His streetcar went clanging away to the next stop and the end of the line. The three-story apartment building where he lived had holiday lights festooning balconies in front of a few apartments and greenery draped on the railings of a few more. Not much decoration, none at all around his — even in this, its fiftieth year, the settlement and settlers didn't have a lot to spare on frivolity. What caught Joel's attention was a cat crying somewhere nearby as he plodded up the drive. There weren't a lot of cats, either; the population had started small, smuggled-in to begin with, and some of the local animals kept the feral population near zero. The first flakes of a fresh snowfall were swirling through the twilight — nothing unusual for the long, harsh Winters of the planet nicknamed "Blizzard" by the earliest settlers but it made the source of the sad sounds all the harder to locate.
"The kitty's stuck in that tree, it's been up there almost all day!" It was one of his apartment-building neighbors, one of the newlyweds in the adjoining apartment. She'd be too embarrassed to speak if she ever figured out how easily sound got through the utility connections, Joel mused, and probably not very relieved to learn his solution, once the hubbub had become tiresome, had been to start keeping earplugs handy near his bed.
Right now she looked worried. Pointing earnestly up at the "tree" — more of a giant fern, looking something like a flattened pine — she said, "The guy upstairs got mad and threw his kitten out the window. It doesn't know how to get down! My Husband's out of town, can't you Do Something...?"
Joel grunted. Even here on the unknown frontier — the starship program and the Settled Worlds established in the 1950s in response to the threat posed by modern nuclear and biological weapons were still classified, hidden from nearly everyone Earthside — even here, there were plenty of people who would rather talk and feel rather than do. "They also serve, who only skin their knuckles," he muttered, grinning to take the edge off.
"Oh, I knew you'd help!"
The fern-trees weren't very strong for their size but Joel was light enough to climb the larger ones. This one was small enough to be questionable and, of course, the kitten was shifting around nervously near the end of a higher branch. And still wailing. Joel set his toolbag down on the porch, away from the damp and the increasing snowfall, and began to climb.
The tree swayed badly as he climbed to the second-story level. This had the benefit of causing the silver-gray kitten to stay put, clinging for dear life. The flip side was that the little cat was even more frightened by the time he got close enough to reach out. It hissed and retreated to the tip of the branch, now sagging down and back towards the slender trunk. Joel backed down a couple of branches, leaned out as far as he dared towards the hissing, spitting kitten, reached for it and took a pinprick paw-swipe in response, then scooped up the now-furious animal. "Got it!" he announced, trying to climb down with the frantic kitten clutched to his chest.
Slipping a few times on the way, he succeeded in returning to solid ground without any major damage to himself or the cat. "There you are," he said, holding the baby cat out to the young woman.
"Me? I don't want a cat! I was just worried. Anyway, it belongs to the man upstairs. But thanks for getting it down." She turned and headed for her door.
"...Unh...?" Joel replied, climbing onto the porch as the door to her apartment shut. And locked. "Great." Still holding the squirming cat, perhaps a bit tighter than necessary, he shuffle-kicked his toolbag down the porch to his door, changed his hold on the cat, fished his keys out one-handed, opened the door, shoved the toolbag inside, made a frantic two-handed grab to retain the kitten. He hooked a foot around the door and pulled it shut, looking down at the cat as it swung to. "Time to take you home, I think."
In two years living in the concrete-block apartment building, one of the first set of buildings made from local materials on Blizzard and originally a barracks, Joel had never been to the higher floors. A set of stacked, interlocking modules, the layout of each floor — and originally, of each apartment — was identical. Outside stairs linked balconies to the first-floor porch, two apartments side-by-side on the East and West sides, one in the center on North and South. The "guy upstairs" in question was a recent arrival, a man he'd never met. This didn't make him especially unusual; turnover in the building was high and Joel was anything but outgoing. Careful arrangement of Christmas lights along the new guy's section of the balcony, no name on the door; he knocked and waited. Nothing. Knocked louder and eventually heard a stir. The door opened a crack and a bleary, annoyed-looking young man looked out. "What do you want?" he asked.
"Is this your cat?" Joel held up the cat, which obliged by trying to bite him and mewing.
"Not any more! Damn thing pulled the drapes down on me when I was sleeping! It ruined my couch! It's hyperactive!"
"Uh, it was in a fern tree, the one up by the porch...?"
"Yeah, well, cats climb trees. So?"
"Neighbors said it was crying up there all day?"
