The Professor And His Pet


Professor George Lomax, late of the University of London, sat in the back of the patrol car watching the two police officers in the front calmly. The driver seemed quite angry, almost frantic. His partner, fingering a laser pistol that sat on his lap in the passenger seat, was trying to talk to him calmly.

‘Stop it, Steve!’ he was saying, almost shouting, ‘There’s no way of knowing how many cats there might be.’

 The driver seemed to ignore him, but there was burst of speed from the vehicle, showing the driver’s annoyance with his partner.

On the road ahead the Professor could see the article of the driver’s anger. It was a small yellow van of the sort that might be used to deliver to small, privately-owned shops. There were words on the side of the vehicle, but it never turned at the right angle for George to see them clearly. There were also a number of burn marks across the rear doors that had been made when the current occupants had first stolen it. A face peering through the rear windows of the van at the pursuing vehicle in which George was sitting confirmed that it had been stolen by Herbaht.

‘Steve, please, there are special units trained to deal with cats, and there are only the two of us. Please stop!’ He continued to finger his pistol nervously, sure he would need it at any moment.

George leaned forwards as far as he could to get a better look at the two officers and the weapon that one of them was playing with. He didn’t get any better view of the actual vehicle they were pursuing, no matter where he moved to on the back seat.

The driver, Steve, continued to ignore him and, if it was possible, actually gave the vehicle yet another burst of speed. In fact, they didn’t seem to be going much faster, but the engine roared as if to suggest it was laboring at a faster pace.

Then everything changed. Suddenly George was no longer in the back of the patrol car. Now he sat on a hard wooden bench in the back of the yellow van that the police were chasing. There were four Herbaht in the back here, all of them heavily armed and wearing some sort of body armor. Three of them sat on benches similar to the one George sat on; the fourth was peering out the back of the van towards the pursuers. As well as these four, there were two more up front, the driver and the one driving shotgun.

‘They’re still following!’ the one at the window said. ‘Surely they must know they’re no match for us?’ There was a kind of snarl to his voice, making him sound more like a cat than Herbaht usually did.

George sighed audibly as the conversation continued a little more inanely than he’d hoped. Sometimes he wondered why he’d ever bought the holoviewa; there was never anything decent on. He reached to the small control pad on the arm of the bench, ignoring the fact that this bench shouldn’t have an arm, and turned it off. Perhaps he just wasn’t in the mood to be entertained these days, not since they’d kicked him out of his lecturing job at the university. He was only forty-two, far too young to be thrown on the scrap heap. But someone had decided that the material he taught wasn’t vital enough to keep him on, and when the university had been told to make cutbacks, he had been one of those cut.  

George enjoyed the silence that turning off the holoviewa had brought. He allowed his mind to wander, and eventually, as they always did, his eyes alighted on the portrait of his wife that adorned the wall furthest from the entryway to the room. It would be the first thing anyone saw when they entered the room, and it was big enough that they couldn’t miss it. She had died in childbirth, and the baby had died with her. George often liked to remember his life with her, and sometimes he’d try to imagine that she was still alive and just in another room. Occasionally he’d think of her tending their son, but that was harder because he hadn’t spent any time with the child before he had died and had only seen the baby at all because he’d insisted.

On either side of the portrait of his wife were the portraits of his two pet cats. These portraits were at most a quarter of the size of the centerpiece, but his eyes still drifted between all three. To the left was the portrait of Jojo. She was also dead now. It had been an unfortunate accident. He still wasn’t too sure what had happened, but he had found her hanged in her room with her bedclothes; he was sure she hadn’t done it on purpose. George had been distraught about it for quite a while, and Kitty, his other pet, whose picture adorned the right side of his wife’s, hadn’t left her room for two months after the incident until George had forced her to. She still moped about it now and might even have been doing so as he sat here thinking about her. George had been told the two cats were sisters when he’d first bought them.

