
"Don't worry about that Catbo. We'll get him back one way or another."
She nodded. They most certainly would.
Once in her room she changed into her outdoor gown and grabbed her warmest cloak. She touched the pendant she always wore round her neck. Should she leave it at home? What if something happened? If someone saw it they might want to steal it. She tucked it out of sight below her tunic.
"That will always be a reminder of your mother," her Papa often said. "And we must never forget her."
Zena hardly remembered her at all. She had been very small when the traffickers took her mother. She just had a vague memory of a woman who used to sing to her about a bold and daring lady who fought off the traffickers. Unfortunately Zena's mother hadn't been able to fight them off herself.
"I do worry about you," Papa often said. "You're as stubborn and as fearless as your mother and one day it will get you into trouble."
Well maybe that day was here. There was something she needed to do and this was the time to do it.
She slipped out of the back door. Her father had returned to the studio. He wouldn't notice she'd gone until it was too late.
She checked a final time that she had Catbo's tracker. Yes it was here all right but completely blank. Oh dear. Where had he got to?
It was already getting dark as she made her way along the narrow street towards the Old Manse, one of Catbo's favourite haunts. It was full of mice and rats- machine, machine-animus and even one or two real ones. She kept her cloak drawn round her. One hand held her pendant inside the cloak and the other the tracker inside one of the inner pouches.
The hidden people were out in force now, and the street that was quite quiet during the day was full of hybrids and half-lives.
A humanoid animus-machine rumbled up to her. "What my pretty? Out on the streets without a chaperon. My dear, you are so welcome."
She shuddered and pulled her cloak closer still and pushed the half-life away. He was surprisingly light. His metal parts must be made of the new alloy her father had been working on. Was this one of his creations? She hoped not. Surely nothing Papa created would be threatening like that?
She had developed a way of walking that made people not notice her. "You get that from your mother," Papa had said. "It might be useful one day."
She arrived at the Old Manse without further interruption but there was still nothing.
Might he have gone further? Where would he go? Think! Beyond the manse towards the open country? Perhaps.
She set off along a path which soon turned form pebbles into sand and eventually was nothing but flattened grass. The tracker began to vibrate. She took it out of her pocket and touched its small screen to activate it. He was alive then? He was about half a thousand-pace away. Ten minutes’ walk? But what he was he doing there? There were only a few abandoned cave homes in that area.
Then she remembered what her father had said about cats taking themselves off to die. No! Please don't let it be that.
She could hear voices. Strange accents. They must be traffickers. She touched again her mother's pendant. Would that be enough to buy them off if she needed to? If they caught her... the stories of what they did to young girls made her feel sick. And what they had done to her mother? She didn’t want to lose the pendant. Now she wished she hadn’t brought it with her. If they took that there would be nothing left of her mother at all.
The noise grew louder. They were very near then. There was this strange smell. It wasn't just normal body odour. Oh yes there was that as well. But there was something else here. A rich, sickly scent.
She'd never been this close to traffickers. She'd never really known what they looked like and she was too curious not to take a closer look. Besides she would have to get past them if she was to find Catbo.
There was at least a bush she could hide behind though it was on a bit of a slope and she would have to be careful. She turned Robo's tracker on to silent. She didn't want that going off. She held her breath as she watched them. My, they were handsome. And their clothes. Rich yellows and reds. Thick velvety material. Highly-polished thigh-boots and belts. Fat fur hats. And swords and hands covered in rich jewels.
There were no women, she noticed. The men were talking excitedly but she couldn't understand a word they were saying. They spoke a language the translator programmes had never decoded and nobody knew where they actually came from. Why did they steal people and where did they take them? Some simply never came back. They killed others and sent the evidence. Everyone was so afraid of them. Why didn't somebody do something?
It seemed they were cooking a meal. Well even traffickers had to eat, didn't they? Yes, now the smell of some rich stew was wiping out the sickly perfume.
How could she get beyond them to find Catbo? Would they sleep later? Even if they did they would probably set up a guard. This wasn't going to be easy.
