The Catwoman Legacy
Jane Denson stepped from the small shuttle that had brought her over the Uzbek mountains to the estate of the late multi-trillionaire Francis Beltran. As she approached the front of the low rise but extensive house, the door opened into a large lobby. She stepped inside. The house immediately seemed rather bare and Jane guessed that many of Beltran’s movable items had already been sold off or given away. A tall, slender, fit-looking man, probably in his early eighties, came into the lobby smiling as Jane entered. He wore a tight-fitting suit of some black textile and shiny shoes rather than boots. This had to be Stefan Owen.
“Miss. Denson, I’m glad you have been able to take over from Mr. Price in handling Mr. Beltran’s collection.”
“It’s no problem, Burgess & Stafford always give full commitment to completing a contract. We expect Mike Price to be back up and around in a couple of months. It was a serious accident, but he’s a healthy guy. In the meantime, I trust I have the expertise that you need, Mr. Owen.”
“Yes, yes, I am sure you have. Price was doing a good job. He cleared just over three-quarters of the stores. He briefed you? You know what it’s about?”
Jane nodded, even so Owen continued.
“Yes, throughout his life Mr. Beltran assembled a collection of creatures from across the known systems. His will states that they are all to be returned to their home planets; the local authorities here are more than happy for the creatures to be gone, they don’t want any of them getting into the local grey economy, so everyone is eager to have them despatched as soon as possible. You don’t need to be a specialist in xenobiology to bring that about: all of the creatures are housed in environment pods; it’s just a case of getting them shipped out of here and back to the right planet. You’ll be able to get the information from Mr. Beltran’s database.”
“You can rely on me, Mr. Owen, I’ve shipped all sorts of cargoes across the galaxy, including the most fragile. I’ve moved livestock to the colonies, so I imagine a handful of creatures will be straight forward.”
“Good, good, that’s what I like to hear. The household retains some automated servants, the human ones were paid off when Mr. Beltran died, so it might get a bit lonely out here, but feel free to make full use of the facilities, call home, whatever. If you need anything at all, contact me. The Beltran estate runs into trillions of renminbi, it can certainly afford to let you make use of more than just the electricity and com links.”
“Thanks, that’s appreciated.”
Actually Jane was looking forward to some quiet time; it had been one reason why she had volunteered to come out to the Beltran plot when Mike had had his speeder rammed. Last month she had found her boyfriend of four years, Aidan, in bed with two of their neighbours and as a result she was feeling vulnerable. Some time away from people was going to allow her to think through her future and decide what she was going to do now she had walked out of the apartment she had shared with Aidan. Maybe she could wrangle getting on board the last ship taking a pod from Mr. Beltran’s collection back to its home planet. She felt quite an urge to get off Earth and see some of the other planets in nearby systems, maybe even to relocate to a colony. Among the different environments housed in Beltran’s vast mansion she thought she might find one that appealed to her.
“If you come this way, I’ll just show you the control room and you can see out over the remaining environment pods. As Price probably told you the most common pattern is for a Rhino class, one- or two-pod transporter, to fly straight over and pick them up direct. If you programme it correctly, once the computer here gets the protocols it will release the pod. Each one has its own individual environment generator with sufficient power source to sustain the inhabitants until they get home. You know the environment generators, well that’s how Mr. Beltran made his money.”
“No, I wasn’t aware of that, I just knew he was a rich man; I didn’t know how he had got the money.”
“Oh, well, if you’re interested there’s a whole string of biographies in the library. He never read them but authors and publishers kept sending them, in all sorts of formats, even some classic-style ones on paper. Anyway, briefly, the Beltran empire was built on natural pharmaceuticals. As humans expanded into new systems they encountered different species of plants and animals and some of these had very beneficial effects. A plant from Merboh was what finally combated the Agastanl epidemic at the end of last century. The trouble is that many of these things do not travel well or, if they do, it can be incredibly expensive to move them. So, Mr. Beltran began travelling to these planets, taking samples and also analysing the environment. Then, with the technology he developed, he was soon able to replicate the conditions of any particular planet anywhere else such an environment was required. That meant scientists could grow the plants and even animals, notably medicinal ones, where they needed them: that is, most typically, in the big cities, not in wildernesses where most of these things came from.”
Owen continued as they walked on. “Once an environment had been successfully replicated then, of course, any colony or home planet could simply get samples and so any plants and creatures they needed became readily accessible. Mr. Beltran made a fortune, but he was far better for humaity than other companies who would have held sick people to ransom by monopolising the different plants and creatures. Of course, they were always trying to keep him off new planets, but as he got richer he became more powerful himself. Some companies even tried to assassinate him, but, before long, too much money and too many governments were protecting him for any assassin to succeed. I am not saying he was a saint, he certainly loved to party and lead the good life—you only have to look around here; apparently he had a voracious sexual appetite, but there are many rich men worse than him in the universe.”
“Mmm, sounds interesting. Well, I’ve certainly learned something.”
