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Dec 16, 2017

The Sun Always Shines In Lactolia: Part 2

Category: Star Cats
Posted by: weedles

 

Nugget’s heart beat irregularly, and he paced anxiously in the cool, white Clay Jars R Us lobby.  His bobbed tail twitched on its own whim.  Maybe I shouldn’t have taken those caffein pills, after all, he grimaced, with a sudden facial quiver.  Even though the cheap chews had been vaguely marketed as “meat-flavored,” and promised to chase sleep and breathing regularity away in mere minutes, Nugget had a sneaking suspicion that his Caffein Yum-Yums were as much poison as anything else.  But what other choice did he have?  Today was the first day after his week-long suspension, and he knew he was treading on thin ground.  One sneeze could land him on the smoggy streets, and to oversleep was little less than a death sentence.  So it was Caffein Yum-Yums or bust.

Nugget’s stomach gnawed at itself in agony of the thought, aching from five days without so much as a kibble.  Because of the suddenly shortened budget Nugget had been forced to adopt, he had had to choose between his beloved bladeless fan and his (disappointingly) necessary food.  The logical choice had been made.  Nugget had cut the latter.  After all, his beautiful fan doubled as a status symbol just as much as it functioned as non-negotiable relief—what was he supposed to do?  As pleased as Nugget was with himself for the level-headed decision, his stomach seemed more than disgusted with him.

It was safe to say that If Nugget wasn’t already desperate to meet Clay Jars R Us’ every demand, his stomach was.

The digital clock in the polished Clay Jars R Us lobby flipped to 2:56 PM, and Nugget found his orange kitty paws dashing him over to Clarice’s inset little oasis.  It was an immaculate and modest white like the rest of the Clay Jars R Us tower, but somehow the feeling of anxiety seemed to know its boundary in this humble paradise.

“You don’t need to say a thing, Nugget, I am signing you in right…now,” Clarice said, audible taps of her stylus being interjected between words.  As soon as she was done, Clarice’s bony countenance broke into a weary smile.  “It was a long week without seeing my favorite coworker.”  Her words were like a breeze through a hot desert.  Somehow, Nugget couldn’t return the favor.

“It was a long week without seeing a paycheck,” Nugget mumbled, forgetting his manners as the twitching in his tail had moved up to his ears.  Clarice noticed.

“Don’t you worry about a thing, Sweetie” She chided in her grandmotherly voice.  How did she have energy to be positive, uplifting, and get her job done?  “You’re going to be just as charming as always.”  Nugget attempted a smile.

“You’re a paradox, Clarice.  Thank you,” Nugget began to turn away.

“Hey, I mean it,”  Clarice spoke her words with an almost visible underline.  Nugget smiled.  But he didn’t believe her.

 


Nugget bounded onto the tiled trading floor, his paws sliding on the recently waxed, gleaming marble for the 170th time.  He took a deep breath, collected himself, and strolled to his exposed desk in the middle of the room, impersonal though it was.  He was right on time for his three o’ clock shift, and if all went well, would be exiting by the same way in nineteen and a half hours.  Nugget smirked.  I have it so good—an entire four AND a half hours to sleep!  He pitied all of the smoke-dwellers.

But, with that thought in mind, he was pressingly aware of his need to make a good impact on Fidget today.  That meant no attitudes, no question, and no cowlicks.  Nugget glanced almost fearfully at his side, relieved to see that his tuft of fur was acting normal for once.  It was as if even it sensed the gravity of the situation.

What was Nugget doing?!  The incessantly ringing phone was crying its constant shrill cry, and Nugget was dallying on his own thoughts?!  He snapped like lightning to answer it, but was stunned a second to see another furry paw hold the vibrating phone down.  Nugget jerked his head toward whoever was inhibiting his ability to do his job, when he lost all sense of words.  Fidget spoke first.

“I’m afraid you won’t be answering phone calls today, Nugget,” Fidget said cooly, a sinister gleam to his eyes.  Nugget searched his supervisor’ face for any hint of a joke.  After all, Nugget’s job was answering phones.  If he couldn’t answer phones, then he wouldn’t be working!  Nugget felt his blood turn cold; there wasn’t a trace of amusement in Fidget’s stony eyes.  Is this actually happening?  Am I actually getting fired?  It was then that Nugget noticed two other felines, both sharp and with slicked back fur.  Hundreds of questions leapt at the chance to escape from Nugget’s mouth, and out of the ninety-nine percent that were indignant, he was surprised to ask something courteous.

“Who are these gentlecats?”  Nugget inquired with as much composure as he could muster.  He stood up to politely sniff noses with the strangers, bearing as much as he could before hastily withdrawing to stifle a cough.  Both of the strangers had enough scented grease combed into their fur to knock him out cold, dare he breath another whiff!

“This is Philly,” Fidget said, as if the other bright-eyed, tawdry stranger, “My personal performance therapist,” Nugget’s heart stopped.  Performance therapist?  CJRU executives only a performance therapists when they wished to be told to lay-off a worker that they already wanted to sack.  On the trading floor, these infamous workers were known as ‘The Firing Squad.’  “I’ve been discussing you and your sales record with him, and we’ve decided…,” Fidget let his words drift off, as if he was trying to rip Nugget’s heart into shreds.

“That with your great sales record and extroverted nature, you would be most efficient in the Record Keeping & Accounting Branch.”  Nugget couldn’t control himself any longer.  He let his mouth gape open.

“The basement?  You’re going to banish me to the basement?!  That doesn’t even make sense!”  Nugget cried,“You literally just said that I had a great sales record and an extroverted nature!”  Fidget and Philly exchanged confused glances, as if they couldn’t follow Nugget’s chain of thought.  “I can’t charm a receipt copy into buying a hundred shares!”  Nugget spoke through gritted fangs.  Philly nodded his head, as if some trickle of understand had come to him, and smirked.

