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Art by Melissa Mead

Made of Cats

Judith Tarr is best known as a novelist, but has published short stories in a wide range of publications from Amazing Stories to Mercedes Lackey's Friends of Valdemar anthologies to such collections as Janis Ian's Stars, Andrew Greeley's Emerald Magic, Lois McMaster Bujold's Women at War, and the Tolkien Centennial anthology, After the King. She also writes as Caitlin Brennan (House of the Star, from Tor Starscape) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose, from Tor). She lives in Arizona with an assortment of uppity cats (including the model for Mr. Gubbins) and a barn full of Lipizzan horses, one of whom is a Pooka.

Never mind the slithy toves; let me tell you about the time all the cats splooped into floons.

It all started the day the aliens landed. (Doesn't it always?) We'd been getting the odd invasion--sometimes really odd--for about a hundred years by then. The ones that came up out of the ground and down from the sky and blasted people to powder and tried to marsiform the planet? And got the common cold and turned into slime mold and died? They were just the start.
We were pretty solid on the intergalactic maps by the time the Kovarrubians showed up. Killer microbes? Check. Nuclear option? Check. Toxic xenophobia? Triple check.
So now when the aliens came, they came in peace. For reals, dudes. Cure for cancer? Check. Super-mega-hyper-insta-teleporta-warp drive? Check. World peace? Not so much. But now when people got their hate on, mostly they got it on somebody Out There.
The day the Kovarrubians came, Emily Habibi-Rubinstein, age five and a half, was having a terrible, horrible, awful, no-good, very bad day. Which meant that as her mother, I, Shannon Habibi, age never mind, was having one, too. Between the snufflecrud that kept her home from school, the power failure that took out the television, the Internet, the house controls, and the air conditioning in one fell swoop, and the failure of the city bus to show up and get us both to the library where we could cool off and toss Emily into a big blissful pile of books, we were not a happy family.
Oh, and did I mention that the phones were down, too? So we were effectively cut off from the world?
That was the first indication that we might be having another alien invasion. The second came about an hour later, after the power came back on and brought the air conditioning with it, but everything else was still stubbornly refusing to get the memo. I'd made Emily lie down for a nap she insisted, at 120 decibels, that she was too old for. "I'm too old for you not to," I said, hard-hearted, and cranked the air and shoved Mr. Gubbins into her arms and shut the door on her.
Emily is what we call strong-willed, but she gets it from me and she knows it. The howling stopped after six minutes and thirty-three seconds. It would start again, by my calculations, exactly fourteen minutes later, but meanwhile I had a reprieve. I pulled a can of Diet Crack out of the secret stash in the back of the fridge, popped the top, and blissed on a long swallow of liquid heaven.
Just as I got my breath for the second dose, a shriek from the back of the house came thisclose to splitting my eardrums. That was a solid 160 db, easy, and left E above high C croaking in the dust.
My brain was still in the kitchen. The rest of me was inside Emily's room, ears ringing so high and fierce I could barely hear the words that came after the shriek. But I could see what she was thrusting out at me, and read her lips. "Mr. Gubbins! Mr. Gubbins!"
Mr. Gubbins was, by the courtesy of his DNA, a cat. He was also, by nature and inclination, a Bodhisattva.
He showed up one day while I was pregnant with Emily, looking like a dirty white rat, barely big enough to fit into my palm. The dirt turned out to be orange spots. The rest of him grew into a big, soft, gorgeous armful of bunny fur and rusty-lawnmower purr.
From the day we brought Emily home from the birthing center, he was her cat. He slept at her feet when she was tiny and beside her when she got bigger, and he followed her everywhere around the house and the yard. If he could have gone to school and play dates and kiddie yoga with her, he would. Emily loved that cat, and as far as I could tell considering cats, he loved her right back.
This wasn't Mr. Gubbins. Oh, there was bunny fur and the spots were in the right places, but the orange had mutated into candy pink, the purr had gone all liquid and trill-y, and the big yellow eyes were the size of mini-saucers. It hung limply in Emily's hands, and then in mine when she threw it at me, and blinked and bubbled and trilled.
