A clear chime sounded three times over the quiet city as the last faint glow of daylight gave up to darkness. Cat and Alder stood before the guard at the entrance to the search and rescue—or have they already changed the sign to say ‘recovery’? the puma wondered—camp, nothing more than fenced tent village that housed all of the relief workers and the military reservists who kept order during the cleanup. The guard, a stocky mutt with shaggy red fur and a grey muzzle that matched the accents in her poorly-fitted urban-ops fatigues, scowled at them and jerked her head in the direction of the gate.
“Just under the wire, you two,” she gruffed. “You fucked around and missed the late mess, so you’ll have to scrounge for something cold. Get in on time from now on, yeah?”
“10-4, y’grouchy cunt,” the rabbit grumbled when they were out of earshot.
The walk through the camp was sensory overkill. Small groups of volunteers wandered from place to place, talking and shouting to one another. There was a marked difference in scent between the city and the ruins, and another one entirely in the camp. Four hundred tents of varying sizes and sleeping capacities held a fluctuating population of between nine-hundred-and-fifty and thirteen-hundred humans and assorted species of voxiped. Latrines could be bad enough at the festivals where only one species congregated. The camp facilities were drastically overtaxed having to accommodate such a wide variety of waste. The combination of scents could be offensive to some human noses, but it was downright overwhelming to the animals. Coming back in from outside, there was always a period of adjustment.
In the mess tent, Alder managed to find a packaged sandwich, which looked soggy and tasteless, and a cup of coffee whose only saving grace was that it was still warm and not decaffeinated. Cat made out little better with a bottle of water and a wilted, slightly brown salad in which nestled two halves of a boiled egg. The pair dropped onto benches on either side of the first table in sight and stared at their meals.
Cat plucked the two egg halves out from between the sad greens and wrinkled cherry tomatoes. She sniffed at the non-vegetable interlopers and set them aside on her discarded cling film with a grimace. “These might just be decorations. They smell like a glue factory fucked a lilo.”
Across the table, the puma nodded with little sign that he had understood her words or even comprehended that she had spoken. His paws rested limply on both sides of his unopened sandwich and his eyes focused somewhere through the table, beyond the worn asphalt of the parking lot in which the mess tent had been erected, probably through the planet and off into space. She watched the slow wandering of his pupils and the rise and fall of a blood vessel beneath the fur of his temple. A muffled pop sounded across the tent, where the night breeze was pushing and pulling at the fabric of the wall.
The rabbit pushed her half-eaten salad away after a few minutes and cleared her throat. “Eh…Ni hon jin…de suka?”
He looked up at her, as if suddenly realizing that she was there. “Huh?”
She smiled apologetically. “I fucked that up, I bet. I basically only learned enough to order a pint and find a loo. You said your name was Matsubayashi. Are you Japanese?”
“Oh!” he replied with a small chuckle. “No, not really. Not, Japanese-Japanese. My mom was. Must’ve asked her a hundred times how a voxipedal puma ended up coming from Japan, when we’re supposed to all be indigenous to the Americas. She never answered; said it wasn’t something she felt comfortable talking about. She took her name back after she split with her husband. She was still pregnant at the time, so I got the name, too.
“As for your grasp of the language, hell if I know. She wanted me to only learn English, so the only time she spoke Japanese was when I really pissed her off.” He caught her look of confusion and elaborated, “I had friends in school from Europe and Mexico who were practically beaten into speaking only English by the faculty. From what I’ve heard from other indigenous peoples, their languages have been beaten out of them for ages. I expect she already knew about that sort of thing going on and wanted me to be spared the trouble.”
The rabbit’s eyebrows lifted as high as they would go and her ears strained forward. More than anything, she was surprised at the cat’s sudden outpouring of words. “Oh, aye? The English did something similar to us Scots. Didn’t realize it happened in America, too.”
The puma poked at his sandwich, then pushed it aside with the back of his paw. He didn’t have the appetite. The coffee was fully cold now and no amount of caffeine was worth trying to get through the oily slick that wobbled on the surface. He sighed and stood. Taking his uneaten meal he gestured to her unfinished portion with a raised eyebrow. She nodded and tossed the eggs and wrapper into the plastic bowl. Once the trash was safely balanced atop an overflowing garbage bin, Alder stretched and turned back to his new acquaintance.
“I dunno what time it is, but I guess we should say our ‘good nights’.”
“Oh?” Something about the glint in Cat’s eye seemed like more than a reflection of the generator-fed bare bulbs that dangled from the ceiling of the mess tent. Her ears perked forward, focused on him. “Worn out, eh?”
The puma shook his head. “Pretty much. I’m sore as hell and my head is all over the place. I’m going to drop onto my cot, dosed up on enough aspirin to rot a whale’s stomach, and lie awake wishing I had a bottle of bourbon instead.”
Cat huffed, “Aspirin’s a’right for headaches, bumps, and bruises; it’ll do bugger-all for the kindae of hurt you get from doing this sort of work. Any of the kinds of hurt.” She turned in her seat and stood up. Facing away from him, she arched her back and pushed her balled-up fists against her lower back on either side of her fluffy tail. An audible pop reached Alder a few paces away and he couldn’t avoid a cursory glance at her rump. “Liquor won’t do any better, really. Still, it’s a shame aboot that bourbon, eh?”
“Yep, powerful shame.” He said, giving a little wave and moved to exit the tent.
As he turned to leave, she spoke up again. “Eh…would it have to be bourbon, though?”
Alder glanced at her sidelong over his shoulder. “Pardon?”
“Just, eh, curious,” Cat fumbled a bit for words, pulling her right ear down and fidgeting with a trio of tiny stud earrings that the puma hadn’t noticed before. “if you were stuck on the idea of bourbon, or if another whiskey might work in a pinch.”
He cocked an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Well, now, I don’t suppose I’m terribly picky.”
She worried one of the earrings with the tips of two claws and watched him out of one eye. Noncommittally, she elaborated, “Well, you know, it’s just that sometimes the stress of life gets tae a girl, and she likes tae keep things around tae ease her troubled mind. One of those thing might be a wee bottle of whiskey from home.”
“Caird, are you asking me around to your place for a nightcap?”
“Aye.” She flashed what might have been a coy smile; he couldn’t quite tell. Both ears were perked back up again, on full alert. “What’s so funny, aboot that?”
He was shaking his head, muzzle twisted in a disbelieving smirk. “Nothin’, really. Just, never would have expected to get invited for drinks in a place like this. But, sure. It sounds nice.”
She grinned. “All right! My tent’s L-223. You wanna come over in aboot an hour? It’s a damn mess right now, and we could both use showers after the day’s work.”
“Yeah,” he muttered, glancing at his paws, “true that.”