Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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A Second Coming

by E. A. Moore



####

It had been a long, busy night for Livingston, skulking about and defending his turf from interloping neighbor pets, real and imagined. It was also tiring, after his prowl, standing guard on the deck railing, irises fully dilated for maximum visual acuity in the dark. And then there was the constant strain of maintaining that absolute blankness of mind that bespoke true feline alertness.

All that had been taxing enough, but then there was that abrupt necessity to bolt in panicked alarm, and to leap down and cower under the wicker table.

The sudden, silent, but brilliantly dazzling zing of several nearly simultaneous shooting stars, and the subsequent blinding flashes that gave birth to a quickly fading shower of lesser embers, was a brief phenomenon, but terrifying for the cat.

When the pyrotechnics had subsided, Livingston streaked in through the pet portal in the bottom of the sliding screen door, and bounded straight to Stanley's bed. The sleeper's hodgepodge of unmemorable dreams were only slightly disturbed as the cat explored for and commandeered a safe spot amongst the tangle of bedclothes and bed occupant.

The invisible drizzle of minute particles that drifted down out of the night sky over southern Oregon for much of the rest of the night went unnoticed by man or beast.

####

Stanley loaded a small tray with his mug of tea and a toasted and buttered cinnamon raisin English muffin. He brought this favored breakfast out onto the deck to enjoy while lounging on the wicker chaise with the inspiring view of Mount Ashland.

But then he noticed the small gray lump at the base of a corner post supporting the deck railing.

"What's that?" he asked the cat.

Livingston didn't respond.

Stanley hadn't expected him to since the question was rhetorical. The cat, a neutered he, was currently having his usual doze in the morning sun in his favorite daytime resting spot on the cushioned footrest attached to the chaise. Stanley was seldom allowed to use the footrest for foot resting.

Taking care not to disturb his pet's slumber, Stanley got up and went for a closer look at the whatever-it-was that had caught his attention. He squatted and peered. He hunkered closer. He squinted fiercely without his reading glasses. It was a blob of something he couldn't identify, and a blemish on the neat redwood deck he had recently finished staining and sealing after a wet spring.

A four letter "f" word got edited as it erupted past his tautly displeased lips: "Fu...ungus!"

He glared at the fuzzy thing. It looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream that had tumbled off a triple dip cone and splatted there at the base of the post, to melt away in the warming sunlight. Except that it wasn't melting and it had fur. Or was that just his lousy eyesight?

Stanley Scowled. He prodded the thing with a fingertip. It was dry to the touch, yielding, with a leathery resilience. Not at all like melting ice cream after all. Its skin had the texture of thin suede. It was maybe two and a half inches in diameter and seemed glued in place. And was it spreading, as suggested by the appearance of melting? Stanley caught his breath in alarm.

He absently wiped the fingertip that had poked at the thing on his trouser cuff, stood, and went into the kitchen to get his glasses. He also rummaged in a drawer that held an abundance of useless junk in addition to a few small tools. He found just the thing, a putty knife, with which he returned to the deck.

Livingston's eyelids eased open enough to follow these movements, none of which appeared to be for the purpose of topping up his food dish with Meow Mix, so the cat let the eyes drowse shut again.

Stanley looked intently around at the rest of the deck for other evidence of fungal invasion, but there appeared to be only the one excrescence to deal with. He knelt to poke at the thing with the sharp corner of his putty knife as he wondered where it came from and how it could have grown to this size overnight. He was sure the deck was pristine yesterday afternoon. He was a fastidious fellow, and most of yesterday, a Friday, had been devoted to a thorough sweeping and decobwebbing of the deck. He irritably stabbed at the thing a second time and the putty knife punctured its fragile outer membrane.

Livingston's eyes sprang open and the hair on his tail flared like a chimneysweep's brush. This wasn't his full battle-stations alert mode, only a kind of middling reaction to hearing, as animals -- and especially cats -- miraculously do, the all but inaudible "pop" as Stanley pricked the assumed fungus ball.

A little puff of gray powder escaped. The globular shape lost its symmetry and shrank. The velvety skin immediately changed color from vanilla to a dull blue as it puckered and shriveled. Stanley frowned with mystified fascination.

He had little knowledge of fungi. He had a vague idea from something he read once that there were a great many varieties of the weird things, and that for some reason it was impossible to classify them for certain as either purely animal or vegetable. So he was intrigued, and somewhat vindictively entertained, by this example and its colorful apparent death throes. He hoped that's what he had just witnessed.

To make sure, he continued with his impromptu surgery, opening a full transverse incision to expose a strange interior of orange and yellowish-green kernels embedded in a matrix of black fluff. He stared, wondering if this was an as yet unnamed species of fungus, assuming that's what it was, and if it might someday be officially known as fungus stanleyus. And how did one go about checking on something like that?

Then he remembered this damn thing was befouling his spotless deck, and his intent had been to scrape the sucker away, not immortalize it with his name. He attacked it with the putty knife, carving it off the deck planking and post with determined energy.

Livingston got up and enjoyed a luxuriously intense, back-arching stretch. He padded over to see what all the fuss was about and caught a faint whiff of the additional powdery emanations released by Stanley's assault. He didn't like the unidentifiable scent at all, backed away to a discreet distance, and sat on his haunches to watch the proceedings with his usual inscrutable gaze.

Stanley flicked the last remnants of the invader off his deck. The bits and pieces fell to the stony ground a little way down the mountainside. He rose and peered over the railing. The deck was a dramatically cantilevered affair that projected well out over the rocky slope.

"Good riddance," he pronounced with squinting satisfaction, waving his putty knife in a vague gesture of benediction.

Livingston followed him into the kitchen, rubbing against his legs while he washed the putty knife and scrubbed his hands with his customary thoroughness.

The cat's sensuous bumping and nuzzling at his ankles conveyed the usual message. Something like: "Okay, now that you're done with your meaningless human dillydallying, how about feeding me?" Stanley was well trained and understood without having to think about it. He reached for the bag of Meow Mix and filled the cat's dish.

But now Livingston was behaving strangely. The cat ignored the food and instead began washing his face with frantic animation, licking his forepaw and using it to scrub at his nose, forehead and ears. He then switched to extending his facile tongue and licking repeatedly at his whiskered cheeks, this while flicking his head with increasing urgency.

Stanley watched with mounting alarm as the cat's exertions increased. Then he gasped as Livingston flopped onto his side and went rigid, legs stiffly extended, eyes open but vacant, and his mouth gaping in a hideously frozen yawn.

"Livvie! What's wrong?!" exclaimed Stanley, dropping to his knees and scooping up the inert animal. "Oh my God, my God, my God!" he gabbled, pressing his ear to his pet's chest.

There seemed to be no hint of a heartbeat, and the cat was not breathing.

"Oh no-o-o-o-o!" wailed Stanley, turning jerkily this way and that on his knees, as if desperately seeking some path back to a few moments ago when his much loved and furry companion was still purringly underfoot.

"VET!" he yelled, staggering up and dashing for his car. He fumbled with the seat belt to strap the statue-stiff cat into the passenger seat, ignored his own seat belt, and screeched out his drive and down the mountain.

It was normally a twenty-minute drive down into Ashland, but Stanley made it in just over ten. He was lucky not to encounter oncoming traffic as he took the kink out of the many curves in the narrow mountain road. But he skidded to a stop in front of the vet's office without mishap.

The vet, whose name was Penelope Jenks, thoroughly examined the mysteriously stricken and apparently lifeless animal. She knew, or perhaps it should now be had known, the cat well. Stanley was a model pet owner. He brought Livingston in regularly and frequently, for everything from shots and worming to minor complaints such as a touch of mange or even a runny nose. But she now had to give Stanley really bad news.

"I'm so sorry, Stanley," she said with sincere sympathy. She knew how devoted he was to his pet, and felt an extra pang of sadness in this particular case. She had always thought of Stanley as rather cute, and for that reason truly enjoyed have him show up as often as he did.

"Is he really...?"

"I'm afraid so," murmured Penelope, patting his well-muscled upper arm. She allowed her hand to linger there, lightly grasping the firm bicep and gently asked, "But what happened?"

"I don't know. It was so strange and sudden. He seemed fine, and a minute later started frantically grooming himself, and then just keeled over."

Penelope gave his arm a further consoling caress, then turned back to the inert form on her examining table. "This rigidity is very odd. I've never seen or heard of anything like it, coming on so abruptly."

"What could have caused it?"

"This rigor?"

"No. What killed him?"

Penelope shook her head, at a loss. "It's very peculiar." She worked with skillful fingers, exploring the furry body, searching for anything unusual, a wound, swollen glands, whatever. Then she paused in her manipulations and frowned, her hand still resting on the lifeless form. "Mmm, strange indeed..."

"What?"

"It's still warm, too warm, doesn't seem right," she mused aloud. "It's been what, maybe a half hour since...?"

"Probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, I guess."

"Even so. It should be cooler, getting cold by now, his body, if he actually is...huh!"

"But, what are you saying?" blinked Stanley, confusion, impatience, hope animating his features.

Penelope used her stethoscope again, taking great pains to search for the least hint of a vital sign. Stanley looked on, gnawing on his bottom lip. She straightened up, shaking her head again in perplexity. But then she nodded in the certainty that the cat was certifiably dead.

"I guess I'm making too much of this body temperature thing. Again, I'm sorry, Stanley, uh, dear. Really, there's nothing more I can do."

Stanley sank onto a chair and bumped his head back against the wall. Penelope thought he was going to weep, but he only let out a pathetic little noise, something like a kitten's plaintive mew. She wanted to comfort him in a fairly comprehensive way, but held herself in check

She gave him time, during which she washed her hands and tidied up a few things around the room that really didn't need tidying. She ruefully covered Livingston's remains with a disposable paper sheet.

Roused by the rustling sound, Stanley got to his feet, thanked her morosely, and gathered up his pet's corpse in the paper shroud. He left, forgetting to ask about payment for her services. She decided she wouldn't have had the heart to charge him anyway.

####

Stanley laid out Livingston, still bundled in the gray crinkly paper, on his marble-topped coffee table. He partially unwrapped the little body, which was still locked in the stiff-legged, mouth agape, wide-eyed attitude it had assumed more than an hour ago. Stanley tried to close the eyes, but found it impossible. He delicately covered the animal's face with the paper sheet again, and went to make a fresh pot of tea.

As he waited for the kettle to boil he ruminated about what might have caused the mysterious demise of his pet. Was this all because of that f-wording fungus

The kettle whistled and he made tea, but for the life of him he couldn't imagine how the fungus could have had such a deadly effect on the cat. He didn't think Livingston had gone near the thing. Maybe sometime during the night, but even so weren't animals, especially prowling ones like Livingston, naturally resistant or immune to such an exposure. He snugged the cozy over the teapot and reached for the kitchen cordless to dial Penelope's number.

"Are cats especially vulnerable to some kinds of really toxic funguses?" he asked without preamble when the ringing tone ceased.

"...unable to take your call just now, because I'm either away from the office or treating a patient, but leave your name and number..."

Stanley started to hang up, but then waited for the beep and said, "It's Stanley. Call when you have a chance. I've got a question for you. Oh, and Penny, I just wanted to say thank you for...well, being so...oh, you know, so nice. So talk to you later, okay?"

He went to stand at the screen door gazing out at the mountains, and wondered why such an attractive young woman like Penelope wasn't married yet, and why he'd never thought about that before this. Hadn't he ever noticed before how pretty and friendly she was? He absently rubbed at a tingly place above his left elbow, and then remembered her sympathetic gesture, her fingers lightly patting his upper arm. Was that the first time she'd ever actually touched him? It was such a tender, caring touch.

But his Livvie was dead. His mood sank. He poured tea, took his mug out onto the deck, perched it on the railing, propped his chin on a hand, and gazed bleakly out at the forested mountains.