“Here we are. This is the environment pod control room. As you see the system keeps everything functioning automatically. Where it is appropriate many of the pods have been cooled so that the creatures have entered hibernation. Mr. Price prioritised those pods where hibernation was not possible and got them away from Earth first. So, most of those left down there are pretty dormant. There’s still a few jungle ones left, a couple of deserts and a handful of marine ones. However, the bulk are forest or mountain as these have plants and animals which naturally shut down for part of the year and we have provided them with their winters.”
Jane’s eyes ran over the screens, many were blank; others showed just foliage or seawater or whatever liquid was appropriate for the planet the pod was mimicking.
“The pods can be taken up by the transporter through standard fittings. It’s best to turn the environment back up to full before having the pod picked up. The reason for this is that the creatures will need to be awake and alert when they arrive back home. Even if it is in fact their hibernation season when they arrive home, awake they will be able to find a corner to crawl into for safety. If you drop them back home and they are still dopey then predators will take them. Each pod has sufficient ‘air’, ‘water’ and food as appropriate to them. Extra can be pumped into the system if they need it. This was Mr. Beltran’s great advance, the methods of molecular manipulation that could create the gases, liquids and solids that matched the home environment of the plants and creatures. On some of the colonies, they have a Beltran ‘Earth’ environment which you could not tell was any different from here.”
“Right, sounds pretty straight forward. Though the cargo might be a little unusual it seems to be basically a pickup and despatch to a range of locations. The destinations are in the files for each pod?”
“Certainly. For a couple you might have to apply for permission to ship them to because they are going into hazardous areas or systems or planets that have been declared reserves of scientific interest.”
“Right, I have had experience of that kind of thing. I handled the repatriation of those Kesbar that were liberated from the Siow pirate ship.”
“I remember the ’cast about them. So, you’ve got a good idea of the kind of challenges. I knew we were sensible to bring in your company for this job. It seems like everything’s in hand. Last thing: just down from here is what Mr. Beltran called his ‘party zone’. It does what it said on the label. I think part of the entertainment was for the guests to go round the pods walking with creatures from a range of planets. Anyway, it’s got a big lounge and there are food facilities and a couple of decent bedrooms off it. You don’t have to stick to that area but if you do it will save you trekking all over the house for things.”
“Great, sounds sensible. Cuts down the commuting to work too. Flying over this place I did wonder if Mr. Beltran had a train to get around.”
“He certainly did, but it was sold off early on.”
“Right. Is that everything?”
“I think so. I’ll get a droid to unload and then I’ll get started. I know how to reach you if anything comes up and I have all Mike’s updates anyway.”
“Good, good. Well, I’ll be off and should see you in ten days, two weeks?”
“Yep, ten days should be enough. I’ll call in once I know when I’m likely to finish. I will keep up a regular schedule but not overdo the daily flights in and out because I know it can offend the locals.”
“Sure. Well, nice meeting you Miss. Denson.”
Jane shook Owen’s hand in the old fashioned way. In moments she was alone with the controls, the screens and the pods. A couple of minutes later she saw Owen’s own shuttle lift away from the estate and she knew it was now just her, the droids and an assortment of alien plants and creatures.
Six days had passed since Jane had arrived at the Beltran estate. It had not been overly exciting, but there was more than enough left in the late owner’s library of vids to keep her entertained in the evening and numerous half-drunk bottles of spirits remaining in the ‘party room’ to mean she could have a nice glow as she sat down to catch up on some of the classic movies of the past century. Beltran’s food dispensers were on a whole different level to any machinery Jane had eaten from before and she was sure she would be quite a bit heavier by the time she got home from this mission. So far, the collections of the pods had gone smoothly. The fifth flight out had left just a couple of hours ago. Grouping the different pods by where in the galaxy they had to be shipped had ultimately sped up the process. Though it meant taking them ‘out of order’ as they were set out on the estate, it had resulted in fewer flights and quick clearance for the shipping from the Tri-solar System Licensing Authority.
Jane looked over the control panel. There were three pods remaining. These were ones for which permission seemed to be taking time. One was a part of Merboh itself, the first planet that Beltran had replicated. The second one was for somewhere called Eyhav which Jane quickly found was in the middle of peace negotiations. As a result, there were issues about where on the planet, which was currently being portioned out, her chunk would go back to. The last pod was for some planet in the Felis sector, it seemed to lack a name, just a code: X50029. The ‘X’ meant it was off limits, the ‘5’ that it was seriously off-limits. Even running the reference number through the websites listing ‘hidden’ planets yielded nothing higher than X2 rating. Jane knew Beltran had been well connected and maybe this 50029 was a military base or a refuge for planetary presidents or perhaps it was ravaged by some disease that even Beltran had been unable to tackle. In terms of the Felis sector, all Jane could find was that it had been discovered about 130 years ago and that the lowest-rated planet in the system was an X2, the rest X3 or X4. The gem of a planet which Beltran had made a slice of was the only X5. To her that suggested that even coming close to it was going to be dangerous and whilst the others might be barren and not hostile in themselves they simply sat too near to this X5 to be safe for visitors.
