The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. Under the Colony’s watchful eye, this utopia will be free of the humans’ penchant for violence, exploitation and religious superstition. The final step in the Colony’s war effort is transforming the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.
Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre- transformation friend — a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.
Excerpt from Robert Repino’s MORT(E)
CHAPTER 3: THE RED SPHINX
ON THE DAY he killed his master, Sebastian made his way to the city in the middle of the evacuation. There were humans everywhere: vehicles laden with luggage strapped to the roof, packed into the trunk.
Military transports carrying dead-eyed marines to the battlefront. Packs of refugees, some too dazed to be surprised by a giant cat carrying a rifle, his hand pressing down on a bleeding gash on his ribs. Soldiers setting fire to enormous anthills that had burst through concrete and asphalt.
When Sebastian saw dead animals on the side of the road, he decided to stay away from everyone. He was, after all, in enemy territory. Upon reaching the city, he took refuge in the skyscraper to recover from his fight with Daniel. The loss of blood, along with a fever from infection, forced him to rest for days. When he was strong enough to begin searching again, he found the city almost completely abandoned. That was when he encountered a new creature: an ant the size of a Volkswagen.
She marched down the sidewalk on her hind legs. Sebastian ducked behind a bus as she passed. The claws shuffled closer. Suddenly the bus shook. Sebastian spun around and aimed his rifle at the roof of the vehicle to find the ant staring down at him, her antennae like two arms trying to snatch him up. She was covered in smaller ants, all moving about her exoskeleton like flowing oil. The creature probed for a minute, stood still, then walked away.
Sebastian had several similar encounters before he came to realize that the monsters posed no threat. They were after humans, not people like him.
From his perch in the skyscraper, Sebastian concluded that he had made a mistake going this way.
He figured he could head west. However, a map of the countryside revealed that “west” was a vast realm, spreading for thousands of miles. He nearly wept when he first saw it.
As he considered his next move, a new battle broke out along the banks of the river. For weeks, an artillery division set up camp across the water and shelled the anthills. It was not safe to leave now, not with so much shrapnel and unexploded ordnance everywhere. He had already witnessed an enormous ant examining a projectile that had landed on a street corner, right next to a fire hydrant. The device exploded, vaporizing the ant and leaving a geyser from the broken pipe.
One morning, he peeked out the window to find that the ants now occupied the riverbank. The massive creatures lumbered about, acting like normal insects scouting a parcel of land. There was no sign of the humans. The ants must have lured their enemies into a trap and then devoured them before they could scream.
Sebastian wondered if Sheba had run into these same obstacles. Was she even searching for him? Was she in some high place as well, surveying the land, hoping for him to find her? Was she lonely? Was she afraid? When Sebastian thought of the terrible things that could have befallen her, death seemed like a merciful fate. But that only left him wondering why he was still alive and not her.
A week later, when the weather grew cold and the ants returned to their mounds, Sebastian decided that it was safe to head west. He would search for Sheba in the wilderness, and probably never find her, and then die somewhere, shivering.
He walked along the highway until he reached a section where the ramp had been sheared off by some fierce explosion. Metal bars that made up the skeleton of the bridge stuck out like broken bones. Sebastian climbed down, allowing himself to drop the last few feet. Once he landed, the odor of an animal filled his nostrils. His tail stood erect, and his ears shot up. A breeze took the scent away. Sebastian waited for a moment longer, then kept walking.
“Sheba,” he mumbled. He tried to mimic the way Janet would have said it, a breathless whisper. “Sheba!” he shouted. The echo returned to him. He yelled her name again and again. It felt so good to say it, even if no one could hear. But would she even know to answer to it? And how would she know his name?
He came across a crater as wide as the street. Someone had covered it with a pair of metal girders spaced far enough for the axles of a car to ride over. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, Sebastian took the left girder. “I’m coming, Sheba,” he said.
He was halfway across when he smelled the odor again. It was a cat. Two cats. Three. Someone was watching, and now he was stuck here waiting to be ambushed. Sebastian tried to swing the rifle strap off his shoulder. The girder rolled over, the metal grinding into the asphalt. To avoid tumbling from the beam, he jumped across to the other girder, only to find that it, too, was flipping over, jostled by some powerful force. He lost his footing and slipped off, plunging twelve feet and landing hard on all fours.