It was going to be a fine, clear, June day. The silent pines below and to either side of his house; the golden grass covered flanks of the hills across the valley, and above that the distant sweep of dark green tree-spiked ridgeline soothed him as it always did.

This was why he lived here, had had this house built in precisely this spot, high on the side of this quiet mountain. His work allowed him such freedom and satisfaction. He was a much sought after ethical hacker, a very highly paid consultant hired by major financial institutions and various government agencies to test the security of their computer networks. He was a whiz at, and quite enjoyed finding ways of breaking into their systems, thus pinpointing weaknesses, and then recommending how to fix the problems. His clients expressed appreciation by sending him checks inscribed with many more zeroes than other digits. It had taken relatively few of those checks to pay for his several acres of mountainside, then a few more to have this spacious, architect-designed house built and furnished to his taste. He was comfortable financially, in good health, and had this awesome view both from the deck and from the many picture windows in the rear façade of the house.

But his cat was dead.

Or was it...?

Stanley was absently watching a pair of red tailed hawks hunting for their brunch, soaring back and forth high above the cleared area below his house. He was familiar with the occasional screeches these birds of prey used to communicate with each other. He'd been hearing them keeping in touch in this way for the last several minutes.

But now he suddenly woke up to the fact that one of the hawks had just answered the other with a most unraptorlike "meow."

He dashed through the kitchen to find Livingston sitting up in one of his amazingly limber and contorted postures on the wrinkled paper sheet on the coffee table as he licked industriously at a spot on his lower back. He paused when Stanley appeared, looked at him a moment without blinking, and meowed in an unconcerned way, his usual bland form of greeting.

Stanley, relieved and amazed, sat on the sofa and reached out to pet his pet. Livingston responded normally, pacing around on the coffee table and leaning into the caress with an encouraging arch of his back. He purred. Stanley rubbed under his chin. Livingston strained to offer more of his neck and ears for further stroking.

"So what in the world was that all about?" asked Stanley, talking as much to himself as to his pet.

"What was what all about?"

"Huh?!"

The reply hadn't reached Stanley's consciousness by way of his ears. It was just suddenly there, in his mind, clearly understood and emphatic.

He blinked.

He stared at the cat.

His fingers, in the midst of toying with the tip of Livingston's left ear, froze.

"Uh...Livvie? Was that you? Did you just, uh...that is...uh...?"

The cat dipped its head. Was it nodding, or...

"You're pinching my ear. Let go, please. And by the way, I'm hungry."

The reply came as the first one had, not words exactly, more like a string of pure meanings that seemed to bloom in Stanley's awareness, and then as quickly vanish, like popping soap bubbles, leaving behind a clear sense of the message.

Stanley snatched his hand away from the cat's ear. "Livvie!" he gulped. "Are you...like actually talking to me...that is, tel...telep...pathically...?!"

"Yes," affirmed Livingston, mouth shut and looking at him with what Stanley now had to consider a far from vacant stare.

"But how can this be?"

"I'm not sure I understand it entirely myself, at least to explain it to you. But I can tell you, this is something I've always wanted to do. I mean, let you know what's on my mind. And now, somehow, I'm able to do that."

Stanley flopped back against the sofa cushions. He gaped at his cat, his brain reeling. "I've always wondered if...I mean what might be going on in...that is ...if there was anything at all there...in your head when you looked at me with those big eyes...like you're doing now!"

"Oh, I know. I mean I've always known what you were thinking. Cats have always been able to read human minds. Not that anything we read there is of much interest to us. But now that I'm able to let you know what I'm thinking, how about something to eat. I mean, let's focus on what's important, okay?"

"But...but...but..." Stanley stammered, trying to fathom the ramifications of what he had just learned. He was incredulous, but not all that surprised to have a long standing suspicion confirmed. "You mean, really...you've always known what was in...what I was...?"

"Oh yes. I know this must be a lot for you to handle right now," empathized the cat. "I'm going to have to do some thinking about it myself. I guess it will change a lot of things rather significantly."

Stanley found himself locked in speculative eye contact with Livingston. He felt very much more at a disadvantage than in such staring bouts in the past, and was first to avert his eyes. The cat's eyes lazily closed and opened again in what might have been a moment of smug satisfaction.

"But right now there's the previously mentioned matter of FOOD!" he announced, causing the notion to flash brightly in the sky of Stanley's consciousness like a Fourth of July fireworks burst.

Stanley was up and in the kitchen filling Livvie's food dish almost before the last twinkles of the display in his mind had winked out. Livingston rewarded his obedience with the usual brush of flank and tail against his shin before settling down to eat.

Stanley felt oddly disconcerted by the cat's familiar gesture of apparent affection. He backed away a few steps to watch the animal munching on his food, and thought, oh my, yes; everything sure does seem different now.

The phone twittering jolted him out of his muddled musings. He reached for it, but then felt inclined to take the cordless instrument out to the furthest corner of the deck before pressing the answer button. He muttered with greater than usual preoccupation, "This is Stanley Metzger."

"Stanley, it's me, Penny. Sorry I wasn't here when you rang earlier. I had to dash out to check on...well, tell you about that later. But, how are you?"

He heard the note of extra concern in her voice, and was pleased in spite of his distraction. "Aw, I'm okay, thanks. But, well, there was something I wanted to ask you about, but now I can't remember what it was, and something else has happened, and maybe I ought to talk to you about that, but, um, then maybe not..."

Penelope tried to extract some sense from this gabble, but was too worried by Stanley's clearly disturbed emotional state to figure it out. "Stanley dear, take it easy. I know you must be deeply affected by Livvie's death, but..."

"No, no, that's just it. Livvie's fine. He's having his lunch right now. That's the problem. Well, not a problem really...I guess. See, he isn't really dead, and..."

Penelope let out a distressed groan, now really worried. "Oh, Stanley! You mustn't do this. You have to just try to accept what's happened and..."

"But you don't understand," pleaded Stanley. "It isn't what you're thinking. I'm not in denial. Livingston really is alive. He was just telling me a moment ago...uh, that is, er, I mean that's what I don't know if I should say anything about."

"Stanley, I want you to go lie down," ordered Penelope. "Wet a towel with cold water and put it on your forehead, close your eyes, and try not to think about anything. I'll be there in twenty minutes."

She'd hung up before Stanley could say anything further. He considered her advice. A cold towel on his forehead seemed a reasonable suggestion under the circumstances. He looked in through the screen door and saw that Livingston was still noshing away. He wondered if the cat was able to read his thoughts from this distance. Maybe they had to be within a certain range of each other for...

"You're coming in loud and clear," Livingston transmitted. "My experience in the past has been that there has to be a separation of about a quarter mile or so before I don't have to work so hard tuning out your boring thought processes."

"Well, I'm sorry I'm such a drag," retorted Stanley.

"You're not always. Occasionally you have ideas worth paying attention to."

Stanley eyed the cat as it came out through the pet portal, padded to the chaise and leapt up onto the footrest. "I can't believe this is really happening," he mumbled to himself.

"Nor I," rejoined the cat. "But I plan to have a snooze now. I'm feeling particularly exhausted at the moment. So can we save trying to figure out the whys and hows of it all until later?"

Stanley was irked to be made to feel so insignificant by his own house pet. He went in and wandered aimlessly through the house, wondering how he was going to explain to Penelope about Livingston's strange new capability.

She arrived in less then twenty minutes. He heard her pickup pull into his half circle driveway and stepped out the front door to greet her.

"Why aren't you lying down?" she demanded, scrambling out of the dusty vehicle to stand, hands on hips, and study him with stern intensity.

"I don't need to lie down," he insisted. "But I do need to talk to you. Uh, would you like to go for a walk?" he suggested.

She cocked her head to one side and looked puzzled as he carefully closed his front door after casting a nervous look back over his shoulder. He took her elbow and fairly yanked her away down the drive before she could object.

"Stanley, what's got into you?" She was surprised at herself for allowing him to hurry her along like this. It was unlike her, but she was disinclined to resist.

He gave her a frowning sidelong look and shook his head briefly, his lips clamped shut. He glanced dartingly back toward the house again. His furtive behavior prompted her to glance around as well. They were well down the road, round a bend and out of sight of the house, before he appeared to relax.

"Okay, now I'll try to answer your question," he said in a near whisper. "See, it's not what's got into me; it's what must've gotten into Livvie that's bothering me!"

"I guess I don't get..."

"But I think I may have just figured it out!" he interrupted. "Yeah, I bet that's it. It has to have something to do with that fungus!"

"Fungus?" frowned Penelope. "What are you talking about?"

"I found something weird on my deck this morning. I'm pretty sure it was some kind of fast growing fungus," he explained.

Penelope's eyes narrowed. Something went "ka-ching!" in her mind as she recalled a conversation with another animal owner that morning.

"Fast growing fungus, you say? Y'know, that same subject came up during the house call...well, a pasture call, really...that I had to make this morning. That was where I was when you tried to phone me earlier. A dairyman wanted to know if eating strange mushrooms might cause a cow to have a seizure."

"A cow! What's that got to do with...?"

"He called to report one of his cows had mysteriously keeled over and died, and he was worried about the rest of his herd being in danger from something contagious. But by the time I got there the animal was up and grazing again, healthy as a horse."

Penelope grimaced. Stanley smiled at the silly simile.

"Oh, well, you know what I mean. Then the guy pointed out these things growing here and there in the pasture. They looked something like mushrooms, and he said they must've appeared overnight, because he was pretty sure there wasn't anything like that in the pasture the day before. So he wondered if the cow might've nibbled on one."

"Overnight. Hmm..."

"Yeah, interesting coincidence, isn't it?"

They strolled on. Stanley was more relaxed now, his hands in his pockets. Penelope clasped hers behind her back. She would have preferred to slip one under his arm, but held back. She noted his furrowed brow, and wondered what he was thinking so deeply about, but then broke the pensive silence to voice a passing thought of her own.

"Well, I want to have a good look at Livingston," she said. "I was so sure he was...um..." She hesitated, glancing up at him briefly, then veered off on a different conversational tack. "But what was that you said on the phone? I don't know if I heard you right. It seemed like you were saying something about him telling you something?"

Stanley took a deep breath and plunged. "I guess that is pretty much what I said." He stopped and turned to face her. "But I didn't mean he was actually talking to me. The fact of the matter is," he began, then paused for several moments before rushing on. "Well, in fact, Livvie has started communicating with me telepathically."

Penelope had another, longer and more probing look at the man. He met her eyes without hesitation. She found it hard to believe this intelligent looking person with his unwavering, yet endearingly sheepish gaze, was cracking up.

"Telepathically," she echoed.

"Yeah. Turns out he's been reading my mind all along. He claims cats have always been able to do that with people. But now he's able to, um, kind of project his thoughts into my mind. Ever since he, er, revived after that fit, or whatever it was, we've been, like, having these bizarre conversations. Like whenever I say something, or even just think it, he replies."

"Telepathically."

"Right."

"Your cat replies...by projecting thoughts into..."

"My head. Yeah."

He bit his lower lip and looked at her intently.

She struggled to maintain a blank expression. She liked Stanley, and preferred to assume he hadn't slipped a cog. But telepathy?! And with a cat?

Penelope prided herself on her objectivity, but she also liked to think she had an open mind. Did she doubt such a thing as telepathy was possible? Yes, but then what if she was wrong? And Stanley was looking so endearingly abashed and hopeful just now. Oh, what the heck! She had limited patience with internal debates like this, and arbitrarily decided to go with the vibes. She could always reassess the situation later if Stanley should do or say something else to convince her he really had gone bonkers.

"Ok-a-a-y," she nodded soberly. Then she mused with candor, "You know, I've sometimes had the impression that an animal I'm treating is trying to reach me, I guess in a way something like that...to let me know, or tell me something, especially when it's obviously suffering a lot of pain. So I guess I can go along with what you're telling me. But what kind of things does Livingston say, or send, or whatever. I mean, I'm trying to imagine what a cat would want to talk about if..."