“Of course, of course, Nugget,” Philly said warmly,“But you can keep a record of the day’s trading success.  Why, it’s practically the same thing,” He laughed affably.  Nugget glared at him.

“With your career repositioning there will be some slight changes, it is to be understood,” Fidget spoke up again.  Nugget restrained himself from some sarcastic comment, submissively listening as his sentence was ruled.  “For example, instead of a half day off every week, you will have a half day off every other week—it’s almost the same thing, really,”  Fidget laughed nonchalantly, and what Nugget up to that point couldn’t quite pin as supreme ignorance or hateful malice was proven the latter, a veritable enmity sweeping Fidget’s furry visage.

“You have neglected to introduce me to my replacement,” Nugget glared spitefully, turning to the other giddy gentlecat that had remained silent up to that point.  Fidget and Philly seemed to be surprised at Nugget’s intuition.

“He—he’s not your replacement,” Philly assured Nugget,“Duncan is just your successor,” Philly scrambled for the appropriate word.  He hadn’t found it.  Nugget raised his eyes hurtfully.  “What I mean is, he’s your stand-in. If you can prove your loyalty down in Accounting, you might just get promoted back to Sales,”  All at once, all three kitty heads turned unbelievingly to Philly, Fidget and Duncan just as surprised as Nugget.

“You mean, there’s a way for me to get back to the trading floor?”  Nugget asked hopefully.

“There is,” Philly said, certain of himself.

“There is?”  Fidget asked dryly, his ears flat in disapproval.

“There…is?”  Duncan asked, his voice quavering, and he reminded Nugget of his six-months ago self, new, timid and eager, when he had first taken the job.

“There is!”  Nugget repeated joyfully, still half-unbelievingly, ready to purr in glee.  Everything was coming together now, and whether or not Fidget or Philly would admit it, Nugget understood:  This was a matter of war.  Of loyalty.

Had Nugget forgotten in his isolated little world that all of Lactolia was dancing on dynamite?  Emperor’s Smorgasbord or Clay Jars R Us?  Law or revolution?  And Nugget had nigh put himself on his company’s enemy list by so aggressively questioning his supervisor.  Nugget replayed the entire atrocious scene of last week in his head, wincing as he did.  Why, it was almost a marvel that he hadn’t been fired and jailed!

Nugget couldn’t believe he had given his supervisor reason to doubt him.  No longer, Nugget steeled his resolve, even if it takes my every waking moment, my very life, I will prove my loyalty to Clay Jars R Us.  There was a way to climb the slide that lead into the sand pit, and Nugget was going to do just that.  I am sorry Duncan, but a stand-in is exactly what you are, Nugget grinned to himself.  Fidget cleared his throat.

“You will be beginning your job in Accounting tomorrow.  You’re shift will start at 12:00 A.M.  If you would like to get acquainted with your new office and work, I am sure that Philly would be more than pleased to show you around,” Fidget nodded,  “Now, if you will, you will have to let Duncan use his desk.”  Nugget raised his eyes in confusion.  “The one you’re standing in front of.”  Awkward silence.

“Oh—oh…mine?”  Nugget finally pieced together, stepping back from his former desk.

“Please removed your personal items,” Duncan said in a low voice, and it could barely be heard over the raucous dealings of the CJRU traders.  Without saying a word, Nugget collected his single item and headed away, quickly being swallowed up in the trading mania he once felt that he owned.  Now he just felt like he was a ping-pong ball in the furry throng.

“Hey, Nugget, do you want me to show you to your new office?”  Philly asked in an insincere voice.  You mean, my new cell?  Nugget wanted to say sarcastically.

“No, that’s not necessary—I think I can find it.”  Just go down the gloomy, smoggy, dark staircase and into the old cement basement.  It had never crossed Nugget’s mind—the notion had never even entered his head—to go into the narrow door and into the basement.  It had all been ludicrous, preposterous, until now.  The decrepit basement was remains from the old sock factory that had been built in this location before Clay Jars R Us bought the land.  The sock factory had gone out of business in a turn of events, that, in retrospect, could have been predicted, when the cats realized they didn’t wear shoes, and really didn’t need socks.  The old basement had been spared, but never remodeled.  In fact, the Record Keeping and Accounting department was like the forgotten child of Clay Jars R Us, and as long as the files came up the through the pneumatic transit system (PTT) at the right time, the executives didn’t care to know about it.  It just worked that way.  In all honesty, the Record Keeping and Accounting department of Clay Jars R Us might as well be a contracted outsource, with the complete contrast of the branch from the rest of the company.  Only the desperate would claim they “worked at Clay Jars R Us,” when they actually worked in the Record Keeping and Accounting branch.  Of course, pretty much everybody that worked in Record Keeping and Accounting was desperate.

Nugget showed security his identity rather mechanically, exiting his beloved trading room and disappearing into the labyrinth of halls, each with its own particular air of angst, that eventually led to his doom.  Nugget’s trembling velvet-orange ears folded forward in defeat, and as his paws strode along on the increasingly less trafficked tiled floors, he could see the gleam from the sole personal item he was clutching with his mouth.

It was a six-month old photograph of a pleased, manicured cat, handing a deliriously grinning feline his company (Make that, ruling company) tie and employment papers.

The two cats were Fidget and Nugget.

***

180 Pear Tree Ridge.  Button rubbed her eyes and didn’t bother stifling a yawn.  She dropped her furry head on the table and beat it against the hard countertop.  Use your common sense, Snugglebug had said.  After three days of rethinking the riddle, though, Button was beginning to think that either she didn’t have any common sense, or Snugglebug (no matter how pure her intentions may be) was simply nuts.