“No,” he heard someone say from above. Rifle in hand, Sebastian pointed his gaze upward. Silhouetted by the rising sun were five cats, all standing erect like him. Each one had a rifle, their fully formed fingers — claws and all — hovering over the triggers. They wore backpacks and belts like human soldiers. Some of the packs were almost certainly lifted from dead men.
Sebastian’s rifle grew heavier. He raised it nonetheless. The cats propped their own guns against their shoulders. They had the advantage. Even more aggravating, he realized that he had walked right into their trap. They had probably been spying on him for a while. If they were as hungry as he was, he would probably be their dinner this evening.
“You sure you want to point that at us?” one of the cats said.
“You sure you want to get in my way?” Sebastian replied.
The cats laughed, making their rifle muzzles shake. “Who does this cat think he is?” one of them asked.
“We’re not here to hurt you,” another one said. It was the one in the middle, a tall black cat, a female.
“I do not believe you,” Sebastian said.
“And you shouldn’t,” she said. “But how about you lower your rifle?”
“No,” Sebastian said. “I am not here to hurt you, either. So let me pass.”
“We want to talk to you first.”
“You just did.”
“She is my friend.”
Sebastian heard a grunt from the cat to her left, a male with black fur on his back and shoulders and white fur on his feet, like little slippers. The grunt expressed either disgust or amusement. Sebastian could not tell.
The very disciplined cats remained perfectly still. The female was the first to lower her weapon. She motioned for the others to do the same.
Sebastian kept his rifle trained on her head, right between her brilliant green eyes.
“You’re not going to return the favor?” she asked.
“No. Now step aside.”
“You really don’t have any questions for us? Aren’t you interested in hearing— ”
The black-and-white cat started laughing.
“Fine,” the female said. “But do you know what this is?” She pulled a small plastic box from her pack and held it toward him. He should have shot her right there. Before he could even come up with a guess, the cat squeezed the box like the trigger of a gun. Two wires shot from it and latched onto Sebastian’s fur.
A surge of electricity pulsed through him. His muscles locked. A screeching explosion rang in his ears, so loud that he could not tell if his rifle had even fired. A wave of stabbing knives spread out in concentric circles from where the wires had penetrated his skin. The ground seemed to rise up toward him.
And then, as always, there was merciful sleep and oblivion.
UPON WAKING, IT took Sebastian a few seconds to realize he was tied to a telephone pole. A taut nylon rope bound his arms at his sides. His tail was tied down separately, fastened to a sewer grate, either to prevent him from using it or to stop him from shimmying up the pole. He was obviously not the first cat these people had captured.
It took a few more moments to notice that the sun was on its way down. That meant he had been out for five or six hours. He may have been drugged, for he was still exhausted despite sleeping for so long. If they were going to eat him, he hoped that they would get it over with soon. The ropes were tight.
Across the street was a building with cement pillars and white steps. A courthouse? A financial institution? He could not tell because the façade had been blasted away, the front steps littered with debris. A group of cats stood on the roof like a row of gargoyles. It was the same way the giant ants stood whenever they scouted an area. Maybe these people had captured Sheba, he thought. He tried to think of something else but could not stop imagining her tied to this same pole, wondering if she would make her way back home.
IT WAS MORNING when he awoke again. His eyes were open, though still unable to focus. Something wet and cold touched his lips.
He turned his head away.
“Come on,” a voice said. “You need to eat.”
It was the black-and-white cat, the one who had snorted and chuckled at him the day before. He held a spoon to Sebastian’s lips, trying to get him to eat some tuna. A surgical mask and goggles hid the cat’s face. The rubber gloves he wore had been made for a human. They were like an ill-fitting skin on his knobby knuckles. On his left bicep was a black armband with a red circle on it. Inside the circle was a drawing of an animal Sebastian did not recognize — a cat with wings and a human face.
The row of cats remained standing on the roof of the building. The sun made their fur glisten.
“Why,” Sebastian mumbled, “why am I here?”
“That’s a rather existential question,” the cat said. He tapped the spoon to Sebastian’s lips. Sebastian finally relented and swallowed the hunk of fish. The cat scooped up another spoonful of the tuna and shoved it into Sebastian’s mouth.
Existential, Sebastian thought. The word meant nothing to him. Having to do with existence? But everything fell under that category. This cat was toying with him.
“Let me go,” Sebastian said.
“Can’t. We have to monitor you.”
“You might be infected.” The cat said this as if Sebastian were an idiot to ask.
“Infected with what?” Sebastian said, still chewing.
The cat stared at him. He tossed the can of tuna aside and turned toward the municipal building.