Like most people Jane had sat through documentaries about Merboh when at school. As for Eyhav, you only had to watch the latest news reports to see how difficult it was to draw boundary lines on what seemed to be entirely featureless salt flats. This remaining environment, though, intrigued Jane. It was probably the only chance she would ever get to see even a replica of an X planet. Curious, Jane punched up the cameras from that pod on the screen. Immediately she saw that it was a jungle planet lush with plant life. The atmosphere seemed to be constantly full of pollen and the undergrowth had various types of beautiful flowers. The air was very much like that of Earth, though, of course, without any pollution and with a bit more oxygen in the mix. The stats scrolling up the screen confirmed that place was very fertile. The wildlife that she could see as she moved the hover-camera through the trees was typical of a jungle with a mixture of shy rodents and colourful birds. She switched on the audio and listened to the array of squawks, squeaks and the occasional more tuneful calls. There seemed to be no larger life forms. Perhaps this was X50029’s secret, that it lacked large predators; maybe it was simply how fecund the planet was in plant and small animal life.
Jane ran a quick infra-red scan across the pod and saw what her white light camera had been unable to show her. Along a wall farthest from the entrance to the pod were three larger forms. Their long bodies suggested they were more likely to be big cats than primates. Their vital signs seemed very low. Checking the temperature, Jane saw that that part of the pod was much cooler than the rest and the wall they were close to was drawing off the heat which was prevalent in the rest of the pod and typical of a jungle on Earth. It was clear that for some reason these creatures had been put into hibernation. Were they that dangerous that they were not permitted to run free in the way the creatures in the other pods had been allowed? The estate’s systems had sufficient power and resources to have fed all the creatures in all the pods for about the next three years. Maybe it was something to do with the natural cycle of this planet X50029. Some planets had an elliptical orbit and, in the cold months or even years, the dominant species would hibernate. It could be tougher to bring the small birds and animals back to life, but maybe for their wellbeing, this trio of larger creatures needed a period of hibernation. There were lots of possible explanations and with the TsSLA seemingly in no hurry to grant this pod a licence, Jane imagined she had time to try to find out which one was correct.
Jane moved the small hover-camera towards where the bodies lay. She found them in a leaf-covered bank of earth which ran up against the wall of the pod. It appeared that something like an artificial cave had been dug into the raised ground. The cave entrance was covered with cut down branches and bushes that had been bent to conceal it, no doubt to shield the sleeping creatures. Carefully Jane nudged the small camera through the leaves into the gloom of the cave. She switched the camera to night vision, keen to see more of the features of these creatures from the forbidden planet than a simple infra-red image could show her.
The three sleeping creatures lay wrapped in each other. Their fur seemingly made it unnecessary for them to have any other cover while they slept. At first Jane thought she had been right to think them big cats but as she moved the camera so gently along their bodies, she saw they were humanoid in nature. She pulled the camera back a bit to take in the full length of their bodies. They were beautiful. These were three females of a species that was some hybrid between feline and human. Their pelts were different shades, one was a chocolate brown, one reddish in colour and the third like that of a tamarind monkey. Yet their primary colours were broken up with darker stripes of that dominant colour, some were almost black and Jane imagined these helped camouflage the creatures as they stalked in the jungle. Maybe they were not the dominant species and on their home planet they too had rivals, perhaps aggressive primates, more catlike felines, large reptiles or even birds.
Seeing some of the inhabitants of X50029 did give Jane ideas about why the planet was so heavily protected. People always got excited when humanoid alien life forms were discovered and even if they lacked human intelligence creatures as beautiful as these would be desired by collectors all over the galaxy. If they were not the dominant species but the secondary one, then whatever hunted them could be very hazardous. It seemed no wonder the authorities would want people to stay away from the planet for fear that this place which could clearly produce such an abundance of life would become a playground for hunters and collectors.
It was all speculation of course, but seeing these three did suggest reasonable explanations for why their home world warranted such a high rating. Jane was eager to see these catlike women awake. It was a difficult choice, but she stuck to the principle that Owen had outlined: it was safer for them to return home alert even if it was time for their hibernation as they could always hunt out a refuge. Waking up in the middle of a strange location after possibly years in this pod would make them vulnerable to attack. On that basis Jane punched in a command so that the temperature of the wall began to rise gradually until it matched the common temperature of the pod. She also set another camera in place and sensors were primed to alert her if anything unusual seemed to be happening to these three. Now weary, Jane walked away the control panel thinking through tonight’s menu and wondering where she had put that half finished bottle of Rigerian whiskey.
Jane woke with a start. A keening cut through the party suite and into the small bedroom she had taken as her own. She reached to press the button to make the window become translucent and from the colour of the light she could tell it was dawn. Out here things were pretty isolated and whilst you might get the occasional military vehicle passing overhead, the bulk of the noises came from the occasional wild goats and from birds of prey. However, she knew immediately that the sound that had awoken her was of a different character entirely. At first she thought it was some kind of siren that had been triggered. There were long single notes first treble then bass then treble again. As they alternated there were other notes sounding in counterpoint and Jane quickly realised they were emanating from more than one source.