“What does this mean?!”  Button finally said aloud.  There was nobody in the room to hear her except the janitor, and he was absent-mindedly stirring the cleaner,  splashing it onto the floor with his mop, smearing it onto the four tiles he was working on, and smearing it onto the floor with the mop.

Not only had the clock just indicated the time to be 11:00 PM, with many of the high level executives long off work, but the common workers had taken off unpaid time to lock themselves up in their lousy excuses for homes.  To be frank, it frightened Button.

If even low-paid smoke-dwellers, like Button, who were losing more money than making in any given week, and whose budget was always in the red, to the point that they were permanently indebted to the company they were working for, if even they were taking off early to avoid the brewing conflict, then Button had every right to be scared.  The storm everybody had seen on the horizon was close enough to feel the wind from.  And Button didn’t like it.

She knew it was only a matter of time until the lightning would strike.

The silence, aside from the Slish-slish, of the janitor, was almost unnerving, and in the dimness of the vast lobby, illuminated only by some meager, golden-glowing wall sconces instead of the blaring lights and bright skylight of day, Button felt more than bored.  In fact, it was as if she were waiting for something to happen.  But what?  Maybe I’m waiting for myself to finally solve this stupid riddle…  Button exhaled with an aggravated gust of air.  Maybe the entire ordeal, three days ago, had just been a dream.  A pleasant, but childish reverie, that had had her convinced their might be some sense of justice—if even long buried and now only beginning to sprout, if even so unnoticed, it could be overlooked for the other dirt clods, but alive still—around her.

Button jumped.  The digital doorbell had sounded.  She scanned all around her, looking for the newcomer.  Who could it be at this late hour?  Button’s pulse was racing, and she realized she was breathing hard.  She glanced toward the janitor—had he signed out and she hadn’t noticed?  Nope.  He was still sloshing away.  He hadn’t even looked up once.  Button swallowed a lump in her throat.  What if it’s a toothbrush militia?  Button wondered.  She had heard on the news that other, smaller corporations had been picking sides, offering bribes, buying stocks and aligning themselves with either Emperor’s Smorgasbord or Clay Jars R Us.  She had also heard that they were raising “toothbrush militias,” so called because the only weapons they could attain were primitive odds like sharpened toothbrushes.

Of course, none have attempted so great a target as Emperor’s Smorgasbord itself, yet, Button tried to reassure herself, still looking nervously over her front and hind shoulders.  But what if they suddenly gained confidence?  What if the militia is invading at this moment…when the Emperor’s Smorgasbord headquarters is essentially empty?

“Milk and kibbles, please,”  Barista jumped, whirling back to face the bar counter, her fur on end and claws out.  She relaxed to see a fluffy brown cat perched on the stool in front of her, four paws on the stool and tail curled around himself.  He had hardened eyes, as if glaring at her for delaying a second to bring him his food.  Typical.  Button thought to herself.

“We don’t do kibbles here.  There’s a place down the street that does, but I doubt they are open,”  Button said, sighing at the regular looking smoke dweller that had come in.  Even though she wouldn’t admit it, and especially not to this glowering customer, she was glad to have somebody here besides the mindless janitor.

“So are you going go check out the place down the street or pick something else off the menu?”  Button asked, grabbing a rag and wiping down the bar counter in front of the newcomer.

“No.”  Button looked at the pleasantly mocha-colored cat, as if expecting his answer to be a joke.  He stared back.

“‘No’, you’re not going down the street, or ‘no,’ you’re going to order something off the menu from here?”  Button asked.  He looked back at her peculiarly.

“No, I’m not going down the street,” The brown cat said matter-of-factly, as if Button was a fool for not arriving at that obvious answer.  “Just milk.”  He said.  Button walked over to the milk machine, and pouring the powdered milk into a paper saucer.  Real milk was saved for Emperor’s Smorgasbord executives only, and to be honest, Button wasn’t exactly certain what raw deal anybody less would earn themselves.  All she knew was that the imitation milk for commoners and other corporation workers came from a rancid smelling powder (which in turn came from a questionable factory titled “Cheapo’s Products & Distribution,”), wasn’t mixed with water, once it arrived (for that would be too expensive), and tasted like white mud—or so it was claimed.  Even though she worked at the Emperor’s Smorgasbord Milk Bar, she didn’t want to taste it!  It had also been claimed it made one’s fur fall out…

“You should have a suggestion box,” The late-night customer said in a low voice.

“Pardon me?”  Button asked cooly, passing the cat his beverage.  Button’s eyes enlarged to see some black flakes of something floating around in it’s excessive froth.  Whatever.  It’s what the customer ordered, and the customer is always right, Button told herself.

“You should have a suggestion box,” The late-night customer repeated, his words insultingly slow.

“We do,” Button pointed to the side of the counter.  “Why, do you ask?  Do you want to suggest that kibbles come on the menu?  I tell you, whatever we could get cheap enough to churn out an inordinate profit, you wouldn’t want,” Button laughed nervously.  The brown cat’s eyes bore into her.

“Something like that.”  He said, hopping down from his low stool and going to the side of the counter.  There was a moment of silence, and Button could almost feel waves of disgust rolling over her and emanating from her customer, as he discovered what the suggestion-box took the form of. 

“This is a trashcan,”  He said in his cold, low voice.  His deepening scowl was raised half in question and half in accusation.  It sent daggers through Button, but she kept her exterior composed.

"Yeah, same thing, right?"  She grinned.  The peculiar customer's hardened eyes glazed over.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," He murmered distastefully to himself.  He looked up at Button. “Where is your director?  I need to write her a suggestion,” The strangers eyes were looking fiery, and Button shot a glance over at the janitor.  Still sloshing away, blankly at the floor.  Button was starting to wish this customer had never come in at all!

