Skinned Cats

by Michael E. Howard


“Headmaster. Headmaster! Come quick!” The apprentice was beside herself. Eyestalks swiveling all erratic and dorsal appendages flailing wildly, she squeezed up the access corridor.

The professor calmly slid from his observer’s dais to block her advance. The poor thing had gulped so much air in her rush up the ramp that her vestigial ink sacs had inflated. She couldn’t have made it through the hatchway without severing something, and the last thing he needed was injured faculty.

Seeing the professor looming suddenly in her path, the apprentice lashed out with a trailing tentacle cluster and caught hold of the safety railing. She yanked to a graceful, if undignified halt, scant inches before collision.

“Headmaster,” she panted. “It’s the Zephyr Heir. He’s in shock. I think it’s pre-Ammonite Catalepsy!”

Of course that was the stereotypical slur leveled against his controversial curriculum. And while he expected more from his own staff, he was resigned to it. He had personally supervised this cycle’s student screening, and true Ammonite Catalepsy was unlikely. Probably simple heart seizure and temporary paralysis. He crooned back to her, fluting calming harmonics through his tremolo drone pipes.

“Easy now. Breathe easy now. Yes, that’s it... deep breaths.”

Without facing away from the apprentice, he fixed three rear oculars on his deputy. Speaking quietly, but resonating urgent imperatives, and without interrupting his soothing murmuring to the apprentice: “Khu’chanko, quickly! Check the First Aid Kit for Chloramine ampoules and see to that little Zephyr hoodlum.”

Khu’chanko leaped to obey, and the professor hooted softly after him. “Administer 200 ccs... and don’t be gentle. Leave a scar!”

After all, it wouldn’t hurt, and might teach the spoiled little lord some humility.

“Now, let’s see what this is all about.” He gently drew the apprentice through the hatchway, and sat her down at the deputy’s station. He stole a glance through the narrow view port. Khu’chanko would be a while.

Deftly running a tuberole down the row of spring-loaded activators, he called up the last five minutes of “lecture.” Postage stamp mini-screens illuminated in turn, and he selected the appropriate clan identifier. He straightened a bit as the elongated octagonal star of the Zephyr Traders winked on. True, he was Headmaster, but they were a large clan with powerful family connections.

Skinning back a chitin sheath, he exposed a sensitive nerve bundle and pressed it into the computer port.

“Ah... here we go.”

Headmaster station, console and apprentice faded away, replaced with the virtual reality of a Terran Thought-Theater.

He was standing on endoskeletal legs, restricted to binocular vision. He was a human female, preparing the morning meal and reveling in the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She had just opened the refrigerator door, and leaning into the cold vapor, peered towards the upper shelf.

There. She reached up and touched the waxy surface of a flat red and white cardboard packet, feeling the clear cellophane insert crinkle under her fingers. It had already been opened.

Lifting it out and pivoting awkwardly to place the packet on the kitchen table, the professor shared her matter-of-fact knowledge that the tacky coating was as much smeared residue from handling yesterday’s breakfast as it was the wax coating that once served to keep the contents “fresh.” An inside clear plastic pouch held the “bacon” – whitish oblongs streaked with red.

Suddenly the clarity of the scripted Thought-Theater frosted and faded. Through a murky mist of nonverbal memory trees, the professor followed the student’s attempted escape up collateral experiences. A butcher... cutter of animal flesh... meat. A caricature of an obese hairless animal squealing through a flat snout pierced with twin air holes. A raised hammer, and...

The scene abruptly cut to black and he was back at his station.

“Hah!” The professor turned towards the apprentice. “The little cheat hadn’t even got past the refrigerator!”

Her breathing had settled down, and her color returned to a healthy pallor.

“Feeling better?”

She dipped her eyestalks, coyly admitting embarrassment. “Thank you Headmaster. Do you think he’ll be okay?”

“The Heir?” The professor peered again out the view port. The Heir was still a flattened mound on the floor underneath his cubicle, but Khu’chanko was stretched to his full height, signaling “all clear” with an empty ampoule. The rest of the class was mesmerized, locked in horrified fascination with the Alien drama unfolding in their minds.

“Absolutely,” the professor chortled. “He just got too clever for his own good. Spooked when he read the peripheral origins for the bacon, and jinked away... right into a slaughterhouse.”

The apprentice couldn’t suppress a shudder, and the professor erected a disapproving eyestalk. Of course he sympathized, but she was new and it wouldn’t do to encourage weakness.

After all, he’d never supported the Molloscoid/Terran Concords, nor approved of the economic boom, universal affluence and attendant surplus of consumables that followed.

But things were reaching epidemic proportions. It wasn’t just that the youth of today were stuffing themselves comatose. Or that they were squandering finite resources. The overabundance of food was suppressing the adrenal hormones that trigger development of higher brain functions and logic nodes.

Even worse, if anything could be worse than the dumbing-down of an entire generation, was the attendant hypersexuality and promiscuous breeding. A dangerous cycle: overeating, over-breeding and successive “boom generations” of overeating over-breeders.

It was all quite serious. Conventional mores forbade teaching dietary self-denial, and promoting sexual abstinence was a sin. Yet whole generations were at risk... perhaps the future of the Molloscoid Race.

“Pardon me, Headmaster. Did you say something?” The apprentice nudged him out of his reverie by pretending to have overheard a muffled comment.

He turned towards her. “I said: ‘Thank the gods for Humans!’”

The professor blamed Humankind for the current evils facing his people. And it was true. Humans were on the brink of dominating the Galaxy without ever firing a shot in anger.

