Short Story: “Hot Seat”

“Hot Seat”
by P. Orin Zack
[Aug 2007]

Audrey Fine pulled her gaze back from the grime-filtered lights of the city’s warehouse district beyond the wire-veined window, and nervously checked her watch. One twenty-eight AM. Another two minutes. “I hope Rhiannon’s alright.” She bit her lip and frowned at a tuft of orange fur drifting across the oddly shaped plastic shell that served as the test rig’s ‘hot seat’.

The rough hand resting gently on her bare shoulder gave a momentary squeeze. “You said she’s a smart cat. I’m sure she’ll figure it out.” It was Peter Avard, the other grad student who’d agreed to help Professor Elon Fuentes thumb his nose at the defense companies that kept waving huge checks at the university administrator. Besides being a chipfab whiz, Peter was a bit of a daredevil inventor, with scars to prove it.

“I hope you’re right.” She glanced over her shoulder at him, a twinge of concern itching at her mind. She almost felt like scratching it.

Fuentes, looking suitably tenured, glanced up from the control board Peter had cobbled together for him. He may have had a brilliant mind for exotic topologies, but he was like a raccoon in surgi-scrubs when it came to making something useful from them. Peter had used the man’s theories to fabricate a mash-up of custom digital and analog components that turned a surplus Air Force antenna grid into a technological work of art.

Audrey chuckled nervously. “Did I ever tell you how she finally convinced me she was more than just some dumb ole calico?” Her gaze unfocused briefly, as the feeling of a creature that smart trapped in a cat’s body swept across her mind. She could almost feel the fur on her back, the weight of a ghostly tail twitching behind her.

“Doesn’t matter if you did,” Peter said amiably as he eased into an ancient metal-frame rolling chair. “Tell me again.”

“I’d gotten a new kitten to keep her company, and the little fuzzball kept trying to lay claim to my bedroom. So anyway, I came home one night after class, and Rhiannon was sitting there looking up at me when I walked in. She did that follow-me move I’ve told you about, the one where she takes a few steps, then pauses to glance back over her shoulder. She’s a clean-freak, so I figured maybe she wanted to show me some mess the fuzzball had made. But instead, she led me to the bathroom. Once I joined her in there, she turned and led me into the bedroom, where I found the little scamp in Rhiannon’s spot on the bed. It took me a while, but I finally realized that she was upset the little turd was in her space. The thing was, her cat box isn’t in the bathroom. She knew what I used it for, though.”

“You are a communications geek. Ever wonder why she chose you at the kennel?”

Audrey was about to answer when the Professor spoke. “Stations. Get ready to grab her if she bolts.”

“Grab her? You were never owned by a cat, were you?”

Rhiannon wasn’t their first test subject. Fact was, they’d just about used up all the rats they could lay their hands on without raising suspicion, and still had no clue what Fuentes’ invention really did. Aside from temporarily disappearing the test rats, that is. They’d all come back panicked, but lacking the ability to tell what had happened to them, all they could do was jibber.

That lack had instigated their next step – equipping a rat with some electronics to record the trip. Peter fitted their final rat with a battery powered chipcam, and enough flash memory for three minutes of audio and video. Ulysses made it back in one piece, but the flash was toast. Since recording the trip was a non-starter, they reluctantly agreed that some living creature able to tell them something on its return would have to go next.

The argument that ensued dredged up all sorts of irrelevant stuff. Their dueling tirades climaxed in a tense standoff between Audrey and Peter over whether Washoe really understood language, or if the chimp had simply learned to imitate sign language from its handlers. Audrey’s contention that her pet cat was not only smart enough to understand the experience, but could communicate it as well, had left Peter speechless. Rather than arguing the point any further, he simply challenged her to prove her point, to let them send her cat wherever the rats had gone. She’d accepted, and in a few seconds, Rhiannon would be reappearing on the test stand.

Fuentes held one arm up, while his other hand hovered above the cut-off release. “Now!” He brought his arm down, hit the switch, and turned to watch.

At first, there was just the faint electrical sizzle they’d gotten used to hearing over the past two months when the complex waveform collapsed. But then, another kind of hissing overwhelmed it, followed closely by the pop of air being displaced, and then the source of the hissing: Rhiannon. The cat was hyperventilating, her tail fully fluffed. The distinct smell of fear filled the room, as she spun around, her eyes darting nervously.