“My director went off-shift an hour ago—but who said anything about my director being a ‘her?’” Button narrowed her eyes at the brown cat.  His fur was smokey, but otherwise showed the promise of wonderfully silky charm and sheen—though that was the beginning and end of anything charming thing about him.

“You know who I’m talking about!”  Button stared at the stranger blankly.  “Button!  I am looking for Button!” The brown cat snapped.

I am Button,” Button said slowly, situating herself in a conveniently defended position behind the counter—in case the stranger attacked.  The brown cat looked over Button and grunted, like he was expecting something else.  Suddenly, he ripped a napkin out of the holder, producing a pen like a magic trick and scribbling something down on it.  He thrust it across the countertop to Button.  Button grabbed it cautiously, as though it was laced with plague.  She half-feared to open it, but the words “Curiosity killed the cat,” were not spoken in vain.  She quickly devoured the message:

You are being spied on.  Reason to believe your life is in peril.  Meeting tonight at 180 Pear Tree Ridge.  Much more to say but not safe to. 

Button’s ears stiffened and she quickly took a fresh look around the room, crumpling the napkin as she did so.  Her heart thumped irregularly.  Me?  Being spied on?  By whom?  Button glanced suspiciously at the cameras.  There must have been dozens in the lobby alone—and those were only the ones she could see!  She swallowed hard as her gaze fell to the janitor.  He had been slowly edging his way closer to the milk bar since Button’s “customer” had first entered.  By now he was well within earshot.

“Is it Morris?”  Button silently mouthed to Snugglebug’s messenger,“The janitor?”  Snugglebug’s messenger made the faintest nod and a darting gesture with his eyes, warning Button to stop staring.  She at once peeled her eyes from the plant.

“I risked my tail to deliver that message to you from,” The brown cat paused, “You-Know-Who,” Then, with a distrustful look at Button, he finished ominously, “Be there.”  Snugglebug’s messenger pushed away his unlapped milk and lightly padded across the near-empty lobby, descending the stairs on noiseless paws.  The doorway dinged as the messenger exited into the hazy night, and as the heavy glass door slowly clasp shut, it closed Button in with stifling fear.

 


Button breathed heavily, mustering all of her willpower to restrain her from a sideways glance at Morris.  He was drifting back to the edges of the walls now that Snugglebug’s messenger was gone.  Button’s heart beat treacherously loudly, and trying to calm herself down made it seemed to beat harder.  Being accompanied by a potentially lethal spy in the practically empty, darkened building, made Button feel uncannily exposed.  Snugglebug’s messenger said that there’s a meeting tonight at 180 Pear Tree Ridge, Button recalled, pounding her paw on the table in utter frustration as she simultaneously recalled her complete bafflement by the puzzle.

“What in smoggy Lactolia does ‘180 Pear Tree Ridge’ mean?!”  Button lamented aloud, almost forgetting that her every word was being heard by perfidious ears.  Use your common sense…  Button groaned.  Use your common sense…  Button’s heavy eyes suddenly flew open.

She was going to use common sense.

Button logged off and shut down the milk bar computer in a flurry, hoping her director wouldn’t come in before her excursion was over.  Leaving before her twenty-two hour shift was over was a serious err in company policy, and even though she knew that the chance of seeing another customer tonight was the same as Lactolia’s ozone layer suddenly mending itself, she would have grounds to be fired if her director found out.  Button casually glided across the hall and down the unlit stairs, taking a deep breath before she vanished by the same way her mysterious messenger just had.

 


The white, LED street-lamps were little match for the stifling smog that tickled Button’s throat, stuffed up her kitty nose, and made her eyes watery, though Button had never known anything different.  Button strained her eyes to keep the smog-obstructed, bulky figure in view, her paws trotting over the dehydrated, crusty cement ground.  The only moisture that graced the battered roads were the frequent puddles of toxic factory waste that Button navigated without thinking.  I sure hope I know what I’m doing, Button breathed for the thousandth time.

She used to figure that the day she ditched work and did anything less than sleep, she would have lost her mind!  And yet, here she was, secretly tailing a stranger she scarcely knew, and headed in a direction she had never been before.  Gees, Button had never even left a mile radius of the Emperor’s Smorgasbord headquarters in her life!  Fear and liberation constricted around Button’s heart at once.  She had been secretly tailing Snugglebug’s messenger through the slimy, narrow streets haunted by towering, dilapidating, and look-alike businesses for nearly an hour, and to say she was disoriented was an understatement.  If she lost sight of Snugglebug’s messenger, Button knew she wasn’t going to make it to any rendezvous—and she knew for sure that she wasn’t going to find her way home.

Button stopped abruptly, awestruck despite herself, and caught her breath.

So that was where she was.  Button’s head was upturned her eyes transfixed on the spectacle that beheld her:  The Enclosed Tunnel.  Illuminated by rows of intense bright lights, all the brighter so that the engineering feat could be seen through the night and smog, it shone in crystal radiance.  It was like clear quartz dappled by and reflecting a beautiful show of lights.

It is beautiful…  Button stared, watching a pawful of well-kept businesscats crossing through the tunnel, even at this late hour—probably for their 12:00 AM shift.  The sight beckoned to be admired, beguiling Button in its august simplicity.  Truly beautiful…  Even though Button typically wasn’t impressed by donewells, it was hard not to be in this context.