The ‘tune’ demanded her attention and Jane found herself shaking off her weariness and the effects of the alcohol quickly as a stronger imperative seemed to come into her mind. As she left her room and crossed the centre of the party suite, heading towards the control room, she realised that the sounds, the song even, had to come from the pods. Given that any sounds the Eyhav saltwater amphibians made were too deep for her hearing and Merboh was renowned for having nothing more advanced than slightly larger than usual insects, she realised it had to be coming from the X5 pod. Maybe this was the explanation for putting the humanoids into hibernation. This kind of sound could disturb any normal monitoring. In the control room she realised that the audio coming from the pod, which she had left on, was turned up too high and she was able quickly to reduce the volume. However, even in the background the keening nagged at her mind. Jane wondered if it was a call of hunger or some mating cry from these females who suddenly realised they had awoken after the ‘cold season’ and there were no males around. Eventually, feeling put on edge by the sound, Jane silenced the audio entirely but even then found she remained strangely uneasy in her seat.
It was clear that the humanoids had gone from their cave and Jane sent the cameras off hunting for them. She found them by the nearest waterhole. Clearly, waking from their sleep they were hungry as there was a mound of discarded fruit skins and remains of small mammals around the trio. Jane looped the small cameras around the trio but, not wishing to alarm the humanoids, kept them quite a way above their heads. Their beauty was even more apparent than when they had been asleep. These were sleek creatures with taut muscles and shapely bodies. To some collector they would be worth a fortune; no wonder only someone like Beltran could afford to keep them. Their hybrid nature between cats and humans was very apparent. Though they had only a pair of breasts, each as full as on a human woman rather than like those of a cat, their hands and feet were shorter than a human’s and clearly could be brought together to form paws; sharp claws were visible at the end of them. Their eyes were feline with a slit like pupil rather than the circle that humans had. Their eyes were a deep green colour and even seen through a hover-camera’s lens they were so bewitching. Looking at how animated the three seemed, Jane wondered at their intelligence and whether their song was simply outlining territory or whether they were actually speaking the way whales did. She pondered if they were pack animals and on waking were trying to call to the rest of their kind and were bewildered by the lack of response.
Jane watched, entranced. These were the first non-human sentient species she had come close to. It was strange to think of them just a few metres away from where she sat in a pod that replicated their home planet. As she watched the trio seemed to begin preening each other and, switching the audio back up, Jane could hear the singing had been replaced by more muffled moans. In particular they appeared to be paying special attention to their sexual organs which resembled those of a human woman. This seemed to confirm that, on waking from hibernation, they expected to breed and were readying themselves for their prospective mates. Jane watched, a little embarrassed, but more intrigued as it seemed each was giving the other a good tonguing, enough to satisfy a lesbian orgy. Suddenly they broke and began crashing playfully through the jungle undergrowth and out of sight, for the moment, of Jane’s cameras.
Jane knew it was improper for her to go into the pod, but on the other hand it was a unique opportunity to see these beautiful aliens for real. No-one was here to protest at her actions and in a couple of days this pod would be many light years away across the galaxy in a place where few humans would ever go and certainly in a place that she would never gain access to. Jane checked the environmental data of pod in greater detail: the pressure and gravity were similar to Earth’s. The air was breathable by humans but it was suggested that a respirator and goggles were worn to protect human lungs and eyes against the pollen that filled the atmosphere. The only other hazard seemed to be that, given that the air was richer in oxygen than on Earth, there was a greater risk of fires starting. Jane promised to herself to be careful.
Jane walked down to the level of the corridor which led to the pods. She stopped in the utility room at the head of the corridor and took a little time running through the various lockers until she found the correct equipment and clothing for the particular pod she was visiting. Along the pod corridor only three of the connection doors remained active and the one to the X50029 pod was the closest to the party suite.
For an instant, Jane worried the pod’s airlock would not open to her, but it had a clear button as large as her head, emblazoned ‘open’. The airlock sighed open as she pressed it, but rather than having a secondary door behind it giving access direct to the pod, there was a small antechamber, surprisingly furnished with sofas like those in the party suite. Jane could only imagine that Beltran had invited visitors here to come and view the creatures in the way people used to with the old-fashioned zoos. She guessed she would never know if, at heart, Beltran was really just another collector or whether to attract support for his activities he had had to give guests something in return for them visiting him.
There were lockers along the wall here too which seemed a little unusual given the utility room she had just visited. However, Jane guessed Beltran may have kept additional equipment for occasional visitors to particularly popular pods close at hand. The door of one was ajar and Jane went over to it. She was surprised to find it held a set of clothes: a shiny party dress and shoes. She wondered if they had got left behind after a particularly drunken party. The underwear hung with them deepened the mystery further. She could hardly imagine Beltran as a transvestite, but it did seem unusual that a female guest had left these behind; what had she gone home wearing?
