The two men fighting atop a cliff were at once alike and contrasting. Both had red hair and fair skin, and wore identical khaki uniforms criss-crossed with leather straps, now all tarnished with dust. But while one stood huge and muscular, with a face that seemed carved in stone, the other was lanky, and his big round glasses threatened to slip off at all times.
He was hardly helpless, however. As the giant's fist swung at him, he blocked, while his free hand went for the sidearm. But he was too slow. By the time he managed to draw, his oponent's left hand grabbed his wrist, and they struggled for a moment. Then the larger fighter reached for his own revolver. That would have been the end, but for a desperate wrestling throw which failed... except both guns went flying, one into some bushes, the other clattering into the ravine. The smaller man found himself on the ground, trying to back away from the unequal confrontation.
"Why are you doing this?!"
"For the people!" bellowed the giant, obviously delighted at this turn of events. "For freedom!"
"You're a Bergerist!?"
"So that's what you call us now? Wanting to restore the original Republic is a matter of mockery?"
"You fool! There is no original..."
"Oh, shut up," barked the giant, and rushed him. That was it. Except...
A small projectile hit him in the chest and exploded into a cloud of very fine hairs. He missed the next step and tumbled after his weapon.
The soldier straightened his glasses with a trembling hand and looked around for the shooter. What he saw made him pat his head in search of a concussion.
It was a cat, a large Maine Coon, except standing upright and wearing the greatcoat and cap of a steamship commander. He held a brass rifle, almost as long as he was tall, covered in springs, levers and knobs.
"Are you all rrright, young man?" he asked, in a surprisingly human voice.
In all honesty, the young man had been expecting something out of the ordinary to happen for a while now. There had been lights in the sky, strange radio signals and, as several astronomers had confirmed, a giant asteroid hurtling through space towards the planet. But a talking cat would not have been his first guess... or the last.
He jumped to his feet, cheeks red, brushing ineffectively at his own dusty uniform.
"Y-yes, sir. Absolutely fine, sir... er..."
"Name's LeChat," the feline informed him, "Capitaine Claude LeChat. And you are?"
"Corporal Gilles Renard, Republican Signal Service." He prayed that the officer wouldn't ask about his motorcycle, which now lay mangled at the bottom of the ravine, where the traitor had sent it.
"At ease, Corporal. I'm not your commanding officer."
LeChat proceeded to stuff the rifle inside his greatcoat. It vanished without making as much as a bulge. Gilles must have been staring, because the cat tilted his head at him.
"Do you need a ride, by any chance? I'm headed northwest."
"Towards the Grand Crater, sir?"
"The wh... Oh, right. That way, yes."
He dropped on all fours and walked away. The young corporal followed mechanically, still struggling to get a grip on the recent events.
The dirt road meandered endlessly among rocks and pine trees, going generally downwards. It made sense; they must have been on the other side of the mountain by now, though it was hard to say without the odometer. Gilles' watch had broken in the fight as well, and the sun was more or less overhead. LeChat traveled in a very feline manner, sneaking through tall grasses and sticking his nose in every crevice along the way. That greatcoat must have been very cleverly tailored to enable his movements.
"I must apologize for the way we met, sir," said the soldier after a while, pondering the best way to ask the obvious question. "See, we're in the middle of a civil war. Hardly a good time to receive visitors from the stars."
"It's that obvious, then, Corporal?"
"It was either that or a very weird dream, Captain, and the pain in my ribs is all too real unfortunately."
LeChat chuckled. "You're taking it well. Perhaps I could ask for your assistance in a small matter?"
"If it is in my power, sir." Gilles answered carefully. "You did just save my life after all."
"Right. Well, last time I checked there was an infantry regiment marching towards our landing spot. Uniforms like yours. Do you suppose..."
"That must be the 6th! I'm carrying orders for them..." He suddenly clamped his mouth shut and checked an envelope in his belt pouch.
"It's a good thing I parked my ride nearby, then." The cat went down a narrow forest path, human in tow.