It was the cutest thing I had ever laid eyes on. It was absolutely horrible.
Emily was completely out of her head. "Mr. Gubbins! Mr. Gubbins! MR. GUBBINS!"
I can't say I was completely sane myself. I hate cute. I hate it. You know that fury of a thousand suns thing? Think fury of a googol zillion Hello Kitties.
I had just enough brain power left not to smash that awful thing against the wall. I carried it out with extreme care instead, and shut it in Emily's bathroom. Not that it looked as if it was going anywhere; it had feet, sort of, but they didn't look as if they could take it very far.
Once the thing was out of sight, Emily calmed down enough to almost make sense. She could tell me what had happened, sort of. "Mr. Gubbins went sploop! And now he's all gone!"
"I don't think he's gone," I said. "I think he's just gone through a bit of a change."
Emily wasn't having any. "Mr. Gubbins is gone!"
She was starting to spiral into freakout again. Thank Allah, the Internet was back, and so, with a few stutters, was the television.
I logged her into her favorite interactive. By pure luck her friend Yoon was there, too. She was still in tears, but now she had someone else to cry to.
That would hold her for a while. I'd always been quick on the search trigger, and motherhood had made me the fastest google in the West. But this time I didn't need any of my skills. It was all over the place--everywhere.
The Internet is made of cats. That's a cosmic truth.
Now the Internet was made of--
The local MomBoard is a major feeder conduit for the global news network. Want to know anything that matters to anybody? Ask a mom. And our moms had the best internetwork anywhere.
Maricela was womanning the video chat today, in between being Mayor and running International InfoWare Unlimited. She had it all condensed into one of her famous pithy newsbytes. "SoxNation has won the pennant; the Kovarrubians have landed in the desert west of Sasabe; and all our cats have turned into floons."
"Who named them that?"
It's always been my job to ask the hard questions. When it comes to easy ones, Derek does the honors. Derek is one of our househusbands, and he's a genius with a laundry machine. What he can do to get the dirtiest whites white . . .
Derek's one serious flaw is that he's a dog person, but we all forgive him that. Especially since he wasn't gloating about the cats. Which were now floons.
"So?" he said. "Did anybody think to trace it back to the source?"
"It's not the Sox," Gretl said. "If they did anything remotely like this, they'd give a baseball a warp engine. Or a set of wings."
"It's the Kovarrubians," I said. "Isn't it?"
"Their arrival and the cats' transformation do coincide," Maricela said. "That doesn't necessarily mean--"
"Of course it does," I said, "or you wouldn't have put out the bulletin in that exact way. What did they do it for?"
"World domination," Derek said.
Maricela withered him with a look.
Svetlana said, "It's probably meant to be a gift. Or a demonstration of their most marketable technology. Or possibly an accidental consequence of their presence in this continuum."
Svetlana does like to cover all possible bases. "Well," I said, "whatever it is, it better get fixed fast. I don't know about everybody else's kids, but Emily is going to hit Defcon Twelve if she doesn't get her cat back."
"I don't know," Derek said. "I think they're kind of cute the way they are. Little kids love cute."
"My kid doesn't," I said, and logged out of chat with unnecessary force.
Emily was still in the interactive with Yoon and, I saw when I checked, Ashley and Ngana, too. They were playing "Where's Carmen?" and Emily was actually giggling.
That was good, but it wasn't going to last. Emily purely loved that cat. Until she got him back, she wasn't going to stop wanting him.
I knew that because I felt the exact same way. I didn't want that ghastly pink-and-white floon. I wanted Mr. Gubbins.
Maricela owed me a favor or three. She paid off all of them that day. When the Kovarrubian delegation met with the Alien Relations Board the next morning, I was there with a press pass and a cat carrier, and the floon that used to be the best cat on the planet.
I'd halfway expected the Kovarrubians to look like Hello Kitty, but they turned out to be deep purple octopoids floating in bubbles of shimmering liquid.
"Water, methane, and sucralose," Svetlana said. She's science liaison for the Board. She's also my ex, but we're both over that. We just breathe a little hard when we're in the same realspace sometimes, because that wasn't why we split.
