Alfred considered holding Delia’s hand. The logic was, they were in a deeply unsettling situation and he ought to hold her hand to comfort her. In fact, he strongly suspected that he was more worried than she was, and mostly he wanted to hold her hand because he wanted to hold her hand.
In the end he didn’t. With everything he believed to be true being wrung through some cosmic mangle, his fundamental timidity seemed calming. Perhaps more calming than having his hand held by the woman of his desires. Perhaps less. As it stood, he had no way of knowing.
They – Alfred, Delia and Christian – stood outside of normal space. That was obvious. The distances between objects was subtly wrong in ways he couldn’t even begin to explain. Time was odd too, moving weirdly as if seconds were trudging through mud while minutes fluttered by like bees.
Perhaps he should have taken Delia’s hand.
They stood in a room, which was built in a shape that Alfred had no word for. They stood in the… middle? It wasn’t quite the right word, but as good as any. Around the… edges? arranged in something like lecture hall seating sat the cats.
Only they weren’t cats. They had a basic resemblance to cats, but like the space they seemed wrong. Some seemed boneless, some spongy. Many had enormous eyes, some did not. Most wore no clothes, but others wore a motley assortment of hats, jackets, waistcoats, boots. Few wore pants, but all lacked visible genitals.
None of them were talking. The sound of purring filled the air.
The black ‘cat’ with the Gladstone bag that had brought the humans to this place bowed low before the largest of the cats. This one was a tawny brown creature with a jowly face, a mane, an ermine robe and a small golden crown.
“Your majesty,” the cat with the bag said, bowing.
“Confound it, son, what’s all this about?” the king said. His voice was deep, gravelly and peevish.
“These humans seek help,” the cat with the bag said. “One of their number has gone missing.”
“What of it?”
“She is important to the struggle on Earth, sire. She is/was/will be playing a key role in the situation with the Grey Barn’s betrayal of the Barn of Shadows.”
“So go help them find her,” the king said, reclining his throne. “I’ve just got the ceiling TV working again.”
Alfred looked around at the cats of the Parliament. After their initial interest, their attention seemed to have wandered. They were staring in all directions or licking themselves. One put a whole fish in its mouth and pulled out a perfect fish skeleton.
“What is all this?” Delia said. “Who are you?”
“I was just about to ask the same question,” Alfred lied.
“We are the Parliament of Cats, confound it!” the king said.
There was a long pause.
“What does that mean exactly?” Delia asked.
“Just what it sounds like.”
“You… you make laws for cats?”
“That’s right. All the laws that cats follow.”
“I think I see the flaw in this plan,” Alfred said.
“That’s a feature, not a bug,” the king smiled. “The natural independence of cats means we don’t have to do a lot of work, you know?”
The humans looked at one another. “Well this is friggin’ pointless,” Christian said.
“YOU!” Alfred shouted. Delia and Christian flinched. It took a moment even for Alfted to catch up with his own sudden annoyance. When his forebrain finally caught up with his hindbrain, he realised that he was pointing at a human woman sitting amongst the cats, dangling a piece of string in front of a kitten in a little blue jacket and baggy pants. She wore a tweed jacket and jeans under a patchwork coat. On her head she wore a Laplander hat.
“Hm?” the woman said.
Alfred strode towards her, his fear and confusion forgotten. “You’re the one! You gave me that watch! My life has been so weird since then! Too weird! It’s all your fault that I’m here in non-Euclidian space with a bunch of weird cat-things!”
“Have we met?” the woman said. It was at this point that Alfred realised that she was not the woman at all. The woman with the watch had been in her fifties of sixties. This woman was twenty, tops.
“Wait, weird watch… time travel… it is you!” he said. “Take your watch back!”
“What this watch?” she said, taking the device from her pocket.
“No, a later version of that watch from when you’re getting old.”
“Ah,” the woman said. “I think I see now. Well, I’m sorry if I bothered you at some future date. Don’t quite know the details, but if you give me the watch…”
Alfred reached into his pocket. “Damn it! I don’t have it.”
“Fanaka has it,” Delia said. “And my measure. Remember? Now, what is your story, dear?”
“I’m a scientist,” she said. “Right now I’m studying the cats of Dimension Seven. They have an extremely odd relationship to the Barns, but I don’t quite understand how it works.”
“You know how the Barns work?” Christian demanded.
“Does anyone, really?”
“Confound it, stop interrogating my guest!” the king said. “I’m king here. If there’s any shouting going on here, I’m the one who’ll be doing it. Anyway, we’ve debated your request…”
“I didn’t hear you,” Alfred said.
“Well you weren’t listening. We decided not to help you.”
Alfred looked at the cat with the bag, who shrugged bonelessly. “You brought us outside of space and time and took us to this place so that this buffoon could refuse to help us?”
“I thought they would help,” the cat with the bag shrugged.
“Can you help?” Alfred said. “I mean, if you decided to help us find Ms Shan, you could do it, right?”
“Easily,” the king said.
“But you won’t?”
“Don’t feel like it,” the king said, putting his feet up on a stool.
Alfred’s anger rose. For perhaps the first time in his life, he found his fury so great that it overrode his timidity completely. “You may look adorable,” he sneered, “but you’re a useless bunch of…”
With a mighty roar, the king was on his feet. It took Alfred by the shirtfront and lifted him off his feet. Alfred’s rage drained away completely. There was nothing in him but fear, noting before him but the terrifying eyes and fearsome jaws of this terrible creature.
There followed a loud crashing sound and a tinkling of glass. The king turned to look behind him, then – ever so slowly – lowered Alfred to the ground.
The headrest of the king’s reclinable throne had been smashed to pieces. It took Alfred a moment to see why – a heavy, old-fashioned valve television had fallen from the ceiling, smashing into a thousand pieces on the floor.
“Well,” the king said, quietly. “I suppose I owe you my life. You shall have what you want. The order will go out that all of my people in your world will help you find your friend.”
Alfred could do nothing but stammer in reply. “Thank you, your majesty,” Delia said.
The king retreated from the chamber, leaving Alfred shaking like a leaf.
“Come on, Alfred,” Delia said. “It’s time to go home.”
It was only then that he noticed that she had taken him by the hand.