The Only City Left: Part Ten
I raised an eyebrow at the note. I had never heard of this Emperor Banshee and I certainly had no idea how he had ever heard of me. Dad had warned me about accepting gifts from strangers, but as I was otherwise naked and liable to freeze outside of the cocoon, I didn’t hesitate to make use of the clothing despite any misgivings.
Before I dressed, I drank from my towel reservoir and then toweled myself off again from head to toe. No point in getting these nice dry clothes soaked with sweat the minute I put them on. By the time I got down to my feet, I could already feel more sweat beading on my forehead, and even though I had emptied the reservoir, I still felt incredibly thirsty. As I had feared, swimming through and swallowing some of that brackish water had done me no good. Whatever I had picked up, my body was in full attack mode against it, and I felt achy and sweaty and miserable.
The dry clothing cheered me up, though. The shirt, pants, and jacket were all a light tan in color and everything fit me perfectly. The shoes were ordinary red-and-white sneakers and I briefly mourned the loss of my black cling-tights, but mostly I was curious about how my mysterious royal benefactor knew so much about me all the way down to my shoe size.
The note provided no answers. I checked the back side for more information, like how to find the Emperor, but it was blank. I shook my head, shrank and packed my cocoon, and left the small apartment unsure of where to go next.
On a lark, I turned left down the hallway but only made it a few feet before a tiny voice sounded from behind me.
“Hey, what’s the rush?”
I jerked straight and spun around so quickly on one foot that, in my fevered state, I got dizzy and had to slump against a wall to keep from falling.
“You don’t look so good. We better get you to the Emperor’s Court. He’ll get you fixed up.”
I blinked, forcing my eyes to focus and re-focus, not quite believing them. I was being addressed by a cat, a talking cat. He had gray and white fur, a thin frame, and was standing on his hind legs with his front paws resting on his hips. He wore a red-and-white loincloth and had a gun strapped across his back at an angle.
I had heard tales of such creatures but always as myths or as stories of genetic experiments that had disappeared along with the majority of humankind.
He approached me cautiously, waving his right hand at me as if to clear the air. I squinted and leaned in for a better look and, sure enough, he had an opposable thumb. Definitely genetically altered, then, but not so much disappeared.
“Woo-hoo, you in there, Mr. Arcady?” he asked, holding up one claw and moving it left to right before my eyes.
“How do you know my name?”
“It speaks! Good. Now come on, all your questions will be answered, your ills cured, and your—” he scrunched his nose and twitched his white whiskers “—bathing needs attended to, if you’ll simply follow me.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Oh, of course, where are my manners? My name is Tumble, Royal Envoy of the Emperor’s Court.”
That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I thought it would be impolite to ask, “What are you?”
“This way then?” Tumble suggested, bowing slightly and waving his hand back toward where I had come from.
I shrugged and followed him. It’s not like I had any more specific place to go, Tumble didn’t seem dangerous despite the gun on his back, and anyway, I was curious about meeting more like him and finding out how they knew about me.
Tumble pointed out this or that landmark to me as we walked, places where great (feline) battles had occurred, commissaries that still bore the scent of food to a cat’s fine sense of smell even after being abandoned for hundreds of years, that sort of thing. He droned on like this for the entire journey as we moved through one indistinguishable hallway after another. Should I have wanted to, I would never be able to figure out how to get back to where we started from.
My feline guide knew so much about the history of this area, I interrupted him and asked, “What happened to the people who used to live here? The humans.”
“Ah, therein lies much speculation and little known truth. This sector has been ours for centuries. Some say it was ceded to us when the cats rebelled against their cruel and awful masters. No offense to present company, I assure you. Others claim that this sector became ours when the humans simply abandoned it, but there are as many stories about why they left as there are empty rooms around us. But, oh, we’re here!”
Here was a dead-end at the end of a hallway.
“It may be a tight fit for you, but I assure you it’s only for a small while. Follow me.”
Tumble stood at the wall and then sprang up its face. His claws were out but it seemed that he barely touched the surface before sliding under a loose grate and into a ventilation duct set into the wall about two feet above my head.
He popped his head back out and the grate swung upward on its top hinge. I could see that the duct was only about as wide as my body. This would not be a pleasant experience.
“Hand me your bag, young sir, and I’ll carry it for you.”
I balked at that; all my possessions except the lantern coil were in there. If he had wanted the bag, though, he could have taken it from me while I was passed out, so I handed it up.
Tumble held the grate open long enough for me to pull myself up and get my head and arms in, and then he had to back away to give me room. After a series of kicks, pulls, and wiggles, I made it into the coffin-like embrace of the duct and the grate slammed shut behind me. Ahead of me was empty ductwork for as far as my coil could illuminate; Tumble was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Head further into the ducts with Part Eleven (or read my notes on Part Ten first).
4/22/12 News: Yes, I am one of those people who likes to put talking cats in my stories. I’m sure readers either love this or hate this, but there it is. And you know that if humankind ever develops the technology, talking cats (and dogs, and ferrets, whatever) will be a reality, because how cool would that be.
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