by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Empyreome, Volume 3: Issue 1, January 2019
The magic in the air whispered through Katelynn’s whiskers like a summer breeze, and the fat tabby purred. The ley line that ran under her owner’s house was perfectly aligned with the orientation of her brown stripes whenever she sat under the oak tree in the backyard and faced the hummingbird feeder hanging in the neighbor’s Japanese maple — as she was now. The rising sun glinted off the windows in both houses, giving them shining eyes in their architectural faces.
It was the perfect moment for casting spells.
Katelynn liked to believe that she had fire magic and water magic, but she hadn’t tested those skills. Cats are proud. She wouldn’t risk her pride trying to throw a fireball or whip a snake of water simply to prove her prowess. Such violence wasn’t called for in her quiet suburban neighborhood.
Her preferred brand of magic was mental projection. Katelynn liked to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder, cast her consciousness across the space between them, and experience the exhilaration of holding herself aloft on the breezes with those furiously batting wings. Today, she let her mind hop from one hummingbird to the next, occasionally casting her consciousness into another winged visitor to the neighborhood.
An orange-checkered butterfly glided past, and Katelynn sank into the sensation, smooth as the taste of melted butter, of floating through life on stained-glass wings. Then her mind jumped to a honeybee, and she tasted the rich floral perfume of a bright pink zinnia. The flavor was so vivid, she could have drowned in it.
She felt all these sensations while lying safely in the grassy shade, striped tail twitching out a beat.
An unusual hummingbird flew into view, and Katelynn’s heartbeat picked up. This one’s ruby-feathered throat made Katelynn think of red giant stars, spinning slowly in the depths of outer space; its emerald wings glittered like a far-off nebula; and the sapphire of its tail feathers looked like space dust swirling into the abyss of a black hole. Katelynn’s ears skewed in confusion. She’d never thought about those sorts of things before. She’d seen stars and nebulas in her little girl’s schoolbooks, but Katelynn had always been more interested in Jenna’s magic books. It troubled her that she was thinking about space and planets now.
Suddenly, the magical tabby wanted to be a normal cat, not a witch-girl’s familiar. She tried to pull her mind back into her own body, planning to go back into the house, slink upstairs, and hide under Jenna’s bed until school was out. Instead, her consciousness fell into the astral hummingbird with the weight of a thousand neutron stars spiraling into a singularity.
A sudden shock jolted through Katelynn’s being as she felt her mind snap into the hummingbird body and meld into another conscious mind.
Most hummingbirds and bees and butterflies were barely conscious creatures. They hardly noticed Katelynn’s mind sharing their bodies. But this mind was as surprised by Katelynn’s presence as she’d been surprised by it.
“Hello there.” The hummingbird zipped, zigged, and zagged its way down to stare at the brown tabby. “My scans showed that none of the lifeforms on this planet had telepathic technologies.”
The hummingbird wasn’t exactly speaking, but Katelynn heard its words in her mind. She could also see a cacophony of confusing images, perhaps memories, of flying through space on a giant metal spaceship, exploring a wide range of differently inhabited planets. It was enough to make any tabby go crazy.
“Let’s have a little distance, shall we?” the hummingbird asked.
The images dimmed inside Katelynn’s mind. The hummingbird — with its vastly greater intellect and more powerful mind control — was pushing her out. After a few moments, she was only a tabby again.
“That’s better, isn’t it?”
Katelynn blinked at the little bird. She could still hear its thoughts.
“Better?” the hummingbird pressed.
Katelynn wasn’t sure at first what the bird wanted from her. Her little girl, Jenna, talked to her all the time, but Katelynn was never expected to answer. She wasn’t a talking cat. Just a magic one. Still, she understood words, and her mind still seemed to be connected to the hummingbird’s, simply at a lower level. She tried thinking the word, “Yes,” and the hummingbird immediately answered.
“Good! Now, you don’t seem to have a mind enhancer on you, and as far as I know, you’re not even the dominant species on this planet.” The hummingbird zipped around Katelynn, examining the tabby from all sides. “So how are you doing this?”
“Magic?” Katelynn answered.