"Oh, it isn't at all like he's talking or saying anything! It's more like he's making just the gist of a message pop up in my mind."

He looked relieved and pleased by her willingness to take him seriously, and his animation intensified as he went on to explain. "It's like a flashing series of something like images, or easy-to-figure-out symbols, kind of like icons, like the ones used in gooeys."

"In whats?"

"Oh, that's geek-speak for a GUI, or graphical user interface."

Penelope gave him a bemused look. "I'm a veterinarian," she reminded him.

"Ah, yeah, right, well, um, what a gooey actually is is..."

"That's okay, Stanley," she hurriedly cut in. "Please don't try to explain further. You once tried to explain to me all about the kind of work you do, and I think I'm still a bit dizzy from that. The subject was how Livingston manages to..."

"Oh yeah. Well, it's like everything flickers by really fast, but somehow the meaning is clear, and then there's all these different kinds of emphasis, uh, or effects, like variations in brightness or color shifts or changing textures, or distortions, and also changes in motion, in the rate the ideas come and go, like shifting from smooth and fluid to herky-jerky, or then an idea might start spinning or do flip-flops or suddenly expand or contract or..."

Penelope ducked under one of his wild gesticulations, narrowly escaping a roundhouse backhand to the side of her head.

"Okay, Stanley! I think I get the idea," she laughed. "But I sure would like to experience that for myself. Could we go back to your house now so I can?"

"Oh. Hmmm. I guess so," he said. "But first, I guess there's something else I better mention."

"What's that?"

"Well, it's wild, and kind of neat, too, having Livvie able to do this. But now he seems so...well, not like the cat I thought I knew."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, he's...maybe he was a little like this before, but...excuse my bluntness...he really seems like such a smart ass now."

"Oh, don't apologize for language like that. I do a lot of work with farmers around here, and few of them bother to mince words. So smart ass how?"

Stanley grinned at the familiar ease with which she repeated the phrase. "Well, he definitely has, like they say, an attitude, and I guess he's got a lot more of an ego than I ever imagined he could have. He acts as if he owns me instead of the other way around. And there's something else...something I don't know if I can define. He was always pretty aloof. I always thought that was just the way cats naturally are. But now it's like, well, like he's undergone some kind of total personality change. Or something like that. I don't know, maybe he was always like this, but who knew? He just seems so different to me." He shrugged and shook his head in puzzlement.

Penelope was as baffled by all this as he looked. She was now more keen than ever to go check out this animal. She casually put her hand in his and turned to indicate her readiness to head back to the house.

"Shall we?" she prompted. "I'm really eager now to examine...or should I say, meet... this creature!"

Stanley led the way through the kitchen, stepping gingerly as they approached the screen door. Livingston appeared to be asleep in his usual curled-up position on the footrest of the chaise. Stanley held a finger to his lips then held the finger up, signaling that he wanted to try something. Penelope was puzzled and amused as he turned to squint ferociously through the screen door.

Stanley concentrated hard, and thought: "Hey Livvie...yoo-hoo...it's me, Stanley! I'm back!"

He got no reply.

"Sound asleep," he informed Penelope in a whisper.

"Looks like it," she agreed.

"No, I mean I just now sort of called...that is I thought something at him, a greeting, to let him know we're here...y'know? I didn't want to just barge out there and...um..." He fell silent as he registered her look of exaggerated attentiveness.

"Uh huh," she nodded encouragingly. "And...?"

"Oh, never mind." He slid the screen door open and gestured vaguely for her to precede him. She went out onto the deck and strode directly over to crouch next to the sleeping cat.

Stanley watched with vague apprehension as she put out her hand and stroked Livingston's head. The cat instantly responded, not flinching at all, but lazily unfurling and sensuously offering all of himself up to her caresses. She went on extensively petting and fondling and gently scratching him.

Stanley realized her methodical attentions amounted to a thorough manual examination. He tried to tune in to what must be going on in the obviously luxuriating cat's mind, but again drew a blank. He decided to try a more direct approach.

"Hey, well, how's it going, Livvie!" he said aloud with a jovial air. "Look who's here, your favorite vet, Penelope! Um, why don't you say hello? I mean, like, let her knowyou're glad to see her, if you know what I mean."

Penelope glanced up at Stanley with a questioning set of wrinkles above her tidy eyebrows. He could only hunch his shoulders uncertainly. He was beginning to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he realized that not the slightest hint of a twinkling telepathic image was arriving in his mind.

"Are you, er, getting anything?" he asked.

"You mean...?" she asked, and delicately tapped a finger at her temple.

He nodded. She shook her head. The cat purred.

"Well, I guess he's not, uh, transmitting now. For some reason. Or something."

Penelope gave him an indecipherable look that he took to mean she was probably trying to hide the fact that she thought he was an idiot. She returned to her explorations of the contented cat's body.

"He seems perfectly healthy now. It's sure mysterious," she mumbled.

Stanley fluttered his hands in exasperation and paced away to the corner of the deck where the fungus had been. There was no visible trace of the thing now. He looked over the railing, peering at the rocky slope below. He scratched his head, beginning to wonder about his sanity himself.

Penelope stood up and joined him at the railing. "Stanley, I don't totally disbelieve your claim that your cat has been in touch with you telepathically. Like I said before, I've had what might have been similar experiences, or something close to it. So can we just leave it there, and not make any more of an issue of it?"

"He did read my mind. And replied...like I said."

"Okay. I believe you. But is he communicating with you now?"

"No."

"And I haven't picked up anything I can say would be him trying to get through to me. And Stanley, I want you to know this...while I was examining him, I really did...actively and forcefully...try to send him a kind of mental hello, and an invitation to respond."

"But you got nothing back?"

"Sorry. No."

Stanley nodded. He turned around to lean his back against the railing, resting his elbows on it. He glared at Livingston, who was diligently grooming himself, licking repeatedly at a spot on his tail.

"Well, thanks for coming all the way up here to...um, but...why did you come?" he blinked.

"To see if you were all right," Penelope said quietly.

"Oh. Well then...yeah...like I said... thanks."

"No problem. So...I better be getting back to my office then."

She wandered a few steps away, paused and gazed pensively at the mountain vista. "But I think I'll do some reading up on the toxic effects of fungi on various animals. And maybe go have another look at that cow..."

She moved to the kitchen door but stopped there, head tilted, then stepped back to the deck railing to have a long, scanning look down at the rocky slope.

"What?" prompted Stanley.

"Those light colored spots on some of the rocks down there, what is that?"

"Lichen, I think."

"Seems like a lot of it."

"Yeah, it does seem like more than there used to be," Stanley observed distantly.

"Oh well, I better be off." She turned to look at him a moment, seemed about to say something further, but then swung away, detouring close to the chaise to give Livingston's head a parting stroke. She sketched a wave in Stanley's general direction as she went through the screen door. "So long, Stanley," she called from the kitchen.

"Yeah. See you," he muttered.

He swiveled around to gaze dully out across the valley, and tried to clear his mind. He heard Penelope's pickup drive off down the mountain. He must have been hallucinating, or dreaming, he decided, or somehow just imagining all that crazy business about Livvie sending him mental pictures and messages. Yeah, so maybe it meant he was losing it mentally himself, but he was beginning to feel that was more comforting to believe than that his cat could actually...

"What a klutz you are," came an abrupt and unmistakably flashy message, lighting up his mind in a disdainfully lurid and painfully familiar way.

Stanley spun around and glared lightning bolts at Livingston. The cat sat on his haunches on the footrest of the chaise, front paws neatly aligned, and looked unblinkingly back at him.

"You little devil!" Stanley cried. "Why didn't you do your thing while she was here? Now she must think I'm a complete nutcase!"

"She'd be close to the mark on that," observed the cat. "You are such a lamebrain and so blind."

"What are you talking...uh...saying...uh, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Were you completely unaware of all the signals she was giving you?"

"What signals?"

"The little lady is attracted to you, doofus."

"Who? Penelope? N-a-a-h, that's...that's..."

"So obvious even this neutered tomcat noticed without reading her mind."

"You've got to be kidding. No way! C'mon, she's so...so pretty and like really sharp...and no way she'd be interested in me. I'm...I'm not in her league at all. I'm..."

"A hopeless klutz, as I pointed out a moment ago."

"Yeah, well, okay, so maybe...no, I mean, so maybe that's your opinion...but wait a minute! How did we get into a discussion of this? I'm really ticked off at you, y'know that? I asked you why you wouldn't communicate with her like you're doing with me now. So answer me that, will you?"

"Okay. I was just being careful. I've been thinking about it, and I don't want the word getting out about any of this. I mean that I have this capability. I would prefer not to risk ending up a circus sideshow freak. That a good enough reason?"

Stanley mulled this over and had to admit the cat had a point. But he remained ticked off. "Well, I'd think you still might trust Penny and me not to blow your cover," he grumbled.

"Okay. Maybe. But there's another reason not to let things get any more complicated than they are for me already."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

A sobering mood was produced by the hard-edged pictographs the cat now used. "I have to go walkabout. There's something I have to look for."

"Look for, like what?"

"I'm not sure...yet. Maybe there will be more specifics later. I'm getting a strange kind of summons, unlike anything I've ever experienced before. It's hard to explain, but I have to go. It's very insistent, yet vague as to exactly where I should begin looking. Maybe I'll get clearer directions after I set out. But I think this is going to take a while, maybe days...or longer. Maybe a lot longer...maybe even..."

"What! Wait...what are you suggesting?!"

"I don't know where this will take me. But there's a stark sense of great distance, of a kind of finality associated with the call. It's as if whatever is calling is also giving notice that there may be no coming back."

"Not coming back?! Livvie, no! You always come back from your prowls.

"This is different. Way different."

"I don't understand. How can you just go off and...after all that's happened today? This crazy fungus business and all...you...I thought you were dead, Livvie! How can you just up and leave now?"

"I have to, that's all. I can't tune out this summons. It's too demanding."

"But why...what demand?"

"I wish I knew and could tell you. I'll try to come back...if it's possible."

"What does that mean? Why wouldn't it be possible to...?"

"All I know is that...so much is changed...everything is so different for me now. How I think...everything. What I am now, what I've become, how I think of myself, it's all irrevocably changed. If I am able to return...then perhaps I'll know enough to tell you more."

"But...but...how will you manage? How will you survive...what will you eat, who will feed you, and...?"

"Hey, Stanley, hello-o-o? I'm a cat. I'm, like, a predator, you know? That hasn't changed."

"Well, but it always looked to me like you never wanted to actually eat any of the things you caught and brought home."

"Ah...well...point taken. But I guess I'll have to try getting used to that kind of fare now."

Stanley nodded, unaware that he was doing so. "But Livvie, do you have to go right now? I mean, can't it wait? Couldn't you maybe put it off...until, well, until...oh yes, until Penelope has a chance...I mean if you'd only let her in on all this...then maybe she could explain some of...like, help me understand."

He fell silent, unable to sort out his confused emotions and bewilderment at the prospect of Livingston leaving him, possibly never to return. He gazed bleakly at the cat.

"Must you go, really?" he whispered.

Livingston's response wasn't telepathic. He closed his eyes and dipped his head instead, in what seemed an empathic but resolute nod. When he looked at Stanley again with unflinching, bright gold eyes, the tip of his tail did a little twitchy dance.

Stanley took a step toward the animal. Livingston turned and sprang up onto the deck railing, loped along it to the corner of the house and crouched there in readiness to leap.

Stanley reached out a hand. "Livvie...wait..."

The cat paused, still in a crouch, head half turned to look at the man, but now through hooded eyes.

"Perhaps you better not call me that now. I don't think I am Livingston the cat any longer."

"Then what are you?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'll discover that...out there somewhere."

The animal leaped, dropping from sight.

