The werecat’s blood slid off the stainless steel table and onto the tiled floor, only to be smeared under Doctor Squeaks’ slippers.
Trent tried to ignore the blood. Having recently arrived at the reclamation shelter, he was eager to prove himself.
“Put a hand on her leg,” said Dr. Squeaks. Her feline eyes never left the patient who lay thrashing on the cold, metal surface.
Trent moved to obey. Coming near the wounded creature, the smell of smoke and sweat from the creature’s skin fought against the tang of iodine that Dr. Squeaks had smeared over the werecat’s wound. Trent’s nostrils flared.
As Dr. Squeaks moved toward the creature’s head, Trent placed his hands where hers had just been, on the upper thigh of the victim, holding a sterile pad, applying pressure to a deep wound.
The patient’s soft, green fur, matted with blood, tickled the tips of Trent’s fingers.
He had never actually touched a werecat before.
The werecat’s fur felt like real cat fur, though slightly longer. Her thigh remained so perfectly human, taut with muscles, yet supple, too, running as it did directly into her exposed parts. His hand lay not ten centimeters away. He tried not to look.
“Trent! Pay attention!” Dr. Squeaks growled at him before returning to the low, monotonous purr she used with the lab recorder.
“Patient presents with a wound to the right thigh that appears to have been inflicted in a territorial dispute.”
Dr. Squeaks paused as she ran her palms up the patient’s ribs and over her breasts, without pause, up over the shoulders, neck, and head.
The patient nipped at Dr. Squeaks’s hand.
She was the first feral werecat to visit the shelter since Trent had arrived. He had come to their planet, Thazoo, to study the mysterious human-cat hybrids.
Dr. Squeaks said that she saw a feral every few weeks for a food handout or for routine medical treatment. She’d shown Trent how to refill the food baskets and how to replace the feathery decorations that adorned the outside of the shelter. These encouraged visits from the ferals.
The shelter itself sat in a valley at the edge of a vast, wild forest. Behind it stood civilization—the fine feline cities of Thazoo, the capitol city Trance, the bustling Nepeta Square, all the places where the domesticated animals, humans and werecats alike, lived together.
The werecats had colonized Thazoo, creating a utopia. The feral werecats who couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust to civilization simply wandered away from their civilized kin, heading into the planet’s uncharted forests.
Out of a tender mercy, the citizens of Thazoo maintained outposts, shelters, in case a feral ever wanted to return to the curved, arching cities.
During his first night on Thazoo, Trent had stood in the doorway of the shelter, watching as the full moons hovered over the dense undergrowth of the jungle, listening to the werecats in the forest laughing, fighting, and crying at the cool, white orbs overhead. Trent couldn’t, for the life of him, see why one would ever leave the forest.
But this one had.
“Trent, watch what you’re doing.” Dr. Squeaks swore. Her feline eyes narrowed; her pointed ears lay flat. “The scat-murring idiots they send. You have to apply constant pressure to the wound.”
Trent pressed down on the wound. The werecat shifted under his weight.
Dr. Squeaks continued in a low voice, speaking to the recorder. “Having discovered no internal injuries, I am proceeding to treat the wound. Oh, and remind me to check the hormone levels in the blood sample. The patient appears to be pregnant.”
Startled, Trent nearly dropped his hands.
The werecat didn’t seem pregnant. Her stomach had a pleasant curve and her breasts looked normal. Trent caught himself staring.
A red light flashed on the medical monitor. A siren sounded.
Dr. Squeaks addressed Trent calmly, looking down her pert, black nose. “Move your hands, Trent, and when you do, I want you to lie across her arms and chest, putting your whole weight on them—and not on the belly.” Her whiskers twitched. Her blue tail shivered. “If I can’t stop the bleeding, we’re going to lose the mother and the baby.”
Dr. Squeaks nodded her head. “Now,” she said.
Thrusting his chest over the patient’s breasts, Trent reached under the metal table, grabbing a ridged leg in one hand and the sharp, underlying edge of the table in the other. He was uncomfortably aware of the green, furry chest moving under his shirt.
Trent watched as Dr. Squeaks attacked the wound with a long metal tube, releasing the nanos as close to the severed blood vessel as she could.
The patient wailed. She bit into Trent’s ribs through his jacket. He was sure she’d drawn blood.
Yet, he did not move.
Under the corraborra tree on the open plain facing the forest, Trent took meals together with Vashteen as she recovered.
