"Such beautiful animals! So agile, so graceful! What are they?" One of the animals in question was, even then, rubbing its forehead on the rough, pebbly chins of Hagedorn Twee.
"They're called 'cats,' " said Theresa. "They're natives of old Earth, Sol system. They're quite common on Human worlds. You mean you've never seen one before?"
"Perhaps in a holovid, Captain, but never in real life. The body covering is so soft and so subtly colored!" Twee, a big blue-skinned native of Heard's World, was completely taken by the little creature. Apparently the feeling was mutual. Theresa could hear the loud purring of the little cat from clear across the room. The Hearder made an instant decision. "I simply must have them! Both of them."
Captain Theresa Helms of the merchant ship Jupiter quickly ran down a mental list of reasons why she shouldn't sell the little animals and found that list to be surprisingly short. Both of the animals -- the lovely little female calico currently rubbing up against the formidable chins of Merchant Twee and the long-haired male tabby rubbing affectionately against the alien's scaly, tree-like legs -- belonged to her and her husband Tim, who was also her business partner and the only other crew member of the Jupiter.
On the plus side, the little animals were a welcome diversion during the long periods of inactivity that were part of FTL travel and they did find and destroy the occasional pest that somehow slipped onboard no matter how rigid the inspections, but Theresa and Tim had found that the cats required a lot of attention and often asked for affection at inopportune times. There had also been a couple of incidents during free-fall regarding their food and litter that had been downright unpleasant. Besides that, about halfway through their current voyage she had begun to suspect that Tim was allergic to the little beasts.
"I'm afraid that you wouldn't like the price, Merchant Twee. We transported them a long distance and both my husband and I have become rather attached to them."
"Attached?" said the big alien, lifting the little calico up and looking it over carefully with all three of his large green eyes. Eyes that, coincidentally, had vertical pupils, just like those of the contented little beast he was examining.
Theresa chuckled, "Sorry, Merchant Twee," she said, shaking her head. "'Attached' means emotionally bound. My apologies." The big blue alien laughed, a sort of booming chortle that sounded quite a bit like a horse in distress.
"Never fear about the price, Captain Helms. Some things are beyond mere credits. These animals are simply wonderful! My offspring will adore them. Name your price!"
"I have to talk it over with my partner. We didn't get them with the intention of selling them," said Theresa. Of course, that was before we knew that someone wanted to buy them at an extravagant price, she thought. "We'll give you an answer tomorrow. Is that okay?"
"That will be fine, Captain Helms. If you do not mind, I would like to keep the small animal with me for a while yet. The rumbling sound it makes is very soothing."
Together, Theresa and the big, blue, amiable Hearder checked off the lists of cargo allotted to the Hearder merchant. All the while the little female cat sat contentedly on the Hearder's broad shoulders, next to his lopsided head, purring loudly.
With the day finally over, the docks quiet, and the ship sealed up for the night, the two humans sat down in Jupiter's small stateroom to discuss the day's business before bed. Theresa flopped her slight frame down in a soft lounger next to the computer station where Tim was checking over the days business. She ran one of her delicate hands through her short black hair. Her husband, by way of contrast, was a large, blond Nordic type, gone a little to fat, who was surprisingly graceful in spite of his size. He typed in a last notation, hit the return and swivelled his chair around to face his wife.
"Not a bad day at all, Hon," he said, as he stretched and yawned. "How're you doin'?"
"Not bad. In fact, I had an interesting conversation with Hagedorn Twee today," she said. "One that could make us a lot of credits."
"Hey, makin' credits is what we're here for!" he said eagerly. "As long as it's not too illegal! What've you got, Terry? I'm all ears."
"He wants to buy our cats."
"Huh? Our cats? I thought you said something about a lot of credits?" Tim's look could only be described as disappointed.
"Let me finish! You wouldn't believe it, Tim. I've never seen anything like it! Those two cats were all over him. I don't know, maybe it's the high body temperature of the Hearders or some subtle scent that humans can't detect, but those cats just adored him!" Somewhat mollified, Tim got to the root of the question.
She tried not to sound too excited. "He said, and I quote, 'Never fear about the price, Captain Helms!'" Tim came halfway out of his chair and winced as he bumped his knee on the computer console.
"Say again?" asked Tim, rubbing his wounded knee.