“He says he doesn’t know what EMSAH is!”
Atop the roof, the black cat stepped closer to the ledge. She motioned for him to continue and then folded her arms. The black-and-white cat pulled a bottle of water from his backpack and held it out. Sebastian let his tongue hang loose and lapped up the water.
“The humans infected the animals with a virus,” the cat said. “After we became smart.” He tapped his temple with his index finger. “It’s some kind of weapon. A bioweapon. The virus breaks down your vital systems. Makes you go crazy. We’re not sure how contagious it is. And there is no cure.”
Sebastian finished drinking. “I’m fine,” he said.
“People who are fine don’t camp out in the city and yell ‘Sheba’ for no reason. That sounds like EMSAH-talk to me.”
The cat considered putting the bottle into his bag. But after thinking about it, he left it beside Sebastian. “I’ll feed you again tonight,” the cat said. “If you’re not infected, then just hang on. We’ll know one way or another soon enough.”
Sebastian asked him to wait. The cat ignored him, and then he was gone. All was quiet again. The sun rolled across the sky. The other cats remained on the roof.
IT CONTINUED FOR another day. The black-and-white cat would feed him while wearing his protective gear. Then the cat would return to the safe distance of the building. Whether he was qualified as a doctor remained unclear.
Sebastian gathered more information about EMSAH. The “doctor” told him that the soldiers had recently encountered a pack of infected dogs, and they had to put the poor animals out of their misery. Unlike Sebastian, the dogs exhibited all the outward signs of the disease: foaming at the mouth, burst blood vessels in the eyes, open sores on the coat exacerbated by incessant scratching. It was that last symptom that varied from species to species — cats often scratched themselves into an unrecognizable state, sometimes even blinding themselves by clawing at their own eyes. Sebastian insisted that he had none of these symptoms.
“That’s what’s so strange,” the cat said. “You have none of the signs, yet you’re out here all alone, and you’re talking to no one. It’s like you skipped the sickness and went straight to the crazy. Can’t take any chances.”
And that, the cat said, was the most interesting part of the virus. In the final stages, it completely rewired the brain. A victim could become a catatonic zombie or a psychopath. Too often it was the latter, hence the need to put down the dogs. The cats let Sebastian live because they needed more information on the bioweapon. Any anomalies had to be recorded and studied. The entire war could depend on a single breakthrough from an unexpected source.
“Here’s the good news,” the cat said. “If you do have EMSAH, you can be my first feline vivisection. The ants usually clear out all the bodies — it’s safer that way, of course — so this will be my first chance to see the disease up close.” Sebastian ignored this, and instead imagined the dogs that had been infected. Were they walking upright? Were they lined up and shot? Was Sheba one of them?
Was he doomed to think of her every time someone mentioned a dog?
The cat asked Sebastian his name. Sebastian said that he didn’t have one.
“But you were a pet, right?” the cat asked. “I mean, your claws were chopped off. And you’re a choker.” He motioned to Sebastian’s genitalia.
Choker, Sebastian realized, must mean neutered. “I do not have a name,” he repeated.
“I’m Tiberius,” the cat said. “I was a pet, too, for a little while. But I lived on my own for couple of years before the war.”
The cat motioned to his friends, all still standing on the rooftop. “We all lived in the wild at one point,” he said. “So you can bet that Tiberius is not my slave name. I picked it for myself. If you live through this, you can pick your own name, too.”
“If I live through this,” Sebastian said.
“If you have EMSAH, you won’t want to. Trust me.” Tiberius pointed out that Sebastian’s status as a choker made him even more suspicious. Neutered animals — or any former pets, for that matter — were rumored to be more susceptible to EMSAH. It had not been confirmed, of course, but Tiberius had to be prepared for anything.
“People like us have to work extra hard to earn everyone’s trust,” Tiberius said.
“How long are you going to keep me here?”
“Until Culdesac gets back. He’s the boss.”
Sebastian asked when that would be. Tiberius said that Culdesac operated on his own time.
“He speaks for the Colony,” Tiberius said.
“The ants,” Tiberius said. “Don’t you know anything? The Queen started the war. We’re the soldiers who are helping to end it. In return, we will be in charge of the surface.”
Sebastian knew about the ants, of course, but the discarded newspapers and placards he had come across had not used the words Colony or Queen. There were only mindless hordes of rampaging insects without purpose or remorse.
“Why did the Queen start a war?” Sebastian asked.
