From the author: A mad scientist must deal with the fact that his neighbor's cat is missing, and with his daughter's insistence on getting a dog.
The horrible screech caused Dr. Crawley to fumble the test tube, and a single drop flew out and hit the surface of the worktable. Tiny green flames erupted from the point of impact.
“Curses!” muttered Dr. Crawley. He put the test tube back into the rack and fished a stained handkerchief from a lab coat pocket. “What is that awful, that loudly annoying, neighbor doing?” he asked. He swatted at the hissing flames with the handkerchief. A sharp smell of – could that be vaporized beryllium and scorched ostrich feathers burning his nose hairs? No, no, impossible. “Molly – Molly, I say!”
Molly, ten years old (as the fools calculate the passage of time), looked up from her book. “What is it, Dad?”
“Go, my daughter, go to the back yard – the yard just beyond the back door – the door behind you, or behind me – go, and discover why our neighbor is making that audible stench!”
“OK.” Molly got up from the sofa. “Did you finish fixing the teddy bear?”
The doctor slapped again and again at the flame, which erupted with more violence after each attempt. “Finish? I think not – interrupted constantly, perturbed and bothered, as I am! The gas emitters are still unpredictable, the rat cortex refuses to communicate with the rabbit’s medulla oblongata, and the hair is all ruffled – see? A mess! A jumble!" The flames were spreading, and Dr. Crawley intensified his efforts to swat them out of existence. The smell was now making him cough, as well.
"If I had a real pet, like a dog, it would just heal naturally," Molly pointed out.
"Naturally, yes, sadly, but I would make the necessary improvements. But in any case, a pet, an unsupervised, unmodified, unspecified animal would bring chaos – chaos, I tell you! Disrupting my work. My work, which I must continue -- but how can I work, with that clamor from next door?”
“I’ll go see what’s up.”
“Thank you, my dear. You are an invaluable assistant – indeed, at the current state of technology, a nearly irreplaceable aide.”
As Molly left, Dr. Crawley stopped swatting uselessly at the fire, which had now turned blue and was making a high-pitched whining noise. He threw the handkerchief down. “Oxygen!” he murmured. “Of course!” He found a metal bowl and upended it over the flame. “Now – starved, denied the oxygen, the flames must necessarily perish. At least until they eat through the table, which will not happen for some minutes of time. Back to work!”
Dr. Crawley picked up the test tube again, and with his other hand positioned the teddy bear on the table, its spine exposed to air at the base of the neck. Dr. Crawley carefully tilted the test tube.
“Gently – gently and moderately, I say!” he said quietly. “Just a drop – well, two would be just as good, maybe better – in any case, no more than a splash. And then, yes, then I may begin the process of--”
The test tube dropped from his flinching fingers and shattered on the floor. Emerald flames gushed. “Again, curses!” the doctor said, clenching his fists. He leapt up, eyes wildly casting about the room, and found a basin only half-filled with formaldehyde. He dumped the formaldehyde under the table and slapped the basin down over the flames.
“I should, perhaps, design and possibly even implement a fire-suppression system,” he mused. “Water – no, too commonplace, too expected, too useful for other purposes. Perhaps a smothering, even pernicious, gas can be developed. If I had more cadmium, I could -- yes, I think--”
“Dad!” Molly said again. “Mrs. Abseck wants to talk to you.”
Dr. Crawley glanced up. “Molly, my dear!” he said. “If you are asking about the teddy bear, I need more time. More time!”
“Mrs. Abseck,” Molly said.
“Yes, yes, the neighbor. Do not repeat, recap, reiterate your utterances, dear girl. It wastes time and causes unnecessary delays and interruptions. Mrs. Abseck. Our neighbor. What is it? I believe I heard her screaming something earlier today.”
"She says she wants to talk to you."
"I see! Well, if she can do so at a reasonable – reasonable, I say! – volume, I will converse with her."
Dr. Crawley followed Molly out the back door and they made their way through the yard, stepping over mounds of writhing vegetable-animal hybrid experiments gone horribly, horribly awry, and carefully detouring around the small, bubbling pools of toxic waste, the burned area, still smelling of scorched hair, a brackish pond in which parts of an octopus were cheerfully surviving, and the glowing, humming ring. Finally they made it to the back yard fence, where their neighbor waited with pursed lips.
Those lips had given Dr. Crawley much confusion; he was almost certain that they had not been so full, like ripe fruits about to burst asunder, when she had first moved into the neighborhood, but he could not imagine what she had injected into them, and often considered ways to get a sample.
He suspected the streaks of blonde in her hair had been placed there for ornamental reasons, but had not ruled out mutation or mishap. He had been told that his own hair was the subject of similar confusion among his neighbors, who couldn't decide whether the burnt patches, sticky masses, and discolorations of his white halo were cosmetic or accidents.
But such thoughts had to wait, as Mrs. Abseck was already talking.
"—and when I came home today, she was gone, just gone! I thought maybe you would know something about it?" Her hands clutched the fence and she glared suspiciously. She smelled disturbingly of artificial lavender, applied to her skin in massive amounts.
