A new John Scalzi novel is always a cause for celebration, but Fuzzy Nation is also a "reboot" of a beloved 1962 Hugo-nominated novel, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.
Can Scalzi win over the devoted fans of Piper's original vision, and convert a whole new legion of readers who are unfamiliar with the nearly 50-year-old original? Can he do justice to Piper's tale of creatures who could be just dumb animals, or could be a whole new sentient species, with all its themes about colonialism and the trickiness of first contact?
Your first clue is here. We've got two exclusive chapters from Fuzzy Nation for your perusal.
Note: What we have here are chapters three and four of Fuzzy Nation. Want to read the first two chapters first? Click over to Tor.com, where they appeared yesterday. And then come on back here to continue the story, due to be published next week.
Top image: Detail from Fuzzy Nation cover art by Kekai Kotaki. Other images are Kotaki's original Fuzzy Nation sketches, via The Ranting Dragon. (Tons more at the link.)
Holloway's skimmer was roughly halfway back to his home when his infopanel alerted him that his house was being broken into; the emergency alert system's movement alarm had been tripped.
"Crap," Holloway said. He jabbed the AUTOPILOT function on the skimmer; the skimmer skewed momentarily as it acquired signal and pathing from Holloway's home base. There was no traffic here- Holloway's survey territory was deep inside a continent-wide jungle, far away from any population centers, or indeed any other humans-so the course was more or less a straight line to home over the hills and treetops. Autopilot engaged, Holloway picked up his infopanel and clicked through to the security camera.
Which showed nothing; Holloway had the camera on his work desk and generally used it as a hat stand. His view of his house - and whoever was currently inside it - was being blocked by a stained porkpie hat he'd worn for amusement's sake during his second year of law school at Duke.
"Stupid hat," Holloway said. He kicked up the gain on the security camera's microphone and held the infopanel speaker against his ear, on the chance the interloper might talk.
No luck. There were no voices, and what little else he could hear was being washed out by the sound of the skimmer engines and wind rushing through the open cockpit.
Holloway clicked his infopanel back into its cradle and looked down at his skimmer instrument panel. The skimmer was moving along at a leisurely eighty kilometers an hour, a safe speed in the jungle, in which birds were liable to burst out of the trees and smash themselves into the vehicle. Home was another twenty klicks out; Holloway knew that without checking the GPS data because he could see Mount Isabel off to his right. The hill's eastern face was chewed away and the four square klicks in front of it fenced off and stripped bare of vegetation where ZaraCorp was doing what it euphemistically called "Smart Mining," - strip-mining but with an ostensible commitment to minimizing toxic impact and to restoring the area to its pristine state when the mining operations ceased.
At the time ZaraCorp started mining Mount Isabel, Holloway had idly wondered how an area could be restored to a pristine state once ZaraCorp had mined everything of value out of it, but this was not the same thing as him exhibiting actual concern. He'd been the one who did the original survey of Mount Isabel; the small sunstone patch that fi rst drew his attention was exhausted in a matter of weeks, but the mount was a good source of anthracite coal, and the relatively rare rockwood tree grew on the mount and down its sides toward the river. He'd gotten his quarter of a percent out of the find- a decent-enough sum-and had moved on.
Holloway's critical eye guessed that Mount Isabel had another year or two left in her before she was mined down to a molehill, at which time ZaraCorp would airlift out its equipment and drop in a clutch of terrified summer interns, who would hurriedly strew bags of rockwood seeds on the ground- this counted as "restoring the area to a pristine state" - and who would also pray that the fence winding around the perimeter of the mining area held up while they did it.
The fences usually held. It was rare these days to lose an intern to a zararaptor. But fear was a fine motivator.
A loud crash came out of the infopanel. Whoever was in Holloway's house just dropped something breakable. Holloway swore and pressed the button that would enclose the skimmer cockpit, and then opened the throttle. They'd be home in five minutes; the birds in the treetops would just have to take their chances.
• • •
As the skimmer approached his home, Holloway dropped it into CONSERVE mode, which dropped its speed significantly but also made the skimmer almost silent. He stop-hovered the craft a klick out and reached for his binoculars.
