Excerpt for Genie by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Genie

By

Gary J. Davies


Published by Gary J. Davies at Smashwords


Genie

Copyright 2017 Gary J. Davies


Smashwords Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this e-book. This book is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author. Quotes used in reviews are the only exception. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy.

This e-book is a work of fiction created by the author and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are a production of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Thank you for downloading this e-book!


Contents


Forward

Genie

About Other Publications by This Author



Forward

There are enormous advantages to short stories. For the reader they of course take less time to read than novels. For the author in some ways they are harder to create, but generally they are much less work to write and edit than novels. The exception is of course book covers, which are required for publications of any size, but at least covers are fun to make.

This is my twenty-third published short story. Like many of my stories it is contemporary and largely fantasy but with a veneer of science. This particular story was inspired by my amazing pet cats. Enjoy!


****



Genie


"Bang, bang, bang," came the annoying noise from somewhere in the house, not nearly as loud as for example gun shots, but plenty loud enough to wake Harold Tizard from pleasantly sound sleep. When he opened his eyes he noted that dull light was coming in through the bedroom window, so it was evidently morning already. Here in the outer suburbs, there were no street-lights or other nearby sources of artificial light, and there was no moonlight for the night either. But it felt too damn early! He was still tired, much more tired than when he went to bed! The banging went on for maybe half a minute, then stopped, but resumed a short time later.

"Damn!" he exclaimed angrily as he finally with difficulty sat half-way up in bed and propped himself on his elbows. "Got to be those damn cats!" He said it loud and angry enough to cause Flip and Cody to raise their heads from where they had been resting them over his right leg and stare at him with deep inquiring cat eyes. Otherwise the heavyset orange cat Brothers didn't move from their favorite positions where they lay to share his company and body warmth, but Harold knew that they were now on the alert and ready to spring away if necessary.

It was seldom necessary, at least nowadays. He had many months ago gotten over throwing slippers at them and such. When his dear sister Emily passed on a year ago and her five cats came to live with him there had been several human fits of anger against the cats in response to their antics for a few weeks, but those had proven to be useless. Worse than useless, as the cats had responded with even more bizarre behavior: defecating out-of-the-box, fighting with each other, and more passionately tearing up rugs and furniture. Yelling at them only made things worse he quickly learned; they were too dumb to understand what he wanted and much too selfish to care.

Amend that, he considered. 'Dumb' and 'selfish' were human terms, it wasn't quite accurate or fair to attribute them to cats. But he didn't have better words, as his human words were designed to apply to humans, not to the hairy little aliens that now lived with him.

Since the orange twin Brothers were still with him on the bed, one of the other cats had to be responsible for waking him up with the banging. At last he wasn't waking up by hitting the floor. Harry, the biggest cat, and to a lesser extent the lovely cat Pricilla, both had a habit of sleeping beside him and gradually pushing him off the bed in the middle of the night. So yes, things could be worse, and too often they were.

Pricilla and Antsy noiselessly stepped into the bedroom from the hallway to look up at him inquiringly before leaping up onto his bed effortlessly using supple coil-spring legs and spines. Unlike the stocky Brothers, these cats were lean and long. One after the other the two Girls landed so gently that Harold hardly felt the bed jolt at all. Antsy, the nervous black cat with white stomach and paws, promptly sat demurely at the foot of the bed, content to timidly watch events unfold from a safe distance, and taking care not to draw the attention of the surly Brothers on the other side of Harold's legs.

Meanwhile bold black and tan striped Pricilla walked directly towards Harold's face along his left side, while she locked eyes with her human host. Several times her big front claws caught on the bedspread for a moment, and she paused to shake the paw free, tearing a few more bedspread threads in the process. It again reminded Harold that all the cats needed to have their claws trimmed. Again. With the cats there was always something.

She stepped onto his belly, sinking claws through red flannel pajamas to push against tender human skin, and butted her lowered head gently against his face, purring loudly. He gently pushed her off of himself and guided her to lay next to his side, while he petted and scratched her. It had taken the cats months to fully train him, but now Harold knew exactly how to pet and scratch each of them in order to maximize purring.

"Good cat," said Harold, amended immediately by: "Well, better than most, I suppose." In truth he had no idea if his cats were better or worse than any other cats; these were the first cats he had ever owned. Over his lifetime he had owned several dogs, but no cats. Despite steady progress he felt that he was still on a too-steep learning curve with the damn cats. Unfairly, it was mostly him doing the learning and adjusting. Behavior modification, it was called. The cats had gradually modified his behavior to the point that they found him to be tolerable. It seemed like they owned him, rather than the other way around.

He remembered reading somewhere that the most recent common ancestor of humans and cats lived 85 million years ago. Since then each line evolved, making a total of 170 million years of evolutional separation between humans and cats. It wasn't odd that he and the cats were having some problems living together, the real miracle was that they were able to get along together at all. Some mysterious sort of convergence or parallelism of behavioral development obviously happened that defied his understanding, but there were still problems. He didn't understand cats and even worse, there was no way that the little-brained dummies would ever understand him.

Dogs he could get along with easier, though they were also separated from humans by 170 million years of evolution. Humans had tribes and families, dogs had packs and families. Once a dog joined your pack/family with you as pack leader, you had it made! They didn't reason well either, but if you were their pack leader they generally obeyed you. Of course if they decided they were the pack leader you could be in trouble, if the dog was big and persistent enough.

Though they also seemed to appreciate some company, compared to dogs cats remained far more aligned to themselves as individuals: demanding individuals that were eating Harold out of house and home. The cat food. The litter. The vet. The cat toys. The air fresheners and stain removing odor killers. The costly scratching posts and mats that the critters mostly ignored in order to destroy rugs and furniture. And don’t forget the hairballs!