Audrey held her hands open towards the cat, and cooed softly, “Easy, Rhia. Easy…”

Rhiannon leaped from the table and ricocheted around the room like there were demons after her. Suddenly, she stopped cold. She was very still for a few seconds, and then slowly looked around. When she finally saw Audrey, she raised her head, holding eye contact for about ten seconds. Then she dropped into a crouch and crawled under a desk by the grimy window, muttering feline curses under her breath.

Audrey lay down beside the desk so her cat could see her, and spoke quietly. “Rhia. Calm down, honey.”

Fuentes knelt beside them. “So, what do you think? Did her behavior just then translate into anything useful?”

She rolled onto her back, and glanced irritably at Peter. “What do you think? She’s scared. I would be, too. And to tell you the truth, I’d want some time to calm down before being dragged to a debriefing. So get off her case, okay?”

He rocked back a bit. “Sorry. I was only—.”

“Look. It’s late. You two go home. I’ll stay the night. Just be back with some Sunday breakfast by around ten.”

Once they were gone, Audrey rolled Peter’s chair over near the window and got comfortable. From there, she could see her cat’s tail. It was still. She was hard asleep, or at least as hard asleep as a cat ever gets.

“So tell me, Rhia-kitty,” she said softly, “what happened after you faded away? Did my eyes deceive me, or was your inscrutable kitty-grin the last thing to go?”

Audrey reached under the desk and ran her fingers through Rhiannon’s long, soft fur. Having shared a home with several cats over the years, she’d become convinced that the softness of a cat’s fur depended on how much petting it got. Maybe some skin secretion or something. A gentle purr spilled out from under the desk, and the orange-splotched tail rotated. She’d rolled on her back.

“What did you see, you magnificent cat?”

Professor Fuentes’ invention even puzzled him. He’d stumbled on the effect, if that’s all it is, while developing an adaptive electrical field to mirror the electrical activity inside our brains.

“There’s not much I can tell you from this end,” she said. “The lab rats we tried it on faded out once the unit had synched up to their neural patterns. Then, when we switched the thing off, they came back. They mostly just shivered for a few seconds, then made a noisy beeline back to their cage. The poor things looked absolutely terrified.”

Rhiannon chirped twice.

“I know, kitty. It was awful, wasn’t it. I’m sorry I volunteered your services for this. But what does it mean? Where did the rats go? Where did you go? What did you see?”

It had been a long day, and she was past exhausted. She peeled herself out of the old chair, and took a long, comfortable stretch. “Well, I might as well join you. I’ll be right back with some grub.” She walked lazily over to what must once have been a coffee room, and grabbed an apple and a can of pop from the small fridge. While gnawing the granny smith, she ran some water into a bowl, and located a packet of cat food. A few swigs of root beer and the rest of the apple later, she brought her drink and the cat’s meal back over by the desk.

Rhiannon was waiting for her. She’d come out from under the desk, and was sitting beside the chair, looking vaguely towards Audrey as she approached.

Once she’d put out her cat’s midnight snack, she spread her coat on the floor and sat cross-legged on it. “Can you tell me anything?” she murmured. “Is there a way you can describe what you experienced?”

The cat kept looking up at her between mouthfuls. Then it stepped clear of the bowl and curled up to sleep.

Audrey was about to join her when the cat suddenly tore off around the room. “What’s wrong,” she asked.

Rhiannon ran back to where she’d been, and curled up again. She repeated this several times, looking up at Audrey just before putting her head down.

“You’re trying to tell me something, aren’t you?”

The cat sat up, and kept eyeing Audrey.

“What does it mean? Sleep, run, sleep, run. Were you dreaming?” She laughed quietly to herself. “And if she was? That’s nothing unusual. Cats dream all the time. We all do. Well, maybe there was something different about this dream. Is that it, is there some—.”

Rhiannon was trying to balance on her hind legs. She’d often reared up like that to see something peculiar, but never tried to walk. And yet, here she was, making the attempt.

“What is it Rhia?”

The cat fell over, righted herself, and tried again.

“You dreamed you were walking on two legs? Is that it?”

Probably tired of making a fool of herself, Rhiannon crawled back under the desk, and fell quickly asleep. Audrey lay down on her coat, and dozed off listening to the cat’s soft snoring.

