Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fiona's Mission

The field agents of Clouder Number Nine calmly walked across the field to the town of Aberbran. Well except for the new recruit who was a ball of excited kitten fur. Alex fairly bounced with an energy that belied his scruffy appearance.

Nala put a paw out and stilled the kitten. She glared at him and he got the message. It was time to put his training to use. He calmed and walked more sedately.

Once they reached the edge of town, Fiona stepped up to Nala and nodded. Then Fiona turned and walked to the train station.

Fiona liked train stations. Some of her favorite assignments in the past involved hitching rides on the rails. It wasn't easy for a cat to jump up to the bed of a train car, though Fiona had managed to do it. Once. Other times she had walked up loading ramps and into the car. On one memorable occasion, she had made friends with a vagrant and he had carried her up. She like standing and watching the scenery go by through the slats of the freight cars. The one time she had gone through the Chunnel, though, had been scary.

The stations themselves were full of fascinating humans. It was a good cross section to watch. There were commuters and tourists and people just trying to get to a bigger city to shop. She like seeing how humans behaved when not at headquarters. The MEOW humans were different then everyday people and Fiona liked to observe and compare.

She walked into the station. The Aberbran station had been built at the height of the train popularity in the mid eighteen hundreds and had been modernized, some what, in the nineteen eighties. It still had the original benches and tile work. As far as human buildings went, Fiona felt at home. She snuck in behind a young mother and her three children. The youngest, who appeared to be about two years old, noticed her.

“Cath,” the youngster said. “Pretty cath.”

Fiona walked up to the youngster and rubbed against him. He petted her. Fiona purred. That was the other reason she liked hanging out at train stations – plenty of people to give her her feline due and pet her. Not that the humans of MEOW never petted the cats, there were just other things that needed doing most of the time, though Angus could be counted on for a good scritch behind the ear if she walked up to him and tickled his knee with her tail.

“Dai, get over here,” called the youngster's mother as she went towards the platform where a new train was just pulling in.

Most of the people in the station surged towards the platform to catch the train. Fiona looked around the station to find the best vantage point and finally settled on curling up on the middle of the long wooden bench. No one would find it odd to find a cat curled up and sleeping there. The microphone in her collar would pick up the conversations around her and transmit them back to headquarters for the technical cats to decipher, and she could keep her eyes open and watch but no one would see because of the way she had head tucked.

The first train of the day contained no suspicious activity. Neither did the second. Fiona was getting petted by all sorts of people coming and going. It was not a bad way to spend a mission. A few of the younger train passengers did not know the difference between petting and pulling fur but Fiona was willing to overlook those few occasions as their mothers quickly came over and taught them the difference and soon she was dozing in the sunlight.

The whistle of an oncoming train sounded again and the passengers lined up to board. The station was a buzz with activity again. The four year old, on whose lap Fiona was currently settled, stood up when his mother commanded and Fiona found herself abruptly on the floor. She shook off the indignity and watched this new batch of activity.

The flurry of incoming and departing passengers slowed until there were just a dozen people in the station. The Station Manager and two ticket ladies could be ignored for now. Fiona's orders were to observe strangers that came into town. That ruled out the family of four that looked harried by travel but were clearly almost home. The father's mutterings of “Now where did we park the car?” meant that they had left from here.

That process of elimination left five people for her to watch. An elderly lady was inquiring about a taxi. The ticket lady was just lifting the phone to summon one when a twenty something year old young man ran in.

“Gram, I told you I'd pick you up,” the young man said.

“And I told you, I could see myself home,” said Gram.

Not them, Fiona said to herself as she scanned the remaining four people. There was a Twenty something couple with large backpacks that clearly had been traveling through the United Kingdom. They were examining the map and trying to decide if they had arrived at the town they wanted to or if they had gone too far or maybe not far enough. This couple Fiona dismissed from her suspicions as well.

She turned her attention to the other two gentlemen. One had an accent that sounded familiar. It took her a moment to place it but when she did, Fiona started. The man sounded almost exactly like Angus. She looked the man over closely and was much relieved to find that he was older and had dark hair rather than the red of Angus. Fiona would have been deeply upset to find out Angus had betrayed them. This man would bear watching.

