2016 SFReader Story Contest
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose forthcoming novel, Outside, is slated for launch at Eastercon 2017. The final cover art has been released. He is also the author of Siege, an SF tale of galactic survival, launched in December, 2016. When it comes to short work, Gustavo has 170 stories published in fourteen countries, translated into seven languages. Check out his website and Amazon page.
Boiler Room Beasties
By Gustavo Bondoni
It had been years since they’d last seen a human. Sher-Nal suspected that many of the youngsters didn’t actually believe in their absent masters, although they’d never admit it out loud. So it made the mother-protector proud to see how well Unit did his part. The young analysis cat had been still as a statue, perched for hours above the single opening that remained.
All the signs were present, and Unit would soon get to test his reflexes. The air around the hole seemed to vibrate and turn a pale shade of blue as the air molecules emitted in the visible spectrum. A quick reaction from the analysis cat would make for a quick battle – anything less than that would be long and drawn out, as it was any time the lead bug lived long enough to identify the defensive formation and give orders to its soldiers.
Seven tiny figures, each about the size of a feline head, appeared outside the hole. The cats hidden around the room stayed perfectly still, ready to act on Unit’s signal.
The analysis cat waited, and Sher-nal felt apprehension. As leader, she should have been detached and prepared for anything, but the tension was double for her because – for the first time – the cat responsible for marking the leader was one of hers, from her next to last litter. She was proud that he’d been the one to master the link equipment, but paid for it in nervous watching now.
Nanoseconds passed, and her genetically optimized neural pathways kept track of each. Every tick increased her nervousness, but she knew that they were still well within the safety margin for insectoid attack. Unit was doing the right thing: taking his time to identify the leader. A mistake there would be costly.
The analysis cat moved suddenly, just a slight shift of his head, but it meant action. A beam of laser-light illuminated one of the beasties, just off to the side of the group and near the back, and the cats moved as one.
The three members of the lead team pounced from their concealment to both sides of the opening, while the backup squad took positions in a semicircle six feet beyond it.
All three threw themselves at the marked insect, and all three proved necessary. Moving with a quickness that even the modified cats were hard-pressed to match, the beasties opened fire on the defenders with some kind of particle beam that emerged from their mouths, trying to protect their leader from the strike. Two of the cats died before they came down.
But the third landed squarely on the black insect, his open mouth tearing its head off before the beastie could react.
Success! The enemy leader was down! The only questions now were whether it had been done quickly enough and, she shuddered to think, whether that was even the leader. The next few minutes – or hours, depending on whether Unit had been right or wrong – would tell the tale.
Bugs scattered, opening fire on the unarmed cats. The shots were undirected, seemingly aimed at whichever cat was nearest. That was a good sign, indicating that they might have succeeded in nailing the leader, but the beams were still deadly. Sher-Nal sighed as she saw one of the cats on the perimeter fall to the blasts.
Why didn’t the humans give us technology? she wondered. They set us to fight against an intelligent species, gave us minds so that we could match wits with them, and then left us with nothing but teeth and claws. It seemed wasteful.
But there would be time – endless time – to ponder those questions later. Right now she had to make certain that none of the enemy made it past her position. She was on the second perimeter, not out in the open, but hidden behind specially placed pieces of equipment or boxes of stuff. She’d never known the first perimeter to fail – the cats there were chosen for both reflexes and strength – but it could happen, and it was her job to get any beasties that made it out of the trap.
None did. Unit had identified the correct leader from among the pack, and the cats had moved with their habitual efficiency. She’d never understood the analysis cat’s explanations for how he picked the one bug that could think independently of the queen. Something about chemical analysis of the air and pheromone concentrations. But it worked. All that mattered was that Unit had gotten the right leader, that they’d gotten him before he (or she or it) could do a tactical analysis and transmit specific orders to the mindless drones that had come out with him, making them fall into their fallback mode of scatter, destroy and shoot at anything that moves. It was never overly effective.
But there was always a cost and, as leader, it fell to Sher-Nal to assess it. She padded slowly out into the open. The only cats she could see were either finishing off beasties who were in no condition to resist, or else they were strutting around, marking their territory, exulting in victory.