For a moment he thought about how cats had started to be made pets. It had started seven hundred years earlier. Everything important that was cat-related seemed to have happened seven hundred years ago, as if it had been some sort of golden age for the cats. Seven hundred years ago there had even been a yearly truce between the cats and the humans. It had started on Christmas Eve and lasted two weeks until the sixth of January, which, it had been claimed, was the wedding date for the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The truce was supposed to encompass a human and a Herbaht holiday, and during this time the Herbaht didn’t hunt or kill humans. It was said that the cats could walk openly among the humans, but George doubted that; it would only take one human out for revenge to destroy the truce, and the truce had lasted nearly a century before someone had broken it. They had never tried to reestablish it afterwards.

Nevertheless, it was during this time that many humans and Herbaht had wanted to extend the truce. They had worked out a number of plans involving people who donated their bodies to the Herbaht as food, but it was rejected because the families of the dead most likely wouldn’t agree to it, whatever the wishes of those donated might be. The humans wouldn’t say so, but they also feared that with no check on the Herbaht numbers, they would soon outgrow the number of people volunteering to be fed to them when they died. The Herbaht would hunt again, and in such numbers that simply couldn’t be checked. There were even fears that it might lead to the Herbaht trying to take over the country. As it was, the cats had taken over supposed control of a small town called Sou’nd, situated about forty miles to the east of London, just on the north side of the Thames estuary. There were still many times more humans than cats there, but the humans that lived there still did so in abject fear.

Eventually they had invented some sort of vitamin supplement in pill form, a pill that would synthesize the same balance of chemicals found in humans. Cat numbers could safely grow unchecked if they didn’t need to feed on humans. Things had seemed to go well; the truce had been extended to a year as a sort of test that, if successful, would be extended permanently. Cats and humans mingled happily on the streets and all things were forgiven, or so the history books claim. But the cats soon began to realize that they had been betrayed. The truce had been cancelled after only one month, although the yearly two-week truce was announced the following year as normal. It seemed that the makers of the pills had been told to add an extra ingredient. This ingredient would make the cats docile. Most of the cats felt betrayed and returned to feasting on human meat immediately. Others tried to settle down on the pills anyway. The descendants of the latter group were now regularly bought and sold as pets. It was widely believed that the day the very first cat was made into a pet was the same day the Christmas truce had been cancelled.

It was also about this time that the Greater Matriarch and Patriarch had leftEngland’s shores, going toAmerica. They took about a hundred of their people with them and started their own colony somewhere in Florida, where to this day they had a continual truce with the local human population.

He sighed. He couldn’t sit there thinking about the past all evening. There were things to do, and he wanted to see some news. He leaned back in his chair and swiveled it away from the holoviewa and the pictures so that they were behind him. Slightly to the right of where he now faced was a small bar complete with three stools, a standard for this sort of house. Directly in front of him was the newspaper. He used the control pad on the arm of the chair to turn the ‘paper on. The flat screen of the newspaper sparked into life and gave a list of the day’s topics.

The topics were listed one after another on the left hand side of the screen. There were three other columns labeled as ‘in brief,’ ‘summary,’ and ‘verbatim.’ The idea was that the subscriber would highlight the subject he or she was interested in and would then choose how much detail they wanted, but in most cases the pictures that accompanied the news were the same, regardless of network or detail.

There were many networks in the country, some national and some regional. The most popular was called Triple N, or the National News Network; George was a subscriber to this network.

George read down the headlines carefully, highlighting each with the remote control as he went. Most were of little interest to him.


You vote for your favorite Triple N newscaster.


Prime Minister calls summit conference.’


French Premier sends army to deal with cat problem.’


And so on.

It was item fourteen that first caught his interest. It was labeled as ‘Pluto explodes.’  He highlighted the verbatim column of the list and pressed the ‘commit’ button on his remote.

The menu on the screen vanished and was replaced by a picture of an astronomer standing beside a powerful-looking telescope. He was wearing a white coat, which made him appear professional, but he seemed a little self-conscious of the fact that he was being recorded.