“Because the humans are dangerous,” Tiberius said. “I’ve already told you about EMSAH. And that’s one of their smaller crimes against us. We fight them, or we die as their slaves. Maybe you could join us.”
“I mean, if I don’t end up dissecting you, of course.”
Tiberius had apparently taken too long. The black cat hissed at him, a signal to hurry up. Sebastian wondered if this cat had told him something he was not meant to know. Tiberius finished and retreated to the building.
“Hang in there, house cat,” he said.
IN THE DEAD of night, after days of wriggling his tail, Sebastian was close to freeing it from the rope that tied it to the grate. It was just in time. On that same night, he saw a human. It began with a swooping sound in the air above him, like a massive bird. Something glided across the stars — a giant triangle made out of a translucent fabric. An object dangled from the bottom of it. When it landed on a building two blocks away, Sebastian realized that the triangle was some kind of motorless aircraft piloted by a single human. The man stowed the glider behind a satellite dish. He scanned the area, holding binoculars and whispering into a communication device. Then the man was gone.
For a few hours, Sebastian allowed himself to think that this new development would somehow end up setting him free. But then he remembered what Tiberius had said. The animals were at war with the humans. The humans had given them some kind of virus. Sebastian may have already been infected without knowing it.
Sheba could have been infected.
There it was again — a thought like that jumped into his brain whenever it wanted, like a parasite, like the virus that frightened Tiberius.
Sebastian tried to squirm out of the knot, the joints cracking in his tail. Eventually the knot gave. He imagined himself as Sheba as he wagged his tail freely for the first time in days. There was no point in resisting the random memories of his old friend. She was with him no matter what.
CULDESAC ARRIVED SHORTLY after sunrise. By then, Sebastian had shimmied all the way up the pole and hovered thirty feet above the street. But he could go no farther. The cables stretching across the top prevented him from pulling the rope over. He kept fighting it, trying to loosen the bindings. It was no use. The ropes were doubled around his wrists and ankles. While he could painfully go up the pole, he could not free himself. He dug his hind claws into the wood to hold himself in place.
Culdesac met with the black cat and several of her underlings at the base of the pole. While the other cats saluted her, she saluted him. Culdesac was no mere feral — he was a bobcat, much larger than the others. He had a shimmering sandy coat flecked with black, a camouflage suited to the wilderness from which he came. His charcoal-colored ears rose like horns over his massive head. He wore the black armband along with a belt weighed down with a pistol and several devices Sebastian did not recognize.
“What are you doing up there?” Culdesac asked him.
“Ask your friends.”
“We’re holding you for your own protection,” Culdesac said.
“And for ours.”
“He’s displaying the symptoms,” the black cat whispered to him, probably knowing full well that Sebastian could still hear her.
“He doesn’t look like it,” Culdesac said.
“Delirium. Talking strange.”
“Well, you’ve had him tied up for two days.”
“Ask him about Sheba,” she said. “He was screaming her name when we found him.”
Culdesac stepped closer to the pole until he was staring straight up. “My friend,” he said, “my name is Culdesac. This is my Number One, Luna.”
The black cat nodded.
“Do not ask me my name,” Sebastian said. “I did not give it to them. I will not give it to you.”
“Fine. But how about you tell me who this Sheba is?”
This bobcat had an ease about him that Sebastian found unsettling. Culdesac could talk like a human, much like the anchorman on the looped news broadcasts. Meanwhile, Sebastian struggled to use his growing vocabulary. It was a huge disadvantage, like being tied up for a second time.
“I already explained this to your friends,” Sebastian said. “I was looking for her.”
“There hasn’t been a living thing in this city for weeks.”
“I saw one last night.”
“What does that mean?”
“I saw a human.”
A stunned silence descended on the group. The cats looked at one another. It made him feel as though he had the power somehow, despite being a prisoner.
“That’s impossible,” one of them said.
“Where did you see the human?” Culdesac asked.
“He flew in on some kind of . . . triangle.”
“I told you,” Luna said, laughing. “We need to put this animal down. Before it spreads.”
It was a line Sebastian had read somewhere among the books he had found. Put him down. She had stolen it from a human.
Luna seemed pleased with herself until she noticed Culdesac glaring at her.
“‘This animal’ is one of us,” he said.
“There are no humans left here,” Culdesac said to Sebastian. “The ants chased them away. We were about to rendezvous with the rest of the army on the other side of the river. Then we found you.”
“I am not stopping you,” Sebastian said.