It was time to put a stop to that.
“To me,” she hissed. She’d heard the humans speak, heard the well-defined tones that cats – even genetically modified ones – could never hope to imitate, even though the language they spoke was the same.
The young warriors immediately heeded her command. They might be the true line of defense, but a mother was always a figure of awe to most of them, even if some of the young females might one day challenge for a place among the ranks of the breeders.
Unit was the last to arrive, after climbing carefully down from his perch. He was the last cat one would have expected to be a protector: not quite the runt of his litter, but close, very close to being too weak to survive kittenhood. She felt a surge of pride in what he’d achieved. There would be no more doubt, no more challenges, no more sneers. All would see his value to the defenders.
“How many lost?” she asked.
Unit, his face concealed by the link helm, took his time. Actual seconds passed while he verified the information. “Four casualties. Three dead, and Errit has lost a leg. He’s in shock.”
Alive? The team shot into action. There was little consideration for the weak among the cats of the SS Oppenheimer, but an exception was made for those wounded in battle. They would be revered until the day old age took them onto the next of the nine roads they had to travel.
They dragged Errit, whimpering, by the scruff of the neck to the warm spot beside the tap that dispensed painkillers and antibiotics. One of the few good things about the rays of intense heat that the beasties used to fight back was that they immediately cauterized any wound they created, making infection unusual. Errit would survive once they got him warm and stabilized. As she watched, Sher-nal wondered, for the millionth time, why the humans hadn’t modified their bodies when they spliced the genes that mapped their brains; paws that could actually grip things would have been extremely welcome.
But humans moved in mysterious ways. She’d always accepted that, but now it was beginning to create a problem. She ordered the members of the second perimeter to pick up the rest of the casualties, and move back towards the den, wondering what she would do to solve it.
The humans called it the boiler room. Every sign with instructions on equipment maintenance said ‘boiler room this’ and ‘boiler room that’. But, as far as Unit, or any of the analysts before him could tell her, there were no boilers in this room. There was, however, something they referred to as ‘nuclear reactors’, which they’d never been able to explain adequately to any of the fighting cats, and which had consequently simply been referred to as ‘boxes’ ever since.
Of course, none of the fighters was really all that interested in what happened inside the metallic elements that defined the contours of their world, which probably explained why they never stayed around to listen to the complete explanations. When the subject turned to the beasties, however…
But that wasn’t the problem. Her first order of business on arrival would be to check on Errit. If the bearers had followed procedure, he would be under sedation, and a cursory check would be enough. She just hoped the other mother-protectors would allow her that small service, and those few minutes to marshal her arguments.
No such luck. As soon as crossed the towering, human-sized doorway, they were upon her.
“We won’t be shrugged off this time, Sher-Nal,” Dae-Ñik told her firmly.
Sher-Nal was about to ask for leave to go see Errit, but that would have been a mistake. The mothers facing her seemed ready for anything, erect, alert and nervous. Tails twitched as they waited to see what she would do. She wanted to sigh, to slap them around with her paws for acting like children, but every one of these cats had shown the strength of character to be allowed to become a breeder. They were all strong, intelligent, and loved the tribe more than they loved themselves. Sher-Nal would never have dismissed their concerns were it not for the fact that she knew from firsthand experience that they were wrong.
“I know. Let’s go into the den so we can discuss this.” The response immediately calmed them. They might hold different views, might even believe that Sher-Nal was making a mistake that would endanger the future of the tribe, but they respected her – there was a measure of fear in that respect, of course, but it was mostly a feeling she’d earned during hours and years spent helping to transform each of them from a playful kitten to a formidable pillar of their society.
The den was warm, clean and quiet. Ted-Lio’s newest litter had been shooed out into the nursery so that the mothers could meet in peace and quiet. Someone had even laid out a bowl of synth-milk and food for Sher-Nal: a sign of respect and acknowledgement that she’d been out risking her life for the good of the tribe. But they were impatient, and she’d barely managed a sip of the milk when the other mothers began speaking.
“Can’t it be possible that you might be wrong?” one of them asked, sounding surprised that she’d had the courage to speak.
