by S. A. McKenzie
I chose a red pen from the jar and held it up.
“Pen,” I said. I placed it in front of the fluffy cat.
“The pen is on the desk.”
A furry paw shot out. Swipe.
“The pen is on the floor.”
The process continued with two pencils, an eraser, and a pad of post-it notes.
I hid a grin as I stuck a magnet on the underside of the desk below the box of staples.
“The staples are on the desk.”
The container stayed put.
“The staples are on the desk.”
Curly sniffed the container, and gave it an experimental prod with one paw.
“Let me introduce you to the power of magnetism, fuzzball,” I said.
Curly gave me an affronted look and jumped off the desk. I sighed, and got up to use the bathroom.
“I’m going to make spaghetti Bolognese,” Pa called from the kitchen.
There was an almighty crash from my bedroom. Pa came up the hall, spatula in hand. The contents of my desk were on the floor. The two cats on the desk looked pleased with themselves.
“Everything is on the floor,” my father said, straight-faced.
“You’re not helping, Pa.” I began cleaning up, as the two felines sauntered back to bed.
“Stick to the flash cards,” Pa said. “Less mess that way.”
Near summer’s end we’d been riding on the old logging road through the second-growth forest round the back of Baker’s Hill. We were at the top of a rise when the flaming ball passed overhead. It landed with a bang that set the trees swaying, and silenced even the crows.
Right away, we knew it wasn’t a meteorite, because it wasn’t going nearly fast enough. Pa dropped his bike and went down the steep slope and I followed, grabbing onto shrubs to slow my descent. A crumpled mass of metal rested at the end of a smoking furrow. Pa stuck his head inside the crumpled wreck, and recoiled.
“Jess, stay where you are,” he said. I got my phone out.
“Turn that off,” he said. Frowning, I put it back in my bag.
“I don’t think we should stick around here,” he said, looking up. I followed his gaze. There was a good layer of cloud today. We’d have rain by evening, but I don’t think that was what he was looking for.
“Come on,” he said, heading back up the slope. I was getting steamed at his brusqueness. Pa’s a great fan of science, yet here he was stomping off like this crashed satellite or spaceship was nothing special. I had to admit I was dragging my feet, and I decided to take a different path up the hill.
That’s how I found the cylinder in a patch of blackberries. It was the size and shape of a fifty-gallon drum with rounded edges, but covered in a material that looked like white ceramic with a honeycomb pattern. It didn’t look damaged at all. I touched a depression at one end and the cylinder split open with a hiss. When I saw what was inside, I jumped back and let out a yell. Pa came crashing back down the slope shouting my name.
When he got there I just pointed at the container, and he shook his head.
“Oh, Jess,” he said. “You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? Come on now.”
“But, Pa!” I said “They’re alive! We can’t just leave them!”
Pa frowned at me. I lifted the container lid to show him. Most of the container was lined with a thick layer of gray foam, hollowed out into two cavities. In each cavity was a creature about the size of a kitten. They had an unfinished look about them that reminded me of baby rats—minus the legs, and the heads. They were cylindrical, blueish-white, and dotted randomly with stubs that looked like they might become legs eventually. One end had several waving tendrils that bulged out at the ends like a snail’s eye stalks. They didn’t look injured, as far as I could tell.
“Here, give me your pack,” I said to Pa. He took it off and watched as I moved the contents of my pack to his. I made a nest in my pack out of our sweaters.
“What exactly do you think you’re going to do with them?” Pa said, as I gently placed the creatures in my pack, leaving the top zip open a little for air. Pa’s a great one for having me make my own decisions in life, but I could see him wondering if this was letting me go too far.
“Did you see any sign of a surviving adult in that wreckage?” I asked.
Pa shook his head, frowning. “Whoever flew that thing is nothing but a smear on the walls now.” He shoved the lid of the container down, and wiped the outside with his sleeve. I put my pack on and we scrambled back up to the bikes.
“Not that way,” Pa said, when we got out of the forest and I automatically turned right. “We’ll come in from Harvest Road. If anyone asks, we rode along the river today.”
The detour meant it was well into twilight by the time we reached home. Several times I heard the thud of a helicopter in the distance. I was too tired and hungry to think about what that might mean.
I lined a cardboard box with old towels for the blobs while Pa fixed dinner.
“What are we going to feed them?” I said.
Pa shook his head at me. “You know the rules about strays. You bring it home, then it’s your responsibility. Our kind of food might be poisonous to them.”
I gave him my best stubborn face. People dump kittens down the end of the road sometimes. They’ve got some damn fool notion that a domestic cat can survive happily in the wild. I get them vaccinated and neutered, and find good homes for them in town when they’re old enough. We don’t keep cats here long term because they’d have to be house cats all their lives. The coyotes around here will happily snap up a cat, and even small dogs.
I offered a selection of items to the blobs: blueberries, raw spinach, crumbled bread, sunflower seeds, cheese, raw steak, cooked broccoli, and saucers of olive oil, milk, and water. Each blob extruded a tentacle to investigate the food. To my delight, if an item appeared edible then a larger pseudopod came out and engulfed it. I added more of the foods they seemed to like. Favorites included blueberries, olive oil and broccoli. However, they also ate a teaspoon, a chunk of a saucer, and some of the cotton tablecloth.
After I’d cleaned up, they were waving their eyestalks around checking out everything in the room, so I decided it was time for some lessons. I propped them up in front of my laptop and showed them a photo of Earth from space, then a rocket, followed by some scenery shots I’d taken of the hills where they’d landed to get them oriented. I followed this with series of pictures of mixed groups of people.
“Humans,” I said, tapping the screen. I showed them some family photos. Pa, outside the house. Then me.
“Jess,” I said several times, tapping the picture, then my chest. I played a video of me as a baby, lying on the couch giggling.