"About what, madam?" Dr. Crawley asked.
"About Bella! About what I've been telling you about all this time!"
"Bella. Bella," the doctor muttered, scratching the back of his neck.
"Her cat," Molly said quietly.
"Cat? Bella is the name you have given to a cat?"
"Of course she's a cat! And she's missing. I don't suppose you have any idea where she is?"
"You want to know, to discover, in fact to ascertain, the whereabouts of your cat, who -- or which -- you have named Bella," Dr. Crawley said. "All of this is becoming clearer. Further, you suspect and/or wonder if I have played a part in the disappearance of the specific cat, Bella."
Dr. Crawley raised his eyebrows. "Well?" he said also. "Molly? Do you recall – have I had any use for a cat recently? As a source of nutrition for the – or perhaps in the education of the vivisection robot? Or was that an opossum? I seem to recall a marsupial."
"A toad, daddy."
"A toad – a toad, you say! Brilliant!" Dr. Crawley's eyes lit up. "Yes, a toad! A toad, I say! I knew that a marsupial was involved somehow! And by the time I had finished--" He turned back to Mrs. Abseck. "But it was a toad, yes! Now I recall, I remember – last time, a rabbit, however, was used. Most people think rabbits are rather quiet creatures, but as its spleen was removed, measured, and then more or less replaced, it made the most startling and quite amusing--"
"I don't care about your rabbit!" Mrs. Abseck said, her hands raised, her fingers becoming claws as if she were about to start tearing out her hair. "I am asking about my cat. Bella."
"Bella. Like in Twilight," Molly supplied helpfully.
"No, no, my dear!" Dr. Crawley said. "The word 'Bella' means 'beautiful.'" He cocked his head at his neighbor. "Is this cat particularly beautiful? If so, perhaps its hide – the sofa in the living room has a torn, a ripped section, the result of an escape attempt by a rabid and almost certainly insane--"
"Daddy," Molly said.
Dr. Crawley looked blank for a moment, then said, "Yes. An escape attempt. Thwarted, I might add!" He raised one finger. "Indeed, thoroughly thwarted, I tell you!"
"We still need to find out about the cat," Molly reminded him. "If I had a puppy, I bet he could sniff it out in no time."
"The cat – yes. Bella. As I said, was saying, have said, 'Bella' means 'beautiful.' I can recall now that your first name is Donna, correct? Donna Abseck. And 'belladonna' means 'beautiful woman.'"
Mrs. Abseck raised her eyebrows at the change in topic. "Oh, it does?" She fingered her hair.
"Yes, it does. Belladonna – I have a plant, in the garden, this garden – several, actually – and I would enjoy giving you some as a present. The results might prove intriguing, and I have been looking for, endeavoring to find, a suitable unwitting subject. Perhaps in a salad – both the berries and leaves are ingestable, and I understand the berries, in particular, have a pleasing sweetness.”
Molly raised an eyebrow.
"Ah, I believe I see, I understand – Molly reminds me to apprise you of the fact that belladonna is a deadly, most horribly deadly, poisonous plant. Not, however, venomous, although I am making progress – yes, quite substantial progress – in achieving that aim.”
"You think my Bella has eaten some of that horrible plant?" Mrs. Abseck said, her hand at her mouth.
"There is no evidence, as would, for example, exist in the form of a felinoid corpse, to support that conclusion, that inference," the doctor said.
Mrs. Abseck sighed. "So I guess you have no idea what happened to Bella."
"Hah!" Doctor Crawley said, smiling. "Again, an unwarranted supposition! Do I know what happened to the cat?" He stroked his chin. "The human mind is undeniably complex, with hidden mysteries that yield only partially and slowly to the keen scalpel, the savage probes, the molecular reverie analyzer. Who can say what I know, or do not know? Who can say?"
"Well, youcould say."
The doctor shook his head. "Ah, Donna, if life were only that simple!"
Mrs. Abseck crossed her arms. "This is getting us nowhere."
"A captivating thought!" Doctor Crawley looked around. "Can you explain it?"
Molly said, "Father, maybe we can retrace our steps. Perhaps you have seen the cat, and now do not now recall the fact."
"Go on, Molly! What method of investigation, of inquiry, do you suggest?"
"Well, some questions. Then maybe we'll know. Did you leave the back door open today? If you did, maybe the cat came into the house."
"The back door, you say? I don't believe so… But it has been a long day, full of wonder and spite! I remember going to the attic – feeding time, of course – and at one point you brought me to the kitchen to partake of some sustaining vegetable matter. It was stringy, much like a human nerve, freed of its fleshy coverings and exposed to the cold light of the examination lamp."
"And how about after lunch?"
"I recall that you made some impertinent and irrelevant comments regarding a puppy. I fear your babysitter has become a maleficent influence on your prioritization skills. After that distraction, I resumed work on my compact universe experiments, which, once perfected, I will unleash on the campus of the Institute, and show once and for all the fools, the doubters, those who snicker and chortle – the fools! I will show them – I will show them all, I tell you!"
"Dad, remember to use your outside voice," Molly said.