So much of his fixed retirement income now went towards cats that he could barely get by. Worst of all there was the time and effort required of him to take care of them. Of course he didn't need money and time anyway for things like vacations, since he couldn't leave the cats alone for long. Besides, he didn't need vacations; his son and daughter and their families came to visit him often enough, and combining cats and kids was a prescription for limitless amusement.

For most of his life he thought that dogs were smarter than cats, now he wasn't so sure. As with humans and dogs, there were smart cats and dumb ones, and each cat had a uniquely distinct but alien psychological makeup. But none of them could be reasoned with; even the smartest individuals lacked the requisite intelligence for reasoning. If only they were smarter! He was sure that if they could be reasoned with they would be much easier to get along with.

The steady banging noise that so rudely woke him from much needed sleep continued relentlessly: bang, bang, bang! It had to be Harry, of course; the four other cats were now on his bed, innocent as hell for the moment and acting that way. This was one of those rare occasions when blame could be unerringly assigned to a particular cat!

He looked at the clock on his nightstand. Only five thirty five, and it was already becoming light outside! Days were certainly long in early summer, and the blasted cats woke with the sun! The little bastards would 'cat nap' for most of the day, while he ran about endlessly doing cat chores for them. Today he planned to vacuum the whole house to reduce the stray cat hair and cat litter that seemed to get on everything, Retirement was supposed to be like an unending vacation. It was for his cats, but not for him, their cat caretaker.

"Lord of Lights, it's the middle of the damn night, you idiots!" he complained uselessly, as he absent mindedly scratched Pricilla some more. Cats were so frustratingly stupid! But they were affectionate when it suited them, and right now it suited Pricilla. He started scratching behind her ears, worked down her back and ended at her tail. She purred even louder in response; she did the most persistent purring of the lot, and licked Harold's hand with her sand-paper tongue. "I'm retired guys, you have to let me sleep in longer! I'm sixty-six years old for Christ sake! That's human years, dummies! That makes me ancient, in cat years! If you guys want me to live long enough to keep you in kibble and clean litter, you have to let me get a good night's sleep!"

He often explained things to them, even though he knew that they didn't understand a word of whatever the hell he was saying. But they did seem to understand the tone he was using, if it was sincere. In this case although his words were a bit harsh he had softened his voice to further calm them.

But five thirty-five AM? He'd perhaps try to nap later in the day while the cats did. But that never worked. There always seemed to be one of them on the alert to bug him. It galled him that all the cats slept much more than he did, especially the Brothers. The Brothers usually got up only to eat or poop. The Girls were more active, they loved to play and snoop about. Harry was the most active, the most intelligent, the most affectionate, the most stubborn, and the most trouble by far. For the millionth time Harrold regretted promising his sister that he'd take care of her damn cats. Five thirty-five? Usually they didn't wake him until after seven! Eight if he was lucky. He put dried food out for them so they wouldn't wake him to be fed, but they wanted canned food.

He sat up straighter, displacing Pricilla from his side, and pulled his legs up to his chest, triggering a further rearrangement of cats. The Brothers stood, which caused shy Antsy to retreat to the very edge of the bed, ready to bolt. Pricilla continued purring as she rearranged herself to push her back against Harold's left hip. Like Harry, she liked to push against him relentlessly as he slept.

"Got to check on Harry," Harold explained, as he swung his legs off the bed, slipped on his slippers, and stood unsteadily. "Not that I don't appreciate the company that the rest of you guys give me." He turned and bent over the bed to scratch and pet each of the Girls and Brothers. They were all up and about and happily purring now, tails up and contented as they pushed each other out of the way and vied for his attention. They knew what was coming very soon: breakfast!

First he dodged into the bathroom to take care of himself. For a few blessed moments he sat quietly alone in his fortress of solitude. Then the cats in the hallway started pushing against the closed door and doorknob so that they rattled and banged. More distant, the other banging continued, a counter-banging to the bathroom door noise. Harold couldn't even take a crap in peace.

From where he sat he noticed that there were several cat toys including ping-pong balls scattered around the bathroom floor, but most were hung-up behind the bathroom weight scale, toilet, and waste-can. Ping-pong balls and practice golf-balls were the best cat toys he had yet discovered, even better than the lengths of clothesline that they liked to chase. The clothesline required his active participation, while the cats batted the balls all over the house without the inconvenience of human effort. All Harold had to do was periodically retrieve them from where they collected underneath and behind things.

He reached down and retrieved a half-dozen white ping-pong and orange practice golf-balls from where they were hung-up and tossed them into the center of the room where the cats could get at them again. He tossed two balls into the bathtub, and for good measure added a little cloth mouse from the floor. Pricilla especially enjoyed playing in the bathtub, as long as it was dry. She particularly liked the orange practice golf balls with the convenient holes in them that allowed them to be snagged by grasping cat claws.

He washed his hands but turned the faucets completely off when he was done. Flip especially liked to hop into the sink to sip and bat at water dripping from the spigot, but there was no time for that now. Harold wanted to solve the mystery of the banging.

Herding cats was easy, all you needed was cat food, or at least the promise of it. The Brothers and Girls soon accompanied Harrold to the kitchen where the cat food was, rubbing against each other and against Harold's legs, almost tripping him. They were purring and yacking like crazy, and sometimes swiping clawed paws at each other and snarling to establish position; he'd have to feed them immediately for sure or all hell would break loose.

In the kitchen it had already broken loose. The kitchen table and floor were covered in hundreds of shredded paper-towel bits, strewn among the dozens of cat toys that were supposed to keep the cats occupied and uninterested in wreaking havoc. On the middle of the kitchen table was a torn and battered cardboard tube, empty but for one tiny torn strip of paper towel somehow still clinging to it. The cats with him ignored the mess and continued jockeying for position, but for Harrold it was a jaw-dropping, foot stopping sight.