Culdesac and Luna exchanged glances.
“Wait,” a voice said. It was Tiberius, forcing his way past the others to get to Culdesac. “I know what you’re thinking. We can’t leave him here.”
“You’re right,” Luna said. “That’s why we’re going to put him down. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“Sir,” Tiberius said to Culdesac. “We can’t do that, either.”
“Yes, listen to Tiberius,” Sebastian said.
Tiberius winced at this. The others, meanwhile, burst into laughter.
“What did you say?” Culdesac asked.
“I said listen to him,” Sebastian said.
“No, what did you call him?”
They laughed again.
“Tell them your real name,” Culdesac ordered.
Shamed, Tiberius steadied himself. “Socks,” he mumbled. This provoked more jeers and catcalls.
“You see,” Culdesac said to Sebastian, “you have to earn your new name to be a part of the Red Sphinx.”
“What is a Red Sphinx?” Sebastian asked.
“We are the Red Sphinx,” Culdesac said, pointing to his armband.
“We’re stray cats using our skills to fight for the Queen. We love killing humans.”
There were chuckles at this, along with a few approving nods.
“But Socks here thinks he doesn’t deserve to be called by his slave name anymore,” Culdesac said.
“I do not care about your Red Sphinx,” Sebastian said. “Are any of you listening to me? I said there were humans out there.”
“I believe him,” Tiberius said.
“Shut up,” Luna said. Then, turning to Culdesac, she said, “Sir, we have to make a decision here. We’re already late meeting up with the rest of the — ”
“We’re staying here,” Culdesac said. Before Luna could reply, he added,
“Orders have changed. We’re expected to report unusual activity.”
“But there’s nothing here.”
Culdesac responded by gazing up at Sebastian.
“Him?” she asked.
“Monitor his progress,” Culdesac said. “Socks wanted to take notes on EMSAH. Let him do it.”
Tiberius perked up.
“We’re on the front lines of this EMSAH outbreak,” Culdesac said. “We need to know what it can do. I expect reports on his condition every six hours.”
“Do you think there are humans out there?” Luna asked.
“I hope so,” Culdesac said as he began to walk toward the building. “I haven’t had a decent meal in a while.”
“Sir, may I ask where you’re going?”
“If it’s been as quiet as you say it has, then I’d like to get some sleep for once.”
The members of the Red Sphinx were left waiting at the foot of the pole.
“We can’t feed you while you’re up there, you know,” Luna said.
“I did not ask you to,” Sebastian replied.
Annoyed, Luna went back to the stone building. The others marched behind her, with Tiberius bringing up the rear. He took one last glimpse at
Sebastian before disappearing through the doorway.
FOR THE NEXT twelve hours, Sebastian rocked the telephone pole back and forth. At first it was out of sheer boredom and frustration. From the top, he had the leverage to shift the pole only a few inches. The movement made the roof of the stone building bob up and down in his vision. The yellow-green eyes of the cats moved along with it. Once in a while, Culdesac joined the others, towering over them. Luna would sometimes stand next to him. When they both folded their arms in unison, Sebastian counted it as a small victory.
Right on schedule, Tiberius arrived with more food. “Come on, stop that,” he said. Sebastian continued to rock the pole, feeling it move slightly more each time.
“They’re talking about shooting you,” Tiberius said. “Luna really thinks you’ve lost it. Late-stage EMSAH.”
Sebastian did not respond.
“Culdesac overruled her,” Tiberius said. “It’s a good thing the boss got here in time. Luna would have asked me to kill you. It probably would have earned me my name. But I wouldn’t have liked it.”
Sebastian picked up the pace, grunting as he shifted his weight.
“I can’t promise that this food will still be here in another hour,” Tiberius said. “Everyone’s wondering why we’re even giving you anything.”
He waited a full minute for a response, during which time he examined the base of the pole.
Apparently content that Sebastian was making no significant progress, Tiberius told him to shout when he was ready to eat. Then he left.
