"There are many kinds of cats. And somewhere out there in our Galaxy, there are upright, intelligent cats, evolved from the great felines of their home world. They still have some of their feline features, like fangs and claws and manes. They come in the many patterns and colors of their forbearers---spots, strips, rosettes, and different skin colors. And they have the instinct to hunt and kill prey. It is this instinct which keeps their worlds pristine and beautiful, even as the Hunters use technology to enjoy their comforts and to explore from world to world, in search of the new and curious. Here, in Shadow Cat, many years away from the tautschen's home planet, one descendent comes face to face with the great cats which he believes are his ancestors.....and his life and theirs hangs in the balance." - C.L. Rossman
by C.L. Rossman
“One more crate!” the animal seller called, “And Spirit’s own luck to you!”
“What’s in it, honored hunter?” Starseeker asked, wondering at the last words.
“You’ll see soon enough, tyr-rakash,” the other said with a snaggle-toothed grimace. “No offense intended…”
“Chak,” agreed his cohort, the second ship’s hunter, who was standing atop the ramp at the starship’s bay door. “Come up here, Surash, and help me get this on a sled.”
“Coming.” He mounted the ramp and Starseeker’s gaze followed him.
A heavy crate, then, if it took two tautschen to lift it, the Shadow warrior thought, though not as large as those which held cattle-like krolf and the bigger ground animals. And when the two hunters set it on their platform sled, it rocked and snarled.
Starseeker craned to see, but the crate was completely unmarked except for some small air holes. “What do you have there?” he asked again.
“A trap-full of trouble!” one of the hunters called down, and “Something expensive and rare,” the second one said. “Here, watch your footing, Tarulen, and back up slowly.”
After they had levered the sled down the ramp, Surash decided to answer the warrior.
“A pair of Shadow Clan’s big cats, that’s what,” he said proudly.
Starseeker snapped alert. “How? Those cats are held sacred by the clan.”
“Hrrnnt—don’t I know it! We couldn’t have been able to get any if they hadn’t expanded their range into Burning Forest’s territory, and it wasn’t easy even there.”
While Starseeker stared at the box in fascination, his friend and leader Renegade came up beside him. “Shadow’s royal cats, and a pair, you say, honored hunters?”
“Oh yes, sir.” They became instantly more respectful. “Male and female. And worth a stretch more hideshare, vr’Champion.”
A smile shaded Renegade’s face. “We can’t even see them to know what condition they’re in.”
That set off the haggling. Starseeker heard little of it. He was leaning over the crate, trying to see inside. All of the tautschen, or Hunting People, as they call themselves, are descended from the great cats of their Homeworld. They have a humanoid shape, but feline features, and here Starseeker had a chance to see some of his almost-mythical ‘ancestors.’ He could make out only two heavy, shifting shapes, which blocked and unblocked the light. He needed to get closer…
A hard slam jarred the crate and a large hooked claw jabbed out of the nearest hole and tried to scrape down whatever it could catch as it pulled back in.
Everyone jumped, including the animal-sellers.
Starseeker recovered, then laughed. “That is as much as I’ve ever seen of one. Even though I come from Shadow Clan myself.”
Renegade chuckled and turned away to pay the sellers. That done, he walked over to his rakash-wahr, the warrior-poet of his clan, and remarked, “You may soon get to see more of them, Starseeker. The rest of these animals will go on to restock other worlds—but we have a good boreal forest on this one. We could release them here.”
Leader and warrior looked at each other, and Renegade asked, “Would you like to take them to the release site yourself, brother?”
Of course he would. But even as he backed up his personal flying vehicle, his rakka and its sled to take on the crate, he felt relieved that his mate High Mountain Song, wasn’t here at the landing to worry over him and remind him to be “very careful.” Just because he’d been a little depressed the other day and asked her (rhetorically, of course), “What does is the longest life mean if it is continually slipping away from under. You wake and you are newborn—then next -throw you’re 300 and on your death hunt?” (Starseeker was only 50, but poets and warriors thought of these things a lot, apparently.)
And at first she’d been shocked and speechless, then, after clasping his hand had looked him seriously in the face and said, “I know you believe in the Spirit-of-all, my heart, but sometimes even that does not soften our worries. “ Then she’d smiled and leaned over to whisper something in his ear…
Well, he said, he’d think about it. And he lashed the crate down on its sled, ready to rise and fly.
