Chapter 1: Shoreleave
"I get to go see CATS, I get to go see CATS," sang Ensign Arianya Jessel as she skipped down the sidewalk, red hair flying. Barely five feet tall, with large green eyes, only Jessel's dark green security uniform corrected the impression that she should be subject to the long-past local curfew for minors.
"Would you please stop that," begged her companion, Ensign Cameron Mickelvy, frowning and red-faced from embarrassment. Jessel and Mickelvy had trained together and were often mistaken for sister and brother because of the likeness of their bright green eyes. His height and sandy hair, when compared to her appearance, should have marked them as coming from separate families but their constant companionship added credence to the illusion that they were siblings. "You look like you're twelve years old when you do that. Security officers should look more dignified, at least this security officer would like to look more dignified."
Jessel glanced sideways at him, squinting as the window next to her reflected the light of the setting sun into her eyes. "I can't help it," she grinned. "Do you know how long I have wanted to see CATS live? I love Andrew Lloyd Webber's work. I've gotten to see some of his other musicals but CATS just isn't done anymore."
"So how do you know you even want to see it?" Mickelvy dodged a colonist hurrying in the other direction.
"One of my dance instructors actually had a couple of clips from the video they made of CATS a century ago. He thought they were awful compared to a live performance." Jessel grimaced, then grinned at her friend, pushing a stray curl behind an ear. "Well, if that's awful I have got to see it live!"
Mickelvy sighed, rolling his eyes. "Ari, listen to me," he began patiently, gesturing at the prim and proper houses and businesses that lined the street. "We are in port at Zion, the colony world founded by the religious right. We are going to a rinky-dink little theater that isn't even in a theater district because the population of this planet disapproves of theater in general -- " he smiled and nodded at a frowning matron as she passed them, stepping wide around the two off-worlders. "-- and the performances can only be held on Friday and Saturday because CATS is considered too risqué to be held during the work week on this planet. It's not going to be that good."
Jessel stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and faced him, eyes narrow. "You are raining on my parade," she said in a dangerous tone of voice.
"All right, fine," he said, exasperated. "If you want to get your hopes up, fine. But would you at least calm down? Someone from the Starbright is going to see us and think we're on a date, and then we will be the talk of the ship's grapevine all the way to Mars." He shuddered in a comic display of distaste.
"All right, I'll calm down," Jessel sighed, continuing down the sidewalk Quietly, she added, "I get to go see CATS, I get to go see CATS!"
Munkustrap hated staying at the theater. The bare, windowless room the Jellicles were confined to on their performance days was so cramped and stuffy that, between shows, the Jellicles mostly just tried to sleep. Even that was hard. There was no furniture in the room, only the costume rack and table, and the thin matting that covered the floor provided even less comfort than their bunks at home. The single bare bulb was never turned off and gave more than enough light for him to see the troupe spread across the floor, covering every open space. There were even Jellicles sleeping on the floors of the two water closets in the back of the room.
The tall dancer was sitting in the corner, propped up against the wall, and his mate, Demeter, lay with her head pillowed in his lap. He gently combed his fingers through her mottled black-and-gold hair, tracing the different shades of her pattern as they blended into a spectrum of the color rust. Lightly, he stroked her ears, his silver fur blending into hers. She had only just returned to her part after recovering from her pregnancy. Her grief over the loss of her two kittens would take longer to heal. Their human captors did not allow any kittens to remain with their mothers after the kittens' eyes opened, but the dance instructor had at least assured them that the kittens still lived. The Jellicles didn't produce many kittens, though none of them knew why, so every kitten born was especially precious to them.
Munkustrap closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall, trying to suppress his anger over the distress caused his mate. His collar hung heavy against his neck, as it always did when his thoughts turned to fury over the Jellicles' situation. Deliberately, he began to rehearse his lines in his head, trying to drive away the thoughts that would only land him in trouble. Any hint of disobedience or rebellion would cause the dance instructor or one of their other human captors to use the controllers they all carried, setting off his collar and sending a charge through his body like lightning through his blood. Every time that happened he wondered if it would be the last time.
