Cadet Redstart had no idea how long he’d been unconscious. The last thing he remembered were sirens going off and lights flashing in the tiny cockpit of his T-13 Skylark spacecraft. Now he sat in the charred, smoking wreckage with the rain of an unknown planet dripping down on him through the broken cockpit canopy.
He reached down and unbuckled the safety restraints, wincing at the pain in his ribs. He tried switching on the subspace radio but the parts of it that had not been smashed into tiny pieces during the crash had been shorted out by the rain. No help there.
Redstart reached under his seat and removed the pouch containing his meager survival gear. He opened it to examine the contents: Bird seed rations for six days, dehydrated water tablets (just add water!), one collapsible thermal nest, one Bennington’s model P- 426 laser pistol, and finally a knife with a compass in the handle. He holstered the laser-pistol and returned the rest of the items to the pouch.
He resealed the pouch and zipped it up into one of the many pockets on his flight vest.
The twisted cockpit canopy refused to manually open, so Redstart was forced to blow the explosive bolts which blasted it off high into the air. With it gone Redstart was able to get a clear view of his surroundings for the first time. Rich green vegetation and multi-colored exotic flowers closed in upon him from all sides. This appeared to be a jungle planet. 1
Redstart suddenly heard footstep-like sounds coming at him from all directions. He leaped into the air and flew into the high branches of a nearby tree. He watched as five large cats slowly surrounded his spacecraft. They sniffed around the cockpit and the ground around the ship. They gathered together and seemed to be whispering about something but Redstart couldn’t make out any of the words. He didn’t speak Feline Standard anyway. 2
They formed a single-file line and began slinking to the North. Redstart slowly followed, making his way silently from branch to branch in the tall, jungle trees.
It seemed like hours later when they finally came upon a gargantuan stone tower. The top of the tower reached far above the tree line. Its bricks were made of smooth, black stone which were covered with tangled vines, all except for the base, where it looked like the vines had been scratched away. The line of cats disappeared into the stygian blackness of the tower entrance. All was silent except for Cadet Redstart’s tiny, pounding heart.
Suddenly Redstart heard leaves rustle behind him. He whirled around, drawing his laser-pistol as he spun. A butterfly landed on the branch in front of him, looking up at Redstart with a smug, self-satisfied expression. Redstart chuckled to himself as he re-holstered his laser-pistol. He reached up to a leaf and took a drop of rain onto his wing. He knelt down and offered the water droplet to the butterfly, who promptly opened his huge mouth, filled with gleaming, razor-sharp teeth, and bit him on the wing.3 Redstart nearly chirped from the sudden, intense pain. He quickly drew his laser-pistol and clubbed the butterfly’s tiny head with the butt of the weapon. The butterfly released his death bite and stumbled over the edge of the branch. Redstart peered over as the butterfly drifted in slow circles to the ground far below.
Redstart decided he had better eat something. This place – wherever it was – was more dangerous than it looked, and he was going to need all the energy he could get. He sat down in a spot where the branch forked and pulled out one of the bird seed rations. As he nibbled he kept a close eye on the tower entrance, but there was no more activity to be seen. Before he knew it he had slipped quietly into a restless slumber.
Something woke Redstart in the middle of the night. He looked down toward the black tower and saw that it, and the path leading up to it, were lit by dozens and dozens of torches, each one burning with bright, otherworldly, purple flame. He couldn’t see anything moving in the eerily lit areas, but he assumed there were guard cats on the prowl. He turned around to walk back to his makeshift bed in the crook of the branch only to find a very large butterfly sitting there waiting for him. Redstart didn’t know how, but he could tell that this was the butterfly from earlier’s older, meaner brother. He watched as two more butterflies, equally as large, joined him on either side. These butterflies meant business.
Without hesitating, Redstart leaped off the branch and flew straight toward the black tower. It suddenly seemed very far away. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the three butterflies were in hot pursuit. He was already flying at maximum speed and they were gaining on him! He tried his best maneuvers; suicide dives, loop-the-loops, whirling dervishes, even his famous Barn Stormer, but still they followed! He could feel them biting at his feet and nipping at his tail feathers. He did a circle around the tower and spotted a tiny window near the top. He aimed and shot toward it like a feathered torpedo. Redstart squeezed himself through the small opening and slammed against the brick wall opposite the window. He hopped back over and was relieved to see that the butterflies’ huge, beautiful wings kept them from being able to follow him. They hovered there for a moment, hate burning in their weird, insect eyes, then flew away, back down under the thick canopy of the forest. Redstart leaned against the wall under the window and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Which he immediately gasped back in when he spotted two, large, green eyes staring at him hungrily in the darkness.
The eyes grew larger and larger as the huge, black cat stalked toward Redstart. He reached for the laser-pistol holstered at his side. The cat suddenly jerked to a halt. Redstart heard chains clinking and noticed a heavy, metal collar around the cat’s neck. Redstart saw that the big cat was chained to the wall behind him. He drew his laser-pistol and pointed it at the cat. The cat just stood there and closed his eyes, as if welcoming the blast. After what seemed like an eternity, the cat slowly opened one eye to find the small bird still pointing the gun at him. Redstart decided there was something different about this cat. For one, it didn’t look at all like it wanted to eat him. Secondly it had a white, diamond-shaped tuft of hair in the middle of its head. The rest of the cats he’d seen on this planet were all black. He slowly re-holstered his laser-pistol. The cat slumped down onto his belly and heaved a big sigh, while keeping a seemingly uninterested eye on Redstart. This was a very strange cat indeed and for once Redstart wished he spoke Feline Standard.4 He sat down against the wall under the window and pulled out another bird seed ration. The big cat stood up, walked to the opposite wall, and began scratching on the stone. About fifteen minutes later he returned and looked at Redstart expectantly. Redstart put away the rest of the bird seed ration and stood up. The cat looked at him and then back at the wall he’d been scratching. Redstart very slowly walked towards the cat. As he got closer he could tell that it was close to starving. Redstart thought for a moment that this whole thing might be an elaborate ruse to lure him in, but still, there was something about this cat that he…trusted.
The cat moved ahead of Redstart and stood by the portion of the wall he had scratched. Redstart could see that it was an elaborate drawing. It took him a while to take it all in but he finally understood the gist of it. It seemed this cat used to be the King of all cats on this planet. Under his rule the cats prospered and were free and happy. His wife – whom he had married as part of an arranged marriage – slowly and secretly gained the trust of his most loyal troops and turned them against him. She had him imprisoned and thrown into the tower prison to slowly rot away.
As Redstart watched, the cat scratched a picture of himself sitting on a throne with a shining crown atop his head. He reached out his huge paw towards Redstart. Redstart reached out his wing, grasped the cat’s paw, and nodded. He never thought he would be shaking paws with a cat, but he knew that helping him regain his throne was the right thing to do.5
1. Trust me, planets are usually made up of one, and ONLY one, type of ecosystem. Arctic tundra, desert, deciduous forest, ocean, etc. There are many examples of this throughout science fiction if you don’t believe me.
2. Which mostly goes, “Meooow meow. Meow meeeeow meow. Meow? Meow.”
3. What? Did you think that all butterflies are cute and harmless? Use your imagination once in a while. You sound just like my ex-wife.
4. Remember when I said earlier that Cadet Redstart doesn’t speak Feline Standard? Try to keep up, okay?
5. NOTE: This story takes place five years before Redstart fought in the Third Pigeon Succession War and three weeks after Claudia threw my entire record collection out on the front lawn.