There was a small handbag at the bottom of the locker and inside were the usual items, including an identity card for a Maria Monckton; a woman from Ontario who, the card told Jane was 22. Jane was glad she had found these things but they raised awkward questions. It had been weeks since Beltran had died and even if this woman had been at his last party surely she would have come forward to reclaim her items by now. Then again, maybe she was as rich as Beltran or maybe even just a tenth as rich as him and so it was no concern of hers where she happened to leave the odd dress or identity card. Jane bundled up the items wondering if she had somehow inadvertently despatched similar things from Earth to locations across the galaxy when she had sent off the other pods. She hoped not as it could be embarrassing if personal objects from here ended up dumped on some distant unspoilt wilderness. In her defence, though, Owen had given her no warning that any of the pods might contain personal items or even suggested that there was a need for her to check inside any of them just in case.
Jane pushed those thoughts aside and, leaving the clothes and bag, crossed to the airlock to the alien environment itself. On the door was the word ‘Arouz’ which meant nothing to her. However, beneath it in a number of human languages was text advising anyone entering the pod to take the inoculation drugs dispensed from a small machine on the wall. Jane guessed that going into the environment in normal work clothes might be safe in terms of air and pressure but if Beltran had really replicated the planet then there might be unseen parasites and even illnesses that a human from Earth could fall victim to. She went to the machine and pressed for a single tablet. She put it on her tongue and it dissolved in seconds. Jane felt no different, though her excitement at entering the pod was now tempered a bit by the thoughts of the potential hazards the environment provided.
Jane pushed her concerns aside; she was not going to be in the pod long. She was just keen to experience even this faked slice of this planet, X50029. Maybe Arouz was the name settlers or scientists had given it. It certainly rolled off the tongue more easily than a line of numbers. In moments the airlock was open and she went in. There were more large buttons to operate the final door and in less than a minute Jane was stepping on to the soft soil of the pod’s environment. It was not as hot in here as she would have anticipated from a jungle, but warm enough not to need clothes. She guessed the catwomen’s pelts were sufficient protection. Catwomen? Where had that name come from? She guessed it summed them up pretty well.
Jane walked further into the pod. The sky above was that over the Uzbek hills, but seen through the branches of the treetop canopy and the tinted glass beyond it could have been that of an alien world. Jane imagined herself being an explorer, she guessed in the way that the first humans had felt when they had walked on the planet that this pod replicated. Jane marvelled at the bright flowers and the birds in the branches. She had no idea where she was inside the pod but knew that if she continued in a straight line she would come to one of the walls and could follow it back round to the entrance.
Jane found walking through the undergrowth, even sticking to what looked like pathways was quite tiring. Her goggles were gathering particles of crimson pollen around them and she moved to brush them clear. She wondered if she should have worn gloves too, but so far the undergrowth had not concealed any thorns. The pollen made her fingers tingle and she wondered what was in it. Maybe this was why Beltran had replicated the planet, to provide this pollen for some medicinal purpose. Jane reached a waterhole. It was different to the one she had seen from the control room, with flatter ground around it so she could come close without difficulty. She realised that in her enthusiasm she had forgotten to pack any supplies and the clear water looked so fresh. She slipped off her respirator and coughed as her lungs adjusted to the unfamiliar pollen.
Quickly Jane bent down to drink from the water. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and felt the tingle on her lips. She licked off the pollen: it tasted delicious, like a kind of sweet wine. She hurried to put the respirator back on. She certainly felt refreshed and in fact more energetic than before, though her head seemed a little fogged and she put that down to the effort of the walk. She guessed it was time to get back. She would have liked to have seen the catwomen but she guessed they were off trying to track down their missing mates.
Jane found her way back to the door surprisingly quickly by seeing where the undergrowth had been bashed down by her passage. As she came close to the exit, however, the song of the catwomen sounded out; startling her as inside the pod it was so clear. For an instant Jane wondered if the catwomen would take on prey as large as herself and whether they had in fact been stalking her across the jungle. Was this call their cry before they descended on their meal? Jane wished she had at least packed a tranquiliser pistol, but she guessed if the danger had been that great the environmental information would have warned her to be so prepared. It was more likely that these catwomen were intrigued by the intruder in their space and one was calling out to the others to come and see the curious being.
Then the foliage in front of Jane parted and the chocolate-brown catwoman sprung into the small clearing. She gazed at Jane curiously, sniffing the air as she did. Jane stood loosely trying to suggest that she was no threat; her hands open and turned towards the creature. The catwoman seemed to smile and, standing upright, slowly began to gyrate her hips. She ran her paw-like hands over her body as if enjoying feeling every part of her glossy pelt. She then rubbed her nipples and closed her eyes to savour the sensation more fully. This was clearly a sexual performance and Jane wondered that if, with her features concealed by her overalls and her respirator, this catwoman thought she was some kind of male. Jane could imagine that, exasperated at being unable to find any mates of her own species in the pod, this catwoman was seeking to satiate her need to breed with anything that looked feasible.
Jane thought that surely dance indicated that these creatures were more developed than animals but, then again, birds and other Earth species could perform the most elaborate mating rituals and it could be simply that the catwomen behaved similarly. Maybe it was their proximity to humans that affected Jane, but it was undeniable that she was feeling aroused by the actions of the catwoman: it made her think how good it would be to be moving this way, naked, herself. Jane shook her head, she had clearly been at the estate alone for too long. Then again, Jane reflected, perhaps this was the way Maria Monckton had been thinking when she had shed her dress.
