Al and I cleared up after our meal which was, I have to say, amazingly good. Rutter had pan fried the fish, adding some pre-cooked rice from the ration packs and fresh herbs that Traeth foraged. It was a beautiful fish risotto. (Rutter will make someone a lovely wife some day.)
We had lots of company too. Yes, the smell of fresh fish brought them in their droves—the cats. And yes, fools that we were, we shared our dinner with them picking out the prime bits of fish and feeding them to our new friends. It was still lovely.
After that, we all migrated back to the mud-brick building. I don't know why; we just did.
Entering the structure, we found the cats assembled there once again. This time, though, they did not retreat. We sat down among them, fussing and cuddling them, and enjoying their company as much as they were ours. Even Tom had forgiven me.
He sauntered over, the other cats making way for him and climbed up onto my lap. Very gently, I tipped him over to rub his belly. I held him like a baby, nursing him in one arm with his hind legs splayed and dangling freely. I buried my fingers deep in his rich fur and massaged his tummy. He purred loudly.
"Do you think they are sacred?" asked Al. "I mean like Egyptian cats?"
Traeth had no knowledge of the Egyptians so we explained how felines were worshiped by the them, some even being mummified after death, and that killing a cat, even accidentally, could have incurred the death penalty.
"It would seem to make sense," said Traeth. "These animals are very well looked after."
"Are they as big as this on the mainland?" I asked.
"We don't have them at all on the mainland. The only other cats I've seen were those on Earth."
"How peculiar! I wonder why they are unique to this island."
"Could they have come from Earth?" Traeth asked.
I shook my head. "Doubtful. I suppose if a ship had crashed here long ago, but would any ship have had more than one cat? And Terran cats aren't nearly so large. What about yours, Al?"
Al had been raised by her Aunt Edith on a remote farmstead in the mountains of Oveda Prime with nineteen cats and a cockatiel named Rodney. She was eight years old before she saw another two-legged being so she knew her cats well.
"No, ours were quite small—fat but small."
"These guys aren't fat," I argued.
"No, I think they get a lot of exercise during the day, but they are well fed." Al massaged the one she was petting, checking it over like a practised veterinarian who was used to disguising his administrations as cuddles. "They have very good muscle-tone and a good covering over their ribs. They might not be fat, but they are fit, well fed—and groomed." She pointed to a statuesque, long-haired, white cat sitting on the top step.
"A coat like that needs lots of grooming to keep it tangle free and she doesn't have a single knot." She gently pulled the lips of her cat up to expose its teeth. It shook its head indignantly but soon forgave her as she returned to the massage. "And their teeth are excellent. This girl's quite old jugging by her skin—it's fuller and looser on older cats … see?" and she gently tugged at the cats tummy to show the extra folds of fur, "but her teeth are in excellent condition."
I played with Tom's fur, twizzling it around my fingers and then soothed his enormous front paws, studying his claws. They were neat, clean and sharp with no ragged edges, almost manicured. She was right. They were in beautiful condition.
"Oh, good grief!" I suddenly exclaimed. "They've got opposable thumbs!"
Immediately, everyone began inspecting their cats to verify the fact.
"Crikey, Jen! You're right! I bet that makes them good at climbing trees."
As the other three prattled on, their conversation droning in the background, the cogs in my mind were working furiously.
I looked hard into Tom's face. It was so expressive. He had stopped purring and was gazing intensely back at me. One eye narrowed and his brow furrowed. He was frowning at me, I mean really frowning.
"Um … guys," I said softly, but they didn't hear me. "Guys!" I said a little louder, without breaking eye contact with Tom.
"Yes," said Rutter as they hushed and looked to me, waiting for me to speak.
"I think you'll find …" I paused.
"Um … well, I think you'll find … that, um … the people never actually left the village."
A silence followed while they digested what I had said.
"What do you mean … never left? The village is deserted."
"No, it's not. It's the cats."
Another silence and then Rutter burst out laughing.
"The cats! You're saying the cats are the natives?" he scoffed.
"Yes. I am," I said resolutely. "Everything is scaled for the cats—the pods, this building, everything."
"How do you make that out?"
"The pods are perfect for the cats. Even the entrance is designed for them. It would be really awkward for even a small Dirrian to climb inside one of those, but a cat can get in no problem at all. Even the bedding is for cats, and we've seen them going in and out of them to nap all day. Even this place is perfectly scaled for cats."
"No, it's not," said Rutter, looking at the ceiling above his head. "Look how high the roof is. It's nearly six feet above the ground at the lowest point."
"Most prominent buildings have high ceilings. Think of churches and important public buildings on Earth, Qo’noS or Vulcan. They all have high, vaulted ceilings, but look at the steps. These aren't steps at all. It's seating for their senate and that bench in the middle is the podium for their king or emperor."
The guys considered my argument in silence. In the meantime, I leaned my head down even closer towards Tom's face. The whiskers above his eyes twitched against my face.
I smiled and whispered softly to him, "You are sentient, aren't you?"
He lay quite relaxed but pensive in my arms, pursing his lips as he debated. He pushed my hands away with his big paws and sighed.
"Well, now that you mention it," he finally said.