"He said that money was no object."
"Sold!" said Tim. He gave Theresa a calculating look. "How much do you think we can get?"
"Well, considering that we transported them all the way from Earth and that they'd be the only two animals of their kind in this entire planetary system, I think the price should be high. Besides, Hagedorn Twee is one of the wealthiest merchants on the planet."
"What did we pay for the cats, Terry?"
"I'm not sure, honey. Not a lot. Let's see, ten credits for each cat, five credits for immunization tabs and another twenty apiece for neutering--I'd say forty credits each max. Total, about eighty."
Tim thought for a moment. "What do you think about four hundred apiece?"
"The only two animals of their kind in the system? The wealthiest merchant in the sector? Come on, Tim, think big! I say, no less than twenty-five hundred for the pair. Hmmm... I think we should start at five thousand!"
"Five thousand! That's a fourth of what we still owe on this old tub! With what we stand to make on the rest of this trip, we could be in damned good shape!"
"That's kind of what I thought," said his wife, smiling. "The sooner we pay off the Jupiter, the sooner we can get down to making some real credits!"
"You're the salesman on this team, Terry. Do your stuff!" said Tim, standing up to embrace her, his injury apparently forgotten.
Hagedorn Twee's first offer took Theresa completely by surprise. It was for ten thousand credits -- apiece! Fortunately she recovered her composure in time to haggle the price up a little more. They finally settled on twelve-thousand- five hundred each, but only after Hagedorn Twee extracted the Helms' promise not to bring any other cats into the system. It seemed like a strange request, but the lucky husband-wife team could more than triple their proceeds for the entire voyage and pay off the loan on their old but still-serviceable cargo ship. They agreed.
Since there were offworld animals involved, the legal work on transferring ownership of the two cats had to be handled by the Regional Office for the Importation of Non-indigenous Flora and Fauna. Theresa met Hagedorn Twee at the huge Regional Government Complex in downtown Heardhome, the spaceport and capital city of Heard's World. The district rep was another of the big easy-going Hearders, Ottobon Kurr, who, it just so happened, was a relative of Hagedorn Twee. His brother-in-law, or the Hearder equivalent, in fact.
"Do you have the papers, Captain Helms?" said Ottobon Kurr in his deep, booming Hearder's voice.
"I have them right here," said Theresa, putting the documents in front of the official. Kurr read from the documents.
"Let me see... Planet of origin: Earth, Sol system.... Classification: Mammal.... Species: Felius domesticus... Immunizations: okay.... Tests for antibodies to contagious diseases--all negative. Good, good! Have the animals been sterilized? They cannot be allowed to remain here unless they have been sterilized."
"Turn the certificate over, Representative Kurr," said Theresa . "They were neutered before they left earth."
"Everything appears to be in order," said Ottobon Kurr. "Place your palmprint here."
Hagedorn Twee was the proud owner of the only two cats on Heard's World, a planet with five hundred million inhabitants. Theresa and Tim Helm were considerably wealthier than before. Everyone, including the two cats, was deliriously happy.
The Jupiter returned to the Heard's World system some ten months later with a fresh cargo of hard-to-get and expensive items for sale and trade. In spite of her age, the old ship shifted smoothly out of Whitney psuedospace, fading easily back into normal space-time some three AU's out from Heard's world. Ten months ship's time, because of the vagaries of the Whitney Overdrive FTL System that powered the old Jupiter, translated to about twenty-two months of Heard's World time. Within two weeks, the little trader ship would leave with a load of local products for sale to the planets on Jupiter's route through the inner system stars of the galaxy. These products including Hearder arts and crafts and, most importantly, several hundred small, carefully packed vials of Nardeezium.
Nardeezium was a rare and valuable drug made from the skin excretions of the rare and exotic Nardeezy dragon. "Dragon" was somewhat of a misnomer since the animals were really more like small, slow-moving salamanders than dragons. Not only were the animals sluggish, they were also stupid and slow to reproduce. What's more, they had stubbornly resisted all attempts to get them to thrive in captivity. As a result, the fastidious little beasts were carefully tended in special preserves and their precious sweat was very carefully harvested.
