The cat slowly settled on the deck floor in the brightly lit room. Stretching his long body, he let out a giant yawn. Like his human companions, he was groggy and felt slightly sick from the remnants of the chemicals lingering in his system. Reviving from cryo-sleep was an unpleasant thing, and it always put him in a standoffish mood. One of the humans shuffled by and without considering the consequences, in spite of his temper, attempted to give him an affectionate scratch behind the ears. Had the show of fondness come from anyone else other than the female he had grown attached to, they would have earned themselves a nasty scratch soon not to be forgotten. Tired of socializing and eager to be rid of the lingering effect of the "long sleep," he stood with his tail held high and exited the large cryo-vault that housed the flower-shaped hypersleep modules.
Over the following day, he re-familiarized himself with the three levels of the large vessel that had been his home for most of his life. Like the human's that occupied the ship, he too had responsibilities and duties, and like his counterparts, he took his business very seriously. For there were other places besides the vessel's bridge and engineering level that needed tending, places too small for a man to fit. The narrow and dark shafts and ducts underneath and between the decks were under his charge. They were his to patrol, and his to guard.
To the outside eye, it may seem rather odd and out of place to allow a cat to roam free on a star freighter. One may question the logic of such a practice or attribute it to one of those peculiar habits space truckers are known for. Maybe it was simply a means to distract the lonely and homesick crew and keep their spirits high during long hauls. No, the ship's mascot served a particular purpose and was assigned to this ship, just like every other freighter, cargo ship, or transport in active duty with flight plans requiring cryostasis for its crew. In fact, in recent years, ICC regulations now mandated that every commissioned star freighter, Class C through Class M, were required to be equipped with a ship’s mascot, Gen. 3A to t Gen. 4. Now, one may wonder how such a strange directive came to be. It was actually quite simple and not so far-fetched as one may think.
In this modern age, humanity's demand for resources had quickly exceeded what our little world could render. The realization that the Earth was not an endless source of fuel came frightfully sudden upon humanity. There was no other option than to look to the stars and dreamed of the vast riches that must be out there. With some ingenuity and lots of money, we slowly and aggressively pushed our reach further out into the unexplored frontiers of space. However, this charge into the unknown wasn't led by the governments of the world. It was the powerful and wealthy, global corporations that conquered the vastness of space.
Soon, our small Solar system was ours to plunder, but to our dismay, we learned that it was meager and less than adequate. Humanity's aspirations shifted its attention even further out into the void. Our system may have been lacking, but there were others nearby rich in minerals and ores. Sprinkled across the universe, brave new worlds, planets, and asteroids ripe for commercialization would be found. Waiting in solitary orbits were isolated and untouched planetoids and moons overflowing with infinite possibilities for interstellar commerce. In preparation for our eventual arrival, probes and eventually automated compact mining units were sent ahead of us by decades to survey the remote systems and establish rudimentary outposts. In the meantime, we developed new technology, constructed shipyards and humanity began to learn how to travel among the stars.
In the beginning, the large corporations faced many obstacles in establishing this new frontier. The advancement of new technologies was vital to creating a profitable and lucrative business model. This included breakthroughs in propulsion, life support systems, energy consumption, inertial and gravitational controls and so on and so on. Most importantly, the vessels needed the capability to travel immense distances in short periods while transporting and refining tons of cargo. All of these challenges were confronted and overcome. Man's reach slowly extended out further and further. Humanity celebrated their well-deserved accomplishments and continued to push forward, unaware of the unseen stowaways that flourished in secret alongside their larger companions.
In under twenty-seven years, the Thedus-Antartica shipping lane had been established along the Outer Rim of the Core Systems. The resource-rich system was located fifty-nine light-years away in the Epsilon Reticuli System. Although the sophisticated sub-light engines significantly lessened the flight times, reaching mining and docking stations still required significant time by human standards. Supercomputers equipped with Multi-Utility-Task-Hyper-Recursive processors made high-speed navigation possible where pinpoint accuracy and split-second course corrections could mean the difference between life and death. The ever-watchful computer monitored its hull and meticulously cared for her crew like an overly protective mother. In fact, she was so efficient that during this stage of the journey, the crew was more of an interference than a benefit to her. Little was left for her crew to do or pass the time.
Then there were the extreme g-forces from accelerating to such speeds to consider. The massive weight from a velocity just below the speed of light was intense and capable of crushing a human body instantly. The corporate number-crunchers frowned at the costs of retrofitting the hulls of each ship with thick and expensive shielding and installing powerful inertial dampeners within its decks.