The other man sounded like an add for Guinness ale. Fiona watched him closely as well. It was funny, both men appeared to be waiting for someone and they stood a few feet apart watching the front door. They occasionally exchanged glances and seemed like they wanted to say something but didn't speak. This Fiona noted.

Then another gentleman came in. He looked like an average townsman but he had a strange pin on his sweater. Fiona couldn't quite make it out so she ambled over and did the 'pet me' routine. Sure enough the gentleman leaned down to pet her and she could see what it was – a picture of a daffodil, a thistle, and a shamrock growing from the same stalk. That was odd. It did however fit in with what previous intel had provided. Clearly she was in the right place. One last scritch behind her ear and the man stood up.

“Fe godwn ni eto?” the man with the pin asked.

“Éirinn go Brách” replied the Guinness man.

“Soar Alba gu brath,” answered the man who sounded like Angus at the same time.

“Come with me then, I've got rooms for you at the pub,” said the man with the pin.

Fiona went over to a patch of sunlight that was falling on the bench and curled up again. She had to maintain that she was the station cat for a little while to keep her cover. She really wanted to run back to headquarters and see what they'd make of the conversation she just witnessed. She was sure it was some type of call and response pass code and could be useful The reality was that it would be another forty hours until Angus came and Clouder Number Nine could ex-filtrate the village.

“Some llaeth for the cath?” asked one of the ticket ladies as she put down a saucer of cream next to the bench Fiona had been perched on.

Fiona jumped down with as much dignity and alacrity as she could manage and ambled over to the saucer. She dearly loved cream. She bent her head and lapped up the cream This wasn't going to be a bad place to spend a couple days waiting for the signal to ex-filtrate.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Mission Briefing

An hour later, just as Alexander was turning in circles and making a comfortable hollow in the beanbag bed and quilts he'd been assigned, the screen in Clouder Number Nine's quarters beeped and blinked on.

Alex sprang from the nest he'd been making and landed on all four paws with his tail all puffed up in surprise.

“Calm down, wee Alex,” Angus said. “That just means a briefing is about to begin.”

Sure enough the rest of the clouder walked into the room and found perches on the various cat towers and couches. Angus took a seat in the middle of the couch and Nala sat on his lap. Alex looked around for a spot and Angus patted the couch next to him. Alex looked gratefully up to the human before leaping to the spot.

The screen cleared and the picture showed Lady Gwen on her cushion with a half dozen other cats running equipment in the back ground. There was a human visible, Liz MacDougal, Angus's wife. She was the Chief of Veterinary Medicine for MEOW.

“Is the whole clouder there, Angus?” asked Liz over the screen.

“Aye,” Angus replied.

“Then we'll get on with it,” Liz continued.

It took Lady Gwen, Liz and their feline assistants an hour to outline the broader strokes of the current mission and a further hour to give out specifics. It boiled down to the information that Nala had gathered two days ago proved that the enemy had infiltrated the town around the Aberbran Castle.

The town of Aberbran had always had a large percentage of the small town that spoke Welsh, but in recent weeks an influx of visitors speaking Irish and Gaelic began to be noticed. Tourists weren't that common at Aberbran. Not in the numbers seen recently. Particularly not from Ireland and Scotland that had their own castles. Castle Aberbran was in relatively good repair but it wasn't significant – either historically or architecturally, so unless a tourist wanted a good but not great castle off the beaten path, the majority of visitors were locals. The other odd thing about this influx of tourists was that they'd greet each other with “Fe godwn ni eto”, the motto of the defunct Free Wales Army. The last owner of the castle had been heavily, but secretly, involved in the movement for an independent Wales as had his ancestors back to at least the 1700's

The plan was for Clouder Number Nine to infiltrate the town to learn what the visitors were up to. Fiona would infiltrate the train station. Phoebe would take the Royal Mail office. Alex would make himself comfortable in the local pub. Liz would monitor his vitals to see how he did in real world situations. It was a nice and easy first assignment. Nala would infiltrate the local feral feline population and learn what they knew and keep an eye on everyone else. Angus would be ready to swoop in and rescue any cat that got in trouble, otherwise he and a couple other humans would try to figure out how to gain access to the secret room in the Castle Nala had discovered. They need to do so in a way that no one would notice and not damage the Castle.

“Good luck,” Liz wished the Clouder before the video winked out.

