The Cat of Bel-Ak-Shey
by Eric Dodd
The cat yowled and hissed, back arched, eyes a poisonous green.
"Stay away from that cat, deek. They say cats be Firstlife." The stall vendor threw a sandal at the cat, which dodged easily and ran off with a hateful glance. "They say cats find source nodes. Bad luck." The stall vendor hawked and spat into the dust. "You buying or you looking?"
Gez had money, but wasn't interested in the cheap wares strewn across the ancient wooden stall table. He looked down the narrow alley, trying for a glimpse of the cat. Source nodes. Dangerous, but if he found an untapped one, he could become ... anything. Better than he was. He shook his head at the stall vendor, and walked into the alley.
The walls of the buildings stretched high above, leaning and twisting, some curved, if they were grown, and some straight, if they were built. The alley was choked with sloughed-off building scales, bricks, trash, and sand. The Island of Bel-Ak-Shey was hot and dry, with little vegetation, so there were only a few straggling cacti and succulents hidden amongst the refuse.
Gez followed the twists of wall closely, turning his bladelike body sideways at points, scrambling over rubbish piles, going deeper into the gloom as the sky-reaching buildings tilted overhead to meet at some point lost in the haze of pollution and filth and dust. A source node. Gez had been searching for one for most of his life, but so had everyone else he knew. Tapping nodes was the one sure way a person could elevate oneself beyond the grime and dirt of the regular life of the Island. If it didn't kill, or cause madness.
He crawled nimbly over a large building scale fallen slantwise against a wall, and spied the cat grooming itself atop a pile of plastic bags. It was said that cats were Firstlife, that they came from a different place, eons ago. Some people said that people came from somewhere else, too, but that was equally unlikely. Gez didn't care. The Island was one of millions on the World, and the World was infinite, so why care where people or cats came from?
Cats were supposedly fond of source nodes. He didn't need some ignorant stall vendor to tell him that. Gez was a rarity amongst his friends -- he could read, and he traded certain items and favors with an apprentice at the Librorium so that he could read the books there sometimes, late at night. The books were mostly lies, but they did agree upon one thing: if you wanted to find a source node, look for cats.
The cat, perhaps sensing Gez' attention, looked up from bathing its red and black fur, hissed, and darted away, down and through a very narrow gap between two buildings. Gez leapt down, hopped across the rubble and checked the gap. It was larger than his head, so he knew he could fit his body through. He shoved himself through, squeezing and turning, never worrying, and emerged into a small, squarish courtyard. The cat was nowhere to be found. Gez moved cautiously into the center of the courtyard, and looked around. Overhead was only a faint beige patch of sky, far away and framed by the mass of buildings. He walked to the opposite wall, looking at the crack-mazed surface of the building for potential hiding spots.
From behind him, he heard a scratching sound, and he turned, only to see the cat leap at him, claws extended, fangs already gnashing the air. Gez threw his arm up to protect his face, but the cat had leapt slightly to the left, and landed on Gez' exposed neck and shoulder, clawing and biting, and still screeching its horrible yowl. Gez grunted, twisted, and grabbed the cat. Blood ran into Gez' eyes from a scratch on his forehead. He squeezed, and flung the animal away from him. He shook his head to clear the blood from his eyes, and stumbled against a wall, only to hear a CRACK! as the thin scale gave way. Unbalanced, he tumbled into the open darkness at the base of the building.
Gez landed a few meters down, into a pile of dust and soft debris. He wiped the blood from his eyes, and willed them to adjust to the darkness. His hair stood on end, and his skin prickled. The node! He thought. He realized he could see his hands in the gloom, lit by a flickering blue light. He looked to his left, and saw it. The source node appeared as a faint blue crack in the air, or a spider web, or some fabulously complicated geometric figure. I've found it, he thought. It's mine now.
Gez crawled to the glowing node, outstretched his hand, and felt the first wisps of power touch his hand. It hurt more than anything he had ever experienced, yet felt oddly comforting. He felt the node ransack his mind, demanding an answer to a question. PURPOSE? Gez could not answer. PURPOSE? Gez felt his mind flattening, smearing out, becoming thin. He seized upon the last thought he was aware of thinking, a view of a building he thought beautiful, tall and twisted, scales glittering in sunlight. PURPOSE. Gez felt himself stretch and expand, and then felt no more.
In the once-barren courtyard, a new building stood, four hundred meters tall, beautiful, scales glittering in the sunlight. Its hallways were roamed by many cats, who found it to be a good home.