Nardeezium was the most valuable substance on Heard's World, and very important to her economic well-being. The drug was non-addictive and gave a mild high when used sparingly but its most sought-after feature was that it greatly increased the intensity of the mammalian sexual experience. As you might expect, demand far exceeded the supply among the wealthy on the human-settled planets.
Theresa and Tim were hailed by Hagedorn Twee within five minutes of groundfall. It's usually difficult for members of different races to read another's emotions, but even over the videocom, both Theresa and Tim could tell that Merchant Twee was agitated. Maybe it was the nearly painful volume of a voice that was, even normally, too loud. Or maybe it was the fact that Twee was sweating.
"I must talk to you immediately, Captain Helms. It is a matter of the utmost gravity!"
"Please, calm down, Merchant Twee," said Theresa. "We'll meet with you as soon as possible." The Hearder seemed to relax, but only a little. They signed off.
"Tim, he looked really upset," said Theresa, nervously. "He was sweating! Tim, do Hearders sweat?"
The two humans got a groundcab and went directly to Hagedorn Twee's huge merchant complex, where they were immediately ushered into Twee's private office. Twee looked up and down the corridor suspiciously before closing and carefully locking the door. Ottobon Kurr was already there, looking, if possible, even more upset than his somewhat larger brother- in-law. The two Hearders were both sweating, or something much like it. Fortunately, Hearder biochemistry is somewhat different from human and the atmosphere of the office had taken on a fragrance somewhat reminiscent of nutmeg and basil, which didn't bother the humans in the least.
"Something most unfortunate has happened," said Hagedorn Twee, still obviously upset.
"Just what is the problem?" asked Theresa.
Twee motioned with one of his large, blue three-digited forepaws to Kurr, who was across the room.
Ottobon Kurr reached into a small cargo box that was down on the floor, next to his huge, black hind hoof. There was no mistaking what he pulled out.
"Where in all of space did you get a kitten?" said Theresa, as the little animal climbed up Ottobon Kurr's arm, its sharp, little claws not affecting the thick, scaly hide of the Hearder in the least. The little beast began to purr loudly as it rubbed itself luxuriantly under the big alien's chins.
"There are now at least twenty-four immature sol-system cats like this one on Heard's World," said Twee, mopping his narrow forehead with a large ultravelvet swab. "And it looks like there is the potential for many more."
"We're ruined!" ejaculated Kurr, his eyes raised to the ceiling. "Ruined!"
"How can this be?" asked Theresa, ignoring Kurr's outburst.
Hagedorn Twee couldn't meet her eye. "We had the two original animals cloned. There are now two thousand copies of each. We sold them, as quickly as we got them, for five thousand credits apiece." He gave an embarrassed shrug, an action that almost made the floor move. "We made an enormous profit."
Theresa shook her head in disbelief.
The Hearder brought his triple gaze back to the humans. "But, within a few months some of the clones began behaving strangely-- irrationally. We did not suspect that it was reproductive behavior until it was too late. So far, at least four of them have reproduced and many others appear about to."
"You had them cloned?" said Theresa. "That was not a part of our original bargain."
"Check the contract, Captain Helms," said Kurr. "Cloning was not mentioned. As such, it was not strictly forbidden."
"You shouldn't have cloned them, Merchant Twee," said Tim.
"There is more," said Hagedorn Twee.
"We're ruined!" shouted Kurr, again. "Ruined!"
"You mean this gets worse?" asked Theresa.
"Yes," said Ottobon Kurr, somewhat calmed after his latest outburst, "several twelves of the original four thousand clones have escaped and gone into the wild where they may be reproducing even as we speak. You see what I mean? We're ruined! Ruined!"
"That's not so bad," said Theresa, over the wailing. "Your species seems to really get along well with cats." The two Hearders looked nervously at one another.
"They seem to have developed a taste for the flesh of the Nardeezy Dragon," said Twee, miserably. "Nardeezium, even in crude form, has the same effect on the animals sexual performance as it does on yours. Not only are they eating some of the dragons, they are probably reproducing more rapidly as a result.
"Couldn't you just destroy the wild ones?" asked Theresa. Both of the aliens looked horrified. Kurr made a strangled noise.
"Out of the question!" Twee was almost shouting. "Hearders do not take the life of any creature! It is against our most basic principles."