The smell of coffee nudged her awake the next morning. She opened her eyes to a cloud of steam from the cup that Peter waved in front of her face. She took the drink and sat up. “Thanks, Pete.”

“Well? Did your cat tell you where she went?”

“Not really. You know, translating cat-talk isn’t as simple as reading a chimp’s sign language. We don’t have a common set of linguistic tokens she can rearrange, so don’t expect anything as clear as Washoe’s exclamation of ‘Baby in my drink’ when she found a tiny doll in her glass.”

Peter looked hurt. “Come on. I never insisted on anything like that. Just tell us what she said.”

“I’m not sure really. She alternated between sleeping, or making believe she was—.”

“Wait. She what? Are you telling me that Rhiannon here told you she was faking?”

Audrey glared, and picked up a stuffed bagel. “Will you let me finish?”

“Sure. Go ahead.” His tone was dismissive.

“All I know is what I saw. That’s what she does. It’s body language, an extreme form of it, anyway. She went back and forth between curled up and running around. And then she tried walking on her hind legs a few times but kept falling over.”

He shrugged. “That’s it? That’s our trip report?”

“Uh-hmmm.” She took a bite without breaking eye contact.

“Okay. So now you have a first person, or is it first cat, report from the other side of whatever. What’s it mean? We sent your cat because you assured us you could translate her debriefing for us. Well? Let’s have it.”

Professor Fuentes set down his coffee and came closer. “Yes. Tell us. Because if we don’t have any more insight right now than we did after Ulysses came back, I’m pulling the plug on this project. We don’t have any other options.”

Audrey stood up. “It’s like this. I think she thought she was dreaming.”

“She thought she was what?”

“Dreaming. I think that’s what she meant.”

Peter almost choked on his coffee. “So what? So she dreamed? Cat’s spend most of their lives asleep. What the big deal about dreaming?”

“I said, she THOUGHT she was dreaming. That’s her assessment.”

“Right. And what did she dream? That she was chasing a mouse?”

“No. That she was human.”

Peter burst out laughing. “A cat that dreamt it was human. Like the butterfly that dreamt it was a Mandarin? What is this, first-year philosophy?”

“Stop this bickering, both of you!” Fuentes threw his hands up and went back to the test stand. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. We’re finished. Just pack up and go home. I’ll knock down the equipment and—.”

“No.” Peter said angrily. “You’re not giving up on this that easily. You’ve discovered something here.”

“Discovered, yes. But none of us has the slightest idea of what it is, or what to do with it.”

“And that’s exactly why we can’t just abandon it. We all know what happens to reports of failed experiments. The companies that pay the university’s bills get to sniff out the corpse, to see if there’s any profit to be made from it, or worse, any weapon.”

Fuentes shook his head. “Which is exactly why we’re not on campus, or had that fact managed to elude you somehow? This rat-trap of a lab is off the books because I didn’t want that to happen. So all we need to do to keep it secret is to just keep it secret.”

Peter rounded to his controller. “One more test. That’s all I ask. If that doesn’t tell us anything, you can haul this junk off to the scrap heap for all I care. But I can’t let you pull the plug without the opportunity to really find out where your trap door in reality leads to.”

Audrey scooped up her cat and approached them. “What chance? Who’re you going to send?”

“Me.”

“What? You can’t do that? We don’t even know if it’s safe.”

“Sure we do. Just ask your cat.”

Professor Fuentes shook his head. “No. I won’t have you risking your life like that.”

He laughed. “Oh, yeah? How are you going to stop me. I built this rig of yours.”

“Then you’ll do it without my participation. I wash my hands of the whole thing. As you say, you built it. Whatever happens, that’s what the authorities are going to know. I kept this off the books for good reason. There’s nothing to tie me to it. You’re on your own.”

“Professor, no!” Audrey pleaded as he stormed towards the door. “This was fifteen years of your life. You can’t just throw it away.”

“I can. I just did. Goodbye. I don’t want to ever see either of you in my classroom or in my office. I wash my hands of you, and of this project.”

She turned back towards Peter once the door had closed. “That was brilliant. What are you going to do now?”

“I told you. I’m taking a little trip. Put the cat down and give me a hand.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you want to know what your cat experienced on the other side, just as much as I do. Come on.” He grabbed one end of the hot seat. “Now come on. Give me a hand with this. We need to put it on the floor.”