Stanley ran to the railing as a parting comment appeared in his mind in the form of a series of pictographs that seemed to swirl away in a dimming spiral.

"Maybe that's the most important thing I have to find out. What I am...and what I'm supposed to do about this...different ness."

Stanley watched the gray shape flit away, bounding from one bare rock to another, following a zigzagging course that avoided patches of briar-tangled undergrowth. It seemed almost to fly from boulder to boulder, traversing the cleared portion of the slope on a diagonal course that took it steadily toward where miles and miles of mountain forest began. He watched until the shape disappeared into the shadows beneath the thick fringe of madrone that bordered the clearing.

####

The earth rotated, heaving the western United States around to the east, away from the light. Oregon rolled beyond the direct reach of the sun's rays, and the steep wooded slopes of the mountains and valleys grew purple with shadows.

On one of these mountainsides an extensive and thick tracery of grayish blue filaments hung in random festoons, turning a circle of soaring old growth redwoods into a strangely decorated enclosure. The filaments were of various gauges, some as thick as garden hoses, others delicate as gossamer threads. Some of the medium sized ones showed a sequence of lumps, looking rather like snakes that had recently dined on a litter of infant mice. The filaments were interconnected in an endlessly complex and three-dimensional confusion of gangliar nodes and intersections. There was the faintest hint of a very slowly rippling luminescence, blue-violet tinged, that traveled along many, but not all of the filaments, an effect that changed directions often, but without apparent rhyme or reason.

There were open spaces here and there between the skeins of filaments, and many broken, dry and withered ends of tendrils hung down. These shaded from a violet blue where they were still attached to a node, to dark blue or black at their shriveled ends. The festoons were attached by heavier strands reaching far up the thick trunks of the redwoods, as high as forty feet or more. The tapered ends of these tendrils appeared to be in the act of slithering up the deep crevices and fissures of the tree's bark. But there was no actual movement anywhere, only the barely visible and slowly changing shimmer of the subtle luminescence. And there was no sound in the glade, not even, at this still, twilight time of day, the sigh of moving air high in the tops of the redwoods.

The vast web of filaments didn't extend all the way down to the ground. The almost perfect circle of massive trunks ringed an open area of needle-matted earth, with the tangled canopy of filaments suspended some ten or twelve feet above. This eerie gazebo might be entered from any direction, but between two of the more widely spaced trunks there was a well-worn path that led away from the circle of trees. The path curved downward through light underbrush and eventually connected to a one-time logging road that was now mostly overgrown with weeds and brambles, although it still served as a hiking trail.

As darkness fell along this trail, the intermittent procession of animals making their way to, and then away from the redwood circle, changed character. During the day there had been a number of larger, semi-domesticated visitors: a horse, two goats, a pig. None of these had lingered more than a few minutes under the canopy. They had all gone away again, back down the trail, now very tired and aimless, unlike the more expectant way they had arrived.

But now, as evening fell, the wilder fauna of the area were beginning to arrive. Most of these departed just as quickly, and as lacking in spirit, as had their less feral predecessors.

An unsummoned barn owl, possibly attracted by the fascinating shimmer, attempted to fly through the gazebo. Its wingtip grazed one of the larger healthy filaments, which helped to anchor a large section of one side of the canopy. The nick in the tendril was enough to cause it to part, and the elastic tension on it transformed it into a whip that lashed out at the owl. The bird was summarily flicked to the ground where it bounced once, then lay twitching on its back, its neck broken, one wing nearly torn from its body. A talon clenched, unclenched, clenched again, then was still.

The carcass was dragged away an hour or so later by a subsequent visitor, a raccoon that had been summoned and constrained to linger under the canopy for longer than any previous candidate. The raccoon was commanded to demonstrate at length the uncommon manual dexterity it was capable of, but eventually it too was released, sent away, discharged from the crucible. It was thankful for the owl because the ordeal it had been put through had made it ravenously hungry.

Many were examined throughout the night. None were deemed acceptable. As the night wore on, the number of dangling, dead tendrils increased.

The specialized host basidiomycete was beginning to die back. It had stopped growing days ago, had reached a maximum, forced-growth size, and the symbiont it supported knew there was a limited amount of time left for it to get lucky.

If it didn't find what it was seeking, it would be forced to go dormant, to withdraw into its immortal molecular form. Then, along with the putrefying remnants of its short-lived host it would become compost. Not dead, quite, but it would have failed in its efforts to seed this particular planet.

Eventually it would be resurrected, in a way. After a few billion years, as measured by this planet's period of revolution around its mother star, an unpredictable but large number of the sets of organized molecules that represented its immortal form would be blasted back into space, as dictated by the natural life processes of stars and universes. The symbiont would thus be set adrift once more. A much longer time might pass before it, along with all the other debris produced by such evolutions, would once again coalesce into the material out of which new stars and planets and meteoritic displays are made.

####

The creature that had come to believe he was no longer a house cat named Livingston was weary. He had been roaming the mountains above Ashland for more than two days, pausing to rest much less often than he was used to. But he was driven to keep on seeking something he knew nothing about, and for reasons he could not guess. He was teased onward in the search by a vague and intermittent signaling, something like a subtle glow that waxed and waned in the shadowy recesses of his newly expanded consciousness. The beckoning twinkle was vaguely directional but not clearly enough to make the search easy.

He was also hungry. He had gotten hungry within an hour or so of setting out several days ago. He had considered turning back, was sorely tempted to return to the comfort and familiarity of what had been his home. He thought of the human who never begrudged him plentiful food whenever wanted, and who lavished many other attentions on him. But the throbbing call wouldn't allow him to retrace his steps.

Even so he had to break off the search every few hours to stalk something to eat. This took time. More often than not the hunts were unsuccessful. Hunger had thus become a constant companion.

A different type of encounter happened now and then. Occasionally another animal would appear, and an unlikely face-off would take place. This involved an anxious pause while the two regarded each other in silence for a little time, each struggling to decipher the other's attempt at communication.

On the second night, shortly before dawn, the former Livingston rounded a bend in the game trial he was following and was confronted by a full grown black bear. Both were badly startled and reacted instinctively. The bear reared up on hind legs and spread its heavy arms wide; the cat drew back, arching his back and hissing. But then contact was established and they relaxed somewhat.

There was much groping for comprehension of the ursine and feline thought idioms transmitted, but the gist of their exchange was:

Alarm...alarm...wait, I mean you no harm...nor I you...you are newly aware too...yes, like you...this is so strange...yes it is...you are so huge...yes, but I am changed from what I was...me too, and that is strangest of all...yes it is.

The cat looked for a way around the bear, which was blocking the path.

May I pass?

Where do you go?

I seek that which calls.

Ah yes.

You understand then?

Yes, I have visited the caller.

Then you know the way?

Yes, you are headed in the right direction.

The cat sat and looked up at the bear. But why? it thought.

The bear dropped back down to all fours. Why what?

Did you learn why you were called?

I was called, I went, and then was released... sent away again.

But why?

I don't know why, nothing was explained.

Where are you going now?

I don't know where to go, what to do now.

The bear looked around, lumbered a few steps off the trail to plop down on its haunches in an open area surrounded by a thicket of bay laurel saplings. I was released, but this differentness remains and is a heavy burden.

The cat understood but was unable to summon up a sympathetic thought. Is it much farther?

Not far, just beyond a body of water you will come to.

The bear sat, its forepaws at its sides. It lifted its head to sniff briefly at the air.

What will you do now?

I will rest here a while. Then I think I will go to a place I use when the long cold nights come. Once there....

The cat waited but received no further thoughts from the looming shape next to the trail and so moved on.

It was a little after dawn when the seeker reached what was actually a reservoir, one of many small catchments throughout the mountains above Ashland that provided water to the town. A high concrete dam held back a deep accumulation in a wider section of this creek's rocky gorge.

The cat paused where the game trail opened out onto a service road that curved around the near side of the lake. In that direction the road led to and past a pump house from which a steady whining noise came. The pump house was enclosed by a chain link fence that included a gate controlling access to a walkway along the top of the dam. The cat consulted the increasingly strong directional pulsar in his mind and turned in the required direction, toward the head of the lake, away from the pump house.

There was a narrow strip of gravelly shoreline here, where the water came almost to the edge of the road. Just beyond this the road veered sharply away from the reservoir, ascending out of the gorge in a steep series of switchbacks. A small weathered dinghy, its stern afloat, was beached on the gravel. It looked as if it had been pulled clear of an earlier and lower waterline, and left untethered to anything. But the wet winter and spring had filled the reservoir to capacity, and the little boat appeared to be in some danger of going adrift.

It was a still and peaceful morning, however, and the lake was mirror calm. The cat padded to the water's edge, intending to have a drink before going on.

There were many forest service roads and hiking trails throughout this part of the scenic mountains of southern Oregon, making it a popular area for backpacking. Most backpackers that frequented these byways tended to travel in pairs, but there were some that enjoyed the solitude of hiking alone, or in the company of a faithful dog.

The big keen-sighted Labrador spotted the bedraggled form at the water's edge far below and abruptly dashed away from its master. The hiker paid little attention, preferring instead to focus on and enjoy the panoramic view from this elevation. The dog raced down the switchbacks, came to the last stretch of road before the sharp bend at the bottom of the hill, and took this at full speed. It didn't give voice. The only warning of its approach was a sudden rattling of the gravel its paws threw up as it skidded around the final curve, and then a rapid panting that grew quickly louder.

The cat, head down as he wearily lapped at the water, swiveled his ears to the rear, then spun around. He had a terrified glimpse of slavering mouth and flailing tongue rushing toward him, and was galvanized into action. Now the monster let out an exultant baying howl, and the cat sprang into the dinghy, the only seeming refuge available to escape those fangs.

The dog skidded to a stop at the bow of the dinghy. Frustrated for the moment and hesitant to jump blindly into the craft, the dog danced on hind legs, forepaws clawing at the gunwale as it sniffed and tried to peer under the thwarts. The boat rocked, moved, then slid away to go bobbing off into the lake. The dog plunged after it, splashing joyously into the water, happy to continue the chase in this new and refreshing element.

The water grew quickly deeper and soon the dog was swimming, but it was having much too good a time to stop now. It paddled near enough to the drifting boat to lunge and lift a paw onto the gunwale, but the boat tipped and skittered away, shedding the dog's grip. Repeating this maneuver only served to push the craft farther and farther from shore.

A whistle finally distracted the Labrador. The dog was beginning to lose interest in this fruitless game anyway. It turned and paddled back to shore where it bounded up out of the water to dance and leap around its laughing owner, who threw up his hands in a futile effort to ward off the shower of water flying off the dog.

Livingston cowered in the bottom of the dinghy until the sounds of dog and hiker grew distant. When the cat eventually crept out from beneath the after thwart and stretched upward, forepaws on the gunwale, to have a look around, he saw only open water in three directions. The dinghy was far from any shore. In the fourth direction was the dam, toward which the boat was drifting slowly but inexorably.

The reservoir was brim full. Livingston could now hear, above the whine of the pump house, a rumble of cascading water. He stared fearfully at where the surface of the lake appeared to abruptly end. Beyond there was nothing to see except a view of distant, steep, and heavily forested walls of the narrow valley.

The dinghy pirouetted slowly as it glided ever nearer that echoing roar, drawn steadily closer by the strengthening currents. Livingston watched helplessly as the dinghy gained speed. He was drifting a little closer to one side of the notch in the dam that served as its spillway, but it didn't look as if the boat would get close enough to attempt a leap to safety. Cats hate getting wet, but he considered leaping overboard and swimming for it. Then he realized that would be foolhardy. The current was much too strong. He saw dead leaves in the water moving with accelerating swiftness toward the spillway to abruptly disappear over the edge. He was trapped in the boat. Paralyzed by terror he could only look on as the dinghy's motion became a headlong rush.

