Chapter 10: Cat girl

A ways outside the city is a valley. It parts from the fjord where the main road goes, and gradually veers off toward the mountains. At first, there are homes in the hillside facing south, overlooking the open end of the valley and the river and the new broad road. The people who live here work in the city or in the mall or in the larger suburbs. But further into the valley, the new homes give way to farms only, and the road is old even though it is still in good repair. That road goes steadily uphill, not steeply but relentlessly. The farms end, giving way to forest. Here and there are traces of road that split off, but have fallen in disrepair. If you follow these, you may come to a rectangle of stones half hidden in the forest. One of them still has some planks lying about from the house that stood there, a generation ago. But the forest is quick to reclaim its land when the men with their axes move out.

But the road does not end there, it passes the stretch of forest and comes to open meadows. And there, like a sign of protest, lies a farm. This high, it's impossible to grow grain, though potatoes will still make it before snowfall most years. A large barn keeps the sheep warm and dry in the winter, and the fields grow grass for hay. All summer the sheep wander in the mountains further up, only when autumn comes are they gathered for the winter. The man who gathers them is called Geirr, and the dog who helps him is called Rust. Most of the year it is a lazy life to be a sheepdog, for the sheep need only an occasional visit in the summer and stay mostly indoors during winter. Consequently, Rust has grown fat and lazy. Geirr is in better shape. Then again he likes to take long walks. During those, he solves the programming problems that is his main income. As a systems programmer, he codes and debugs low-level functions. The combination of brain work and body work suits him well. Geirr is not a social person.

It is late afternoon, the sun is low in the west. Geirr is reading, just to relax, an article about the anthropic principle. Then suddenly the light turns blue.

He could have sworn Rust was in deep untroubled sleep, but the dog is at the door so fast Geirr almost stumbles over him as he runs out. Rust howls, a terrifying sound of doom that Geirr has never heard before, not even the one time the poor critter got its tail in the door. It is a howl so ghastly and unworldly that the word "hell hound" suddenly becomes understandable. And worst of all, Geirr knows exactly how the animal feels. The universe has just turned horribly, unimaginably wrong.

The sun is a bright blue, incandescent blue fire in a darker blue sky. Toward the middle of the sky the color changes smoothly over azure, turquoise and green, then yellow, orange and red to the south-east until it fades into a deep dark red that seems to verge on black. To the north-west, however, the color goes through indigo and violet until it fades in a shimmering almost-color, almost-light. And in the center of that ultraviolet circle is a black hole, seemingly touching the low mountain ridge to the north-west.

As he stares in horrified disbelief, the thrumming starts. The ground seems to shiver. Not quite like sound, but not quite like an earthquake either. Something in between. He can hear it with his body, and it makes every bone vibrate, makes it hard to think. The only way he can think is by stuttering aloud:

"The bastards! The bloody bastards! They finally gone and done it!"

Then, as suddenly as it started, it ends. The black hole collapses and is gone. All colors revert to normal afternoon. And some seconds later, the earth falls silent once more. Even Rust falls silent, and hangs his head and tail as if in shame.

But Geirr knows what he saw ... just not what it means. He goes into the house and turns on the radio. Classical music fills the room. He changes stations, again and again, but nowhere is there a word about black holes, weird colors in the sky, and the end of the world.

Geirr turns on the computer and hooks up to the Internet. He may have only dial-up here, but there's bound to be some comment somewhere on this. He looks at news sites. He looks at science sites. He asks on chat groups, but in a roundabout way. Nothing special seems to have happened, except to him and his fat old dog.

The sun fulfills her journey and goes to rest. Twilight fades into darkness. Yet Geirr is not sure he will be able to sleep this night. The sight was just too unsettling. He cannot concentrate on anything, not work, not hobbies. And somehow he is not at all surprised when Rust suddenly starts to bark at the door.

The moon is up. While not entirely full, it bathes the fields in light. And it is out on the moonlit field that Rust runs, then slows, but still barking furiously. Geirr, close on his heels, sees it too. In the weak light, he can feel fear course down his spine like a tangible chill. Something comes toward them across the cold, moonlit field. Not something, someone. From the mountains where no one live, from the same direction where the black hole was touching the ground. It walks on two legs like a human, but there is something about its gait that is off. Like it is not entirely human after all. And it comes loping toward them. Geirr feels a primitive basic urge to turn, to flee for his life, to seek the safety of his home and bar his doors. But he is frozen to the ground, as if in a dream, unable to tear himself from the nightmare. The shape in front of them seems to be of a uniform color, dark, with no lines or markings. As if it were covered not by clothes but by ... fur.

And then the creature lets out a high-pitched cry, sounding implausibly not just human but female. And collapses on the ground, less than fifty paces from them.

Rust whines pitifully. Geirr finally gains control of his body, and is pleasantly surprised that his pants are still dry. He quickly overtakes his dog in their race for the door. But once inside, two conflicting wishes tear at him. The simplest would be to close his door, lock and bar it, pretend nothing ever happened. But he knows it did. Something, or someone, is out there on the field. He takes his largest flashlight and the wood chopping ax. Being a pacifist, he does not have a shotgun. Or a silver bullet. "Don't be an idiot" he admonishes himself out loud. Warily, he walks once more out on the frosty field of grass.

The creature is still lying where it fell, when the cone of light shines on it. It is indeed humanoid, but covered in short fur ranging subtly from brown in the middle to more reddish out on the limbs. The creature is about the size of a young boy or girl barely past puberty. But lying mostly on the stomach, the body sports the hips and buttocks of a fully adult and rather curvaceous woman ... and a fairly long, sleek tail.

Carefully turning her over, he confirms that she is humanoid and female. But she is not of any race he has ever seen. Not only is she covered in soft, downy fur; her round face is not descended from apes but rather from some carnivore, like a cat or a dog. The jaw and nose are still protruding in a subtle but unmistakable snout, quite different from a human face. The pointed ears are like those of a cat, clearly visible because the hair on her head is no longer or different from the rest of the body. Her fingers have short claws rather than nails, and could be nasty weapons. She does not seem able to use them right now, though. She is breathing, but little more.

What is he going to do? If he leaves her out in the cold, she will freeze to death in the November night, fur or no fur. But is that a good or a bad thing? Thoughts of werewolves nip at his consciousness, and the sharpness of those short claws. Perhaps in the end, sad as this may be for defining his character, it is the fact that she is female. A woman, fur or no fur. And he is a man. Dropping the ax, he kneels beside the helpless form. He may not be the strongest farmer around, but he can still do this. Carefully sliding her over his shoulder until he finds a point of balance, then staggering to his feet. She is less heavy than he would expect from a fully mature woman, but then again she is not as tall as most women he has known. (And precious few of these have he lifted, either.) It might have been an erotic experience, to carry a woman like that, his hand holding firmly onto her upper thighs. But somehow the fur detracts from that part, as does the limp tail falling across his wrist. He is not quite sure what she is, woman or beast. But he is willing to find out.