Button shook her head from the sight.  It was diverting her focus from her mission, anyway:  To secretly tail Snugglebug’s messenger to his meeting point.  In retrospect, Lactolia’s dethroned capital city was the perfect location, hidden in plain sight before the Clay Jars R Us headquarters.  Button started to walk again, but stopped almost instantly.  Button felt her heartbeat spike.  She had lost sight of her lead.  Stupid me!  Button reprimanded herself, and it was all she could do to ward off the tangible fear threatening to enclose her like the thick smog, I stopped to gawk at that risible donewell ode to their so-called supremacy, and now I’ll be stuck here forever!  I’ll never find my way back!  No prestigious feline would let her hitchhike with them, and by the time she ever did piece together directions back to Emperor’s Smorgasbord, she would surely have lost her job by then.  Button scanned the surroundings again, heightened stress overwhelming her as she observed all the alleys that her lead could have disappeared into…

A furry paw appeared from nowhere to muffle Button, another paw with razor sharp claws pinning her to the ground.  Heavy breathing, and the noise of hissing, mingled with Button’s own meowing screams concealed all other sounds from Button’s ears.  Her impassioned outburst of air in the form of a scream, her spine-chilling plea for rescue was in vain, because, though a hundred pairs of ears probably heard her cry, none dared look in the direction of Button’s abduction, no less step towards it.

“Who are you and why are you following me?!”  At the sound of the strident voice, Button broke free.

“Look at me and know who I am!”  Button’s eyes flashed, though relief flooded her, “I’m following you because you must expect me to be insane to find out the location of your meeting in any other way!”  Snugglebug’s messenger scoffed.

“Your even more insane to follow me like this,” He muttered.  Then, for the first time Button could recall, his voice softened,“But I think there’s just as much a place for insanity as there is for common sense.  Some times.”  His voice froze over into its glacier self again,“Follow me, you maniac.”  Button felt like a submissive puppy, but yielded anyway.

Together the smoke-dweller pair trotted cautiously, nimbly towards the Enclosed Tunnel.  Coming closer, Button could see that an open area, probably a slum before it was cleared out so the view of the bridge would be unobstructed, was mostly littered with factory waste.  To one side of the Enclosed Tunnel was a stately looking housing complex, rising higher than Button would care to guess, and to the other, an even more impressive, imposing structure, ornate and gleaming with modern details and classical flourish.  This building was, of course, the Clay Jars R Us headquarters.

Button’s skin tingled as she galloped after the bulky, though surprisingly lithe, brown cat, following him into the direct beam of one of the blinding lights used to magnify the Tunnel.  Button scurried as quickly out of the spotlight as she could, weaving in and out of shadows like a waxwing following a mirage.  She didn’t know what she was about to do, or where, exactly, she was going, but she knew for sure that she didn’t want to be in the spotlight when she did it.

Button’s heart racing for self preservation, she darted into the exposed outdoor hallway of the Clay Jars R Us housing tower.  The first four floors had evidently been set aside for the smoke dwellers, as was common, for the opposing doors and facade staring at her from both sides of the hall were peeling, in obvious disrepair.  Nonetheless, Button was impressed.  This housing must surely have been for the better-to-do smoke-dwellers of the area, as this was far nicer than any housing complex she was used to.

The brown cat halted three-quarter way down the smoggy, outdoor hall, Button almost colliding with him.  He didn’t say anything, but merely punched in the three-number code—180—on an outdated computerized lock.  Button immediately recognized the code as the first part of the address Snugglebug had covertly passed her.

Snugglebug’s messenger gestured torward the door, and tentatively, Button hastened inside.  Snugglebug’s messenger reset the code behind him.  Button stared around the dark room, blankly.  Her cat vision allowed her to see, even in this absence of light, that the dirty room, with scuffed walls and unswept floors, was empty of any furniture or residents.

“What is it?  Were you expecting something different?”  Snugglebug’s messenger scoffed, as soon as he had barred the door.  “More glamorous, perhaps?”  His voice was dripping with the now familiar harmony of distrust and suspicion.  He didn’t leave any time for Button to respond before he finished,“Welcome to the reality of a revolution.”  He walked ahead of Button with a set pace, turning into an uncomfortably small, though, by Lactolian standards, impressively large bedroom.  It too, was empty and littered by forgotten dust bunnies.  Button shivered.  The entire place looked abandoned.  Snugglebug’s messenger seemed to know what Button was thinking.

“If one of the corporation agents looked here—or if a militia came—they wouldn’t find anything,” He said, pulling up a reeking, shredded carpet, to reveal a thrice as dirty cement floor.  Button shrunk back, her eyes enlarging when she saw the bulky cat lift a giant chunk of cement out of the floor.  With that, a narrow hatch no more than ten inches in each direction was exposed.  Once more, Snugglebug’s messenger seemed to know exactly what Button was thinking.

“I don’t have super strength—this is just painted caulk,” He motioned towards the deceptively cement like block he had just pulled up.  Button opened her mouth in question, but Snugglebug’s messenger answered before she had even uttered a sound, “And yes, I’ll be able to fit;  Most of my mass is just fur.”  As if to prove his point, and to prove that it was safe, he squeezed through the secret shaft in the floor.  Button could hear chattering as she descended after him, and a thrill raised up within her.  There must have been at least twenty cats underneath the fake floor!  Twenty cats that genuinely want change?  Twenty cats that not only acknowledge the abusive tyranny of the corporations, but actually want to do something about it?  Button had never known such a thing existed!

True, every smoke-dweller in Lactolia did seem to be aware--and consequently moan--because of their labor load, but whatever tube a healthy feline possessed, that routed these complaints to an action center within his or her brain, had long since been cut within these smoke-dwellers.  Instead, the mindless Lactolians groused and whined merely for the sake of grousing and whining—as if this pitiable action was their day to day enjoyment, as if actually doing something about the cause of their complaints would take away their purpose in living.

But what Button was hearing rise from beneath her now was the sound of all of her resolves and all of her settling and justification snapping in two.  What Button was lapping up with thirsty ears, now, was the chorus sound of felines who—the thought made Button shiver in restrained excitement—actually wanted to cause change.

