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Lying to a Lying Cat

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When Sophie woke up, she was covered in blankets. Her head hurt, and her stomach felt bad. Then it felt worse. She sat up enough to be sick onto a floor she didn’t recognize, built of wooden slats. That was a house floor, the kind people kept on planets and moons. She hadn’t seen one in a very long time. The ceiling was made the same. The walls were funny. She looked at them for a while before deciding it was because they were round. There were two little square windows, way up high, and she could see a gray sky through them.

A part of the floor against the wall opened up, and Gwendolyn’s head popped through. “Oh hey, you’re awake,” she said. Then she walked up into the room and saw the mess Sophie made had on the floor. Her lip curled. “Lovely.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

Pictures were coming to Sophie now like on a view screen: herself, doing things that she wouldn’t ever do. Would she? “Where is the Will?” she asked.

Gwendolyn flapped her hand. “Convalescing. Ungracefully.”

“Did I hurt him?”

Gwendolyn shrugged. “He’ll live. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I stabbed him,” Sophie said, shrinking down into the blankets. “With a knife. And Lying Cat—”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Gwendolyn repeated. She got a towel from a shelf above Sophie’s head, and then she bent to clean up the sick. “Those fruits you ate, they make you see things. They lie to you.” She reached out and stroked Sophie’s hair. “You hungry?”

“Not really.”

Gwendolyn wrinkled her nose at the floor. “I guess not. Thirsty?” Sophie thought about that for a little bit, and then she nodded. “I’ll get you some water.” The water Gwendolyn brought tasted different than on the Will’s ship, but not bad. After Sophie had all she wanted, Gwendolyn put the mug onto a table next to the bed, and she tucked the covers around Sophie and went away again.

Sophie couldn’t sleep. She’d been sleeping a long time, she thought. After a while she crawled out of bed. She was wearing a different shirt now, still a grown-up’s shirt, but it fit her better than the one the Will had given her. She tip-toed to the door Gwendolyn had left open in the floor and peered into it. She didn’t see any people, so she walked down the staircase into a room full of books in bookcases curved to fit against the walls.

Across the room was another doorway in the floor like the one she’d come through. It was closed, but it had a leather handle sticking up. She pulled at it. Then she pulled some more, harder, and the door opened with a loud creak.

The room below had a bed in it, like hers. She could see the Will’s bald head sticking out from the covers. His neck was thick with bandages. She crept down the stairs.

She was halfway to the floor when Lying Cat’s head popped up from the other side of the bed. Sophie froze. Grumbling in her throat, the cat paced around the bed to sit in front of the Will.

Lying Cat was very big. Sophie hadn’t really noticed before. Sophie was smaller than everyone anyway. But she noticed now how big Lying Cat was. When her mouth opened, Sophie noticed her teeth, and even though she couldn’t see Lying Cat’s claws hidden in her paws, Sophie remembered them. The time after Sophie ate the bush fruit was fuzzy, but Lying Cat’s claws and teeth were very clear.

Carefully, Sophie stepped to the bottom of the stairs, and then she backed up against the wall as flat as she could. “Is he okay?” she asked.

“Mrr,” Lying Cat said warningly.

Sophie shrank further away. “I hurt him,” she whispered. “I made him all bloody. Gwendolyn says it wasn’t my fault. She said the fruit makes you see things. She says they lie.”

Lying Cat lashed her tail against the floor.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” Sophie’s eyes were getting wet. She sniffled. “Do you hate me?”

Lying Cat wrinkled her nose and said nothing.

“You hate me,” Sophie whispered.

Lying Cat made an angry face and croaked, “Lying.” Then she laid her hands on her paws and closed her eyes. Sophie waited for a long time, but Lying Cat didn’t look at her again. Finally, Sophie stumbled back up the stairs. It was hard when she couldn’t see.

--

Gwendolyn brought Sophie soup later, and it was good, and Sophie wasn’t sick afterward. She slept some more, and then Gwendolyn brought Sophie downstairs to meet the other people in the house. There was a one-eyed man who smelled, and a lady with wings and a man with horns, and the man’s mother, who had only one ear. She had bandages like the Will’s. There was a baby, too, who was usually sleeping.

The grown-ups argued a lot about things Sophie didn’t understand, like a robot man who lived in the cellar. The wing-lady let Sophie hold the baby in her lap one time, but otherwise everyone left Sophie alone, even Gwendolyn. Even Lying Cat. Sophie saw her a couple of times when Lying Cat trotted down the stairs to go outside and later up again. Lying Cat looked at her once and glared, and Sophie closed her eyes until Lying Cat was gone.

The second day after Sophie wake up, while the grown-ups were talking again, Sophie opened the door. It was the only door in the whole house that opened in a wall instead of a floor or ceiling, and when she stepped outside, there was dirt and clumps of grass. Carefully she closed the door behind her. She decided very firmly that if she saw anything to eat, she wouldn’t. She knew better now. Anyway, she didn’t see anything that she’d want to put in her mouth. The dirt was gritty and gray, not like for growing things, and the sky was still gray, too. There were hardly even any plants. The air smelled like salt.

Sophie walked all the way around the rounded walls of the house. When she came to the door, she kept on walking, but in a wider circle. The one-eyed man’s house sat on a hill, and finally she came to an edge of it. She peered over the little cliff, and a few feet below her she saw bones. What she’d thought were white rocks on the brown-gray ground were piles and piles of bones.