He could never forget that the collars could kill.
He had seen it happen only once, many years before, but that had been enough. The troupe's second Mistoffelees had escaped the cages temporarily and been brought back a bloody mess. The mud caked in his fur was evidence that he had managed to escape the building. He'd been thrown in front of the Jellicles, bloodied; the blood should have warned them as they were rarely struck. Breathing shallowly with pain, the black and white tom had tried to sit up, clutching at his ribs. Then he had screamed and grabbed at his collar. Munkustrap remembered it being a long scream. The body had been left in their sleeping room all that long night.
Munkustrap gasped and opened his eyes. The memory had been so strong...that he realized he must have nodded off. Demeter raised her head, a question in her beautiful copper eyes, and he patted her shoulder to reassure her. He would have told her it was just a dream but no unnecessary talking was ever allowed while they were at the theater. In their own quarters that rule relaxed somewhat, but never at the theater.
The lock clicked, startling them, and the door opened to admit the dance instructor's blond head. "Time to get dressed," she said, looking over the Jellicles sourly before closing the door.
Everyone rose and took their costumes from the rack. Most of the costumes consisted of shorts or a limbless leotard painted to match the actor's fur. Munkustrap felt sorry for those few who had to wear larger costumes, for dancing was hot work. Still, he looked forward to their performances; most of them did. The applause of the crowd did much to bolster their spirits and restore their pride.
As he looked around the room, the Jellicles clowned for each other to get in the mood for the performance. Tails ceased to droop and smiles began to appear as they assisted each other with stretching exercises or getting their fur combed in place. Then the door opened again and it was time to go on stage.
The gilt paint had faded on the carvings in the walls and on the ceiling, and the red velvet on the chairs was dusty, but showed a surprising lack of wear. Mickelvy was startled to note a rather large number of Zionites in the audience, quietly making their way to their seats. He'd expected the audience to be made up of mostly off-worlders, but the stark and somber clothing of the colony world clearly identified the locals among the crowd.
He was studying the junk on the stage when Jessel arrived, souvenir program in hand. She was frowning at it, flipping back and forth through the pages and shaking her head thoughtfully.
"So are you going backstage after the performance?" asked Mickelvy with a grin.
"No. Apparently they don't let anyone backstage," replied Jessel settling in the chair next to him, studying the cover of the program intently. The auditorium lights blinked a warning and latecomers hurried to their seats.
"You keep staring at that program as if it's going to bite you."
"For the price I paid for it I'll stare at it if I want to. Something's wrong here," she shook her head, "something I ought to remember." She opened the program again and started to flip the pages back and forth, as if looking for something.
"Like maybe you've been here before and just forgot," he teased.
"No, the Unicorn was only in port here once when I was a kid and would you believe it? I was grounded." She frowned again and studied a picture of a cat in a pirate costume, holding the program so close to her face Mickelvy felt his eyes crossing just watching.
He tried again. "Grounded, I believe. Didn't stow away aboard a landing module, I don't."
"Not when you're the Captain's daughter you don't. Besides, why do you think I was grounded?" asked Jessel impishly, finally looking up at him, just as the lights in the auditorium went dark.
"Shh, it's starting," she whispered as the first cat crept on stage.
Jessel quickly found herself carried away by the performance and the performers. The lights dazzled her and the music seemed to invade her soul as she listened to each perfectly sung word. The dancers possessed a grace that she knew from experience could not be acquired through any amount of practice but had to be inborn. One performer in particular caught her eye and she found herself having trouble following the movements of the other dancers because her eyes would not leave the black and white cat called Mistoffelees.