“Maybe you misremember. You were just a kitten at the time. If I were to start talking about the things I remember as a kitten, you’d box me around the ears.” Dae-Ñik said, the very voice of reason. She said it evenly, but the plaintive note obvious even in the limited vocal range available to the cats made it evident that the young mother wanted it to be true. For more reasons than one.
“No, it isn’t possible,” Sher-Nal sighed. “This wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Humans used to come in here every day. Some would work on the machines. Others would just stand around discussing things they saw up on the readout board. There was one man who would come in every day to clean dust off the tables. We used to love him because he would let the kittens play with the thing he used, it had hanging pieces that he would hold just out of reach. And there was one lady who would speak to the mothers. She would tell us what to do, and warn us when she thought there would be an attack of beasties.” She didn’t tell them of the way the woman smelled, of the sharp acid scent of her perfume, of the pheromones and musk beneath it, and of the simple smell of human under that. It would have served no purpose.
“Why would we need her? We have the analysis cats. We’ve always had analysis cats. Your own Unit is one.”
“We haven’t always had analysis cats. The last time the lady was here, she left her control device, and showed some of the mothers how to use it. She said she might not be around for some days, that there was trouble on the ship.” Sher-Nal paused, remembering those times of turmoil. “I wasn’t there, of course. I wasn’t even old enough then to be a defender, much less a part of the mother’s council. But those mothers have passed the story of the meeting on to me, and I’ve done my duty to them by passing it on to you.”
The rest of them shifted uncomfortably. They all knew what Sher-Nal was implying. Subtlety was no part of tribal politics.
“And they also passed on the injunction against trying to get through the door?”
“Of course. It came from the humans themselves. They know the beasties are dangerous if they can get beyond the walls of the boiler room.”
“Of that, there is no doubt. What we doubt is whether there are any humans out there for them to be a danger to,” Dae-Ñik said. “We think the time has come to go back out there and have a look.”
“I won’t oppose you,” Sher-Nal said. It wasn’t diplomacy, it was a bow to the inevitable. She would be defeated if it came to a vote, something that would serve no purpose other than to undermine her position. And judging by the turn things were taking, her wisdom would be necessary in the days ahead. “But have you thought of how we’ll manage it? That door has been closed since that very day. Even all the kittens born since then have been unable to open it, despite their best efforts, and their mightiest leaps.”
“That won’t be a problem. Unit has come up with a solution. I couldn’t really understand how it worked, but he seemed convinced.”
Unit? One of her own? He knew full well that Sher-Nal was against the idea of outside excursions, and he was one of the few that believed humans had been there relatively recently. He said his evidence showed him it was true. And still, he’d gone behind her back and cooperated with the other mothers. Sher-Nal was tempted to accuse him of the deepest betrayal, but she knew it wasn’t the case; like nearly every cat of every generation, he wanted to explore, thought there had to be more to life than the endless vigilance against an enemy that wasn’t theirs to begin with.
She felt old, tired and anachronistic, but she showed none of this to the mothers. To them, all she said was: “Then let’s get on with it.”
The mothers had been telling the truth. Unit had devised – using some abandoned straps that could be manipulated with paws and claws – a system with which he believed he could get the door open. Pride mixed with anxiety once again as Sher-Nal watched the young analysis cat as he studied the round iron ring with that made up the only mechanism that might conceivably be used to budge the door. He stood under it, moved to one side, moved to the other, and then began hissing orders.
Young cats, some too young to fight, even, began running about, dragging lengths of strap in their teeth and jumping from nearby flat surfaces to string the straps through the ring at precise places on Unit’s command. Soon, the metallic cross in the center of the ring was strung with multiple lines.
How Unit decided when the straps were all in place was a mystery to Sher-Nal. It looked like a hopeless tangle to her eye, but Unit was soon satisfied. The next step seemed to be to get every single able-bodied cat in the warren to take one particular strap in their teeth and pull.
Nothing happened, and Unit ordered them to stop. He climbed up the tense line and observed the ring from up close for long moments, hissing softly to himself as he did. Finally, he walked back down and calmly told the cats to pull harder.
They did, to no avail.