Holloway's house was a tree house-or more accurately, a platform anchored across several very tall spikewoods, on the edges of which stood the modest prefabricated cabin that was his living quarters, and the two sheds in which Holloway kept his surveying and prospecting supplies. Power was supplied by solar panels held aloft by a turbine kite, connected to the compound's power plant, on which was also attached Holloway's moisture collector and waste incinerator. In the center of the platform was a parking space, with enough room for Holloway's skimmer and one other craft, provided it was small.
It was that space Holloway was looking at. It was empty.
Holloway relaxed a little. The only easy way into Holloway's compound was by skimmer. It was possible that someone could have approached by foot and then climbed up, but that person would have had to be either very lucky or very confident. The jungle floor belonged to zararaptors and the local versions of pythons and alligators, any of which looked at the soft and slow human animal as an easy-to-catch, easy-to-eat snack. Holloway lived in the trees because all the big predators were on the ground, save the pythons, and they didn't like spikewoods for reasons the name of the tree made obvious. The spikewoods also made climbing them a challenge if one were taller than half a meter, which any human would be.
Regardless, Holloway scanned the platform and through the foliage to look for climbing cables and the like. Nothing. The other option would be that someone dropped in from above, from a hovering skimmer, which then took off. But Holloway would have been pinged about any traffic within a hundred-klick radius when he set the autopilot. He hadn't been.
So: Either there was a super-awesome ninja assassin lurking in his cabin, knocking over pottery, or it was just some dumb animal. While Holloway wouldn't put it past Bourne to put a hit out on him, especially after today, he also doubted that Bourne could shake out a competent assassin on short notice. The best he would be able to do was some of the less intelligent ZaraCorp security types, such as the aforementioned Joe DeLise. They (and particularly DeLise) wouldn't have bothered with sneaking up on him.
Chances were excellent, then, that this was a dumb animal; probably one of the local lizards, in fact. They were the size of iguanas - just small enough to avoid impalement on the spikewoods - vegetarians, and dumber than rocks. They would get into absolutely everything if you gave them a chance. When Holloway first came to Zara XXIII and had his treetop compound built, the place was infested with them. He'd put up an electric fence at first, but discovered that waking up every morning to the sight and smell of barbecued lizard depressed the crap out of him. Then another prospector told him that the lizards were utterly terrified of dogs. Carl arrived shortly thereafter.
"Hey, Carl," Holloway said to his dog. "I think we got ourselves a lizard problem."
Carl perked up at this. He very much enjoyed his role as solver of lizard problems. Holloway smiled, took the skimmer off STOP-HOVER mode, and went in for a landing.
Carl was out of the skimmer as soon as Holloway turned off the engines and opened the cockpit. He sniffed happily and headed off in the direction of one of the storage sheds.
"Hey, dummy," Holloway said, to Carl's tail, which was whipping back and forth. He walked over to his dog and whacked him gently on the flank. "You're going the wrong direction. The lizard's in the house." Holloway pointed in the direction of the cabin. He looked at the cabin at the same time, catching the image of the cat staring at him, through the window over his work desk. Holloway stared back at the cat. It took him a second to remember that he didn't own a cat.
It took him a second after that to remember that cats didn't usually stand on two legs.
"What the hell is that?" Holloway said, out loud.
Carl turned at the sound of his master's voice and saw the cat thing in the window.
The cat thing opened its mouth.
Carl barked like a mad dog and bolted toward the cabin door. His lack of opposable thumbs would have brought him up short had Holloway not installed a dog door after he had gotten tired of being woken up in the middle of the night to let Carl out to pee. The dog door's locking mechanism picked up the proximity signal from the chip in Carl's shoulder and unlocked the door roughly a quarter of a second before Carl jammed his head and body through it, bolting effortlessly into the cabin.
From his viewpoint, Holloway saw the cat thing fling itself away from the window. Less than a second after that, Holloway could hear the sounds of many things breaking.
"Oh, shit," Holloway said, and ran for the cabin door.
