The Only City Left: Part Eleven
I allowed myself a second or two of panic and then called out, “Tumble?”
“One moment, young sir,” the cat called back from somewhere up ahead.
I closed my eyes and rested my head sideways on the bottom of the duct. The cool metal felt wonderful on my flushed cheek and I stayed like that until I heard the scamper of tiny feet approaching.
“Okay, the way is clear now. Please follow me,” Tumble said.
He stood hunched over, bent nearly in half, but he would not resort to walking on all fours, which I thought was kind of funny. Then I noticed that he had his gun in his left hand and my cocoon bag in his right.
“Anything I should be worried about?” I asked as I begin to pull and shimmy my way through the ventilation system.
Tumble stopped and looked back at me. “There are rats in here the size of, well, me. Nasty creatures, I assure you. Since you barely fit in here”—Did he have to remind me?—“I had to disable a few traps along the way that you can’t maneuver around.”
He continued on a few steps and then looked back at me over his shoulder.
“I’m almost certain I remembered them all.”
He chuckled a raspy feline laugh and proceeded forward.
“Cat humor,” I replied. “Now my day is complete.”
This made Tumble laugh all the harder.
I blinked stinging sweat from my eyes. Whether it was from my fever, the exercise, or the tight fear at the back of my throat when I imagined becoming stuck in the duct, I didn’t dare dwell on it.
The journey was interminable and Tumble had certainly lied when he claimed it would only take a short while.
After seeming miles of conduits, some terrifying chimney climbs up vertical shafts, and a close call with a rat who sunk his teeth into Tumble’s shoulder before he could bring his gun to bear on it—(“On the plus side,” Tumble told me, proudly holding up the two-foot long rat by its tail. “Dinner!”)—we exited the ventilation system.
I unceremoniously slid out onto the floor, barely able to catch myself, and took some time to lie there, luxuriating in the freedom to move my arms and legs about and not hit anything except the floor. I had spent entirely too much time today in shafts, tunnels, and ductwork; I vowed to stay away from tight spaces for at least a week unless my life depended on it.
“Come now, friend, we are almost there,” Tumble interrupted my reverie.
“Like it was only a ‘short while’ to get here?” I groused.
“No, this time it is truly nearby, so make yourself presentable. You will soon be in the presence of His Illustriousness, He Whose Claws Can Slice Air Itself, The Most—”
I took advantage of the lengthy list of honorifics to get to my feet. Weary and woozy, I had to lean against the wall for support. Seeing me like that, Tumble cut himself off.
“Come, the sooner you are presented at court, the sooner you can rest and recover.”
He returned my cocoon bag and we were off again, but this time through corridors that felt decidedly more lived in than those I had frequented as of late. For one thing, they had power and light, so I turned off my coil and slid it into my shirt. For another, everything was clean. Most of the city I’d seen was grungy, run-down. Even the settlements I passed through were barely cleared of the debris of ages. Here, the walls were freshly painted, the carpet clean, and the air fresh. I mentioned as much to Tumble.
“And this is just the outer bailey!” he preened. “Wait ’til you see the real city! Ah-ha, here we are.”
We reached the end of a hallway and stood before a solid-looking metal door that was flanked by two gun-wielding cats, one jet black, the other calico. As we were expected, the guards did not put up a fuss but simply entered a code onto a keypad.
The door slid open silently for all its weight. These cats certainly had their tiny corner of the city running smoothly.
Tumble led me into a narrow, short hallway that I had to crouch-walk along to pass through. I noticed the thin openings regularly spaced along the walls and ceiling; murder holes. Either the cats were paranoid or they had more than just unusually large rats to worry about.
Once we were through a second gate at the far end, I could stand up again. Hands on my hips, I leaned back to give myself a good stretch and found my gaze traveling up, up, up.
The cat city filled a cavernous chamber whose upper reaches I could not make out. It had obviously been built on and around pre-existing old-world skyscrapers. The old city had been completely remade through the addition of myriad ramps and rooms that hung suspended between the existing buildings on massive strands of braided rope.
From far overhead, bright yellow light shone from an unseen but obviously artificial sun. The skyscrapers were tall, but not so tall as to make me believe I had reached the surface.
Tiny birds sang their songs as they dived and banked in and out of the cat-cradle city, and everywhere I looked, the bipedal cat-folk went about their business.
“Welcome to Pudlington,” Tumble announced proudly. “We hope you enjoy our hospitality for as long as you like.”
“How many cats live here?” I asked, jaw stuck open as I gaped at the sights.
“Not as many as there once were,” Tumble replied, his tone uncharacteristically dark.
I glanced down at him and grimaced. “That’s Earth in a nutshell, isn’t it?”
Tumble nodded and then did a full body shiver from head to tail.
“Enough of that,” he said, his tone boisterous once more. “The Emperor awaits!”
* * *
Meet the Emperor in Part Twelve, but take a gander below at my notes first, if you like.
4/29/12 News: I had fun writing Tumble’s lines (the one about “Dinner!” makes me laugh each time I read it) and I gave him a little more personality this week. Thanks to my cousin Gillian for saying she liked the little guy (and for reading each week!); it made me want to flesh him out more.
Why Pudlington as the name for the cat city, you may ask? No reason other than it sounded cute, and as much as the cats have sought to shed their past as domestic pets, their names are still very much influenced by their history as adorable companions for humans. It also makes me think of a tiny hamlet somewhere in the countryside, so… ironic, yeah.
I have been including little homages here and there in the story (besides the great big homage to Isaac Asimov’s Lije Bailey and Foundation novels). This week’s homage had to do with the unusually large rats. Can you name the movie this came from?
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