Cat's Eye View

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Cat's Eye View

Postby LilJennie » Mon Feb 05, 2024 11:36 pm

Note from Jennie: It was my turn to come up with the story idea, and I don't know what was in the tea I was drinking, because somehow I came up with werecats vs. possessing ghost aliens. But Miki is a good sport and went along with it, and here we are.

Cat’s Eye View

by LilJennie and Miki Yamuri

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So I was coming home from work one day, and when I opened the door to my apartment my cat hissed at my neighbor. “Lucy!” I said. “Shh! Don’t hiss at Nicki!” Nicki was just getting home too and looked surprised. “Sorry, Nicki,” I said to her. “Maybe she’s not getting enough attention with me at work all day.”

She frowned at Lucy for a second, who looked back with unblinking golden eyes. Then Nicki looked at me and said, a bit mechanically, “Maybe. Long day. Need food. Have a good evening,” before entering her apartment and closing her door

“Yeah, you too …” I started to say, but she was already gone. Figuring Nicki was tired, I went inside my own place too, making sure Lucy came in with me. I didn’t want to chase her all over the building. That had happened once. Never again.

I started some water boiling for my own supper then filled up Lucy’s food and water bowls. “Decided you don’t like Nicki today?” I asked her. “I guess cats are allowed to have moods too.”

I turned on the TV news. “... the World Health Organization expects this breakthrough to lead to vaccines for several viral illnesses in upcoming years. In international news, the Glicia-East Anatolia peace talks began today. After decades of on-again, off-again warfare, the two nations have finally sat down at the negotiating table to work out a ceasefire, but neither side seems ready to commit to a lasting peace agreement …”

Lucy was done with her food already and was meowing at me. The water wasn’t boiling yet, so I picked her up, and she let me pet her and scratch behind her ears before hopping down to the floor again. “... have discovered evidence of a previously unknown civilization in the jungles of the African nation of Khori. They plan to continue their investigation …”

After supper was over and the dishwasher was running, I fell asleep watching TV. It happens. It had been a long day. It was late autumn, and the sky was already dark, so it felt later than it really was. I drifted off … when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my neck. “Ouch!” I shouted, fully awake. There was a scampering sound as Lucy ran away. “Lucy! Did you scratch me? Or … bite me? What’s wrong with you tonight?” I went to the bathroom to look at the spot in the mirror; did I need a bandaid? If she’d broken the skin, I didn’t want it to get infected …

I guess I made it about three steps before passing out on the floor.

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“Rayan?” said a voice. It sounded like a woman’s voice. “Are you all right? I hope you’re not hurt.”

I opened my eyes. Where was I? I was … in my apartment. But I was on the floor. I tried to get up. “No, don’t get up yet,” said the voice. “I have to tell you something first.”

“W-what happened?” I said, and my voice sounded … odd. It was hard to put a finger on what was wrong. I lay there and said, “What’s going on? Who are you?” I couldn’t see who was speaking.

“It’s me … Lucy,” said the voice, and Lucy came into view. But she looked huge. It was like when I took videos of her with my phone, lying on the floor and capturing footage of her playing, climbing, crawling inside boxes, eating, whatever. She got a lot of likes on the internet. Coppery fur and golden eyes, she looked like her usual Abyssinian self. And then she spoke again. “I know this seems strange.”

“You … you can talk,” I said, stunned.

“I’ve always been able to talk,” she said. “But not in human languages. You just didn’t understand cat – until tonight.”

I couldn’t imagine what to say.

So she went on. “Look, I didn’t want to do this, but something’s happened, so I really had to. We need your help.”

“We?” I asked. “What’s happened? What did you do?”

“I had to bite you,” she said.

“So that was you! But … why? And … why am I on the floor?”

She replied, “It’s … probably best to just show you. Look over here.” She went over to the sliding doors that led to the balcony. It was dark out, so I saw the room reflected. There was Lucy’s reflection, and farther away there was another cat, with a darker coat, lying down on the floor.

“Wait, who’s that other cat?” I asked. And then I realized that its mouth moved when mine did. So did its head. “What … the …”

“I know this is a shock. Try getting up.”

I did. It was easy. The cat in the reflection stood up on its four feet. I cautiously walked toward the windows. My reflection did the same. “I’m … a … cat.” Walking on all fours was weird – humans can’t do it well, but now my legs were the right lengths, and my head faced forward. I was also an Abyssinian, but I was darker than Lucy, a chocolate brown with some other nuances.

“Well, you’re what I guess you might call a werecat,” explained Lucy. “You’ll turn back at sunrise. But now when the sun sets you’ll be in this form, until you learn to control it.”

“I’m having some kind of dream,” I said. “Some kind of weird dream inspired by getting bitten. Maybe I didn’t even get bitten. Maybe I leaned back against something you left on top of the couch.”

“Would I do that?” asked Lucy. “But no. This is real. And so is the reason why I did it. Look, there’s something you have to know about your neighbor. Go look at her.”

“You … expect me to go what, knock on Nicki’s door and meow at her?”

“No, just go outside and look at her through the window,” Lucy said. “You know how to open the door. It’s trickier for me. I don’t really get human stuff. But now you’ve got the best of both worlds. And you’re going to need it.”

“Um …” Luckily the sliding door had a grip that went all the way from top to bottom. I braced myself against the door frame and pulled the door open just enough. The cool, crisp night air sighed into the room.

“Just hop on the ledge, then go look in her windows,” said Lucy. “I’ll come with you.”

“Won’t she hear us?”

“We’re the best at moving without a sound.”

I squeezed through the opening and hopped up onto the railing around the balcony. It was like second nature. Fortunately, Nicki and I were only on the second story. There was a ledge running around the building, and I stepped deftly up onto it. I crept past my own windows and made it to what I assumed were Nicki’s. Some of them had curtains or blinds drawn, but not all of them. I didn’t know where she was, except probably in one of the rooms with the lights on. The windows above her kitchen sink was open, and from there I could see into her living room. I didn’t see her yet, but the lights were on in there, so I waited. Lucy came up behind me, so I moved to the other side of the window.

Then, from elsewhere in the apartment, Nicki returned. But … something was wrong. Something was … on top of her? Some kind of nebulous black thing was on her shoulders, enveloping her head, with two huge white glowing patches that covered where Nicki’s eyes should be, and then some. Nicki, or whatever this was, sat down on her couch and stared at the TV, which wasn’t turned on.

“What … is … that …?” I asked, quietly terrified. “That’s … not Nicki …”

“I know,” said Lucy softly. “It’s something we see every now and then. I guess humans can’t see them. We call them Dark Inhabitors. They take over humans – only humans. We don’t know why, but … you can feel it. Something’s wrong about them. Whatever they want, whatever they’re doing, it isn’t good.”

“What would they want with Nicki?” I asked. “I mean … she makes little crochet animals and delicious cookies. And she works at … I don’t know … some government office, I guess.”

“This government thing,” asked Lucy, “is it something to do with humans deciding what to do with the power they have?”

“Something like that,” I replied. “But I don’t even know what she does there.”

“It can see things,” Lucy said, “and everything it sees, they say, all of them see. We’d better get back before it sees us.” She turned and crept back along the ledge toward my apartment, and I followed her.

“How many of them are there?” I asked. “How long have they been here? Where did they come from?”

“I don’t know,” said Lucy. “There are some old cat stories about them that we pass along, but nobody knows how old. One of them says they came from the stars. Another says they came from the dark place we go when we die. Another says they came from places deep within the earth, and another says they came straight out of the night itself. But there aren’t many of them. Most cats live their whole lives and never see them.”

“I … don’t know what to do with this,” I said. “How do we fight them? What do we do?”

“That’s part of why I bit you,” she replied. “You’re a human. You’re supposed to have ideas and stuff. Humans think of things, invent things, build things.”

“I don’t! I work in an office. I do data analysis and type up reports. I’m not an … inventor or architect or anything … does everyone who gets bitten by a cat turn into a werecat?”

“No. We have to want that to happen. And they say that we should do it when we see Dark Inhabitors, so we can show the humans the danger and tell them what we know.”

“Can they – take me over?”

“Not anymore,” said Lucy. “You’re part cat now. They can only inhabit full humans.”

“Do they … have to be inside a human?” I asked. “I mean, can they go around by themselves?”

“That … is a good question,” Lucy replied. “The stories don’t say. Maybe that’s a weakness.”

“Is there a way to make them leave somebody?”

“If there is, I’ve never heard any stories about it,” said Lucy.

“I’m sorry, I have so many questions!” I said. “You said I could … control this?”

“Some werecats can turn back and forth whenever they want,” Lucy replied. “But until you learn to do that, you’ll be a cat whenever the sun’s down and a human whenever it’s up. They say some have learned how to take other forms – bigger cats, and forms that are part cat and part human. But maybe those are only stories. I’ve never seen that.”

“Do I have to stay up all night?” I asked. “When will I sleep?”

“You think we stay up all night?” asked Lucy. “We sleep a lot, day and night.”

“I’m not sure I can sleep now,” I said, feeling scared to think there was one of … those things … next door. “I’m so worried.”

“It seems to be pretending to be Nicki for now,” said Lucy. “So it’s not doing very much.”

“Can it … hear us?”

“You think we’re talking in words right now?” asked Lucy. “Have you ever heard cats talk to each other?”

“Only in a few sounds.”

“We only make those noises when humans are around, or in an emergency. What we’re doing now doesn’t use sound.”

“What? How does it work?”

“I don’t know. It’s just silent. It just works.”

“I’m suddenly … very sleepy …”

“Then curl up and nap. We do it all the time.”

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I was truly annoyed as I returned to my own apartment. I realized I was swishing my tail in an aggravated way same as I had seen many other cats do. This also upset me as I thought to myself, “I am not a cat.” I suddenly found myself licking one of my paws and rubbing it across my face as I had also seen cats do many times.

I stopped myself from doing that, although, I had to admit my whiskers felt as if something in them had now been removed. At least what I had done had accomplished something. I stood on my four feet and began slinking around the apartment heading no place in particular, but really enjoying the heightened awareness and super sharp eyesight I now had.

Suddenly, it was like a radar had pinged or something. I had caught the quick glimpse of some small shadow or something scurry from under the book case and scamper quickly across the floor towards the TV stand on the other side of the room.

I’m not real sure what happened, or even what I was thinking as I sprang like a hunting tiger towards what ever it was. All my senses we alive and I tingled pleasantly all over as I made 2 very rapid and graceful bounds before pouncing on the small furry thing.

OMG! The feeling of accomplishment surged all through me as I grabbed it in my teeth and chowed down. To me, it tasted better than any properly done and seasoned steak I had ever had. It wasn’t until after I swallowed, that I realized I had just caught and eaten a mouse. My first inclination was to be sick, but it had tasted so wonderful, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.

Take a nap. Yeah, that would keep me out of trouble for a little while at least. I found a comfy pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room, curled up, and dozed off. I started to dream. Oh man, I had such fun chasing after the birds and trying to make a do it yourself bird kit.

In my dream I had caught one and chomped down, my mouth full of feathers, I woke up, looked around for an instant or two before realizing where I was and the fact I was still a cat. I could see the large wall clock in the kitchen from the utility room I was in. Darn, it was only 9pm … I had a long time before sunrise.

I thought about what I had seen and what Lucy had told me. There were … creatures … in the world that could take over the body of anyone at any time. Also, any cat could turn any human into a werecat at any time too, but apparently they didn’t do it very often, so, remarkably, that wasn’t the thing that had me the most worried. And I’d be human again come sunrise … unless I learned how to change back before then. So I tried it. I thought, “Human.” I envisioned myself as my human self. I tried standing up on my hind legs, but my balance was off, and I fell back onto all fours. But I kept trying for a while. “Human,” I thought. “Human.” I stretched out my front paws so I could see them and tried spreading out my fingers. All I succeeded in doing was spreading my toes and extending my claws.

Still … maybe I was a cat, but I was sure there were still things I could do that most cats couldn’t. I jumped onto the couch and poked the “on” button on the TV remote. The TV came on. I flipped up and down on the channels. I could see the screen just fine. I could even understand the people talking on the screen; I’d been worried that I could only understand cat now. No, apparently I was now bilingual – Cat as a Second Language was a class I wouldn’t have to take, thanks to … magic or whatever.

