“If you pick it up hoping for a solid sci-fi story about a plague that drives humanity to near-extinction and then follows the survivors as they attempt to rebuild society, then frankly, my friends, this book is gonna disappoint you,” Maria Chase-Blackwell said in the engaging, authoritative tone she’d been practicing. She’d launched her podcast only a month ago, and her audience was still comprised entirely of her friends–and occasionally her Uncle Davis, when his wife remembered to burn the latest episode to CD for him. Davis was the guitarist in a popular jazz band and his instrument painted brilliant portraits every night, but his technological aptitude peaked with learning the basics of his AOL email account.
Was two seconds ample time for a dramatic pause? Probably. Maria smiled and pushed on. “But if you pick this book up wanting a story about a handful of people, jumping back and forth between the lives they had before and the lives they have now….about what connects us and what’s left to help us get by when the world ends…then you just might love it.” Her hand rested on top of the paperback. Her mother considered “If you wouldn’t say it in front of someone, then you shouldn’t say it all” the greatest of all Mom-isms. As a young bookworm, Maria had decided that books deserved attention while being discussed. Anything less would be rude.
“You might,” Caitlyn stretched the word out, veered lightly as she adjusted her headphones. Maria’s closest friend and this week’s guest, Caitlyn imagined her role as part Supportive Bibliophile and part Good-Natured Foil. “And I did love it, Mare. Engaging characters and an intriguing voice. But the story constantly bounces between the past and the present, and I spent more time than I would’ve preferred struggling to sort out who–“
A loud knock at the front door sliced her thought in half. Caitlin gestured at their mics, her eyebrow asking the question. Maria held her index finger up. Silence crept between them, and after a few seconds, the host rotated her hand. Keep going. We can edit that out.
Caitlyn mentally rewound her commentary and found her place. “But the story shifts back and forth between the past and the present so often that I found it diffic–“
A second knock, this one to the cadence of “Shave and a Haircut.” Maria grumbled a little as she seized the mouse and clicked the Stop button. She removed her headset. “Be right back,” she said, her mind sifting through all the possible rebukes she could throw at whatever salesperson was interrupting her podcast on a Sunday afternoon.
From the living room, Caitlyn shouted “TWO…BITS!”
Maria ignored the commentary, gingerly opened the door, and stared.
The 10-foot-tall ficus–nattily dressed in a sweater vest, a jaunty forest green hat, Italian loafers, and wearing what Maria imagined to be a rather expensive monocle–appeared to return her gaze. She could not be certain, however, as it was, in fact, a ficus.
Neither of them moved. The wind wove patterns in-between the massive plant’s leaves.
“Hey, Judge,” Caitlyn’s voice leaked onto the porch. “What should we do with the wallflower?”
The ficus rustled, and Maria realized it must be laughing. “Oh, of course–my knock! The style mimics one employed by Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and now your friend is reciting the film!,” it burbled in a rich baritone. “How delightful. A true classic, and I refer both to the film itself, and to the late Bob Hoskins, a personal friend. Human beings produce, all things considered, some of the most splendid art in the multiverse.”
“Goodness, would you look at me rambling on without a proper introduction? My sincere apologies. I am Zzyzwyck Benjamina of Qliehlolma Valley XLVII.” The ficus wrapped a leafy branch around its hat and tipped it respectfully in Maria’s direction. “My navigational equipment indicated that your residence is the likely location for the PodCats.”
“You…you’ve heard of my podcast?” Drops of flattery shone on the host’s face. “Most of my friends haven’t even downloaded an episode yet, and they live in the same galaxy.” For the first time, it occurred to her to visually sweep the street. The enormous plant watched her eyes swing from house to house.
“My presence has escaped the attention of both your neighbors and your government,” Zzyzwyck said cheerfully. “We have discovered that use of selective cloaking technology while on foreign soil often results in fewer complications.”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Maria stammered, wondering why she added “of course” to an entirely preposterous idea. “Please, won’t you come in?”
