Andre Norton: Catfantastic II

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Andre Norton Catfantastic II
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    Catfantastic II
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A book in the Catfantastic series, 1990 Two of the biggest names in the fantasy field have put together a unique collection of fantastical cat tales for friends of furry felines. Cats work a special magic in these stories from the future, from the past, and from dimensions people never dream of.

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Feathers jumped back so fast he nearly fell on his rump. "I've heard of a cathode," he muttered to himself. "But I never thought it would be attached to a cat!"

And then he stared even harder, for Bomber's show wasn't over yet. The spot on the whitewashed cabin wall started to smoke and glow, making Feathers wonder if it would ignite like petrol and burst into flame. But instead the bulkhead started to ripple, just as Bomber's fur had done. Rainbow-colored rings bloomed in the center, spreading outward. And the once-substantial metal bulkhead was somehow becoming hazy, transparent.

Feathers quickly snuck a glance at Shepherd's rum bottle to see how much he had actually consumed before falling asleep. It did not reassure him to see that the level had only dropped by a half-inch. So it wasn't spirits that were causing this. Not alcoholic ones, at any rate.

The wall continued its alarming transformation until it contained a medium-sized hole. Bomber turned to Feathers and crooked the tip to his tail.

The pilot dropped down on his knees and peered through the hole. It did not lead into the next cabin, as he had assumed. It seemed to go somewhere… else. Feathers quickly got up and locked his cabin hatch from the inside. He returned to cat and wall, finding both as he had left them. The hole, if anything, was a little larger.

Tentatively, Feathers put his fingertips to the edge of the opening. They tingled strangely. He peered through. The somewhere else definitely resembled the inside of another ship. But not the ArkRoyal. He was looking at walls and decking that had a different color and texture from the ones on the carrier or any other Royal Navy ship he'd ever been on. They were a heavy blue-gray and the air had the factory smell of newly manufactured metal. The rumble of engines sounded though the opening, but their sound was foreign.

The click of footsteps sounded on the other ship, making Feathers draw back from the gap. They grew louder. Feathers felt himself break into a sweat. Whoever was coming could hardly fail to notice a three-foot hole that hadn't been there a minute before. He waited, expecting the steady click of the footsteps to cease and exclamations of astonishment and dismay to break through from the other side.

The steps did stop. But the expected outcry didn't come. Unable to stand the tension, Feathers knelt and peered through the gap. He saw the hem of a double-breasted navy blue coat with two rows of buttons. The cuff bore a single stripe and a gold star on the sleeve, the insignia of a lieutenant in the German navy. The man had stopped right opposite the hole! But he wasn't doing or saying anything. Perhaps he was simply struck dumb. Feathers waited for all hell to break loose.

The pilot shifted so that he could gaze slightly upward. Yes, a young German naval officer. He could see the Reich eagle on the cap. The man didn't look as if he'd seen anything unusual. He was leaning slightly against the bulkhead on the opposite side of the corridor, finishing a cigarette. He took a last draw, tossed the butt down, and strode off.

Feathers wiped his sweaty hands on his trousers, scarcely able to believe that the officer hadn't seen anything. Apart from the hole itself, the noise coming through from the Ark Royal should have drawn the man's attention. Unless…

Unless the gap only worked in one direction, like a one-way mirror. Perhaps the officer had glanced down and seen only the unbroken expanse of metal.

Bomber came up and butted Feathers impatiently, as if urging him to go through the opening. Feathers took a pen from his pocket and edged it into the gap, half-expecting the pen to be chopped off by the sudden reappearance of the bulkhead. There was something on the other side, on the metal floor. The officer's discarded cigarette end. Feathers snatched it up and whipped his hand back through the hole.

He stood up, staring at his prize. It still smoked between his fingers. It was crushed and dingy, nevertheless, he could still read what remained of the tobacconist's imprint. Three Castles. A German brand, popular with naval officers. He had stuck his hand through the hole and brought back the end of an enemy fag. That clinched it. That ship on the other side. It must be one of those that sank the Hood. Prinz Eugen. Or Bismarck herself.

His brain suddenly came alive with crazy plans. With this entryway to the German ship, men from the Ark Royal could slip aboard the Bismarck and cause all kinds of havoc. A charge could be planted in her engine room. Her captain and high officers could be picked off. The ship itself could be taken from within! What a triumph for the Royal Navy if the mighty Bismarck could be seized and turned against the Axis nations who built her.

But even as dreams piled atop each other in the pilot's head, the hole trembled, shrank and popped shut. Shaking a little, Feathers touched the bulkhead. It was as solid as ever. Bomber gave Feathers a look halfway between resignation and disgust.

Feathers sat back on his bunk. He was tempted to take a large gulp of rum and dismiss the entire thing as a feverish hallucination. Until he looked at the German cigarette butt in his hand. There was no way to explain that.

He scratched his head. Apparently the effect was transitory, perhaps lasting only as long as the concentrated essence that created it. But if that was true, why hadn't Shepherd noticed anything when Bomber first began to display his proclivities? Feathers hadn't remembered any unexplained dimensional apertures in his cabin when he'd returned from the galley with a plate of fish.

Feathers sighed. Even if he could get the cat to perform again, no one in his right mind would believe him or be ready to duck through the interstice before it closed. And how would they get back? Could Bomber reverse the route from the German ship back to the Ark Royal?

The pilot flung himself back on his bunk, his arm across his eyes. Anyone in his right mind? Was he even in his right mind or was he going completely round the bend? He felt a heavy warm weight on his chest and saw the cat once more curled up on top of him.

"I don't know what the hell you are, but as a secret weapon, you leave something to be desired," he growled.

Bomber, however, didn't answer.

The carrier Ark Royal plowed ahead on a northwest course along with the other craft of Force H who were hoping to intercept the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The men aboard cheered at reports over the wireless that the Bismarck appeared to have taken a hit on the bow during the final engagement with the Home Fleet. The radar-equipped heavy cruiser H.M.S. Sheffield, which had been shadowing the German battleship, reported that Bismarck was leaving a wide swath of oil in her wake. But the excitement slowly died down when further reports indicated that the warship was not losing any speed and appeared essentially undamaged.

And then came the news that Bismarck had given her pursuers the slip and vanished into the fogs and rain squalls of the North Atlantic. Now all that the British forces could do was to wait and hope that air reconnaissance would spot her.

Force H kept steaming north, hoping the intercept Bismarck if she made a run for ports in Spain or France. But no one knew where the great ship had gone. It was as if she had vanished from the sea.

During the run north, Feathers had more free time than he wanted. He spent it drinking more than he should from Jack Shepherd's rum bottle and pursuing Bomber about the cabin, trying to persuade the cat to repeat his extraordinary performance. But Bomber, perhaps in disgust at having to deal with creatures of such low sagacity and perception, was behaving in a maddeningly normal manner. He even used the baking tin and its nest of paper for its intended purpose without creating the tiniest of interspatial holes.

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