I tried hopping up onto my desk and turning on my laptop computer. The power button was difficult, but I managed to push it in. My login password was difficult, because it had some shifted keys in it. I tried searching the internet for “dark inhabitor” – and “dark inhabiter” too, because I didn’t know how it was spelled. I didn’t know whether my brain had translated that from cat correctly anyway, but I didn’t find much. If the things were good at staying hidden, there wouldn’t be much on the internet about them – especially if only cats could see them.

I tried looking up “werecat” too and found that there were tales about werecats from Europe going back to medieval times – but also all over the world going back even farther. Basically they were like the stories about werewolves, only these people turned into cats of one kind or another. During the European witch trials, anybody thought to be a shapeshifter, werewolf, werecat, or whatever, was put on trial. When the trial ended, they were burned at the stake just like anyone else accused of witchcraft. Yesterday I would have thought that these were all just stories. Now I knew very differently.

“What are you doing?” Lucy asked me.

“I’m looking up werecats and Dark Inhabitors on the internet.”

“I don’t know what most of that means. You poke at that thing a lot when you’re human too. With those paw things of yours.”

“This thing can do a lot,” I said, “but one thing it can do is look up information about something. But I can’t find much about Dark Inhabitors. There are stories about werecats from all over the world, though. Humans have known about werecats for a long time. But most people think these are just made-up stories.”

“Why don’t humans believe other humans?”

“Because some humans do make up stories.”

“Well, cats make up stories too, but we don’t pretend they’re real. Except when we’re playing pretend. But everybody knows they’re just stories.”

“I guess what I mean is that humans lie. It’s not good. Good people don’t do it. But there are lot of people who are not so good in the world.”

“There are humans who go around lying?” asked Lucy. “I’m glad I’m not a human.”

I looked at my paws and tried to stretch them into fingers again. “So how I do I turn back into a human?” I asked.

“No idea,” said Lucy. “I’m not a werecat. Never been human. I’ve just heard that werecats get better at controlling when they change as time goes by.”

“So maybe it takes time,” I said.

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I awoke with a start and looked around as I sat quickly up, banging my head on the under side of the table. Lucy was snuggled close in the same pile of pillows I was sitting on and had originally made as a bed for her. She rolled over and stretched a bit, then started purring as she obviously went back to sleep.

I crawled out from under the table as I rubbed the bump on my head. I realized I didn’t have on any clothes. The transformation obviously didn’t bring them back. I would have to watch for this when dawn approached so I wouldn't get caught nude in some embarrassing place. I found my clothes in the spot where I had first become a cat – apparently they’d fallen off me.

I quickly dressed then went to the post boxes to check my mail. Didn’t find anything other than the usual junk mail and my power bill. I turned to go back to my apartment when Nicki came around the corner. She acted as if she didn’t recognize me. And I couldn’t see the Dark Inhabitor, but this didn’t surprise me. The only time I had ever observed it had been in cat form. I tried to see it, and without warning, the hand I wasn’t carrying the mail in transformed for an instant into a cat’s paw. This was apparently enough for me to see that the Dark Inhabitor was still controlling Nicki. I had to find some way to remove that nasty thing from her – or could it leave her without killing her? I shivered at this chilling thought. I’d have to ask Lucy if she knew.

By the time I had passed Nicki. my hand had returned to normal. She didn’t even take notice of me or return my greeting as I passed. Before entering the apartment, I took one look back. Nicki didn’t appear as if she were mentally there, but more like she was in some type of trance more than anything else … I shut the door.

Now, I knew I could transform. I had sort of done it just a minute ago. I sat on the sofa and tried my best to transform again. I thought about what it had felt like to be a cat, but nothing happened. While I was doing some stretches and contortions, Lucy came up and began to rub around my ankles. Her rumbly purr was loud, and I could feel it on my leg. I reached down and gave her a nose bump, which was her favorite, then said, “Morning.” I got up off the sofa, went into the kitchen, and prepared Lucy’s breakfast, which she pigged out over as usual. I had a funny thought about whether she actually liked the cat food I got her.

“Well, it’s OK,” Lucy said, in that not-exactly-in-words way that we’d been talking before, “but that one kind you used to give me was better.”

“Which kind was that?” I asked. “And why can I still talk to you?”

“I have no idea what you’re saying when you make those human noises at me,” Lucy replied. “Do it the cat way.”

So I thought about how we’d talked when we were both cats, and I asked again silently. “Oh – I don’t know what humans call it, but it was soft and moist and nice and chewy. Good flavor. Tasted just like the best parts of something I’d just caught, with none of the bad bits.”

“I’m going to have to figure out what that is,” I thought at her. “But how come we can still talk when I’m not a cat?”

“You’re still a werecat,” she replied. “You don’t stop being one just because you’re in human form for now. You’re one forever.”

“Oh. Do you know how to get that Dark Inhabitor out of Nicki’s body?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. I noticed that she could talk just fine while eating. Cats didn’t have a prohibition on talking with their mouths full. “None of the stories say that there’s any way to do that.”

“Do they ever … just leave?”

“Yes, the Dark Inhabitors just move on from one human to another, they say. When it suits them to do so. We don’t know why they do what they do.”

“Does the human … live through it?”

“Oh, I see, you’re worried about your friend,” said Lucy. “According to all the stories I’ve heard, anyway, the humans are fine when the Dark Inhabitor leaves them. They don’t remember anything that happened, either. That’s why the humans have never discovered them. But … most of the time, the Dark Inhabitor jumps into someone who’s going far away, and the cat never sees it again.”

That meant I’d have to figure out what the thing was doing in Nicki before it left and I couldn’t see it anymore.

I called in sick to work that day. “Yeah, my cat bit me. I don’t feel well. I’m going to a doctor,” I told Vonda, the secretary who picked up the phone at the office.

“Oh, I hope it isn’t infected,” said Vonda. “I’d take the week off if I were you. Maybe I can get my neighbor’s cat to bite me, so I can do that.”

“I’m not sure I can get away with a whole week,” I said. “But thanks, Vonda. I’ll see how I feel tomorrow.”

I found myself actually doing things a cat did, like jumping on the furniture instead of just sitting down. I jumped onto the table, then onto the sofa back, then to the armchair, before sliding down in it, snuggling in, and making myself comfy. Once again, I concentrated on trying to transform. Just as I managed to become furry all over for just an instant before reverting to normal, I saw Lucy curl up on the back of the sofa and begin licking her paws contentedly as she eyed me. I heard Lucy’s kitty voice in my head say, “That’s not bad for an amateur. It won’t be long before you have it under control.” Then the fur on my body vanished.

I had an idea. I wondered what would happen if I managed to bite Nicki and if it were possible for me to turn her into a werecat too. For some reason I was sure that would drive the Dark Inhabitor out.

“You can’t bite her yet,” said Lucy. “I mean, you can if you want – it might be fun – but it won’t make her a werecat. Not yet. You’re still just getting started.”

“You mean I’m not a full werecat yet?” I asked.

“It’s sort of like that, I guess,” she replied. “Your cat-ness isn’t very strong yet. I can sort of feel that you were just bitten yesterday.”

“Well, what if you bit her?”

“I’m not going near that thing,” said Lucy cautiously. “They know we can see them. Sometimes they attack us. Sometimes they kill us.”

“I don’t want that to happen to you!” I said. “There must be another way.” I kept trying to think cat thoughts. I got my fur to come back again, for a few seconds this time, but that was it.

Well, it’s possible that it took time. I decided to go out. It was a bit cool today, so I put on my coat and went to the small grocery store down the street. I perused the cat food and thought back to the different brands I’d tried since I’d gotten Lucy. I wasn’t sure which one she’d been talking about, but I narrowed it down to three different ones. I got a serving of each, then thought for a moment and got a second of each. Some came in pouches, some in boxes, some in cans.

When I got back to the apartment building, I saw Nicki getting into her car, which was parked on the street. I caught a glimpse of the Dark Inhabitor just for a moment – maybe I was getting more attuned to my cat-ness, felinity, or whatever it should be called. So I ran across the street to where my car was parked, put the cat food in the back, and followed her.

I wondered whether the Inhabitor was going to where she worked – maybe what it wanted had something to do with the government office Nicki worked at – or whether she’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the thing had needed a different body. I also wondered whether there was a way to kill the things, but considering the cat stories said they’d been around for a long time and there weren’t many of them, I guessed probably not. The way they were kind of blob-like and I could see through them, I guessed they were made of some kind of … what? Energy? Ectoplasm? Were they like ghosts? Were ghosts even a real thing? Anyway, I doubted that a weapon like a knife or gun could harm the creatures.

As I drove, I thought about it. Lucy had said that there weren’t many Dark Inhabitors and that many cats lived their whole lives without ever seeing one. That suggested to me that they probably didn’t multiply or reproduce, and if I was right and they couldn’t really die, that meant there were only so many of them in the world, and that number never changed. And it wasn’t a very large number. I wasn’t a statistician, so I didn’t know how to estimate how many there were.

Nicki had driven well out of the suburb we lived in and into another area that I’d never been to. She slowed down and turned into the parking lot outside a building. There was a nondescript sign outside – I used my phone and snapped a photo of it. But I didn’t turn into the parking lot myself, because there was a gate and a security booth. They wouldn’t let me in. But they might not pay attention to a cat who approached the building if I came back later, after sunset.

Well, Nicki and the Inhabitor had gotten through security, so this was probably the place where she worked, and now the thing could do whatever it wanted at Nicki’s office. Great. Of course, who knows, maybe that was where it had possessed her. Maybe other people who worked there were possessed too. I couldn’t tell; during the short time I had to look at the building while driving slowly by, Nicki was the only person I saw among all the cars in the parking lot. It looked like she’d gotten to work pretty late today.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I told my phone’s GPS to navigate home – I had no idea where this was. I dropped a pin at my location first, so I could look it up later. Maybe I’d get lucky and Nicki would be fine when she got home again. Or … would that be lucky or not?

When I got home, I looked at the photo I’d taken. The sign had said “Parker Research Inc., Administrative Division,” with a small subtitle beneath it that said, “U.S. Department of Defense.” So they were some kind of defense contractor? I guess the research went on somewhere else and this was just their offices? It worried me that these Dark Inhabitors might be interested in Defense Department research. What if they got control of nuclear weapons or something? What were they trying to do?

Even more interesting, when I used my computer and looked up the location on internet maps, there was no building there, just an empty lot. That meant it was either an old map and the company was really new, or somebody had put a lot of pressure on all the internet companies not to include that building in their maps. I’m not some kind of secret agent, but it looked like it was something top secret. “Lucy,” I said in the cat way, “I think the Dark Inhabitors are interested in something the government’s doing that it keeps secret.”

“This government thing that humans do,” asked Lucy, “why does it keep things secret?”

“Usually because they’re things that it doesn’t want enemy governments to know about,” I said. “Because if there’s a war, we don’t want them to know about our weapons. Or because they’re lying to us about something and don’t want us to find out. Sometimes that happens too.”

“Humans love their complicated things,” said Lucy. “So Nicki makes secret weapons?”

“I don’t think she makes them herself,” I replied, “but she works at an office that keeps track of the work that makes them. It might not be weapons, but it’s something secret, anyway. Oh, by the way, I bought some cat food to try. I’ll get it ready when the sun’s going down, then we can both try it. I want to find the kind you like best again.”

“I knew I loved you,” said Lucy. “You’re a good human. Now you’re a good werecat.”

“You’re a good cat,” I said. “You’re my favorite cat.”

I tried a few more times to force myself to take on cat form early, but although I managed to make myself temporarily furry for short periods of time, that was as far as I got that day. Lucy had said it would take time, and I hadn’t even been a werecat for one full day, so I guessed I couldn’t really expect to figure it all out right away.

It was about time for Nicki to get home, and when I heard her out in the hallway I went to take a peek. I looked through the door viewer and reached toward my felinity, feeling that skin tingle that indicated that I was probably getting furry, but I didn’t see a Dark Inhabitor. So I opened the door. She looked my way and said, “Oh, hi Rayan. Looks like you got home early.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Are you … feeling OK?” Lucy came up behind me and was looking at Nicki too. No hissing this time.

“I … yeah, I don’t know,” she said. “I was at work … and then I felt weird … and then … it was like I didn’t know what day it was. I mean, it was the 16th today, right?”

“The 17th,” I said after looking at my phone, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to that right now, because I hadn’t gone to work, and I guess also because I was part cat now. And that didn’t feel weird to me anymore.