Because they couldn’t feed or water the new animals easily, Renegade Clan members took them away for placement as soon as they could. Some would go to another waiting Life-ship, as they called it, for distribution among Ten Systems’ worlds. A few would go here to the Twin Worlds of Kr’ra’klv’tt and Rakul. Local hunters and warriors hitched small sleds to their rakken, their personal flying vehicles, and flew them away quickly.
Worlds in Ten Systems had some life-gaps among their habitats, thanks to a voracious Enemy which had passed through eons before. The Hunters were trying to rebuild them.
Starseeker took on his two mythological beasts alone. His heart beat higher and his breath came faster with excitement. He knew that Renegade had been itching to send him off with some warning or a partner, but he felt pleased that his leader had awarded him this honor alone. Starseeker was an excellent hunter; he vowed he would not make a mistake. –But to see the fabled night-cat for himself, after decades of listening to its legends and lore! It had been thirty years since Starseeker had left Homeworld, but he still remembered those legends.
The airborne ride seemed to soothe the great cats again. Or at least, settle them down. The warrior flew low but swiftly, taking them to the smaller northern continent “across the pole” from Renegade’s territory.
“There’s prime boreal forest there," he said, talking to the living cargo behind him, “plenty of herd animals and plenty of water, too.”
“Did they give you food or water, lately?” he wondered. ‘They’ were supposed to care for their charges, these animal-catchers. Often they tranquilized the animals when first caught, but unless the beasts were too ferocious to approach, the traders were supposed to feed and water them regularly during their trip to the Twin Worlds.
But that crate didn’t look as if it had any amenities, made of plain hardwood with a few air holes in it, no sign of an attached water line or a shelf for food. He couldn’t see inside it at all.
That’s why Starseeker was anxious to free them as soon as possible; and he forced his personal flier to as much speed as he could stand, straddling it unprotected in the wind.
The open flight across the pole chilled him, even though it was summer. His passengers had become very quiet, and he spoke to them to calm his own anxiety:
“Good hunting on this side of the world, and no competition. The snow cats and sabertooths haven’t reached this continent yet, but the shoveljaw come through in great herds, and there are kai and smaller game in the woods, all of them good meat,” he said, then shut his jaw, feeling foolish.
Our ancestors may have talked to other beings, but we have lost that ability, he thought, and all we know are their cries and calls. His own ancestors had supposedly sprung from the great cats themselves. Anatomically, they were close. Shadow Clan shamans had reverenced them and held them in awe. Some said a shaman could even become the cat. Today, the clan on Homeworld forbade all but the top ranked hunters and huntresses to take one of their pelts.
We are already less than our forbearers were, he thought, if we can hunt them.
He finally crossed the northern pole and most of the pale tundra, and rolled on until the deep blue-green of the needleleaf forest broke the horizon. Thousands upon thousands of kri-veh it stretched away, making up half the northern continent.
His “passengers’” continued silence worried Starseeker, so he flew in only about 20 kri-veh and chose a good spot for the release: a small clearing surrounded by tall conifers and a few broken boulders, with a clear river edging it nearby—“one that never goes dry,” he promised, and brought both rakka and sled to a gentle halt, then began lowering them slowly.
Still no sign from the enclosed beasts. Had their latest outburst been their last? Their last desperate defense against their captors before they collapsed and died? Starseeker agonized through the descent, yet still managed to keep his hunting senses honed. This world was still wild, and he must be prepared for anything…
There. Down. He disengaged the flier from the burdened sled so that he could get away if for some reason the cats decided to take possession of the crate and attack him. He coasted the rakka into the trees, left it to hover and returned to the crate unlock it.
Still nothing. Very worried now, Starseeker thought he should stay, perch on top the crate, and be ready to look in.
He almost did. But an old teacher’s voice came back to him and said, “Do not yield the watch; do all that you know every time.”
And in the end he chose the cautious way, setting the container for remote release, and backing off to shelter among the trees. Not cowardice, just caution. Feckless bravado had killed more hunters than he could count—some of them had been friends.
So Starseeker crouched behind cover, the release-button in his hand. Still no movement from the crate. Would he see the fabled cats only as corpses? Restraining a sigh, he pressed the button.
Something erupted from the crate with a roar like thunder. It became a blur, a dark wind charging out to do battle, a primordial force.
“Shain rt-tai!!” Starseeker jerked upright, cried out. “Night-panther,” he breathed.
