I miss the sun. It was the most underappreciated star in the solar system. All anyone talked about was how it would kill us one day. Mom ranted about global warming all the time, but I’ve never understood the fuss. The sun getting hotter always sounded like good news to me, especially if it shone on my favourite spot.
Living in space isn’t all bad. Some days are better than others. For example, today is a fantastic day. My morning starts when Mom’s clock strikes five. The sunrise used to be my cue, but without it, I’ve been learning to tell time. The five is my cue to wake her up. She loves it when I do that. She always grunts and waves her hand at me. I assume she’s trying to pet me. I mean, who wouldn’t? When she finally gets out of bed, I have to wait for her to make her coffee. She’s so quiet before she drinks it, which is strange. Yelling gets me my food. It’s the only way to get things done around here. I yell at her while she waits for her coffee to brew. Finally, breakfast is served.
Once she’s all ready for the day, she kisses me on the head and leaves our tiny dorm. She tells me hers is the biggest on the station. Mom is a very important person. She deserves it.
All this sounds like a pretty standard morning. It doesn’t become fantastic until I take the passage to my room. That’s right, I’ve got my own place. Mom designed it to keep me entertained. For me to learn—get smarter. I want to be smarter, it’s the only way I’ll accomplish my secret mission. When I say secret, of course Mom knows. I tell her everything. That doesn’t mean I need to tell the crew. She says it’ll upset them, though I’m not sure why.
Mom knows how much I love the sun—how much I miss it. That’s why my room has artificial sun. I’m not sure what that means, but it still feels good on my fur. I press the sun button with my paw, which showers the space in a beautiful glow. It’s not a huge corner, but I’m glad Mom was able to spare the space. All I need is a few plants, a carpeted table, some brain games, and my Inteli-Cat. But this morning, only one thing matters—the perfection of this sunbeam. It’s exactly where I want it. Not an inch out of place. I’m about to take the best nap of my life, and that’s saying something. I’ve had some awesome naps. I’ll have to go through the list later to see where this one sits.
Mom says normal cats don’t rank their naps. She says most don’t have an Inteli-Cat system either. I don’t understand why. Do other cats not enjoy ranking their naps? Or watching wild animals roam the Earth? Now that Earth’s gone, how else am I supposed to see the world?
Mom says I’m not like other cats. They still don’t know what planet I come from, but it’s definitely not Earth. I don’t remember my kitten years. I get flashes sometimes when I sleep. Green all around me. Big trees, long grass, endless rivers flowing in the bright light of the sun. I’ve seen similar places on my Inteli-Cat, but nothing quite the same. They’re looking, though. Mom says they get closer every day. I’d love to see where I come from. To meet other cats like me. It’s been forever since I had a friend.
Mom’s friends are nice, but they’re humans. It just isn’t the same. They all treat me like some stupid animal. Except for Lee. She treats me like a human—values my opinion. We’ve been friends forever. She used to take me exploring back on Earth.
Mom says my desire to explore comes from something called my ‘extraterrestrial heritage.’ That’s just gibberish to me, but I think she’s referring to my alien origins. Extraterrestrial. That’s a funny word. I’ll have to ask Mom what that means. When a question pops into my mind, I have to ask. It’ll bother me all week if I don’t. Until another question takes its place. But nothing will replace my biggest question: Are there others like me?
Being the only cat aboard is lonely sometimes. Mom tries her best, but we can’t even talk without my translator. There will always be gaps that she can’t fill. That being said, Earth cats didn’t cut it either. All they did is eat and sleep. I’m not against eating and sleeping, those being two of my favourite pastimes, but I wish they were more interesting. A line exists between the two—a best of both worlds situation, but I won’t get that unless I find my kind. For now, I’m stuck with humans. At least Lee’s nice.
Lee is my second favourite. It goes Mom, Lee, Sean, Kasper, and then Brian. Brian’s mean to everyone. I don’t know why he’s on the ship. Whenever I ask, Mom says it’s because he’s important to the mission. She won’t explain why, but Brian’s the one who makes fun of me the most. He always tells me they’re going to drop me off at the next planet. “You’re an alien, you’ll make it!” Mom says he’s just trying to be funny.
I’d love to explore other planets. I’ve volunteered to be the first one down when we reach our destination. It would give me a chance to conduct my secret investigation. Mom said no, obviously. I’ll convince her, but not now. Not during this excellent sunbath.