We were too preoccupied for much of that, right then. The Kovarrubians were busy delivering the usual line: "We come in peace, we bear gifts, we want to trade."
What they really wanted to trade for would take days to circle around to, but meanwhile there was the matter of what a Kovarrubian considered to be a gift.
Distilling gold from seawater, check. Translating whalesong into English, Mandarin, and Nahuatl, check. Granting every human's fondest wish--check?
"Nonstop mad monkey sex?" Svetlana muttered.
That wasn't my fondest wish, but I could see where it might come in a solid second.
The head negotiator of the Alien Relations Board wouldn't have let on that she heard, even if she had. "We thank you with all sincerity, gentlebeing, but we have already achieved world peace, eliminated hunger, and effectively eradicated our most deadly diseases, with profound thanks to your predecessors. There truly is nothing more that we could desire."
The Kovarrubians' chief negotiator was somewhat smaller and somewhat deeper purple than the others, and its translator spoke in an especially mellifluous tone. "Indeed," it said, "those who came before have been most generous with their gifts. Yet we believe that none has given what truly you most desire. From our investigations, we have concluded that there is one deep drive in every human organism, one thing that your species craves above all else. That, we have given you, as a token of our most sincere goodwill."
I knew our head negotiator fairly well in some of her other incarnations. Her name was Antonia. She was a fire-eater on the MomBoard, and she kicked ass in the mariachi competitions. She could play a fiddle like the Devil's own sister. I'd never seen her at a loss for words.
She found a few to toss out there, but they were strictly for filler. "Have you, gentlebeing? Then we thank you for whatever it may be."
She hadn't a clue. Nobody else did, either, that I could see. Even Svetlana. But I had the cat carrier between my feet where I sat by the wall, and the thing inside was trilling to itself, sounding like a soprano version of the bubbles in the Kovarrubians' atmo-spheres.
"Floons," I said. I didn't mean to say it so loudly, but I had Emily in my head, wailing for her lost cat, and I was pretty much inconsolable myself. "You gave us floons."
"Yes!" The negotiator had turned a distinctly brighter shade of purple. "Yes, floons! The most perfect, the most complete, the most newandimproved, advanced, all-natural manifestation of human desire. Hello Kitty! Can Has Cheezburger! Happycat! Cat Fancy! Purrfection in fur! Is made of cats! Floons!"
"Is made of cats," I said. I didn't dare start laughing or I'd never stop. "You studied the Internet. To find out what humans want."
"Yes!" the negotiator said. It was a wonderfully happy shade of purple, bobbing in its bubble, trilling like the blasted thing in the carrier. "What they want is each other, too. But humans do that so well themselves. The other thing, we could give. We could make even better."
"But," I said, and I couldn't think of any way to say it but the straight way, "cats are perfect as they are. They don't need to be better."
I heard Antonia's breath as she sucked it in. There were mutters and sputters elsewhere around the room. Security was on the alert: eyes sharpened, leaning in toward me. They only needed a glance from someone with clearance, and I'd be gone.
I ducked down fast and pulled out the thing that had been Mr. Gubbins. It draped over my hands, purring. Its huge eyes blinked. Its tiny paws, declawed of course, wrapped around my fingers. It was all I could do not to yank them away.
The chorus started in the gallery and ran raggedly around the reception hall. "Awwwwwww."
I wanted to spit. I didn't dare do that, either. "Yes, humans have a powerful tropism toward cute. Yes, there is a market for an animal like this. But it needs to be opt-in, gentlebeings. It can't be something you do to us because you think we want it."
The negotiator had paled to a sickly lavender. The bubbles and trills behind the translator's voice sounded honestly distressed. "Humans not want?"
"Some humans will want," I said. "I'm sure of that. And some . . ."
I hit the controls of the holo-remote in my pocket. The big screens around the room came to life. There was Emily, giant-size, with the original Mr. Gubbins. Playing with his string. Feeding him his tuna. Zoning him out on catnip. Sound asleep in her bed at night, with the cat curled up against her, vibrating with the force of his purr.
Then the vid cut to yesterday, and Emily dangling that limp, ghastly thing. Her voice wailed through the hall. "Mr. Gubbins! Mr. Gubbins! MR. GUBBINS!"