Maybe that was why she noticed it. All of the cats were sitting or lying perfectly still listening to Old Deuteronomy sing the Moments of Happiness when a fly buzzed the stage. If Jessel had been sitting any further back in the audience she wouldn't have been able to see it. As it was, she could just see the tiny insect buzz Mistoffelees' head. But what startled her, what absolutely floored her, was that his ear twitched in response. In shock, she glanced around at her fellow theater goers. No one else appeared to have noticed.
"Cam?" she whispered urgently, "did you see that?"
"That cat's ear twitched," she said eagerly, pointing towards Mistoffelees.
Cam looked at her out of the corner of his eye, "Wigs generally don't twitch. I think you're getting a little too caught up in the illusion."
"It did twitch," she growled in a whisper. "And I know wigs don't twitch. I wanted to be an actress for an awfully long time. I did learn something about the theater along with my dance classes."
"Shhh," hissed a colony matron from behind them.
Cam put his mouth down by her ear. "Just be quiet and watch the show, we'll talk about it later."
Jessel knew what that talk would consist of too; Cam trying to talk her into believing she'd imagined it. More than ever she wanted to get backstage. Something wasn't right with this show and she desperately wanted to know what it was.
Ensign Ariyana Jessel sat at the net terminal in her hotel room. She'd returned directly there as soon as the performance had ended, rushing so quickly from the theater she'd almost left her companion behind completely. Mickelvy had questioned her hurry but she'd fobbed him off with the excuse that she didn't feel well. She was certain he'd recognized the lie, and equally certain that he would respect her need to be alone. She didn't want to drag her friend into a situation that might easily call for bending the rules, which was something that she did frequently and Cam tried to avoid at all costs.
Not that Jessel got in trouble for bending the rules very often. She'd been raised on space regulations and knew exactly how far she could push. Somehow tonight felt different though. Something was wrong at that theater, very wrong, but without evidence she couldn't ask Lt. Sentry to investigate her hunch. So far all she had was a stage bill listing the names of long ago actors, that she had finally recognized from century old recordings, and her own testimony that she'd seen one of the actor's ears twitch. A wig wouldn't twitch, she was certain of that, but she couldn't explain what she'd seen either. She couldn't check what she'd seen without getting backstage. She could check on the actors' names through the city database though. It hadn't taken long to enter the names and find only 5 matches out of thirty-two entries. Another few minutes had proven that not one of those matches could be the actors under the makeup. Two were the wrong sex, two were definitely the wrong age, and the fifth pulled up a picture of very, very fat man who certainly would never look good in spandex.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, Jessel decided to try another tactic. She checked the stage bill's management listing to see who was in charge of casting and immediately did a double take. The name Amanda Ferran appeared not only as the Casting Director, but also as the Dance Supervisor, and Stage Manager. All right, it was a small company. One person might wear three hats. Jessel quickly looked up the name Amanda Ferran. A quick check of the ownership records for her home address showed it to be a medical research facility owned by a Dr. Edmund Ferran, who was also listed in Amanda Ferran's personal file as her father. Nothing too suspicious there, Jessel told herself, willing the wrenching feeling in her guts to go away. It was perfectly plausible that a 46 year old woman would be living in a medical complex with her father. No, it wasn't, argued every instinct Jessel possessed. Nothing about what she'd found so far matched anything Jessel knew about the theater, and the medical reference soured her feelings even further.
Jessel quickly copied her findings into a message for Cam and sent it to him labeled "Do not open until morning." Her unimaginative friend would undoubtedly have no clue what he was looking at, but if she disappeared he'd ask questions until he did. And he'd do it by the book, which meant Lt. Sentry and the rest of ship's security would get involved.
She switched off the terminal and changed the bright-buckled formal jacket of her security uniform for the dark-buckled one most security officers kept when they didn't want to be a target.