Unlike Carl, Holloway did not a have proximity chip implanted in his shoulder; he fumbled for the key to open the dead lock on the door, barking and crashing continuing nonstop as he did so. Holloway undid the bolt and cracked open the door just in time to see the cat thing running toward it.
The cat thing looked up, saw Holloway, and skidded, desperately trying to change its vector of direction. Carl, directly behind the cat thing, leapt up to avoid the braking creature and twisted midflight, connecting his flank with the cabin door, slamming it shut on Holloway's forehead and nose. Holloway cursed and dropped to his knees by the closed door, clutching his nose. There were more crashing noises inside.
After a few minutes, Holloway became aware of two things. The first was that his nose, while swollen, was not going to bleed out on him. The second was that all the crashing noises had stopped, replaced by the sound of Carl's constant bark. Holloway stood up, touched his nose one more time to make sure it wasn't going to spontaneously gush, and then very carefully opened the door to his cabin.
The cabin looked like one of Holloway's college dorm rooms at the end of a semester: an explosion of papers and objects on the floor, which should have been on a desk or shelf. Dishes previously in the cabin's tiny sink were shattered on the ground. Holloway's spare infopanel was likewise facedown on the floor. He couldn't bring himself to see whether it was still functional or not.
Carl was propped up against the cabin's sole bookcase, barking madly. A quick glance up established that he had treed the cat thing on top of the bookcase. Books and binders had been flung off the shelves as either the thing climbed up the shelf or Carl tried to get at it. The bookshelf was nowhere close to anything the cat thing could jump to; it seemed like it was too tall for the creature to jump down from, even if Carl weren't there. It was safe from Carl for the moment, but it was also well and truly stuck. It stared down at Carl and then over at Holloway, alternating between them, cat's eyes wide and terrified.
"Quiet, Carl!" Holloway said, but the dog was too out of his mind with the thrill of the chase to hear his master.
Holloway glanced around the room. Amid the mess he saw the creature's place of entrance: the small, tilting window in Holloway's sleeping alcove. He must have left it unlocked, and the creature must have been able to pry it open and get into the cabin. Once the cat thing got in, it wouldn't have been able to get back out; the window was easily accessible from the outside roof, but it looked like it would have been too high for the creature to get to from the cot or the floor.
He looked back at the cat thing, which was staring right at him. It stared at the window, and then back at him. It was as if the critter knew he'd figured out how it got in.
Holloway went to the tilting window in the alcove, closed it, and locked it. Then he walked over to his dog and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. Carl stopped barking with a surprised urk and skidded his back paws ineffectually against the floor. Holloway maneuvered the dog to the cabin door, opened the door, and tossed the animal out. He pressed his leg against the dog door until he could secure its manual lock, and then stepped back. There were two thumps as Carl batted his head against the dog door. A few seconds later, his paws and head showed up in the window above Holloway's desk, alternately barking with indignity and whining to be let back in.
Holloway ignored his dog and turned to the cat thing, which looked at him, still terrified, but perhaps slightly less so now.
"Well, you little fuzzy thing," Holloway said. "Now it's just you and me."
If I were this thing, why would I be in here? Holloway thought. Animals weren't terribly complicated creatures; anywhere you went in the universe, they tended to want to do one of three things: eat, sleep, and have sex. Holloway concluded the last two of these were out. Food, then.
He glanced around the mess of his cabin; on the kitchen counter, next to the sink, was the plate he kept fruit on, covered by a plastic bell to keep out the local insects. In the rumpus, the plate had been moved but the bell had not been dislodged. Underneath it were two apples and a bindi, a local fruit that was shaped like a pear but tasted not too far off from a banana. Both apples and bindi kept well, which was why Holloway had them.
Holloway slowly walked back toward the kitchen area, keeping his eye on the cat thing, but taking it off momentarily to lift the plastic bell. He reached for an apple, but then thought better of it and took the bindi instead. The bindi was local fruit; the cat thing was a local animal. He'd never known an apple to kill an alien creature, but why take that chance.
