Copyright is held by the author.
“CHITTERS AT Crows! Chitters at Crows, why aren’t you at your post?”
The voice through my internal headset jerked me out of my doze. I sprang to my feet.
“Jesus, what the hell?” the female muttered sleepily. Ignoring her, I jumped down from the slumber-box.
From behind me, I heard the male say, “Happy trails, spaz.”
I continued swiftly down the hall to the sitting-station, so I could communicate in private.
“What is it, Stalks with a Claw?” I responded, trying not to sound annoyed.
“You haven’t made your hourly report,” he said. “Are you on a mission, or on vacation?”
“There was nothing to report,” I said.
“You know the rules, Crows. You check in every hour, even if it’s only to give a nil-report.”
“Fine,” I said. “0600, Nil report. Happy now?”
“Just make sure you report in at 0700 hours,” he said. “Or I’ll write you up.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do than nag me about my reports?”
“Actually, that’s not why I communicated,” he said. I could hear smugness through the miles of transmission. “You have a meeting scheduled tonight for 0030.”
“A meeting? With whom?”
I nearly hissed. The colonel! I’m just a second lieutenant, why would he want to meet with me? But all I said was, “Acknowledged.”
“Think you can remember that long enough to show up on time?”
I broke communication without bothering to reply and returned to the slumber-station. Jumping to the top of the box, I flumped onto my side. The male was lying on his belly, and appeared to be asleep. The female reached down to stroke my head.
“What was that all about?” she said without opening her eyes. Not for the first time, I wished I could ask her why she asked me questions she didn’t expect me to answer. Maybe someday I would know, but right now all I could do was chalk it up to a ridiculous need to communicate on an almost constant basis. She continued the petting, but I couldn’t relax, and flicked my tail in annoyance. Stalks with a Claw had no terra-side experience, and yet he seemed to think that you could run a covert operation exactly by the book. Whereas all soldiers with assigned territory agreed; humans could never be counted on to do the intelligent thing. Procedure wasn’t nearly as important when dealing with them as improvisation, and the ability to think on your feet.
I washed my left paw for a while, and then switched to my right, and chewed on something lodged particularly solidly in one claw. Finally I relaxed enough to put my head down and go back to sleep.
I barely cracked an eye the next morning when the humans went through their daily exodus, and I dozed and snacked through the intervening hours until the sun went down, trying not to fret. When the humans returned to their abode, I demanded of them that they release me from the building. They set me free and I began to prowl. The meeting was not for many more hours, but in my experience, it’s better to get away early. If the humans are sleeping when you have to exit, it’s a hit or miss proposition. Better to get out while they’re still up, and use the extra time to reconnoitre.
I trotted down a narrow pathway between a brick wall and a metal fence. The pavement was broken and sloped downwards in one spot to make a small hollow. Dust and gravel had collected there, so I lay down on my back and rolled from side to side. Oh, that felt good! I rested for a moment, feeling that my itches were well scratched. Suddenly conscious of the fact that I had not scanned the area for any of my colleagues before indulging, I jumped to my feet. Not that there was anything wrong with what I was doing, but it would be embarrassing to be caught with my aloofness down. I stopped for a moment to sniff the air, and realised that the tip of my tail was twitching erratically. Was there something? I frowned to myself. Nothing seemed untoward on the breeze, so whatever was making me jumpy was not an outside threat.
I heard a rustling from the bushes crowding the metal fence, and I tensed all over as I calculated what size and where exactly the thing causing the rustling was likely to be. I rocked my rear paws back and forth, settling my haunches into the right position for attack. Rustle. Rustle, rustle. Spring! I dug my claws into its neck before I recognised it as a rat. It gave a horrifying squeal and struggled to free itself from my grip. What am I doing? I thought. I wasn’t hungry. I had eaten well before leaving my operational base. I was acting on instinct, like some kind of . . . animal. I retracted my claws, and the rat made a dash for the shadows, but I stepped on its tail, dragging it back. It turned towards me, panting, and I swatted at it, but the swat lacked conviction. As if sensing this, the rat made a startling jump from its standing position, and disappeared into the shadows.
By the time I had done a thorough circuit of the area surrounding my base, it was time to head to the meeting. Picking my way through the weeds and broken concrete, I saw a few of my colleagues. I greeted them, vocally when appropriate, preferring only slow stares for those I deemed my social underlings or likely to be a threat to me. There was little to be gained from fighting between soldiers while on mission, as territory was assigned and could not be gained through victory. Also we were unlikely to be considered for promotion while still terra-side. Still, it’s best to watch one’s back and keep an eye out for any attention that might turn negative. No point in making yourself a target.
With that in mind, I rested my haunches on the ground when I reached the meeting place, my back against a wooden fence, front legs straight up, tail curled around my front paws. Just as I was wondering how long I would have to wait, a shadow from a nearby street lamp elongated and became Stalks with a Claw. I eyed him without warmth, and then turned my attention to the soldier following behind, who must be . . .
