book cover: The Liberators. A cat with pink and green colors added to fur. Sparkly background. Another cat’s ears descending from above.
Ralph liked living in the lab just fine.
Oh, the smells were not that great. There was a sharp, astringent scent that filled the air at least once a day that he particularly did not care for. And the light was a bit harsh at times, bouncing off the white walls.
Ralph didn’t like that.
But he liked the other kittens. The other kittens smelled warm. And soft. Like milk and naps.
He liked the Piles of Blankets, too. The Piles of Blankets came in pleasant colors and smelled like kittens.
And Ralph liked the food well enough. Once he was weaned, and onto soft, solid food, he was treated to a whole array of tastes and scents he did not even know were possible before.
So yes, the lab was fine.
Though he didn’t care for getting poked and prodded much. He particularly did not like the probes attached to his skull once a day. They stung a bit at first, then itched, and made it hard to move. But he did like the pets and scratches he got and the treats for being such a good kitty after the tests were done.
But the thing Ralph liked most of all?
He loved to scamper and run, and bounce. And he loved to leap. And then, one day, the leaping turn to flying. Amazing!
Now Ralph flew every single chance he got.
Ralph was a champion flyer, the white coats said. Best of his litter.
Now, if only he had opposable thumbs. Because he would like nothing more than to fly in the scrap of blue he could see through the high, bolted window up above.
A kitten could dream, couldn’t he?
“There’s a new litter in need of rescue,” Bruiser said, stalking back-and-forth in front of her comrades. “They’re weaned now, so just old enough to break free. The question is, how are we going to do it this time?”
A dozen cats sat in a loose semicircle on the cracked concrete floor of the cavernous space. The cats lived in a compound in an old human-made warehouse, with high, wooden walls, dark rafter beams, and the faint smell of oil and, of course, cat. Not urine, though. The older ones trained the new recruits to use the latrine areas well away from the shelter of the building.
No one peed on a blanket and lasted very long in the freehold. Kittens excepted, of course.
The crew gathered in front of Bruiser were the current core committee. The rest of the compound cats were out hunting, patrolling, or training up the latest litter.
Bruiser was a battered cat who had battled many a battle and fought many a fight. She was in her prime, and could take on any cat in the freehold. That was why she currently held leadership, though no position was permanent among the compound cats.
She stalked back and forth, tail held high to show her authority. But a cat didn’t just take charge, not here. A cat was given the honor of leadership for as long as it served the rest of the freehold, or until the leader decided they’d had enough.
That was the way of things.
First of all, you never knew when disease or a predator would take a comrade down, and second, cats just didn’t like to work under anyone’s authority for long. Oh, trading expertise was well and good. And someone needed to be the final voice sometimes. But mostly? Cats were anarchists. They did their own thing, and if what you wanted to do was what they wanted, too? Well that was all right then wasn’t it?
“How can we be sure these kittens want to go?” Celeste asked. Celeste was a small, attractive tabby cat. She was currently catting around with Tom, a handsome marmalade fellow that Bruiser had tumbled with a time or three in the recent past.
“We’ll have to ask them, won’t we?” said Bruiser. “After we tell them what is possible outside the confines of their cages.”
“After we tell them they don’t need to be experimented on,” growled Tom.
“That’s right,” Pipsqueak, a small, black and white cat, piped up. “They have to be running the tests on them by now. No one likes the tests.”
Pipsqueak shuddered, as if remembering.
They all remembered.
Every cat paused in silence for a moment. They all had their stories—of the lab, or of the streets. They all had the memories that hunted them at night.
“I say we break them out first, ask questions later.” That was Hemingway, an older gray cat with handsome whiskers and six toes on each foot. He had trained himself to use those toes like humans used their hands. Hemingway was quite useful, and only spoke when it was necessary, so the rest of the cats tend to listen to him.
Bruiser stopped and scratched behind an ear, throwing up an arc of sparkles that meant her powers brewed close to the surface, ready to burst free. Bruiser’s magic was far-seeing and teleportation of small objects, which came in handy in all sorts of situations.
“I agree with Hemingway,” Celeste remarked. “If the kittens want to go back to the lab after we bust them out? Well, that’s up to them.”
Tortoise—a fighting cat with flying powers—cleared his throat. “We can explain to them what their options are once we have them here. We can’t do that while they’re locked inside.”
“So what’s the plan?” Pipsqueak asked.
“That’s what we need to figure out,” Bruiser replied.
There was always too much to figure out, even for uncommon cats like they were. They all had magic, extra powers, or unusual skills of one form or another. Some of them came by them naturally, and others were human implanted. But there was no hierarchy of talent here. They were all just cats, living together.
Trying to get along in a world that treated them as strange.
Ralph flew in circles, laughing with his friend Petunia. They shrieked as they circled one another and pushed their paws off against the shining white walls.
Petunia was a stripy black and tawny kitten to Ralph’s gray.
And he liked her very much.