There was a sudden lurch, the bow of the boat lifted, grated forward, and Livingston was tumbled forward by the arrested motion. The boat tipped precariously and he ended up with his head hanging over the side. He had a dizzying view of frothing water falling thunderously away into a cauldron of foam and mist.

The boat teetered. Livingston scrambled frantically back from that glimpse of seething doom. He scurried to the stern of the boat to cower under the after thwart again. This served to steady the craft, providing more weight aft, so that an uncertain stability was established.

Oh help, oh help, please help! the cat mentally pleaded.

The pulsing glow in his mind throbbed on, seemingly unheeding, or perhaps simply indifferent.

Livingston let out a long, miserable yowl that resounded up and down the small valley, and after a few moments, another, then another. In sync with the yowls he strained to send forth from his tortured mind the most insistent calls for help. He went on and on in this manner, intermittently throughout the remainder of the day, until total exhaustion overtook him.

####

Stanley had been feeling ungood all morning. He doggedly tried to get some work done. He had several clients waiting for ideas on how to improve the security of their network systems, ones he'd showed to be vulnerable. But he couldn't get his mind in gear. As the day wore on he felt less and less good.

He didn't think he was getting physically sick. It was something else, more like the gradually tightening grip of an unfocused anxiety. It made him mentally tired more than anything. No wonder he wasn't able to get anywhere on the current jobs. He finally gave up. It was almost noon by now. He fixed a sandwich and ate it. Then he decided to do something he almost never did. Maybe taking a nap would help.

It was a lovely day. A snooze on the deck chaise seemed appropriate. He chose a floppy hat with a wide brim to cover his face, arranged a couple of throw cushions just so, stretched out, and closed his eyes. He set his mind adrift, or attempted to, and waited for sleep to come.

It wouldn't. He rearranged the cushions. He dropped the backrest a notch, then another. But he couldn't relax. His thoughts kept skittering all over the place. He felt tense. It was as if he had forgotten to do something very important, but he couldn't begin to think what. He sat up and saw that his legs were apart, knees straddling the footrest and bent so that his feet rested on the deck. From force of habit he'd assumed this uncomfortable posture. It was how he'd always reclined on the chaise, and with a pang of worry he realized why.

There was no cat curled up on the footrest. The thought triggered a jolting and unreasonable sense of alarm. It was almost like vertigo, a reeling sensation that made him moan: "Oh Livvie, where are you?"

The disorientation intensified, turned into an almost visceral dread. "What's happening to me?" he gasped, then sat bolt upright. "Or to Livvie!?"

He blinked. "Yes, that's it!"

He got up and stumbled into the kitchen, snatched up the cordless phone and dialed Penelope's number. Busy signal. He thought a moment, head spinning, and wondered if he was losing his mind. But dreadful conviction remained. He had to do something. He anxiously dialed again, got the busy signal again. He groaned. Something...anything...he had to move!

He ran to his bedroom, to his closet, grabbed heavy shirt and pants, his hiking boots. What else would he need--?

The phone rang. He had forgotten to bring the cordless with him to the bedroom. He hopped, a foot in, one out of his pants, to the kitchen, pushed the answer button, clamped the instrument to his cheek with a shoulder.

"Yes, what!?"

"Stanley, it's Penelope. I've been trying to phone you. You're line's been -- "

"I've been trying to reach you, too! Look, Penny, I've got to go out looking for Livingston. Something's happened to him."

"What? How do you know --?"

"Something terrible, I just know it!"

"What are you doing; you sound so out of breath."

"I'm getting dressed for the woods. I wanted to ask if you'd come with me." He rushed back to the bedroom to finish changing his clothes. "I may need you. Uh, I mean he may need you -- I mean, need your attention, like, professionally. Ouch! Damn!"

"What's wrong?"

"Boot on wrong foot! Can you come, Penny?"

"Well, I only meant to call and tell you about some things I've been finding out. About fungi, and other strange goings-on the last few days--"

"Please, Penny?"

"How long--I mean how far do you think we'll have to...?"

"I don't know! Maybe a long way. He's calling to me, I think, or something like that, and it seems like it must be from far away. He's so afraid, Penny!"

"How could you possibly know...?"

"I just do! I can't explain, but I know he needs me! Please!"

"Take it easy, Stanley. Maybe I'm beginning to understand. I've been getting calls and running around to check with a number of my large animal clients and they're telling me some strange stories. Something weird is happening, and I think it's related to what you've told me about Livvie. I'll come."

"I could come into town and pick you up, but that'd take time, and..."

"Would it be better if I drive up there?"

"Yes, lots! I'm thinking we'll have to head on up higher, beyond my place!"

"I'll be there quick as I can."

"Please, please hurry, Penny!"

She did, beating her earlier time up the mountain by a few minutes.

"Are we going to charge off into the woods lugging all that along?" she asked, opening the door of her pickup and frowning at the crammed-full daypack and miscellaneous other gear piled on Stanley's doorstep. He had heard her roaring up the drive and was locking his front door.

"No, I thought it'd be best to start out driving. Could we take your pickup? Do you have all-wheel drive?"

"Yes. But do you mean we'll be doing some cross country?"

"No, not exactly, but we might want to, or have to, use some of the old logging roads up there, which aren't maintained."

"Okey-dokey," Penny shrugged, "let's go."

They loaded the gear and set out, Penny driving. Stanley directed her to turn right out of his drive, and head up-mountain.

"How did you know which way to turn, Stanley?" she asked, stomping on the gas. Gravel sprayed from the wheels and Stanley was gratified that she seemed to share his sense of urgency. But then he began to get nervous as she blithely held pedal to metal until they were doing what seemed like seventy. She eased off somewhat to negotiate a curve, smiling with satisfaction as the pickup sailed around the tight bend without skidding totally out of control.

"Uh, do you always drive like this?" Stanley gritted, still pancaked against the passenger side door.

"Too pokey for you? We could hurry a little, if you'd like," offered Penelope.

"No, no, no, this is fine!" assured Stanley. "What were you asking a moment ago?"

"About how you knew what direction to go. Are you picking up some kind of homing beacon from Livingston?"

"Mmmm, no, not exactly that, I guess. It's more vague than that."

Penelope told him about a bizarre episode she'd witnessed with a sheep farmer that morning. "One of his ewes had apparently had a seizure much like what happened to Livvie. But by the time I got to his place, the animal had apparently recovered. He tried to hold it down while I examined it, but then the farmer himself suddenly seemed to go into an epileptic fit. When he let go of the sheep, the fit subsided and he was fine, except that he was mad as hell and made as if he wanted to go get his shotgun and shoot the ewe. He calmed down but didn't want to talk about what had happened. It looked to me like he'd been affected by some kind of really strong telepathic control from that sheep. And there've been quite a few other and similar happenings I've been hearing about the last few days. So for what it's worth, Stanley, I'm now quite ready to believe you about Livvie communicating with you telepathically."

"Well, thanks, but I just wish he'd come through clearer right now. If I could only get a better fix on where he is -- or what kind of trouble he's in."

"Well, what are you getting from him?"

"It's so indistinct. But it has to be him! I'm sure it is. There's this pervasive impression of helplessness, and terror. It comes and goes, but it's there, and it's coming from somewhere beyond -- outside me!" He waved toward the higher elevations beyond the windshield. "And it's coming from that general direction, but please don't ask me how I know that. I just do"

"Son of a gun! This is wonderful stuff, Stanley! Thanks for letting me in on it," Penelope said with undisguised enthusiasm.

"So you really do believe everything I'm -- "

"Yes I do. And I can't wait to see where it's going to take us!"

"Well, me neither," muttered Stanley. "And thanks for, you know, all this." He fluttered his hands in a convoluted way and shrugged.

Penelope casually patted his knee. "You're totally welcome, Stanley."

He was pleasantly disconcerted by her gesture and quiet tone of voice. And he remembered what Livingston had indicated about signals, but he couldn't think of how to signal back. He resorted to chatter to cover his confusion.

"But while we're on the subject of signals, er, I mean like talking about whatever this feeling is about Livvie being in trouble, I tried a kind of experiment while I was waiting for you. I figured I might be able to get, like clearer reception if I concentrate really, really hard. So I tried it and at first nothing much happened, but then when I was about to give up, I had this really distinct flash, almost like I could actually see billows of something like clouds, maybe like roiling storm clouds, or perhaps smoke, something like that. So I'm thinking we ought to keep our eyes peeled in case there's a forest fire up there somewhere. And what if he's trapped and can't get away from it?! Oh, Penny, he is trapped! I'm sure of that much!"

"Take it easy, Stanley. We'll find him. You just keep homing us in on -- wherever, okay?'

"There was a sound, too, like thunder I think. It was like I could actually hear it, a kind of rumbling, along with something else that might've been wind, sort of a whistling. So along with those rushing clouds it all makes me think of a storm. But there's not a cloud in the sky, so I guess it must've been smoke." He fell silent, craning his neck as he scanned the sky in all directions.

They roared on, Stanley gradually getting used to Penelope's headlong driving style. He decided she was daring but not reckless, noting the relaxed but firm way she handled the wheel and most of the time managed to miss the worst potholes in the seldom graded dirt roads. He had brought a good map, with all the maintained roads and most of the old logging roads and hiking trials clearly marked. He was usually able to give her fair warning when he felt a change of direction was called for, and by consulting the map could choose in advance the most likely way to turn.

They zigged and zagged for several hours, pausing only a few times to stretch their legs while Stanley anxiously paced to and fro, trying to make up his mind which direction to go next. They paused briefly to devour sandwiches he had slapped together while waiting for her to arrive, then went on searching through the afternoon.

Finally Stanley asked her to stop. They had come to a Y in the road. One direction headed back down the mountain, the other up. They got out and Stanley wandered to where the road split, rubbing his face and clawing through his hair. He stopped and turned slowly in a full circle, then bowed his head. With hands on hips and eyes shut in a fierce grimace, he stood still for a full minute.

When he broke the pose and raised his head, Penelope gave him a questioning look. He shook his head. He could see she was, like him, very tired and discouraged. It was a hot day and the truck wasn't air conditioned, so the windows had to stay open. They were caked with dust, and Stanley had no idea if they were any closer to their objective than when they had started out.

"Now it's like -- gone -- the sense of terror, everything. I don't know which way to go now," he muttered disconsolately.

"What's that glinting between the trees way down there?" asked Penelope. She pointed down into a narrow valley.

Stanley checked the map and found a small reservoir indicated. "It's one of Ashland's water system reservoirs. There are several scattered all around in these mountains," he explained.

"Can we get down there? We've drunk up all the bottled water you brought, and why don't we take a break, and maybe go for a quick dip or something? I am totally dying in this heat and dust, and you must be too."

Stanley tilted his head back and sighed, shrugged. "Yeah, we might as well knock off now. Maybe it's all over now, anyway, Penny. It was probably useless from the start."

She went to him, hugged him tightly. "Come on, Stanley. You navigate me down to that reservoir. And we'll rest a bit, and then, well, we'll figure out what to do next. Just don't you give up now! You hear me?"

He didn't return or respond to the hug. She led him to the pickup, pushed him into the passenger seat.

They descended into the little valley through a tedious series of switchbacks, and abruptly arrived at the water's edge as Penelope wrestled the pickup around a final sharp bend. She jumped out and plunked herself down on the ground to unlace her boots.

"C'mon, Stanley! We've earned this! Let's have a swim! It'll clear our heads, and then we can put them together and come up with something. Are you coming or not?"

He had opened his door but remained sitting in the pickup. "No swimsuit," he mumbled, staring numbly out across the lake. He noticed what looked like a tiny boat adrift in the distance, or perhaps it was anchored out there near the dam.

"Me neither, babe, but I'm not about to let that stop me! Hey, I haven't skinny dipped in like ages!"

Stanley blinked as what she was saying registered. He watched for a moment as she whipped off her shirt, then reached behind to unhook her bra. She stood facing him, a blithe expression on her face as she gazed at him unselfconsciously.