The narrative began, ‘Astronomers are quite puzzled today by the sudden and unexpected explosion of Pluto. They have no explanation for the phenomenon, which occurred around lunchtime today.’

‘Indeed,’ said the man in the white coat. ‘I have been monitoring that area of space for the last week or so, though my interest was more on the supernova activity of the star Epsilon Gamma some fifteen hundred light years distant. There was a tiny explosion in the bottom left-hand section of my remit. At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing and thought it might have been somehow related to the phenomena I was studying. It was only later that I heard that the observatory on Pluto was no longer sending data to its collection hub.’

‘Is there any danger from this?’ asked the interviewer. ‘Any chance that fragments of Pluto might be bound for Earth?’

‘None,’ replied the man in the white coat. ‘I want to make it clear that this is unlikely to have any more adverse effect than the destruction of an asteroid might. Pluto was simply too small and too far away to have any real repercussions.

 ‘Tell us more about the observatory that was on Pluto.’

‘It was a series of large automatic telescopes on the planetoid, run by the American Iteck company. It was built at the very edge of the solar system both because it was one of the farthest stable bodies from the Earth that could be relatively easily reached, but also because it was free from the light pollution that inhabits the more central planets of our system. Even the observatory on Mars has to deal with light pollution, thanks to the colony there. Iteck sold time on the telescopes to various astronomers around the world, though all the data was collected at a central hub and then passed on to the interested parties.’

‘I see,’ the interviewer commented.

‘Fortunately, the entire thing was automated. Some technicians were sent there once a year to ensure that everything was working properly and to collect any data that for one reason or another couldn’t be sent on a light wave. But they weren’t due there for another four months,’ the astronomer replied calmly.

‘Is it possible that something in the power source used to operate the telescope or the computers there could have caused the planet to blow up?’

‘I suppose it might be possible,’ the white-coated man replied. ‘Though I think it unlikely; everything was carefully regulated from the Iteck building in New York. If anything had seemed to be going wrong, I’m sure they would have pulled the plug. Only if something happened so quickly that they didn’t have time to stop it.’

‘And what of what’s left of Pluto?’ asked the narrator. ‘Can you tell us where the pieces might be going?’

‘The pieces have spread out a fair way, due to the explosion. These pieces have their own gravity and are attracting each other. They might coalesce into a debris field in a few thousand years or so. Other pieces are heading into the solar system and could, in all probability, get caught in the gravitational pull of one of the other outlying planets. They could even form new moons, although I should stress that such moons would be tiny. It is unlikely that anything will get closer to Earth than Uranus, because of their current relative positions, but there are experts already mapping the pieces’ trajectories so they can come up with an accurate prediction of what is going to happen. Anything else at the moment is just speculation and hearsay. I will add, though, that if any large pieces appear to be on a collision course with the Earth, we are ready to intercept and destroy or divert them.’

The picture changed suddenly as if trying to cut off the end of the astronomer’s speech. Now George was looking at a large building with far too many windows and a word in large black letters at its top: ‘ITECK.’  The building was in vast, beautiful green gardens with paths leading both through the middle and around the edges. Right before the main door of the building was a large stone fountain with angelic figures holding pitchers that they appeared to be pouring into the basin. The fountain blocked the center path, causing it to split and circle the monument, rejoining again on the other side. There were benches on the outside of the path as it circled the fountain for people to sit and admire the sculpture and perhaps eat their lunch at the same time.

‘We decided to see what the people at Iteck think about the destruction of Pluto and the loss of their remote observatory there,’ the narrator said.

The picture changed again, the filming camera moving through the big entrance doors of the building to give the viewer the illusion that he or she was doing just that. Not as convincing as a holoviewa, but it was a two-dimensional screen.