Nearby Harry sat on the kitchen floor, still patiently trying to open the bottom cupboard door where the cat food was kept. Bang, bang, bang! Time after time he reached out with his right front paw to snag the edge of the wooden door with his big sharp claws and pull out on it. Each time it opened maybe half an inch before the springy 'child-proofing' mechanism he had installed months ago pulled it shut again with a 'bang'. He would have to get out a screwdriver and again make some adjustments. All the cupboards were cat-proofed, or Harry and the other cats would be inside of them half the time. Cats liked being in such places almost as much as Harold liked being alone in his bathroom.

The banging finally stopped and Harry turned to focus on Harold, the Brothers, and the Girls. Lean and long like Pricilla but much larger, Harry strutted confidently towards Harold, tail straight up, head and ears high, eyes huge, unblinking and focused on the human co-master of the house. He was striped black/brown/tan similar to Pricilla: he must have had some sort of jungle wild cat bred into him, a shrewd wildness that apparently could not be bred out. Pricilla and each of the Brothers cautiously dodged away from him, while Antsy withdrew back to the doorway, ready to bolt back to the bedroom depending on Harry's mood.

As usual, Harry's mood was good. The big cat walked right up to Harrold and brushed against his legs, circling him confidently to spread his scent to the human. This human was his. The others quickly moved in to brush themselves against both Harry and their human host. They were one big happy family, as long as Harold did his part and immediately fed them.

Harold picked up the empty cardboard tube, then reached down to scratch Harry behind the ears. "Well, I obviously shouldn't have left a roll of paper towels out on the kitchen table last night. My bad!" He held the tube in front of Harry but the cat totally ignored it, as expected. Pricilla took a swipe at it, ripping the last scrap of towel off of it.

Which cat or cats had destroyed the rest of the roll? There was no way to know. All the cats generally ignored the empty roll and the shreds of paper scattered everywhere around the room. Whoever did the deed was through with the mess. And even if Harold did know which cat did it, there was nothing useful to do about it. The paper towel caper was over and done with and likely forgotten by the cat or cats that had done it. Right now there was only one thing on their minds: food. All the cats were agitated by now and strutting about and meowing to get their human's attention.

Harrold released the child resistant latch to open the cupboard and pull out five small cans of grain-free cat food. At sixty cents a can, that was three dollars' worth, and he usually did this three times a day. Six times for Cody. Cody had some sort of digestive problem that required that he be fed no more than half a can at a time. Feed him any more over a two hour period and he puked it all up. Three times a day Cody had to be shut into a room by himself to be fed his small extra meals.

From the three plastic feeding trays on the floor Harold retrieved five empty bowls from the previous feeding and put them into the sink for washing. Atop the cupboard on a tray he assembled five of his clean cat feeding bowls. He had fifteen feeding bowls in total, each always in some stage of use or washing. For each cat except Harry and Cody Harrold scooped a can of food into a bowl. Cody got half a can and big Harry got a can and a half.

As he slowly and carefully carried the tray of food across the kitchen the cats meowed, yowled, and swatted at each other as they swarmed around his legs. They pushed against him, apparently trying to trip him. With difficulty he stepped around and over the cats and dozens of cat toys, including the empty cardboard boxes the cats liked to hide in. But he made it to the feeding trays, quickly distributed the bowls of food onto them, and made sure that Harry and Cody got to the right bowls.

While the cats were eating Harrold picked up all the torn bits of paper towels, washed the cat dishes, and rinsed out the empty cat-food cans. He spayed the inside of each can with bug spray to keep fruit-flies from breeding in them before dropping them into the recycle bin.

Next he went to the basement and scooped out the five cat litter-boxes. The resulting four pound plastic bag of poop and urine saturated litter he topped with baking soda, tied shut, and took outside to a big trash can. The trash can was already too full and heavy; he'd have a hell of a time muscling it out to the curb for the trash collectors.

Finally he was for the moment caught up with his cat chores and it wasn't even 7 AM! He could try to go back to sleep but from experience he knew that it was no use: he wouldn't be able to fall asleep again. He would simply be tired again all day. After a quick bowl of Cheerios he decided to continue going through boxes of miscellaneous items he had inherited from Emily.

He hated doing that; for two huge reasons. First, because it reminded him of his big sister Emily and her too-soon heart attacks and death at only seventy years old. Worse, it reminded him of going through his wife Annie's things five years ago, after she died horribly of cancer. He took early retirement after that, even though his pension was reduced. He didn't figure that he'd need a full pension anyway without Annie. Little did he know that he'd someday have a herd of cats as dependents.

All his cats were between three and six years old. He heard that cats typically lived for ten to twenty years. Really? The damn cats could all outlive him! That would probably happen, he figured, but probably not before some of them became sick enough for thousands of dollars in vet bills. He'd spend his last money and breath supporting the damn cats! It was something like having unruly kids that never grew up and didn't qualify as tax deductions. But he was stuck with them. He made that promise to Emily, and more important there was his implicit promise to the cats. They were his responsibility now, forever. And besides, he was getting used to the selfish little idiot bastards.

He carried a couple of Emily's boxes up from the basement to the living room where he could go through them in relative comfort while watching TV. Two or three cats followed his every move at all times, especially Harry, perhaps hoping that he would discover a box full of cat treats.

The first box held old china and ceramic knickknacks and unused birthday and holiday cards. Emily had amassed enough gift cards for another seventy years of life. He would gift all that stuff to a thrift shop. The second box contained a third box, and that box contained a shoebox with a strange note attached to it.

"Throw this box away without opening it or touching what’s in it," said the note, in Emily's neat handwriting. So he obviously had to open it.

Inside was something heavy wrapped in what seemed to be an entire roll of extra wide, extra heavy-duty aluminum foil. Inside that was a glowing solid translucent yellowish cylinder perhaps five inches in diameter and seven inches long. The yellow-tinged glow that escaped from its entire surface was as soft as that of a low-wattage night-light.