Alex jumped down off of his perch and vibrated with excitement.

“When do we go?” asked the computer voice that represented him.

“Not until you've been to the disguise room, lad,” Angus answered.

“We get disguises?” Alex exclaimed.

“Not full disguises,” said the Russian computer accented voice that was Nala. “But you and I look too much like purebreds to pass as street cats and the Fifis look too well cared for.”

“So we'll be ruffled and messed up a bit,” said the Irish computer accented voice that was Fiona.

“I'm glad I get to stay and run the computers,” said the male Irish computer voice that was Erik. “I couldn't stand for my fur to be ruffled like that.”

“So you keep telling yourself,” teased Fiona, his sister.

“That's enough,” Angus said. “We need to get started.”

He went to the door and opened it. He led the way, with Nala at his side, down the halls to the disguise room. In less than an hour the Clouder was ready and Angus was driving his Land Rover with the cats to a field some ways away from the town.

Angus stopped the vehicle and let the cats out. He and Erik wished them luck. Nala raised a paw in farewell and led her compatriots across the field.

“Dinna worry, man,” Angus addressed the feline at his side. “They can do this mission in their sleep.”

Erik rubbed against Angus's leg and purred. He picked up the cat and turned back to the vehicle. He placed Erik in the front passenger seat and buckled him in with a special MEOW invented cat seatbelt.

“I hope,” Angus said under his breath as he got in the driver's seat and started back for Headquarters.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Agents of MEOW

Deep in the heart of the United Kingdom, though no one knew precisely where, (all anyone knew was that it was a several hour drive to Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London) lay an Academy for secret agents. Most of the students served Her Majesty, though a few followed Uncle Sam. The one thing that all the trainees of the Academy had in common was that they were not human. They were much furrier, as they were in fact cats. The felines at the Academy were as far superior to the average feline home companion upon entry as kittens, and by the time they graduated the cats were equal to their human counterparts, with whom they occasionally collaborated.

The Staff of the Academy consisted of both human and feline instructors. The humans were a necessary evil as far as Lady Gwenllian, the plump white Persian feline who ran MEOW, was concerned. The cats at the Academy and in the Agency were gifted, but they still lacked opposable thumbs and government suppliers weren’t supposed to know of intelligent cats, so someone had to take delivery of the tons of kibble and litter and the pallets of wet cat food. Not to mention some human staff was needed to clean the dozens of litter boxes, open the cans of tasty wet food, and pour the celebratory cream when a mission was completed. Then there were the veterinary doctors and technician staff. All in all there were too many humans for Lady Gwen, but all were necessary, so she didn't complain to the Minister too much.

The one human that all the felines liked, including Lady Gwen, was Angus MacDougal, a Scot whose preferred clothing was a traditional kilt, which caused some distress when a cat rubbed up against him. Tails were known to tickle the backs of his knees and sometimes higher up, but he wouldn't change his uniform nor jobs for anything. He was the chief human handler and the one most often assigned to Clouder Number Nine. MI 6 had the Double O designation. The United States Navy had the SEALS. The Special Projects Agency of MEOW had Clouder Number Nine. Angus provided the human back up for them and he could often be found with one of the cats near him.

The feline contingent of Clouder Number Nine consisted of five cats at the time of the Aberbran mission, but had been as many as six. Nala, the Russian Blue, was the current leader of the Clouder. She was the best at getting into places where she shouldn't. Her particular skill was looking so pathetic that unsuspecting humans invited her in and then left her to nap. That's when she'd get where she needed to be. She was also a pedigreed purebred and could get into the stuffy aristocrat circle. Erik, a white with black markings short hair of mixed parentage, had been a great field agent until he'd come into contact with a strange chemical and had nerve damage that caused his legs to cease working properly. He, however, proved to be gifted at running the computers and remote controlled devices in the other cats' collars. Fiona, Erik's litter mate who was a longer furred black with white markings big cat, worked with Phoebe, a smaller and gray and white version of Fiona. Together Fiona and Phoebe made up the deadly double team known as “the Fifis”. You never got between the Fifis and what they wanted. The last cat in the clouder was a six month old provisional recruit.

