Cat’s Claw was written for the Wil Wheaton/John Scalzi Fan Fiction Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance of America and is based on this picture.
“I have an easy one for you this time.”
Wil groaned. “Easy” was the chief’s way of saying “dull as dirt.”
“You know you have to log some hours in the next couple of days,” the chief reminded him, “and Seria 6 is what we’ve got.”
“Seria 6? Sounds like a health-food breakfast.”
“Matrico has rights on the whole sector, and analysis shows that Seria 6 has fantastic mineral content. It even has a breathable atmosphere, visible light with tolerable radiation levels, and .87 Earth gravity. Unfortunately, it’s inhabited.”
Well, obviously, Wil thought, or there would be no need for me. “Civilization?”
“Medieval. No mechanical power and no firearms. Political power mostly belongs to whoever convinces the others he’ll protect them from the wrath of the gods and their next-door neighbors. We got a scouts’ report that sketches out some of their myth-memes; we have plenty to work with. They have cat-like predators which they view as some kind of devils’ pet, and they have a superstition about one-horned creatures — they don’t eat them, they think they’re blessed or something, and anyone who harms one is supposed to be cursed.”
“What do they look like?”
“Typical humanoid, except that there’s no flora/fauna differentiation on Seria 6. They’re green buggers, but they eat meat when they can catch it. The rest of the time they sleep buried in the dirt with just their heads sticking out so they can absorb raw materials from the ground, then they bask in the sun during the daytime and try not to piss on each other.”
“And our objective is...”
“The usual: scare the shit out of them without making their social system collapse to the point where Matrico can’t use them productively.” Handing Wil a binder, the chief added, “Check out the mission brief, and report to the launch bay in one hour. Oh, and wear something red. They’re afraid of red.”
Reading the report, Wil realized this would be the worst kind of boring: boring, but easy to screw up. The stakes were more than just being able to use the inhabitants for cheap labor. The balance could easily tip to where either the natives would have to be eradicated, or they would attempt to initiate diplomatic relations with Matrico’s representatives. Either of those, if discovered, would lead to such a bureaucratic nightmare that the company could wind up losing money on the project. They had to believe God Himself came down. You don’t argue with God... and you don’t ask to meet with His political superiors, either.
The plan was fairly simple. The surveillance team was tracking the leader of the largest faction of natives, a sort of half warlord, half father figure who apparently commanded the loyalty of some 47% of the world’s population. If he could be tamed, the odds of getting the entire planet under control without a lot of fuss were quite good.
Weapons had programmed a standard CGI-projection-equipped hovercraft to appear as a flying monster chosen to trigger various known myth-memes that should make it both fearsome and authoritative to the inhabitants. A self-powered, navigable pod carrying the craft, and Wil, would drop into low orbit, hiding in front of the sun so it wouldn’t be easily visible from the planet. Wil would ride the “monster” without a visible enclosure, so he could use a comprehensible weapon — a huge spear — to intimidate without being too confusing. It was odd to think that a shuttle and a laser gun would appear so alien to the natives that they probably would have no idea what they saw; but a flying monster appearing from nowhere, ridden bareback by a man wielding a 13-foot spear would make just enough sense to get the point across. Ho-hum, Wil thought... been there, done that... but it’s still always a pain in the ass.
Wil walked into the launch bay and couldn’t stop laughing. “It looks like an 800-pound kitten that’s been drinking too much coffee! And the gold horn... that’s a nice touch. They won’t know if I’ve come to enslave their nations or shag their elephants.”
“They don’t have elephants,” remarked the weapons-master on duty. “Scoff if you will, but the meme-reader boys say this’ll scare the daylights out of the nats. Not that you’re in any position to laugh. What the hell are you wearing, anyway? You look like you fell off the Jack-in-the-Box float at a gay pride parade.”
“Oh,” Wil said, “Chief told me to wear something red. I didn’t give it much thought. I just want to get this over with.”
“Well, it’s all yours. The pod’s already programmed, so you’ve got nothing to do but admire your own sweet butt until it’s time to swoop down and terrorize the nats.”
“How did I ever get into this?”
“Wil, my boy, you’re an actor with three films in a row that grossed less that two trillion each, and your merchandise on the last one never broke fifty billion. And,” the weapons-master smiled mischievously, “Chief likes you.”
“That was a rhetorical question. And how come you know so much about my grosses? Anyway, Desert Dudes Don’t was not my fault... Oh, just help me into this damn thing!”