So far he had avoided touching the object directly. Emily must have had her reasons to write that warning note! He put on a pair of work gloves and picked up the object to examine it more closely. It was much heavier than expected, over ten pounds. The thing must be solid iron, or something of similar density! But iron wasn't translucent. He turned it over in his hands, examining it closely. It felt totally solid. There were no seams or screws, the surface of it was unbroken and perfect, and light seeped evenly through the yellow translucent material it was made of. What was it? A new kind of plastic or ceramic? It was too heavy for those, unless there was something heavier hidden deep inside, perhaps a core of lead?

But what powered the light? There were no openings for batteries! Could it be radioactive?

Well duh! That had to be it! This mysterious glowing object was a huge translucent radioactive mineral crystal, ground and polished into a perfect cylinder! Elaine was no dummy, she must have figured that out what it was. That’s why she wrote the note that said to not touch it and to simply throw it away!

Most likely though, the crystal was perfectly harmless. Harold had seen glowing crystals in museums, and they were never wrapped in protective foil or anything like that. He put the crystal up on the mantle over his wood-burning fireplace in the living room. It could perhaps usefully serve as a nightlight. Perhaps as soon as tomorrow he would take it someplace to have it identified and appraised. It had to be worth something, maybe as much as a hundred cans of cat food and a matching thirty-pound plastic bucket of cat litter. That would take care of the cats for almost a week!

No longer afraid of the object, he took off his gloves and touched it as it sat on the mantle. As expected it felt hard, smooth, and cool.

Instantly it blazed hundreds of times brighter! If he had been holding it, he probably would have dropped it! As it was, he backed away from it, terrified. The cats, only slightly startled by the sudden bright light but feeding on Harold’s fear, fled the room.

A kaleidoscope of flashing rainbow-colored lights appeared in front of the object for a few seconds then quickly faded away to reveal a little old man that wore a black suit and cape. "I am the genie of the lamp!" he declared theatrically.

"Lord of lights! What the hell is happening?" demanded Harold.

"You summoned me," said the man. He was thin and even shorter than Harold. He had long gray hair and beard. There were no fancy pointed shoes or colorful wizard clothes or clouds of multi-colored smoke. The old man looked nothing like any genie that Harold had seen depicted in books or movies.

"I did?"

"You rubbed the lamp!"

"I simply touched it!"

"That counts as a rub," said the man. "Who are you, by the way?"

"I'm Harold, brother of Emily until she died."

"Call me Genie. My time is extremely valuable, Harold, brother to Emily; what is your wish?"

"What wish?"

"Are you not familiar with human mythology with regard to genies? I hereby grant you one immediate wish plus one optional wish to be assessed in approximately two weeks."

"Not three wishes?"

"Never three. That's just a tall tale."

"Ok, but you're magic and I can ask you for anything I want?"

"You can ask anything that you are capable of expressing, but I of course have execution limitations. I tried to explain that to Emily, the previous holder of the lamp, but she reacted with anger."

"My sister made a wish that you couldn't grant?"

"I can't make sick people well," said Genie. "I can't even cure a common cold. It's a limitation. I can't physically change you in any way. So don't wish to be an athlete or to be good looking, for example. I get those sorts of wishes quite often and must refuse them, which is possibly fortunate for wishers as I have no sense of what good looking is for humans. And I can't bring the dead back to life either. That would be ghastly anyway."

"Can you make me rich?" asked Harold.

"Sure, probably, if you don't attach too many other conditions."

"Conditions?"

"The less conditions attached to your wish the better," said Genie. "Often to grant a wish some flexibility is required. If your wish is one sentence long and it isn't a run-on sentence, it's probably OK."

"I don't understand. I was never good at English."

"That's OK; your understanding is optional. You'll perhaps understand more later. Now what is your wish?"

OK, being rich would be nice, Harold reasoned. But if he lived in a huge mansion the cats would simply have more to destroy, which would probably bother him even more. His pension was adequate for now; and after he started collecting social security he’d be alright money-wise for sure! His biggest problem was stupid cats, not a lack of funds.

"I wish for intelligent cats that I can reason with," said Harold without further hesitation.

"That's a new one!" said Genie. "Pack a suitcase with the lamp and your personal things in it and I'll be right back in a few minutes. Oh, and it would probably be wise to include some snacks." Genie instantly disappeared.

Over the next few minutes Harold hurriedly packed a suitcase. He re-wrapped the dully glowing crystal lamp in the aluminum foil and squeezed it in between his spare red flannel pajamas and his favorite pair of jeans. He included many chocolate candy bars and a few protein bars, though he was totally confused. Why did he have to pack anything? Was he going someplace?

Ten minutes after he had disappeared Genie reappeared. "Good news! I can grant your wish!" said the old man. "But it will take some doing, I'll tell you!"

"Can you tell me why I need a suitcase full of stuff? What has that to do with smarter cats?"

"You'll soon know," said Genie the genie.

With that, Harold, his suitcase, and Genie popped away, leaving cats that were startled for a very short time. Then they went back to sleeping, preening, and other cat behaviors.

****

Harold woke from a strange dream about a glowing lamp and a magic old man to find himself in a small grass hut lying upon a small pile of straw. And there was also a gibberish filing his mind; like a hundred voices speaking at once in foreign tongues, though there was no sound! What the hell?

"Woponum istro!" said the small brown-skinned naked middle-aged man that stood over him. "Quelipod smoon!" He seemed to be very excited about something.

"Who the hell are you?" Harold asked. "What is that gibberish you're speaking? And where the hell am I?"

"Quelipod smoon!" repeated the man anxiously.

"Harold," said Harold, pointing to himself. "Suitcase," he added, pointing to his nearby suitcase.

"Ghan," said the man, pointing to himself. "Suitcase," he added, as he picked up Harold's suitcase. He lay it upon a large thin woven straw mat in a corner of the hut, then folded the mat up around it, concealing it.

"OK," said Harold. "That will be OK, I guess. Ghan it is."