Sher-Nal could see the strain in the cats’ eyes, in every twitch of their tails, in the hardness of their muscles. They slipped against the metal deck and often lost their purchase entirely. The seconds took eons to pass as she watched, not permitted even to pull.
Suddenly, a crack like something breaking shook the room and the line surged forward. Cats stumbled and fell with the sudden movement. The wheel on the door seemed to have moved about a quarter of a turn.
Unit ordered his workers to repeat the movement with a different line, and then again with another. The motion came quickly, easily, as if, with the initial resistance conquered, the door’s spirit had been broken. They turned the wheel until it turned no more, and then Unit ordered the cats to pull on all four straps at once.
The huge, ponderous door screamed as it parted from its moorings for the first time since Sher-Nal was a kitten, revealing a dimly lit passageway.
She spoke. “All right, we’ve got it open. Now get over here so we can talk about what to do next.”
She was glad to see that impetuosity among her kind was still tempered with caution, and they all crowded around her, each wanting to say their part.
Sher-Nal darted across the hallway. While it was obvious to all the cats in the group both from the way the passage looked and the way it smelled, that it had been deserted for a long, long time, they had decided to take no chances, and she was determined to lead by example.
Only the enormous respect the other members of the tribe still accorded her had allowed Sher-Nal to come at all. The group consisted of Unit, Dae-Ñik, two senior fighting cats and herself. Everyone knew that the only indispensable member of the team was Unit, the only one who could solve any unexpected problems that might crop up. The rest of them were there to protect him.
So far, the great adventure that the younger generations had imagined had proved anticlimactic. There was evidence of human habitation everywhere: discarded articles of what Sher-Nal gleefully informed her companions was clothing, scattered sheets of paper similar in texture to the ones that the cats carefully guarded and preserved inside the boiler room, but these were soiled and ragged, and other items that none of the cats could identify.
Even so, their progress was tortuous. Sher-Nal had insisted on one small exploration party, and had insisted that it was to move slowly and cautiously. For once, no one had argued.
Perhaps long experience with the insectoid beasties was finally paying off in the cats’ hunting methods. No feline knew what the beasties were, exactly, but lore handed down from humans to Sher-Nal’s elders and from Sher-Nal to the next generations said that they were a plague: hive-minded insects capable of short quantum teleports that the Oppenheimer had picked up on one of its many ports of call. They lived deep within the radioactive cooling cores, out of reach behind the reactor shielding, and only came out occasionally by way of that single gap in the lead – which they had presumably created themselves – that allowed them to jump into the ship proper. Unit’s equipment was able to pick up the quantum disturbances minutes before the beasties attacked.
The lore said that the humans, knowing that the bugs were intelligent, had once tried to reason with them, and many men and women had been killed in the attempt. So, after hunting down the pests, they had created the modified cats to do the fighting for them. The legends also said that it would take the ship nearly eighty years to reach another planet where equipment was available that could decontaminate even the most radioactive parts of the ship.
But no one was thinking of the legends and their duty. Sher-Nal could almost read the thoughts of the other cats in her group as they surveyed the debris: the humans were all gone, and they could be masters of a much larger domain.
“Careful, children,” she warned, feeling old even as she spoke the words.
They ignored her, and she could see the discipline break down as her troops became more and more convinced that some unnamed cataclysm had left the cats as sole masters of the ship. When the forward scout hissed that the way was clear, the rest would follow out in the open, as if they were walking back into their own dens.
The endless hallways and the single echoing chamber they encountered reinforced this behavior. Everything was empty, and even the room itself, though it held all manner of equipment Sher-Nal couldn’t identify, showed no signs or scents of human habitation.
Finally, after a sharp right turn, the passage came to an end in a colossal empty space. It was filled with furniture, not equipment. Tables like the one in the boiler room repeated a few dozen times stood in rows and yellow chairs were standing or lying on their backs beside them. Dim red light, quite unlike the usual white glow that illuminated everything else on the Oppenheimer, cast no shadows into the vast space. It simply seemed like the more distant reaches faded into darkness.
The cat whose turn it was to be the point scout, bounded onto the nearest table in a mighty leap. He hissed inarticulately and his head appeared from the edge of the table to look down on them from above. “You guys need to see this,” he said quietly.