George pressed the ‘back’ button on his remote control and returned to the menu. It worried him that planetary bodies could just explode without warning. He felt that it should be at the top of the list of headlines, especially if it was one of the generators Iteck had installed on the planet that had caused a chain reaction. Iteck used those same types of generator on Earth too.

The next few items on the newspaper’s list were of no real interest to him, though he hardly really took in the subject matter, still thinking that what had happened to Pluto could easily happen on Earth. It would take another eye-catcher to make him forget it.

The heading read, ‘Samuel F Goldberg and crew return home.’ He highlighted verbatim and pressed the commit button on his remote.

The image of a large spacecraft appeared. It was on the ground being prepared for takeoff. There were a number of maintenance engineers running many last-minute checks all over it. An area around the craft had been sealed off by armed guards, and behind them was a ring of fans and admirers, as well as those just wanting to know what was going on and those hoping for a chance to get in front of the camera. Between the craft and the camera, standing on a red carpet was a man in a spacesuit, the helmet of which was tucked under his arm so his audience could see his face. He was waving enthusiastically at the crowd that had gathered. The man finally turned and entered the craft. These pictures were well-known and more than a hundred and twenty years old.

A new narrative, a different voice than the narrator of the Pluto explodes story, started to talk as the space vehicle began its preparation for takeoff. ‘One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, seventeen identical spacecraft were sent to the nearest stars in search of life. Twenty had been planned, but three of the craft suffered breakdowns and had to be aborted. Or, as in one case,’–here his voice suddenly became solemn–‘never left Earth’s atmosphere.’ This was basic history now and was taught as such at most schools. ‘It was a global effort. The United States led the way by financing six of the seventeen explorers, but countries in Europe, Asia and Africa also help to fund the effort.’

The camera followed the craft as it launched skywards and slowly disappeared into the ionosphere.

‘The first of these craft to return did so only thirteen years after they left. The light speed engines allowed them to be at their target location virtually instantly from their perspective, while for us on Earth, time passed much more slowly. They spent the next three years conducting rigorous surveys of all the planets in the Alpha Centauri system and returned empty-handed. Thirteen years had passed for us on Earth, while just the time they had spent surveying the planets had passed for that gallant crew.’

‘Over the hundred and fourteen years since the return of that first craft, six other explorer craft have returned safely, the data they had gathered being carefully checked and rechecked.’

‘Now the eighth craft, captained by Samuel F Goldberg and his crew of six men and women…’ The screen listed the names of the crew at the bottom; if George wanted, he could highlight one of the names and it would pause the news while he read about the age, the hobbies, the onboard tasks and so on of that crew member. The narration continued unbroken, ‘…has returned. They have docked with the moon colony and are receiving their debriefing there. It is thought that the U.S. president himself has gone to the moon to welcome these heroes back.’

He shrugged; he’d like to go and see this man personally, but he didn’t really have the money to waste on the fare to America. Besides, it might be a few days before Samuel and his crew actually came down to Earth to begin the usual circuit of tours and press conferences.

 George eyed the small bar that was still a little to his right. He fixed himself a drink before returning to his chair and continuing his look through the headlines.

The subject ‘Crackdown on feline-related terrorism’ almost jumped out at him. It was item thirty-two on the list, nearly at the bottom. Obviously it couldn’t be that important or it would be nearer the top. George highlighted the verbatim button again and pressed commit on his remote.

This time the picture was in a house similar to George’s. The reporter was visible in the foreground talking to the camera, and in the background was a family of three with a pet Herbaht.

The reporter spoke. ‘Official figures released by government sources earlier today reveal that in the last month, over five hundred soldiers, police and private citizens have been killed in a spate of cat-related crimes.’