She was so surprised that she lost her balance, and then she was rolling down the hill, straight towards those bones. She landed on them with a crash.

“Ow.” Sophie pushed to her feet and looked up the slope. It was too steep to climb. She’d have to go around.

Behind her, something rattled. Sophie stopped very still. Maybe she had kicked something. But the rattling happened again, and very slowly she turned.

Standing in front of her was a tower of bones, three times as tall as her. It looked wrong, even for bones. The legs were made of ribs. As she looked up and up and up, the bones clacked at her. Then the tower leaned towards her, almost over her head.

Sophie screamed.

The tower of bones kept bending, closer and closer, and dead jaws clacked open and shut, and then something huge and blue and screaming ran into the bones. They flew everywhere. A tiny finger-sized bone hit Sophie’s cheek and fell to the ground. Lying Cat stood in the middle of the bones, growling big and fierce, stamping in a circle until all the clack-clack of the bones was silent.

“Mrr?” said Lying Cat, turning to Sophie. Sophie backed up until her feet came to the hill, and then she fell over. Lying Cat put her front paws on each side of Sophie, and she stuck her nose in Sophie’s face.

Sophie shut her eyes tight. “Please don’t hurt me.”

Mrrr?” Lying Cat sounded so surprised that Sophie opened her eyes again. Sophie might have laughed at Lying Cat’s face if she weren’t still shaking.

“You were mad at me,” Sophie tried to explain. “You jumped on me just like you jumped on those bones, and you knocked me down, and I thought you were going to...” To killer her, like the Will had killed Mr. Snotch: squish.

“Mrowr?” Lying Cat said softly.

“I know why.” Sophie sniffled. She was crying again. “It was because I hurt the Will. But I didn’t mean to! And it was really scary. You’re really scary.”

Lying Cat looked at her for a long time. Finally, uncertainly, she said, “Lying?”

She dropped down until her belly was on the sand, and she put her head in Sophie’s lap. The tip of her ear tickled Sophie’s chin. After a moment, Sophie reached out and stroked Lying Cat’s head. “I’m lying? You’re not scary?”

“Mrr,” Lying Cat said in her throat, and butted her nose against Sophie’s chest. Carefully, Sophie put her arms around Lying Cat’s neck.

--

Gwendolyn was talking to the Will now, but Sophie knew she wouldn’t be much longer. Then Gwendolyn and Sophie would walk off the Will’s tree blossom ship and onto Lime, and he would fly away, and he wouldn’t come back.

Sophie looked out the window at the space port, and beyond it the rolling dunes of yellow-greeny sand. It didn’t look like a place she wanted to stay. Gwendolyn said they wouldn’t, that they’d catch another ship. Towards home, Gwendolyn said, but she never said it where Lying Cat could hear, so Sophie knew the truth about that.

Lying Cat wasn’t interested in the window. She lay curled around Sophie with her head butted into Sophie’s lap, and her tail lashed the deck.

“I’ll miss you,” Sophie told Lying Cat.

“Mrowr,” Lying Cat said.

“But you’ll probably forget all about me,” Sophie said sneakily.

“Lying,” the cat. Sophie bent down and kissed her between her tall blue ears, and Lying Cat swiped at Sophie’s face with her tongue.

--

“It’s a what?” Sophie asked.

“Fucking snarling thing in a crate,” Flap said over the intercom. “Crew got it in here with a forklift, and I ain’t fucking going near it. Got your name on the manifest.”

My name,” Sophie repeats.

“Ayup.”

“Fine, I’ll come down.” Sophie flipped the intercom off. “What even?” she asked the ceiling. The ceiling didn’t answer. She pushed to her feet and descended the five flights of stairs to the receiving hold, where the goods were sorted and stowed. So far, the stowed goods were scattered and few; the Gemenon still had three weeks to lift off. Plenty of time to find enough cargo to satisfy the bills and Lady Bismuth. Plenty of time.

Sophie heard the snarling crate before she saw it. She followed the sound to a big wooden enclosure, almost walrus sized. She recognized the yowl by now. She strode up to the slats, shushing Flap when he started to protest. “It’s me,” she said. “Sophie.”

The yowling quieted. After a moment came an inquiring, “Mrr?”

“She’s not going to eat you,” Sophie promised Flap. “Hand me the crowbar.” Flap didn’t so much hand it to her as slide it across the concrete to her feet. Sophie picked it up, wedged it into the nailed-shut frame, and set to work prying it open.

Finally the nails pulled free, and the end of the crate fell back onto the concrete. Inside, Lying Cat looked older, her muzzle grayed, a piece torn from her left ear and long since healed. “Mrr,” she said, disconsolately.

“He’s dead,” Sophie said, testing. Lying Cat stepped forward and butted against Sophie’s leg. Sophie crouched and met her, forehead to forehead. The cat started to purr, a sound as guttural and alarming as a flash engine burning cheap fuel.

Flap and the others muttered. Sophie straightened and turned, leaving her hand on Lying Cat’s head. “It’s okay. She’s safe.” The cat shifted her head under Sophie’s hand, and when Sophie glanced down, the cat met her eyes. “She’s with me now.”

And Lying Cat said nothing at all.

[end]