"Uh, well, you go ahead if you want to," he said, scrambling out of the truck and turning away. "I think I'll just have a look around a while." He marched off in the direction of the whining sound he heard coming from the far end of the lake, somewhere down there by the dam.

Penelope sighed and shook her head while she finished stripping down. "What is with the man?" she mused to herself. But she felt great sympathy for him. She of all people understood how deeply attached to a pet an owner could become, and how painful their loss could be. But right now all she wanted was to get into that clear cool water. She tossed her clothes into the back of the pickup, ouched her way across the rough aggregate bordering the road, waded eagerly into the lake, and plunged.

Stanley trudged along the road toward the pump house, not really aware of his surroundings. He heard the gleeful cries and splashings behind him, but didn't look in that direction. He was confused and sorely distracted. He tried not to think of her swimming naked and free so close by. He tried to change the mental subject, chiding himself for forgetting, if only for a few minutes, that his purpose in coming all this way was to search for his dear lost pet.

"Oh, Livvie," he breathed. "Are you really lost and gone forever?"

He walked on past the end of the dam, barely glancing at the pump house where the whining noise was coming from, and proceeded on down the rapidly descending road. It curved a little away from the foot of the dam, which was now screened from his view by a stand of trees. He had no specific goal in mind, only a wish to be by himself for a while.

The whine of the water system pumps was gradually replaced by an increasingly pervasive rush and rumble of water pouring over the spillway and down the sloping face of the dam, but he paid no attention. The day was ending. Late afternoon shadows deepened along the road as the sun was obscured by the wooded ridge on the far side of the valley.

Rounding another bend in the road brought him back closer to the stream a hundred yards or so below the dam. A tumble of boulders bordered the road here, inviting Stanley to sit. He gazed somberly down into the frothing currents and swirling eddies of the shallow but lively little river. Its quiet burbling here should have soothed him, but it didn't.

He lifted his eyes to glance upstream toward the dam. The muted thunder of all that water from the spillway being turned into billows of mist at the foot of the dam held his attention. The mist looked like clouds of smoke.

"STANLEEEEEE!!!"

Penelope's scream carried dawn the narrow valley and stabbed through him like a javelin. In the same instant he thought: My God--clouds of smoke -- and thunder -- and that whining, like wind!!

He was up and pounding up the steep road a second later, goosed into even greater bursts of speed with each of several more screeches from Penelope.

He was painfully short of breath by the time he chugged round the pump house to reach the level of the reservoir. Gasping, he dodged through the few trees ringing the shore here and looked frantically out over the lake. He saw the little boat he had seen earlier, and now noticed it was perched at the very lip of the spillway. Penelope was in the water at its stern, clinging to it with one hand and waving frantically to him with the other arm.

"STANLEY!! HURRY -- ROPE! IN MY TRUCK!!" she yelled.

"IS HE THERE?!" Stanley shouted, head spinning and barely able to get enough air into his lungs to make himself heard.

"YES!! HURRY!!"

He dashed for the truck and scrabbled for the rope among the welter of odds and ends Penelope carted around all the time to ply her trade. He ran back, coiling the rope as he went, and found a spot along the shore as near as possible to the end of the dam, and as close to Penelope and the dinghy as he could get by wading in knee deep.

He tried several heaves of the coiled rope, hanging onto one end, but it snarled and fell short each time, well out of her reach. He tried wading in deeper, but then couldn't get enough oomph behind his sling of the rope.

"I can't get it to -- it won't uncoil right!" he wailed. She was hardly more than fifteen or so yards away and the rope was long enough to reach her, but it refused to unfurl like it always does in the movies. But he kept trying. "I'm no good at this! Are you okay, Penny?!"

"I'm fine! But I don't want to let go of the boat! I have my feet braced against the damn dam, and Livvie's here and alive, but we mustn't risk the boat going over! So do something, Stanley! Can you swim, for heaven's sake?!"

"Well, yeah, but -- "

"Then tie the rope to a tree, you ninny, and swim out here with the other end!!"

"Oh, yeah, okay. That's a good idea," he acknowledged vacuously, and splashed back out of the water toward the nearest tree.

"But take some of those wet clothes off or you'll drown, idiot!!"

Stanley struggled out of shoes, shirt and pants while at the same time trying to secure the rope to a tree. Finally managing all that, he tied a loop in the free end of the rope large enough to go around one shoulder, then plunged into the lake to flail his way out toward Penelope and the dinghy.

"Stay as clear of the dam as you can!" she shouted as he approached. "There's a strong current near where the water's spilling over!"

He detoured a little away from the dam, which meant lengthening the distance he had to swim, but finally came dog paddling up to her. The moment he was within reach she wrapped an arm around his neck. He was still badly out of breath, but had to wait for oxygen a few moments longer while she dragged him close and kissed him fervently on the mouth. He was dizzily but keenly aware of various wonderfully pliant and bare parts of her anatomy pressing against him.

Loosening her hammerlock enough for him to draw a much needed breath, she growled fervently, "My hero!" then abruptly grabbed the rope off his shoulder. "You steady the boat while I tie this onto something."

"Right. Right! Aye-aye, captain! Steady the boat!"

He made a grab for the boat's transom and missed, which resulted in a bewildering self dunk. He went under and drifted downward several feet before thinking to paddled back up to the surface. He neglected to close his eyes during this entire maneuver, and the submarine view of Penelope's luscious form clothed only in clear shimmering water made it a most indelible experience. When he finally returned in a spluttering daze to the surface, she had to help him get a firm grip on the boat.

She managed to tie the rope to the dinghy's painter, and then counterbalanced the craft while Stanley clambered aboard. He saw Livingston curled up beneath the after thwart, called to him in an imploring groan, and the cat half opened his eyes, but could summon up no more than a barely audible, quivering mew of feeble acknowledgement.

Penelope stayed in the water to guide the boat, using her feet to keep it away from the spillway opening. Stanley hauled on the rope to ferry them as quickly as possible to shore. Once there he took only fleeting notice of the lovely naked water nymph who waded ashore in the wake of the little boat. He was in too much of a hurry to let the enticing sight distract him overmuch as he gathered Livingston up in his arms and scurried toward the pickup, forgetting about his own near nakedness.

Penelope kept her head, retrieved his clothing, and donned his shirt as she returned to the truck. Stanley was already seated on the passenger side, cuddling and cooing to Livingston.

"Please let's hurry! Please?" he called to her as she approached.

"Let me get some clothes on," she said, pausing at the tailgate to quickly pull on her jeans and Nikes. "But I think I ought to have a quick look at him before we start back to my place. I always carry a basic kit here in the back, and he probably needs some immediate attention. Bring him around here, Stanley."

"Is it, uh, okay now?" Stanley asked, eyes averted after having caught in the driver's side rearview mirror a fleeting glance of her getting dressed.

"Yes, silly, come on!"

He brought the all but inert bundle of fur around to the tailgate where she had unfolded one of several wool blankets she always kept in the tool bins mounted just behind the cab. She had her medical bag out and open, and was filling a syringe.

Stanley gently put Livingston down on the blanket, then allowed himself an unabashed look at her. She looked wonderfully fetching and disheveled in his shirt, its tails hanging out, and water from her short but drenched hair running down her cheeks and dripping from that petite chin.

She glanced up at him, catching his eye, and smiled. "What a refreshingly proper and old fashioned guy you are, Stanley," she said quietly, then handed him the syringe. "Here, hold this a moment. It's a saline solution with a mild stimulant that should help him begin to recover from what looks like a pretty advanced state of shock." She then tittered and added confusingly as she did a quick and professional examination of the cat's limp body, "Such a straight arrow! Maybe that's why I'm so -- oh, well, what the hell -- so nuts about you!"

Stanley's mouth fell open. He gaped at her. No female had ever said anything remotely like that to him before. And he had always assumed that no woman who he found as thoroughly attractive and desirable as Penelope would be anything but repelled by his homeliness and nerdish ways.

She seemed oblivious to the effect her admission was having on him as she plied her deft but gentle hands and a stethoscope. "No sign of any trauma. I think he's just dehydrated and very weak from a great deal of stress, plus lack of nourishment for who knows how long. Give me the syringe."

She carefully administered the injection while shaking her head compassionately. "I wonder how long he was out there, and how in the world he ended up in such an awful predicament."

Nearly two days and a long night that seemed like forever, and a damn dog did it!

Penelope gasped and withdrew the needle. She gaped at the cat, then at Stanley. He allowed his own expression of almost equal surprise to melt into one of great relief, then grinned with pure delight at her astonishment.

"What was -- did he just -- was that -- ???" she stammered.

He beamed and nodded.

"Wow," was all she could manage in response.

Thank you, both of you, Livingston thought at them. It really seemed like there was no hope. The cat strived to produce a weak purr as Stanley stroked its lolling head.

"This is incredible," Penelope breathed. She disconnected the single-use needle and stowed it in a disposal container, then put the syringe away before joining Stanley in caressing the animal. Her intent was as much to massage the injection site to hurry absorption of the stimulant as it was to comfort the animal. And her free hand seemed to just naturally drape itself over Stanley's nearby and naked shoulder.

He was immediately and keenly aware of this, but stood his ground. They went on absently petting the cat, their thoughts now veering in another direction entirely. After a little while, and much internal debate, Stanley tentatively brought his free hand into play, slipping it around Penelope's waist in what he hoped was as casual a move as hers had seemed to be.

She snuggled closer to him.

His heart sang.

I'm hungry, Livingston announced in both their heads.

Stanley had optimistically included food for the cat in preparing for the search, and of course had brought along Livingston's food and water dishes. He and Penelope exchanged smirking looks that each clearly understood to mean: Okay, Livvie's needs first, but let's not lose our place in what else is happening here!

He hurriedly found the dishes and filled one with food while she nipped to the water's edge to fill the other. Then she rummaged for another horse blanket. She always carried several clean ones with her in the pickup, having learned long ago how often they were needed in her work. This was, however, going to be the first time they would be used for the purpose she now assumed was imminent.

####

Livingston settled to eat as the blanket he'd been resting on was commandeered. His rescuers went a little distance away to make themselves comfortable on a bed of pine needles. He paid little attention to the subsequent quiet murmurs and occasional bouts of giggling or startled but pleased exclamations. These didn't last long and a relative quietness descended that was only now and then punctuated by audible evidence of an entirely different form of communion taking place.

The cat understood what was happening nearby, but it held no interest for him and he tuned it out.

During his ordeal in the boat, he had tried hard to likewise tune out the insistent throb that had never ceased summoning him. But it was unrelenting. The torture of being unable to disregard it, while being equally powerless to answer it, was what had sapped his strength so totally. This contributed much more to his exhaustion than the terror of being trapped in the boat for so long, or the lack of nourishment.

Now, as he began to feel the first trickles of returning vitality, the hair on his tail bristled. The commanding summons continued with even greater insistence. The source had to be close by; that was obvious from its power. It seemed to Livingston that the generator of the call might even be aware he was in the vicinity. He accepted that he would have to resume his effort to answer.

After satisfying his hunger and briefly lapping at the water, Livingston sat on the pickup's tailgate, eyes closed to concentrate on the signal, trying to determine more precisely where it was coming from. He decided the source was somewhere above where he sat and on the opposite side of the canyon. He would have to cross the stream that fed the reservoir then pick his way from there. It was time to get going.

He was about to let Stanley and Penelope know his intentions when he heard, and was also assaulted by the powerful mental reverberations of the climactic finale to the proceedings under the pine tree.

He hesitated to intrude just now. It was true that such doings bored him, but he was, in his way, a relatively considerate cat. And conscientious, too. He felt he owed these two the courtesy of a few more minutes to enjoy the mellow afterglow following their exertions. They had, after all, just rescued him from a most intolerable predicament. He took a few minutes to do some much needed self grooming.

