Short Story: Harley and the Black Hole By Maia Cornish and Illustrated by Robert Mclysaght

You’ve probably seen photos of me in my space helmet and silver suit. Yes, that’s me, Harley the space cat. You may have tuned into network TV to watch this handsome young tabby and to marvel at my fate. But the cameras weren’t rolling when I felt the first itch. I’d hardly reached the stratosphere when I got the first bite. You would have been oblivious to my predicament: trapped in a spacesuit with a flea!

I know I shouldn’t have done it, but could you have sat there, calm, clear thi

SpaceCat

nking while a flea made a meal of your right ear? No, I couldn’t either. I had to get out of that suit and give it a good kick, but there’s only limited room in a space capsule. I twisted and spun, twitched and switched until I was free from the harness that kept me in place. And then I ran, round and round, trying to get away from the itch that was getting worse by the minute. I don’t remember which lever or button I pushed in my bid for freedom. I only remember the frantic voices from Houston as the capsule spun out of control and into the mouth of the waiting Black Hole. As the lights went out, I froze mid dash and thought of momma.

Dear sweet momma. Would I ever see you again? Or my precious little Persian, Fufu who, right now, may be preparing for my first-born? I closed my eyes and kissed one of my nine lives goodbye.

Suddenly everything around me got crazy. I can tell you now a black hole is nothing more than a giant toilet bowl, frozen in space. Beneath the rim, a giant ocean of ice and slush swirled me around and around like someone had pulled the flush. Asteroids and comets jumbled up with decades of space garbage: rocket boosters, solar panels, peeling sheets of bad paint jobs, as well as freeze-dried astronaut dinners, and bags of—well, you don’t need to know what was in those bags.

Just as I was contemplating my fate, I was sucked down the pan and landed with an almighty thump in the sewers below. My little capsule bumped down onto a comet, and huge dust cloud mushroomed around me. Did I say dust? Dust everywhere, huge clouds spacecraft.jpgof it. I couldn’t see a thing, but the sound I heard was harrowing. At first, I thought it was a duck, a wheezy duck with a bad cough until I heard it again, and again. Cough, cough-cough, cough-cough-cough. What makes that sort of noise? My imagination ran riot, so I risked a look through the porthole.

Dog! A big one too. A dog with a sore throat and a hatred of cats. Just my luck to end up in a black hole with a mangy mutt. And me, sat in a tin can, watching it look for a way in.

Come on then, dog, if you’re brave enough, I thought. I arched my back and distended my claws inside my space mitts. I was ready for it, spacesuit or not. Instinct is a strange SpaceDogthing. But just as I was warming up to let out a blood-curdling shriek, I heard another that even I couldn’t better. A shriek so ear-piercing it would rival a sonic boom. A shriek that made the hairs on my hair stand up. A shriek that could only come from… a gate-legged, one-eyed, hairy CHIMP!

Now, I knew I wasn’t the first pet to travel in space, but I didn’t expect to find a whole menagerie of discarded zoology out here. I was nervous to see what else might emerge from this land below the sea. But it turned out this was my lucky day. Apart from being incredibly ugly, Charmaine the Chimp turned out to be one smart cookie. Between bouts of nose-picking, she used her long black fingernails to pick her way through the door lock and let herself into my metal motor. I sat still while she fiddled with the hooks and clips on my suit and helmet, and just like that—as easy as unzipping a banana—she had me free. I would have hugged her if she hadn’t smelled so bad.

It turned out that she and the mutt, Barney she called him, were best buddies, so he was off-limits for now. Charmaine kept him on a short leash, figuratively speaking. She shrieked at him to “leave it” whenever he stuck his collie-poodle-cross muzzle into anything he might regret, which apparently included me. So Barney and I would have to learn to live together if we wanted to make use of Charmaine’s superior dexterity. And as she was the only one that could open the freeze-dried food packets, she was a highly desirable friend.

Managing the rations wasn’t her only skill, I soon discovered. She scampered out the door, and I followed her and Barney through the dust clouds to a cavernous fissure in an iron ore cliff. As well as calling this ‘home’, Charmaine had built herself a fine workshop. She kept herself, and us, busy with assembling our ticket out of there, our very own spaceship. Personally, I thought she was crazy, but it kept her occupied.

Weird as it may sound, we were all happy in a displaced kind of way. The air was good, even though it had a lot of helium, which explained why Barney sounded like a croaking duck and Charmaine like a banshee. It didn’t do much for me either, as I discovered one night when I howled at the frozen ocean above me. For the first time since I’d left Earth, I hoped momma, Fufu, and the kits wouldn’t hear me.

The helium turned me into a high-jump expert too. Whenever Charmaine spotted a piece of debris plummeting within reach I’d give a gentle kick with my back legs, use my tail as a rudder to steer me, and hook it down for her. If she was especially pleased with what I snagged she’d slip me extra rations, which got Barney sulking. He tried to outdo me whenever he could, racing after snowballs of frozen rocket fuel that frequently landed SpaceApearound us. Who knew space ships leaked so much? Charmaine gathered those frozen balls into a rusty fuel tank and watched as the levels rose. She wouldn’t let us run out before we got home.

Life was good, apart from that damned flea! Charmaine was an expert groomer and spent hours trawling through my fur, picking out lumps of grit and bits of muck, but even she couldn’t catch that flea. It seemed to have a knack of lying still, hiding in my earflaps or under my tail whenever groom-time approached. When Charmaine had finished with me and turned to Barney’s ragged mop, it would give me a good nip, as if to let me know it was still there. Despite the good life, I hankered for home and the comfort of a flea collar! Lucky for me, Charmaine’s spaceship was almost ready.