“No,” the hummingbird said. “That can’t be right. Perhaps your species has innate telepathic abilities. I tried mind-blending like this with another creature here–” Suddenly, Katelynn’s mind was filled with the image of a rabbit with long ears and a cotton puff tail. The rabbit’s nose twitched. Then its eyes widened, heart racing in its chest, racing so fast, so very fast. The rabbit died almost instantly from terror at the galaxy-spanning mental images the hummingbird shared with it. “–it did not go well.”
Katelynn didn’t have a lot of respect for rabbits. They scare easily, and Katelynn had hunted her share of them. Regardless, there was something deeply troubling about this hummingbird. “Where…” Katelynn stumbled over the words, even thinking them. She wasn’t used to forming sentences. “…did you come from?”
“A small purple-yellow world orbiting a blue dwarf on the tip of this spiral arm of the galaxy.”
Katelynn’s whiskers turned down in a frown as the hummingbird cast a vision of its planet into her mind. “Why do you…” Again, she had trouble forming the words, but she muddled her way through. “…look like a hummingbird?”
The hummingbird zipped in a little circle, as if chasing its own tail feathers, trying to catch a glimpse of itself over its own tiny shoulder. “Oh, this? This form seemed inconspicuous for examining this inhabited coastal region. My species are shape-changers.” In demonstration, the ruby-throated hummingbird telescoped and kaleidoscoped, feathers twisting about disconcertingly; it blossomed like a tiny bud opening into a giant flower, finally settling into the form of a big speckled brown hawk who landed on the ground in front of Katelynn.
She cowered from the menacing bird. The hummingbird’s tiny needle beak had looked inquisitive and cute; the hawk’s large hooked beak looked fierce and angry.
“There aren’t very many species with innate telepathic abilities,” the hawk said, still sharing thoughts with Katelynn.
The tabby pawed at her head, ruffling her right ear. She didn’t like hearing a hawk’s voice inside her head. She didn’t like a hawk perched on the ground in front of her. Hawks could kill cats.
“Or kidnap them,” the hawk said, apparently reading her mind. “For studying.”
Katelynn’s tail bushed out, and she darted for the nearest shrub. Hiding under the green leaves, she felt irrationally safer from this being who had already killed a rabbit by trying to talk to it.
“Wouldn’t you like to come explore the universe with me?” The hawk hopped over the ground, following Katelynn.
The tabby yowled and spat, preparing to fight.
“This form is frightening you.” The hawk morphed, folding like a piece of origami, growing smaller and smoother and greener with each fold until a slick-backed frog sat in front of the hiding tabby.
Katelynn crept out of the bush and sniffed the frog. It smelled exactly like a frog.
Katelynn sat on her haunches, licked a paw, and began washing her ears, trying to regain her dignity in front of this worldly trickster beast. She was tempted to try eating it. Katelynn had eaten frogs before. They tasted awful but had a delightful crunch. Somehow, she was afraid that this one would simply morph itself back into a hawk inside her belly. She wouldn’t like that.
Still, if her alternative was being kidnapped and dragged across the universe…
“I didn’t mean it like that,” the frog said conciliatorily. “If the trait is innate to your species, I’m sure I could locate a willing specimen to accompany me. There seem to be plenty of you on this world.”
Now that was downright insulting. Sure, there were plenty of cats on Earth. There were even plenty of cats in the neighborhood. But Katelynn was the only magical cat. She was special. Jenna told her so every day.
“Would you like to visit my spaceship?” the frog asked. “I could take you for a spin around the solar system, and you could think about your answer.”
“Will we be back…” Katelynn didn’t want to scare Jenna by going missing. “…before school gets out?”
“Absolutely,” the frog answered.
Katelynn’s body tingled all over like when her paws fell asleep. Her vision blurred and danced; when it steadied again, her familiar backyard was gone. Instead, the tabby found herself standing on a metal floor, surrounded by panels covered with blinking lights and brightly colored buttons. Above the panels, a window curved around the room, looking out on the face of Earth from space.
Katelynn felt dizzy.
“Where would you like to go?” the frog asked. Except, now it was a human-sized tripedal blue creature with five arms and a head covered in glittering many-faceted eyes. “I know! I’ll take you to the Stardust Cafe on Ursa Major Prime.”