The evening progressed, became night. The summoning throb seemed even more demanding now, or perhaps the stillness and darkness of nighttime served to give that impression. After as much of an interval as he could stand, Livingston leaped down from the tailgate.

Excuse the intrusion, but I feel obliged to tell you that I have to go now, he announced in the minds of the couple entwined under the horse blanket.

"Huh?"

"Mmmm?

It took a few moments for Stanley and Penelope to work out from whom the message had come. Their initial confusion stemmed from their conviction, after what they had just done, that they were now very much on the same wave length. They each thought the other had sent the message, and its meaning was open to more than one interpretation. Stanley was first to sort it out and abruptly sat up.

"Livvie! What do you mean, go? Go where? And why"

I'm still being called -- very insistently -- by some presence not far from here. I must go. It's impossible not to.

Penelope was receiving all of this and chimed in aloud. "But Livvie, you must still be weak and upset. Are you up to it?"

She realized with a giddy start that she had just asked a direct question of one of her animal kingdom patients, and fully expected a direct and informative answer. It was bizarre, to say the least.

It won't leave me alone. I wouldn't be able to rest and recover anyway.

"Well, the stimulant I gave you may last a little while, but when it wears off you'll be in bad shape," worried Penelope.

So be it, the cat thought, and turned toward the head of the reservoir.

"Wait Livvie!" exclaimed Stanley. "We'll come with you! Can't we? We can probably help find whatever it is that's calling you." He scrambled from beneath the horse blanket, realized he was naked, and snatched the blanket off Penelope to cover himself.

"Hey!" she complained.

"Oh, oops, sorry," Stanley apologized, giving her back the blanket and looking around in search of his clothing.

"How about it, Livvie?" asked Penelope. "I'd like to go along in case you need my help again. You're taking a big chance--"

Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to come along, Livingston considered.

"We're coming then," decided Stanley. "Where are my boots?"

"I'm certainly curious to know what it is that's calling you, Livvie," said Penelope as she dressed.

No more so than me, responded the cat, pacing impatiently around them as they struggled into their clothes.

"Is it going to be far to go? Do we take the pickup?" asked Stanley.

I don't think it's far from here, a little higher up and across the canyon, Livingston replied. Better to go on foot, I think. I can see there's no road toward the head of the lake, but there's a path there.

Penelope loaded a small backpack with items she thought she might need later, anticipating Livingston's likely collapse after his further exertions. Stanley equipped himself with a flashlight and checked to make sure his Swiss Army knife was in his pocket. He wondered if he might need something more lethal. He was having scary thoughts about what they might encounter at the end of this little excursion.

They set out on a narrow trail that skirted the upper end of the reservoir, the cat leading the way and moving at a brisk pace. Stanley switched on his flashlight and tried to illuminate the path ahead, but Livingston hit him in the head with a harsh complaint.

That makes it much harder for me to see where I'm going! I am still a cat, after all! That light louses up my night vision!

Stanley muttered a meek apology and switched off the flashlight.

Within a few minutes they came to what usually served as a stepping-stone crossing of the creek. But most of the stones were submerged under the rushing water of the swollen stream. Livingston halted and fidgeted on the bank of the creek, then abruptly sank into a frozen crouch. Stanley almost stepped on his erstwhile pet.

"Whoa," breathed Penelope, peering out from behind Stanley as he switched the flashlight on again. The beam illuminated something tall and most unexpected splashing toward them. It was a llama.

The animal stopped in midstream and lowered its head on the overlong neck, its large dark eyes riveted on the lens of the flashlight. It stood motionless, one foreleg raised out of the water.

"Are these things dangerous?" whispered Stanley.

"Normally, no," answered Penelope guardedly. "But after the behavior of a few animals I've treated or observed the past few days, I give no guarantees. This one might be from a llama breeder's herd I've given some shots to in the past. But his place is clear the other side of the Rogue Valley, and the only one I know of in the area. How could one of his llamas get way up here?"

It was summoned, Livingston explained. I'm trying to make sense of what's going on in its mind, but it's very confused. I can't get much that's useful from it. Except that it wants to die.

"It looks in bad shape," commented Penelope.

"What do we do now?" Stanley asked.

Let it by. It wants to get farther away from here, to find someplace where it can rest, a long way from the caller, someplace where it can lie down and die in peace.

"Maybe I could help it in some way," Penelope suggested. "But if it's communicating all that to you, Livvie why aren't we able to, er, listen in?"

It may be because it hasn't lived intimately with a human being as I have all my life. And it's not actively trying to tell me or anyone anything. I'm just picking up muddled bits of like an internal dialogue. It's quite miserable. There's something about a terrible burden it wants release from.

"Has it been to wherever it is that we're headed?" asked Stanley.

Yes, I'm sure it has.

"Then I'm for not going there!"

I must. We're close now. Kill the light and step aside so this poor thing can move on. And how about one of you carrying me across the stream? I've had quite enough water sport lately, thank you.

Stanley switched off the flashlight and took the cat up in his arms. They moved a few steps up the bank and the llama picked its way on across the stream. It trudged by, paying no further attention to them, its head still lowered and swaying from side to side.

They crossed the creek and went on. Stanley volunteered to continue carrying Livingston and the cat agreed.

Just keep to this trail. It's the right direction so far.

Stanley could feel his pet's heart thumping at an alarming rate against his forearm. But Livingston surprised and reassured him by producing a ragged purr.

"I just don't know about this," fretted Stanley. "What isit all about?"

"I heard something on the radio as I was driving up to your place," Penelope mused aloud. "A few insomniacs and some amateur astronomers in Medford and Grants Pass called in to report an unusual meteor shower a few nights ago. And then all these fungi start cropping up. And then I get all this weirdness about animals dropping dead and then coming back to life again, and telepathic cats, and a sheep farmer going epileptic on me, and now a fugitive llama with a death wish. Yeah, I kind of wonder what it's all about, too, sweetie!"

"D'you suppose all that's connected."

"It sure seems so."

Livingston quivered in Stanley's arms and let out a plaintive yowl.

"Close! Very close! We're there! the cat stabbed into their minds.

They halted and peered around. All they could see in the darkness were trees.

"There where?" Stanley hissed, wincing from the claws embedded in his arm.

"Look," prompted Penelope, pointing. "What's that?"

Stanley squinted and made out a faint glow silhouetting the huge trunks of several old growth redwoods some distance above where they stood.

Yes, it's there! confirmed Livingston, sinking his claws deeper.

They left the trail and groped their way uphill toward the glow, taking the course of least resistance through the underbrush which they discovered was a fairly well-traveled route. It led toward what proved to be a large circle of giant redwoods, the eerie glow emanating from within.

"It's a fairy circle," said Penelope.

"A what?"

"A ring of redwoods sometimes called a fairy circle. They grow like that, in a surprisingly even and orderly circle, springing up from the roots of a much older parent tree that then dies as its offspring crowd it out."

"So is that weird light coming from a flock of fairies?"

"That light is coming from something way weirder than fairies," breathed Penelope.

They were close enough now to see between the trunks the vast web arrayed within the circle, and to notice the subtle random pulsing of faint bluish light along many of the filaments. They craned their necks, trying to make out how high the web extended.

"Uh, let's not go any closer," Stanley murmured. Livingston trembled in his arms, a bundle of spiked fur, eyes riveted on the glowing web.

It's me it wants,the cat announced, struggling free of Stanley's grasp and dropping to the ground.

"No, wait, Livvie!" cried Stanley. But the cat crouched low for only an instant, then moved toward the trees. It seemed for a moment as if he might be stalking some quarry, but in a manner very unlike the smooth slow-motion prowl of a hunter. It was more like the ratcheting progress of a robotic toy.

Penelope clutched Stanley's arm, restraining him as he started to follow. "We better not," she whispered. "I think it'd be best to keep our distance. That thing is huge!"

"But what about Livvie? He might need me!"

"I think Livvie can take care of himself," reassured Penelope.

"He's gone in. I can't see him now," Stanley fretted. The light's so dim..."

Penelope urged him away from the circle of trees. "Come Stanley, let's go over here and wait. Livvie told us he has to do this, respond to whatever that thing is that's been calling him. I think we have to let him do what he has to do."

She led him a few paces away to a moss covered fallen tree. They sat and put their arms around each other.

"I don't know -- I don't know my cat anymore," Stanley muttered. "He's not Livingston now. Something else -- not Livvie went in there. And even if he does ever come out again, then what? Will I ever get my own Livvie back?"

"Don't talk like that, love. I really think it'll be okay. Call it intuition, but I just know you'll get him back. You did once already."

"Um, yeah, that's true," admitted Stanley.

They held each other tightly. She caressed him as she might have done with a furred patient.

The warm night was silent and still. Not a breath of air moved. The faint glow from within the fairy circle tinged their faces with its unnatural purplish cast. They were tired but not sleepy. They would stay awake and watch and keep sending caring thoughts to Livingston. They would keep the vigil all night if necessary. Neither of them could think of sleep.

How could they possibly sleep with that pulsing light constantly glinting in their wide awake eyes...?

####

Stanley awoke with a familiar warm weight curled in his lap. He groggily stroked the furry bundle as he yawned, then tried to initiate a much needed stretch. He was stiff and crampy, and something was in the way of getting on with the stretch.

He opened an eye. It was morning. It was damp and chilly. He was propped up against something hard, his head tilted back uncomfortably. His neck ached dreadfully. Someone was snoring softly.

He couldn't bring the ceiling into focus. It was either entirely gone, or someone had managed to wallpaper it during the night in a distant, misty foliage pattern. And he had lost all sensation in his left shoulder and arm.

The obstruction that had gotten in the way of his stretch stirred. "Mmmmmm," it crooned, and pressed closer against him, an arm snaking around his waist.

Stanley's other eye snapped open. "Ow," he complained as he tried to straighten his neck.

Livingston was fast asleep in his lap, Penelope's head was resting heavily on his numb shoulder, and he had an urgent need to nip behind one of those handy big trees over there...

Trees!!!

"Livvie!" he exclaimed.

"Nah, call me Penny," mumble Penelope. But then she too came abruptly awake.

They were sprawled on the ground next to the fallen tree they had used as a bench -- was it just last night?

"Um, hi," smirked Penelope.

"Um, yeah," blinked Stanley.

Livingston stirred, stood on Stanley's thighs, and did his usual luxurious feline stretch, arching his back and giving that curious culminating shudder. He plunked down on his haunches and proceeded to lick industriously at his left shoulder.

Stanley and Penelope stared at the cat, glanced wonderingly at each other, then turned in unison to eye the circle of redwoods.

Penelope got up and cautiously approached the ring of trees. Stanley hesitantly petted Livingston a number of times, as if checking to make sure he was real, then gently lifted the cat aside. He hauled himself groaningly to his feet and ducked behind a convenient screen of shrubbery.

"It looks like it's gone now," Penelope called.

"The whole thing?!"

"No, I mean it looks dead. All withered and turning black and coming loose from the tree trunks."

Stanley could see over the top of the bushes and called out in alarm as she leaned in between two of the massive trunks.

"You're not going in there, are you?!"

"Not a chance! There's a waist deep tangle of smelly yuck in here." She peered upward. "I'll want to get some specimens, though, for study and testing. Toss me my backpack, will you, uh, when you're free?"

Stanley brought the backpack over to her, but didn't linger near the fairy circle. He had a brief disgusted look inside at the remains of whatever it had been, then returned to the fallen tree. He turned his full attention to the cat, scratching behind an ear.

"So are you okay now, Livvie?" he asked solicitously.

The cat hardly responded to the touch and went on with its ablutions as if he hadn't heard Stanley's inquiry.

"Uh, Livvie? Hello? Are you, er, reading me?"

Livingston stopped licking his shoulder, gave his head a number of flicking shakes, and lapped repeatedly at his whiskers. He didn't make eye contact with Stanley.