Speaking of, a knock on my door soon interrupts my wonderful morning. I give the meow to enter and rise with an amazing stretch. I expect Mom to open the door, but it’s Lee.
“Hey, Heli,” she says. “How’s it going?”
“Want your Inteli-Cat?”
I hop to the stool in front of the touchscreen. A tap of the paw unlocks it, and brings me to the translation app.
“Good morning, Lee.”
“Good morning, Helios.” She scratches behind my ear. “Jeez, you’re hot. I guess you’re enjoying the sun.”
My black and brown coat is a heat magnet. It makes getting pets hard, but the sunbath trade-off is worth it.
“I am, but I miss the real sun.”
“Me too, buddy,” she sighs. “It’s okay. We’re making progress. Any luck with your secret mission?”
I forgot I told her. I wonder if she told the others.
“That’s okay.” She gives me a pat on the head. I close my eyes and purr.
“Your mom wants you in the Meeting Deck,” she continues.
“She’s called a meeting with the crew. You’re part of the crew, Helios.”
Mom always invites me to their meetings. It’s her way of making me feel like part of the team.
“Why a meeting?”
“I’m not sure. I guess we’ll see. Want to go down together?”
She offers to carry me, but I refuse. I prefer to walk.
The Meeting Deck is at the center of the station, below the Officer’s quarters, and above Storage. The cockpit is just down the hall, but I’m not allowed in there. The curiosity is killing me.
Everyone’s waiting when we arrive. My spot is in between Lee and Sean, opposite from Mom. She’s in charge, so she’s at the head of the table. Lee takes her place, and I hop up next to her. My Inteli-Cat is still upstairs, but Mom installed the translator into my stool, in the event that I have something to say. Sean grins and ruffles my fur.
“How’s it going?” he asks.
I meow in response.
“I’ll take that as awesome,” he says. He switches to Lee. “Finish those translations, yet?”
“I’m close,” she says. “I…”
Mom clears her throat. Everyone falls silent.
“Good morning,” she says. “Hope everyone’s projects are going well. I have some good news, but first I want a status update. Lee, the translations?”
“I think I’ve cracked the sentence structure,” says Lee. “Got most of the vowels down, just working out the rest. I should be done in a few days.”
“Good,” says Mom. “Kasper, any progress on the silicon hypothesis?”
Kasper straightens up from across the table, which puts him at around half the size of Sean.
“Some, I suppose,” he says. “But I’m going to need samples before I can do much else.”
“I understand,” says Mom. “As luck has it, we might be able to get you some.”
Everyone begins to rustle and chatter. I want to tell them to be quiet while Mom’s speaking, but they stop on their own.
“I picked something up on the radar,” she explains. “A planet.”
“Are you serious?” Sean exclaims.
“I am. What’s more is that I’ve gotten us clearance to investigate.”
Noise erupts from all around me. Sean is laughing and punching the air. Next thing I know, I’m in Lee’s arms as she squeezes and showers me with kisses.
“How did you manage to do that?” Kasper demands. “This is incredible, Dr. Phoenix.”
“Thank you, Kasper,” she says.
“Well done,” says Lee.
“Thank you everyone, but congratulations are not in order yet. Not until we succeed. To do that, we’ll need your help.”
I assume she’s addressing Lee.
“Lee, would you place Helios back on his translator?”
She’s talking to me. She needs my help. Is this really happening?
“You need my help, Mom?”
“Yes, Helios. I need your help. We all do.”
“Yeah right,” Brian chuckles. “He’s a cat, Elena. What can he do that we can’t?”
“Not now, Brian,” she snaps, which makes him fall silent. “Helios, I need you to be our eyes.”
Eyes? What does she mean? She has eyes, everyone does. How could I be her eyes?
“When we reach this planet and confirm its surface temperature, atmospheric levels, and so on, I’m sending you to the surface.”
“What?!” Kasper shouts. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am, Kasper,” she hisses. “Don’t raise your voice at me. I’m your captain, follow orders. Got it?”
She gives him the look. The same one she gives me when I’m caught drinking her coffee. I know it scares me; I’m not surprised when he shuts up.
“Your physiology is different from ours,” she says. “You’ll be safer down there. We’ll give you gear, of course, but we’ll pull you back up the second anything happens. You’ll collect samples and scout the area. You can fit in places we can’t.”
“I know it’s not my place,” says Sean. “But this is crazy, don’t you think? It’ll be dangerous no matter what. Helios, will you be able to defend yourself? To improvise?”