"It cries a lot. I threw it out!"
"But it was your cat...?"
"Was. You want it? It's yours. Good luck." He shut the door.
Joel looked down at the cat. It hissed at him. "Oh, well," he said, and headed for the stairs.
He hadn't bothered to lock his own door; he shifted to a one-handed hold on the kitten, opened the door, look a step and fell sprawling over his toolbag. The cat escaped as he put his hands out to break his fall and scurried away under the couch. "Da-yum!" Joel yelled as he hit, but nothing felt too damaged. He turned, sat up, and kicked the door shut with half a smile, "I'm an idiot." He turned back to the couch, where, leaning down, he could see two eyes glinting in the far corner. "Fine, you. Stay there."
A can of tuna (imported) and a bowl of water had proven enough to lure the kitten out from hiding long enough to growlingly bolt down a third of the food, be briefly sick, take a long drink of water, eat a little more and dance away when he went to wipe up the mess. He'd half-filled a plastic dishpan with dirt hacked from the straggly plantings along the porch and set it near the couch, hoping the kitten would take the hint. Stretched out on the couch, half-listening to the evening news on the radio, he'd reread the Christmas card from the elderly aunt who was his only living relative (and convinced he worked for a oil-exploration firm in some hard-to-reach tropical jungle back on Earth). After ten years, the homeplanet seemed less and less real, drifting away into an improbable nightmare. A bookish, mumbling loner, he'd had a cat back on earth, a gray-and-black tiger-striped tomcat named Ralph. That cat had been his constant companion and the terror of small animals and lesser toms for miles around for years, until the day it stopped coming home. He'd found the little body next to the road a few days later, stiff, unmoving, hit by a car along the road he drove to school every day and vowed, fiercely, Never Again. No More Cats.
Graduation, tech school, military service, the house fire that took both his parents and a short, flawed career in uniform later had found him in the office of an annoyingly-vague employment agent, signing a long-term contract. Months later, he'd been dazzled to find himself aboard a starship, furious to learn "long term" meant "lifetime" and found resignation turning willy-nilly into fascination as he learned more about his new home. The years since arrival, he'd found over-full with work, moving from site to site, installing and maintaining a mad assortment of radio communications equipment, fifty-years worth of military surplus, low-bidder lots and local improvisation. No close friends, no ties back "home" and that home increasingly strange and foreign; the Hidden Frontier retained an element of crew-cuts and "squareness" long-vanished on Earth. Always short on workers and long on things to get done, each world determined to become as self-supporting as possible, the challenges and the society they formed were like nothing contemporaneous on the home planet. His employers rated him adequate, occasionally even brilliant. His neighbors barely noticed him at all.
A noise caught his attention, the kitten carefully making a hole in the improvised litter and he thought, now, this. Outside, the snow continued to fall. The automated streetcar had gone clanging blindly back not long before, the sound eliciting a worrying flurry of panicked scratching from under the couch as it swelled and then faded. Calmer now, the kitten finished its business and made to climb the couch. He started to reach and thought better of it, watching through half-shut eyes as the little cat made its way to the cushions at his feet. Newscast over, the radio began a program of holiday music, schmaltzy old Christmas songs, as the cat, step at a time, climbed up onto his legs and made slowly for his lap, pausing to look around at every sound. Making its way to his lap, it turned around three times, sat down and began kneading at his waist. He moved a hand carefully, stopping as the kitten stopped kneading to look. It settled back down and began to purr.
Looking over at the card and then out the window at snow, now whirling down faster and thicker, catching glints of the colorful lights as it fell, he reached again for the cat, carefully, petted it and it sighed and started to purr louder. "No More Cats for me?" he thought. "No more cats for me on Earth."
(All I saw was a skinny, happy guy getting food for his cat, after I wangled a day-off trip down to Blizzard's landing-site "city," Frostbite Falls. I made up all rest. --Geesh, I wondered why the guys in the Eng. Shop were so highly amused at me wantin' to see the sights: snow, funky flat evergreen-analogs, a robotic trolley system right outta Loonie Tunes, and a whole lotta Metabolist-style semi-prefab buildings on rolling terrain, and that's it. Oh, and some scary native critters, but I never saw any. Kinda Christmas-y, though.)
Merry Christmas to you all and may all your dreams be as warm and happy as a sleeping kitten!
Roberta X aboard the Starship Lupine, Somewhere Out There. Way out there.