“Yeah, that’s the thing. My phone says the 17th too, but it was the 16th when I got up this morning. Or … was it this morning?”

“Nicki … are you OK?” I asked. “That doesn’t sound good. Do you think … you should go to a doctor or something?” I wasn’t sure where I was going with this, but I didn’t want to encourage her to just forget it. I might need her help to figure out what the Inhabitors were after.

“Maybe I’ll call in sick and go tomorrow,” she said. “For now … I’m just really tired.” Lucy had gone out and curled around her ankles. “Oh, hey Lucy, how are you?” she asked.

“I think Lucy’s worried about you too,” I said. “If you want, she can come over and visit you later. She knows what she’s doing. She’s a smart cat.”

“Well, it’s not as if I’d mind the company, but I’m really hungry and I’m going to make supper. Maybe I’ll see you later,” Nicki said.

“OK, maybe I’ll knock on your door later,” I agreed. “Come on, Lucy.” It was getting nearer to sunset anyway, and I wanted to get supper ready for Lucy and myself.

Nicki went into her apartment and closed her door. Making sure Lucy was inside, I did the same, then I went about getting the cat food samplers ready. I’d gotten a second food/water bowl for myself, which was an odd thought. I put three samples of about a third the serving size in each dish, and I warmed them up, because I now knew how much better it was when cat food was warm. And I finished just before sunset.

I felt a dizzying sense of vertigo, and suddenly my vision was at cat level. “OK, this time I was ready for it,” I said. “That was a lot easier.”

“You are acclimating a lot faster than usual,” said Lucy. “Or … you are from what I’ve heard, anyway. Soon I’ll be able to introduce you to the others.”

“Others?” I asked. “Well, I’ll find out when it’s time. Meanwhile, I’ve made us samplers. There are three kinds of cat food in our dishes. I’m pretty sure one of them is the kind you liked a lot before. If I can figure out what kind that is, I can get it for you. And if I like it too, I’ll get enough for both of us. If not … well, I’ll probably like one of these.” They did smell appetizing, now that I had feline nostrils.

“Oooh, and you’ve warmed them up,” said Lucy, running over to the food dishes. “Hmm, so there are three bunches. Let’s see … first there’s this one …” As she tried them, I tried mine too. They were all pretty good, but there was one I liked better. I was eating cat food. But then … I was a cat. The stuff was supposed to be nutritious for cat bodies. Anyway, I made a mental note of the kind I liked best.

“Hmm … definitely this one,” said Lucy, extending one paw toward one of the three piles of cat food in her dish. “That’s the one from before.”

“That’s the one I liked best too,” I said. “OK, I remember which one that is. I can buy that kind from now on, until we find a better one.” So we continued our supper. I asked, “Maybe it’s because we both seem to be similar. You’re an Abyssinian cat, or that’s what humans call the kind of cat you are. And so am I. Does that always happen?”

“That’s what they say,” replied Lucy. “It’s as if I made you my honorary cousin, sort of. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

After the food was gone, I was thinking about Nicki. “Maybe we should go visit Nicki,” I said. “Or maybe you should. As far as she knows, I only have one cat. And she knows what you look like.”

“That Inhabitor is gone from her,” Lucy said. “She’s fine now. She might need to rest, because it probably didn’t let her eat or sleep. But my presence might comfort her, I suppose. I am very comforting.”

“You are,” I said. “Maybe I can open the door.”

Even with the knowledge of how doorknobs worked, though, and even though I stretched out to my full height to put my paws around the knob, I couldn’t make it turn properly. I tried thinking of being human again and wasn’t able to make anything happen.

“You have to think of your cat-ness,” said Lucy. “Thinking human isn’t how you make it do what you want.”

“What?” I considered what she said. In order to control being what I was now, I had to fully embrace it, accept it, work with it, not against it. I willed myself to become not a human, but a werecat in human form. I thought about moving through the night and into the day. I thought about becoming a cat taking on human form, not about becoming a human. And when I opened my eyes, I was seeing the room from human height – for just a moment, before shifting back dizzyingly back into cat form.

“That was amazing,” said Lucy. “And after only slightly more than one day! You’re the best werecat ever! Of course, you have been spurred into action a bit by the presence of a Dark Inhabitor. Strong desire is what motivates it.”

“I’m going to try again,” I said. I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom and watched myself change, gradually standing up and getting larger, then losing my fur and taking on my human appearance again. I held it and walked around. I tripped over my shoes, lost my concentration, and went cat again. Then I went human again and just … breathed.

“You’re doing it,” said Lucy. “Maybe you can hold it long enough to go and knock on her door?”

“I’m going to try,” I said. I put my clothes back on and easily opened the door and went out into the hallway. Lucy followed.

“I’ll be able to talk to you from there,” said Lucy. “We won’t be far apart, just next door. Soon you’ll be able to talk to cats farther away.”

“That’s great!” I said in cat. Then I knocked on the door and said in human mode, “Nicki? It’s Rayan? I think Lucy wants to come visit.”

“Oh, that’s great!” said Nicki. “I’m just cleaning up the dishes. Hold on.” The door opened. Lucy meowed and went inside. “Oh! Hi Lucy!”

I laughed and said, “She must really want to hang out with you. Remember that time I went to see my folks and she stayed with you? You said you two watched the Hallmark Channel all night.”

“Yeah, she really liked it, or at least I think she did,” Nicki said. “She didn’t complain.”

“The glowing window didn’t make any loud noises,” Lucy said to me in cat mode. “Just humans talking, mostly. Sometimes there were cats, too.”

“Well, just let me know when you want her to come back,” said Nicki.

“I think she’ll let you know,” I said. When Nicki didn’t reply, I realized I’d been talking in cat and quickly repeated it in human mode. “If it’s morning, just make sure she comes back for breakfast.”

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Over the next few evenings, I did a bit of research to discover what Parker Research Inc. was doing for the Department of Defense. Much of the data was restricted and required special pass codes to access. I did discover that the major project currently being researched – that wasn’t restricted, at least – was a special type of non-reactive drive for some sort of interstellar probe for NASA that they were assisting in the research for.

I discovered they had also created a fusion reaction vessel small enough to fit into a small SUV-type vehicle which would more than adequately supply the probe with more energy that it would use for the next million years. I also learned that they had made some kind of nuclear breakthrough using mercury as a reactant catalyst fuel. All previous attempts to make this type of engine had used xenon for fuel. It was thought of as an electric engine, since the thrust vector was created by the excited xenon after it had been charged with electricity. The resultant thrust vector for this was extremely low, it said, but over time it was able to achieve a significant portion of relativistic speeds. Not that I understood all of that, but that’s what it said.

It caused me to raise my eyebrows when I read that Nicki had recently made the remarkable discovery of the redesign of mercury used as the reactionless mass within the engine. In some new way, the mercury mist was electrically charged, injected into the core of the engine, where the excited electrons created a waveform that allowed the device to slip through some type of energy barrier without the normal action-reaction we had all been taught in school.

The ultimate top speed of this device could be achieved almost instantly. I read a few highly technical sections on the need to reduce inertial action, allowing instantaneous acceleration to very nearly light speed without crushing the probe and the delicate instruments within it.

It was way too complex for me to understand, but it was quite obvious that those Dark Inhabitors were very involved in the probe project. I read the names of the other scientists involved in the project, but any in-depth data was password protected, and I had no access.

I sat back in the chair and rubbed my face for a minute while I thought over what I had just read. It was more than obvious to me that several of the Dark Inhabitors were involved in the research and quite possibly the building of this probe, fusion reactor, and what they were referring to as a Time Slip Drive.

Lucy came up and began to rub around my ankles as she purred loudly. I heard her kitty voice in my head say, “Whacha doin’? Better hurry. It’s gonna be sundown soon, and we know what happens then.”

I reached down and scratched Lucy’s favorite place between her ears, “I discovered something really strange.”

Lucy jumped into my lap and continued purring loudly. “What did you find?”

The sun sank below the horizon about that time. I felt it as my skin began to tingle and my clothes began to grow large. When it all stopped, I was a cat in the middle of my very oversized clothes.

I gathered my thoughts and replied in kitty, “It seems like those Inhabitors are wanting to build some type of outer space probe or something. I didn’t find out too much about it, most of the data required a password to access.”

“Some kind of machine to go to the stars?” asked Lucy. “But you need to find the magic words?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “But I don’t need more details about how exactly the probe or its engine works. I wouldn’t understand it anyway. The point is, I have to figure out what they’re doing, where and when. And how to protect Nicki.”

“Why protect her?” asked Lucy. “If you do, the Inhabitors can’t take her over. It’ll be harder for you to find them. And they’ll suddenly have someone at their lair they can’t possess. That’ll make them suspicious.”

“Do they know about werecats?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’m sure they know some people can’t be possessed. But there are some humans they can’t possess who aren’t werecats. I know they know cats can see them. But I don’t know if they know more than that.”

“Well, we don’t want them to know more, if they don’t already,” I said. “Wait, can cats read human writing?”

“I never met any that could,” replied Lucy. “But werecats can.” We looked at each other.

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I pulled into the parking lot outside a warehouse near the building where Nicki worked. It was the middle of the night, so it was unlikely that anyone was there, including any Dark Inhabitors. However, it was also unlikely that any doors would be unlocked. However … I opened the car door and stuck the magnetic key holder to the undercarriage beneath the driver’s side. I changed form, allowing my clothes to fall inside the car, and got out. As a cat it took a bit of effort to close the door, but I did it. I was now a cat as far as anyone could tell. I was also locked out of my car, except for the key inside the small magnetic box I’d stuck to the underside.

It took a while to walk all the way to the Parker Research building, especially with shorter legs, but I got there. It took even longer to walk all the way around the building looking for entrances – open windows, air vents, anything. Nothing, though there were some security cameras – of course, all they saw was a cat prowling around in the night. But then I noticed a water pipe that looked like I could climb it – or at least I could probably climb the brackets that held it to the side of the building. Setting about this, I made my way upward and was on the roof of the four-story building almost before I knew it.

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I prowled around the roof. There were many large air handling devices and the accompanying ducts all over the tar and graveled roof. I was easily able to navigate the maze until I came to a place where a door stood. I tingled with excitement when I saw the vent window above the door was open. The jump was amazingly easy as my muscles coiled then sprang like well oiled machinery. I slipped easily through the window and landed on the top level of the stairs.

Darn, I knew there would be a door at each level, but I remembered this same type of thing at the place I worked. The doors, as a rule, were code locked and I had no way to open them. Somehow, I could feel this … I don’t know, a kitty sense that led me down the long winding stairs to a basement level. I was amazed; this level had no door but was open. I slowly entered; all my senses were alive and tingly as I padded silently into the opening into a hall of some type.

There were security cameras that kept watch over the hall. It was an easy thing to quickly dash from object to object when the camera rotated to a different location in its surveillance sweep and not get detected. The super heightened awareness given to me by my new abilities aided tremendously.

It sort of startled me when the door in front of me slid open and four individuals walked out. I could plainly see all four of them had a Dark Inhabitor possessing them. I dashed quickly into the room they had just left as the door slid closed behind me. Quick as I could, I ran and hid under one of the desks. Fortunate thing too, one of the possessed scientists came back into the room and stood while he looked carefully around. He obviously couldn’t sense me, as he turned after a time and left once again. I relaxed and started doing that licking my paw and wiping my face thing cats did. Darn, I managed to stop doing it, and was glad I did it because it helped calm me down and I felt a lot better.

I hadn’t seen any cars outside, so I’d thought nobody would be here. But of course the ones with Dark Inhabitors played by different rules than most humans. They must have been possessed for at least a couple of days, I figured, because someone else – perhaps one of the other ones – must have driven them all here. But hadn’t Lucy said there were only a few of them in the world? Whatever they were up to here, it was something big for at least four of them to be in one place at once.

I came out from under the desk and hopped onto its top. On the large computer screen was some sort of star chart. I wasn’t an astronomer, but I knew what I was looking at didn’t look like the night sky of Earth, due to the size and arrangement of some of the huge red stars and the numerous blue ones depicted.

I sat back and looked around. From this vantage point, I could see other screens. Each one had a different kind of data on it. The one that caught my attention was the one with the schematics for the probe I already knew they were constructing. Immediately, and I can’t explain how I knew, I saw a major addition and the subsequent modifications necessary to accommodate it. I just knew, this was the place the Dark Inhabitors had intended to be when the probe was launched.