She went around to the far side. “How does this thing work, anyway? I know the theory, how the emitter maps to the traveler’s neural activity, and all, but how does it generate the pattern?”

They slid the white plastic shell off the table. “The antenna grid in this thing acts like both transmitter and receiver. The professor worked out all the math. I think he was a RADAR scientist in another life or something. Anyway, I modded the grid into an addressable mesh, and wrote some fancy code to build a 3-space map of the signals it picks up.” Once they had set it on the floor, he pointed at the upturned edge. “These curves make it possible to filter for whoever’s brain is inside the lip. With rats and your cat, that was simple. But I’m going to have to lay down on it with my head over here near the middle.”

She looked at the spot he’d indicated, and then at Peter. “What do you do with the rest of your body?”

“I’ll show you.” He took off his shoes, and knelt beside the shell. Then he reached in, placed his palms about two feet apart, and smiled up at her. In one smooth motion, he raised up on his arms, crossed his legs, folded them up to clear the lip of the array, and lowered himself onto the plastic. “Here’s the tricky bit.” He slipped onto his back, cantilevering backwards on his outstretched arms, and repositioned so his head was centered, in the same place they had put Rhiannon the night before. “This part’s optional.” He unfolded his legs, and then set them in full lotus, hovering over him like some demented yogi in free-fall.

Audrey laughed. “Like that.”

“Yeah. Go crank it up.”

“Now?”

He nodded.

She walked around to the control board, a pained look on her face as she watched him tighten the knot of his airborne legs. “So tell me, Peter. We had this thing set to lock onto the test subject’s bio-electrical signature, but rat brains are a lot simpler that yours.”

“Why, thank you.”

“Seriously. Is it going to work the same for a person?”

He shrugged, or tried to. “Ought to. Probably take a bit longer to stabilize, though. Ready?”

“Yup. Here goes.” She adjusted a few things and pushed the little plunger that engaged all of the circuits. Rhiannon looked away from the spider she was studying and chirped twice as a waft of ozone from the surplus-store analog components crossed the room.

“Real science is so disappointing,” Peter said as the cat took a few steps towards him. “It’s never as photogenic as the stuff Hollywood keeps—.”

And he was gone.

Audrey checked her watch. Three minutes. Professor Fuentes had disavowed any responsibility for what might happen. Peter was the only person who could fix the unit, if something happened before he returned. If he returned. If he returned and was still sane. She sat down beside Rhiannon to wait. There was nothing she could do now.

“He’ll be okay, Rhia.”

But what if he’s not, she wondered. What if the power goes out? Fuentes said that the disappearance was induced by doing to the subject’s brain what a noise-canceling headset does to sound. Whatever that meant. But what happens if the signal cuts out, rather than being ramped down? For that matter, what did the disappearance even mean?

She scooped up the cat and rose to get another bagel. “So where did you go, kitty? What did you see? Did Peter go there, too? Is he seeing what you did? I sure hope he’s better at describing it than you were.”

Another thirty seconds. She went back to the control board. “Are you ready to return, Peter? Have you seen enough? I certainly hope so, because I’m dragging your butt back right about…” She tripped the release. “Now.”

The familiar electrical sizzle didn’t kick in for several seconds. By the time it did, she was starting to kneel beside the plastic-covered array. Rhiannon’s ears went back a moment later, as a grating shriek filled the room. She ran under a desk when the rising howl was punctuated by the pop of displaced air as Peter faded in, rolled off the array, and landed in a heap, sprawled across its raised edge, his hands cupped over his eyes, sobbing miserably.

Audrey’s jaw dropped.

“Make it go away! Make it stop! No! No! No!” he screamed, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.

“Peter, it’s me!” Audrey cried between his yelps. She grabbed him under the arms and lifted him free of the hot seat. “You’re okay. Calm down.”

Gulping air, he looked up at her. “What? Where am I? Who are you?”

“Crap,” she muttered. “Now what am I going to do?” She glanced at Rhiannon, who was busy licking herself, and took a breath. “Okay, Peter. Listen. You’re dreaming. None of this is real. But in this dream, you’re a brilliant scientist, and you’ve invented some kind of transporter machine. That’s it over there.”

He stared at her. “I’m dreaming?”

“Yes.”

“Then I can fly? For real?”