"QUELIPOD SMOON!" said a loud voice in Harold's head, a voice without sound, louder than the soundless background gibberish in his head but equally as unintelligible.

Ghan reached down to grasp Harold by the hand and pull him up to a standing position, then pull him insistently towards the open doorway. Harold took a step back towards his suitcase, but Ghan yanked him away from it and shook his head 'no' vigorously.

"OK, OK," Harold relented. "No suitcase then!" The little man to led him out the door into blindingly bright sunlight. There, only a dozen yards from him, stood a gigantic cat, easily more massive than an elephant! The creature reminded him very much of Flip and Cody: it was heavyset with rich orange stripes over a lighter orange background, with areas of nearly pure white around the mouth and nose. Except it was easily a thousand times bigger than either of the Brothers. Its hair, like that of the Brothers, has something between short and long with respect to the cat's proportions, which made it perhaps two feet long.

Its huge erect ears rotated to focus forward and its saucer-plate sized cat eyes shifted to stare directly at him. "OBLID AD OCUM SIG QUELIPOD SMOON," it seemed to say soundlessly. Then it turned its gaze up to the blue sky and roared a noise so loud and deep that the very earth seemed to tremble!

As the roar died away Harold sensed movement around him and finally took in the rest of his surroundings, even though the dino-sized cat remained a huge attention-getter. He was standing on a wide dirt road that in either direction as far as he could see was packed with hundreds of huts like the one he had just stepped out of. There were also hundreds of empty two-wheeled hand-cards, each designed to be moved by one person, much like Chinese rickshaws.

Roughly a dozen naked humans were massed in front of each hut. Most were men of all ages and teen-aged boys, but perhaps a third were women and girls of ages similar to that of their male counterparts. All had light-brown skin and head-hair and were thin and wiry looking; there was not a single over-weight person among them. All of them were shorter and smaller than Harold; he estimated that he was twice as big as the largest of them. Except for Ghan, none of these people payed much attention to Harold, instead they went nervously about their business.

There were additional gigantic cats also, one every couple of hundred yards or so along the road. Most of them sat passively watching the humans around them. They were of many different colors, some long and lanky, some short and chunky. Except for their enormous size, they all looked remarkably like normal domestic house cats.

He could see nothing beyond the cats, huts, and fields. No mountains, forests or buildings.

All of the humans were busily on the move: thousands of them up and down the road. Half walked steadily away from the huts towards a vast field of chest-tall green plants, the other half walked in the opposite direction towards a vast field empty of growth that stretched along the opposite side of the road. They did it strangely quietly and sullenly, as if they weren't particularly happy with what they were doing, but feared to speak or sing or even whistle.

Along the way many of the people were picking up various hand-tools that lay on the ground, Harold noticed. Harold didn't know much about farm work, but some of the tools looked vaguely familiar. The men and some of the women walking towards the green fields picked up long wood handled things with long metal blades attached to the ends of them. They were called scythes, Harold recalled, and were used to cut down crops for harvest. Many people moving towards the unpicked crops carried scythes with an obvious intent to harvest crops, while others pulled empty carts to apparently carry the harvest away. The people walking in the other direction mostly picked up what looked like variations of shovels, rakes, and hoes. Harold noted that the construction of the tools and carts was uniformly crude, as if everything had been hand-crafted. But somewhere beyond these fields there were apparently forests, iron mines, and places where tools were made.

All Harold's observations and deliberations had taken less than a minute, but now he suddenly realized that he stood alone on the road, facing a monstrous cat that sat staring steadily at him as though it expected something to happen. The cat's formerly impassive mood had changed in an alarming direction, he realized. Its eyes and ears were intensely focused on him alone, and its entire body had subtly shifted and tensed. Harold had seen this stance and mood in his own cats many times. The monstrous cat was getting ready to pounce on him, he realized!

He also became aware of a background noise; a deep rumbling sound that persisted for several seconds, then paused for several seconds before again resuming. The big cat was actually growling at him! That couldn't be good!

"Harold!" he heard.

Glancing about towards the sound of the voice he saw Ghan slowly and steadily moving towards the crop side of the road. The small brown man held two scythes. He reached out towards Harold with one of the tool handles, a look of terror on his face. "Quelipod smoon!" he repeated very quietly.

Harold bowed low towards the cat in a way that he hoped signified subservience, then walked steadily towards Ghan. Like Ghan he avoided looking back at the cat, fearing that to do so could trigger an attack. At any second he expected tons of orange cat to crush him and shred him to pieces or gulp him down, but he made it safely to Ghan and retrieved the scythe. It was little heavier than he thought it would be, but he would manage it somehow.

As he followed Ghan into the field he risked a look back at the cat. It was still staring at him, but voiced an ear-splitting snarl as it turned its attentions towards a man that had broken ranks with the others and was running across the open ground opposite the field of crops, obviously in an escape attempt. Perhaps the man was taking advantage of the orange cat's preoccupation with Harold.

With an ear-splitting roar the monstrous orange cat bounded towards the fleeing man with tremendous speed, easily overtaking the human in only a few monstrous leaps. It swiped a clawed paw at the helpless man, impelling him with meat-hook-sized claws. For a few seconds the great cat held high the screaming stricken man in plain sight of the thousands of now watching humans and cats along the road, obviously as an object lesson to detour further escape attempts. Then the cat brought the man to hang for a moment in front of its snarling face, before snapping the man's entire body into its monstrous jaws.

After a few chews the escaping man was gone, eaten alive by the monstrous cat! As the cat lifted its head and roared in triumph the humans that had witnessed the event returned to their work. Harold stood frozen in shock, but Ghan persistently pulled him towards the field and the work that was expected of him.

Harold's efforts with the scythe were awkward at first, but he soon caught on. The tool was crude but very sharp, and soon he was cutting down large quantities of the chest-tall wheat-like crop similar to what Ghan achieved. Towards the tip of each plant were masses of seeds/grain. Other workers carried away the cut crops using hand-carts, to destinations unknown.