The ride in question turned out to be a tiny airship, floating serenely at anchor in the middle of a clearing. The nacelle looked like a child's concept of a flying fish, complete with oversized flippers, except it was painted yellow and had a propeller for a tail. Gilles examined it doubtfully while LeChat pressed a brass button on his sleeve and a rope ladder unfolded from the top side of the vessel.
"Were you expecting something more high-tech, Monsieur Renard? A flying saucer, maybe?"
"Honestly, yes. After all, you do come from outer space. Wait, what's a flying saucer?"
"A stupid idea. Don't chase shiny toys for the sake of it, Corporal. This is the right tool for the job."
He clambered up the rope ladder at a speed Gilles couldn't hope to match. Obviously he didn't want to give the human a chance to hijack the vehicle. The latter considered doing just that for a moment, then changed his mind. He still had an arm covered in scars from the last meeting with his cat; LeChat was four times heavier, and sapient in addition to that.
The interior of the vehicle resembled a cross between the cab of a locomotive and what he imagined the interior of a submarine to be like. The hatch in the ceiling was airtight, in any event, and a heavy bulkhead door led further into the bowels of the ship. Gilles had little time to ponder the mystery before the floor plates started vibrating. A sudden heave made him blanch and reach for a grab bar.
And then they were off.
At the complicated control panel which sat between the bulbous eye-like viewports, LeChat busied himself turning wheels and pulling levers.
"Sorry about that. It will be a smoother flight once we're out of the mountains."
Gilles nodded absently, leaning against the frame of a viewport for a better view of the landscape beneath them. He had soon grown used to the frequent bobbing and swerving, and was now scanning the forested slopes in search for any sign of activity. The road came into view several times only to disappear again; the airship, however slow, had shortened the trip considerably.
He rushed to the opposite viewport, nearly stepping on LeChat's tail. Off to port board, the pine trees gradually made room to a gently sloping meadow. Barely visible, a stream made its way across the open space, and dark birds were circling overhead, avoiding the columns of smoke that propped up a spotless blue above.
At first it was difficult to distinguish what it was that burned. As they floated closer, however, the skeletons of several trucks became apparent among the flames. Bodies were littered among them, both human and animal, the former wearing barely recognizable khaki uniforms. Gilles could see no movement on the ground, even as LeChat reduced the engine turation to a minimum and brought the airship mere metres above the recent battlefield.
"Too bad we can't hear anything in here," mused the human.
His host promptly turned a wheel, and two of the voice pipes on the dashboard sprung to life. A whiff of smoke and death drifted in, but the only sounds that reached them were those of nature.
"We are too late," Gilles said tensely. "They have already encountered your people."
LeChat shook his head. "My people would never commit such a massacre. Not even in self-defense. Besides, look at that." The airship was very low now, passing by a horse-drawn ambulance riddled with bullet holes. "We don't use such weapons," he explained.
"Too primitive, Captain?"
"Too deadly." His ears flattened as he looked out the viewport again.
Further away, under the treeline, a few bodies in a different uniform, red longcoats and spiked helmets, were strewn around a toppled machine gun.
"Bergerists," spat Gilles. "You were right... and I was late. That's why he was trying to delay me."
"The man you were fighting earlier?"
He nodded. "Damned traitor. It was for naught, too; I would have been late in any event."
"Do you... want to go out there?"
"What for? There is nothing more we can do."
Gilles took a dried flower out of his wallet, touched it to his forehead, then cupped his hands around it in a gesture of prayer. LeChat watched in silence.
"Do you happen to have a wireless telegraph I can borrow, Captain?"
"Not on board, no. But we are minutes away by air from where we landed. My friends can set one up for you."
Gilles nodded again. "I suppose that's faster than flying all the way back. Thank you."
"The Sacred Scrolls teach that men were once like gods, able to fly among the stars and bring life to dead worlds. But they were also jealous of each other, and often argued over the best way of doing things. With time, their disagreements grew worse. Arguments turned to war, and their war grew until it threatened to upset the natural order of things. So they were struck down, and where they hit the earth a big crater formed. Such was their hatred of each other, that nothing grows there to this day. And the curse of war has been with us ever since."