The rust-colored grappling hook that latched itself to her door sill was so minuscule that she failed to notice. By the time she became aware that Zzyzwyck was dragging itself forward, several dozen such hooks had been thrown, and the number was soaring quickly. They’re roots, her brain whispered. The giant alien plant is being carted around by an entire fleet of teeny little roots.
“That’s a fantastic hat,” she mumbled.
“Thank you so much!” Extraterrestrial origins aside, the pride in Zzyzwyck’s voice was unmistakable. “One of my seedlings is taking millinery classes. This particular hat was last year’s final project!”
I should call Mom, Maria thought feverishly, trailing behind her guest as they entered the house. I’ve been promising for years now that I’ll knit her an afghan. The space plant has a kid who makes hats.
“OK, so…explain this to me again,” Caitlyn squeaked as she squinted at the ficus. She’d been attempting to frame Zzyzwyck’s face by inconspicuously examining the area around its monocle. When that plan proved unsuccessful, she’d offered the plant a slice of ice cream cake from Maria’s freezer, which it happily accepted. The slice was now considerably smaller, but she couldn’t determine how Zzyzwyck was actually eating solid food without an oral cavity. Maria, having already discovered that one cannot politely map the facial features of alien shrubbery, remained silent on the matter.
“Qliehlolma Valley XLVII,” Zzyzwyck replied for the fourth time. Unlike Maria, it displayed no signs of irritation at being forced to repeat nonsensical information. “It is adjacent to Qliehlolma Valley XLVI. Regulations required an additional valley.”
“But it’s a planet. You’re saying–what, that a group of colossal ficuses called a meeting, passed a zoning ordinance, and just…created an extra planet?”
The plant wiggled its leaves. “I would not say ‘just,’ Caitlyn Parrish. The planet was born immediately following the meeting, yes, but the completing the necessary forms and voting procedures occurred over three consecutive gatherings. It was a most tiresome process.” Zzyzwyck set its spoon and fork neatly on its plate. Unable to decide which utensil was most appropriate for ice cream cake consumption, Maria and Caitlyn had provided both. “Thank you so much for this delicacy. What did you call it? A Bookie Fuss?
“Cookie Puss,” Maria said.
“Marvelous. I am humbled by your hospitality, Maria Chase-Blackwell. May I place the remaining cake back in the refrigerator?”
“Oh, that’s so kind! You wouldn’t mind, would you, Mare? Our guest is so thoughtf–“
“Yes, Caitlyn, a thoughtful offer indeed, but I couldn’t possibly accept. You’re our visitor, Zzyzwyck. I’ll handle cleanup.”
Her friend shot a disappointed across the kitchen counter. Baby spinach in there, Maria mouthed. Insensitive.
Caitlyn flashed her a thumbs-up, then turned her attention back to the ficus. “So how did you hear about Love Through Volume?”
“I do not understand, Caitlyn Parrish. What is this volume to which you refer?”
“Love Through Volume. My podcast,” Maria said, a light confusion fog moving across her features. “I have this tendency to…well, I suppose you could say–“
“She yells at books,” Caitlyn interrupted.
“Not at them! I appreciate brilliant writing, that’s all. Plot twists that legitimately twist, dialogue that sparks and bites, description that takes your breath away.”
” ‘Takes your breath away’ is a classic cliché, Mare.”
“Anyway,” Maria continued, glaring at her friend. “I’m passionate about books, and I know I’m not alone. So every week, I review two of my favorites, two works that I consider…exceptional.” She exhaled slowly, watching the plant. “But you knew that. You said your ship identified my house as the place with the podcast.”
“PodCats,” Zzyzwyck corrected.
“Pod–wait, are you saying podCATS? What’s a podcat?”
“Ah, the PodCats,” Caitlin nodded sagely and rubbed her chin, as if stroking some imaginary beard. “We were told to fear their return.”
“Exactly!”, Maria automatically blurted. “So that means–” She paused. Her expressions sped through several shifts within seconds, and the bomb exploded. “Wait…WHAT?”