There was an awful silence. Most of the Awwwws had the grace to look guilty. A few wiped away tears.
The Kovarrubians had all gone lavender. All but one had shrunk into themselves, drawing into a knot of pale purple tentacles.
The negotiator was still, maybe defiantly, holding its position, but it was nearly white.
"Can you turn him back?" I asked it.
I held my breath. If the answer was no, I was in for a level of hell that I could only dimly imagine.
When I was almost as blue as the Kovarrubian, it said very softly, "Sorry. So sorry. Can change. Transmogrifier on reverse--programming reset--yes. We can change."
I gulped air. "Please," I said. "Please do. Emily will be very, very grateful. And so will I."
We got Mr. Gubbins back. Everybody else who wanted got their cats back, too.
That was most of them. People who wanted floons weren't really the kind of people who wanted cats. There's a level of cute that even a kitten can't hit, and floons were at it.
The cute lobby got floons. The rest of us got to keep our cats.
As for the Kovarrubians, they settled in well enough once the floon problem got taken care of. It turned out they were looking for a very particular kind of stimulant, and one of its most accessible forms was Diet Crack.
They asked me to help negotiate. Arbitration is one of the things I do when I'm not Emily-wrangling or saving the world for the cats. It's only a short step from that to interstellar diplomacy.
The chief negotiator turned out to be quite a pleasant person once I got to know it, and once it stopped apologizing for its marketing department's mistake.
"Really," I said one evening over Diet Crack and shrimp chips, which were another thing the Kovarrubians couldn't get enough of, "it's not a cosmic disaster. Even humans miss the target as often as not."
"But it was a mistake," the negotiator said--its name was impossible for a human to pronounce; I'd taken to calling it Gentian. "We did a wrong thing."
"It was a misunderstanding," I said. "You saw that humans want cute, that they love cats, and they're constantly 'improving' things."
"And surprises," said Gentian. "But not too surprising."
"Exactly." I drained my can of Diet Crack and reached for another, took a slug, filled it back up with rum. I had to do something to keep up with Gentian, after all, and it was getting bubbly in its atmo-sphere. "You know what cat people would kill for, if you had it? A life-extender. Cats' lives are so short. If there were a way to make them longer . . ."
Gentian hiccuped. A halo of bubbles circled its head. "Oh!" it said. "But we have one. It only works for small things. Under--what's your measurement? Ten kilos? Fifteen. Something like that."
"Cat size," I said.
"Yes!" It had gone bright purple, the way it did that first day. I hadn't seen that happiest of colors in Gentian since. "Cat size! A long-life machine. We use it to keep our food fresh. But for a cat, it would make it live--oh, long! Human-long. But," it said, and its color paled back into sadness, "if you use it, the cat doesn't make new cats."
"Believe me," I said, "that is not a problem." I would have hugged it if I could. I settled for blowing it a rum-sweetened kiss.
I did have to ask. "Please don't tell me there are side effects. Like turning into a floon."
"No," Gentian said. "Only no babies. Otherwise it stays itself."
"Promise," said Gentian. Its tentacles had darkened almost to black: the color of complete sincerity.
Emily is grown up now and has her own daughter. Mr. Gubbins has been raising her the same way he raised Emily. He's just the same as he always was: an orange-spotted Bodhisattva in bunny fur.
He's not immortal. He'll get old about as fast as Emily will. But he'll be around for a long while yet.
Me, I'm headed out. Gentian's opening up a new market out Ophiuchi way, and she's asked if I'd like to be on the negotiating team. We'll be gone a year or two. Then maybe I'll settle down and get adopted by my own cat, and tell stories about the days when I was an interstellar explorer.
That would be something, wouldn't it?
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 10th, 2011

Author Comments

This story is all Sherwood Smith's fault. We were hanging out in the comments section of her Livejournal (where she posts as sartorias), and the conversation rambled here and there, as it will. And she made a reference to an imaginary tale, "When Cats Were Floons."
That very day, "Made of Cats" was born. It was a true Attack Story: it came out almost exactly as you'll read it here, in a single burst.
Pretty much like the Kovarrubians' floon generator, when you stop to think about it

- Judith Tarr
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