Most of Fluff's memories were of death.
There were good memories, like mama's white fur and the salty taste of the meat the Caretakers called tuna. And the Caretakers, like Lieutenant Kell, who kept Mama and Fluff safe from from the Alpha that Lieutenant Kell called Chief. Lieutenant Kell always had to hide Mama and Fluff in a box whenever the Chief came by. They would hold perfectly still and try not to make the meowing sounds that were the only sounds the caretakers seemed to understand.
“Sometimes I swear you didn't get rid of those cats, Lieutenant,” were the noises the Chief would make.
“They've been dealt with, sir, I promise,” were the noises Lieutenant Kell would make.
Then the chief would leave, and Mama and Fluff could come out.
There was also Lieutenant Frost, a female Caretaker, who gave Mama and Fluff the tuna and sometimes a meat they called ham. But it was Lieutenant Kell who had found Mama in the big metal cave full of metal boxes before Fluff was born, who gave Mama a place to have Fluff and gave them food and pettings. Lieutenant Kell was Fluff's favorite.
Fluff also liked the clear box full of water and shiny swimming things, but he wasn't sure about the strange walls that showed only blackness and tiny little lights that seemed so far away and cold. It scared Fluff, he didn't know why.
Except for Chief and the clear walls of black and little lights, Fluff loved where they lived; with all the things to play with and explore, even if Mama did say there was a much more interesting world out there. A world full of things that flew, things that ran, grass and sky, and such wonderful smells. Mama missed that world. She wanted to go back there. She said this world didn't feel right, and it most definitely didn't smell right.
The smells are getting worse, Mama said. Fluff didn't know what she was talking about. Home smelled fine to him, even if the unpleasant smell was getting stronger. Mama said the smell was like death, which was a bad thing. Death meant being gone forever.
Except the smell had always been there, and since no one was gone, Fluff didn't think it was anything dangerous.
Fluff was sleeping on the big, soft thing Lieutenant Kell called a bed when the shrieking started. He woke with a start to a world gone dark before a red light began flashing. Fluff scrambled off the bed then under it to where Mama was already hiding.
I don't know this sound, she said, which was wrong. Mama knew everything.
The big moving wall of Home slid open and Lieutenant Kell ran in.
“Frost, I don't know what's happening. Chief just said to gear up and get armed,” Lieutenant Kell noised even though there was no one to noise to. He often made noises to the other Caretakers even when the other Caretakers weren't in the room. He put new, heavier fur over the removeable fur only Caretakers wore, including one over his head with a clear window on the front. After putting the strange black stick-thing over his shoulder, he turned to where Mama and Fluff were hiding and crouched down so that he could see them.
“Not that I need to tell you this, but you two stay here. You'll be safe,” he noised.
Then he left.
The shrieking continued. The flashing red continued. There were noises, Caretaker noises only louder, full of terror and panic. There were other noises, too. Noises Fluff didn't like. Low, grunting, wet, like voices full of water. Sometimes, though, they were loud, like the noises Mama made whenever Lieutenant Kell accidentally stepped on her tail, but louder. So much louder. So deep and angry, like the noise of something alpha.
It is like death, Mama said.
Mama was right. The unpleasant smell was stronger, and other unpleasant smells had become a part of it, smells that Mama said were worse than death.
Stay close, Mama said. Whatever happens, stay close.
Caretakers shouted. Other caretakers screamed. There was roaring, then grunting.
The shrieking stopped. For a moment the only sound was Mama's breathing and Fluff's racing heart.
Something scratched at the door. Mama hissed, her fur going straight.
The scratching stopped. Mama's hissing could always make bad things stop.
A loud, heavy clang seemed to shake the very room, and the middle of the moving wall bulged in.
Get behind me! Mama said. Fluff did. Another clang, harder than the last, and a new part of the wall bulged in. A third clang, another bulge.
It stopped when a Caretaker shouted angry, frightened noises. The thing at the door made a noise that was full of fury. The anger turned to pain when the patter-pat sound followed, the sound that always made the angry things scream. The Caretaker yelled as if defying the angry thing.
Then the Caretaker screamed, too. It was such a terrible scream, ending on something wet.
The Caretaker had sounded so much like Lieutenant Kell.
Silence followed, and Fluff wished it was the nice silence like when it was time to sleep, and her, Mama and Lieutenant Kell were warm and safe in the bed. But it wasn't that kind of silence. It was a silence that hurt, worse than waiting in the box for Chief to leave. Worse than hairballs and tails getting stepped on.
Maybe even worse than death.
Fluff didn't know how long they waited. Forever, he was sure, or at least until dinner time. He was hungry and wanted food, but Mama didn't want him going out from under the bed.
A voice like a female Caretaker made noises.
“Self-destruct in ten minutes. All personnel are to evacuate. Self-destruct in ten minutes.”
The big door opened as far as the bulging parts would let it. Mama growled, even though nothing came in.
We have to go somewhere else, she said. Stay close. Don't wander. Run when I say run.
Mama went first, moving as she often did when hunting the rolling toys. She crept to the door, creeping slower when she got to the open part, and peered out. Fluff followed close behind her.
They slowly, carefully, stepped out into a room even bigger and longer than their room. Weird, wet, sticky stuff like what came out of Lieutenant Kell whenever Fluff accidentally scratched him stuck to Fluff's paws. The smell was terrible, making him want to vomit hair and food. There were Caretakers on the floor, covered in the red sticky stuff.