The great cat stilled head up, back arched. It turned from tornado to statue before the hunter could even blink. It was alive—alive!—and it had lunged for freedom at once, ready to deal death to its captors….what magnificence! For the first time, the Hunter looked upon the cat his clan called “ancestor.”
It was incredible. The wonderful sinewy muscles in legs and shoulders, the long tail raised in a proud curve, and held there, a pose no other feline could strike. The great tigerish head uplifted, the scant ruff of ebony fur surrounding the onyx face—the fangs like white sabers, the head completed by shimmering golden eyes.
It seemed to be looking directly at him. Does it know I’m here? Would its next move be to attack? And where was the other--?
A shadow eeled round from the other side of the crate and paused, also looking at him. The other cat! Starseeker—or anyone else—would have focused so intently upon the first one, he would have been easy prey for the second.
Well done, he thought.
The first rt’ter-shain, the male, glanced back at his mate just long enough to communicate something, then returned his stare to the Hunter. When the cats’ muscles rippled, their sleek coats flashed, and they showed two different patterns: the male lightly striped in silver-white, while on the female, ghostly shadow-spots rippled and gleamed. The same two patterns shone on the People of Shadow Clan., directly on their skin.
Both cats glared in his direction, as if he were open to their eyes. Were they going to attack? Slowly the warrior rose. He didn’t want to fight them. He would probably have to kill them—their ferocity was legendary, but…better to meet death standing than on your knees.
What he or they might have done next remained a mystery, for at that moment, everything changed.
A rustling and clacking came from the woods next to the river—sharp, loud noises, as if many branches were breaking all at once. Something coming—perhaps even a herd of somethings…
The cats’ heads whipped round in that direction. Abruptly the pair faded back behind the crate, using it for cover.
But they have no cover; and whatever is coming will keep them from the trees.
A joyous bounce of flashing eyes and spiral horns and gleaming coats galloped through the trees, and Starseeker recognized the K’sariens or Windrunners, romping here on the far side of the world, where they had no right to be.
A bachelor herd, he thought, as four, five, six, of them loped into sight, young stallions not yet old enough to win mares of their own. But what were they doing here, on the far side of the world? Could they have wandered this far? He had no way to know…
The sight of the strange object—the crate—stopped them in their tracks. Every curved neck stretched out, went rigid, every nostril flared, every leg stood still.
They were tall four-leggers and Starseeker realized they must be able to see over the crate to what crouched behind. But how would they react?
One of them tossed its head and screamed—not a whinny at all but a shriek of defiance and challenge. The others echoed it. They stamped their feet and reared, then came down and lowered their horns…
…directly at the two great cats.
“No, oh no.” Starseeker’s thoughts raced. The fight would be six against two. The shadow cats were unfamiliar with Windrunners and they had no place to hide. And he knew what would happened, he knew that the great cats would stand and fight; they had too…but the Windrunners would lower those deadly horns, bare their strong teeth and storm down to surround and kill them both.
Suddenly the big male shadow cat appeared on top of the crate, his ruff bristling and his fangs bared. He answered the Windrunners’ challenge with a roar of his own.
Chai’k-hai—by honor you are called.
Rarik-hai---I come! The ancient tautschen Challenge rang through Starseeker’s head as if it had been spoken.
The Windrunners thundered forward; the male cat leaped to meet them; and the female snaked from cover, going for their legs.
Too many against too few.
Starseeker charged, running, swinging a spear and roaring out the old battle-cry.
The sight distracted the combatants: the shadow cat missed his leap, bounced off a strong arched neck, and the K’sariens looked around, surprised.
But the she-cat bit the first ‘runner’s foreleg and her weight pulled him over.
The others screamed and galloped up to stab at both cats. Starseeker wouldn’t reach them, couldn’t run fast enough.
So he sent the spear on ahead of him.
It smoked over the nearest K’sarien’s crest and sank into the shoulder of the next one over, deflecting him from the male cat. The steed stumbled and shrilled.
Then Starseeker himself landed in their midst, nothing left to throw, but a laser set to shoot, and he tried to fend off one stabbing horn while another beast raked him with its teeth.
The Hunter was strong, but they were stronger. They could kill with their hooves or a single thrust of their horns.