"Ah!" Dr. Crawley noticed that Mrs. Abseck had retreated several steps back from the fence, her expression aghast. "Was I bellowing again, Molly? Many thanks for the timely reminder. Yes. And then you came to me with your teddy bear, which had somehow become damaged when I used it yesterday – or perhaps the day before – to muffle the sounds of the death ray, as it recharged."
Molly said, "I wonder if the compact universe experiment might have resulted in the cat's disappearance."
"Well, Molly, of course it did! I distinctly remember watching that felinoid creature, slinking through the weeds in the yard, becoming enveloped by the distraction field, and vanishing – Pop! – like a soap bubble!"
"If I had a puppy," Molly pointed out, "I would make sure he kept away from your work. And his very presence might serve as a deterrent to cat incursions."
Mrs. Abseck, her face twisted with horror, had returned to the fence. "Are you – are you saying that some weird experiment has swallowed Bella? Oh, it can't be! What kind of awful monster would even thinkto invent such a--"
Dr. Crawley laughed. "Of course not, Mrs. Abseck! Your cat was most certainly not swallowed by the distraction field! I think 'absorbed,' or perhaps 'engulfed,' would be a more appropriate term."
"Oh, Bella! Eaten by some crazy science thing!"
"Again, while 'crazy science thing' is an appropriate, even suitable term, 'eaten' is perhaps not the best--"
"Daddy, can you bring the cat back?"
"Of course I can."
Mrs. Abseck stopped sobbing. "You – you can bring Bella back?"
"My dear," the doctor said, "it is costing a nearly incalculable expenditure of energy to keep the compact universe open! To disband it – child's play!" He fished a remote control out of his pocket, and punched a button.
A sphere of air about nine feet in diameter shimmered, and a yowling creature erupted from its center. It leapt to the fence, scrambled over it, and was behind Mrs. Abseck's house in moments.
"Bella – is back?" Mrs. Abseck said.
"As you saw," Dr. Crawley said.
"But – but--"
"Oh, I see, I fathom, I understand your confusion! Yes, yes – the fur will return to its normal color within mere weeks, and the superfluous limbs will be reabsorbed, or something, I suppose. To all intents and purposes, however, your cat has returned."
Mrs. Abseck made an inarticulate sound and stumbled off in search of her pet.
"Now, I suppose I may at last return to my work!" Dr. Crawley said, turning to walk back to the house. "Do you know, Molly, I see no need, no necessity, for neighbors. No, indeed not. Spare parts can just as easily be obtained, with far less fuss and far fewer search warrants, by simply--"
"Father, I wish to tell you again that I would like to have a pet."
"You have a pet, dear."
"If you mean the former snake, it devolved months ago."
"Has it? Really? How interesting! The former snake was, I thought, an interesting project. Did you keep notes on its expiration?"
Molly sighed loudly. "Of course I did. I'm not an idiot."
"Very good, very good!"
"A puppy would make an excellent replacement," Molly said.
The doctor stopped walking. He tilted his head. "It occurs to me, Molly – an idea flashes into my mind, as they tend to – that Mrs. Abseck's cat was not in the habit of habitually coming into our yard. Undeniably not, not since that incident it had with the gene-gineered weasel--"
"-- turtle, quite so. The question arises as to what could have enticed the cat back into our domain after such an unsettling and distasteful experience."
"We may never know," Molly said. She began walking back to the house, but the doctor remained still, so Molly paused as well.
"It further occurs to me that ever since the loss of your former snake, and certainly since the use to which I have put your teddy bear has rendered it, temporarily if not lethally, useless for cuddling, you have sought ways to bring to my attention the fact that you would like to obtain a young dog as a companion."
"A puppy… would be nice," Molly said in a small voice.
"Further, it has not gone unrecognized, unnoted, unnoticed, that of late it may have been, certainly was, difficult for you to gain my full attention, consumed as I have been with various urgent and earth-shattering (only sometimes literally so) projects of my own."
The doctor took a deep breath and pointed a scrawny finger at Molly. "I therefore accuse you, my daughter, of deliberately enticing the cat into the distraction field, in order to drive Mrs. Abseck into consulting me on its disappearance, as a ruse by which you have focused my attention, my consideration, upon your demand for a puppy! Do you deny it?"
Molly would not meet his gaze.
Dr. Crawley stepped up to her and laid a hand upon her head. "Well done, my daughter! I am sure that, if you had ever had a mother, she too would be proud of your thoughtful application of reasonable steps towards meeting your goal. Congratulations! Congratulations, I say!"
"Then I can have a puppy?" Molly smiled.
"I will think about it," Dr. Crawley said. "Unless you would rather…" He raised a single finger. "I do have half of an octopus, I believe it is, into the cartilaginouscranium of which I have inserted certain lobes of the brain of a human psychopath – surely that would be a more entertaining companion?"
"I guess that would be all right," Molly said. "But I was really hoping for a puppy, that I could call Buster."
Doctor Crawley opened the back door for his daughter. "Very well. This need not be a contest of wills. You may have both."
This story originally appeared in Outposts of Beyond.