Another screen had some kind of charts and calculations about the probe’s engines and how much radiation they would emit. But for some reason there were two charts. One of them was labeled “Public,” while the other was labeled “Eyes Only.” I noticed that the “Eyes Only” chart had much larger numbers. I wondered whether it was bad.

Then I heard a voice in my head, like Lucy’s voice, but it sounded different. “Yeah, pretty sure it’s bad,” said the voice.

“Who are you?” I replied in cat mode.

“Who, me? I was just passing by. I’m Rags. These guys are no good. And they hate cats. Well, not all of them. Just the ones with those Inhabitor things.”

“Where are you?”

“In the grass, outside this human building thing,” came Rags’ voice. “I guess you must be inside. How’d you get in there? And more importantly, is there any food?”

“Not so far as I’ve seen,” I said. “But I climbed up to the roof and got in an open window.”

“Awesome, nice climbing!” said Rags. “No food, though. Hmm. Guess I’ll stay out here. But yeah, watch out for those Inhabitor things.”

I quietly sneaked across to another group of cubicles, but none of the computer screens were on. Still, there was paper on the desks, and unlike ordinary cats I could read them. A lot of them were scientific equations that I couldn’t make head or tail of, but some of them described things in words. There was more about the probe’s engines, and some about its contents. Apparently there were several important-sounding instruments that were going to look for Planet Nine in the outer solar system. There were two places where the calculations said it could be, and there would be two probes, one going to each area to discover any new planets or dwarf planets they found. But one of the probes’ plans had been redrawn with nothing shown inside but empty space.

Well, I had to get out of this building. I could go back out the roof, I supposed. But there was the matter of that door I’d followed the possessed scientists through. I didn’t think it would open for me.

I looked around, slipping from one group of cubicles to the next. Then I found an elevator. I was easily able to stretch myself up and push the button to call it. But what if I needed some kind of key or card to get to the ground floor?

The doors opened. I went inside. There was a button for the lobby floor, so I stretched up and pushed that one. It lit up. I guess they didn’t need a key to get out of the building, just in. Soon the doors opened on the ground floor, and I got out. The way to the front door wasn’t immediately obvious, though, so I wandered carefully around, looking for a way out.

I heard a sound around a corner ahead of me, and I carefully peeked. It was a custodian, an older man in a uniform with a cart. He was about to go into one of the bathrooms. Again, I hadn’t seen any cars outside, but maybe he’d come while I was inside. But the important thing was that he wasn’t possessed. I didn’t see any Dark Inhabitor on his head. He was probably just here to clean the place. I decided to risk it.

I walked up to him, looked at him, and meowed, trying to look natural. He looked at me. “Well, now, how’d you get in here, kitty? Did you follow me in? You’re not supposed to be here, y’know. Bet you want out, don’tcha?” All I could really do was meow again. “Well, if’n you follow me, I can letcha out.” He went to a nearby fire door, inserted a key, and opened it. No alarm went off, because he had the key. “G’night, kitty!”

I scampered out into the grass, looked back, and meowed at him again. I wanted to say, “Thank you!” so I hope the meow got that across. He smiled at me and closed the door again.

I was back outside. It was even later at night. “Rags, are you still around?” I asked in cat mode.

“Sure am,” came Rags’ voice. “Found some kind of tasty critter. That was fun, and did I mention tasty? Guess you didn’t find anything to eat in there.”

“No,” I said. “I got out, though.”

“I can see,” said the voice. “I’m over by the big hard field.” I guessed he meant the parking lot, so I went in that direction, and as I got farther from the building’s lights I could see in the darkness. He was a stray cat, some kind of mix, and he looked gray and black, at least in the dim light.

“You must be Rags,” I said.

“Yep!” he replied.

“A man let me out,” I told him. “Looks like the guy who cleans the place.”

“Oh yeah, that’s old Jim,” Rags said. “I see him a lot. He talks to me and gives me snacks sometimes.”

“How do you know his name?” I asked.

“That’s what people call him,” said Rags. “I hear them sometimes. I figured it out.”

“But he doesn’t take you home with him?”

“No, I like the life of freedom and the open road,” said Rags.

“Well, I’ve got to get back home,” I said. “It was good to meet you. My name’s Rayan.”

“Good to meet you too. Maybe I’ll see you again.”

I made my way back to my car. This would be tricky, but as I walked back I planned how to do it. I saw my car in the distance, under a pool of light in the warehouse parking lot. I was now wishing I’d parked in the darkness, but that was in the past. I was going to … I heard a sound. I looked around and could tell that there were humans in the parking lot. They had motorcycles. Somehow I could smell that they had alcohol and possibly more in their systems, even from a distance. They were men, and I did not want to get closer to them and suddenly turn into a naked woman in their presence. But they hadn’t seen me; I was still some distance away and in the darkness, still in cat form.

But they showed no sign of going away, and time was ticking. I still had a very bad feeling about what I’d seen back at Parker Research. I wanted to talk to Nicki about it, though I had no idea how I’d explain how I knew what I knew. These people had a line of sight on the driver’s side of my car. I’d need a plan. I thought of one – it wasn’t great, but it was the best I could do right now.

I crept around until my car was between me and these three guys on motorcycles. Then I walked toward my car and crawled underneath. Finding my way to the magnetic key container, I pulled it off with my paws and grabbed it with my teeth, then crawled back to the passenger side. I looked carefully around before coming out again and opening the key box. Then, in one fluid motion, I shifted back into human form, took out the key, unlocked the passenger door, and got inside.

I was trying to get my underwear on, lying low so nobody could see me, when suddenly the passenger door opened – I’d forgotten to lock it again! And some oily-looking guy in motorcycle leathers and an unkempt beard was reaching in and grabbing for me, saying, “Well, now, look what I found?”

I froze and gulped, then tried to pull away from the door, but he climbed inside my car after me, grabbed my ankle, and started dragging me out. I was terrified for my life. But the thing is, I still had to concentrate to maintain human form at night. I suddenly went hairy all over, chocolate brown fur.

“What the –” he said, but he didn’t let go; he kept pulling. “You’re an interesting one, aren’tcha?” he said. “Must be one o’ them furries I heard about.”

He was incredibly drunk, high, or both, and what he was saying made no sense. But I wasn’t thinking about that; I was thinking about how I was going to get away from him. And his two friends were coming over to see what he was doing. I was, as I said, terrified. He almost had me out of the car. Then suddenly something snapped inside me. I stood up and realized I was looking down at him. I was still standing on two legs, but I could see quite well, and more than that, I could hear everything, and I could smell the beginnings of fear in him.

He’d let go of my ankle when I’d stood up, and now he was looking up at me and starting to back away. Something in me thought that was … wonderful. I advanced on him, reaching for him with my hand, which I barely noticed was covered with fur and had sharp claws, and he backed away farther. His friends saw me and stopped in their tracks. He started to run as I continued stalking toward him. Thrilled, I ran after him, catching up to him in just a few silent steps. I knocked him over and was on top of him, grabbing his jacket with both hands. “Got you!” I roared at him in glee. It came out like an actual roar, though, probably unintelligible.

I heard his friends coming up behind me, but not too close, and I knew one of them was fumbling for a gun. I stood up, picked up the first man by his jacket, and threw him at his friends with ease, knocking them down onto the pavement. Then I jumped on top of all three of them, slashing at them with my claws, discovering that I had two more claws to fight with, and it was glorious.

The one with the gun tried to point it at me, and I’m pretty sure I broke some of his finger bones while ripping it out of his hand and throwing it away. But first one, then two of them broke and ran for their motorcycles, then the third ran away from me. I chased him, because I wanted to catch him, then realized that I wanted to kill him and probably eat him. I stopped myself in shock. He didn’t look back; his friends had already started their bikes and blown out of there, and he did the same.

What had just happened? I went back to my car and looked at my reflection in the window. I looked like some kind of seven-foot-tall deep brown panther on two legs. I gasped and put my hands to my face, claws retracting. The creature in the reflection did the same. What …? I ran around to the open passenger door and got back inside my car, closing and locking it this time. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to calm down, and my body changed back into cat form – regular cat form. I hid under the dashboard and tried to relax.

After a while I was able to get back into human form, get dressed – my underwear was destroyed – and drive home. I was still upset, and I had to talk to Lucy.

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“You must have a feline soul,” said Lucy when I told her what had happened. The conversation had begun before I’d even left the car – apparently I could now talk to cats from some distance away. I’d parked on the street and gone inside, up the stairs and into my apartment, telling Lucy about what had happened all the while. “Normally it takes months or even years for anyone to take that form,” Lucy added.

“I could’ve killed him,” I said. “I could’ve killed all of them. I wanted to eat them.”

“Well, we are predators,” said Lucy. “I’m kind of jealous, actually. I wish I could be that big and chase humans.”

“Well it’s a good thing you can’t do that!” I said. “If you did, they’d send cops after you, and the army if the cops couldn’t stop you. It’s a good thing the cops won’t believe these guys, even if they go to the cops, which I doubt they will – half of what’s in their bloodstream tonight is probably illegal, for one thing, and the cops would figure they hallucinated it all anyway. If anybody saw me who the cops would believe, they’d send out teams to hunt me down.”

“Well, just be careful, then,” said Lucy. “You have a tool that most werecats don’t develop for a while. I’d have told you more about it, but I didn’t expect you’d get there so soon. Anyway, what did you find in the building? And what was this Rags guy like? He sounds hot.”

“The building!” I said. “These Dark Inhabitors are making changes to the space probe … star machine … thing. It’s got a new engine that makes it fly through space really fast. But I think they’re making it stronger, way stronger, stronger than is safe. And there are going to be two of them, but they’re turning one of them into a ship they can fly in.”

“So they want to fly away into the stars?” asked Lucy. “That’s good. Maybe they’ll go away and leave us all alone.”

“No, that’s not the bad part,” I said. “I think … I don’t know because I’m not a scientist, but the engine puts out a lot of radiation. Normally I guess it would just be in space and not a problem, but they’re making it way stronger so they can go to other star systems. So much stronger … I worry about it hurting everyone on Earth. Or everyone on half the Earth, anyway. The side facing away wouldn’t be in danger, I guess.”

“That sounds like what all the stories say about the Dark Inhabitors,” said Lucy. “Nobody knows what they’re up to, but they don’t seem to care what they have to destroy or who they have to kill to do it.”

“And sure, they may want to leave the Earth, but what if it kills everything on half the Earth when they do it?” I asked. “Every human, cat, everything else on that side of the Earth? I’m not sure it’s really that powerful – but it could be. Or maybe even more powerful.”

“Sounds like you’re going to have to talk to Nicki.”

“But how do I explain what I know to her?” I asked.

“Well, I could bite her too,” Lucy said. “Once she’s changed into a cat and seen a Dark Inhabitor or four at work, I don’t see how she wouldn’t believe you.”

“But she doesn’t have a cat to guide her through it,” I said. “I guess that means you and I would have to help her.”

“Looks like it,” said Lucy. “But also, I haven’t introduced you to the rest of the cats in the area. Your cat talk is getting stronger. Soon you’ll be able to talk to all of them just like I can. They could help too.”

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From what I understood about the probes’ engines, I had to do something. If those engines were ignited, there would be a flash of radiation that could kill everyone on one side of the Earth, or maybe it would throw a cloud of radioactive particles into the atmosphere that would contaminate the Earth for millennia – I didn’t really understand, but it was bad.

Lucy had suggested that she bite Nicki before I talked with her. There was no way I could think of to tell her what I had to tell her and get her to believe it. I also knew it would be a life-altering thing for her. To do it without telling her what was going to happen amounted to assault. It also frustrated me that I actually had no other way to accomplish what had to be done to protect the Earth.

Lucy came and jumped into my lap. She began purring loudly as she started snuggling in. I smiled and scratched behind her ear in her favorite place before I asked, “Would it be a really bad thing if Nicki just happened to get bitten? I must let her know about the modifications to the probe’s engine for the sake of the planet.”

Lucy said nothing but jumped from my lap and dashed out the kitty door. A minute or two later, I heard a gasping shriek. I knew Lucy had just bitten Nicki. I got to the door just in time for Lucy to dash in and hide under the sofa, which also happened to be the exact time the sun had sunk below the horizon outside.