It was the night before we were due to fire it up that we heard the noise. Barney started whining and Charmaine had to clamp a hand over his muzzle to keep him quiet. As we prowled silently, listening, one thing came crystal clear. We were no longer alone on this comet. Someone had landed at the top of the cliff and was making a lot of noise.

Time to investigate, but that cliff was high. Charmaine was the best climber, but even she couldn’t find a toehold on that sheer iron ore cliff. Barmy Barney stood on his hind legs and stretched his neck—as if that would help. I took a deep breath and tried my best vertical leap, but fell several metres short. Then Charmaine had one of her bright ideas. She picked me up in one hand, raised me over her head and threw me. The indignity of it all. I should have been outraged, but it surprised me to find I was only a little short of reaching the cliff edge.

By the time I’d fallen back to where they stood she’d come up with a new plan. Barney was standing on his back legs and Charmaine was sitting on his shoulders. I clambered up Barney’s back (I’d like to say I was careful not to scratch him), and Charmaine launched me again. I sailed easily over the cliff edge and landed silently behind three men clambering from an old-fashioned space rocket.

Even without the skull and crossbones painted on the hull, I knew straight away who they were—space pirates! I’d heard all about their sort at astronaut school, how they cruised around the comets and asteroids, searching for semi-precious stones and anything else that would make a profit back on Earth. But these guys were searching for something much closer to my heart. Fuel!

The leader, the one with a bushy black beard, was ordering the others to watch for frozen fuel-balls. He’d been watching them land in this area for the last few nights, it seemed, and now he wanted them. I’d heard enough. I had to warn the others and get our precious supply of fuel out of danger. I slunk to the cliff edge and hurled myself over.

It was a long, long, long way down.

Even cats as smart as me can’t always land on their feet, and neither did I. I lay spread-eagled in the dust with my head spinning. From somewhere nearby I could hear the sounds of Charmaine dragging equipment around, rattling tubes and components as she hurried to get us ready for launch. Barney, to give him credit, was sniffing up at the cliff, keeping his nose ready for the first whiff of trouble descending. I shook the stars out of my head and picked myself up, just in time to spot a rope drop from above. Then another, and another. They were on their way down and we had to launch, fast.

We might have got away, but Black Beard was a hefty fella and he fell, rather than climbed down his rope. Before we had a chance to get everything ready he was there, waving his laser sword and ordering his two buddies to get a move on to search for the fuel-balls.

Barney tried to stall them. While Charmaine rummaged around in the back of the cave, he ran casually up to Black Beard and his men, sniffing around them, being friendly. Black Beard fell for it too, bending over to stroke his ears and pat his head. Barney pulled all the tricks a dog could, offering his paw, playing rollover, twirling between their legs. He’d bought us some time but when he tried getting amorous with Black Beard’s left leg, his luck ran out. Just as Charmaine peered out from our cave to hurry us along, Black Beard pushed Barney away and ordered his men to start searching.

A few minutes more would see us all safely aboard and the door locked. It seemed Charmaine had plans to buy us that time. From the back of the cave, she started shrieking as loud as a chimp ever shrieked. With the helium and the echoing acoustics, the noise was terrifying. Black Beard’s men froze in fear. Barney made a dash for it and I took off after him but my legs were still wobbly. Just as I reached the entrance to the cave a laser beam hit the rock beside me and sent a chunk crashing down. One inch closer and I would have lost another of my lives. I did what every self-respecting cat does in a tricky situation. I sat down, lifted my back leg and gave it a good old-fashioned lick.

Black Beard stopped his bellowing momentarily, stunned at my audacity no doubt, but only for a second. I watched as he drew breath, ready to hurl his laser beam in my direction. That’s when I felt the familiar prickle of little flea legs. They were running through my fur, heading for my ear. I couldn’t resist an almighty kick in its direction. Bull’s-eye! At least I would die happy, I thought, as I watched the pesky creature take a mighty leap toward Black Beard’s facial hair and disappear.

Now you may not know this, but there are two kinds of fleas in the world. One likes to feed on cats, and the other likes to feed on people. Would you believe my luck? My flea turned out to be the human devouring kind. Within seconds Black Beard was shaking his SpacePiratehead, dancing in circles and scratching his chin. He got lucky and flicked the flea out and I watched it land on the bald head of his first mate. It took an almighty bite and leapt off toward the patch of curly hair that was creeping over the second mate’s collar. All three men were dancing and scratching, the flea was hopping and biting, and I was licking and laughing. I wish someone could have filmed it—it would have gone viral in seconds back at home.

Barney seized the moment. He dashed out of the cave, grabbed the end of one of the dangling ropes in his mouth and ran in ever-decreasing circles around them. Charmaine ran out, grabbed the other two ropes and tied all the ends together in a giant plait. By the time she’d finished, they were good enough to turn into a sturdy bell pull.

So that was it. In no time we were locked and loaded. Charmaine got us into our spacesuits, we buckled up and she hit the throttle. For a heart-stopping moment nothing happened, then suddenly there was a rattling and a shaking, a juddering and a jolting and we flew through the mouth of the cave. As we flew upward, splashing through the frozen ocean and sailing over the rim, I laid my head back in my seat and thought of momma.

“Kiss Fufu and the kits for me, momma,” I whispered, “and tell them Daddy’s coming home.”

– End –

 

Maia Cornish

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