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One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: -- it was the black kitten's fault entirely. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that only human action can be blamed or lauded when things go wrong or right aboard a warship. Author's Notes
To be sure, there is merit in that theory--whoever would have thought that it was wise to bring skycats aboard a warship? That's for certain the fault of the mainlanders who owned the critters, or was it? The Captain didn't have to allow it, but she did, the frassy fool--or canny captain. There's some disagreement about that.
How can that be? Yes, indeed, you might ask that question, and there's no answering it but to tell the whole story, or at least the part of it that happened on the ship.
You see, there was a spoiled child with rich, elderly parents, and the child had not one, not two, but a whole litter of skykittens. There was the black one and the white one I mentioned before, and several more, all different. Which would have been fine, if they hadn't had a license entitling them to visit Pebble Beach.
The family arrived on dock with the kittens all in a cage, tuckered out as only the very young and very old get. The kittens were safely locked in and thoroughly licensed. They were quite adorable, sleeping there in a pile inside the gleaming steel cage, and the child beamed happily at them, nearly as sleepy as the kittens.
The Captain strode forward to tell them no kittens or no passage, but the parents waved papers and luxury tokens at her and demonstrated that the pets could be fed without unlocking the cage. The Captain glanced at the main mast, which had the start of a crack--it passed inspection, still, mind you, but it was only one of the signs that the ship needed an overhaul soon, and business had not been generous lately.
It took a while, because the Captain negotiated hard. Eventually, after pocketing a substantial bag of tokens and a carefully worded contract, they were all allowed on board. The crew muttered, but the Captain had seen them through many troubles, and so when the Mate passed word that there would be bonuses and a new mast if the cats caused any trouble at all, they set to work in a fine mood.
And for the first half or so of the voyage, all was well. The child fell asleep, as children do; the parents got seasick, as mainlanders do; the kittens purred and played with each other's ears and tails, just like ordinary landbound kittens; and the warsailors did the things warsailors do when the weather is fine and there are no monsters in sight.
It was about as perfect as a sea voyage can be, which should have made everyone nervous. But instead, the Second Lookout was whistling while climbing into the rigging to relieve the First Lookout when everything changed. Suddenly, there were kittens climbing the rigging.
One of them gave up quickly, and let go, gliding toward the worthy sailor who was minding the wheel. It landed on the wheel with an audible thump, causing the ship to veer suddenly into the wind. That was distracting enough, because the ship bobbled, and the black kitten, who had jumped in front of the Second Lookout, panicked and sunk sharp claws into her shoulder.
The Second Lookout shrieked, and let go of the rigging, just as the ship hit a wave and lurched. The poor woman went sailing out into the air and fell into the water, the black kitten wailing, its gliding membranes catching the wind like a sail, causing its sharp little claws to gouge deep red lines along the Lookout's arm as it tried to hold on.
The First Lookout cried, "Sailor overboard," and things got very busy. The Lookout could swim, of course, but even if there were no monsters in sight, you never assume there's none to hear a human struggling in the water or smell her bleeding. The black kitten clawed its way up her arm to her head, releasing more blood and adding its own cries of distress to the chaos.
The white kitten was high in the rigging, watching things with interest. Not so its siblings, two of whom had achieved a respectable height only to jump into the air, spreading their legs to stretch their gliding membranes, and whirling around the Captain and Mate, blocking their view of things and generally getting in the way.
Another skykitten, a little brown and white one, reached the First Lookout, whereupon it climbed into his collar and started to purr and rub up against the poor man's nose, making him sneeze. His eyes watered, and he tried to get the little skycat loose from his clothing. Mindful of the other Lookout's fate, he did this one-handed, holding on tight to his own perch, though that slowed things down and led to additional explosive sneezes.
Down on the deck, the child woke, and started to wail because the kitten-cage was empty. Such lungs that child had--the howling was quite loud enough to drown out the Captain, who was holding a very perplexed gray kitten by the scruff with one hand and trying to direct the rescue of the poor waterlogged Lookout with the other.
The parents tried to calm their spawn, but with the ship bobbling wildly in the waves, as the steersman grappled with the striped kitten, they instead got sick again, this time splattering the deck, the cage, and their increasingly alarmed child. This caused an unlikely but totally understandable increase in volume from the child, as well as additional curses and cries of dismay from the crew.
So it was that the ship was in about as much disarray as ever a warship has achieved when the smartarm arrived.
It was unheralded by the Lookouts, one of which was still sneezing and the other was valiantly ignoring the black kitten on her head and swimming toward the ship.
It was unnoted by the Captain, who now had two skykittens in her hands and had stopped in mid-stride, her plan to re-cage the miscreants slowed by the new mess on her formerly pristine deck.
It was totally missed by the Mate, as they were cussing all felines and tourists and whichever incompetent sailor had tied the knot holding the float they were trying to free from its mooring for the Second Lookout.
The only being who noted the initial arrival of the smartarm was the white kitten, whose eyes narrowed and ears pricked forward as the first slender grey tentacle tip broke the water's surface gleaming wet and wiggling like a string a child might offer with an invitation to play. The kitten crouched and tensed, getting ready to spring.
But the smartarm was faster than the kitten, and it rose up out of the water behind the ship. Several muscular arms rose out of the sea, the base gray picking up the greens and blues of the water around it, and latched onto the darker boat. Where it touched the boat, the creature darkened, mimicking the colors of the paint and the wood.