I watched as Nicki shrank and rapidly changed form. I couldn’t help myself as I too transformed. Nicki and I looked at each other for a minute amid a pile of our now way oversized clothes. I wiggled my way out of them and started doing that cat thingy of licking myself. I realized what I was doing and stopped. I saw the kitty Nicki staring at me. She was also an Abyssinian, but silver, a much lighter color than me or even Lucy. She lifted a paw and looked at it.

I said in cat mode, “Hi, Nicki, it’s me, Rayan.”

I actually heard Nicki’s startled and very upset reply, “Lucy … bit me ... and and and …”

I replied as calmly and reassuringly as I could, “I know. I’m sorry about that, but I have something to tell you that you must believe. The entire Earth depends on it. Trust me, once I tell you, in the morning you can go find the data on the computers in the basement level of the place where you work.”

I proceeded to tell her about the Dark Inhabitors and how she had been taken over. I told her how Lucy had bitten me in the same manner so I too could see them. I informed her that many of the research scientists at the laboratory were similarly possessed, and they were modifying one of the probes and its engine. Once I told her about the two sets of data, one marked public and the other eyes only, she may still have been upset over her current state, but she was far more upset about the potential consequences for Earth.

Nicki asked, “Will I be able to change back and forth at will? Or do I have to wait until sundown and sunrise each day?”

I replied, “You will be able to make the change at will after a time. Not real sure how long it will take, though. Lucy told me I’m advancing faster than anyone ever has in the history of werecats. But you must somehow stop what the Inhabitors are doing. If that engine ignites, we won’t be the only ones who die.”

Even in kitty form, I could tell the look of fear on her face. She replied, “As soon as I can get back to my normal self, I promise I’ll look into it and stop what’s going on. But you say that the … Inhabitors? They can’t possess me now?”

“Yeah, we’re immune now,” I said.

“So not only did you need my help, you also protected me,” she said. “This is a lot to take in. I’m … a cat now, plus there are these things that no human can see that can take over anybody whenever they want, plus they’re plotting to kill everybody. I’m not having a nightmare, am I?”

“I mean … probably not?” I said. “If you are, then I’m not real, so you can’t believe anything I say, yes or no.”

“Yeah, nightmares aren’t logical like that,” she said. “So you actually followed me … or that thing in my body, anyway … to my office? And you sneaked in there as a cat?”

“Yeah, I did,” I said, “but all the time I kept thinking I wished you were there so you could make sense of the equations and graphs I was seeing. I’m not a scientist.”

“I’ve never been down there,” she said. “I thought it was just a different project, one I’m not assigned to. I didn’t know they were taking my work and supersizing it.”

“If we went there, could we get in?” I asked her.

“My card would open the door,” she said, “but the fact that I used it would be logged. If they looked, they’d find out that I’d been down there, and there’d be questions. Unless we somehow erased the data, but I don’t have access to that. And besides … we’d have to get in. I guess you can stay human at night … maybe you could carry my key card and bring me along? Can we still talk like this?”

“Yeah, as Lucy put it, I don’t stop being a werecat just because I’m in human form,” I said. “Oh, and apparently if I get super upset I turn into some kind of cat monster, like a werewolf but more catlike.”

“Oh, so we’re the Hulk now too?” she said. “Only fuzzy instead of green. Suddenly my life is crazy.”

“Do you know how much time we have?” I asked. “Before they actually launch the probes?”

“They’re not due to launch for a month,” Nicki said, “but from what you say, those Dark Inhabitors are doing their own thing. I have no way of knowing what their plan is. They could be launching right now, for all I know.”

“Let’s hope they aren’t,” I said, “but it means we have to get in there and get a better idea of what’s going on.”

“OK, let me think,” said Nicki. “It’s the middle of the night, but my card should still let you into the building …”

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This time I pulled right into the parking lot of Parker Research. I used Nicki’s card at the booth outside the lot, and the arm went right up and let me in. There was one other car there, but I’d seen it the other night – it was Jim’s, so he was in the building, cleaning up. I had Nicki with me, and Lucy had insisted on coming along too this time. So there were two cats in the car with me, and when I got out, so did they.

“So I go up here, and …” I said, in cat mode.

“Just hold the card over the numeric pad,” said Nicki. I did so. It beeped. “Now press 014417.” I did that, and the door clicked. “Now pull the door open before it locks again.” I did, and the cats ran in before me.

“Now, to get to the elevator we’re going to … oh, you know where it is,” Nicki began. “You’re going to have to swipe my card before pressing the B button.” When the elevator doors opened, I did as Nicki said. The elevator moved. I hoped nobody other than Jim was here. And I hoped Jim wasn’t possessed.

The doors opened. The lights were on, but I didn’t see anybody, so I stepped out – and immediately heard somebody’s footsteps coming. “Quick, turn left and go into the break room!” said Nicki, so I did that.

“How’d you know there was a break room?” I asked, in cat mode.

“Every other floor has one there,” she replied. “I figured this one was no different. Anyway, from the sound of it, if whoever was coming was a Dark Inhabitor, they’re not very into taking breaks, so they won’t come in here.”

She was right. The footsteps receded. “I’m going to go look around,” said Nicki. “I don’t know this floor, but I feel … amazing. Like I can see and hear and smell everything. And like I’m totally silent.”

“You basically are,” I replied. “I guess I’ll stay here. Lucy … I guess do whatever you want, as usual, but be careful, and be ready to go when Nicki’s seen whatever she needs to see.”

“I’m going to find out who’s here without being seen,” said Lucy. “I’ll tell you where they are.”

“I guess I’ll … sit here,” I said. I waited in the break room. I didn’t know where Nicki and Lucy were. I felt oddly helpless.

“There’s a Dark Inhabitor here,” said Lucy. “They’re in the bathroom. I guess they still have to do that.”

“The data … holy sh … they’re really completely unconcerned about the particle release or radiation burst? That’s … that’s a blast bigger than a thousand hydrogen bombs. The shock wave alone would scour the surface of the Earth clean of all life on one side! And even if it didn’t, the fallout would take care of the rest. The only life on Earth would be in the deep sea or deep beneath the surface.”

“Can you stop it?”

“I … I’m not sure how, I’ll have to think about it. Do you have your phone?”

“Yeah, but …”

“If you could get over here and take a photo of this, it would really help.”

“Lucy?”

“They’re not on their way back yet,” said Lucy.

“All right, then,” I said, and silently crept to where I knew Nicki was. I was still as stealthy as a cat, and my eyesight and hearing were still heightened, even though I was in human form. And somehow I just had a sense of where Nicki was.

“Make sure your phone has its flash and sound turned off,” Nicki said. “And take a photo of this screen.” I did. “OK, take a photo of the papers on this desk that I’ve laid out.” I did that too. “OK, good, that’ll help later.”

“They’re coming out,” said Lucy. “They’re on their way back.”

“But we don’t know where they’re coming back to,” said Nicki. “Back to the break room!” She and I moved quickly but silently back to the break room, with its fridge, tables, chairs, microwave, coffee maker, sink, and what not.

“Should we go?” I asked.

“I still don’t know where they’re assembling any of this,” Nicki said. “And I’m looking for a way to sabotage it. But … if we stop them from leaving Earth, won’t they just keep trying, somewhere else?”

“Pretty sure they will,” I said.

“Then what we really need is a way for them to leave that won’t kill the Earth,” said Nicki. “I’m sure they’re not trying to destroy the Earth; they just don’t care. If we give them a different plan that also gets them where they’re going but doesn’t kill us all, they’ll probably take it.”

“How will you offer them this idea without their finding out that you know about them and killing you?”

“I don’t even know how to stop their huge space engine from destroying the Earth,” said Nicki. “One thing at a time.”

“He’s at the desk you were at,” Lucy replied. “I can feel him there. He doesn’t know we’re here.”

“Good thing he was pretty far from the elevator when it opened its doors,” I said. “It made that noise.”

“Can we get back to the elevator without being seen?” I asked.

“I can, and Nicki can,” said Lucy, “but Rayan cannot. He will see you. You are too tall.”

“I can shift,” I said. “But my clothes … I’ll need them, to drive us home. Wait … I’ve got an idea.”

I had to get out of my clothes, all of them, quickly – so I shifted to cat form and back, there in the break room. I felt intensely nervous and exposed, but I rolled up all my clothes and stuffed them into my shoes, then tied the shoelaces together around the shoes so they were all one piece. Shifting back into cat form, I tried to make myself large enough that I could carry the bundle in my mouth. I wondered if this would work, but I could tell that I was a larger cat than before, though still smaller than a human, and on all fours. I picked up the two-shoe bundle in my mouth and crept to the elevator.

Lucy and Nicki were there waiting for me; when they saw me, Nicki stretched up and pressed the elevator’s call button. The doors opened immediately, since no one had used it since we’d come down, and we got in. I saw my reflection in the back of the elevator – I looked like I was the size of an ocelot or something on that scale.

As soon as the doors closed, I got dressed as quickly as I could. My shoes had no laces in them, and I left the laces and my bra stuffed in my jeans pockets, but I was dressed when the doors opened. I tried to walk nonchalantly out the front door, Nicki and Lucy following behind and running ahead.

“I can’t believe that worked,” I said once we were in the car. “Let’s get home.”

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“OK,” said Nicki the next morning, “I’ve had a chance to go over the data in more detail.” We were in her kitchen, drinking coffee. Lucy was under the table. “The effects of launching the two probes wouldn’t blow up the Earth or eliminate all life, but most land life would be wiped out, and a lot of sea life too. A few humans and cats might live, but the vast majority would die, and survival after that would be no picnic. There’s just no way life on Earth gets out of that in good shape. Did I just say humans and cats?”

“Yep,” I confirmed.

She took a breath. “Well, then. All I have to do is redirect the particle emission in a perpendicular direction, and that problem is solved. The design is fine as it is for the original scale – the emission is tiny and doesn’t even make it past the magnetic field. But at this scale … it needs to be redirected. As for the burst of radiation when it goes into full power – they don’t have to start out pointing directly away from Earth. They can go literally any other direction. That means that if they want to end up going in the same direction, all they have to do is leave at some other time of year – put simply, so the Earth isn’t behind them.”

“So … they could avoid killing everyone if they were only careful, but they just don’t care?” I asked.

“That’s pretty much it,” said Nicki.

“How do we make them be careful?” I wondered.

Lucy jumped up into my lap. “We may need help,” she said.

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Lucy had vanished out the kitty door and was gone for a very long time while Nicki and I discussed what we might be able to do to stop the upcoming disaster. When she returned, she had with her several other cats that turned out to also be werecats. I sat and watched in amazement as the four of the kitties transformed into nude humans. I was a bit embarrassed, but I offered them some clothing to make do while they were here.

One of them smiled and said, “Hello. My name’s Dr. Walter Von Oldman …”

Nicki interrupted and said with amazement in her voice, “Von Oldman? Are you the one who made the remarkable quantum wave breakthrough? You’re … a werecat?”

He nodded and replied, “One and the same. I’m also one of the ones on a campaign to get rid of the Dark Inhabitors. But we didn’t know what they were doing, or where. Now that we know, I believe I have a plan to stop them once and for all.”

I asked, “What have you got in mind? From what I’ve seen, if they’re allowed to ignite that engine on schedule, the result will more than likely destroy most of the life on Earth.”

He replied, “That’s quite likely, and I think I and my cohorts here …” He indicated the other three with him and went on, “If we could manage to gain access to the servers the construction schematics, diagrams, and launch plans are on, we can make a few modifications that will insure their launch leaves Earth safely … and that their journey ends permanently.”

One of the others spoke up. “My name is Dr. John Felton. My specialty is quantum phase variances and anti-spin bondings. After hearing Lucy here explain the problem, we know exactly how to fix it so no other species will ever again be burdened with those Inhabitors.” The other two nodded.

Nicki asked, “If I can get you into the lab, can you make the entries without being detected?”

The third individual spoke up then and said, “Hi. My name is … well, let’s just say I’m called Specter.”

Nicki said with a gasp of astonishment, “Specter? The world’s most unstoppable hacker? The one who hacked the World National Bank and uncovered the plot to steal trillions in gold bullion?”

He nodded and replied, “One and the same. Now, from what Lucy has said, you can get me access to a terminal within the R&D department. Since this will be an internal hack and won’t have to go through all the external security, I believe we could be in and out within 20 minutes – 30 max. And no one would be the wiser.”

I said, “That’s an awfully long time to be in there with those things wandering around randomly.”