WITH EACH INHALE, Sebastian pressed his body against the unforgiving wood. It tipped backward, pointing his face directly at the blue sky, where the clouds congealed and spread out toward the east. And then, with his exhale, he thrust his chest forward, his flesh and fur digging into the ropes, forcing the pole to dip far enough for him to look down at the asphalt and the plate of food on the sidewalk. The sight of it shriveled his empty stomach. Then he heard it, and felt it: a slight crack, like Daniel popping his knuckles at the dinner table. That one sound, vibrating through his spine, cured him of his hunger. He moved faster now, shoving his body side to side rather than front to back. This caused the pole to move in an ever-widening circle. There were other cracks, sometimes followed by a dull groan as the wood began to yield. All the cats were watching now. The bobcat’s hands rested on his hips. The spinning made Sebastian vomit onto his coat. A line of saliva and bile hung from his mouth and whiskers. Still, his eyes remained fixed on the Red Sphinx. They would not stop him from finding Sheba.
The sun began to go down. The gold-and-purple world continued to sway to and fro.
IT WAS THE middle of the night when Sebastian noticed a bright red dot dancing on the side wall of the building like a glowing ruby. The dot was from a light of some kind. Sebastian followed the beam until he spotted the human again, perched on a nearby roof. He had switched positions to a hospital farther down the street. The man stood behind a tripod, which propped up a device that focused the dot onto the building. If there had been a fog, the red light would have been noticeable. Only Sebastian was in a position to see it.
He imagined the man as his former master, somehow still alive, using this alien technology to plot his revenge under the cover of night.
With his strength renewed, Sebastian continued to shake the pole until his wrists and shoulders burned from the friction. The wires connecting the other poles rippled with each movement. He was so engrossed in it that he did not notice at first when some of the cats gathered at the base of the pole. All of them had guns. Luna and Culdesac stood at the front. Sebastian kept at it. Maybe one more motion will snap this thing, he thought. Maybe then he could scramble away.
“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be,” Culdesac said.
“We just want to talk. To find out what’s wrong with you.”
“I am tied to a pole,” Sebastian said. “That is what is wrong.”
“Come on down.”
Sebastian searched the rooftops for the human again. The tripod and its device were still in place. The man must have been hiding.
“I see . . .” Sebastian said.
“I see a human.”
“Captain,” Luna said.
“Where?” Culdesac asked.
“He’s watching us,” Sebastian said.
Now there was an audible creak of the wood, loud enough to make a few of the cats flinch. It was then that Sebastian made out Tiberius, standing behind the others.
“Captain, we can’t let this go on any further,” Luna said. “I’m begging you — ”
Culdesac’s paw shot out and grabbed Luna’s snout, holding her mouth shut.
“Shut up,” he said. “Listen.”
The cats were uneasy now. A second later, Sebastian figured out why. There was a buzzing noise in the distance, growing louder, echoing off the buildings. Something was approaching through the air.
“The human pointed a light at your headquarters, Captain,” Sebastian said.
Culdesac let go of Luna and gazed at the building. Suddenly his entire body stiffened, his tail standing up. “Sergeant!” he screamed. “Sergeant!”
A cat peered over the side of the building.
“Get your people out of there now!” Culdesac said.
The cat and his companions ran to the stairway. Meanwhile, the ones surrounding Culdesac tensed up, awaiting his next order.
“Move!” he said. “Take cover behind that building!”
“Incoming!” someone screamed. Several others repeated it.
“Leave it, let’s go!”
The bobcat looked up to Sebastian. “I’m sorry,” Culdesac said.
And then he ran with the others.
The buzzing was getting louder, growing into a full roar, a thunderstorm.
Sebastian rocked the pole forward. Then the momentum reversed. Sebastian put all his strength into it, letting out a scream, lifting his shoulders into the wood. The sky scrolled through his field of vision before stopping at the horizon behind him, the pole bending as far as it could go. It remained there, the wood splintering. And then, like bones shattering, the pole broke, rattling his skeleton. The wood cracked, creaked, groaned, until Sebastian felt himself in free fall. The wires popped free from the top, snapping upward with a loud thwoop. He landed on his back, feeling his teeth clack together with the impact. Upside down at a forty-five-degree angle, Sebastian worked his way to the top of the pole, now partially implanted into a patch of grass. Once he pulled the first loop over the top, the entire knot fell apart like a shedding cocoon. He freed his legs, his arms, his tail, feeling the blood again and the air through his fur.
The buzzing sound was deafening now. Stiffly, Sebastian ran toward the building where the human had camped out. An object streaked across the sky. The municipal building erupted in a ball of flame and smoke. Windows of the nearby buildings burst open like a million discordant bells. The shock of the blast sent the sidewalk leaping up at Sebastian. Broken glass landed on the pavement around him, tinkling on the street like tiny diamonds.
Shouting echoed throughout the street. Amidst the rubble, Culdesac called out to his people to see who was still alive. The fire lit up a snowfall of ash.