Jessel cautiously slipped through the theater window. It had taken her some time to find a window that was unlocked but picking any of the locks would have constituted breaking and entering, a charge she definitely couldn't afford. The window had been on an upper floor and now she found herself picking her way through a messy storeroom, hoping the door would also be unlocked. Dust flew up as she crossed the room. She listened carefully by the door before opening it, well aware that her ears would probably alert her to the presence of other people long before her eyes would. No sound came from the hallway and she risked trying the knob. The door creaked slightly as she peeked into a dark corridor, illuminated only by the streetlights and Zion's two small moons shining through a window over the stairwell at the end of the hall. The hall was considerably less dusty than the storeroom, though, it still could have used a good cleaning. And the stairs looked old but they didn't creak when Jessel began to creep down them, for which she silently gave thanks.
No one appeared to be around on the main floor but Jessel could hear voices emanating from the next stairwell down. Jessel carefully crossed the landing to determine where the voices came from on the lower floor and if it would be safe for her to descend. The small security officer stayed close to the wall, out of sight of anyone looking up, making very little noise, despite her boots. The muffled voices didn't seem too close to the stairwell and she peeked around the corner. A bulb shone at the foot of the stairway, casting far too much illumination for Jessel's ease. She'd be seen too easily if she descended the stairs, but a bit of conversation from below convinced her that that was where she had to go. The only recognizable word she heard was, "cats," but the nastiness in the speaker's voice immediately triggered every protective instinct the small security officer owned.
Reaching out to the light switch on her left, Jessel took the chance of flicking it off, then drew back her hand quickly to wait and see if someone would investigate. No one did. Jessel mentally counted to thirty and then began to creep down the staircase.
"Mickelvy, get up," hissed Jessel in a low voice, turning on the hotel room light.
Instantly awake at the sound of his name, Cameron Mickelvy rolled to face his comrade in arms, blinking in the light.
"I need your communicator," she said, grabbing it off of the nightstand. "I figured out what was wrong with the program."
"Where's yours?" he demanded, his eyes widening as her appearance registered. The collar of her dark buckled uniform jacket was buttoned all the way up, covering the light colored blouse underneath andsmudges of dust covered her normally fair complexion. He frowned. "Wait, you've done more than that, haven't you?"
"Just listen to me will you?" she asked in exasperation. "The names of the actors in the program are all names of actors from early performances of CATS. They're all names from the musical recordings I have," she added, her voice rising with excitement.
"Fascinating. What did you do?" he demanded, refusing to be distracted. He pulled the sheets back on the bed and sat up, scrubbing his face with his hands, then reached for his pants. They might be good friends, but he was a man who preferred to face trouble with his pants on.
"I snuck backstage." Jessel didn't look at him, trying to get a channel through to the Starbright.
Mickelvy grimaced. "Ari, security officers? Remember? We are supposed to be security officers. If you get caught doing something like that you'll lose your post." He buckled his belt, then sighed, sitting on the bed again.
"That's why I didn't invite you. Are you going to turn me in?" Jessel tossed a stray curl out of her eyes and turned to face him, pressing the 'hold' button on the communicator.
"No." He grimaced.
"Good, because we have to return to the ship immediately." She paused, then went to her knees in front of him to meet his eyes. "Cam, listen to me. The performers we saw last night are prisoners." Her eyes were completely serious, her voice, pleading. "You should have seen the way they were loaded on the transport that took them away."
He stared at her in disbelief. "Then tell the local authorities."
"Think about it, Cam!" Jessel stood up and paced from the bed to the door and back, stopping to meet his eyes again. "Whoever is keeping these people prisoner has also had them performing in public for the last 17 years. Don't you think they could get the actors to convince the local authorities that there's nothing wrong?" He frowned and she continued, very serious now, "I picked up some evidence while I was backstage. I have to get it back to the ship and get it analyzed."
"There's no transport until morning," he reminded her, trying not to be convinced.
"There will be." Jessel grinned; she had him. "I play with the worst poker players in the known galaxy. I'll call Ensign James and offer to surrender his markers. He can make something up so he can come get us."
Chapter 2: A Change In Circumstance
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