Jane could hear the other two coming through the undergrowth and wondered what the effect would be of all three of them behaving the way the chocolate brown was doing. Quickly she ran the short way to the exit and typed the code into the pad. Even before the door was fully open she slipped inside. With it beginning to close again, Jane looked back out into the pod. The chocolate-brown catwoman was still performing but seemed a little disappointed in some way that Jane was not staying to watch. In moments she was joined by the other two and the piercing song that now came from the three of them made the whole of Jane’s body thrum. In the bright, leaf-filtered light something caught the line and shone and then something else did the same. Jane could not be certain but in the seconds before the airlock door closed she believed she saw gold on the tamarind-shaded catwoman – rings on her stubby fingers, even a bracelet and a necklace. It seemed certain that these creatures were incapable of making such things, and it appeared to be curious that someone would have decorated one of them in this way. Then again, maybe it was a consequence of the final frantic party that had been held here. Perhaps Maria Monckton had given away her jewellery as well as abandoning her clothes.
Back in the ante-chamber Jane collected up the Maria’s clothes and stowed the goggles and respirator she had used herself. Fortunately the pollen from both had been removed by the sonic cleaner in the airlock. However, the scent from both garments was very heavy and gave Jane that heady sensation. She left the catwomen’s pod and walked rather aimlessly along the corridor down to the other two remaining pods. As she had suspected the names on their doors said ‘Merboh’ and ‘Eyhav’. Did this mean that the real name of X50029 was in fact Arouz? It was not a name she had heard before but it seemed like the kind of strange but short title whoever named new planets came up with. It might have simply been Beltran’s name for the planet, but she thought she might as well investigate.
Back in the control room, Jane forgot what it was she was supposed to be looking into. Instead she dug back into Maria Monckton’s belongings and typed her details into the computer. In moments a range of information came up. Maria Jocasta Monckton was her full name and she was an heiress of the Monckton-Friel consortium. Whilst beautiful and well-connected she seemed to avoid the attention of the popular media and had an interest in wildlife and travel; there were scanty reports of her at various locations across the galaxy. Jane pulled up a latest image she could find which showed an attractive, serious looking woman with naturally corn blonde hair. As she dug deeper Jane found speculation that something had happened to Maria. Whilst nothing had been said officially, in recent months her profile had been even lower than her usual discreet self and there was speculation that her family were dealing with kidnappers.
Jane looked at this latest information with a jolt. Did she have evidence of Maria’s last whereabouts? She guessed that given how many settled planets there were in this galaxy, let alone ones which humans could potentially visit, it could be difficult even for trained investigators to find one woman among the scores of billions of people out there. Jane did not know what to do and decided the best thing was to wrap up Maria’s possessions and have them couriered to the Monckton-Friel headquarters on Garmep. She programmed one of the house droids to take care of this and half-an-hour later an unpiloted courier craft was collecting the package from the roof of the house.
Now Jane’s thoughts wandered. Could someone have killed Maria and buried her in the soil of one of the pods? Even if Beltran had not died there would have been a good chance that no-one would have explored the pods for clues. Some of the environments, even the Eyhav one remaining, were harsh enough to eliminate any traces of human remains. By now, of course, the bulk of the pods were scattered on planets right across the galaxy concealing the evidence from authorities on Earth forever. Alternatively, maybe that was what the kidnappers had hoped people would think and they were in fact still holding her, waiting for the right time to extort money or perhaps influence out of the Moncktons. Worried that she had stumbled on to a conspiracy, Jane decided to use the house systems to see what they could tell her about Maria’s last visit.
No-one had even bothered to wipe the house records. Presumably they would disappear when the estate was finally powered down. However, given that the estate had been empty bar a couple of visits by Owen and then Price staying there it was quite simple for her to get back five weeks to when last a large number of people had been in the house. A group of about twenty had arrived at that time. From the videoed footage it seemed they were a mixture of ages, though most at least a couple of decades older than Maria; some had been even older than Beltran himself. Jane cycled through the video material, paying special attention to the party suite. It was quiet for the first couple of days. Everyone was shown around it and a few sat down to drink wine. Maria seemed restless, wandering up and down the pod corridor and quite often, kitted out in an environment suit, going into one of the pods. Usually her guide was Beltran himself, occasionally with one or two others. As time passed few people left, a few others joined the guests staying at the house.
Then there was a real party. Looking at the date this had to be the Zhongguo New Year celebrations. There was a lot of drinking and even the reserved Maria was dancing around with some of the other young guests. Then suddenly there was chaos, paramedics, droids, servants all running around. Jane backtracked and pulled up images of the rest of the house. She found the moment when Beltran, seeming to be making his way back to his bedroom, had collapsed in the hallway. It was rather unnerving to watch this man’s death. She guessed that some of the more sordid news channels would pay well for that footage. However, she was loyal to her job and had no intention of betraying that old man, who may have enjoyed the life of the rich to the full, but had also done a lot of good for the people of Earth and many other worlds.