Research in Hyper Sleep yielded the answer to this dilemma. It soon became standard practice for the crew to enter hibernation capsules that induced a state of suspended animation as a means of enduring the long hauls. Only the section that housed the small hibernation vault required the inertial shielding to shelter the crew from the severe G-forces. The vessel would power down. The halls and corridors darkened, and equipment and systems came to a stop. The air thinned, and the ship was alone and unwatched. That was when they came out, free and unhindered to claim their lands— the vermin.
Alongside the spread of humanity into the stars, came their filth, waste, and garbage. The pests and vermin who thrived in these conditions of squalor found their promised land within the tugboats, mining facilities, outposts, docking stations, relay communication hubs, and military deployment command centers.
Infestations were not an uncommon sight for commercial tug ships in those days. Regulations were lax and rarely enforced. Surprisingly, the design engineers were baffled these small creatures could even survive the extreme forces encountered from a ship's sub-light acceleration and decelerations. They should have been crushed and smothered against the bulkheads. They were not.
Even though life support was powered down, the complete evacuation of the environment in such large vessels was not possible and not to mention, not economical. Still, the thin air should have hindered the little beast's activities. It did not. Space travel seemed to have an odd effect on the animals. They flourished. Not only did they prosper, but they adapted rather well to the harsh conditions of interstellar flight. They developed powerful circulatory and pulmonary systems. The little beastie's muscle mass increased, and bones became as durable and flexible as the most advanced polymer.
Initially, little was done if a ship reported a vermin infestation on its decks. Again, the company executives frowned at any expenditure that eroded their profit margin; such as the full extermination and continuous pest control expenses of their fleet and facilities. It was rare to see an approved requisition for an extermination request, and the filthy stowaways eventually became just an unfortunate reality of life in space. Before the Shotwell disaster, bribes and payoffs were more than adequate for the regulatory agencies to turn a blind eye to the problem.
The USCSS Shotwell exploded just outside the Beta-Prime Reticuli System in 2117 A.D. The detonation of the ship's main reactor destroyed both cargo and crew. Analysis of the recovered flight recorder from the wreckage indicated critical failures of many of the ship's primary and secondary systems, including the reactor's cooling system controls.
With the investigation concluded and the outcome buried deep within the high-security vaults and mainframes, business went on as normal. Things changed in 2119 when the buried failure analysis was leaked to the public by an innovative and skilled hacking organization. The public was outraged to learn the destruction of the USCSS Shotwell was the result of severe internal damage to several of its primary system's conduit housings that held the complex and fragile circuitry wiring. People were horrified and enraged to learn the sensitive network of vital wires and modules that ran within the walls and decks shared space with massive populations of rodents and pests.
Again, the company executives frowned at the costs of the elaborate deterrent systems needed for each of its vessels. An adequate pest control system was expensive and intricate. It needed its own dedicated AI to be effective; the days of simple mouse traps and poisons were a thing of the past. It required sophisticated, motion detection sensors, pinpoint accurate laser targeting, and networked drones capable of complex maneuvering and tracking abilities.
Dr. Souveir was a man known for keeping an ear on everything. In the midst of having his well-funded research project shut done for lack of practical application, these events were seen as a rare opportunity. Within days, he stood before CEOs and board of directors to propose the F.E.L.I.N.E. program.
The project found its origins from other highly guarded initiatives, never publically disclosed. However, it was not uncommon in those days for corporations to engage in underground biogenetics using unethical bioengineering practices. As long as the potential for profit could be argued, ethical and moral research practices did not restrain the scope of research and development. As for the F.E.L.I.N.E. program, it was hinted at possible military involvement, but eventually, the project was put on hold in the early stages of embryonic testing.
Dr. Souveir proposed to the board of directors a plan to introduce one of his specimens into the ship's corridors, a genetically modified member of the Felis catus Felis species. Relying heavily on the boasts of his inexpensive manufacturing process of high-quality designer animals, he mesmerized the chairmen like the car salesmen of old. He sold them with claims of a product adapted to space travel, engineered with enhanced intelligence, and endowed with superior sensory capability, and increased stamina. It was the perfect solution. Everything the environmental pest control systems had to offer was contained within these small creatures for a fraction of the cost.