Nicki said, “If all of you have gained the ability to transform at will, and from what I’ve just seen you have, I think Lucy and myself can make a large enough diversion to keep them away long enough.”

I said, “There’s also a stray who hangs around there and calls himself Rags. I believe he would prove to have a mischievous enough streak in him to think it would be fun to play a trick on those possessed individuals.”

Lucy added, “Rags? I met him the other night. He loves tricks. And … there’s no reason why we can’t get more help, is there? Many of us love tricks.”

We chatted into the night and made plans for the next night. I did manage to find clothes for everyone, and even devised a method by which we could carry them with us. We would have to become cats about the size of bobcats, but the packs would work perfectly for carrying clothing and a few other small items we felt might be necessary. It took a bit longer than the next day to get all the items delivered, but they arrived, and we went through rehearsals just so we had it down how and what we were going to do.

The night we arrived at the lab was cold, drizzly wet, and messy. The only car in the parking lot was old Jim the janitor’s. There were enough of us werecats present that we could sense the Inhabitors were not at the place tonight, which made our plan that much easier. Nicki let us in the door with her pass card. Lucy and Rags met up and dashed off, with the rest of us following close behind.

I wasn’t really needed inside, not being a scientist or a computer hacker. So I stayed with Lucy and Rags … and they had summoned help. There were nine other cats they’d gathered to assist in the troublemaking. Their eyes glittered even in the dim light. “So, what mischief will we get into tonight?” asked one of them.

“You’re a werecat,” one said to me, “and you’ve been one for some time, to take on that form.”

“No, I’ve only been one for a few days,” I replied.

“Is that so?” said the cat. “And you can already do that? Imagine what you could do a year from now.”

The others had the idea of spreading out around the property and looking for anything the Dark Inhabitors may have accidentally dropped, and meanwhile we could watch the building from all directions in case one of them came. I continued talking to this new cat, a coal-black Bombay mix named Knox. He told me a lot of stories about things the legendary werecats of the past had supposedly been able to do. I wondered whether I could do them too – or whether they were just stories. I mean … I had turned into a fearsome seven-foot hairy monster.

“Car!” “There’s a car coming!” “Car turning into the parking lot.” Suddenly several messages reached me in that way that we cats had of speaking to each other.

“Nicki,” I said, “we’ve got company. One car, for now. Can’t tell whether it’s one of them, but assume it is.”

“Got it,” came Nicki’s voice in my head. “Specter’s almost done.”

“We’ll try to stall them for as long as we can,” I said. And that’s what I said to the rest of the cats. “If it’s a Dark Inhabitor, we have to delay it for as long as we can.”

“OK.” “Anybody have eyes on the driver?” “Headlights are in my eyes.” “It’s an Inhabitor.” “Yes, one Inhabitor in the car.” “Keep it away from the human building thing.”

We hid in the grass or behind objects as best we could until the moment the car’s headlights turned off and its door opened. Then we were on him. Cats converged on him like flies on sugar. He was an Inhabitor, all right. His human head was visible inside a translucent black shroud with glowing white patches over his eyes. “Troublesome cats,” he said in a weirdly nonemotional voice, as if the Inhabitor had somehow gone for thousands or maybe millions of years without learning what emotions were, or perhaps had given them up long ago – both stories that I’d heard about them from the cats. I stole his car keys in the confusion.

Then I realized he was taking a gun out of a holster, and time seemed to slow down. “He has a gun!” I broadcast to all cats who could hear, which probably included the ones in the basement. “I’m going to try to get it away from him.”

“Be careful!” came Nicki’s voice.

But Knox said, “You’re faster than he is. Make your paws strong. Strike quickly, strike strong, strike once.”

I didn’t think about whether I could do it. I was suddenly right up next to him. It seemed as if I was the only one moving. I saw his gun in his right hand. It did not look like a normal gun, but I didn’t have time to stare at it. I imagined that my hands were strong, as strong as iron, the paws of tigers. I struck like the wind and seized the gun with both hands, ripping it out of his grip and with a flip, threw it far out into the grass, where it landed without a sound. I knew where it was, but I was pretty sure the Inhabitor didn’t. In any case, he didn’t have it, and there were a lot of cats around him. And his car keys were in my jaws.

“I will pass you in another way,” he said. Suddenly the black shroud left his head and floated toward the building. I tried to leap and claw at it, but it was like clawing at empty air.

The man who had been possessed collapsed to his knees in the grass. He gasped. “What … where am I? … How did I get here? What … cats? Why … what is going on?” The cats around me were focusing on the floating Inhabitor, which traveled about as fast as a human could walk. It reached the wall of the building and just went through it as if it weren’t there.

“Jim,” said Rags. “It’s going to try to possess Jim.”

“Oh no!” I replied. “Not Jim! We won’t be able to get it out of him!” I started running for the front door, even though I knew I couldn’t get inside without the key card.

“Rayan, don’t worry,” said Rags. “He’s been a werecat for years. It can’t get him. There are no humans here, except …”

“Except for that guy!” I said. I ran back to the confused human who had been possessed. He had stood up and was looking around at all the cats. I quickly moved behind him and shifted. “Look,” I said to him in human mode, reaching around and putting his car keys in his hand, “get in your car, and drive away. Do it now. Or what happened to you will happen again. Go!” He turned to face me, but all he saw was a largish cat with a sort of backpack.

We all just stood there and looked at him. He backed away, slowly at first, then he did what I’d told him, quickly getting in his car and driving off.

Shortly, the Inhabitor emerged from the building again, drifting away toward the center of the city. I shuddered to think that before I was a werecat, these things could have moved through me without my knowing it at any time.

Then Jim emerged from the front door. Jim ran up to him. “Rags,” he said, in cat mode so we could all hear. He knelt down and scratched the back of Rags’ head. “It’s a nice night. A bit crisp. Bit of snap in the air. And those … things … I’m guessing they’ll be back pretty soon.” He looked up at me. “Oh, I see now,” he said. “Had no idea you were one of … y’know, us.”

Then I heard Specter’s voice. “Got it!” he said. “They won’t be able to find the changes I made. Dr. Felton and Dr. Oldman checked my math.”

“So did I,” said Nicki’s voice.

“They’ll launch, the radiation will miss Earth, and once they’re far enough out into space … boom!”

“Will they suspect?” I asked. “All these cats harassing one of their kind, here, at the place where they’re designing their means of escape?”

“Maybe,” said Lucy. “But maybe not. Whenever there are a lot of them in one place … we can feel it. When they gather, we come to trouble them, sooner or later. They’ve probably come to expect it.”

“Covering our tracks, then we can go,” said Specter. “And … done. Wiping my prints off the keyboard, and … packing up.”

“We’ll be up in under a minute,” said Nicki.

Sure enough, they came out the front door in less than a minute. I was already at my car, dressed, and ready to drive out of there. Soon the car was full of cats. I waved to Rags, Jim, Knox, and the rest, and off we went.

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I sat on the sofa and watched the morning news about the new probe that was being constructed at the Parker Research factory under contract for NASA. The story in itself was interesting to me, not for what it was saying, but mostly for what it was obviously avoiding saying. I knew many of the aspects of the probes and its mission were classified, so it might not have been anything to worry over.

There was a ring at my door. When I answered it, Nicki and the man from the night before were there, the man we’d managed to get the Dark Inhabitor to leave. He removed his hat and said softly, “Hello. My name is Dr. Reginald Begginsly. I’m a particle physicist.” He turned and looked at Nicki for an instant then asked, “Do you mind .. if I come in and speak with you for a little while? I’m told you have quite a story to tell me, and quite frankly, I do need some explanations for my month-long blank spot.”

I stepped back and replied, “Sure. You and Nicki come in and make yourselves comfortable. I’m not real sure how much of what I’m going to tell you you’re going to believe, but I promise to amaze and quite possibly scare you.”

Nicki and Dr. Bigginsly came in, and each sat in one of the armchairs while I closed and locked the door. I turned and asked, “How much do you know and remember from last night?”

He fidgeted for a minute, then answered, “The last thing I remember before coming to my right mind last night was setting up the thrust parameters for the engine project we’re working on. Next thing I knew, I was on my knees out in the parking lot, it was night, and it turns out it was almost 30 days later.”

I stood up and said softly, “What you’re about to see will change how you think about the world. Just relax – I promise nothing untoward will happen to you.”

Dr. Bigginsly’s face showed real concern as he asked, “What are you about …”

I didn’t give him time to finish. My body became furry, and although I tried to dial back the size of my bipedal form from the other night, my hands and feet transformed as my shoes split. He sat back hard in his chair and grabbed the arms so tightly his knuckles started to turn white. I had sharp teeth, and 2-inch razor sharp claws on my paws until I retracted them.

I was about the same height, but now I was a smaller version of the full-blown werecat creature I’d become a few nights ago. From what I could see in the almost hidden reflection in the small makeup mirror on the coffee table, I appeared to retain enough of my body and facial features that I looked like some type of giant cat-humanoid mix.

Nicki reached over and softly patted Dr. Bigginsly’s hand as she cooed softly and comfortingly, “Relax. You’re among friends. It was she and I in there, with a lot of help from other cats, who managed to set you free.”

Dr. Bigginsly visibly relaxed as he said with obvious awe in his tone, “This cannot be happening. I’m … I’ve lost my mind.”

I said with a really strange feline accent, “No, this is for real, I promise you. Another thing I can promise you, is that the motor for one of those probes has been modified into some type of interstellar engine.” I changed back, happy that I’d worn stretchable clothes. “I wish I’d remembered to take my shoes off.”

Nicki spoke up. “From what I’ve seen in the basement-level lab you and the others have been working in, if that thing is ignited and the exhaust is directed towards Earth …”

Dr. Bigginsly’s eyes became as large as tea cups. “No! I know the changes you’re talking about. I came up with them and rejected them! It will destroy all life on this planet. You mean somebody’s actually planning to use them?”

“Not somebody,” I said. “Something. There are … creatures that can possess humans. They’re some kind of aliens. They’re invisible to almost everything, but not to cats, so the cats have been, well, recruiting help, turning some humans into werecats like me. We cats are gathering together in an attempt to save Earth from these things and their plan.”

Nicki said, “Dr. John Felton and I have made adjustments to the engine that will force the exhaust direction away from Earth, and perhaps solve the issue of these Inhabitors once and for all.”

“Creatures … that can possess humans,” said Dr. Bigginsly. “And … werecats. There was a time when I wouldn’t believe any of this. But … I lost an entire month with no other explanation, and I saw you … change … right before my eyes.”

“I can do it again,” I said. “Or … just partly.” I held out my arm, and it became covered with chocolate brown fur, my hand turning into a paw, with claws that I retracted and extended again.

Nicki added, “I … change too, but I’m not as good at it as Rayan. I was possessed by those creatures too, but the cats turned me into a werecat to protect me. They can’t possess us.”

“And they want our research because … they want to leave Earth?” asked Dr. Bigginsly.

“That’s right,” said Nicki. “And they don’t care whether they incinerate all surface life on Earth, or one side of it at least. They just want to get back to the stars, where they came from – a long time ago, I guess.”

“I think they’ve been manipulating all of human history … since there’s been a human history,” I said. “That seems to be what the cats are telling us. They’ve been watching them for a long time.”

“And what are you planning to do?” asked Dr. Bigginsly.

“It’s already done,” said Nicki. “The probes’ engines have been reprogrammed and modified. When they go into production, they’ll look just like they’re supposed to look … they’ll just leave Earth orbit on a tangent trajectory rather than a normal trajectory.”

“But – but that won’t fix it!” Dr. Bigginsly cut in. “The emission cone – its angle is too wide! It’ll still engulf the Earth, only not as badly!”

“That’s if it launches at full power immediately,’ said Nicki. “If instead it ramps up to full power as it moves farther away, the radiation reaching Earth will attenuate enough that the magnetic field can protect us.”

“So all they have to do is take a little care,” the physicist said, “and they wouldn’t have to kill all life on Earth. And they weren’t planning to do that.”

“That’s how much they value Earthly life,” I said.

“So what am I meant to do now?” asked Dr. Bigginsly. “I have to go back there. I work there. It’s my job, my career.”

“You have a few choices,” said Nicki. “You can become a werecat, like Rayan and me. You can go back, but you might get possessed again. Or you can quit, I guess. I haven’t seen any repercussions since I went back and they found they couldn’t possess me. From what I understand, some humans just become immune after being possessed a few times, so they won’t necessarily get suspicious. And some are immune from birth. And some are werecats.”