Holloway opened a drawer and took out a knife. The cat thing notably shifted at the sight of it. Holloway kept the knife low and quickly quartered the bindi, and got a reminder that bindi were sloppy fruit; juice and soft pulp ran through his fingers. He ignored this and conspicuously set the knife back into the drawer and closed it. He'd clean it off later.
The cat thing seemed to relax a bit, but then got more apprehensive as Holloway approached the bookcase again. The creature was at one corner of the top of the bookcase; Holloway pathed himself the long way around to stand by the other corner, too far away to grab the animal. The cat thing crouched there and stared at Holloway, unblinking.
Holloway took a quarter of the bindi and popped it in his mouth, chewing it slowly and obviously and with apparent satisfaction, watching the cat thing watch him. He swallowed and then placed another quarter of the bindi on the far top corner of the bookcase.
"That's yours," Holloway said, as if saying so would make the action any clearer to the animal. Then he placed the other two bindi quarters on his work desk and conspicuously turned his back on the cat thing, moving to pick up the mess in the cabin.
Holloway had no idea whether the thing would understand he was offering it food, or even if the creature would like bindi. If the thing really was like a cat, it'd be a carnivore. Well, Holloway had some lizard cutlets in the cooler. He could try those next.
One part of Holloway's brain, which fancied itself the sensible part, was currently yelling at him. What the hell are you doing feeding a wild animal? it was saying. You should have opened the door and let Carl chase it out of the cabin. You never acted this way when the lizards got in.
Holloway had no good answer for this, other than that for some reason, the creature interested him. Most of the land animals on Zara XXIII were more reptilian than not; mammal-like creatures on the planet were few and far between. In fact, Holloway couldn't remember seeing one, either live or in a database, that was as large as this one was. He'd have to check the database again.
But what interested him the most was the way the creature was acting. The cat thing was obviously terrified, but it wasn't acting like a terrified animal. It seemed like it was smarter than the average wild animal, especially here on Zara XXIII, where the local fauna never struck Holloway as having developed an evolutionary premium on brains.
Also, the thing looked like a cat, and Holloway always liked cats. Holloway's internal sensible person smacked his virtual forehead at that.
Holloway took the papers he'd collected, tapped them together, and placed them on his work desk, glancing up at the cat thing. It was busily devouring the bindi slice as if it hadn't eaten in days. That answers that, Holloway thought. He reached down and turned over his spare infopanel, preemptively wincing as he did so, preparing for a cracked screen or something worse. To his surprise, it appeared unharmed. He powered it up and it came to life, fully functional. He breathed a sigh of relief and looked again at the cat thing, which had finished its fruit slice.
"You're lucky this thing still works," Holloway said to the creature. "If you broke it, I might have had to let Carl eat you."
The cat thing said nothing (of course) but kept glancing from Holloway to the two remaining bindi slices. The thing was obviously still hungry and trying to figure out how to get to the bindi without getting near Holloway. Holloway reached over, picked up one of the bindi slices, and slowly moved it toward the animal, holding the slice by pinching the smallest amount possible of the fruit with his thumb and index finger.
"Here you go," Holloway said.
Oh, smart, said his internal sensible person. Now you're going to get the Zara XXIII equivalent of rabies.
The cat thing likewise appeared dubious about this new development and shrank back from the proffered slice.
"Come on, now," Holloway said to the thing. "If I were going to kill you and eat you, I would have done it already." He jiggled the piece of fruit.
After a few seconds the cat thing cautiously moved forward, apparently hesitant, and then snatched at the slice, using both its hands. And they were hands; Holloway noted three fingers and a long thumb, riding lower on the palm than its human equivalent. Holloway blinked and the little hands were gone as the creature retreated to its far corner, never taking its eyes off Holloway as it began to devour its second bindi slice.
Holloway shrugged, turned away from the creature again, and then knelt and started shelving the books and binders strewn across the floor.
After a few minutes of this, he became aware he was being watched. He looked up and saw the cat thing peering down at him, blinking.
