A couple months after the Ekumen forged a treaty with Karhide, I decided to take Therem on a private tour of our starship, the one we had taken so much trouble to signal from Sassinoth. Partly, I felt I owed it to them, to thank them for their unrelenting faith in my cause. In my mind, they deserved to see the fruit of these efforts more than anyone else. Besides, they’d once expressed interest in learning more about space travel, and I wanted to do whatever I could to make them happy.
My motives weren’t entirely selfless, however. I wanted to see the awestruck look on Therem’s face when they took it all in, from the cryogenic chambers that froze my crewmates into stasis to the star maps permanently logged into the navigational system – although, maybe that was too ambitious of a goal. Still, I told myself that even if Therem were not impressed by the ship, then at least it was an excuse for us to spend the day together.
After our journey across the Ice, I had come to think of them as a constant in my life, warm and steady by my side. We each had our own business to attend to now that we were back in Erhenrang, so I relished every moment we had together. It wasn’t like old times – I certainly didn’t wish for that – but it was something different, something new. A sense that we shared an inside joke unintelligible to the rest of the world. Glances shared during mealtimes, hours spent together in absolute silence, Therem returning my unconscious smiles. . .
I tried not to think too hard about the way I felt around Therem, the way I couldn’t stop shivering even though it was nearing summer and getting warmer every day. This sort of thing must happen to everyone after a near-death experience, I reasoned. Surely, even Therem felt the same way, even if they didn’t seem to show it. Like the world had a new center, and I couldn't seem to look away.
Strange feelings aside, I thought the tour was going rather well. It was mostly me leading Therem around the ship like a guide dog and waiting for their measured and thoughtful questions. Who designed the ship and when? Was it a standard model? How did it compare to other ships of the Ekumen?
I answered to the best of my ability and wasn’t stumped by any questions until Therem inclined their head and asked, “What purpose do /they/ serve?”
I followed Therem’s gaze, expecting to see an array of keyboards or another constellation of ominously blinking lights. Instead, I was confronted with a pair of olive-green eyes staring down at us from the top of a cabinet. The eyes were set rather close together in a flat face the color of autumn leaves, with thin gray whiskers extending from either side. I knew what the creature was immediately, though it took me a moment to wrap my brain around it.
“I think that’s a cat,” I mumbled in a daze. Though what it was doing here, I hadn't the faintest idea.
As if our mutual acknowledgment had summoned it, the cat resettled on its haunches and leaped down to the floor in a single swift movement. It landed a little unsteadily, and I saw that its white belly fur hung so low that it brushed the ground. Whoever this cat belonged to, they certainly weren't forgetting to take care of it.
“A cat?” Therem echoed, the word choppy and unfamiliar on their tongue.
I nodded. “We keep them as pets back on Earth. They’ve been domesticated for millennia. They’re also not uncommon on star ships nowadays. People use them for emotional support and companionship purposes. They help make long voyages more bearable.”
Therem must have taken my words to mean that the animal was no threat to us, because their shoulders relaxed and they nodded.
"Still," I continued, "you don't usually find them on ships where the passengers are kept in stasis. It just complicates maintenance procedures."
I squatted down and extended my hand palm-up towards the cat, making clicking noises to coax it over. The cat regarded me distastefully and then, with its tail stuck straight in the air, waltzed right past me to Therem. It twined around their legs twice in a figure-eight formation then sauntered out of the room without so much as a meow of greeting.
I frowned, a little disheartened by the cat’s obvious disinterest in me. When I stood up, I noticed a twinkle in Therem’s eye.
“I see it’s a badge of dishonor to be neglected by such a creature,” they remarked.
“Cats just take a long time to warm up to people, is all," I explained. "They’re pretty fickle creatures.”
“Is that so?” Their voice was calm and collected as ever, but a playful smile ghosted across their lips, and I had the feeling they were more satisfied that the cat had favored them than they were letting on.
. . .
The cat, as it turned out, was named Omelet. Sometimes she was called Letty, for short. My crewmates had discovered her living aboard the ship only after I had sent the signal to wake them up. As best as they could figure, she had stolen aboard before we set off for Gethen and had hid from us until we were safely in stasis. Then, the real party had begun.
There had been cat fur coating every conceivable surface – and even some inconceivable ones, like the inside of drawers – and the food supplies had been raided and devoured. Omelet hadn’t been afraid of the humans when they first woke up. Instead, I was told she regarded them with a condescending look, as if to smugly say, “Well, it’s about time you showed up.”
“Why Omelet?” I asked Lang Heo Hew when she finished relaying the story to me. I had called her over the ship's computer to make sure she knew about the whole cat situation, and it appeared that I was the only human /not/ in the loop.
“Well, first of all, we were hungry as soon as we woke up,” she explained with a laugh. “You know what being in stasis for a couple years does to you. And then, whenever this cat sits down, she looks like a giant puddle of runny eggs. We actually took a picture of her sleeping in a frying pan the other day, if you want to see. . . “
I thanked her and said maybe some other time.