Alexander, the pure blood Siamese, had been the kitten with the highest marks in the most recent graduating class so he'd been placed with the others to see if he'd be a good fourth field agent. In fact the day the Aberbran mission began was going to be his first day.

Angus and Nala walked through the Agency's halls to the dormitory wing of the Academy. They made an odd picture, the more than six foot tall kilted Scot and the barely foot tall Russian Blue cat walking proudly beside him with her tail sticking straight up as if trying to look taller next to her companion. They passed several windows that looked into the class rooms until they got to the one with the twelve week old kittens who had just been fitted with their collars and laser beams. Angus paused to look in, as he did every time he passed the room when his errand wasn't urgent. The kittens were so funny. They chased the red dot but never caught it as the source was coming from between their ears. The instructors always let them chase the dot for a while before reminding them that they were about to be highly trained spies and it was beneath them to chase the dot that would never be caught.

Nala stretched up on her hind legs with her front paws on the windowsill. There was one kitten, a calico, that was doing the most acrobatic leaps to get the dot and failing. Nala put a paw over her eyes and shook her head. She was sure she had never been that stupid.

“Och, Nala,” Angus said. “Do you see that wee Calico over there?”

Nala nodded.

“That one reminds me of you when you were a wee lassie cat,” Angus said. “You were a bonny wee thing that liked chasing the dot too. I knew you'd be a good infiltrator cat because of the way ye leaped at the dot.”

Nala thought of the revenge she'd get on Angus. Someday, when he wasn't on guard she'd leap and claw at the vulnerable parts under his kilt. That day was not this day though. Today she had to keep her thoughts and claws sheathed. She removed her paws from the windowsill and sank back onto all fours and started back down the hall.

“All right,” Angus said. “Back to work.” He set off after the cat. He was sure that Nala had been contemplating some murderous thought in his general direction for the comment about when she was a kitten. She, of all the cats he worked with, was the most conscious of her dignity. He did enjoy teasing her, even if it meant he had to be on guard all the time from cat claws.

They entered the dormitory wing and there to meet them was the six month old Siamese, Alexander. He was vibrating with the excitement that the very young and anxious to get on with life can have. His bundle of things was next to him.

Noticing the excitement of the new recruit Nala looked up to Angus. She waited until she had his attention and rolled her eyes. That level of bounce was never good in a new recruit.

“I know, Nala,” Angus said. “We'll have to train him out of some very bad habits.”

Alexander bounded over to Nala and just before he would have pounced, as his feline instincts demanded to play, he remembered to bow with his front paws. Then he rolled over and exposed his stomach in acknowledgment that Nala was his superior. She lifted a paw and rubbed his tummy. Feline formalities over with, Nala nodded to the kitten to fall in and he did. Angus picked up the bundle and followed behind Nala and Alex.

Nala led the small procession through the halls of the Agency. Finally, they reached a door different from the others; it had an actual doorknob and not the pressure sensitive plate in the floor to open. Nala reach up and hit a button. A light next to the button turned green and Nala motioned to Alex to get the doorknob. Alex looked up to Angus.

“Go on,” Angus said. “Show us what ye've got.”

Alex leaped for the knob, grabbed it with both front paws and twisted. The door swung open. Alex lost his grip and fell to the floor but landed on all four paws anyway. It might not have been the most graceful of landings but he proved he could indeed do the door opening trick.

Nala led the little party inside. The room was a mix of old world office and high tech command center. In the center of the room on a cherry wood platform with stairs up to it sat a large red velvet cushion with gold tassels. If one looked closely at the tassels one could see that they were a bit worse for wear as if the feline occupant of the cushion would occasionally attack them. (Which would be a correct assumption; when stressed Lady Gwen would dismiss everyone from the office and have a good romp attacking tassels for five minutes and then return to work.)

Said feline occupant was a luxuriously long white furred Persian named Lady Gwenllian. She was the top cat at MEOW and answered directly to the Minister. The symbol of her rank was a gold and pearl diadem seated between her ears. This wasn't just a piece of fancy jewelry but it also housed an electronic unit that read her brainwaves and feed them wirelessly to a computer next to her. The computer used a text to speech application and spoke for her so all could hear. (It was similar to some of the technology in the collars of other cats but more fitting to her station.)

“Come in,” said Lady Gwen. “Is that a new kilt, Angus?”