After perhaps two hours of work Harold was already tiring fast. Fortunately the scythe was built for a smaller humanoid and likely relatively light, or he wouldn't have lasted even that long. He wasn't used to doing physical labor, and long past his prime. How long was the work-day here, he began to wonder? The sun was still slowly rising; it clearly wasn't yet mid-day. He slowed his work pace considerably, but picked it up a bit whenever he sensed that the big orange cat was nearby, likely watching him. It seemed to him that he could sense the orange cat's brooding malevolent thoughts whenever it was near.

It was getting hotter, and Harold was tempted to shed his tee-shirt and jeans, which were by now soaked with sweat. But in this sun he didn't dare, as without the protection of his clothing he would soon be burned to a crisp.

The big Orange Master Cat paced far up and down the road, observing the progress of the harvest. Occasionally he would roar his displeasure, causing humans to double their efforts. The other big cats lowered their heads whenever he approached them, signifying their subservience, then they batted heads and rubbed against each other briefly before the orange cat moved on.

Each time the orange cat approached him Harold 'heard' an increase in the volume of jabbering that constantly filled his mind. It had to be some sort of telepathy, he finally decided, but done in a totally foreign language. Harold stole glances and confirmed that the big Orange Master Cat paused to watch him work each time he passed by. No doubt about it, he was getting special attention.

Meanwhile Harold turned over the whole situation in his mind again and again. OK, these cats were apparently intelligent, so he had gotten that part of his wish. But everything else was incredibly screwed up! Was this the sort of 'flexibility' that Genie had talked about? But everything was different! Everything! Could even Genie the genie make all the changes he was seeing? And why would he bother making them? All he had wished for was smart cats!

As he worked away in the endless field Harold discovered something almost as disturbing as giant cats that kept humans in slavery. He was studying shadows, trying to decide if the sun had reached its zenith yet, when he noticed that the shadows were double. Instead of one distinct shadow being cast there were two!

As the orange cat was far down the road he put down his scythe for a minute to try to figure out why. Using his hands to block some of the glare from above, he quickly determined that there were two suns instead of one!

The realization and its implications hit him hard. He sank to his knees, his head spinning! This wasn't even Earth, it couldn't be! Where was he?

His contemplation of this shocking discovery was soon interrupted by Ghan, who through jabbering, hand motions, pulling on his arms, and pointing towards the still distant but rapidly approaching orange cat overseer, was able to get Harold to return to his crop harvesting efforts. By the time the big Orange Master Cat reached him Harold was again dutifully cutting crops.

Meanwhile Harold discovered even more about the work that the humans were doing. Glancing back towards the huts he was startled to find that they were all gone! The road that had a short time ago held the huts was being dug up in rows, and re-planted. Nearby there were dozens of carts full of soil and the straw of the disassembled huts. Around them were many women with infants and young children; Harold had not seen them earlier because they were inside the huts. Not far behind the cutters that slowly advanced, men and women followed with hoes and seed.

The over-all strategy suddenly became clear to Harold. The fields were being replanted immediately after being harvested. The road, huts, and workers and their families advanced further across the field daily as the harvesting and replanting work progressed. And progress they did, foot by foot, yard by yard, acre by acre. This is how cats and their human slaves accomplished agriculture here.

Finally after another roar and more head-splitting silent jabber from the Master Cat an apparent lunch break began, featuring a much appreciated cessation of work. All the cutters dropped to the ground to rest, while young children distributed small loaves of what looked and tasted like bread, and pitchers of what proved to be water. The bread and water made a plain and inadequate meal, but Harold had never before tasted anything so wonderful.

Yet another question was answered when Harold noticed people flocking to the rows of planted seeds and squatting down over them. It was soon evident that during the break the humans were fertilizing the newly planted rows! Nobody stopped Harold when he walked to the nearest planted row and made his own nutrient contributions. He actually felt a little better as he sat down again with Ghan and finished the last of his water. At his age and especially under stressful conditions a drink of cool water and a good pee and bowel movement were appreciated more than almost anything else. Over the little hole he had just dug and refilled a healthy plant would soon grow as part of this monstrous circle of life.

All too soon another thunderous roar from the Orange Master Cat ordered an end to the lunch break. Wearily Harold joined Ghan and the other cutters. “I know, quelipod smoon, fellas!" he mumbled. This time he paced himself better, but after only an hour he was again becoming so tired that he could barely continue.

Just when he thought that he'd totally collapse, a nearby Orange Master Cat roar brought an end to the work. There was a flood of soundless mind chatter while Ghan shouted commands and then had Harold put down his scythe and walk with him out of the unpicked crops and back towards there the huts had been. The humans were looking about in confusion and apprehension. Ghan always looked frightened but now he looked totally terrified and confused. Whatever was happening was evidently unexpected and unusual. In this society that could mean death!

The Orange Master Cat was waiting for Harold. The big cat was sitting quietly, but seemed to be tense. Instead of facing towards the approaching humans it was focused on the open replanted area to one side. It only turned its massive head towards Harold and regarded the human with its huge eyes when the Earthling was a scant dozen yards from him.

"PLATT," it said silently, whatever that meant.

"Platt," voiced Ghan redundantly. It occurred to Harold for the first time that Ghan also 'heard' and understood the big cat's thoughts. Handy.

Ghan motioned Harold to sit down on the ground, then sat down behind him. Perhaps 'platt' meant 'sit'.

"HERGOMA," said the cat.

"Hergoma," said Harold, before Ghan could say it. He had no idea what it meant, of course, but in response several big cats from along the road immediately came running.

Ghan's eyebrows shot up and he nodded his head, and the Master Cat rumbled something that definitely wasn't a purr. Maybe the Master wasn't pleased that Harold had telepathic skills. But most of the big cat's attention returned to the airship that was now approaching.