She slipped and clung on to the bush to stop herself slipping down the hill. A branch broke off. Two of the men stopped talking and looked round. Then they started walking towards her. This was it then. She was probably going to end up like her mother or worse.
She felt somebody pull her from behind. What were they going to do to her now? How had they managed to get past her without her seeing them?
Zena managed to turn and see her captor. Goodness. It was a girl. One younger than her. And so pale. Her hair was almost white and her skin was covered in sore-looking dry patches. The girl put her fingers on her lips and indicated with her head that Zena should follow her. They had hardly gone a couple of paces when she found herself just inside the mouth of cave. The girl motioned that they should sit down.
The men were just outside now. They talked for a minute or two and then walked away.
"Come on, then," said the girl. "Follow me."
A tunnel twisted and turned and soon Zena had lost all sense of direction. Eventually they arrived at a huge high-ceilinged chamber.
The girl grinned. "I suspect you had no idea that these caves were here? That in fact they extend all the way under your entire city? You'll be able to get back home without having to meet the traffickers again."
Papa had never mentioned them either though he knew pretty well everything, didn't he?
Catbo's tracker started vibrating violently. Zena took it out of her pocket and stared at the screen. He was very near.
"Ah," said the girl. "You must be the animated cat-machine's owner. I suspected somebody would come looking for him eventually. Well, he's all yours. But he has been so helpful."
"Helpful?" That was the last thing Catbo usually was. Good company, yes, and sometimes so wise. But helpful? He was lazy and unpredictable if very lovable.
The girl nodded. "Come this way. I'll show you what we've been doing."
Zena followed the girl into another, smaller chamber. And there he was.
"Ah, mistress Zena," said the tattered machine. "I expect you've come to take me home. But this had been fascinating. Absolutely fascinating."
"He's been helping me to analyse the atmosphere here in the caves. It seems so good for my condition."
"I can't tolerate sunlight. My skin just erupts into red blotches." She pushed up her sleeve and held up her arm. Her skin was covered in red patches and flaking skin. "I've had to put up with this for fifteen years. But I've found some peace at last living down here. If only we could recreate this atmosphere up on the surface. Your animus-machine's very good at calculating."
As usual he avoided her gaze. "I was out mousing and hadn't noticed how far I was away from home. This kind young lady rescued me from the traffickers. I felt obliged to help her in return. Then her work became so fascinating that I forgot to come home."
"You forgot to come home?
The girl nodded. "My fault I'm afraid." She sighed. "He's been so helpful and he's such good company. It gets a bit lonely down here in the caves."
Zena thought she saw tears forming in the other girl's eyes. What was she thinking? Did she really want this petulant old machine? Hadn't it all just been an excuse for a bit of an adventure? "You know what? You can keep him." Then she bit her lip. What was she saying? "For as long as you need him," she whispered.
"You're sure?" The girl's face brightened.
Well, she certainly needed him more than Zena did. It must be hard for her having to keep out of sunlight all of the time. She probably didn't have many friends or perhaps even any at all.
"Just let me visit him now and then. Now, will you show how to get me home?"
It was just getting light when Zena got back to the house. Papa would be in his workshop any minute now. He liked to get some work done before people started to call. She must get inside and up to her room and before Papa noticed she was missing.
Too late. The door to the kitchen opened. Papa sighed. "Don't tell me you've been out looking for that renegade cat?"
"Only calling him from the back door, Papa."
She could tell that Papa didn't believe her.
"I did tell you. He has a real creature's animus so he's just behaving like a normal mammalian cat."
Zena nodded. "I get it Papa. I know he's not coming back. Will you make me another pet?"
"Of course. Which do you fancy?"
Zena touched the sleek white fur that stood out from amongst the others. "A snow leopard?
"Excellent choice. And I have just the right animus for that."
About the author
Gill James is published by, amongst others, Tabby Cat Press,
The Red Telephone, Butterfly, The Professional and Higher Partnership and
Continuum. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Salford University. She edits CafeLit.She has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative
and Critical Writing.