We talked about it for a while, explaining everything to him and answering all his questions, and Dr. Bigginsly decided he wanted to help save Earth from the misuse of his discovery. He chose to be bitten, so Lucy bit him too. And I offered to drive him home so he could prowl around his own house that night.

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We’d discovered during the night we infiltrated the building that the launch was scheduled for three weeks’ time. The probes had been built by a separate contractor and had been tested for years. The engines were Parker Research’s main project and had finished testing … only they really hadn’t. Only their original design had been tested; the new modifications were about to be tested. And Earth was the testing ground. I really hoped the changes would work.

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After work one day Nicki came over and said, “We have a problem.”

My eyes grew large with surprise. I was unsure what kind of problem Nicki would have that she wold come to confide in me. I had no high level security clearances, so I knew immediately it couldn’t be any kind of thing I might have logged into and been identified. I invited her in and offered her a plushy chair. I did notice, however, she had been scratching her head and a few other places as she came and sat.

I asked, “Would you like something to drink? I have tea and some soda?” She indicated she didn’t, so I asked, “What is the problem? I’m not real sure what it is I can do to help that I haven’t already done.”

Nicki sighed with exasperation as she blurted out, “Fleas! I have blasted fleas, and they are driving me insane.”

It was all I could do to keep from laughing and I struggled hard not to. The tone in my voice, however, gave me away I was sure as I repled, “I do have some flea sprays I could loan you to spray your apartment with. Not sure how fast the relief would be, but I spray regularly, and it keeps the fleas away from Lucy and me.”

Nicki replied, “Could I possibly borrow some? Once I spray my apartment, I’ll go to Mall Wart and buy some and replace yours.”

I said as I rose from my chair and went to the storage closet, “By all means. No hurry in replacing it, though. I do have a supply so I can prevent fleas for both Lucy and myself. I would offer you some of the flea baths I use on her from time to time, but a large warning says for it not to be used on humans. I suppose if you’ve gained the ability to transform at will, that issue would be resolved, and a quick shower would solve the problem.”

Nicki looked at me for a second and said, “Thank you. Only thing I did notice, if I’m in cat form I seem to have an aversion to getting wet.”

As I went into the bathroom to retrieve the kitty dip, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Yes, many cats do have an aversion to getting wet, and I knew fleas would become an issue. Since I had Lucy already, I sprayed the apartment regularly for them, so I hadn’t had Nicki’s problem.

I returned and handed Nicki the spray can to do her apartment and a large bottle of kitty dip to … do her. I said, “I sort of have that same issue. All I do is do my best to ignore it. I promise I’m miserable, but I manage.”

Nicki said, “Thanks,” as she took the bag I had put the items in.

I watched as she left, still scratching in places. It tickled me to no end – fleas. Lucy came up and began rubbing around my ankles as she said in her kitty way, “I gotta tell you, I’m so grateful you can get rid of them. I don’t like baths … but I don’t like fleas more.”

I picked her up and cuddled her in my arms as I sat back in my plushy arm chair. I said to her, “I only wish that was our biggest problem. I know there’s a major issue I haven’t yet heard about.” As I started petting Lucy in her favorite way and heard her loud purrs of pleasure, I wondered what might be going on behind the scenes.

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The launch was three days away, and it was a couple of days after I’d given her the flea remedies, when Nicki knocked on my door after work and said again, “We have a problem.”

“Did the flea dip not work?” I asked, with real concern. I didn’t know why it wouldn’t work for Nicki. It had always worked for Lucy and myself.

“No – I mean, yes, it worked, thank you, it’s such a relief! But I mean, no, it’s not that. We think they’ve found out. What we did to change the engine, I mean.”

I jumped up. “Oh no!” I said. “What do you mean?”

“The company’s higher-ups – and I guarantee they’re all possessed by Inhabitors – are ordering a few last-minute changes. I don’t know what they are. I emailed Specter as soon as I got home, but I haven’t heard back yet. And I’m about to … change …” And yes, right at that moment the sun went down, and she transformed into her cat self.

Just then there was another knock on my door. It was Specter – in human form. “Good evening, ladies,” he said. “May I come in? I have some news.”

“Please,” I said, opening the door to let him in. He moved to my dining table, set down his laptop computer, and opened it up.

“Now,” he said to us, “that night when we infiltrated the Parker Research building, I left back doors for myself. I can get into anything from here that I could get into from right there – and more, really. In there, there are limitations to external access.”

Nicki asked, “So … do you know what changes they’re making?”

“They think,” said Specter, “they’re changing the launch trajectory back to the way it was. They think they’ve found all the changes we made and undone them. They think they’ve found and closed all my back doors. But of course they haven’t. And they haven’t found our little surprise for once they’re out of the solar system.”

“So … everything’s all right?” asked Nicki.

“Not completely,” he said. “If we change the trajectory back, they’ll notice it right away at launch. But … I’ve still got Dr. Bigginsly’s original parameters. And I’ve got access to the engines. And … there.”

“You … just reprogrammed the engines’ firmware?” asked Nicki.

“Yes,” said Specter. “And anytime anybody except me looks at that firmware, it’ll look like I didn’t do anything. They’ll see their precious super-engine, designed to propel them to a particular system in the direction of the constellation Draco, which they will reach in 12 years of external time. Instead … it will be Dr. Bigginsly’s original engine, and it will reach their destination in 25 years. Well … it would, except that as soon as it reaches the heliopause of this solar system, it will explode.”

“Won’t they be able to reprogram it once they’re out in space?” I asked. “I mean, once they realize they aren’t going as fast as they want to, they’ll know something’s wrong.”

“They can try,” said Specter. “But if they do, they’ll be so far from Earth that the radiation emissions won’t do a thing to us. And … it’ll still go boom once it hits the heliopause.”

“Wasn’t there a second probe?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” said Nicki. “That one doesn’t have a space inside it for the Inhabitors or an augmented engine. It’s got an instrument package, and it’s heading for the Kuiper Belt and beyond to search for Planet Nine, just like the original plan said.”

Specter added, “And I can verify from here that that’s the case.”

“And they can’t … just switch them or anything, right?” I asked. “Switch which probe gets which engine?”

Specter blinked. “That’s …” He paused. “That’s so simple that it could actually work. OK. Let’s make sure that can’t happen. Just a minute.” He did some more typing on his keyboard. “All right, they haven’t done that. The navigation systems, which they can’t tamper with or they’ll never get where they’re going, will detonate the first probe that reaches the heliopause. The one that reaches it second … won’t explode.” He closed his laptop.

“You could have done that from anywhere,” said Nicki, jumping up onto the table next to the laptop. “Why did you come here to do it?”

“You sent an email to me,” said Specter. “You were worried. I wanted to make it known that I took it seriously, to put your minds at ease.”

“And how did you get here so fast?” I asked him.

“There are tricks you don’t know yet,” Specter told me. “But … you’ve come so far so fast that I think you could do it. Yes, I think you could. I’ve been trying to hack my werecat abilities ever since I got them. But you … there’s something special about you. It’s like the abilities are just … giving themselves to you. They’re like your biggest fans. It’s like you were born to be one of us. Like Lucy’s biting you was just a … formality.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” I said.

“When it comes time,” he said, “remember that the same Sun, Moon and stars all shine down everywhere on Earth.” And, I kid you not, he picked up his laptop, looked out the window at the rising Moon and just … vanished into a moonbeam. That guy is so mysterious.

“What?” Nicki asked nobody, looking out the window. “How? What was that? Is that a thing we can do?”

“I … don’t know,” I said. But I was intrigued. There were things we could do that didn’t involve changing form. Before that moment, I hadn’t known that.

Lucy just said, “We’re cats. We walk by ourselves, and all places are alike to us.”

“What else aren’t you telling me about?” I asked her.

“When you learn it by yourself,” she replied, “you learn it better.”

----------------------------------------------------------------

Nicki and a well dressed man and woman showed up at my apartment the next morning. I invited them in.

The man took his billfold from a coat pocket and opened it. It identified him as Johnathan Garron. The woman likewise presented her badge, which identified her as Diana Gust. The man said, “I’m Agent Garron. My partner and I have been assigned to protect you and this young lady.” He indicated Nicki and continued, “and to insure your safety at the launch site in the next couple of days. Apparently, one of the scientists involved in the mission, a Dr. Bigginsly, has requested that both of you attend the launch at the control center. We’ve run a background check on you, and there should be no problems with allowing you into the security area.”

The woman opened a briefcase she had been carrying and removed some papers. She said, “I need you to read over this non-disclosure agreement and sign in the places highlighted in yellow.” She handed me a pen. “You are not allowed to discuss or make any reference to the upcoming launch except for what has been cleared and released to the public. Failure to comply will result in federal prosecution.”

Nicki said, “Don’t worry over it too much; this is just a typical form all civilians who attend any launch at the facility sign. It’s normal precautionary procedure.”

I read over the forms carefully. All it was requiring of me was silence on whatever I saw, heard, or read while at the facility. I saw nothing other than an agreement between me and the federal government for me not to disclose anything pertaining to the launch I had been invited to by one of the primary scientists involved in the program. I shrugged and signed the places marked in yellow. Agent Gust actually made copies of the pages with a portable printer and gave me the duplicates, impressed with a seal she had in the briefcase.

Once I had done that, Agent Gust put the papers back in her briefcase and said, “Now, if you will follow me, we’ll take you to the launch facility and introduce you around a bit.”

Before I left, I made sure Lucy had enough food and water within her reach to last several days, just in case, then followed the three of them out to the large black vehicle waiting in the parking lot. The interior was just like a limousine complete with fold-out bar, refrigerator, and snack storage.

I had never been to the launch facility before, and the drive there was long. I was glad for the drinks and snacks, as were the others, as we basically ate lunch while in transit. After several hours, we arrived at the launch center. We stopped at the gate long enough for the guard to check everyone’s ID and make sure we were on the access list.

Once we entered the compound and had driven around several of the large, tall, hangar-like buildings, I saw the two probes sitting at their gantries prepped for launch. I could see the heavy mists escaping through the bleed vents for the oxidizers as we approached a huge bunker-like building.

Gust and Garron escorted Nicki and me up to the entrance. The door opened, and several armed guards stood at attention as another sitting at a desk asked to see and once again checked our credentials. Gust also gave him the papers I had signed, which he promptly scanned and entered into the base’s security system.

When I finally entered launch control, I stopped with my mouth open in complete awe. In it were many semicircular rows full of workstations, each with a person sitting and monitoring both probes’ systems. In front of each was a keyboard accompanied by several large screens. Some showed pictures of the launch vehicles from different locations around it. Others showed orbit traceries in multiple colors, each depicting a different set of projections. Others were filled with complicated calculations I had no ability to make head or tail of.

We were escorted to a location that had a clear and unobstructed view of the launch gantries off in the distance. Nicki said, “This is the VIP observation area.” She pointed to a plate set into the table with a small keyboard, what looked like a dial for a phone, and a small video screen, and went on, “If we need anything, we have access to the facility kitchen, or most anywhere on this base. Dr. Bigginsly will be joining us shortly before the countdown begins.”

I asked in cat mode to anyone nearby who could hear me, “Are we sure that they’re all inside the probe?” No human or Dark Inhabitor would be able to hear, but any cats or werecats in range would. It occurred to me that I didn’t know exactly what my range was.

The responses were a lot more numerous than I expected. “Rayan! She’s here!” came one. Several more I didn’t recognize said things like, “Rayan’s real?” “What’s a Rayan?” “She’s the werecat who went full form in just a few days.” “No way, that’s not real.”

But I recognized Dr. Oldman’s voice. “Rayan! Glad you could join us,” he said. “They’re all inside the probe – the one on the right, from your point of view. Don’t worry, Specter filled me in on what happened.”

And Dr. Felton answered too. “This is the culmination of their plan,” he said. “It’s even possible that humans developed space programs solely because of their manipulations. There’s no way they’d stay behind. And plenty of us have been watching. They all got in. We counted them. All 13 of them are inside the probe.”

“In … human bodies?” I asked.

“Yes, they can’t ride in a vehicle without being in a body,” Dr. Oldman replied. “That goes for cars, planes, boats, or rockets. It means there are some possessed humans who are going to die. That’s highly unfortunate, but it’s far from our fault. The Inhabitors have them, and there’s no way to free them.”