The airship was huge. And silent. Whatever powered it was obviously beyond human technological capability. There were no propellers, rockets, or jet engines in evidence and it wasn't bulky enough to be a dirigible. It had no visible windows. Metallic silver in texture and shaped like a hundred-foot wide cream-filled doughnut, it floated down and towards them and finally sat down only a hundred feet from them, humming with hidden power. It remained floating a yard above the dirty field, continuing to defy gravity, as a square twenty foot per side doorway opened by sliding to one side.

Out of it slinked an enormous cat, long and lanky, proportioned and colored very similar to his own cats Harry and Pricilla, but giant sized. It stepped nimbly to one side as a second identical cat exited the aircraft and stepped to the other side of the door, making room for yet a third cat that strutted out between the first two. This one looked identical to the first two except it was even larger. There was some sort of rainbow colored collar draped around its neck, perhaps signifying high rank.

The three cats stepped regally forward together, heads and tails held high, the biggest cat a few yards in the lead. That they were royalty of some sort was evident by the reaction of the local cats, who bowed and groveled by rolling about on their backs and making pitiful-sounding yowling sounds. The Royal Cats completely ignored them as they strode straight towards the Orange Master Cat.

The orange cat bowed down deeply to the Head Royal Cat that towered over him. Between them there was no doubt as to which one was dominant. A short exchange of silent yammering occurred between them before the orange cat backed away, all the while maintaining its bow of absolute subservience.

The Head Royal turned its gaze on Harold, with cat-eyes the size of dinner-plates. "EARTH HUMAN HAROLD TIZARD, WE HAVE QUESTIONS FOR YOU," it said telepathically.

"You know English!" said Harold.

"THIS WILL GO FASTER IF YOU REFRAIN FROM STATING THE OBVIOUS."

"Where am I?" Harold asked.

"WE'LL ASK THE QUESTIONS, SUB-CREATURE. WHERE IS YOUR HOME-WORLD?"

"You mean Earth? How could I tell you that? I don't even know where I am now!"

"WE SEEK A PRACTICAL NEAR-ABSOLUTE DESCRIPTIVE REFERENCE THAT WOULD ENABLE PRACTICAL PATTERN MATCHING, NOT A RELATIVE ONE," said the cat. "PROVIDE YOUR ANSWER IN A MATHEMATICAL FORM THAT REFLECTS MATHEMATICAL STRUCTURE IN THE SEVERAL-LIGHTYEAR VICINITY OF YOUR WORLD. THAT SHOULD PROVE TO BE SUFFICIENTLY UNAMBIGUOUS."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Harold. He knew only the simple mathematics applied in financial spreadsheets. "But I was already thinking that this isn't Earth. That is true, isn't it? But why would the genie take me away from Earth? I didn't wish for that!"

"WE HAVE SEEN ITS KIND BEFORE. THEY AMUSE THEMSELVES BY TRANSPORTING OTHER CREATURES WITHIN AND BETWEEN UNIVERSES. AMONG THE INFINITY OF UNIVERSES AND INFINITIES WITHIN UNIVERSES SOMETIMES THEY FIND PLACES OF INTEREST TO US. NEW TELL US WHERE YOUR HOME WORLD IS, IF YOU ARE ABLE."

"Why do you want to know? And why should I tell you?"

"PERHAPS A BRIEF EXPLANATION WOULD SECURE YOUR COOPERATION. WE HAVE ASSESSED THE DATA FILES CARRIED BY THE CREATURE YOU CALL A GENIE. THROUGH THEM WE HAVE LEARNED EARTH LANGUAGES AND OTHER EARTH INFORMATION.

“WE ARE INTERESTED IN INHABITING YOUR PRIMITIVE HOME WORLD. AS AN INCENTIVE FOR YOUR COOPERATION, WE WILL LET YOU LIVE HERE WITHOUT REQUIRING YOUR FURTHER LABORS. THE ORANGE ONE WE ENTRUSTED YOU TO TELLS US THAT YOU WILL SOON FAIL IN YOUR LABORS AND DIE AS HIS FOOD. IN SUM YOUR SURVIVAL DEPENDS ON TELLING US WHAT WE WANT TO KNOW."

"Earth is already fully inhabited by humans!" objected Harold. "Humans with technology and weapons, not slaves to cats!"

"PLUMP STUPID HUMANS WITH PRIMITIVE TECHNOLOGY. THEY ARE NO MATCH FOR US! THEY WILL BE OUR FOOD! YOUR EARTH IS AN IDEAL WORLD RIPE FOR OUR COLONIZATION. WHERE IS IT?"

"Ask the genie, if you know where he is."

The cats exchanged thoughts using their own language.

"THE CAPTIVE CREATURE KNOWN AS GENIE REFUSES TO COOPERATE EXCEPT TO STATE THAT YOU HAVE THE INFORMATION THAT WE SEEK."

"Not that I know of. Do you mean some sort of star map or something? I'm a retired accountant, not an astronomer. But we should be able to get along, right? You are intelligent enough to reason with and so am I! And I like cats! We can be friends!"

The cats exchanged thoughts again.

"WE CONCLUDE THAT YOU ARE OF NO FURTHER VALUE TO US EXCEPT AS A POOR SLAVE AND SMALL MEAL, SUB-CREATURE."

With that all three of the Royal Cats turned and strutted away regally, entered their vehicle, and flew off. The big Orange Master Cat snarled and dispersed the gathering. Ghan had sat silently though the entire episode, but now sprang back into action, and led Harold and the other humans back to work.

"Well that didn't go quite as well as I hoped," Harold remarked. "I figured that if cats were intelligent they could be reasoned with and they would be easy to get along with. Wow; I had that wrong! Intelligent cats are as hard to get along with as people. Even worse maybe!"