But if Humans had corrupted Molloscoid culture, it was quite possible that Human culture, or at least the Terran Embassy’s cultural exchange program, offered the antidote.

He’d had to search through the whole series of Thought-Theater tapes on Terran “Living Treasures” to find what he needed. But he had found it. Boy, had he ever!

Playing to the new fascination with “All Things Terran,” he had carefully cobbled together a curriculum guaranteed to put the students off their feed well through responsible adulthood, effectively ending conspicuous consumption and placing the Molloscoid Empire back on a competitive basis with the Terran Republic. Some graduates never overcame their course-induced aversion to food.

“Well,” he said, throwing appraising looks at his apprentice. Was she ready for tenure?

“Khu’chanko will be a while. Do you feel up to VR monitor duties? To see how the rest of the class is doing?”

She could hardly refuse. Bobbing in affirmation, she silently connected to the student monitor.

Suddenly, there she was, in an Earth retro-style kitchen, igniting the gas burner under a cast-iron frying pan. Subliminally she “knew” the secret to non-stick cooking. Never washing the pan surface. Allowing the metal pores to fill with accumulations of animal fat and carbon. Scouring any crusted bits of charred meat away with salt and a crinkled wad of paper.

Horrified, the apprentice transferred to another student. This time she found herself forking the now-droopy striated slabs into the smoking pan. The white portion was Earth biology’s answer to stored energy. The red streaks... animal muscle.

She deftly speared pieces with her fork, turning them over to crisp both sides. The waxy opacity was now translucent. Vaporized fat smoked up towards the stove ventilator. Hot fat spit stinging droplets onto her hands and wrists. The flat slabs of bacon curled and buckled.

Gag.

A florescent window intruded into the Thought-Theater reality. Winking on and off, the scholarly script indicated the end of mandatory viewing.

Incredibly, enough students held on to keep her connected.

A stubby pink five-fingered hand reached back into the fridge, fumbled at a curiously scallop-shaped gray cardboard box and removed two elongated white spheroids. They wobbled in her grasp with the off-center feel of a blob of mercury.

The apprentice fought against overwhelming queasiness, fought hard to avoid trying to escape down alternative memory lanes. Only the gods knew what unpleasantness lurked around those mental corners.

She deftly cracked the brittle shells against the edge of the pan, spilling the contents into hot fat. Thick translucent jell, whitening on impact... deep yellow-orange glistening yolk coagulating... and, mercifully... blackness.

“Headmaster, will she be all right?” Khu’chanko had come back to find the apprentice puddled on the floor, and the professor removing an empty 500 cc ampoule of Chloramine from her thorax. He absently noted that Headmaster had carefully avoided leaving even the slightest bit of scarring.

“Yes, yes... she’ll be fine.”

Of course, the professor blamed himself. He had spent all his time evaluating psychological profiles for the students, and had neglected to screen his own staff properly. Losing a faculty member might well have scotched the whole program!

His deputy shared the thought.

“Well, that finishes the semester. A full year with no major mishaps... although the Zephyr Heir sure gave me a scare. Actually, for a second or two, I thought we’d lost him.”

The professor looked up. Now that would have been a real tragedy. Not so much for the Zephyr Traders, but because the curriculum was working!

He focused an ocular on the still-prostrate apprentice. Adults were as a rule far less susceptible to cognitive shock than juveniles.

“Just look at her, Khu’chanko. She probably won’t be able to eat solid food for months.”

Still, attempting to modify hundreds of thousands of years of genetic programming was dangerous. No matter that the genetic roadmap was no longer viable... was even genocidally off course. One false step could trigger loss of higher brain functions and physical reversion to prehistoric templates: Ammonite Catalepsy.

Later that evening the professor called Khu’chanko to the faculty screening room. He had asked his deputy to work closely with him on this one. Yes, he was bold... but not stupid, and wanted Khu’chanko standing by, just in case.

“Headmaster, I got the Embassy’s latest tapes, but I can’t make heads or tentacles out of the Terran script. What’s the title of this one?

The professor deliberately avoided the proffered packet by entwining his deputy’s brachial coils in sincere, if exaggerated, welcome. They were working on a long-term fix, and a few minutes’ respite wouldn’t hurt anything.

“Nicely done, Khu’ch! The Ambassador... she wasn’t suspicious?”

“Not in the least bit. In fact, she seems to see our increased interest in Earth culture as some kind of breakthrough in Molloscoid-Human relations.”

Khu’chanko tactfully set the packet of Thought-Theater recordings near the monitor, within the professor’s reach, but not so close as to be intrusive. He knew the stress these sessions put on the Professor. He hoisted his medical kit, as though warding off evil, reassured by its hefty bulk.

“Are we moving on to Human Eating Habits?” Khu’chanko kept his tones even.

“No, Khu’ch. We’re moving on to ‘Alien Sensitivity Training 401’.” The professor strove for buoyant tonals. The forced hilarity rang hollow.

This was going to be the worst yet. And it wasn’t just the basic Thought-Theater scripts. Over the course of the next few weeks, he would have to personally explore every conceivable subroutine and memory branch.

The professor’s chortle was becoming almost manic. “We’re going for the gusto. Reaching for the ring. All or nothing... Do or... oh, never mind, Khu’ch.” He picked up the packet of recordings and read the titles out loud.

“‘Reproduction and Human Sexuality’, ‘Making Love’, and ‘The Joy of Natural Childbirth’.”

Khu’chanko was speechless. Words failed. His very drone pipes drooped and deflated. Numbly he opened his medical kit and began arranging Chloramine ampoules in neat little rows.


Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Howard

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