***

Hobbes’ blue, Burman eyes traced the lettering on the bright computer screen.  Was he actually reading what he thought he was reading?  After hours of hunting, was he really?  Hobbes glanced up nervously at the modern wall clock, snuggly settling himself down as he realized that he still had another thirty minutes before the TV show he couldn’t miss aired.

“Lock the door, I have important business to attend to!”  Hobbes called to his secretary, who was currently stationed right outside his apartment-like, high-rise office, at a desk of her own.  Hobbes thought he heard her snort in derision, as if she didn’t believe him, but all he heard was an obedient:

“Certainly, Sir!”

The door silently closed shut, and Hobbes could hear it being locked.  Now I can get to work.  He returned his gaze to the website he had (not by coincidence) straggled across.

The banner across the top of the screen rather unassumingly read:

 


New Healing

Helping The Victims Who Need Healing

 


The slogan left much to be desired, but, then again, when ‘New Healing’ wasn’t actually a non-profit war relief charity aid, but instead (and ironically), a much-for-profit weapon’s manufacture, Hobbes supposed it didn’t matter.

Hobbes work ethic.  His paws flew across the keyboard as he began to write an email to the off-world New Healing…non-profit, discreetly, yet concisely explaining that he was an interested customer.

Hobbes pounded his furry fist on the Send button.  All right, you crooks, read that!  Hobbes glanced up at the clock, his heart skipping a beat.  I have other things to occupy my time. 

 

“And now,” Hobbes’ ears flicked at the shrill voice of the live talk show host.  He had always been irritated by the host’s nasally meow, and seemed especially apparent at this moment.  Aend neeoww, Hobbes’ criticized the host with a mocking smile, his interested being restored as the Emperor’s Smorgasbord COO walked onto the homey looking stage.  A roar not only from the TV, but also from those television viewers outside Hobbes’  office filled the room.  Hobbes’ ears flicked in displeasure, but he kept his mouth shut to hear what would be said next.

“Please welcome the one and only Chief Operation Officer of Lactolia’s ruling company, Emperor’s Smorgasbord,” At the mention of ‘ruling company,’ proceeded by ‘Emperor’s Smorgasbord,’ Hobbes’ almost forgot his disdain for the host’s voice.  “James Kittyworth—May I call you James?”  The host inquired.  The COO gave a warm nod.

“Of course,”  He said, taking a seat in one of the leather television set chairs.  Perfect, Hobbes commended his COO, as if the Chartreux could actually hear him through the flat-screen TV, simply perfect!  If he uses your first name, you’ll seem more personable.  Felines can be fearful all they want of an up-tight COO, but a simple ‘James?’  Never.  And the moment Lactolians lose their fear and distrust, it will be the very same moment we take advantage of them, and choke them with the credence they all too freely give!  Hobbes’ let out a contented chortle, before setting himself to examine the television again.  Loosen up your tail, you’re looking to formal…

“Well, James, I must say that I am honored that Lactolia And Politics Live is the first station to have a real representative from Lactolia’s newest ruling company on air,”  The talk show host spoke, not so subtly imbedding an advertisement for his station as he did.  “There’s been a lot of ambiguity on what, exactly Emepror’s Smorgasbord is going to do for—or,” The host laughed insincerely, “to our world, and we’ve been hoping that you could clear a little of our confusion up for us.”

“That’s why I came,” James laughed, himself,“In fact, I have a lot to share with the residents of Lactolia—hopefully what I have in mind will ease a lot of unfounded fears,”

“Well, go ahead!  We’re listening,” The host prodded.  How about you shut up so we can listen, Hobbes silently denigrated the host.

“Certainly—where do I start?”

“Why don’t you begin by explaining the meaning of the campaign posters you were so kind as to bring here?”  The talk show host unrolled a crimson red poster with a kitten holding his paws together and looking upwards.  At the bottom, in white, Impact font, the poster read ‘None Are Thirsty.’  Hobbes grinned.  He had spent a full hour of brainstorming, yesterday, trying to come up with such an adequate and appealing slogan.

“I think it’s quite self-explanatory, actually,” Hobbes closed his eyes.  Don’t insult the viewer!  He dared to open them again as James continued.  “What Emperor’s Smorgasbord means by this slogan is that no poor kitten will be on the street, begging for water, anywhere.  No old cat will be straggling the street, mere skin and bones, dying from dehydration.  With what we want to do,” James grinned, a genuine excitement in his eyes,“Everybody will have water—more than enough water!”  The television host laughed casually, yet his eyes begged to hear more.

“What, is Emperor’s Smorgasbord suddenly going to repair the ozone layer?”  He asked, sarcastically.

“No, it won’t be that hard, nor unrealistic.  We’re simply going to institute a principle of decency—sharing.  I think that everybody here knows that the rich executives are up to their tails in water, while the poor common workers are dying of thirst.  If we can just level this injustice out, by a process I like to call sharing, none will be thirsty.  Ideally, this implementation will be stretched to all areas of Lactolian culture, even to politics, money, living compounds…everything, really.”

“And what do you hope this will bring about as a result?”

“What do I hope?”  James laughed, waving the question off as foolishness.  “That is the wrong question.  What do I know this will bring about?  It will bring about brotherhood in the best of ways.  No longer will their be the power-abusing businesscat, nor the destitute common worker.  Lactolia will be,” The Emperor’s Smorgasbord COO paused, searching for the right word, “Even a poet could say it no other way:  A place of bliss and harmony, a precedent for not only us, as Lactolians, to heed, but also the rest of the solar system—even galaxy.”  James had a charismatic, contagious certainty about him, as he spoke, that Hobbes silently praised.