She ground her teeth. “No. Sorry. Not in this dream. Everything’s normal except you’re very smart. In fact, you built this invention, and you’re the only one who knows how it works.”

“I am?”

“Yes. And you just used it on yourself. Do you remember that?”

“I what?”

Audrey comforted herself with the realization that he was at least calming down. Not that having him calm helped her figure out what to do, but at least it gave her a moment to think. “In this dream, you just returned from taking a trip with your transporter. Do you remember that?”

“Well, I do remember being someplace really strange just now.”

She smiled. Maybe she could pry it out of him this way. “Strange? In what way?”

He saw the remains of breakfast on the table behind her. “I’m hungry. Got anything?”

“I think there’s a bagel left.”

Peter made a face. “Ick. How about some cereal?”

“Sorry. We’re all out. Will a cinnamon roll help? It’s sweet.”

He shrugged. “I guess.”

If Audrey had any doubts that Peter had regressed to little-kid-dom, watching him destroy that roll easily put them to rest. By the time he was finished, his face and hands were covered with the gooey stuff. Once she’d gotten him wiped clean, she tried again. “When you first got back here, you were scared about something. You wanted it to stop. Do you remember what it was?”

“Do I have to? It was icky.”

“Please?”

“Okay. It felt like I was standing in a stream, only the water wouldn’t stay down on the ground. You know how it feels when you stick your face out of the car window on the highway?”

“Vaguely. What about it.”

“Well, I felt like that all over. It was gross.”

“Did you see anything?”

“Kinda. But everything was ghosty. Like you could see through it. Like they were rocks and stuff floating in the air. So I went over to one, and tried to touch one. But when I did, I—.”

“Go on, Peter. What happened when you touched one?”

He looked at her. “I—.” His face went pale, then he doubled over and threw up.

Once she’d gotten him cleaned up, she resolved not to broach the subject again. Whatever it was that he saw on the other side was so corrosive to his worldview, affected him so deeply that his keen mind threw itself on the cognitive grenade in order to save his life. Explaining his condition was going to pose a problem, and she was certain that knowing more about whatever had caused it would give her a better chance of helping him. And the only way to learn that was to try it herself. But how? Even Peter had needed help. How could she do it solo?

While she was musing, Peter had found Rhiannon, and was busy playing with her. She watched for a few minutes, as he alternately stroked her and dangled bits of whatever was nearby for her to grab at. Back and forth, stroking and dangling, like they were playing a turn-based game. And that gave her an idea.

“Peter, would you like to play a game with me?” She was standing at the console.

He looked up. “What kind?”

“Hide and seek. There’s a real good hiding place I want to try out.”

“Okay.” He got up and joined her.

“He’s how it works. I’ll go sit on that white thing over there. That’s my home base. When I’m ready to start, you press this button here. Then you close your eyes and count to fifteen Mississippi, while I go hide. I’ll give you three minutes to find me. My watch will beep when the time’s up. If you haven’t found me by the time it beeps, press this other button, and I’ll come out. Think you can do that?”

He looked at the panel. “Push this one to start, then that one at the beep. Sure.”

“Ready?”

“Okay.”

“Great. Now wait until I tell you I’m in position.” While Peter watched, Audrey reached over the lip of the hot seat and rotated into a sitting position, her legs hanging over the edge. Then she lay back and scooted a bit to center her head as Peter had done earlier.

“What are you doing?” he asked, bending over to look at her upside down.

“Giving you a head start. It’ll take me a moment to get untangled when you start counting. I’m almost finished.” She thought about crossing her legs like Peter had done for the instant it took to realize who she was talking to, and instead just brought them up against her chest, and wrapped her arms around them. “Okay. I’m done. Press the button, close your eyes, and start counting.”

“One Mississippi…”

What started as a tingling at the base of her skull quickly spread to her entire head, reminding her of the reaction she’d had to penicillin before choosing to avoid it. Ozone wrinkled her nose, as it had the night a thunderstorm spent going back and forth across the sky over her home.

“Two…”

The room seemed different, diffuse. It took on that odd feeling of impermanence she’d always felt when she got ready to move to another city.