Sebastian heard footsteps. Not padded cats’ feet, but human boots. Lifting his head from the cement, he saw the human running through the intersection. Sebastian got to his feet and sprinted after him. The human had a walkie-talkie held to his ear and was frantically shouting code words. He did not hear Sebastian pursuing him until it was too late. Sebastian tackled him, slamming him to the ground so that the man’s body skidded across the concrete. Sebastian gripped the man’s oily hair and pulled his head up.
“Who are you?” Sebastian said.
“Lord,” the man said.
“Lord, forgive these wretched creatures,” the man said in a sobbing voice.
“They know not what they do.”
Sebastian could not get enough of the man’s smell. It was so much like Daniel. Even though this man was his enemy — able to summon fiery death from the heavens — Sebastian wanted nothing more than to lose himself in the scent of the past, of deodorant and sweat and bad breath and coffee and cigarettes. Something inside him would always be broken, would always long for dead friends and capricious masters and a phony slave life.
Before Sebastian could say anything, the Red Sphinx had arrived. They formed a circle around the human.
“Good job, No-Name,” Culdesac said from somewhere in the crowd. “I think you’re cured.”
“He’s clean,” another voice said.
“Let us take over from here,” Culdesac said. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?”
Sebastian wanted to ask the man more questions — about what was out there, about why this had happened. About any dogs he may have seen wandering about. But the man continued reciting his incantations. He was in some kind of trance, speaking to people who were not there.
Sebastian stood up. The cats’ guns were still raised, but Sebastian was so tired, hungry, and sore that it did not seem important if they decided to shoot him.
“Can you hear me, human?” Culdesac asked. The man kept rambling, pretending that he could not see any of them. “You just lit your own barbecue,” the bobcat said, motioning to the smoldering building.
“This animal may still be symptomatic, Captain,” Luna said. “We may still need to put him down. I recommend we — ”
“Luna,” Culdesac interrupted.
“You are relieved of command. You’re no longer my Number One.”
Her rifle lowered a bit. “Yes, sir,” she said.
“Take three soldiers,” Culdesac instructed. “Prepare our feast.”
Luna and two other cats dragged the man away. Plumes of vapor extended from their nostrils. “No-Name,” Culdesac called. Sebastian eyed him. Culdesac seemed to like this defiant body language. “We talk now,” Culdesac said. “You and I.”
CULDESAC AND SEBASTIAN walked along the waterfront. The moon reflected off the water, sending shafts of light into the sky and turning Culdesac’s face into a silver jack-o’-lantern.
The odor of roasting meat wafted toward them, occasionally interrupted by the breeze blowing along the river. Tangy and thick and delicious, it lingered in Sebastian’s mouth and nostrils.
“You’ll have to indulge me,” Culdesac said. “I grew up eating rats and grubs. Raw. And now the Colony is supplying us with protein rations from their organic farms. They do the job, but they’re boring. Cooked human meat has become a delicacy for me.”
Sebastian nodded to show that he understood. He was still unsure if he would partake in the meal, no matter how hungry he was.
“You’re a house cat,” Culdesac said. “A house slave. Locked away from all of this. So you must be wondering: why all the destruction?”
“It’s because the humans are dangerous,” Culdesac said. “And I don’t just mean their technology or their plague. It’s their philosophy. It’s poison.”
“You must have observed it,” Culdesac said.
A concrete railing separated them from the river. A breeze disturbed the water.
“I suppose,” Sebastian said.
“These humans,” Culdesac said, “they’ve placed themselves at the center of the universe. You and I could have a mate, with a brood of kittens, roaming about the hilltops as nature intended. And the humans would consider it a nuisance to be terminated. The Queen fixed all that. We owe her everything.”
“Why did the Queen do this to us?” Sebastian asked.
“We are her experiment,” Culdesac said, extending his arms to illustrate the magnitude of it all. “Everything she does is in pursuit of knowledge. Of truth. She chose to raise us up so that we could replace the humans. She guides us while letting us choose our own destinies.”
“How will we be any different from the humans?”
“Well,” Culdesac said scratching an itch on the side of his neck, “in a lot of ways, we’ll be the same. We can’t live exactly as we did before, killing one another for food and land. We’re going to have a society very similar to what the humans wanted. We’ll have houses and jobs. We’ll raise families. We’ll even watch television, once the electricity gets turned on again. But there will be one difference.” Culdesac allowed for a pause. Sebastian felt the tension build.