Gilles sighed. "I apologize. Shouldn't be boring you with old fairy tales."
"Not at all." LeChat's voice carried a hint of purring. "That explains much, in fact."
The human grinned bitterly. "The truth behind the legend?"
"Indeed. Such as why your world shows up as a waystation on our oldest star charts... but not newer ones."
"Why did you stop by, then? Surely you must have been able to ascertain the situation."
"We did. But it was an emergency."
"That is all? An emergency stop?"
"I'm afraid so, Mr. Renard. Not very flattering for you, admittedly."
"And this world?"
"Only a colony. Why do you think most of the other continents are barren? Terraforming was never completed."
The soldier nodded. "You know, there are some crazy theories about... Wait, are we at the Grand Crater already?"
They were indeed just crossing a circular rock ridge, curving towards the horizon. But there was no crater inside. Instead, a city of gleaming spires sat surrounded by a crescent-shaped lake, or maybe a small sea, bordered by forest in turn. Countless bullet-shaped vehicles, some flying, others on rails or cables, zipped back and forth across the landscape, just far enough for details to stay hidden.
Gilles looked in amazement at the skyscrapers lounging upwards at them as the airship sailed ahead. "None of this was here last week."
"Figures. We just landed two days ago. In the, um, crater."
He nodded absently. Those crazy theories weren't so crazy after all. "Wait, landed? How do you land a city?!"
"The same way you take off with it in the first place. By magic."
"Magic? Now you're pulling my leg... Captain."
"You're talking to a cat," pointed out the cat. "But all right. What we really do is harness dark energy to alter the behavior of fundamental particles on a Planck scale via self-replicating femtoscale actuators."
The young man opened and closed his mouth a few times. Fundamental particles sounded vaguely familiar... maybe.
"See what I mean? It's easier to just call it magic."
He stared at the feline. "Are you a wizard?"
LeChat waved a paw dismissively. "I know some technomancy. Enough to keep this tin can afloat."
"Oh? Is this vessel magical in nature, then?"
"Only the power source. The rest of it functions on principles that should be familiar to you."
"I see." He turned back to the viewport just in time to see a small biplane approaching them. It made a barrel roll as it whirred past their bow. In response, the Flying Fish emitted a cheerful siren sound.
"That's a friend of mine," explained LeChat, furiously manipulating the controls. Gilles leaned forward to see better while the airship lurched in pursuit of the nimbler biplane.
"I can't see the pilot," he noted.
"He doesn't need one." deadpanned the cat.
It took him a moment to internalize the implications, and he staggered to the back of the bridge to sit on a chest.
"Something the matter, Monsieur Renard?"
"You are mocking me, Captain. Everything's the matter! You can be literally anything you want. You can make a city fly through space. Damn it, you've just told me you can bend the very laws of physics! Tell me, what form do your people take on whatever remote star gave birth to you? Would my feeble human mind even be able to cope with it?"
LeChat watched his instruments pointedly. His tail alone was flicking.
"Baseline humans," he said at length, "look the same everywhere."
Gilles didn't answer.
"It just happens," added the feline, "that space travelers such as myself are seldom baseline."
He turned to the human, unclipping a little box from his breast pocket. "Take this, you're going to need it." The soldier clipped it to his own uniform, looking shell-shocked; the cat's voice had been coming from the device all along.
It was a small airport, looking like any other Gilles had ever seen. The same could not be said about the converted hangar in which he sat, waiting for an answer to his transmission. It appeared to be a store selling what he thought were conveyances of various sorts; at least many of them had wheels, saddles and the like. The owner, too, was half flying machine, albeit of a sort the human could not identify.
He sighed and turned his attention back to the wireless telegraph he had been using. His hosts had said it was improvised on the spot, as they no longer used such crude means of communication, but it did not look improvised. Quite the contrary, in fact, judging by its compact shape with smooth, rounded surfaces. Was this, then, a glimpse of his world's own future?
"Any answer yet?"
Gilles looked to his side, where LeChat was just placing a platter on the table. He shook his head wordlessly and reached for a sandwich. It tasted like chicken.