“…Missisippi…”

And then it vanished. The feeling. The room. Everything. Her eyes were still open, at least it felt like they were, but all she saw were the strangely textured patterns that filled her mind when she closed her eyes to go to sleep. She tried tightening her arms momentarily to reassure herself that nothing else had changed, but felt nothing. No insistent cramping in her calf, no flesh against flesh, or even flesh against fabric. Nothing. It was like she’d been stripped of body, and was left with only a disembodied head. That still had to be there, didn’t it? After all she could still see, even if it was nothing. And she could still hear, couldn’t she? But instead of Peter’s next number, all she heard was the quickening beat of her heart. Except she didn’t have one, if she didn’t have a body.

Hanging there insensate, she thought about the lab rats, about Rhiannon, and about the man-turned-child counting to himself in a downtown warehouse loft. They’d all been through this. They’d all suddenly found themselves stripped of physicality, suspended in nothingness. No wonder they—.

Audrey’s self-imposed meditation was suddenly shattered by the choking feeling of being submerged in a fast-moving stream. Paradoxically, even though she couldn’t see herself, the rush of whatever flowed past her began shaping itself into the sensation of water against arms, legs and chest, and as she focused on that feeling, a ghostly self began to coalesce, giving a sense of solidity to what had, a moment earlier, been absence. It felt like she was there. It just didn’t look it. What was going on? Where was she? She opened her mouth to scream, caught herself trying to take a breath in what must have been water, but felt like nothing, and froze.

She squeezed what felt like her eyes closed, and forced herself to relax. Whatever this place was, it hadn’t killed the rats. Rhia thought she dreamt it. And it scared the crap out of Peter. Peter. How long had she been here? Had he stopped counting yet? She needed to understand what scared him, and she didn’t know how much longer she had.

Okay, she thought, what do I know? Like the other lab rats, I’ve disappeared from the lab. After three minutes, I’ll reappear. I seem to be floating in some kind of viscous fluid, yet it doesn’t affect my breathing. Is this real, whatever that means here, or am I imagining it? If it’s dreamlike, it could be metaphoric, a stream or river of something. I might also be able to control the dream. After all, I’m already trying to analyze it. And if I can, then what?

As if on cue, something brushed her arm. She opened her eyes and looked at the place where she felt her arm ought to have been. And it was. So was the rest of her.

Comforted by this resurgence of selfness, she looked for whatever it was that had nudged her. There were patterns in the flow of whatever she was immersed in, patterns that she could see. Ripples and eddies. She pushed against the nothingness flowing past her and found she could move. An eddy hovered near where her arm had been. She moved left, then right, watching it closely. It was a shape, a three-dimensional object. She reached a finger towards it, and felt the edge of the swirl. If there was a direction to the flow of this stuff she floated in, the eddy was at the downstream side of what felt like a thickening, a denser bit of nothingness.

The image reminded her of micro-currents in streams she’d lazily gazed at while on outings in the woods. Currents that were formed by the interaction of rock and water. On one such trip, she’d plucked the rock out and watched the newly un-tethered eddy wobble downstream and vanish.

After a moment’s hesitation, she reached out and put her hand around what she’d started thinking of as a rock.

Suddenly, Audrey found herself hanging upside down, high over what seemed to be an endless expanse of rough grey stone. The all-encompassing water was gone, and so was her recently resurrected sense of body. Instead, her selfness was comfortingly round, a close shell of feeling with long extensions of herself gripping some ropy thing with sticky ridges. And through it all, a tugging at her top, like she was hanging, suspended from a silvery cord. Her mind raced, trying to make some kind of sense of it all, when the confused images from what she hoped were eyes resolved into a garish monstrous face with enormous eyes, and teeth she didn’t even want to think about.

She released her grip, and returned to the relative comfort of disembodied uncertainty, her hand retreating from the eddy-side thickening. Her heart, if she had one, raced. Her breath, if she took them, came in sharp pants. But it was gone. Whatever that was, was gone. She was okay. Safe. Whatever that meant in this place.

That, at least, might explain what freaked Peter. But did it tell her anything about where she was, what she was experiencing, or what Professor Fuentes’ infernal machine really did? She knew that Peter had built it, but refused to put the onus on him for what he had become. That would be cruel.

Peter. What time was it? How long had she been here? How long had she been in that nightmare world? How much longer did she have? It had felt like hours, but she knew that was an illusion. Still, three minutes isn’t that very long. Pearl divers have been known to hold their breath for even longer. She’d be okay.