“I realize it’s dangerous.” She sighs. “If I had it my way, I’d be down there. But this is the deal. I can’t get permission for a human to go down yet. Who knows how long that’ll take. But Heli isn’t human, so those rules don’t apply.”
“So, you’re cheating the Government of Humanity?” Kasper demands.
“We’ve come this far,” Mom declares, pounding her fist on the table. “Do you really want to give up now because of some stupid rules from those clueless politicians? I don’t, so this is the plan. Feel free to report me, but by the time they arrive, it’ll already be done. It’s time to choose, everyone.”
Silence spreads among the crew.
“You can count on me, Mom.”
“I know, Heli. Lee?”
Lee shoots me a nervous glance. She’s fiddling with the curls of her hair—a sign she’s stressed.
“I’m in,” she says. “But we’re putting him on a line and pulling him back at the first sign of trouble.”
“Of course,” says Mom. “Sean?”
“Hell yeah, I’m in,” he cackles. “Can’t believe this little trooper’s going to beat me to the surface.”
“Fine,” says Kasper. “I trust you, Doctor.”
“Thank you,” says Mom. “Brian?”
Brian folds his arms across his massive chest. His eyebrows disappear into his sandy hair.
“I ain’t going to be the odd one out.” He shrugs. “To hell with it. You better get the job done, cat.”
“Good,” says Mom. A grin splits across her face, like none I’ve seen before. “Back to your stations, everyone. Helios, come with me. Let’s get you prepped.”
Helios, the first being to ever step foot on an alien planet. It has a nice ring to it.
Mom is trying to explain the mission, but I’m too excited to pay attention. I need my scratching post. I’d go crazy on that thing right about now.
“Heli, please. Settle down. I need you to focus so we can go over the plan.”
Okay, I need to sit. The excitement will have to wait.
“I made you a spacesuit,” she explains. “It has a bunch of gadgets, so I’ll need you to run through the manual on your Inteli-Cat before I can let you go down.”
I meow my understanding.
She’s fidgeting. Biting her nails and tapping her foot. I hop to my stool.
“What is wrong, Mom?”
“Nothing, bud,” she says. “I just don’t want you to get hurt. These politicians…you wouldn’t understand. They’re very hard on Mom, okay? I wish I was down there with you.”
“I will be okay. Do not worry.”
“I know, I know.” She strokes my fur. Lee gives good scratches, but Mom’s the only one who knows my spot. When she hits it, I’m in paradise.
“We’ll be looking through a camera on your suit,” she says. “We’ll see what you see. Do you understand?”
“You’ll go where we tell you to go. I know you’ll want to explore, but there will be time for that later. I need you to listen to me and do exactly as I say. It’s the only way I’ll be able to keep you safe.”
“We’re attaching a line to your suit. If anything happens, we reel you in. It’s not like the ones from the movies we watch. This one works. You’ll be okay.”
Why is she saying that so much? I know I’ll be okay; she doesn’t have to convince me.
“Will I find others like me?”
The anticipation is excruciating. My chance is finally here.
“I don’t know.” She won’t look at me. She’s focused on the plant by my window. Is there a bug?
“I want to find them.”
What a perfect life that’d be. Running in the fields with my fellow cats. Chatting, playing—learning about our history. Mom could still do her work. If there’s a planet of cats, life can thrive. We could all be happy together. Just the thought makes me swell.
“I know you want to find them,” she says. “I know it must be hard to be the only cat on board. We love you, Heli, and loving someone means doing what is best for them. Even if it means I have to let you go.” She wipes a tear from her cheek. “If you find them, you do what your heart tells you. Remember that.”
I’m not sure what she means, but I’m too wired to think about it.
“I will remember. Thank you, Mom. I love you, too.”
She gives me a warm smile. One she doesn’t use with her friends. She wraps me in her arms, placing her chin atop my head. I nuzzle into her chest and close my eyes, listening to the mellow thump of her heart.
“I knew I could count on you, buddy.”