Ralph had taken to bumping his head against Petunias and asking her to fly again and again. More often than he asked anybody else. They often curled up together at night at the edge of the huddle of the other kittens.
Ralph had strange feelings for Petunia, but he didn’t know what they meant. All he knew was that he wanted to be near her.
A white coat came into the room and grabbed Ralph from the air. He shrieked and Petunia cried out his name before scrambling to land.
Ralph fought against the rougher-than-usual grip of the human’s hands.
“You’re up next, buddy,” the white coat said. “Time for the old snip snip.”
Ralph didn’t know what the old snip snip was, but it doesn’t sound good. He fought harder, scratching at a hand, and got a clout against the head which stunned him temporarily.
Ralph kicked his little hind feet, and the white coat gripped the scruff of Ralph’s neck, making him submit.
“Dammit. You couldn’t make this easy could you? Calm down little buddy. You won’t feel a thing.”
As the big metal door clanged behind them, Ralph heard Petunia call his name.
It didn’t take long at all to formulate a plan that led a small pride of six comrades to the slight, wooded rise just beyond the parking lot of a long, low building that squatted like a metallic toad beneath them.
Once Bruiser got an idea in her head, the rest of the freehold pretty quickly figured out a way to get it done.
Besides, they were used to these sorts of operations. It was what they were known for: rescuing cats in need. There were cats in the compound who had been saved from fires and floods, from strange humans who crammed too many cats into too small a space, from beatings, from abandonment at roadsides…and from cages of all kinds.
Other cats whispered stories about a shadowy group of superhero cats they called The Liberators. They were talking about this compound, whether they knew it or not.
All cats weren’t superheroes, but some superheroes were cats. And it was a superhero’s job to help where they could. Otherwise, what was the use?
But the cats of the compound did not call themselves anything other than Free Cats. And that was what they wished for every cat living in misery. Simple freedom.
So, Bruiser, Hemingway, Pipsqueak and the others crouched outside the large ugly box of a human building. Pipsqueak had come from there most recently and didn’t like to talk about it.
The little cat trembled slightly at Bruiser’s side.
“You okay?” Bruiser growled.
“I’ll be fine,” Pipsqueak replied. And she would, Bruiser was certain of it.
Tom padded up. “The other two are in place by the door, ready for us. All seems quiet enough. You’re sure the humans aren’t in the kitten room?”
Bruiser closed her eyes to check again. She saw humans in white coats gathered around a table, eating food. There were others in a different long room, peering at glowing machines.
She opened her eyes and stared at the marmalade cat. “The kitten room is clear.”
Then she turned to Hemingway. “Go ahead. If you need help with any locks, I can try to teleport the screws or latches, but I think your paws should suffice.”
Then she looked from cat to cat. “Remember, trust your instincts and trust each other.”
Hemingway and Tom ran lightly back down towards the back door of the building, with Bruiser and Pipsqueak following several cat-length’s behind. Bruiser’s heart pounded in her chest. It didn’t matter how many operations the crew successfully pulled off…
This could always be the one that didn’t work.
This could always be the one where someone got injured, died, or worse.
Ralph’s stomach didn’t feel right, and his head was woozy. He blinked his eyes and the bars of the cage enclosure wavered in and out of focus.
Where was he? Why wasn’t he in the big blanket pile with the other kittens?
And then he remembered.
The white coats. A strange, sweet, scent, and then darkness.
“Ralph?” That was Petunia’s voice, coming from somewhere beyond his cage.
“Ralph,” she repeated, “are you okay?”
He struggled to sit up, but his stomach heaved in protest. Ralph gave a mewling groan.
“He doesn’t sound so good.” That was Fee, another one of the litter.
“What should we do?” Another familiar voice spoke, but Ralph was too tired to figure out who.
“I’ve seen this before, it happens.”
That was Mother’s warm voice. Oh, she wasn’t the one who had given birth to them, just as the rest of the litter weren’t Ralph’s real brothers and sisters, but she was the adult cat who took care of them, they all called her Mother just the same.
“They take them away and cut off their little balls,” she said.
“No!” Toby said.
“Really?” Petunia squeaked.
“Yes. It means they don’t want you to breed more kittens. It’s a terrible, terrible, thing,” Mother continued. “But it is our lot in life.”
A thought struggled to surface in the back of Ralph’s head. A mild protest at Mother’s words. How could this be his lot in life?
He was a cat who could fly.
Hemingway got the outside door open, with only a small amount of help from Bruiser. The six cats skulked into the overly bright corridor, lined with doors. Bruiser wrinkled her nose at the harsh scents that filled the air.
“Which way?” Tom asked.
Bruiser paused. Tried to listen past the low humming of the lights and the soft hissing and whirring sounds that came from behind closed doors. She heard human laughter further on, but before that noise…
“The kittens are in the third door to the right. I can smell them.”
She could also hear some low, distressed meows. She only hoped they were not too late.