The F.E.L.I.N.E. program launched with immense success. The feline product was given full access to the ship during all standard operating periods such as departures, inter-flight active duty, docking approaches, and any other times that crew revival was required. A single feline was capable of keeping an entire ship clear of vermin. If any rodent dared to step foot on the decks of a ship patrolled by a product of the F.E.L.I.N.E. program, it would be dealt with swiftly and efficiently. It wasn't long before every ship was assigned its own F.EL.I.N.E. to serve as mascot and custodian to its long and dark corridors.
The ship rested on the surface of the small and barren planetoid. For the past fourteen hours, its hull was battered by massive gusts of wind carrying debris from a hostile and cold atmosphere. Within its pressurized walls, the cat sat on a cushion in one of the several lounging cubicles in the galley. He was mindful of every nook and corner of the mess hall. He was nervous about all the recent activity. The humans were on edge too. He could tell. The rough landing on the planetoid's surface shook and rocked the ship and ended with explosions, smoke, and alarms. He had had enough of this disruption to his routine. He retreated to module twelve on C-level to try to take a nap in his secret, safe spot.
He sensed it even before he had completely awoken from his slumber. It confused him at first. Something had entered his territory. He felt it with his finely tuned senses. The sensation seared his nerves. It tingled with a strange vibration; so unfamiliar to him, so alien; yet he knew it was dangerous and an enemy.
It was absent of scent, and its presence flickered in and out of awareness; still, it aggravated his senses so persistently. He rose slowly. His ears flattened, and he dashed into one of the ship's networks of service shafts installed just for him. These passageways allowed him to gain access to anywhere he needed to go to perform his duties.
He poked his head out into the staging area of the main airlock. A commotion had caught his attention. He felt the irregular presence even more intensely here but could not see anything. The source of this intruder continued to evade him, in spite of its proximity. He watched as the hatch to the inner airlock slid open and the humans rushed in to help one of their companions. He seemed to be injured. The cat's focus studied each person in the airlock passageway. Something was wrong with one of them, but he saw nothing that would trigger his senses so harshly. He hunted and searched with the skill second to none. There was no doubt; something was on the ship (his ship). Something was hiding from him; something very good at hiding.
Suddenly, it was gone; it snapped into nothingness as if it were never there. It was as if the intruder needed time to adapt to its new environment and adjust its ability to cloak itself. The cat had missed his opportunity. The presence had disappeared, leaving the cat confused and uncertain.
The next day, the cat continued his constant prowling of the ship's decks. Exiting an upper-level observation station he froze when the presence once again erupted into his awareness. In the distance, he could hear the panicked cries from the others, intermixed with a scream of agony. He sprinted towards the sounds at full speed. It was time to deal with this mysterious intruder.
He flew past his crewmates, barely taking notice of the stunned looks of horror each one had plastered on their bloodied faces. The galley was coated in a thick layer of blood and viscera. It had sprayed out in all directions from the body sprawled out across the table. Squirts of bloodshot up into the air from torn arteries and blood vessel from the massive hole in the man's chest. His body and face were still contorted in agony from the last moments of his life. The cat followed the large pools of blood and entrails the creature had dragged out of the body when it made its quick exit. He followed the gory trail to an opening of a small service shaft. The cat paused. Adrenaline pumped into his bloodstream. Every nerve in his sleek and slender body was on fire, and he entered the dark shaft.
The hunt had begun.
Three levels down, the cat slowly entered the partially opened hatch. The "C" Level equipment maintenance area contained rows of old and battered equipment stacked on partially assembled machinery. Dripping water from the coolant system fell from above and echoed over the deep, rhythmic hum of the massive engine drive. The cat walked under the erratic "cling, cling" of chains slightly swaying from the upper level. So many sounds called out, but the silence underneath overwhelmed them all.
The cat took in the environment and was aware of the tiniest of sounds. As a skilled hunter, he could feel and see everything all around, for it vibrated the air like an insect struggling in a spider web. The reverberations caused ripples of color to form waves that expanded out creating shapes and scents and sounds. They were vibrant colors that the man never knew existed and would never be able to see. To the cat, it was a familiar sight and gave him vast amounts of information about his surroundings.
The cat walked behind the rows of shadowed equipment, following the sound, looking for its source. His whiskers were long and rigid; capable of detecting micro-changes in air density from the minutest of movements.
The maintenance compartment ended at a short service tunnel connected to a massive room that housed one of the ship's retracted landing gears. The condensation from the engine's heat fell like a light rain. Large, dirty and oily gears and servos lined the chamber walls with a myriad of thick and ribbed cables interwoven throughout the machinery. The landing gear stood tall in the center of the room, cradled by filthy jointed arms of several undercarriage support struts. In the corner annex, movement from an unusual shape caught the cat’s keen eyes. Coiled in a ball, it sat within a groove of the lower portion of the landing gear.