According to the brief, as closely as it could be rendered in English, the alpha-male who was to be the target of this feline freak-out was named John. Wil spent the descent reading what was known about native myth-memes. They had most of the usual superstitions and self-comforting religious beliefs. Their reverence for one-horned creatures was somehow related to their creation stories; it was unclear whether there was a phallic element in that. They didn’t appear to be a particularly sensual species, but Wil figured that was probably a foregone conclusion when you spend most of your nights buried up to your neck in your back yard.
The pod had been parked in position for less than half an hour when surveillance called with great news. John was performing some kind of ritual wherein he climbed halfway up the side of a sacred volcano, alone, in full battle gear and camped out on a plateau. Thousands of his followers were keeping vigil, watching the mountain. This couldn’t be more perfect. “Heads up, John,” Wil thought, “Here comes Überpussy!”
He expected John to panic and cringe by the third pass, but this guy was amazing. By the sixth pass, Wil was developing a grudging respect for the chunky green fellow... and he began to wonder how he was going to make this work. The transparent shield around his hovercraft assured that nothing John did could hurt him, but it also meant he couldn’t even hurl the spear, such as it was — he had only a two-foot wooden dowel that allowed him to control the image of a 13-foot spear. Of course, he didn’t want to kill John, or even seriously injure him, which would be entirely counterproductive; but he had come unprepared for any sort of actual battle, and now it was starting to look like fear alone would never make this one back down.
The message from surveillance warning of “seismic activity” reached Wil’s ear about the same time a befuddled interrogative curse left his mouth. And then the mountain exploded. From inside the shield, Wil watched as fire rained from the sky, and John remained resolute and implacable... even as a molten rock flew directly through his chest.
Back on the ship, Wil was not amused. “‘I’ve got an easy one for you,’ you said. ‘Just have to scare the shit out of them,’ you said.”
“Wil, I’ll do everything I can to make it clear that this was not your fault,” the chief assured him. “You won’t take the fall for this.”
“Right, and who do you suppose will? Would that be you? No? I didn’t think so,” Wil said. “I’m the one who’s screwed, and you know it.”
Wil was thinking about how everything had gone right, and then wrong, and all of it played out like a bad Hollywood script. “John,” he mused, “Big, bad, burly, bastard John! How did they fake a whole back-story?”
“Oh, John was real,” the chief told him, “there’s no doubt about that. He just wasn’t really on the mountain.”
“So he must have one hell of a rep now.”
“No; it didn’t go down that way,” the chief said. “Some of the nats found out he wasn’t up there on the sacred mountain when he was supposed to be, and his own followers killed him... Wil, Galacorp had no right to be on that planet. Matrico will sue them for trespassing.”
“Give me a break, Chief! We know it was Galacorp, but we can’t prove it, you know it, and they know it. What matters is that they set us up, and did a damn fine job of it. They got there first, set up their own CGI equipment, and recording equipment, and a broadcast relay station, and now this whole side of the galaxy knows that we tried to manipulate an autonomous culture using trigger-meme information and technology a dozen generations beyond theirs. Do you know how many pan-galactic regulations we’ve — I’ve — broken? I don’t either, but I know I’m going to find out, because those sons of bitches at Galacorp are going to make sure I get charged with every one of them.”
“Well, Wil, since you see it that way...” the chief began.
“The worst of it,” Wil interrupted, “isn’t even the charges. I’ll be humiliated. I am humiliated! If I’d known my image was going out to half a trillion people on 87 worlds, at least I would have changed out of my... sissy shorts!”
The chief started again, “Wil, we’re thinking that as you yourself feel...”
“What I still don’t get — what I really don’t get — is how this got past all the scout brains and all the surveillance brains. How come nobody saw this coming?”
“Wil,” the chief said, “Since you admit that you’re bound to be charged over this... unfortunate mistake... no matter what the company does; and since your personal liability is limited under the pan-galactic convention on loyal employee initiatives... Wil, we can offer you a generous compensation — unreported, of course — in return for your signature on this declaration of personal initiative.”
The chief handed Wil a document that was simple, precise and devastating. He would never work again if he signed it. Then again, if the compensation were generous enough, perhaps he wouldn’t need to. It took him a moment to realize what had happened.
“You son of a bitch! You set me up. Matrico was about to be caught for one of our earlier projects... maybe Corona 7 or Manuantíguita... and you figured out how to corner me into being the general-purpose fall guy for every time you’ve bent the rules during the two years I’ve been on this ship! Now I don’t know whether to think Galacorp had anything to do with this...”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” the chief said.
“No,” Wil agreed, “I guess not. When you see an 800-pound kitten with pterodactyl wings and a gold horn on its forehead drop out of the sky and fly straight at you, it doesn’t matter much if it’s real or not... either way, you’re still pretty well screwed.”