George paused the newspaper and tapped his fingers on the edge of the chair, thinking. There was always something about official figures that just didn’t sound right. It was known that there were approximately one hundred thousand Herbaht on the planet. At least seventy percent were pets. About a thousand lived inAmerica, and maybe two or three more thousand were living inFrance. That meant twenty-six thousand, approximately, were living here, inBritain. Now, he knew that each one had to eat a whole human once a month, just to stay alive. That would mean twenty-six thousand dead humans a month, not just over five hundred. The numbers just didn’t add up; the numbers never added up. Yet you couldn’t really hide a statistic of twenty-six thousand dead a month. Something just seemed very wrong. 

George restarted the story. ‘It has been suspected for some time now that many of the domesticated cats are really wild and are simply hiding as pets, using the protection of respected families to hide from the law.’

‘The new policy is that all domesticated cats should be handed over to the authorities. They will be thoroughly checked, and as long as there seems to be no sign of rebellion in their history and nothing incriminating in their stomach, they will be returned to their owners, along with a certificate of authenticity that declares the cat safe.’

An image of such a certificate appeared on the screen.

‘Any they have doubts about will unfortunately be destroyed. This will upset many cat owners, but it is for the good of us all and the safety of our race as a whole.’

George shook his head. The five hundred a month that were dying wouldn’t feed the wild ones, so why would they suspect domesticated cats too, unless they were up to something? George didn’t trust the government; they were always up to something. Besides, he hadn’t voted for them. So many things they had done lately seemed to have no real value or sense, and they had definitely hurt George. It had been a government edict that had caused the University to have to cut their budget and lose George his job; the same edict might also lose George his house if he couldn’t afford to keep up the mortgage payments, and he wouldn’t be able to if he didn’t find a new job soon.

‘There is to be a seven-day grace period for this. All cats must be in government hands by the end of this period, or the owners can expect to be fined heavily and, depending on the seriousness of the infraction, might even have to spend time in prison. Reasonable appeals made by the owners of condemned cats will be considered and judged on their individual merit…’

Perhaps George was colored by his own political leanings, but he had this niggling feeling that the government was simply looking for a way to destroy all the domesticated cats in the country. First get them in custody back at the Cattery and then declare all of them dangerous and kill them. This government had never been too keen on the idea of having Herbaht as pets, though George found it hard to believe that they might risk the wrath of the people by such actions.

Then there were the wild ones. It was true that most of the wild cats seemed to despise their domesticated brethren and their comfortable lifestyles, but would they sit back and watch as the government systematically exterminated them? This sort of thing could lead to war.

He shook his head. It could be that the government was doing no more than they were claiming and that everyone would get their pets back in good order in the fullness of time.

Then he thought of Kitty. Could he as a loving cat owner really hand his pet over to the authorities in the hope that this government might finally keep one of its promises?

He pressed a small button on the control bracelet. It sent a signal to the collar Kitty was wearing to let her know that he wanted to talk to her urgently. He’d given her the run of the house, and it would be up to her whether or not she wanted to answer the summons.

She appeared in the doorway of the living room no more than two minutes later. She was wearing the clothes of her station, casual human-looking clothing with a hole for her tail, usually referred to as pet’s rags by the wild Herbaht. She paused in the doorway and looked at him questioningly.

He beckoned her in and walked over to the bar. ‘Can I get you something to drink?’

She shook her head, her eyes on him. ‘You wanted to talk to me?’

He nodded but seemed to be having trouble saying anything.

Kitty stepped across the threshold of the room, her eyes firmly fixed on her master. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said.

‘I’ll miss you,’ he replied sadly. ‘But I have to let you go.’

‘Go? Go where?’ she replied, a little startled. ‘Where are we going?’

‘No,’ he said simply. ‘I have to release you.’ There was a tear swelling up in his left eye. He tried to ignore it; he had to be strong for Kitty. He couldn’t allow himself to break down in tears in front of her; he didn’t want her so upset that she’d refuse to obey him.

He reached over and removed the collar from Kitty’s neck. Her hands moved to where it had been. She felt naked without it, naked and vulnerable.

‘But without that, people might think I’m a threat to them.’ There was panic in her voice; did her master mean to throw her onto the streets with not even the illusion that she was still a pet to protect her?