So, Maria had been here on the day Beltran had died. The house seemed to clear very quickly from that point on and, by the following noon, all the houseguests appeared to have left. With a visit from Owen the next day, the servants were soon gone as well, simply leaving the droids. It was just a few days before Owen reappeared, this time accompanied by Price.
Jane was no clearer as to where had Maria gone. Running over footage of the guests leaving for the shuttle did not show her distinctive head of hair among them. Jane then went back to the coverage of the party itself. Towards the end of the evening, she saw Maria rise from the sofa and walk to a pod door. Jane zoomed in and could make out ‘Arouz’ on it and knew it was the one she had entered earlier. Switching camera, Jane saw that in the anteroom Maria just stripped naked for some reason, putting her clothes into the locker in the way Jane had found them. She did not put on a respirator or goggles and she did not stop to take the inoculation. Then she was inside the pod. Jane rewound and saw that though naked, she did still wear jewellery – rings on her fingers, a bracelet and a necklace.
Jane ran through the footage of the Arouz pod entrance over the subsequent days, but no-one entered or left. In the confusion following Beltran’s death, clearly nobody had had an interest in one of his many pods. There was only one way in or out of the pods so it was apparent that Maria had not left. Her low-key nature had worked against her: everyone must have assumed she had left in a vehicle of her own when she had found out about Beltran’s death. However, Jane realise that now she had the evidence that Maria had to be somewhere in the Arouz pod.
Jane could only imagine that Maria was dead. She remembered how threatening the catwomen had seemed when she was about to leave, but then again they seemed more interested in a mate than eating her; well not in that way, anyway. The most likely explanation was that drunk, staggering naked through the jungle, Maria had suffered a fatal accident and was buried under the leaves and branches that had fallen in the intervening weeks. Alternatively she might be at the bottom of one of the water holes or even in another cave that Jane had not yet discovered. The golden-haired catwoman had probably been drawn to the shiny jewellery she had found and taken those things for herself. Frustratingly no camera had been running inside the pod when Maria had entered the final time and so Jane could only speculate on precisely what her fate had been.
Jane wondered what to do next. If she sent the pod off with the questions unanswered then she would be imposing years of uncertainty on the Moncktons. However, she had no desire to hold up the despatch of the pod by calling in the police, especially as this seemed to be the one pod it was proving most difficult to get a licence for anyway. Maybe that was it, Maria had caught something or been poisoned by something in the pod. Jane tracked back and saw that Maria had been into that pod on four occasions before, but each time she followed the routine and had worn goggles and a respirator and taken a tablet before entering. Her last visit had been late the night before the party and intriguingly, zooming in Jane now could see she had taken an additional tablet on her exit from the pod and also that her clothes seemed to have been severely torn. Had Maria triggered some anger in the catwomen or was there another creature inside there? Had someone released something more dangerous into that pod and covered up the evidence in the confusion that followed? Jane could hardly suspect Owen; he could easily have wiped all this evidence at his leisure. She guessed it could have been a servant or another guest. Maybe all Owen was guilty of was covering up an incident so as not to embarrass Beltran’s reputation.
Why had Maria gone back into the pod a few hours after coming out with her clothes torn? Was there something in there so exceptional that she wanted to risk seeing it again and was that what had cost her life? Jane’s head throbbed from the whole pile of confusing theories of accident and of conspiracy that ran through her mind. She sat back from the keyboard unable to be sure that anything she had thought up fitted with what had actually happened.
Now, to Jane, it almost seemed possible that Maria had simply gone in the pod to commune with the environment of Arouz. She could see how that would appeal: the beautiful jungle, the fascinating song of the catwomen and their unique nature. It seemed to match with what she now knew Maria had been interested in and it could explain Maria’s nakedness. Such an action, Jane realised, could make sense to her sitting here right now. Perhaps that was not too surprising, she was only a few years older than Maria and even sober Jane could admit that there seemed to be an appeal in behaving the way Maria had done. Jane envisaged Maria running through the jungle, dancing, yes, dancing that seemingly erotic dance with the catwomen. Maria had probably guessed it would be her last chance before leaving the estate and, like Jane, she had seized the opportunity with both hands. It also seemed logical that she had done it when Beltran, who may not have approved of such cavorting, was on his way to bed.
Suddenly a message flashed up on the screen, the permission for the Merboh and Eyhav shipments had come through while she was in the pod and now to the list was added: ‘licence to use unpiloted transporter to ship pod to Arouz granted’. Clearly the TsSLA did not want even a pilot to see the planet. Jane programmed for three transporters to come as soon as possible, the first two for Merboh and Eyhav piloted and the last, the one for Arouz, to be one of Burgess & Stafford’s unpiloted ships.
Suddenly something struck Jane. Had TsSLA really called the planet Arouz and not X50029? That immediately suggested that the name was not one that Beltran had conjured up. Maybe it was the title explorers had given it before the Space Corps had slapped an exclusion zone around it. Jane typed in the name to a search engine and jumped into the first explanation that came up which was a collection of details of ‘lost’ planets.