"It appears that we have no choice," said Kurr, "We are not going down to ruin alone. You humans are certainly liable. We shall have to call in the 4th Quadrant authorities. You may consider your ship impounded and quarantined, and yourselves confined to the ship until this situation is resolved! Good day!"
Tim looked at his wife and partner, thinking that it had been nice to own their own ship, even if it was for just a few months. They went back to their grounded, impounded ship and waited nervously for the two and a half days that would be required for the authorities to arrive from Quadrant Headquarters on New Ceylon.
The Quadrant Supervisor for Hazardous Flora and Fauna was a being by the name of Aalber T'verberg, a Lotharian. Lotharians were short, slender, bipeds native to Lothar, a small, neat planet in the first quadrant. Their bodies are covered with short yellowish fur, except for their heads, which are bare and pink. Lotharians are intelligent but not inquisitive and eminently fair, if somewhat boring. They are also very good with numbers. In fact, they are a race of natural certified public accountants.
In the Regional Office for the Importation of Non-indigenous Flora and Fauna an argument was in progress. Again the atmosphere was tinged with the smell of basil and nutmeg.
"I can't believe that you had those animals cloned," Tim Helms, was saying, with some heat. "We never intended for that to happen."
"We have gotten off the subject, Master Helms," replied Ottobon Kurr, with equal heat. "As the Regional Officer for the Importation of Hazardous Flora and Fauna, I wish to know why the cloned animals are reproducing. You swore that the originals were sterilized."
"Is that correct?" lisped Aalber T'verberg, trying without much success to take control of the situation.
"That's right," said Theresa. "They were neutered."
"Why, then, are the clones reproducing?" asked Kurr.
"Well, that explains it," interrupted T'verberg, sensing his opportunity. Finally, the combatants turned their attention to the sibilant tones of the little Lotharian. "These animals were sterilized by having their reproductive glands removed, a process traditionally referred to as 'neutering.' It is a simple and common procedure that renders the animal sterile and halts much of the undesirable behavior associated with reproduction. It must be emphasized, however, that this is a surgical procedure and doesn't change the animal genetically."
"What a barbarous operation,' said Kurr, in disgust.
"Not really," replied T'verberg. "It depends on your viewpoint. On Earth, where these animals originated, the genetic alterations that are practiced elsewhere in the Galaxy, are not only considered immoral, they are highly illegal. Earth's authorities are very strict about the genetic purity of their native animals. I'm not so sure it's such a bad idea."
"I still do not understand," said Hagedorn Twee.
"It's quite simple," said T'verberg. "When you had the felines cloned, the clones were grown from a single cell, usually an epithelial cell taken from the lining of the animal's small intestine." Here the two Hearder's looked at each other. Kurr wrinkled his huge nose in disgust. T'verberg continued. "This technique utilizes the animal's inherent genetic patterns. Simple surgery, such as the amputation of the sex glands, would have absolutely no effect on the animal's genes. If that were so, clones produced from an animal that had accidentally lost a foot or an eye would have the same defects. Such is not the case."
"What does it mean?" asked Hagedorn Twee.
"It means that the clones are all fertile," said the little Lotharian. "Who did this cloning job for you anyway?"
"We went to Jakob's Genetics, on Titus Five. He came highly recommended," said Twee, somewhat defensively. Now it was the Lotharian's turn to show disgust.
"More like he gave you a low, low price!" snorted T'verberg. "Jakob Hochsteter is an amateur, nothing more than a part-time gene hacker!" He shook his round, pink head. "You went to Jake the gene jockey. No wonder you're in such a mess!"
"What are we to do?" asked Twee, intertwining his digits in agitation. One of the objects of his discomfort, a kitten, was even then rubbing affectionately against the Hearder's double chins. He reached over absently, to stroke the little animal. It began to purr audibly.
"There are a number of reputable genetic engineers who may be able to help you," said T'verberg, "but I'm afraid it's going to cost."
The two Hearders looked at each other. After a few moments, Twee's huge shoulders drooped visibly. They looked resignedly at the Lotharian and nodded their huge lopsided heads reluctantly.
Genetic engineers from Cornucopia Genetic Services scratched their heads when confronted with the problem but, after a short consultation, came up with an elegant solution. After a three-week waiting period the head engineer, a middle-aged, uncharacteristically paunchy Lotharian named Stimon P'teragon presented the Hearders and the Helms with the answer.