‘It’s been on the news,’ George told her. ‘They are locking up all the domesticated cats. I think they intend to systematically wipe your entire race out. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. I’m thinking it’d be safer for you to hit the streets for a month, and then perhaps we’ll see if this thing will blow over. If it does, you’d be welcome if you want to come back.’

‘What do I do? How do I live?’ asked Kitty.

‘Before you leave I’ll give you the remainder of the pills I have; there’s just under a month’s worth. I’d go and pick up more, but with the announcement they’ve just made it’d look very suspicious. I’d suggest you live as best you can. Keep to the side streets and move only at night. Head towards Sou’nd; I’ve heard the wild cats number their strongest there.’

Kitty nodded.

‘If I knew how the wild cats lived, maybe I could give you better advice.’ He grabbed a piece of paper from a handy notepad and wrote down his link number. He handed the paper to Kitty. ‘Remember to keep in touch. Call every night if you can. I’ll give you some paper money. Don’t use it unless it’s a machine; the first human who sees you will probably try to kill you if he doesn’t just raise an alarm. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come home.’

Kitty took the paper and looked at it. She couldn’t actually read words, but numbers were something else. ‘Won’t the wild ones tear me apart when they see me?’ she asked, seeming very worried about the whole thing, but obviously trusting that her master would do right by her.

‘They might.’ George was unsure. ‘I know very little about them. I hope they’ll see that you’re both in the same predicament now and take you in, but be careful anyway. Remember, you need to take one pill every day.’

Kitty seemed to be trying to put a brave face on it. She clearly didn’t want to leave; indeed, George didn’t want her to leave either, but she really had no choice in the matter. She took the pills George offered her and headed towards the front door. Fear, mingled a little with anticipation, seemed to show on her face.

 ‘I’ll check that the road is empty before you leave,’ he said to her. Then he stopped as he looked at her. Her tail was too obvious, for a start, and she wouldn’t last five minutes in the real world in just the rags she had on.

He got his coat from the hall closet and attached the hood. ‘People might wonder why you have the hood up when it isn’t raining, but it’ll help to hide your facial stripes and your eyes. The coat will hide your tail and the rest of your stripes. Be very careful.’

Kitty took the offered coat and threw it about her as she’d seen George do on many an occasion. She moved the hood into place and snuggled into it. It would help fight the cold a little, as well as hide her; she’d be very glad of the coat in an hour or two. She admired herself in the hall mirror for a moment. Her face was still clearly striped and her eyes seemed to stand out from the hood, but it was better than nothing.

George ventured out into the darkness. He waved to someone across the street and then rested on his car, just chatting to the neighbor about this and that and waiting for her to vanish back into her house. In his own house he was well aware of Kitty waiting patiently and watching him through a small crack in the door.

George was beginning to feel the cold of the night air and wished the neighbor would go indoors. It was dark. It wasn’t safe for the neighbor to be out anyway. It wasn’t safe for him to be out.

Eventually the neighbor did make an excuse and go indoors. George waited until he was sure the neighbor wouldn’t reappear and then signaled Kitty to come and join him.

She left the house that had been her home since she had been no more than a kitten. There were tears in her eyes as well, but also an obvious sense of love for her master who even now was putting himself at risk of imprisonment to ensure her safety.

George realized that she might just decide to go her own way, regardless of the outcome of the next few days. But he felt it most likely that she would return to him as soon as she could, as soon as he told her it was safe.

George petted her head gently and said, ‘Remember to call every day to let me know how you’re getting on, and so I can tell you when it’s safe to return.’

‘I love you,’ Kitty said simply. ‘I won’t forget.’ And she left him, turning right when she was beyond his garden wall while George still rested on his car, watching her until she was out of sight around another corner.

He returned to the living room. He was happier that he’d given his pet a chance to survive, but he was an emotional man and hadn’t felt this much sorrow since he had seen his wife and son die.


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