The cat froze and flattened himself to the ground. His piercing yellow eyes, studied the beast from bottom to top, looking for any weakness or advantage.
The creature was thin but long like a cobra. Its skin was still moist and glistened from coats off congealed blood from its former host. It had no legs, and it had no eyes, but two small arms with hands of needle-like fingers were at its side. Its long, slender body appeared soft, but it was lined with bulges and striations, revealing it was simply one long and powerful muscle from the tip of tail to the fang of mouth.
Instinct had always been the cat's ally. It provided him with instruction on how to hunt and fight. It told him what to fear and when to attack. For the first time, it was silent, and the cat was afraid. However, the fear lasted only moments, for it is nearly impossible to scare a true feline into inaction. It was his business in life to watch over his territory without consideration to the manner of the trespasser or how alien the creature.
He knew what needed to be done. He knew where he must strike. His jump and his bite must be perfect. It was its back he must break. But he must be careful. He could smell poison in its veins of such toxic and noxious concentrations he feared even a single drop would mean his death. His bite must be powerful and precise, but not directed and the delicate flesh under its jaw. No, his strike must land on the back of its head where the skull meets its backbone.
The monster was still and coiled in a corner over a container of old and dirty tools and equipment. Its abdomen was heaving deeply until it regurgitated a straw-colored, viscous mucus over the objects. The thick, sap-like fluid slowly ran down the surface of the objects and onto the floor. Wispy streams of smoke begun to rise from the glistening coat of slime that covered the metal and plastic objects. Gradually, the objects began to melt away and collapse as the atomic bonds of the material shattered and separated.
The snake-like creature lowered its head into the smoking pit and began to ingest dark sludge. The time to attack was at hand! This was the moment to strike! Every muscle in the feline's body tensed. Muscle fibers pulled and contracted, building up as much energy as possible. He pushed off the ground, releasing an explosion of speed. The cat hurled his body through the air and launched himself towards the unsuspecting beast. The whole of his attention, the entirety of his being focused on one spot; on one target—the base of the creature's skull.
The cat bit down hard on the leathery skin and kicked hard with his hind legs against its lower back. The loud, satisfying snaps of vertebrae separating and shattering should have rung out. It did not. The creature gave a high pitched scream of pain as it rolled and thrashed violently to the side, taking the cat with it. As the two tumbled and crashed into equipment, its slender body wrapped itself around the cat's body and squeezed.
The loud snapping of the cat's ribs and femurs from the constricting of the creature’s thick body should have rung out. It too did not. Although the creature was incredibly strong with the ability to shatter a human’s sternum, it had not realized the power of the cat’s blow. It had not been in vain and had inflicted injury on the beast. Hindered, the creature's ability to constrict itself was significantly lessened. It hissed as it used what strength it could muster to the squeeze the reaming air out of the cat's lungs.
The cat’s chest burned from lack of oxygen. With his mouth still firmly clamped onto the beast’s hide, he couldn’t even let out a growl of frustration. The two adversaries were at a stalemate. It was only a matter of whose will was stronger and whose necessity was greater: the cat's need for breath or the creature's desire to overcome its injury and kill. Misfortune had entered the game, and its gaze fell upon the cat, for when a slight burn began to emerge in the cat's mouth, he had no other choice but to relent and release his bite from the creatures hide. If he had not, he would get a mouthful of its toxic and acidic blood from the wound.
The cat continued to kick with all his might, each landing hard against the creature's injured spine, but each blow became weaker. With the last of his strength, he kicked off the floor giving him the leverage to twist his center of gravity and reposition himself as they crashed into shelving and containers. Under the rain of tools and spare parts, the cat now had his full body weight pressed down on the abdomen and head of the long creature still wrapped around his torso. The cat pushed down hard, violently expelling the air out the beast. It tried to scream but found it could not. Its struggles became more pronounced; it did not like this change in superiority. To the cat’s surprise, the creature released its grip and quickly uncoiled its body. Instantly, it disengaged from the cat's torso and zipped into a cluttered panel littered with wires and conduits. It scurried up the wall and emerged overhead on top of a support strut. It perched high above, looking down on the grated floor. It glanced longingly at its slurry crater of the melted material then glared back at his foe. Before disappearing into the dark shaft above, it gave a long and furious shriek of hate and anger towards the cat.