The view of Earth skewed, and the distant stars streamed past the window like water spiraling down a drain. Katelynn’s stomach somersaulted, and she wished Jenna were here to squeeze her and say everything would be okay.
Even so, when the view through the window settled down, Katelynn couldn’t help but purr at the stunning beauty of the sight before her: a marbled amber gas giant, surrounded by glinting ice rings, and a sea-green moon. The blue creature who’d kidnapped her pointed with one of its arms at the moon. “That’s where we’re going. And you can call me Hummingbird. I rather liked it when you thought of me that way.”
Hummingbird landed the spaceship on a grassy plain, and then led Katelynn out into the alien landscape. She followed Hummingbird through the sea of grass, marveling at everything she saw. The flowers had faces and sang at her; the rodents looked more like skittering gemstones, brightly colored with gleaming facets. The sky was a giant rainbow, stretched from one horizon to the other, painting the ceiling of this moon in stripes of color. And then there was the amber gas giant — hanging improbably in the sky, with its crescent horns of ice rings.
Katelynn got so overwhelmed, she lost track of Hummingbird several times. Eventually, the blue alien picked her up and carried her in two of its arms to the cafe.
The Stardust Cafe was a small open-air building, really just a counter with an awning over it and a few picnic tables. Hummingbird spoke in a squawky language to the gigantic pink blubbery creature behind the counter, and the pink thing handed over a bowl filled with a frothy white substance. It looked like whipped cream. Katelynn licked her chops.
“Is that for me?” she asked, telepathically. Those words came easily, naturally to her. They expressed such a strong desire that they floated right up into her consciousness, and she didn’t have to search for them.
“It is.” Hummingbird set down the bowl on a picnic table, and then settled Katelynn down beside it.
While Katelynn seriously focused on the intensely sweet creamy substance in the bowl, licking up every drop, including the ones that got caught in her whiskers, Hummingbird told the story of their meeting to the pink creature. It involved shapeshifting back into a hummingbird, hawk, and then frog.
When the story was over and the bowl was empty, Katelynn asked, “What was that?”
Hummingbird answered, “Sweet cream made from the river of milk on the Cow World.”
Katelynn licked her whiskers, although they were already clean. She was feeling a little delirious and wasn’t sure she’d understood Hummingbird correctly. “Cow World?”
“I think you’d like it,” the five-armed blue alien said enticingly while broadcasting images to her of a planet inhabited by friendly bipedal bovines where the mountains were topped with ice cream and milk rained from the sky.
Katelynn wasn’t sure if the images were real or simply an illusion meant to lure her into a life of space adventure. But with a sudden certainty, Katelynn was very sure that it was time to go home. Her little girl was looking for her. “Jenna’s worried about me.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Hummingbird said.
“No,” Katelynn insisted. “She’s scared. Really scared. Right now.”
“You can’t possibly know that,” Hummingbird said. “We’re on the opposite side of the galaxy.
“I can feel her,” Katelynn said. “All the time, no matter where I am.”
“Telepathy can’t stretch that far, even with the kind of mind-enhancers that I have running on my ship.” And yet, Hummingbird reached into Katelynn’s mind and felt the truth of the tabby’s knowledge.
Her little girl was looking for her. Her little girl was scared. On the other side of the galaxy.
“I told you,” Katelynn said. “Magic.”
Tabbies can be very smug when they’re right.
“I’ll take you home,” Hummingbird conceded.
The walk back to the spaceship was less overwhelming. Katelynn no longer had time for otherworldly wonders. She ran through the sea-green grasses, blind to the distractions of Ursa Major Prime, full speed toward the little girl she’d left behind.
When they got back to Earth, Hummingbird returned Katelynn to the exact spot under the oak tree where the ley lines made her whiskers sizzle with magic. She lost no time running into the house, upstairs, and into Jenna’s room where the little girl was looking under the bed for her.
“There you are!” Jenna cried. She grabbed her cat around the middle and squeezed. Katelynn meowed. She didn’t need words anymore. Jenna understood her without them. She was glad to be home.
To play it safe, Katelynn decided to stay inside the house for a while, away from the hummingbird feeder.