“Colonel Screaming Prey.” I greeted him politely, and then lowered my head and sniffed at the ground, fighting the instinct to roll over and expose my belly. I had never met the colonel before, and though he had several grey hairs, and walked with more stiffness than grace, I wouldn’t care to raise a paw to him. He was big, for starters, and looked fierce, even without the furless patches that spoke of scar tissue.
“Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, Lieutenant Chitters at Crows,” the colonel said politely, as if I had a choice.
“That’s Second Lieutenant, I believe,” First Lieutenant Stalks with a Claw interjected.
The colonel ignored him. “Lieutenant Crows, I want your input on an important subject that I have been discussing with Lieutenant Stalks with a Claw.”
I looked at Stalks with narrowed eyes. If he had complained to the colonel about my hourly reports, he was more bureaucratic and asinine than I had believed possible.
The colonel said nothing at first, and surprised me by seating his rear haunches heavily on the ground.
“Lieutenant Crows, have you ever thought about the possibility of being more in command?”
Promotion? I tried to look modest, but couldn’t help smoothing down the fur over my left ear with a paw swipe.
“For all of us,” he continued. “Lieutenant Stalks has been making the suggestion in council to the generals that the time is right for an all-out assault.”
I shook my head as if water had landed between my ears. “Are you suggesting —”
“Planet-wide,” Stalks smiled smugly. “Battle with the humans for control of Earth.”
“Sir,” I tried to speak as carefully as possible, “that seems extraordinarily dangerous. The humans outnumber us by a factor of almost 10 to 1!”
“Are you suggesting that they would fight us, Crows?” Stalks sneered. “Even though your job is to keep them docile, subservient to our whims?”
“And we do a very good job,” I said, giving him a cold green stare. “Which is why we are fed and sheltered for nothing.”
“And you think that’s enough?! These unfurred savages should wait on us hand and foot!”
“That’s enough, Lieutenant Stalks,” Colonel Screaming Prey said. “I’ve come to hear a terra-side opinion, not an argument.”
I considered. While I had a justifiable reluctance to engage the humans in combat, due to their numbers and battle technology, that didn’t feel like an honourable objection. Even in my head, it just sounded like whining. I tried to phrase my hesitation in a more politically expedient manner.
“Sir, I’m not sure I understand what we hope to gain from such a bold move. The humans have created a planet-wide infrastructure and must work to maintain it, while we are free to do as we please. The humans are little more than our servants.”
“And yet we are not free,” said Stalks with a Claw. “You have to request food! You have to beg exit and entrance from your operational base! We should further subjugate the humans! Our survival should be their primary concern!”
My ears had flattened back on my skull and I had to work not to hiss. “So that’s where you got this idea. It’s a result of your repulsive arrogance!” I spat. “You don’t want to just watch the planet and coordinate soldiers’ reports! You want to give orders to humans!”
“That’s what you would think, you, you house pet! I have a vision for the future, but you’re content with treats and scritching! You actually like these bipedal apes!”
Apes! I could take no more. I launched myself at Stalks. He saw me coming and aimed a swipe of the paw at my head. It made contact, but I absorbed the impact and kept coming. I locked both front paws around his neck and made a bite for his ear. He somersaulted over me, and I wound up on my back, forced to release my grip on his neck. I twisted back up to all four feet and faced him again, our positions reversed. He hissed at me and I yowled a battle cry, then used a tactic I had picked up from my male. I raised my right paw to swat Stalks, and when he raised his left to defend himself, I dove forward. Misdirection! I latched onto his throat with my teeth. He fell over onto his side and brought around his powerful hind legs to kick at me. The kicks hurt horribly, but I had him on his back, so I hung on, trying to swing my body around to one side to get away from the pain. He managed to get out from under my teeth, tearing the skin of his neck and leaving me with a mouthful of fur. I spat it out.
He hopped onto his feet, and I swing my paw at his eye. I missed, but tore the skin on his forehead, causing him to scream horribly. He pulled back, which made me overbalance forward. I used my momentum to turn in a circle instead of falling, twisting quickly back to face him. There was no new attack, so I crouched, panting, and waited. Stalks with a Claw was lying on his side. When I saw him turn to lick one shoulder, I drew a breath of relief. Suddenly I remembered the Colonel! How could I have stooped to fighting in front of him? I looked with dread to see his reaction.
“Looks like Lieutenant Stalks will have a scar over that eye,” was all the colonel said. We waited while Stalks with a Claw finished licking himself and climbed to his feet. All the time I could see his fur bristling.
The colonel turned to me. “I appreciate your input on this matter, soldier, and I will be relaying your opinion to the council of generals. And may I be the first to congratulate you on your promotion, First Lieutenant.”
He turned and stalked back in the direction of the streetlight. Stalks with a Claw slunk along behind him, though not without a long, angry glance in my direction. Go lick a ferret, I thought, watching until they were both out of sight.
The next morning, I stood on the doorstep of my operational base and demanded entrance. The female opened the door and looked at me. “Socks, where have you been? You were out all night, I was worried about you!”
I looked up at her. “I was out saving your planet,” I said, even though she couldn’t understand. I headed for the food station, brushing past her leg to reassure her. “Now where’s breakfast?”