Starseeker shot into a chestnut flank; a hard body slammed into him from the other side and he went down, rolled under the stamping hooves, shooting upward, trying to stay alive. He heard roars, saw flying feet and dust, and a strange thought came to him, almost in tranquility:
He remembered his remarks to his wife. How life drained out from under your feet like water pressed from a puddle, and suddenly you were old, and had no more time. Would his life leak out from under him now, today? In this strangely silent space carved from chaos, in this one moment when everything slowed down, at last, at last he could see—
Laser-fire spat into the chest of a big Windrunner coming down on him, and Starseeker waited, at first unsure he had fired.
Then a huge black shape flew over him and crashed into the Windrunner, and time sped up, Starseeker sprang to his feet, saw his spear sticking out of a fallen foe, snatched it free and danced death with a brace of flashing horns and stomping feet, and another black shape rose beside him and lashed out with its knived paws.
Death blew by in a slice of spiral horn, death missed him by a fraction, and a mass of muscle and power slammed onto his spear and drove him backward. Something roared; something squealed.
And suddenly it was over.
Dust fell through filtered light; the warrior stood between heaps of dead flesh; and the only sound he could hear was the rhythmic hoofbeats of the last Windrunners, running away. Three of them, heads down, galloping away, taking caution from their companions’ lives.
Starseeker blinked and looked around. At the same time, the female shadow cat lifted her head from the throat of a downed Windrunner, gave it a shake, and sighed. A very tautschen-like sigh. She stood up and put a paw on the fallen animal as if claiming it as her own.
The male cat. Where was the male? If they’d killed him…
Then Starseeker felt something move behind him, felt its presence grow. Very slowly, he turned around. There stood the male, looking at him.
Would he now have to fight the great cat too, Starseeker wondered in dismay. They might see him as an enemy as well. And they had him perfectly bracketed between them, primed for the kill.
Words came to the warrior’s lips which he had never uttered before, from the deep wellspring of his heritage:
“O great ones, blood of my blood, will you slay the hunter who fights for you?” And he let his posture ease and his gaze withdraw from his eye-lock with the male, and slant aside. If they attacked now, he had just made himself more vulnerable. When even a long life may be cut short by misadventure, he found himself yearning for the full.
The huge male shadow cat made a whuff or chuff sound in his throat and lowered his head.
Behind him, Starseeker heard the female give a soft call so like a tautschen mother calling for her child that it stunned him. A moment later she appeared, almost brushing his left side in passing as she went to her mate.
The male took a step towards her; they met and sniffed; then he licked her brow and she began to strum the deep throaty rumble of her purr.
Starseeker turned quietly and left them. He walked all the way across the clearing and over to the trees when his rakka waited.
After he mounted it and prepared to rise out of the trees, he looked back to see both cats nuzzling each other, apparently hearty and hale. As he let the airbike ascend, he saw the cats finish their greeting and get back to the sterner basics of survival. They picked out one of the slain Windrunners, and the male lugging it by its neck, the female guarding his flank, they took it into the tree-cover for a safe banquet.
Oh. He’d forgotten to take the crate. Well, it was wood; it could stay where it was for now. Starseeker found himself trembling and something deep in his center felt swept clean, as if some great answer had been given and he was at rest. He could leave now.
He remained in this strange exalted state, flying back toward the pole, when his comset crackled and a familiar voice called down to him:
“Starseeker! Brother, we’re in s scout ship barely a kri-veh out, and we’re heading your way. Might we give you a faster ride home?”
Renegade, his leader and friend. Following his outward track because he was concerned about Starseeker as he would be about any of his friends….but pretending to just be jaunting along in the same direction, so as to save a warrior’s pride. Renegade took on the care of each and every huntmate as a personal duty, as for a family member he would not want to lose.
Starseeker smiled. “A faster ride home would fit me like a second skin, brother. I’m honored.”
“Oh, t’chak; the honor is mine,” Renegade chuckled, and brought the scout down to Starseeker’s altitude, where the warrior could just glide the rakka inside the belly-bay. “And how do the shadow cats like their new home? We’re eager to hear the story.”
That was the other thing about Renegade: the leader loved to talk philosophy, to puzzle over meaning beyond the mundane—the only other hunter who did so that Starseeker that ever known.
“I’ll be pleased to tell you,” he replied. “It’s a story to ponder;” then switched off and got ready to board.
He’d just remembered what his wife answered on that day gone by, when he’d questioned the value of a life forever fleeting away:
“Oh my heart,” she’d told him, “why question and doubt, when the meaning lies all around you? Did not the Spirit of All give us this day and every day to savor, to live at the fullest as we come to them?”
Quite the philosopher herself, she was.
Renegade: The Hunter by Constance Rossman