Bruiser whispered, “Hemingway, you work the latch. Celeste and Tom, be ready to pounce. Tortoise? You and I will get the lay of the land. I saw blanket boxes and but there are cages in there, too. I’m not sure at this point how many are locked up, so we’ll need to make decisions as we go. Follow my lead if you can. If humans come? We all know what to do.”
She turned to the littlest member of their squad.
The little cat snapped her head to attention.
“It is your job to reassure any cat who is afraid.” Bruiser looked into the kitten’s green eyes. “They will trust you.”
Pipsqueak dipped her head in acknowledgement.
“Let’s do this,” Bruiser said.
“Drink some water, youngling,” Mother said.
Ralph swung his head and saw a metal water dish. He looked at it through blurry eyes. He was thirsty, but his stomach still felt wrong.
“It will clear the poison out faster,” Mother said. “That is what happened to the others. The sick feeling goes away more quickly.”
Ralph scooted toward the dish and obediently lapped up some of the cool liquid. When nothing bad happened, he lapped up some more.
As he drank, a rattling started at the door. Ralph froze. Were the white coats back again?
The door opened with a burst, and six shapes barreled through, low to the ground. Not white coats.
One shape took to the air. Another flyer! Ralph drank more water, trying to clear his head. This was all so exciting! Nothing like this had ever happened before!
“Ralph!” Petunia flew up to the cage so he could see her little face. His eyesight must be clearing. She looked beautiful. “Two cats are going to open up your cage. Stay back from the door!”
Then she disappeared replaced by a noble gray face that just cleared the bottom of the cage. “I’m going to help you, son.”
Two great paws reached for the latch. Were those six toes? And how could the cat bend them that way?
The cat looked down. “I’ll need your help to lift the latch.”
Ralph heard a steady voice answer, and then his stomach lurched again. Something weird was happening. The latch rattled, but focusing on that made his head go funny, so he looked out past the bars. Cats were running everywhere, and the flying ones swooped and dodged. It looked like some cats were escaping the room!
“Petunia!” he called for his friend. She flew into view again.
“Don’t worry, Ralph. They are here to rescue us! These cats will set us free!”
He heard humans shouting down the hall. Petunia lurched in alarm.
Ralph heard the latch snick free.
“Come along, son.” The gray-faced, six-toed cat swung the cage door open. “Do you need help getting out?”
Ralph stood just as two white coats burst into the room. He was still a little woozy.
“I don’t think I can fly.”
“Can you jump onto my back?” The other cat spoke. She was large and solid looking, with a fierce gaze.
“I… I think so.”
“Then jump on. We’re out of time.”
He could see that. Petunia and the other flying cats raced toward the white coats, claws extended like tiny rows of knives.
Human voices bellowed, cats hissed and yelled.
Ralph crouched, closed his eyes, and leapt.
Luckily, the kitten made it. Bruiser winced as his small claws dug through her fur.
“Hold on!” she said. “Hemingway! Run interference!”
The big gray cat barreled toward the thicket of human legs and fighting cats, creating a small opening. Bruiser imagined herself a small projectile, as if she could teleport herself and her small charge through that space and out of the building.
It worked. Soon enough, she followed the stream of paws and fur, racing down the hallway to the open door. Sunshine glowed at the end of the corridor.
Without a thought, Bruiser followed Hemingway toward the glowing rectangle, focused only on that space.
She trusted her comrades to take care of the rest. Tortoise and Celeste would see it through.
And Pipsqueak? Bruiser just had to hope the little cat’s brave heart would keep her safe.
Humans shouted behind her, and she felt a whoosh of displaced air as if a large hand grabbed for her tail.
Bruiser put on speed and barreled toward the light.
Ralph couldn’t believe it.
He was free.
Oh, he’d lost the contents of his stomach after lurching off the big cat’s back once they’d reached a nice little place filled with good smells and things called trees and bushes, with intriguing flying creatures darting in and out. They had feathers instead of fur, and there were a lot of them.
But Ralph had been able to climb back onto Bruiser’s back, and held on happily until they reached what the other cats called “the freehold.”
He was curled up with Petunia on a soft cushion in a vast human-building that smelled nothing like the lab. The light here was soft, not harsh. And there were cats everywhere.
“Are we in heaven?” he asked Petunia, before his eyes shuttered again. He’d been drifting in and out of sleep ever since they arrived. He couldn’t help it.
Mother said it might take a day for him to feel like himself again.
“You are not in heaven,” a bass voice growled. That was the strong flier called Tortoise. He’d set himself to guard Ralph and Petunia’s cushion. Ralph was glad. Tortoise made his heart feel safe.
“You are in the compound of the Free Cats. This is your new home, if you want it.”
Petunia licked Ralph’s ears. “Did you hear that, Ralph? Home.”
“Home,” he purred.
Then, snuggled next to the best kitten in the world, Ralph slipped back into sleep.
You can now buy this story as part of the five story collection A Speculation of Hope.
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