The child's screams changed from anger and dismay to shrieks of terror. The Lookout tried to cry out a warning, sneezing in the middle of his words. He stopped trying to remove the kitten from his clothing and rapped on the alarm bell.
Now, all of the warsailors saw the monster. The reaction was immediate. The Captain bellowed orders, tossed the two skykittens she had captured toward the child, and grabbed a different float and tied a line to it, throwing it toward the sailor in the water. Since the smartarm was on the other side of the ship, there was still a chance the Lookout might make it back aboard.
The Mate and several others unshipped the cannon and struggled to turn it on the monster, but slipped on the tourists' vomit, which had, as you will remember, splattered the deck less than a tick earlier. The First Lookout felt the rush of adrenaline as he reached for his axe, and his sneezes subsided a bit.
The smartarm took ahold of the main mast with two of its muscular arms and lifted its mantle out of the water. It was a big one, and heavy. Water poured off the mantle and the huge double fin that rippled along both sides of the mantle, pouring liberally both on the ship and back into the sea. All eight of the muscular arms reached to grab the ship and the slender grabbing tentacles wandered around, seeking its intended meal--the humans on board.
The ship rocked wildly, and the mast made a horrible groaning sound, drowning out all of the various sounds of the warsailors, tourists, and skycats.
The First Lookout heard the sound and his eyes flew to the no longer tiny crack in the grain of the main mast. He saw the monster climbing toward him, one eager tentacle reaching for him like his giant little brother used to reach for leftovers, and he leapt off of the bird's nest toward one of the other masts. The monster sent one of its grabbing tentacles toward him, and finally the white kitten leapt, claws and teeth out.
While the Mate aimed the cannon and the Second Lookout grabbed desperately at the float, the First Lookout grabbed at a sail and missed. The axe caught it, though, and that sailor's descent toward the deck was slowed as the dull side of the axe ripped noisily through the fabric. The brown and white kitten wailed in his ear, but he ignored it. It was all he could do to hang on to that axe.
The sailor who had run to get the mop strode boldly toward another arm of the monster where it gripped the railing, tossing the mop aside and unsheathing his heavy sword, and started to hack at it. Greenish blood joined the mess on the deck as the railing gave way and the mop rolled overboard.
The Captain pulled out her own axe and handily chopped off the grabbing end of the tentacles that was reaching toward the screeching child, doing additional damage to the railing in the process, and getting covered with the stinky blue-green blood.
At about the same moment, the white kitten landed on the sensitive end of the other tentacle, biting and clawing, and the monster roared, trying to flip it off and climb the main mast at the same time. The crack in the mast widened further, and then the mast split loudly in two. The monster managed to fling the white kitten high in the air just as the Mate fired the cannon at it.
The smartarm roared again, and squirted purple-black ink liberally over the ship and the humans attacking it. It splashed back into the ocean and took off, dragging most of the mast with it. I don't know if it thought there was food tangled in the sails and rigging or if it hoped to use it as a club if the ship gave chase--smartarms have been known to do that--but it headed out away from the ship and no one would have stopped it if they could.
Silence descended on the ship for a moment, the child out of breath or comforted by the retreat of the monster. The two kittens the Captain had tossed toward the cage were sniffing cautiously at the various colored fluids that covered everything in sight. The poor First Lookout resumed sneezing, and one of the parents detangled the ink-spattered kitten from his collar. The Second Lookout finally climbed back onboard, a very wet black kitten still tangled in her hair.
The white kitten glided slowly down toward the ship, circling until it landed in the child's arms, where it started to purr proudly. It seemed quite convinced that it had chased the monster away with no help from the humans, and demanded food and petting in return.
The warsailors set to cleaning things up, getting more mops out of storage, and the Captain inspected the damage. The ship was still seaworthy, though badly damaged. The main mast had broken just high enough that neither it nor the falling monster had poked any holes lower than the water level. There were still the two other masts, and a spare sail to replace the one that was sundered in two.
Both Lookouts were safe and uninjured, and while a few people had sprains and scratches, no one was maimed or killed. The tourists weren't even hurt, even though they were on deck the whole time and hadn't had the sense to grab a weapon to fend off a greedy tentacle.
The ship limped into port more than a day late, but by the most unlikely luck, did not encounter anything worse than a few drill barnacles and some distant dreamskates between this encounter and arriving home. The tourists were more than a little displeased at the delay, and words were exchanged about who had let the skykittens loose from the cage.
The monitors investigated, of course. The corner of the cage that was closest to the water was covered with bird droppings, with an ink- and blood-stained blinkbird feather glued to the metal by the droppings. The lock was totally missing. No one could explain why a blinkbird would be at sea, but their love of shiny things was legendary, and the investigating monitor had seen a blinkbird pick the lock on his slow box with his own eyes.
That explanation didn't please anybody, but there was no evidence that any crewmember had come close to the cage, and the parents had substantial financial reasons to keep the kittens locked up. Everyone agreed that the child had been shocked and dismayed by the open, empty cage.
And, as always, there were many other things to investigate. Since no one had died and the damage to the boat was, according to the contract signed before the ship set sail, being paid by the mainlanders, the investigation was closed.
To this day, the sailors are divided as to whether it was monumental stupidity to let those kittens on board, or a stroke of genius. Which do you think it was?
This story was written for the literary taxidermy contest, which challenges writers to create a totally new story that fits naturally between the first and last lines of a famous work. The first and last sentences of this story are originally from Lewis Carroll's Through a Looking Glass.