She spoke in an accent as thick as the jungle, telling Trent about the forest, so vast, yet cozily bounded by clan lines.
She told him of hunts where she and her sisters tracked the elusive snarr. She spoke of dances and songs in the clearings with cousins hanging from branches, filling the trees with festive color.
“Trent,” she said, rolling the “r” in a fascinating purr that worked its way from the base of his spine to the top of his neck. “Tell me again of Earth. Did you truly own a cat?”
Trent nodded. “To the extent one can ever ‘own’ a cat. My Tasha was a fat, Russian Blue—” and then Trent would tell her a story about Tasha, of which he had an inexhaustible supply.
She ran a hand over her growing belly, warmed by the sun over Thazoo. Vashteen smiled.
“Your Tasha was blue, like Squeaks?”
Trent coughed. “Unlike Dr. Squeaks, I think Tasha liked me.”
Vash laughed. The appearance of her sharp teeth startled Trent, reminding him in a way that her soft green fur and languidly swishing tail did not that Vash was less than, and yet more than, human.
Sometimes her yellow eyes with their thin, crescent pupils studied him. Trent felt like a snarr then, under her predatory gaze.
Other times, her eyes laughed. Her body rested, all muscles meticulously relaxed, yet balanced, poised for fight or flight.
Once, when Trent was carrying their dishes to the cleaner, he ran into Dr. Squeaks at the door to the shelter.
She gave him a grudging nod. “I can see why they sent you here. You have a way with them.”
Trent shrugged his shoulders. “I always liked cats, so—”
Dr. Squeaks cut him off. “Be careful. That one will break your heart.”
Trent wanted to protest. Before he could think of a response, Dr. Squeaks had moved on.
Sure, they had saved Vashteen’s life. But his interest in the pregnant, green werecat remained purely scientific. Trent wanted to be of service to the shelter, as he’d agreed to do on accepting the posting on Thazoo.
He rehearsed a retort a dozen times in the shower that evening. Each time, Trent believed it a little more.
A few nights later, when Trent awoke to find Vash curled up beside him in the carpeted recess where he slept, he mentally repeated that mantra: purely scientific interest.
The top of her head smelled like fallen leaves freshly turned onto the compost heap. Her scent filled his chest until his sternum delivered a quivering ache to the back of his teeth.
At that moment, Trent knew Squeaks had been right. But he couldn’t yet admit it. They had saved her, and Trent had become a walking stereotype. The nurse had fallen for the patient.
Sleep was a long time coming.
No one in Trance, the capitol city of Thazoo, moved quickly. They lived on werecat time. Their realtor batted a paw at her mouth, suppressing a lazy yawn.
“Childcare is provided in a cubby on the first floor,” said the realtor—a beautiful werecat with purple, frizzy fur. She wore a pink vest that barely covered the soft underside of her breasts. A pencil skirt stopped just shy of her knees. “Vocational training begins at one o’clock in the afternoon, or whenever the instructor arrives.”
Vashteen wasn’t listening to the realtor’s sales pitch. She had bounded up the evenly spaced, carpeted platforms that lead to the apartment’s first loft.
At the top, Trent found Vashteen looking out over the city. Vashteen watched as the laser lights of Nepeta Square painted the undersides of the gentle clouds over Trance.
“It feels strange, living alone,” she said.
“You don’t have to,” said Trent. “There are communal spaces where many live together, similar to the clan structure that you’re used to.”
“Who would clean me here?” she asked, licking a paw.
“There’s a machine for that,” Trent said, “like the one we have at the shelter. And there are places you can go where they’ll lick you clean, for a price.”
Vashteen shook her head. She had found the idea of money to be the hardest thing to understand.
Tentatively, he added, “Or we could live together.”
Vashteen shrugged, the way she did when she’d grown bored with a topic.
He felt he was losing her. He tried to shift the conversation. “There’s shopping,” Trent said. “You haven’t been to Nepeta Square yet.”
Vashteen’s eyes brightened. “You like the clothes she was wearing?” referring to the realtor.
Vashteen raked a paw over the inside of his thigh, retracting and engaging her claws as she rubbed.
Goosebumps covered his legs.
“I know a few shops,” Trent said. His eyes ran over the loose shift that flowed from her shoulders over her growing belly. “But you may want to wait until… after.”