“We won’t think that this world is ours alone.”
“Is that what the humans really believe?” Sebastian asked.
“It’s worse than that,” Culdesac said. “Many of them believe that there is a human in the sky, an old man with a beard. He made the earth a garden for them. And he made us their slaves. You must have noticed your masters chanting to this old man, asking him for favors and trinkets.”
Sebastian told Culdesac about Janet whispering to no one.
“They believe that there is another world waiting for them when they die,” Culdesac said. “Of course, not all of them think this way. And even among those that do, there are many who do not take it seriously. But the belief has corrupted all of them. I’ve seen this evil up close. I’ve seen what a human can do when he is cornered and praying to his god for deliverance. There is nothing more dangerous. Nothing more cruel. More animal.”
Culdesac allowed this to settle. In the distance, there was muffled laughter from the Red Sphinx as the human carcass turned on a spit over the fire.
“That is why we fight,” Culdesac whispered. “To reclaim a land overcome with evil. The evil of men who believe that they are our rulers, men who cannot be reasoned with. Who are insane enough to spread a disease so dangerous that it could wipe out everything, including themselves, all to please a father in the clouds who doesn’t exist. We don’t need a god because we have the Queen. And she doesn’t make promises that she cannot keep. She doesn’t ask us to worship her. She merely asks for us to live in peace, to live for today and for one another.”
Culdesac asked Sebastian if he knew what cats had been like thousands of years earlier. Sebastian said that he knew enough about evolution to understand that felines had once been much larger, and that they had lived in the wild.
“Before the humans seduced and kidnapped us,” Culdesac explained, “we were hunters. We saw the world as predators. It is our way. The humans wanted to turn us into their little slave dolls. But the ants — they are hunters like us. I’ve seen them stalking the plains, an army acting as one. They see freedom in the hunt, the way our people once did. They are our liberators and our natural allies. That is why we fight. We fight for our future and for the generations that were lost.”
“I cannot join you,” Sebastian said. “I have to find my friend.”
“Nothing could survive out here for long,” Culdesac said. “I’ve been at this for longer than you know. I’m sorry, but your friend is almost certainly dead.”
“I have to find out.”
“But you’re both different now. You don’t have to hold on to these things anymore.”
“I am not that different,” Sebastian said. “This is what I want. It is what I promised.”
“What if I were to tell you that the reason why we waited to see if you had EMSAH was because the Queen herself told us to do so?”
Sebastian tilted his head, incredulous.
“The Queen sees everything,” Culdesac said. “Even a lost house cat. She knows who you are. She knows that you were meant to fight. With us.”
“How do you know this?”
“I speak to the Colony,” Culdesac said. “Which means I speak to the Queen.”
“They gave me a special device, actually,” Culdesac said. “It allows me to interpret their chemical signal. And it converts my voice into their language. Perfect communication, if you can master it. I’ll show it to you one day.”
“You’ve seen her, then?”
“Not exactly,” Culdesac said. “The collective knowledge of the Colony flows through their chemical signals. If you communicate with one ant, you communicate with them all. It’s a giant loop of information, constantly updated, constantly corrected. And they know about you. As they know about me. And Luna. And Socks.”
“I am no good to you as a soldier,” Sebastian said.
“Listen,” Culdesac said. “I’m sorry about your friend. But there is more to your life than your little patch of sunlight.”
Sebastian could not hide his emotions upon hearing this. Culdesac, meanwhile, nodded in approval. Somehow this bobcat and his insect friends had intercepted this dream, hijacked it. That was the moment Sebastian died. There had been a time when he understood that people would go away. Now the person he was had gone away. He was trapped in this present with these strangers who already seemed to know who he was, and who he was going to be.
Culdesac continued to speak about the Red Sphinx, about the difficult days ahead. Perhaps, Culdesac said, once the war was over, Sebastian could continue his search. Or maybe in their travels they would come across a lonely dog also searching for a lost friend. There was still plenty of living to do, regardless of what had happened to Sheba, or how far away she was. Sebastian would have to keep going, no matter how tired he was, or how hurt, or sad, or alone.
“You have a choice,” Culdesac said, “but you don’t really have a choice. Whatever you want to do, you can’t do it alone. We can be your family.”
Another warm breeze laced with the charred odor of the dead man filled Sebastian’s nostrils.
He told Culdesac that he would join him.
“Excellent,” Culdesac said. “Now what shall we call you?”