“But … are there life-support systems in the probe?” I asked.

“No,” replied Nicki. “Their hosts won’t live long. But I guess they can inhabit corpses too.” I felt her mentally shudder.

“Presumably there’s a planet at their target destination,” said Dr. Felton. “If there is, we haven’t discovered it yet, but we may one day.”

“We are T minus 60 minutes and counting,” came the announcement. The room was abuzz with excitement, but it died down again. One hour.

“So there are only 13 of them?” I asked.

“That’s all we’ve seen,” said Dr. Oldman, “but the thing is, how many would you need, to manipulate history? There only has to be one of them wherever a vital decision needs to be made, so they could theoretically manipulate 13 separate countries at the same time.”

“That’s what the stories say,” said a voice not familiar to me. “Five and five and three they are.” I got the impression that it was the voice of an older cat somewhere.

“I suppose Specter is monitoring this from somewhere,” I said.

“And wouldn’t you like to know where?” came Specter’s voice. “By the way, impressive range. I’m more than 100 miles away from the launch site, and I’m not going to say more than that.”

“I’m just … somehow comforted and disturbed at the same time that you’re able to monitor all of this from a distance,” I said.

“Hey, I’m a white hat,” he said. “I don’t do it for personal gain. I’m saving the Earth here. And by the way, I’ve interfered with no less than five foreign attempts to hack into this launch.”

“Nice,” I said. But I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the people who were going to die because they had the bad luck to be possessed by the Inhabitors and forced to cram themselves on board a probe that had no life support and barely enough space. Was there a way to rescue them while still allowing the Inhabitors to fly far away from Earth? If any of them were brought back to Earth, they’d bring their Inhabitor back with them.

I sighed. “No way to save those poor humans they’ve got?”

“None that we know of,” said Dr. Oldman.

“T minus 45 minutes,” came the announcement a short while later.

----------------------------------------------------------------

I fretted hard over the fact that 13 innocent individuals were about to loose their lives. The fact that we’d saved Earth and its entire biosphere was kind of a consolation, but it still bothered me to my soul. As the countdown continued, I heard within my mind many kitty conversations about the probe project, its intended goal, what the Dark Inhabitors had perverted it to, who the Rayan Cat was and how she’d managed to progress faster than any previously known werecat, and the many thanks that the centuries-long issue with these horrid invaders was about to come to an end.

The speaker’s announcement finally broke through my deep thoughts, “3 … 2 … 1 … IGNITION!! …”

Through the armored window facing the launch area, I saw a huge flash accompanied by 2 huge clouds of what appeared to be gasses blossom beneath the two probes.

“We have ignition. I say again ignition is positive, launch is go.”

I saw some kind of items fall away from the probes as the gantry arms fell back as programmed. With incredible ever-increasing speed, the two probes launched into the morning sky, leaving behind a fire trail and smoke contrail marking their passage. Even at this distance, the roar of the solid propellant engine from the first stage boosters was incredible.

The probes had become bright fireballs high in the sky when the speaker announce, “BECO in 3, 2, 1 ...” Two huge fiery plumes could be seen high in the sky as the booster engines cut off and the empty casings fell away. A few seconds passed, “OIE in 3, 2, 1 … ignition, we have positive on OIE.”

I could hear the many cheers as two more huge fireballs appeared extremely high in the morning sky, quickly vanishing from sight as the Orbital Insertion Engines ignited and thrust the probes into Earth orbit.

I heard the voice of Dr. Oldman say in kitty in my mind, “Now, in a few more minutes, the star drives should begin their low level energy ignition. They’ll slowly ramp up as they move further from the Earth, surprising nobody but the Dark Inhabitors, who can’t do a damn thing about it anymore.”

I watched one of the monitors that showed satellite images of the probe I was interested in. I saw the almost invisible blue fire as the Interstellar engine ignited. It was more than obvious that the thrust vector was extremely low at first, fortunately for us.

What would the Inhabitors do? Would they try to leave the probe and return to Earth? Would they stay, knowing they’d still get to their destination eventually? I wondered. “I wish I could tell whether the Inhabitors are staying in the probe or trying to come back,” I said, in cat mode.

“Maybe you can,” said a familiar cat’s voice from somewhere. It was Knox! “Some stories say that werecats can see things far away, if they can look in a straight line.”

“A straight line, you say …” I replied, then looked around me. The views I could see of the probes were all on screens – images from cameras. There were no windows, no direct line of sight.

I turned to one of the guards and said, “Excuse me, I’m feeling a little enclosed – is there any way I can get some fresh air?”

He replied, “Oh, certainly, Ma’am, there’s an observation deck right through here – the exhaust fumes have probably dissipated by now. If you’ll follow me …” He led me out of the command center and through a door, and sure enough, we were outside. Several people were standing on the observation deck, probably on the third story or so of the building.

“Ahh, thank you,” I said, looking up. “Oh, look, you can still see that one.” I pointed up; I just knew where the probe was, somehow.

“I’ll … take your word for it, Ma’am,” said the guard, looking up, clearly unable to see anything where I was pointing. “Just come back inside when you’re ready. I have to return to my post.”

“Of course, thanks again,” I told him. I was focusing on the tiny dot. I couldn’t make out any detail – until suddenly something happened with my eyesight. If anyone had been looking me in the eyes, they would’ve seen them change into golden cat’s eyes, but everyone else was looking at the sky too. I suddenly saw the probe clearly. My view of it got closer and closer. I didn’t see any signs of Inhabitors leaving the probe, and then my vision got closer and closer. Suddenly I saw through its surface and into its interior. To my horror, I saw the 13 dead individuals with the Inhabitors still around each of their heads. It was a disturbing sight, but the Inhabitors were indeed still there.

“Yes,they’re still on board, all right,” I said in cat. “Getting further away with each passing moment. Those poor people, though. Packed in like sardines, and now they’re all dead. There’s no oxygen.”

I went back inside as I told anyone who could hear me what I’d seen. Nicki nodded at me as I joined her. News reporters were interviewing scientists about the launch. They were saying that It wouldn’t be time for the engines to ramp up their power for at least four hours. Space travel was oddly fast and slow at the same time – the speeds involved were mind-boggling, but the distances traveled were even more daunting to consider.

Dr. Oldman’s voice came to me, “Well, that’s probably all we can do for now. The next event won’t take place until that probe is beyond the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and that’ll be a few hours.”

“That’s what the scientists here are telling the news interviewers,” I said to him. I was watching the screens. “Four hours. I think the screen here says four hours and 11 minutes.”

“I wonder if they’ve got lunch,” I said aloud. Nicki giggled.

Sure enough, they did have lunch, and we ate in the cafeteria on the ground floor with the federal agents who had brought us there. “It’s really fascinating,” said Agent Gust, “how all these different disciplines come together in such a massive effort to make a launch like this happen.”

“I don’t know that much about it,” I said, “but I agree that it’s fascinating.”

“So you’re here because you’re a friend of Dr. Bigginsly?” she asked me.

“Yeah, Nicki’s my neighbor and friend, and she’s one of Dr. Bigginsly’s coworkers – I guess they both worked on the project to make the special engines,” I said. “I didn’t know that until recently. I’ve only ever watched space launches on TV or the Internet. So when Nicki said I could go with her to see the launch, I jumped at the chance.”

As the probes approached the Moon’s distance from Earth, their engines gradually ramped up their power. By the time they reached that important milestone, we were back in Mission Control watching the screens. The two probes’ speeds increased dramatically the further from the planet they went. Just as they reached the Moon’s distance, their engines came fully online. Space-based telescopes and many orbiting satellites got a wonderful view as they went to full thrust. Cheers went up throughout Mission Control as both probes, going in different directions, fired their engines within a matter of seconds of each other and accelerated at a previously unheard-of rate.

Within seconds, the probes became the fastest moving objects mankind had ever created as they approached the orbit of Neptune within just a few minutes and continued to accelerate. “Wait,” said one of the engineers, “Probe 1 is deviating from course – and it’s accelerating dramatically.” I then knew that within just a few more short minutes, the Inhabitors’ probe would reach the heliopause. I hoped that the surprise Specter had programmed would work.

I went back outside to the observation deck. It was early afternoon. I wondered whether I’d be able to see it happen with my cat’s eyes. I looked into the sky – initially there was nothing; it was far too distant. But then, whatever magic was involved in all of this kicked in, and my eyes were drawn to a specific spot. I could see it! There was the probe with the Inhabitors. They were still in there, with the corpses of their erstwhile hosts, awaiting their transport to that far-off planet. The engines were in overdrive or something, and the probe was shooting ahead, accelerating to even more astonishing speeds all the time. And then … the probe just came apart. Its pieces were spread across light-minutes of space, then shattered further into smaller chunks. I saw the Inhabitors. They were clinging to the frozen corpses of their dead hosts. Could they talk to each other? I didn’t know.

“I wonder what they’ll do,” I said in cat to all who could hear after describing what I’d seen.

“The Inhabitors or the humans?” asked Dr. Felton. “The humans will make more probes, and the other probe will proceed to do its task as assigned, exploring the deepest reaches of the Solar System. The Inhabitors? I have no idea. I estimate they were going about three quarters the speed of light there, and at the acceleration they seem to be able to somehow manage under their own power, they … might be able to match velocities with some star system before they exit the other end of the Milky Way Galaxy. That might take them roughly a million years. Seeing that they don’t seem to age or die, though, they may still be alive by that time, but they’ll be far away from both Earth and their destination planet, which is only 12 light years away.”

“Not sure why they want to get there,” said Dr. Oldman. “But maybe …”

I was already looking. Not really sure what I was looking for, I looked beyond the probe in the direction it was going. “I see … they were headed for a star. It’s there. It’s the nearest star I see in that direction. It’s pretty orange. And it’s got planets. Oh wow! … One of its planets is shiny and blue … it’s got clouds and oceans … and land … and the land is green …”

“Are you telling me that you’re seeing an Earthlike planet in orbit around a star that’s 12 light years away … with your eyes?” asked Dr. Felton. “I have got to work on that ability! Not that anyone will believe me, but maybe it could help me suggest where to point space telescopes.”

“That other probe’s looking for a big planet out past the orbit of Pluto, right?” I asked. “I wonder if I can see that.” It wasn’t hard to find the other probe, though it was in quite another direction, and about to pass below the horizon as the Earth rotated. “There’s the probe … not going at ludicrous speed, of course, just going off toward wherever they pointed it … oh. Oh! There’s a planet out there, all right. It’s going to find it. It’s heading right for it. I mean, it’s a long way off. But within the next year, I think it’ll see it.”

“What’s the planet like?” asked Dr. Felton.

“It’s … I mean, it’s big, and it looks like one of those gas planets like Neptune. All clouds, no surface.”

“So, an ice giant, then,” he said. He paused. “Wow.”

“Rayan, you might want to come inside,” said Nicki.

I did. There was pandemonium in Mission Control. “What …?” I said, looking around in mock surprise. I hope my acting was all right. I knew exactly what was going on.

“You missed it!” an engineer shouted at me. “We lost one of the probes! I mean, that’s terrible, but the readings we got from its engine! It malfunctioned in some crazy way and multiplied its thrust by … we don’t even know! If we can replicate that … think of the spacecraft we could build!”

“Wow,” I said. I carefully added, “Would it be dangerous? I heard that those engines put out a lot of radiation.”

“Not if we wait to go to full power until they’re well away from Earth!” said the engineer. “This is incredible! Look at those readings!”

I rejoined Nicki, and we talked silently in cat mode. Maybe the Dark Inhabitors had done some good after all. “We’d better get you home before you shift to cat mode,” I said to her.

“You’re not wrong,” she replied.

----------------------------------------------------------------

“So, the Inhabitors are out in space,” said Lucy, “and it will take them many, many lifetimes to come back, if they can even find their way back.”

“Space is really big,” I said. “From what I understand, they won’t be able to find Earth.”

“I guess that means we won’t have to bite as many humans,” Lucy said.

“As many?” asked Nicki, asking the question I was about to ask.

“There are still things that we need help with,” said Lucy. “Things that only we can see. The Inhabitors were only the biggest danger.”

“Oh, great,” I said.

“But you are the strongest werecat anyone has ever heard of,” said Lucy. “You will be a great help to catkind.”

“I can only hope,” I replied, scratching her behind the ears and hearing her purr.
Sunshine & rainbows,
LilJennie
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