. . .
After I ended the call, I found Therem sitting on the ground with Omelet curled in their lap. The cat looked like a croissant, its pink nose touching the tip of its striped tail, which was wrapped tightly around the curve of its body. Even from where I stood several feet away, I could tell she was purring.
The sight was so precious, my heart ached. Therem was doing a great job with her, taking care not to crowd her and stroking her forehead with two gentle fingers. When Therem realized the call had ended, they looked up at me and smiled. My breath stuck in my throat, so I said nothing as I took a seat on the floor across from them. As my shadow fell across her, Omelet raised her head and blinked at me in bleary surprise.
"She really likes you," I remarked.
Therem exhaled in relief. Apparently, they were very concerned about getting this social interaction right. “So, what do you call the noise she’s making right now?” they asked. "It's an odd sort of humming sound, coming from her throat, or maybe from her chest."
“We call it purring,” I replied, "and it’s usually good. It means the cat feels safe and at home with you.” I thought of our journey across the Ice and wondered what it would be like if humans could purr. Pretty embarrassing, I imagined. It would be much too hard to disguise feelings of love, then.
Therem looked down at Omelet with a newfound appreciation, and I felt something warm blossom in my chest. I wanted to reach out and maybe. . . Maybe what? Hold Therem's hand? I suddenly felt like an impulsive teenager rather than a professional Envoy. I needed to distract myself immediately.
I cleared my throat and said, "You know, I’ve never had a cat myself. But my neighbors back on Earth did, and they put me in charge of taking care of her when they went out of town. She was a giant cat named Sushi, and she was at least this big.” I held out to my hands to demonstrate. "And she weighed a ton, at least two pesthries' worth. I tried to carry her upstairs once and ended up dropping her before I could reach the top."
As though affronted by my childhood misdemeanor, Omelet stood up and readjusted on Therem's lap so they were facing away from me.
I sighed. “Yeah, Sushi didn’t really like me either. I'm still not sure if that's a cat thing or a me thing. Probably, it's both. Cats are usually very reserved, and they tend to dislike people who beg for their attention." I tried for a humorous smile. "They can sense desperation, I guess. Anyway, it’s best to be discreet about your emotions around cats and not to come on too strong. They might resent you for it.”
“Huh," said Therem. They thought about this for several heartbeats, stroking the cat's back. "Then, it appears as though they play their own games of shifgrethor." I could feel their respect for Omelet grow as they said this.
I smiled, amused. “That’s one way to put. It certainly explains why all cats hate me.” To demonstrate my point, I reached a hand toward Omelet. Before I could touch her glossy fur, a new sound rose from their throat – not a purr, this time, but a growl. “See?" I told Therem, in faux-distress. "She’s threatening me!”
They laughed, and the entire room seemed to grow brighter, eclipsing any sense of dejection I felt because of Omelet. Regardless, I crossed my arms and pretended to be more upset than I actually was. A moment later, Omelet’s purr returned full-force, as if she could sense that I had given up and was pleased by this turn of events.
For the next few minutes, Therem and I sat in companionable silence, and I was content to simply watch them watching Omelet. They had a faraway look in their eyes, and I wondered what they were thinking about. I wondered that a lot these days. The overhead lights in the ship cast a strange, steady glow on their features, and it made the world seem very still, like everything else had stopped to admire them, too.
I cleared my throat and stood up, brushing the cat fur off my knees. I had an idea for a small prank that would get my mind off of how soft Therem looked and how warm they must be with a cat resting on them. “It's been a while since I've eaten, so I'm going to head home for the day. I'll see you tomorrow?"
Alarm shot through Therem’s expression. They looked at Omelet in dismay. I had never seen a cat look more comfortable or less inclined to move. Heo Hew and my other crewmates had been right: Sprawled across Therem's lap, Omelet did look remarkably like a puddle of runny eggs.
“Genly,” Therem began uncertainly. "Should I. . . "
I anticipated their question and said, “Probably not. When a cat sits on your lap, it means you’ve been chosen. You’re morally obligated to stay put until the cat chooses to move somewhere else. It's not unlike the untrances of the Handarra. Just empty your mind, and go with it.”
Therem’s eyes flashed in disbelief and they tried to stand up anyway. But then Omelet gave the saddest, smallest mew of protest, and Therem froze. Carefully, they sat back down and watched in dismay as Omelet burrowed deeper into the folds of their coat.
Therem and I made eye contact, and I shrugged apologetically. “I'm sorry, but I don’t make the rules,” I told them, trying to suppress a grin. “You may be stuck there for a while, probably a few hours, at the very least. But don't worry. Bonding time is important with cats, and Omelet seems so attached to you already.”
I waved at Therem and sauntered out of the room, trying to stifle laughter all the way. The last thing I heard before I rounded the corner was, “Genly, wait – “