“Yes, my lady,” he replied. “The new recruit in Clouder Number Two shredded one last week.”

“I trust the kilt was the only thing to suffer damage and you took the cost of the replacement out of the clouder's budget,” Lady Gwen said.

“It was and I did, my lady,” Angus replied.

“Good,” Lady Gwen said as she looked at Alex. “So this is the new member of Clouder Number Nine.”

“Yes, my lady,” came another voice from the computer. This one was female with a slight Russian accent which was to represent Nala. “May I introduce Alexander.”

“Alexander,” Lady Gwen invited. “Come here.”

Nala nudged the kitten to the base of Lady Gwen's platform. Lady Gwen looked him over. Alex shook a little with nervousness but held his ground.

“He'll do,” Lady Gwen pronounced. “Are you ready to take your oath and begin your service?”

“Yes, my lady,” another computer voice sounded in the room. This one was the voice of a teenaged boy whose voice was trying to deepen, and was the computer's attempt at trying to keep all the cats' voices distinct so everyone could tell who was talking.

“Then raise your right paw and swear the oath,” Lady Gwen said.

Alex stood in the indicated spot and raised his right forepaw. “I, Alexander Cattus, swear to serve Her Majesty and my country, to protect and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic, obeying all lawful commands for as long as my nine lives shall last.”

“Very good,” said Lady Gwen. “Now get him settled in the Clouder's quarters. There will be a mission briefing in an hour.”

“Yes, my lady,” Angus said and led the two cats out.

Once in the corridor, Nala bumped her head against Alex's in acceptance. Angus pinned a charm to Alex's collar.

“There,” Angus said as he straightened up. “You're a full member of SPA. Let's get you settled before she sends us off on an assignment.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Spy Cats

Nala crept over the hill as stealthy as a cat, which was fitting as she was one. A Russian Blue to be exact. She surveyed her target, Castle Aberbran, at the bottom of the hill. For any other cat from the Agency it would be impossible, but Nala was the leader of Clouder Number Nine – the elite team of the Agency, so it was going to be merely difficult.

Down the hill, across the remains of the draw bridge, around the courtyard to the kitchen door, and then to Meow loudly until the Caretaker took pity and opened the door. That was the next phase of the plan. A double beep, not audible to humans, sounded from what looked like a collar but was really a high tech disguise for the tools of the spy cat trade – communications array, laser beams, and of course a hidden camera so that Headquarters and Lady Gwen could view the progress of the mission. The beeps meant it was time to get on with it and so Nala started off briskly down the hill.

Once at the back door, she rubbed a paw backward over her fur to muss it up and ensure she looked as scruffy as possible. The more pitiful she looked the better chance at mission success she'd have. Once she had done all she could to achieve the required look, Nala took a deep breath and started making the required caterwaul. It worked. The door opened and the Caretaker took one look at her and bent down to pet her.

“Oh, what do we have here?” the Caretaker asked. “A pretty kitty.”

Nala blinked blandly and allowed the petting.

“You look like you've escaped from somewhere,” the human continued as he picked her up. He looked at the collar but couldn't read the writing in the dying light.

Nala purred, to let the human think she was enjoying the attention. She did enjoy being petted on occasion by the human staff of the Agency, but that was on her terms. This was work and now was not the time to get distracted by the feeling of human fingers scratching her perpetually itchy parts.

“Let's get you inside before it starts to rain,” the Caretaker said as he suited actions to words and carried Nala inside the castle.

He had a fire going in the fireplace in the little sitting room of the Caretaker's apartment. He pulled a basket up to the fire and arranged a quilt in it.

“I had a cat until last month,” the Human prattled on as he made up the cat bed. “I couldn't make myself get rid of this basket and blanket. Lucky for you, eh?”

Nala purred and settled into the basket. Now was her favorite part of the mission- a wee little nap to lull the human into thinking she was a normal cat. She might be a highly trained spy and could, when required, forgo the usual four or five naps a day of other cats, but why, when at least one could be scheduled into the mission? She turned around a few more times to find a comfy position and started the next phase of the mission- her nap.