Vashteen clawed his bare arm, raising four red welts and an involuntary gasp of pain.
She looked away.
After an awkward silence, Trent said, “It’s going to be great here. They have good schools for your baby and the best hospitals on the planet.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Trent said.
She pecked him on the lips, got up and stepped, just like that, off the side of the platform, dropping to the floor below.
Trent took the stairs.
The baby came early.
Dr. Squeaks jumped on Vashteen’s chest. She pounded at the round, green belly.
Trent wanted to push her off, but he didn’t know what to do. She was the doctor.
Labor had come on suddenly. In one more week Vashteen would have been at a birthing center in Trance, a licensed midwife waiting to bite the cord when the baby came out, a dozen nurses to lick the baby’s head.
Instead, as with that first night, Vashteen lay in the medical room of the reclamation shelter. The lives of the mother and the baby were again in their hands.
Outside, two full moons hovered low over the jungle planet—a time of celebration for the werecats.
All day long, calls had come from the jungle, loud and insistent. Vashteen had returned a call, just before she went into labor.
Even now, sounds from the jungle drifted through an open window. Werecats raised their voices in song. Smoke from a hundred fires hovered over the forest canopy. Vashteen cried out as another contraction reached its zenith.
Dr. Squeaks continued pounding on Vashteen’s belly in rhythm to the thrumming in the darkness.
Trent wondered whether the doctor knew she was matching time to the drums.
“Dr. Squeaks,” Trent said in a calming tone, taking her firmly by the wrists. Her yellow eyes were clouded, looking like the swirls inside ancient marbles. “Dr. Squeaks, what can I do?”
As reason returned, Dr. Squeaks ran a paw through the blue fur matted on her head.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Is the baby in danger? Is Vash okay?”
Dr. Squeaks checked the monitors. The nanos introduced into Vashteen’s blood stream at the start of labor had made their way to the placenta, sending back a stream of data.
“They’re fine,” said Dr. Squeaks, sounding suddenly tired. “I don’t know what came over me, I—”
She didn’t finish her sentence.
She didn’t have to, not with the full moons and the jungle and the smell of blood in the delivery room. Pheromones hung in the air. The entire planet was wild, out of control.
Trent wanted to sneak into the jungle, to see the celebrations. But it wasn’t safe. The feral werecats were as capricious as fairies. To enter their realm meant wonder and death.
Vashteen lay on the table, deep breaths raising and lowering her belly.
Trent came along side of her, rubbing the back of her neck. “It’s going to be all right. You’re doing great. Next week we’ll be in Trance. The apartment is waiting. I ordered a crib.”
“It’s good,” said Dr. Squeaks, her eyes tracking a light that raced up and down the monitor, measuring the contractions. Dr. Squeaks’ tail swished to the beat emanating from the jungle. “She’s ready to push.”
Vashteen, lying on her side, raised a leg. A ball of fur, pink with gray stripes, slipped onto the bed.
Dr. Squeaks bit the cord.
Vashteen cradled the baby, licking her small head.
When the placenta came out, Dr. Squeaks motioned for Trent to follow her out of the room. She said the mother needed privacy. Trent had studied werecat births. He knew she would eat the afterbirth. Dr. Squeaks was kind to spare him the sight.
Not that it would have affected the way he looked at Vashteen or the way he craved the soft curve of her ticklish lips.
Trent gave her a few minutes alone with the baby.
When he returned to the delivery room, the window was open. The bed was empty. A ball of pink fur lay in the makeshift bassinet. Vashteen had gone, leaving her baby behind.
Later, much later, after many like Vashteen had passed through the shelter, Trent asked Dr. Squeaks how she did it. How she could dedicate her life to helping the ferals when that help went unaccepted or unappreciated; when they laughed with her and then lied to her; when they had every chance at a new life only to throw it away, always returning to the jungle?
“Sometimes they stay,” she said. “Sometimes one stays. One in a thousand.”
“And you stay for that one?” Trent said.
“Someone stayed for me,” she said, looking through wide eyes and thin pupils at the edge of the forest. Her purr was soft and full of longing.
Trent went to check on their little charge. He found her asleep in the nursery.
Quietly, he spoke to her.
“And what about you, Valentine? My little pink angel?”
He looked with love at her in her tiny crib.
Would she stay, Trent wondered, or when she was older, would she follow her mother, drifting into the jungle, lured by the snarr, by the songs, by the moons of Thazoo?