“Baby,” I said, tapping the screen, then gently tapping each blob. “Baby. Like you little guys.”
The blob nearest me suddenly smoothed itself, all the protrusions except the eyestalks disappearing. Then four small lumps appeared and rapidly elongated. The end of the nearest pseudopod turned pink, split into five sections and began to rapidly shape itself into a disturbingly realistic baby hand complete with little chubby fingers, making me recoil.
“No!” I said to the blob. “You can’t be a human baby. How on earth would we explain where we got a couple of babies from?”
On-screen, a cat wandered up to the baby, who waved her arms and cooed. That was Big Ben, the ginger Maine Coon we’d had when I was small. He jumped on the couch and looked up at the camera. The other blob had been paying attention. It began to grow triangular flaps next to its eyestalks, and extruded pseudopods that quickly shaped themselves into paws and a tail.
“That’s it, guys!” I said. No one would pay any attention to a couple of cats. I found a channel dedicated to cat videos and set it running.
“Cat,” I said firmly, tapping the screen then the first blob. It reabsorbed that creepy little baby hand and sat there for a couple of minutes, eyestalks waving from the laptop to me. “Go on,” I told it. “I know you can do it!”
After a full hour of cat videos, the blobs had roughly shaped themselves into a couple of hairless kittens. In two hours they’d grown whiskers and a coat of short fur. Blob One had gone full tabby but Blob Two had white paws and looked like it was going to turn out fluffy and ginger. By the following morning, they’d grown to the size of twelve-week-old kittens and were moving slowly about on their new limbs.
Watching them eat in cat form was pretty weird; they’d crouch over the food and open a slit in their bellies. Little white tentacles would come out and drag the food inside. I soon learned not to leave anything lying around that they might consider edible, after I’d taken apart my printer and left it unattended. I returned to find they’d eaten all the screws.
I named the kitten with white paws Curly and the ginger one Moe—not that they would answer to their names, but we had to call them something. By the third day they were running and jumping. Anyone who didn’t examine them too closely would have taken them for ordinary felines—anyone who didn’t notice that they didn’t breathe or have a heartbeat, that is. Conveniently, they didn’t excrete, either. Pa set out a litter box for verisimilitude and put a sack of cat food in the pantry. We even left a couple of cat toys lying about, though they showed no interest in them.
The men in black arrived on the fourth day after the crash. They must have disabled the driveway alarm, because the first we knew of them was when they smashed through the front door. It wasn’t even locked, but I guess using door handles was too challenging for them. Suddenly our kitchen was full of guys in black uniforms with no insignia, pointing guns at us and yelling at us to get on our knees. You couldn’t see their faces because they were wearing black helmets with mirrored visors and filter masks. Once they’d checked us for weapons they made us sit at the kitchen table. The kitty-blobs were hiding underneath so I picked them up and held them on my lap.
We were stuck there for hours while they searched the house. Pa repeatedly asked them to identify themselves, or at least say what they were looking for, but no-one would speak to us. I concentrated on staying quiet, trying not to tremble and hoping they wouldn’t notice that the cats on my lap weren’t actually breathing. The kitty-blobs seemed to recognize this was a good time to stay still.
When the men trooped outside to search the barn and outbuildings, Pa caught my eye and winked. I had to suppress a grin. Five generations of Hathaways have lived on this farm, and quite a few of them had the hoarding gene. Anytime they filled up a shed, they just built another one next to it. I could almost pity anyone ordered to search those buildings, if they hadn’t been so rude.
I guess eventually, whoever was in charge realized it would take them weeks to examine every piece of dusty junk to determine if it was an alien artifact. Someone barked an order and they were all out the door and piling into a fleet of black SUVs as quick as they’d come. Never a word to us, nor any apology for the mess they’d made.
“I’m going to call the sheriff’s office,” Pa said. “We’ll see if anyone else has had visitors.”
Curly and Moe followed me as I propped up the broken door. I hoped they didn’t think this business of kicking down doors was typical behavior for humans.
Pa put down the phone. “Sounds like they’ve been working their way through every house in the neighborhood. Sheriff Hernandez has gone out to intercept them.”
We made sandwiches for dinner and ate without much appetite.
“I think we can assume that they suspect somebody visited the crash site before they got to it, but they don’t know who it was,” Pa said as we washed up. “Too cloudy for good satellite coverage that day, thank goodness.”
I stared at him. That was why he’d been checking the sky that day. And he’d wiped down the pod to get our fingerprints off of it. I hadn’t given any thought to anyone coming to look for us.
“An organization like this didn’t spring up overnight. And if you have a secret and well-funded organization dedicated to locating alien spacecraft, what does that mean?”
“It means they’ve encountered aliens before!” I said.
Pa nodded. “Exactly.”
“Should we give them the kitties?” I asked.
Pa raised one eyebrow. “Did anyone ask us for anything? How are we supposed to know what they’re looking for?”
I snorted. “Good point.”
It’s been six months now since the men in black visited. They’d crashed through half a dozen front doors by the time Sheriff Hernandez and his deputies intercepted them at the Anderson’s farm down the road. As none of the alphabet-soup agencies he’d contacted would lay claim to these thugs, he declared to one and all that nobody should get too upset if he arrested the lot of them. By the time he caught up with the fleet of black SUVs he was accompanied by a mob of armed locals, deputized and ready to back him up. They made sure to leave a corridor open in the direction of the interstate in the hope that these mystery men might choose to depart quietly, rather than start a shoot-out. And that’s exactly what they did.
I’ve been trying to teach the kitties English, but they only pay attention when it suits them. They’re behaving more and more like real cats every day. I suppose I only have myself to blame for that. After all, I put a lot of effort in teaching them how to be cats. And cats, as everyone knows, are assholes.