“I can certainly surmise that from your perspective, fear would be an appropriate response, Caitlyn Parrish,” the alien ficus crooned. Its rich voice somehow managed to sound soothing and slightly papery. “I assure you, however, that this misunderstanding is merely the result of a marketing dispute between our respective cultures. In actuality, the PodCats are domesticated. Harmless. Their true danger, I suppose, is being so adorable that observing their antics limits productivity.” Zzyzwyck issued what sounded like a rather satisfied sigh.
“Talk about marketing,” Caitlyn murmured.
Maria’s contact lenses ached. “Would someone like to fill me in on what the hell’s happening?”
“Well…I’m half Klebgush. Ancient race. Predates recorded history. Klebgushians can breathe underwater. We’ve got advanced healing ability, and don’t even reach puberty until they’re 215 years old. I’m actually 72, Mare. Oh, and we don’t care for space cats.”
“You’re…YOU’RE an alien too?” Under the table, Maria’s hands clenched and wrung each other, in and out, as if the repetitive motion would make the news more digestible. “But you were shocked to meet Zzyzwyck, just like I was!” She glanced at the ficus. “No offense.”
“And you couldn’t believe that the ficuses have the technology to just…INVENT new planets overnight!”, the podcast host continued. “If you’re really an alien, why would that surprise you?”
Caitlyn sighed heavily. For a second, Maria thought that her friend’s chestnut curls, curls she’d always admired and surreptitiously coveted, appeared more emerald-colored than brown. “Because I’m not an alien, Mare. Weren’t you listening? Klebgushians are from Earth! And I’m half-human.”
“You’re 72 and you’re not even a teenager yet!”
The half-Klebgushia shrugged. “I was planning to mention all of this at some point.”
“I met you at DAVE AND BUSTER’S!”, Maria shouted.
“Oh, so because I’m able to regenerate my limbs and can sleep in a pond, I can’t enjoy a good Bang Bang Chicken? It has spicy Thai peanut noodles, Mare. You know how I feel about peanut noodles.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Zzyzwyck interrupted. “But if we could pivot back to–“
“Yes, let’s do that! No one’s told me what a podcat is, and I imagine that my best friend secretly having superhuman powers might come up in future conversations, but for the moment, I am entirely in favor of pivoting!”
“A PodCat,” the plant said calmly, “is a cat in a space pod. Typically, they travel in teams of three, gallivanting about the multiverse. On Qliehlolma Valley XLVII, there are several television channels devoted entirely to streaming PodCat adventures.”
“I think I’d notice if my house had been invaded by space cats!”
“When and in what matter did you obtain that novel?”, the ficus asked, leafily pointing to Maria’s desk. The book rested quietly next to her computer, her headset, her hand-written notes.
“A few weeks ago,” Maria said, a strange croak creeping up in her voice. “I ordered it online. Finished reading yesterday. We were just discussing it on the podcast when you knocked.”
“Ah, of course. Those loveable scamps.” Zzyzwyck’s voice melted a degree or two. “No wonder they did not return on schedule. They’ve enjoyed your company.”
“You aren’t suggesting that my book is a spaceship. You’re not doing that, are you?”
“I am not suggesting that; it is a space pod, which is quite different. What you perceive as a novel is, in fact, a cat-sized Qliehlolma Valley XLVII transport pod with a chameleon circuit.”
“What?”, cried the very confused host. “There’s no such thing as a chameleon circuit! That’s a fictional device from Doctor Who!”
“A spectacular program,” the ficus replied gleefully. “No disrespect to the other Doctors, of course, but Tennant will forever remain my Doctor. I was uncertain about the direction of the series in general during Peter Capaldi’s first season, for which I blame Steven Moffat’s pathological need to be considered clever. Capaldi’s subsequent two seasons, though, returned the empathy that so many fans believe had become essential to the character. I can barely contain my excitement about Season 11! Jodie Whittaker is the perfect–“
“Oh. I…I suppose I became distracted. Yes, we have been aware of Doctor Who from its inception, and permitted the show to ‘borrow’ the chameleon circuit concept. I brokered that particular deal, in fact. In return, they promised that one day, they would create a near-immortal, time-travelling, pansexual con man with a conflicted moral compass. I also requested a trenchcoat. While I did not originally anticipate waiting over four decades for–“
“You’re responsible for Captain Jack Harkness?”, Caitlyn gasped, her eyes shining a little. “John Barrowman is a genius. Have you heard his natural accent?”