The big cats and their human slaves continued the endless harvest. By mid-afternoon Harold's hands were too tired to hold his scythe, but Ghan used straw ropes to tie the handles to his hands. Ghan also snuck him the extra water and snacks that he needed to go on, and warned him when the big Orange Master Cat was near. It might have been Harold's imagination, but it seemed to him that after the visit by the Royal Cats Ghan took extra special care of him. Something about Ghan had changed!

The big Orange Master Cat came by frequently to see that Harold was still working. At those times Harold doubled his meager but torturous efforts, for he knew that he would be cat food if he didn't.

Besides being the biggest slave laborer, Harold noticed that he was the oldest by far. The retirement plan here for humans didn't involve nice 55-plus communities with heated indoor swimming pools. The old and the sick were eaten by their cat masters. That's how things worked here. The humans worked to feed themselves and become cat food, or at least tasty snacks. Harold figured that much of the agricultural crop was probably going someplace to feed cat-food critters much larger than people. The cats maintained the proper human population to keep themselves fed, and kept their human slaves ignorant and helpless.

Somehow Harold survived the work until it began to get dark. When work stopped another meager bread and water meal was brought to him by his ever present friend Ghan. The huts were quickly reassembled and at last it was time to sleep.

Harold was so tired and sore from physical labor all day that he could barely move. He did well to get through one day, but he knew that he would never get through another like it. Tomorrow he would surely die. In the morning he would completely collapse and that would simply be the end of him. As the last sun sank below the horizon Ghan joined Harold in the hut.

"We must talk," said Ghan quietly.

"You speak my language!" said Harold, so astonished that he sat up.

"I learned as much as I could from the minds of the cat leaders while they spoke with you. I am one of a growing number of humans that are not only telepathic but can read cat hidden thoughts."

"That's amazing!" Not only were the cats super smart and talented, so where the humans!

"Unknown to our cat masters, we have had what you would call a breeding program in place for a hundred generations, plus a body of spoken knowledge that we grow and pass on through the generations. Some day we will be strong enough to gain our freedom from the great cats."

"I am happy for you!"

"I wanted to thank you, Harold. We will spread across this planet and others what we have learned from you: your language both spoken and written, and knowledge of your world of humans that rule themselves and have food, freedoms, and many of the things that here only cats have. I wish that you had brought books with you so that we would have a greater depth of human knowledge. But even so you have no idea how inspiring your example is! I have already started to spread what I have learned to others! Thank you!"

"I don't suppose I'll be around much longer to thank. I'm old and tired, Ghan. Thank you for what you have done to help me, but I'll be cat food for sure tomorrow morning."

"Yes, the Orange Master looks forward to eating you very soon."

"Does your Orange Master have a name that it calls itself?" Harold asked.

"Not a voice name that humans could recognize," said Gahn. "They recognize each other chiefly through scent. Their thoughts about that do not translate to anything humans can comprehend."

"I'll curse him anyway as he's eating me."

"I can do nothing to save you from that fate, my friend, but perhaps I can ease your mind by informing you that your adventure has greatly helped the humans that live here. What you have brought to us will hasten our freedom."

"Sure, now I'll die happy," said Harold. "No doubt about it."

"Can I get you anything, Harold? More food? A woman perhaps?"

"A woman? No thanks. That would only kill me sooner. But I wouldn't mind eating a chocolate candy bar, if you can find my suitcase. I'll eat one and you can have the rest. They might inspire you even more than the knowledge I have brought with me."

Ghan retrieved the suitcase from a corner of the hut from under a straw mat, and brought it to Harold. From it Harold retrieved two dark-chocolate candy bars, one for him and one for Ghan. By candle-light Ghan watched Harold unwrap his and then successfully unwraped his own. They each took a small bite.

Harold broke into a grin, while Ghan made a face that Harold couldn't interpret. "Don't you like it?"

Ghan struggled to reply. For the first time Harold had met him he seemed to be overcome with emotion. "Wonderful! Food of the gods! Harold, Harold, Harold! How many of these things are you giving me?" He took a second bite.

"I'm not sure, maybe ten or fifteen. Look in my suitcase and retrieve and count them for yourself."

"I must send them to the other leaders in my network!" bubbled Ghan, as by candle-light he searched the suitcase. "Anyone that tastes it will be totally convinced that all the amazing knowledge about Earth I pass onto them is authentic! There are sixteen of them! They will indeed inspire my people to achieve freedom! What is this?"

In his hands the little brown man held something wrapped in aluminum foil. It was only about the size of a half-loaf of bread but it was obviously very heavy.

"Oh my gosh! I forgot I brought that!" said Harold. "That is the lamp I used to call the genie!"

"Could you call him again?"

"The cats say that they have captured him!" noted Harold.

"What could it hurt to try?"

"Perhaps the cats would detect the lamp if it became active," explained Harold. "I have nothing to lose, but you do, Ghan. I leave the choice to you. If you don't want to risk the wrath of the cats I will understand."

"I want to see your genie, Harold of Earth. Call him. I have people monitoring the Orange Master and the skies that will warn us if there is any sign that our activity is detected." He handed Harold the foil enclosed lamp.

Harold carefully unwrapped the mysterious crystal. It glowed no more than a candle as he held it using the foil, but Harold was reminded of how bright it became when it was touched with bare skin. That would bring the Orange Master Cat for sure! He emptied out his suitcase and carefully put the lamp inside it, with his hand next to it but not yet touching it. Then he zipped shut the suitcase around his arm at the elbow. His rolled-up red pajamas completed a hopefully light-proof seal around his arm. When warned of the danger of bright light, Ghan also added a foot-thick layer of bedding straw.

It was fortunate that the straw had been added. Though the suitcase was made of thick dark brown vinyl, it glowed dully when Harold at last rubbed the lamp. Ghan quickly rearranged some straw to better block some slivers of light that got through.

This time it took much longer for Genie to appear, at least three minutes, although it seemed much longer.


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