“Whoa!”  The talk show host’s paws were expressive as he did his nasally exclamation, “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ambitious there?  You think that Emperor’s Smorgasbord can convince the entire galaxy to adopt this policy of…sharing?”  The host chuckled doubtfully.

“It’s only a matter of time!  When Star Convoy Alliance and the rest of the galaxy recognize the thriving economy and general welfare of Lactolia, then I believe that our little planet will rise to interstellar fame—and not for the low mortality rates and oppressive labor loads.  Our world will be a paradise that generals, authors, monarchs, painters, and sweet-sweepers alike will flock to, from myriads of different solar systems!”

“And all this can come about because of sharing?”  The talk show host inquired.  Yes, yes it can, Hobbes silently voiced what he hoped his gray-furred foreman would say.

“All this will come about,” James assured the host, “And, you may have forgotten, that water is not the only thing we’re sharing.  I’m talking everything—including workload.  The lazy, degenerate, rich executives, who work for an hour or two max,” Hobbes narrowed his eyes at the TV in sinister pleasure, Good, make the lie palatable by whetting the public’s appetite with the truth…,“Will be forced to work a little extra.  When we do this, the immense work load of the common felines will be lessened immeasurably.  Our slogan is, ‘None are thirsty,’ but I think it would equally apply if it read, ‘None are tired,’.  In, fact, it could also be written, ‘None are withheld their rightful pay,” because Emperor’s Smorgasbord Corporation will be taking the liberty of revolutionizing the currency system.

"No longer will a nefarious supervisor siphon off money, or withhold pay without just cause, nor will a check get delayed in transit.  Moreover, with the Emperor’s Smorgasbord Corporation as the ruling company of Lactolia, we are determined to revolutionize the monetary system!  With a cyber currency we call ‘Psi,’ the absurd rate of corruption in our world will be sliced in half—Ideally this technology will advance to the point where all one has to do is swipe a paw, and an item is paid for!”  James finished in a jubilant outburst of excitement.  He looked like he was about to settle down, but suddenly launched from his chair, the excitement not yet drained from his veins.  In genuine elation, he looked directly into the camera.  “What Emperor’s Smorgasbord will do as ruling company is something no other ruling company has ever done!  And that is to stand for unity and justice!  Workers of the world, stand with us and unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains!”  James’ exuberant expression dared the public to take a chance.

There was a silence on set as James quietly sat back down on the chair, until the talk show host suddenly broke out in an ecstatic applause.  The applause wasn’t only coming from him, either, but from off set hundreds of paws her clapping and whooping.

“I hope you can convince Clay Jars R Us of this pioneering new policy as much as you convinced me—and certainly all the other listeners along with me, just now!”  The talk show host commended, still clapping.  James’ ears twitched.

“Clay Jars R Us?”  His voice had lost its excitement, and now rang in alarm.

“Yes, Clay Jars R Us.  Lactolia and Politics Live took the liberty of inviting the elected Clay Jars R Us representative down to the station, today, to discuss and resolve some of the apparent tension between these two corporarations.  Unless, of course, you’re not prepared?”  The talk show host asked.  Hobbes couldn’t breathe.  In all of his drilling James for this interview, it had never crossed his mind that James would have to speak, possibly even debate, with a Clay Jars R Us representative.  The Chartreux would be crushed meat!  Hobbes felt his anger welling up towards the talk show host, with his ‘polite’ question “Unless, of course, you’re not prepared?”  More like a dare.  If James even thought about taking the host up on his offer, then it would instantly prove that he wasn’t good at unplanned situations.  And that was the last thing the public would want from their leader’s representative.  It would shatter all of the trust that James had been able to acquire in this short half-hour.

“No, no, no, send her in!  It would be a delight to talk with the representative of Clay Jars R Us, again,” James said, with an endearing smile.  “There’s no time like the present, I say, and what better time than now to rectify the strains on our culture?”  Atta-boy, Hobbes commended from in front of the television.

“Marvelous!”  The talk show host grinned, and a petite but thoroughly aggressive looking feline walked on stage, her tail cooly hanging behind her.  One of the production crew quickly ruled up an extra chair, but she passed it right up.

“Nice to see you, again, Mr. Kittyworth,”  The Clay Jars R Us representative said as she approached James.  She politely sniffed noses with James, her yellow eyes almost serpent-like as she did so.

“The pleasure is mine, Ms. Cutie-Doo-,” The Clay Jars R Us spared no time in interrupting James’ small talk.

“Please, call me Alexandra!” She practically begged, disgust on her voice at the mention of her surname.  Then, composing herself, “I insist.”

“Very well, Alexandra,” James said.  An off-camera assistant ran up and dropped a bulging briefcase at Alexandra’s seat, and she immediately stood up.

“James Kittyworth, the predicament this hostile takeover has left Lactolia in, is one unrivaled and, plain-spokednly, one of most concern.  As you know, ten days ago, due to our own mounting pressure and pressure from our activist investors, Clay Jars R Us offered Emperor’s Smorgasbord a consequential greenmail, at the time of the takeover,” Dripping with odium, Alexandra continued, “Much to our disappointment, you declined.  In light of this, Clay Jars R Us has sent me again to offer you,” Alexandra opened her briefcase to reveal gleaming, thick rows of neatly layered, stacks of yellow money.  A few slips floated out from the overstuffed briefcase, and landed at James’ chair.  Alexandra didn’t bother collecting them.  “Four times as much, if you will consider selling the world stock back to Clay Jars R Us at a discounted rate.  This of course comes with the contract that you will never attempt a hostile take over again.”  James’ dilated kitty eyes looked as though he had just laid sight on the solar systems largest yarn ball.  “I think it is a more than reasonable offer.  Not only will you acquire this tremendous sum of money, as well as stock options in our company, but in returning the title of world ruler to Clay Jars R Us, you can hand public relations to a,” Alexandra paused,“more experienced corporation.  Is it a deal?”  Hobbes pulled himself almost nose to nose to the television screen.