“I have!” Zzyzwyck wiggled again, reminding Maria of an oscillating fan. “That Scottish brogue is lovely. Have you viewed the pictures of him cosplaying as Squirrel Girl at the San Diego Comic-Con?”
“CAN. WE. JUST.” Maria slumped onto the table, holding her head in her hands.
A soft clicking that might have been the botanical equivalent of clearing one’s throat. “Um. Yes, I seem to have repeated my earlier behavior. Would you please retrieve the novel you were discussing on your podcast, Maria Chase-Blackwell?”
Without a word, Maria hoisted herself out of her chair, picked up the book, and placed it on the table in front of the ficus. Zzyzwyck examined it for a moment and then said “Who are the bestest fur babies in the multiverse?”
The book began to rattle. Slivers of dark lime light leaked out from the corners. A low-frequency hum was building, becoming increasingly louder. They could hear some shuffling within the pages, perhaps some renegotiation of territory. “Is it you?”, the plant cooed. “Yes! Yes, it IS!” A hinge appeared on the novel’s spine, and before anyone else in the room could react, the pod swung open.
Caitlyn, whose eyes were firmly clamped shut, slowly opened them and tried to conceal her spreading grin.
Three Creamsicle-colored kittens stared at Maria expectedly. One of them hopped out of the book-pod and sauntered over to lick her hand. She heard a distorted whistling coming from its small face, like an out-of-tune flute.
“Purring,” Zzyzwyck explained, a warm note in its voice. “It likes you.”
The kitten glanced up, cleared its throat, and bellowed “MEW???!”
“You might…have mentioned that…your little pets…roar!”, Caitlyn grunted as she gripped Maria’s arms tighter and pulled her body in the general direction of the couch. All three PodCats had taken up residence on the unconscious woman’s stomach, mewing contently. As a rule, Caitlyn welcomed new experiences, but dragging a person covered in cats across the floor while receiving zero help from an alien plant was not among them.
“I calculated only a five percent probability that Maria Chase-Blackwell would faint with joy upon realizing firsthand how delightful a PodCat can truly be,” the plant said with poetic flair. Its offer to secure Maria’s legs had been genuine, but it quickly discovered that it lacked the physiology for the type of labor required. Like Caitlyn, Zzyzwyck had never previously attempted to push a human decorated with space cats to a couch.
“I’m fairly certain that wasn’t joy, Zzyzwyck.”
“MEW!”, a PodCat chirped, circling around Maria’s shirt. “MEWMEWMEMEUW, MAMEW?”
“Oh, certainly, my little gumdrop,” the ficus muttered softly, petting the kitten’s head. “Yes, you may nap on the nice, warm human for the evening.”
They reached the edge of the couch; all that remained was to lift Maria. “I suppose we’re having a sleepover,” Caitlyn smirked. Podcast recordings usually ended with boxed wine and a reasonably-priced cheese plate. Today’s episode was, she decided, more interesting than a Jarlsberg wedge. “How do you suggest we spend the evening?”
Zzyzwyck thought for moment. “A Doctor Who marathon? There are several episodes featuring both the Tenth Doctor and Captain Jack.”
Caitlyn chuckled as she walked towards Maria’s DVD tower. One of the cats jumped off her friend and followed. “I hope you’ll stay a while, Zzyzwyck. You’re my kind of alien ficus.”
“It was a compliment, little buddy,” the woman whispered, searching through the racks as she scritched the ears of a creature she’d dreaded prior to that afternoon. “It’s a wide multiverse. Zzyzwyck’s my kind. So are you and your siblings. And Maria. Especially Maria. You’re all my kind.”
This story came about because two years ago, I was talking with @jillwebb and @melagee about podcasts, and one of Jill’s tweets contained a typo that my brain kept translating as a different typo.
Giving Zzyzwyck a hat was @snarke’s idea.
The line about baby spinach came from a Twitter conversation with @gingerblivet, as did the alien ficus’s name (which was originally Reginald).