Panic crept back into her mind, taunting her. What if the machine breaks? Would that release her, return her to the lab? What if her watch didn’t beep? What if Peter forgets what to press the switch? Or wanders off? She could be stuck here for days. Wherever here was.

The past few minutes swam through her mind. Nightmare world. A bad dream. Rhiannon. If she’d translated correctly, her cat thought she’d been dreaming. Audrey closed her eyes and thought of nothing but comfort. Of safety. Of a cat gently purring. Of leaning close to gaze into those feline eyes. To—.

That huge face she saw. The monster. That was Rhiannon! Really close. Like from something Rhia was watching. A spider. She’d been looking out through that spider in the corner. That’s what it was, that’s what the Fuentes effect was. If you did the right thing, if you touched one of those rocks in the flow, it was possible to look out through other eyes. The rats would never have figured that out. They would just have been terrified of drowning. And Rhiannon probably stumbled on something. A bug, or—.

She kept trying to stand on her hind legs. What if she fell into a person’s point of view. What it she saw things through one of us? Can I prove it? If that spider showed up here as a rock, so should Rhia. And Peter, for that matter.

Excitedly thinking about the prospect of looking out through her cat’s eyes, she looked around for other patterns in the flow, and one of them started glowing. She worked her way towards it, put both hands around it—.

And found herself staring at a very confused spider. The poor thing had tangled itself in a knot of web silk trying to escape the attentions it had been getting. Audrey was in Rhiannon, looking through her eyes, feeling the supple reality of living inside a calico ball of purr. She listened for a moment, both to what Rhia’s ears reported and to the unfamiliar whisper in her mind. The sound of the room was uncomfortably biased toward the high frequencies, including a squeak that she hadn’t remembered. The whisper, if that’s what it was, didn’t make words so much as music, a quiet inner chorale.

“Rhia,” she said to herself, hoping the cat would hear it somehow, “it’s me. I’m here with you.”

The chorus faded. She held her breath, hoping the cat wouldn’t be frightened. Then, she, they, turned to look at the empty hot seat, the last place she’d been before vanishing. She felt an odd adjustment in the cat’s breathing, and in the way she held herself. A low rumble filled her ears and tickled her back. Rhia was purring.

‘Okay. Now where’s Peter?’ As soon as she finished the thought, Rhia padded off towards the little kitchen area. When she rounded the corner, she saw Peter, bigger than life, from where she stood, crouched near the sink, looking into a low cabinet.

“I’m going to find you,” he called out. His voice sounded odd, but recognizable. “I know you’re here somewhere.”

Good. There’s still time. ‘Rhia,’ she thought, ‘let’s go over to the table beside the white thing. Maybe we can trigger the thing ourself.’

Still purring, Rhiannon ran to the table, hopped up on it via a nearby stool, and stood looking at the control board. The release trigger swam in front of her, distorted from being so close. Audrey imagined reaching out to press it, and her host raised a paw and swatted it like she would a bug or a cat toy. Nothing.

“Bad kitty!” Peter ran towards them. “Get down off there.”

Rhiannon crouched on the table as he approached. Then big hands wrapped around her middle, and she was lifted into the air and placed on the floor a few feet away.

“I’ll find you, Audrey. I’ll find you.” He glanced at the watch she’d left for him. “I still have half a minute. Just stay where you are. I’ll find you.”

As soon as he turned to go, Rhiannon, purring again, returned to the tabletop.

Audrey stared through cat’s eyes at the switch, looming there like a challenge. There had to be a way to do it. There had to. ‘If I was me’, she mused, ‘I could just reach down and lean on it.’ No sooner had she finished the thought, than Rhiannon reared up on her hind legs, like she’d done the night before, and landed with both paws on the switch.

A pop filled her ears, and she found herself, on all fours, back on the hot seat. Rhiannon chirped and launched herself at her. Her watch beeped twice as she fell over with a cat on her. “Time’s up, Peter. I win.”

He trotted over. “No fair. You didn’t wait for me to press the button. Where’d you hide anyway? I looked everywhere, and couldn’t find you.”

Laughing uproariously, Audrey picked up Rhiannon and cuddled her. The cat reached up and started licking her face, purring loudly. “Sorry,” she said, glancing at the machine Peter had built for Professor Fuentes. “That’s a secret.” And it would have to stay that way.

THE END

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack

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