There was a thing that wasn't a Caretaker. Mama didn't know what it was. It had red stuff like the Caretakers, but it's skin was hairless and gray, covered in bumps and ridges, and its mouth large enough to bite a Caretaker's head. That mouth was full of more teeth than Fluff had, and they looked sharper.
Mama hurried past it. So did Fluff. Then Mama slowed when they passed a Caretaker.
It was Lieutenant Kell. Mama licked his nose like she did when she wanted him to wake up, except he was awake, his eyes were open.
He is not, Mama said. He is gone.
But he is there, Fluff said.
He is gone. This is death. We need to stay away from death. We need to hide.
Mama hurried away. Fluff followed, looking at Lieutenant Kell who didn't move, asleep and awake and gone. There was more death, more awake and gone, and things that were not Caretakers.
They hurried down the long room with its red sticky floors. They went past rooms that were open, rooms just like their room had been, with few places to hide.
“Self-destruct in five minutes,” the female Caretaker noised.
Something grunted further up the long room. Mama hurried into a small room, beneath the bed, and Fluff followed. They huddled in the corner out of sigh, as something large and not a Caretaker lumbered past, slow and heavy. Only when its sounds were gone did they continue.
The long room went on and on.
“Self-destruct in three minutes,” the female voice noised.
Something grunted behind them. Fluff turned, arched his back, and hissed.
Something large and not a Caretaker lumbered in the dark, with enough light for Fluff to see its claws, teeth, and red wetness all over it.
Run! Mama said.
Fluff and Mama ran. The thing made its loud, terrible noises and bounded after them. Mama and Fluff were fast, but the big thing's longer limbs were letting it catch up. Mama took them into a room smaller than the other rooms, with a large clear wall showing more of the blackness. Fluff hid beneath the soft things like beds that Caretakers sat on. Mama stood at the room's opening, arched and hissing. When the thing was about to go through the opening, she swiped at it. It reared back, only to swipe at her.
The thing's swipe was stronger. Mama flew. She hit one of the soft things and didn't get up.
“Self-destruct in one minute. Unregistered life form in escape pod four. Initiating removal.”
A blast of white smoke burst from overhead into the things' face. It made its pained noises and reared back. When it did, the moving wall slid shut.
“Self-destruct in fifty seconds. Registered lifeforms detected in escape pod four. Ejecting escape pod four.”
There came a sound like a hiss. Fluff hissed back even though the source of the sound was nowhere to be seen. The room shuddered, then stopped.
There followed silence.
Mama, Fluff said. He hurried over to where Mama had fallen and jumped onto the seat. Mama lay there as if sleeping, her eyes closed, with red on her side staining her white fur.
Mama, Fluff said. He curled up beside Mama, feeling her breathe and knowing she wasn't gone. Outside, the pinpricks of white within the black moved as if tumbling. Fluff saw a long, large box-thing, sometimes, moving farther and farther away.
There was a flash of light so bright Fluff had to turn his head away. When he was able to open his eyes, the box thing was gone.
Fluff remembered waking up to the sound of the moving wall sliding open, then to things in strange skins different from what Lieutenant Kell had been wearing the day he was gone. Fluff arched and hissed. He wouldn't let them near Mama.
“It's okay, little guy,” the thing noised in a gentle Caretaker voice. The thing picked up Fluff. Fluff called for Mama, but Mama hadn't woken up. Another thing carefully picked up Mama, then followed the first thing.
“You think they got the cats in, went back for some reason and didn't make it?” the thing noised.
“Could have been the cats found their way to the pod. Those things will automatically launch the last few seconds of countdown if a known life form is detected. In case someone passes out before they're able to launch.”
The things brought Fluff to a big white room, where the things passed strange, blinking boxes over Fluff, and stuck Fluff with sharp stuff.
“They're both normal, healthy cats,” A thing noised. “Well, this one is. The mama's banged up. Doc says there's nerve damage to her leg. It may have to be removed.”
Then the things removed their shiny white skins, revealing Caretakers. They brought Fluff to another room that smelled of good things, where they gave him tuna and talked to him like Lieutenant Kell would talk to him. They put him on a soft bed, and though he wanted Mama, he was so tired he slept.
The Caretakers brought Fluff to the world Mama had told him about, with blue skies and grass, and wonderful smells. Mama only had three legs, now, but she was not gone, and that was all that mattered.
They had a new Caretaker, a much smaller female than Lieutenant Frost. She called Fluff Snowball, and Mama Winter, and she gave them toys, and soft places to sleep, and lots of pettings. It was wonderful.
Fluff watched from the big soft sitting thing as the male Caretaker did the things he did when he went away for a long time, talking with the tall female Caretaker the little Caretaker called mommy.
“Rick kept saying he wanted to quit,” the Male Caretaker noised as he stuffed remove-able fur into a box. “He kept saying weird things were happening on that ship. He should have quit.”
“Honey,” the female Caretaker noised. “Please be careful.”
“I will. Maybe I'll find another pod full of cats.”
The male caretaker left.
Fluff closed his eyes to sleep. He had never liked the one they called Rick, the Caretaker who came and went, and who the little Caretaker called uncle. Mama hadn't liked him, either.
He had smelled too much like death.