Mom’s clock reads the number eighteen by the time I finish the manual. There were some big words in there, but I think I got the gist. I’ll be wearing a suit made of something called nanotechnology—tiny robots according to the note Mom added. These tiny robots will be the shapes of weapons and gear that I can operate using my brain. At least, that’s how I took it. With the mission established and the gear ready to go, all that’s left to do is wait. I never thought the day would come where I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Days upon days go by where I sit and wait by my door, hoping Mom or Lee come in to announce we’ve arrived. I try to study for at least an hour a day, but my attention span isn’t long enough for that. It’s not my fault that a fly got in, I had to catch it. Mom would have wanted me to. Besides, how did a fly enter our space station? Maybe they can breathe in space. I wonder if I can breathe in space. I’ve always wanted to try, but Mom says it’s too dangerous. She would rather me wear a respirator just in case. I assume those help people breathe.
I wonder if I’ll find any aliens. If I do, what will I say to them? If only I had a rat, I could bring along as a gift, just in case. Mom used to love it when I brought her rats. She stored them as little keep-sakes in the garage, though I’m not sure how she fit them all in that tiny container. One of Earth’s many unsolved mysteries.
Mom has been very attached to me since giving me my mission. When she’s not doing work, she’s in my room. We play games and watch animals on my Inteli-Cat. Then, I curl up in her lap for a perfect grooming session. I miss the sun’s heat, but nothing will ever beat the warmth of Mom’s hugs. It’s funny, because though she’s with me all the time, she hasn’t been talking much. Only a few words here and there, but she never answers when I ask about the cats I might find. She just stares at me like she’s trying to take a picture with her eyes. She’s sad, and I can’t figure out why. It’s like she’s lost something. I can’t focus on that; I need to prepare for my descent. It looks like today might be the day.
A knock wakes me from my afternoon nap. Lee enters the room.
“It’s time, Heli.”
She escorts me downstairs like a prince. Everyone I pass gives me a pat and wishes me luck. Even Brian, who’s never had a kind word to say. Maybe Mom was right. Maybe they do all love me.
We reach the cockpit where my curiosity is finally satisfied. So many buttons… so many knobs and dials to play with. Why would Mom withhold such a heavenly place? I’m itching to play. No, I can’t get distracted. I have to show her that I’m disciplined or else she won’t let me go. The flashing buttons will still be here when I return.
Mom and Lee are the only ones in the cockpit. It’s so small, I doubt it would fit anyone else. Mom straps a harness to my back, meaning I immediately drop to the ground. I’m dying, this is so uncomfortable. It’s like someone is squeezing my chest and tickling my armpits at the same time.
“Come on, Helios,” Mom groans. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
Dramatic? Obviously, Mom has never been hoisted up by her armpits before. It takes all my strength to get back on my feet. Ignore it. Just ignore it.
This is your suit,” she explains. “When you’re ready, I’ll activate it, engulfing you in complete protection. You won’t be able to bite anything, so if you have an itch, now’s the time.”
I’m glad she warned me. There’s a spot just below my ear that’s been bugging me all morning. I try to scratch it, but Lee eventually steps in.
“Good,” Mom says. “Now, we’ve already landed. Kasper and I have been running data for the past twenty-four hours, and the atmosphere should be decent. That being said, still do not remove your suit. The temperature is cooler than Earth, but not by much. Your suit will maintain your body temperature all the same. Is that clear?”
“Okay. Next, the plan. We’re letting you out via the south exit. As I said, we’ll be looking through a camera on your suit. We need soil samples from a few different locations. I’ll direct you to each, but your helmet will also display points of interest—places I need you to go. Many features of your Inteli-Cat have been installed in addition to programs that can run vitals. Lee even added a dialect translator based on the alien scripts we found last month. I know this is complicated stuff, but you won’t be alone. I’ll be talking to you the whole time, telling you exactly what to do. In the event we get disconnected, your suit will help you, along with that killer instinct of yours.”
She grins and ruffles my fur.
“You can do this, Heli,” Lee whispers.
“You’re the strongest cat in the universe,” Mom says, kissing my head. “So, are you ready?”
The pride on Mom’s face makes me swell with confidence. She’s right. I’m the strongest cat in the universe!
“Great. I’ll activate your suit.”
She taps a button on my back. The discomfort vanishes. Instead, an aura of claustrophobia surrounds me like a tight hug. I can’t really see myself, but it’s clear that my whole body has been encased. Flashing colours and numbers appear on the surface of my visor. I feel like a superhero ready to explore the entire universe.
Continue to Part 2 on May 6th
About the Author
Zach is a born and raised Canadian, from the small town of Aurora, Ontario. He studies Biology at Queen’s University where he is a contributor to the school journal. In his free time, Zach works on his science fiction novels often in the company of his cat, Marble, who was the inspiration for the character “Helios”.