“Don’t take the deal, James!  Don’t take the deal!”  Hobbes practically shouted at the television screen.  “The money we’ll make as world ruler will make that amount look like measly pennies!”  Oh, how Hobbes wished he were the Emperor’s Smorgasbords’ representative!  I’m obviously the brains around this place, anyway!

“Um, uh,” James eyes were still glued to the thousands of compact, yellow slips of paper.  He straightened himself in composure, but his eyes didn’t depart from the briefcase.  Hobbes sucked in all of his breath.  “I’m sorry, but I believe Emperor’s Smorgasbord will have to decline this offer, as well.”  Hobbes let out a sigh of relief.

“Why?  Because you think that your foolish ‘Psi’ will replace real, tangible money?”  Alexandra’s whiskers twitched as she spoke.  “You will regret your decision,” With a deal of difficulty, Alexandra latched her briefcase shut; James’ eyes returned to normal.  “Being world leader is not all of the glamor it is said to be.  It is very difficult work, as you will soon realize.  In any case,” Alexandra said, taking a deep breath.  Her off-camera assistant dragged the briefcase away.  “I should have suspected as much.  James,” Alexandra fixed her gaze on James in a serious manner.  “Are you aware of the  homemade protest bombs that have already set off in various locations around Lactolia?  Are you so isolated from news as to not know that militias are being raised at this very moment?  Our opportunity cost accountants our reckoning substantial losses if the militias are as large as they are reported to be.  I don’t know if you are aware of this, Mr. Kittysworth, but Lactolia is falling subject to a disconcertingly thin market, because investors are just as afraid to put anything into either one of our companies as to take it out.

“With the volatile market that is ensuing, and with this in mind, Clay Jars R Us strongly urges that the ruling company request a Star Convoy ambassador on behalf of both of our corporations, to mediate relations.”  James looked confused at how fast Alexandra was speaking, as she took the opportunity to continue.  “If you fail to peaceably request an ambassador, then Clay Jars R Us will take this as a sign of hostility and officially declare war with Emperor’s Smorgasbord.”  James looked startled.

“I assure you, Emperor’s Smorgasbord has no intention for war,” James said, his voice a little wobbly at the notion.

“Then you will request an ambassador?”  Alexandra cornered him.

“Yes,” James conceded, “Emperor’s Smorgasbord will request an ambassador.”

 


Hobbes could hear the door rustling, as somebody tried to enter.

“Secretary, please unlock the door!”  He ordered, fluffing himself up as he rested himself in his comfortable desk chair.  From within his office, he heard his secretary walk to the door and unlock it.  Hobbes heard a murmured, 'thank-you' pass from whoever was trying to enter, in gratitude for the secretary. 

The door yielded, and James walked inside, looking haggard and defeated from his meeting with Alexandra.  He collapsed on the futon against the almost entirely glass wall of Hobbes' office.  When the imported mahogany shades weren't lowered to block the afternoon sun, the wall boasted a panoramic view of industrial Lactolia.

Hobbes’ drapy, Burman tail swished in irritation, and he glared at James.  Even though James’ eyes were closed in defeat, he seemed to sense Hobbes’ penetrating vision and disapproval from across the room.

“What was I supposed to do?  She said that Clay Jars R Us would officially go to war with us if I didn’t request one!”  James defended himself, and he looked limp on the couch, still recovering from the exhausting meeting.

“Bah!  We’ve already been at war, whether its ‘official’ or not!”  Hobbes shot back.  “If you would have been a little more quick with your tongue, you could have flipped the tables on Clay Jars R Us!  Instead, you just let Ms. Cutie-Doo take advantage of your obvious unpreparedness!”  James sat up straight.

“You weren’t there!  She was talking faster than you eat when there’s a tuna entree in front of you!  And besides, you weren’t in that same room with all that money!  She’s smart, playing that little revolting trick on me. She had me blinded so I couldn’t think straight, afterwards!  You oughta be thankful that I managed to decline selling Emperor’s Smorgasbords’ rights as world ruler!”  Hobbes looked spitefully at James, but couldn’t counter anything he said.  There was a moment of silence.

“How has your search for an off-world weapons company been going?”  James asked, tiredly.  The derision fled from Hobbes’ eyes, replaced with a gleam of delight.

“Better than you want to know,” Hobbes wouldn’t go any farther, teasing James into interest.  James looked up at Hobbes, expecting him to continue.  “I emailed the manufacturer just before your interview, and by the time I checked my computer again, they had already responded.”  James looked especially interested, now, and he jumped up from the futon, walking over to Hobbes’ desk.

“What did they say?”

“In the ages it took for you to finally arrive back here,” Hobbes lowered at James.  James opened his mouth in objection:

“I can’t help it if the crowds of felines cheering for me when I left the studio caused a traffic jam!” James protested.  His reasoning pleased Hobbes, and Hobbes continued, “As I was saying, in the time it took for you to get here, the order has been placed.  I’m talking, tanks, bombs, guns, ammo, powder, grenades—everything you can think of and more,” Hobbes grinned,“And more than that, we our the first to order patented new form of weapon.  It is capable of neutralizing hundreds of soldiers in mere seconds,”  Hobbes said his words slowly, letting them seep into his listener.  James grinned, his fur coat tingling in satisfaction.

“What is it?”

“Let’s keep this a secret between you and me.” Hobbes leaned close to James and whispered malevolently the new device.  James’ yellow, Chartreux eyes lit up.  He slowly stressed two words:

“Order more.”

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