Sensing the tension, they jumped up silently, one by one.
“Is this what a human looks like?” the scout asked when Sher-Nal arrived.
She stared. “Maybe on the inside.” They’d all seen enough bones to know what bone was like – cats died all the time. This was bone. Polished, clean, and with no flesh on it whatsoever; the bones of a creature long dead. The skull, sunken and formless, gave her the only clue, but it was difficult to reconcile the warm flesh she’d seen on their masters to this gaping emptiness. “Yes, that was once a human,” she replied, finally.
“There are lots more of them,” the scout observed. The young cat wasn’t being disrespectful; he was just pointing out the obvious. Every table in sight was crowned with a similar mound of bones, carefully arranged to form the semblance of a living master, but all devoid of flesh, picked clean by time or a respectful hand.
A whistling sound came out of nowhere and suddenly the scout disappeared off the edge of the table.
When they dropped to investigate, they found the young cat dead, transfixed on the end of a long metal shaft. The heavy pounding of something approaching could be heard in the distance.
Or someone, Sher-Nal amended. The smell of human, not soft and covered by artificial scents, but raw, unclean and stronger than she’d ever imagined, could be sensed. There were no pheromones here, no musk, just the stink of immature flesh. She could see shadows moving, much smaller than the humans of her memory. They were coming her way.
“Hello!” she said loudly. “I’m glad we finally found you!”
The nearest shadow hissed and threw a shaft at her. Her genetically modified reflexes saved her as it flew harmlessly past, gouging the floor where she’d stood an eye-blink before.
Unit materialized behind her. “They don’t seem to be coherent, mother,” he said. “I think it would be best to study them from afar for a time before attempting to reason with them.”
“What? Those are humans out there. They created us, modified us. They built this ship, they’re responsible for feeding us.”
“I have a feeling that most of that is completely automated. Besides, according to my database, those humans are juveniles. They shouldn’t be able to design or create much of anything.”
“So where are their parents?”
“I don’t know. Dead, perhaps? They certainly don’t seem to have been around long enough to teach the children to speak.” He paused. “We need to run. I have to think about this for a while.”
Sher-Nal ran. There was little else that she could do.
Another ineffectual shaft landed behind the fleeing group.
Unit knew he was getting old, but until Gener was old enough to fight, there was nothing he could do. They needed a cat well adapted to the data link to keep the tribe alive, and Gener was the only one with the necessary skills to be born in the last five generations. It was a pity that Freeweight had gotten himself killed in a beastie raid, Unit thought. That one had enough potential to let me retire.
But it was impossible. Only by interpreting the information, knowing when the humans were massing to attack, and predicting where the beasties would emerge from one of their quantum micro-jumps could the cats stay alive, caught between to relentless, almost mindless foes. He’d forbidden attacking any humans, but the younger generations didn’t seem to follow his reasoning. They were too fast for any single human to subdue, why not strike back? After all, didn’t the humans hunt them for food?
He’d heard the suggestions. Let the beasties take care of the humans for them. Move to another sector of the ship and barricade the door behind them. Strike back, and strike hard.
So far, with the help of old Dae-Ñik, the venerable crone of the mother’s council, he’d been able to reason with them, keep them focused on doing their duty to defend the ship against the beasties.
He greatest hope was that they would arrive at port soon. They needed to be somewhere where civilized humans could reason with the savages that the children had become, where they could clean out the beasties and give the cats somewhere safe to live. Unit suspected that the human adults had died in some catastrophe, and that only some isolated nursery crèche had survived, but he didn’t know what had happened, or how the young ones had lived.
He knew that he would probably never learn the truth.
But his greatest preoccupation was that it was time for him to leave his post. He could no longer communicate effectively with the rest of the tribe. The younger generations would soon choose their own path, and he thought he knew what it would be.
Only that morning, he’d overheard two of the warrior cats speculating as to what human flesh would taste like.
He had a feeling that it was a taste that cats would come to know very well long before he moved onto his next life. A shudder ran through him which he had no time for. The future would take care of itself, and there was an attack of beasties due in a few minutes.
He had work to do.Share