“Arouz [pronounced ‘A-rowse’ rather than ‘A-roose’ as people now commonly say it] is supposedly a legendary jungle planet in the so-called Felis system. Information about the system is now surrounded by rumour and speculation, and it is thought to be barred to anything other than Space Corps ships. The planet itself is thought to have an X5 rating. There have been suggestions that the Felis system is in fact now designated the Cordor system or the Nerunt system both of which are off-limits to normal space traffic. Arouz and other planets in the system were supposed to have been discovered 130 years ago, but all public records of the discovery are now missing if they even existed.”
“Why is Arouz such a secret? This is where we move into the realms of fantasy as many an old pilot or merchant will say it is a planet from which incredibly sexualized creatures come, some say they are like humanoid tigers or even wolves – the collective term for them is a ‘pounce’—and that their libidos are tens of times more powerful than those of humans; their cry is supposed to be able to seduce people; the milk of the females is meant to be able to enslave men; the very atmosphere of the planet is supposed to bring about genetic changes. Supposedly explorers and ships that crashed on the planet when the system was on major routes, were never recovered, with the crews either slaves of the inhabitants or transformed to be like them.”
“Clearly these speculations are exaggerations. It is suspected that Arouz is a no-access planet, wherever it might be located, because it has some incredibly rare commodity, probably a plant of some kind that is either highly toxic or addictive or very beneficial to humans. Alternatively it is suggested that Arouz holds artefacts or even survivors of some advanced alien race. Some people speculate that it is the original home planet of the humans or our masters before we were brought to Earth many millennia ago. Such suggestions did not stop the planet being the location for numerous pornographic vids of the last century – notably ‘Journey to the Planet of the Catwomen’ directed by Arden Groom.”
Jane chuckled, she knew that the Felis system did exist, but she guessed that was a result of her profession and was not in fact common public knowledge. Looking down the list of search results she saw that all the content on Arouz, she now pronounced it in her mind as had been suggested, came from amateurs. Anyone professional or even semi-professional seemed to steer clear of it, maybe for fear of embarrassing themselves by getting mixed up in idle speculation. Was that a slice of Arouz in the pod below? If not, where was her transporter going to take it?
Jane was so tempted to add to the journal all the information she had uncovered, but guessed if she did she could kiss the reputation of Burgess & Stafford and her career goodbye. Also it felt good to know the truth when others could just speculate. Then again, what did she actually know? Could she contradict the rumours? Was the pod in fact just a joke from Beltran; something he made to resemble the myths to entertain his guests at parties? It seemed rather extravagant and if that was the case, where had the catwomen come from? Why make the atmosphere so challenging for humans? Suddenly Jane realised that the pod had to contain a real part of Arouz or at least a very near replica. The catwomen in it had to have been brought from there just as the creatures in all the other pods had come from their respective planets. It seemed clear that Arouz did have catpeople of some description, and from what she had seen, ones that could be very sexually alert, certainly following hibernation. If those facts were true then what else from the rumours could be fact?
Jane felt a chill run through her. Could it be true that the atmosphere could alter someone’s genes? Is that why you had to wear a respirator? Was it the thick, delicious pollen that brought about the change? She could certainly understand that such a characteristic would warrant an X5 rating. The implication seemed to run through her head like an icy stream: this was where Maria Monckton was. As the vid footage showed, she had never left the pod she was still in there, her golden blonde hair had become her pelt and as a catwoman she still wore the jewellery she had worn as a human.
Jane’s mind coursed with thoughts. Was the process reversible? There were the tablets: surely they could counteract the atmosphere’s effects. Rapidly as she considered the logistics Jane became determined to go in and recover Maria no matter what condition she was in. She made a list of what she needed. This time she would go in prepared with a tranq gun, water, rations and the tablets. She felt herself to be a heroine rescuing the famous Maria Monckton from a rather bizarre fix. Jane calmed herself, reminding herself that she would do better not to rush things. As it was, she was tired from the morning’s trek and looking at the clock, the afternoon had been eaten up by her work on the computer. She decided to get to bed early and start off on her expedition the next morning, well refreshed.
Sleep came to Jane once she bunked down. Things had taken a little longer to organise than she had anticipated, but now she was showered and well fed with energy building foods. She had even shaved in the shower, finding that in the days here she seemed to have neglected her usual skin treatment and hair seemed to be sprouting all along her limbs. Whilst sleep came it was dreamful and Jane’s head was filled with visions of a jungle, far bigger than anything that could be contained in the pod. Among its lush foliage were the lithe figures of catwomen, always just disappearing from sight so that Jane had to chase after them. Then suddenly she was faced with the golden-haired one from before. Without the filtering of goggles that catwoman’s deep green eyes seemed to lock Jane in place and she could not look away however hard she tried. Jane called to her as Maria but the catwoman only replied with the low-high song that seemed to dig deep into Jane’s sex. Quickly she found herself yielding to the penetrating tongue of the catwoman and, as an orgasm took her, she looked down to see her own auburn pelt that showed she was now no different to what Maria had become.