The cat looked up into the air duct shafts within the steel framework where the corpulent tail had disappeared. He stood and fixated on the dark openings with perfect stillness, a trait not obtained from the modifications or tinkering of a lab. This was the work of millions of years of evolution and natural selection.
It was still up there. Although he could not understand the concepts or ponder over this strange creature's biology; the cat knew it was rapidly changing. It was growing. Even now, its presence was quickly fading from the cat's awareness. His senses were designed to hunt and track prey, and it was becoming something that nature dictated was no longer prey to him. However, the cat was wise enough to understand the change in perspective did not go both ways. It would most definitely hunt him down and kill him if it so desired.
The cat also was aware that something else had changed; his gaze broke from the upper levels and now peered at the slurry mess of metallic sludge left behind. The expelled enzymes from within the creature had run its course, no longer smoking or sizzling. The little beast had been feeding. It only had the opportunity for maybe one or two mouthfuls before its feeding was interrupted.
It was growing now. Soon, when it emerges from its metamorphosis in its adult form, some will be stunned by its greatness. It might be admired for its purity and structural perfection, matched only by its hostility. Others might hold admiration for its unclouded conscience and envy its nature. A nature devoid of remorse or delusions of morality. And some may even go so far as to say without a doubt, it was the "perfect organism". They would be wrong. It will not be "perfect". Yes, it will be powerful, but only a mere shadow of what it was meant to be.
In considering this beast, one must look at the "nature" of Nature herself. She is precise, elegant, and full of ingenuity. She has endless variety at her disposal. She is also mad, malicious, and insane with tendencies to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering upon those who are unable to adapt to her ever-changing moods. She is capable of extreme and pointless acts of violence, and destruction upon her creations. All must love her, respect her, and fear her. Now, if such an entity did exist in some tangible persona and it poured all its rage and insanity into one organism, it might have looked something like this creature. Nevertheless, in all its potential for perfection and greatness, one requirement hand not been satisfied. It must feed before its final metamorphosis into adulthood.
It had failed. The window of opportunity to consume the available nutrients from its surroundings was narrow and could not be missed. It had been given the enzymes capable of breaking down any type of metallurgic matter at the atomic level into nutrient-dense molecules. This would fuel its rapid growth and provide nourishment during this critical time of development. Unable to do this, the creature would enter the metamorphosis in a nutrient-deficient state, severely impairing its development and growth.
Instead of a body that could move in complete silence with stealth and grace, it would now be slow and awkward in shape and form. A black, armored exoskeleton of razors, harder than the steel of the ship's bulkhead would be soft and easily bruised with a sickly green hue. The strong and rigid tail, capped with a bladed tip would not whip or snap or stab at its victims. It would drag uselessly and limply from behind, absent of almost all dexterity. Gone would be the primal rage that defined its species. Absent of its bloodlust and frenzy induced fury, it would take a more reserved approach, hiding within the darkness and moving silently in the shadows. It would be patient, using stealth to pick off its prey one at a time.
As the last of his perceptions of the alien creature flickered out of existence, the cat turned and carried his battered body out the dark chamber. He looked up into the ventilation system one final time before exiting. He knew it was growing up. He also knew it would be a fraction of what it could have been. However, there was no doubt, it was still a very powerful and savage beast.
Exhausted, the cat found a quiet and isolated compartment to rest and recuperate. Beginning to relax, the cat began to clean his orange and yellow coat. He pondered the day's events and accepted the battle had not been won, but neither had it been lost. Maybe, just maybe; through his efforts, the humans on board would now stand a chance at survival. Maybe the balance had been tipped just enough in their favor for some of them to survive the approaching nightmare about to descend upon them.
He lowered his head and closed his eyes. Sadness lightly settled upon him just before sleep took him away. He knew this creature that had trespassed on his ship brought destruction with it, and this place had very little time left. This giant collection of metal and circuitry and plastic would soon be no more. It had been his home for most of his life, and he had defended it and kept it safe and free from all invaders during that time. When sleep eventually did arrive, regret did not occupy his thoughts. It was pride. He relived his epic battle in his mind and knew without a doubt he had fought with tooth and nail and with speed and bounce. He had faced a creature, honed and fine-tuned by nature to be the perfect killing machine and still, he came away from the battle with both his head and tail held high. Today, he met his purpose in life and honored his mandate that while paw walked upon steel, never would a transgressor go unchallenged within the corridors of his ship.
The cat slept and began to dream.