I'm going to have to hawk up this hairball pretty soon, it mused.

Stanley scowled. "Were you, uh, thinking that at me? I mean trying to tell me about the hairball, or...what?"

How I wish I was able to spit all this hair out instead of having to swallow so much of it. It's a pain, getting rid of hairballs.

"I know, I know, it must be awful. I mean I can imagine how hard it is. I'll give you some castor oil when we get back. That seems to help you bring it up."

Be nice if I could just digest the stuff....

"Livvie, are we communicating here or what? I mean is this a two-way conversation, or..."

...which reminds me...I am ravenous!

The cat now looked at Stanley and emitted a demanding yowl.

"Okay, there's plenty of your food down at the truck. We'll head back there right away."

"So what're you two talking about?" asked Penelope, stowing her samples in the side pockets of her backpack and peeling off her surgical gloves as she rejoined them.

"I have a feeling we aren't actually talking to each other about anything," frowned Stanley. "But he's really hungry. Are you finished here? Can we go home now?"

"Sure. But I'll want to come back up here later on with someone that knows a lot more about fungi than I do."

They started back. As soon as they turned downhill, Livingston loped ahead, his tail erect like a fuzzy mizzen mast.

"What did you mean about not actually talking to each other?" asked Penelope.

"It's different from the way it was before. I mean, like I'm still tuned in somehow to Livvie's thoughts, but it seems like they're only cat thoughts now. You know, ordinary stuff, like he's got this hairball and about food and, well, something must've happened to him last night. He told me the other day that he's always been able to read my mind, but it's as if that's not happening now either. That superfungus back there must've done something to him. "

"Hmm, maybe so. I wonder how long he was in there, exposed to the thing. And funny how we fell asleep like that. I remember us talking about staying awake so we'd know and be ready when Livvie came out, in case he needed help, but..."

"Yeah, I don't feel good about that, like I let him down."

"But he looks fine this morning. I'll give him a good examination when we get back to the truck and he's had something to eat."

"So you think the superfungus is really dead?"

"I think so. It sure looked like it. Really withered and starting to stink. I hope there's enough of it left to eventually show an expert. It may take a while to find someone to come up here and have a look at it."

They caught up to Livingston at the edge of the creek they had crossed the previous night. He was hunkered down and lapping thirstily from the stream. They waited for him to drink his fill. Penelope scratched her head.

"You said you were still picking up his thoughts. What about right now?"

"Oh, just some vague feelings about satisfying his thirst and looking forward to getting something to eat," shrugged Stanley.

"But I'm not getting any of that," Penelope said.

"What do you mean?"

"Last night I was picking up his thoughts loud and clear, just like you were."

"Um, yeah, that's right."

"So it seems like more things are different this morning than just Livvie. I mean like maybe you and I were somehow affected by last night."

Stanley picked the cat up and carried it across the creek. "Ah, well, I for one feel a major difference about everything this morning!" he sighed extravagantly. He deposited Livingston on the far bank and turned, beaming, to hold out a hand to Penelope.

"Ah, well, yes indeedy, and me, too," she grinned. "But I wasn't talking about that!"

She held onto Stanley's hand as she continued. "I was thinking about all these strange effects on who knows how many animals, and just from some kind of incidental contact with some probably alien fungi from outer space. Which, by the way, is a pretty big deal, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, Stanley, it amounts to our first contact with extraterrestrial life, right? And considering those strange effects, there's very likely some intelligence involved, don't you think?"

"Oh wow! Yeah...gee..."

"And now the question is: are the effects maybe fading away, like with us and Livvie? Which is probably a good thing if they are, by the way. I mean it'd be really weird -- and just plain scary for me and for a lot of people around here, you included -- if it turned out to be permanent, all this telepathy business between us and Livvie, and between him and other animals, and I suppose between a lot of other animals as well. I mean with me being a veterinarian and all..."

I wouldn't count on anything fading away.

"Hey, Livvie! You're back!" cried Stanley. He grabbed Penelope and shook her. "Did you hear, I mean see, I mean receive that?"

"Yes I did, but now I really am confused."

The cat had stopped and was now sitting facing them in the middle of the path, tail curled tidily around its paws. Its eyes were closed.

I apologize for playing dumb. I realize I can't ignore the situation. I was trying not to think about all that's happened, or trying not to think at all. But it's impossible. Too much has changed -- for me, for many other animals, and for you two as well. Too great a change to wish away....

"What do you mean, Livvie?" asked Penelope. "Can you tell us what happened last night when you went in to the...the...whatever it was? We fell asleep, I'm afraid."

Yes, I know. It put you to sleep. Or rather it arranged for you to be lulled to sleep. It was surprised when it probed my memories and learned about you humans. It riffled through all of my life and gleaned everything I know about the world, and in that way learned you two were nearby. It grew excited; I could sense that. It probed my mind for every detail about humans. Then it tried to call you, to summon you to it, and wasn't able to. It caused you to fall asleep and tried again. Then it was told to desist.

The cat opened its eyes and looked at each of them in turn.

It had forgotten about me, and I was able to follow the exchange as it was informed that you were already hosts of its kindred.

"What?!" exclaimed Stanley and Penelope in unison.

It was advised that the planet had been seeded a long time ago. A highly successful symbiosis has been achieved, and another attempt was not welcome. The exchange ended there. When it understood how things were, it resigned itself. Then it told me all about itself. And then it released me.

"I have no idea what you're talking, er, thinking about, Livvie," complained Stanley. He turned to Penelope and made a questioning ‘what about you' face. She shook her head, looking baffled but fascinated.

I will try to explain. This is why I couldn't go on pretending nothing has changed. I think it's important that you two know what you are, what all human beings are.

"What's with all this about kindred and seeding the planet?" asked Stanley.

"I think I'm beginning to have an idea about that," Penelope mused aloud.

You're on the right track, Livingston encouraged her, from the glimmer of a thought I know you just had. The cat stared fixedly at her.

"But it's really, really mind boggling..."

"What? What? Somebody tell me what everybody's thinking, uh, except me!" Stanley begged.

Penelope put her hand on his forearm.

"Seeding. Meteoritic spores from space give rise to a lot of unusual fungi. Several different kinds it would seem. Little ones like the one that grew on your deck, Stanley, and other types, including superfungus back there. And the fungi are carriers of symbionts. Something -- maybe something like a virus -- gets transferred simply by chance contact. Sheep and other grazing animals pick it up from the fungi that develop around a pasture. Livingston gets it from the puffball on your deck. And somehow the whatsit virus gives those infected with it various kinds of heightened mental powers. Telepathy. Whatever those sheep were doing to poor Mr. Becker. And superfungus exploits same to call various animals in, like the Llama and Livingston. How am I doing so far, Livvie?"

Pretty much right on. Keep going.

"But superfungus is, or was the host of a very different symbiotic virus, or something that may have evolved from the mind expanding viruses. And it said we, Stanley and I are hosts of its kindred?"

Yes.

"And the Earth had already been seeded once before by its kind..."

Yes.

"...long ago..."

Yes.

"So what's been happening over the last several days...it was...well, like a second coming," Penelope murmured.

Another way of putting it, yes.

"Wow."

Stanley screwed up his face trying to get his mind around all this. He waggled a hand in Livingston's direction. "So you would have us believe that we, Penny and I -- and all humans I guess you're saying -- are like infected with this fungal virus?"

I don't think infected is an appropriate term for it. It's a symbiotic arrangement. Beneficial for both of you, the host, and the...well, let's keep on calling it a virus, but I doubt if that's accurate.

"Intelligence!" breathed Penelope.

Aha.

"Intelligence?" blinked Stanley.

"Wow," nodded Penelope.

"Hmm, oh yeah. I guess I get it now," Stanley muttered.

Livingston wheeled around and trotted on down the trail.

Now if you don't mind, this poor starving cat needs something more than food for thought? You've figured out the basic idea, and I'm sure you can work out all the rest of it on you own. If you are, as you say, "infected" with this intelligence virus, it shouldn't be too difficult

Penelope and Stanley followed, lost in reflection.

After a few minutes she asked aloud, "Um Livvie, what about all the other local animals that've become hosts of this virus. Am I going to have to learn how to treat sentient livestock now?"

The symbiont hosted by the ‘superfungus' as you call it described to me how a planetary seeding goes. You were right about there being several strains of fungi involved in a typical meteoritic deposition. Such encounters don't happen often but there is plenty of spore carrying debris in the universe, so eventually most planets where a successful seeding could take place will get one. Or at least a chance at one. There are also a number of different types of mentality-improving symbionts associated with the different spores. Ultimately it's the luck of the draw. The spores might not survive atmospheric entry, or a planetary surface won't be conducive to the fungi flowering, or there won't be any indigenous life forms for the symbionts to transfer to, or if there are, in many, or most, or sometimes all cases, the symbiosis will fail, won't take, so to speak. Meaning the encounter might prove deadly to the host life form, or to the symbiont, or both. Immune systems are designed to resist such invasions. So who knows if any of the local animals that have picked up a symbiont will survive. Few will, I would think. As I am beginning to feel, and as that Llama we encountered obviously discovered, expanded mental capacity can be burdensome, even unbearable. And then the ones whose immune systems manage to eliminate their symbiont will likely end up stranded, left out in the wilds without the wits to find food or shelter. If the domesticated ones can't find their way back home or aren't rounded up by people, they'll likely perish. I suppose it's remotely possible a successful symbiotic link-up among the current batch of encounters could happen. But who knows which animals might end up with the smarts.

"And then there's the question of passing the intelligence virus on to offspring," Penelope commented.

That is also a chancy thing, the cat went on. But it has apparently worked well enough with you humans. There are quite a few of you around these days, most suffering from the virus in question it would seem.

"But what about you, Livvie?" asked Stanley plaintively. "What if the symbiont that's, uh, gotten into you makes you sick, or worse? You did konk out on us for a while there, remember?"

Well, maybe that was the worst of it. I think I'm okay now.

"So you'll be able to keep on communicating with us like this from now on?"

I guess so. But it still wouldn't be a fully successful seeding in my case, would it?

"What do you mean," wondered Penelope.

Even if me the cat and me the intelligent symbiont both survive, it would still be a dead end, wouldn't it? I have after all been neutered.

Penelope came to a halt and covered her face with her hands. "Ohhh," she moaned. "And I'm the one who did that! Now I feel like a monster!"

It's okay. Maybe it's best this way. You guys are used to being intelligent. I find it incredibly exhausting and more than a little terrifying. I doubt if I would want to pass that on to descendents.

"But wait a minute! I read recently about some successful reversals of neutering procedures," Penelope said eagerly. "I can find out more about that, and maybe we could try it!"

Ah, the cat says let's not go there, but the symbiont says we must!

Livingston stood in a strangely contorted posture and shuddered violently. Then he produced a drawn-out and piteous sound, part hiss and part quavering meow, punctuated with racking intakes of breath. Neither Stanley nor Penelope had ever heard a cat or any other creature on earth make such a sound.

####

The trio eventually moved on down the mountain path, the man holding and comforting the cat in his arms.

A pair of White Throated Sparrows remained hidden and quiet but watchful in the branches of an alder tree overhanging the trail where the trio had paused. The sparrows waited, taking pains to keep their thoughts very much to themselves, until the others had passed well on down the mountain.

Then the male sparrow, with a coloring of profound concern attached to the thought, inquired of his mate: Do you think they'll manage to make that cat fertile again?

Well, let us hope the hell not! she responded.

The End


© 2011 E. A. Moore

Bio: E. A. Moore is a retired architectural designer. He worked for many years as a facilities maintenance specialist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a high energy physics laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He has worn at various times several different hats as a writer. He has written for radio and television, is a published and regularly produced playwright, and has had poetry and a number of stories published in literary journals and science fiction magazines.

E-mail: E. A. Moore

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