The apartment was silent and dark, perfect for the next part of the mission, when Nala woke. She looked around. She had studied the floor plan as part of the mission briefing and made her way from the Caretaker's apartment into the castle proper. It was right, down the corridor, up the north tower stairs and left, into the former Lord's study. She made her way there. The reason the Agency had been given the mission was because the castle was equipped with pressure sensitive floor tiles as a security measure; but as there had been a mouse problem, several cats lived there and the tiles were calibrated to ignore a creature the weight of a cat.

Nala reached the door to the study and stretched up on her back paws to put her front paws on the door knob. Cats shouldn't be able to open the door but the Agency's training academy had a special maneuver for it and Nala was the best the instructors had ever seen at carrying it out. The maneuver involved the cat holding on to the door knob and doing a twisting somersault in mid air. Soon enough the door was swinging open and Nala was in.

Nala crept to the center of the room. She took a long sweeping look around and located the wall she was interested in. Then she shook her head in a very precise manner and her collar opened up and the laser beam array came out. The array settled into place behind her head, perched between her ears with a slight whir noise. Humans couldn't hear it though the noise drove Nala crazy but long practice and good training had her staying still while the beam swept down the wall a couple times.

A loud rumbling purr sounded in her ear. It was Erik, back at headquarters, telling her they had the information the Agency needed and for her to move to the extraction phase of the mission. Nala acknowledged the command with a chittering sound better suited to a squirrel than a cat, though her teammate Fiona could make the noise better than she could meow.

The laser beam retracted and Nala made her way out of the room. She did the somersault maneuver in reverse to pull the door closed behind her before creeping down to the Caretaker's apartment. Then she slipped back into the basket by the fire in time for another nap scheduled into the mission. Sometimes it was very good to be a cat.

Around six in the morning the Caretaker walked into the room with a bowl of water and a plate of tuna. Nala wasn't the biggest fan of the fish but it was better than the Agency kibble that she had to take on longer missions. That stuff was vile. She stood up and stretched and prowled over to the plate. She took a few tentative bites of the tuna and let the human pet her. He thought he was being sneaky, petting her with one hand and reaching for the tag on her collar with the other, but that was what she wanted him to do. The name and number of her 'human' was showing now. Nala needed the man to call it so that she could be picked up.

“Angus MacDougal,” the Caretaker read. “That number doesn't look like it is from around here. How far have you traveled?”

“Meow,” Nala said and leaned into the petting.

“I'd better call that number.” The human left to do that, and Nala finished her meal.

“Mr. MacDougal said he'd be here in a couple hours,” the human said when he reentered the room. “So I suppose you can have another nap. Unless you want to play with this.” He produced a catnip mouse.

Nala eyed the toy. She usually was above such things, but she did need to get some exercise or that tuna would go straight to her tummy and she'd be like the late great Nekosan – resigned to walking with her back arched so the tummy fur wouldn't drag on the ground. She made a graceful leap for the toy. The human dropped it. She batted it around the room. She knew that there would be another mission to this castle so she might as well scope out the place some more under the cover of playing.

After a half hour of the combined surveillance and exercise routine, Nala decided she had enough so she left the catnip mouse in the corner she had last batted it into and walked over to the basket. She turned around three times and settled down to clean her unmentionable parts. That ought to get the human to leave her alone. Her ploy worked and she was left in peace. She settled down to another nap. The mission was going extremely well.

An hour and a half later, a knock sounded on the kitchen door. Nala perked up. She heard the rumble of the Scottish brogue of Angus MacDougal. The two humans walked into the sitting room. Nala got up and walked over to Angus and rubbed against the bare leg under his kilt, sticking her tail straight up the leg to tickle places best left alone by felines.

“Och, Nala,” said Angus. “What have I told you about your tail and my kilt?”

Nala looked up at him and purred harder. He bent down and petted her. She leapt up onto his shoulder. He wrapped one hand protectively around her body and stood. Then he turned to the Caretaker.

“Thank you for taking care of my Nala lass,” Angus said. “I best get her home before the missus gets into a further fret about the runaway cat.”

“No problem,” the Caretaker said. “She was a very good kitty.”

Angus carried Nala out to the waiting Mini and set her down in the passenger seat. Then he got in the driver's seat and drove away. Nala put her front paws up on the door frame and took one last survey of Castle Aberbran, ever the professional. One never knew which information might be needed until it was, and she knew she'd be leading the rest of the Clouder back here soon.