"This should solve your problem," said the sleek Lotharian as he handed Hagedorn Twee a small neoplex vial.
"What is it?" asked Twee, looking somewhat doubtful. Obviously the solution to such a huge problem as theirs could never come in so small of a package.
"It is a constructed feline rhabdovirus," came the smug reply.
"A what?" asked Tim Helms.
"It is a virus that will only infect a terrestrial cat. We have designed it to infect and destroy the gonads which will render the animals sterile. It is also non-antigenic so the animal's immune system cannot fight off the infection."
"That is all well and good," said Ottobon Kurr, "but what about the attacks on our priceless Nardeezy Dragons?"
"Ahhh," smiled P'teragon, showing his flat, herbivorous teeth, "here is where the extra cost comes in. The virus also affects the olfactory apparatus of the infected animals in a subtle way that makes the Nardeezy dragon smell like something inedible. This is also the method by which the virus is spread, much like the human cold or the Hearder flux."
"The animals must not be killed!" said Kurr adamantly. Hearders were good a being adamant.
"There is no danger to the infected animals. Once the target tissues have been attacked the virus becomes dormant until it encounters fresh, uninfected tissue. This extends your protection indefinitely."
"Will it work?" asked Twee.
"It is guaranteed," said P'teragon.
"Just a minute," said Tim.
"Yes?" said P'teragon.
"What if one of these infected cats somehow gets back to Terra? What's to protect all the cats on my homeworld."
"That is a good question, Mr. Helms," replied P'teragon, "but Cornucopia Genetics has thought of that possibility. It is just another of the reasons that we offer the best service of this kind in the Quadrant. None of our engineered viruses will survive the jump through hyperspace. Once the virus has replicated inside its animal host, it will fall apart in Whitney pseudospace."
Tim nodded his head in approval.
"One more thing," said Stimon P'teragon.
"Yes?" asked Twee.
"Stay away from gene jockeys. They're nothing but trouble."
The Cornucopia people were as good as their word. Within a few months, there were still just as many feral cats on Heard's World, but all of them had a mild case of the sniffles and none of them were reproducing. The treatment had not come cheaply but, still, the costs had only cut Twee's enormous profits on the venture by about a tenth.
Tim Helms picked up a few more credits by designing a live trap to capture the loose cats. Baited with an old-Earth weed called "catnip" (of which the Helms had a small supply), the traps were an immediate success. Recaptured animals were returned to their original owners with a caution and, of course, a somewhat more-than-nominal fee or simply sold as new, on the open market. Profits soared. Tim added catnip to the products that he and his wife would bring on their next trip, mentally rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the credits they would make. The lucky couple were back in business.
Tim and Theresa stood next to the now-released Jupiter getting ready to head out on the remainder of their somewhat delayed merchant foray. Hagedorn Twee, with a cat purring on each of his massive shoulders stood before them.
"I almost hate to do this," said Theresa. "But I do have something else you might be interested in, Merchant Twee. With all the ruckus over the cats, we didn't have time to show this to you."
"Yes?" asked Twee, expectantly.
"Okay, Tim," Theresa called out.
Tim released a white and brown-spotted animal with four legs, a short, pointy tail and a pair of droopy ears. To the delight of the two humans, the creature went immediately over and sniffed the big alien's foot. After a brief investigation, the little animal's ears perked up and its tail began to wag. It then put its two front legs up on the big alien's elephantine leg. The alien reached down in wonder to touch the small animal who began to lick the huge hand with a wet, pink tongue.
"What an adorable creature!" said Hagedorn Twee, with obvious Hearder delight. "What is it?"
"It's an Earth-native animal called a 'puppy,'" said Theresa.
Twee picked the dog up and laughed his booming, strangled-horse laugh as the little creature licked his pebbly face. Obviously, the two cats on the Hearder's shoulders weren't nearly as pleased as the Hearder with this most recent turn of events.
As if in anticipation, Theresa answered the Hearder's next question.
"Yes, Merchant Twee, it has been neutered..."
Phillip Nolte was one of the founding editors of InterText.
InterText stories written by Phillip Nolte: "Direct Connection" (v1n1), "Slice of Mind" (v1n4), "Cannibals Shrink Elvis' Head" (v2n2), "Neuterality" (v2n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Phillip Nolte.