"Hello," he said to the thing. "Done with your food? Want more?" The thing opened its mouth as if to respond, but no noise came out. Holloway saw the thing's teeth, which were decidedly not catlike, and were more like human teeth than not. Omnivore, said a voice in his head that was not his own, but belonged to someone he used to know quite well. The voice gave him an idea.
Holloway stood up and moved over to his work desk. He took the porkpie hat off his security camera, which he then righted because it had been knocked over while Carl chased the creature. The camera featured an omnidirectional image sensor; it could see in every direction except for directly below, where it was blocked by its own stand. He took his spare infopanel, clicked it into its own stand and turned it on, keying it to show the image feed from the security camera. Then he picked up the last slice of bindi and held it up to the cat thing. The creature, now substantially less afraid of Holloway, held out its hands to receive it.
"No," Holloway said, and placed the slice back on the work desk. Then he picked up the chair from the floor and positioned it so that if the cat thing were to work its way back down to the floor, it could use the chair to climb up and get the fruit. "You want it, come and get it," Holloway said. He put on the porkpie hat and then went to the cabin door, opening it just enough to let himself out without letting Carl in.
Carl was deeply displeased with this development and barked at Holloway in frustration. Holloway patted his dog's head and walked over to his skimmer. He reached in for his infopanel, powered it up and accessed the security camera feed.
"Let's see how smart you really are," he said. He adjusted the image to show a panorama view of the cabin.
For several minutes, the creature did nothing. Finally it started down the bookcase, taking rather more time to climb down the case than it had to fling itself up it. For a minute, Holloway couldn't see the cat thing, because the work desk blocked the floor. Then the chair moved slightly and the catlike head popped up, scanning for the piece of fruit.
It spied the fruit, and then suddenly gave a look of alarm and disappeared. Holloway grinned; the creature had just caught the image of itself in the infopanel he'd set the fruit in front of. Holloway had wondered whether the thing would recognize itself in a mirror, or in this case a video feed acting like a mirror. The immediate answer seemed to be that it did not, but then Holloway could remember times he'd been startled by his own reflection. What would be interesting was what would happen next.
The cat thing's head poked up again, more slowly this time, watching the "other" cat thing. Eventually it hauled itself up on the desk and walked over to the infopanel. It crouched down to peer at it, and then tapped on it. It moved a hand and appeared to watch its doppelganger do the same thing. After a few minutes of this, satisfied, it turned away from the infopanel, grabbed the bindi slice with both hands, and then sat down on the edge of the desk, feet dangling, to eat the fruit. It had recognized itself.
"Congratulations, you are now officially as smart as a dog," Holloway said. Carl looked up at the word dog. Holloway knew it was only his imagination that the dog appeared somewhat offended at the comparison.
Holloway rewound the images of the cat thing, recorded them, and kept the security camera on RECORD. He put the infopanel back down and went back into the cabin, once again slipping through the door to keep the increasingly annoyed Carl on the outside.
The cat thing noted Holloway's entrance but didn't move, or even stop kicking its feet leisurely as its legs dangled. It had apparently decided that Holloway wasn't a threat. Carl appeared at the window behind the desk and barked at the creature. It looked over casually but didn't stop eating its fruit. It had figured out that Carl couldn't get through the window and, for the moment at least, represented no threat.
Carl barked again.
The cat thing set its fruit down, pulled its legs up from the edge, grabbed its fruit and then walked over to the window. Carl stopped barking, confused by what the creature was doing. The cat thing sat down, millimeters away from the windowpane, stared at Carl, and then very deliberately started eating its fruit in front of the dog. Holloway could have sworn it was intentionally chewing with its mouth open.
Carl went nuts barking. The cat thing stayed there, eating and blinking. Carl dropped from the window; two seconds later, there was a thump as Carl's head hit the dog door. The manual lock was still on. Carl showed back up in the window a few seconds after that, no longer barking but clearly annoyed at the cat thing.
"Now you're just getting cocky," Holloway said, to the cat thing. The cat thing glanced back at Holloway, and then went back to staring at Carl, finishing up its fruit.
Holloway decided to push his luck. He walked over to the work desk and opened one of its drawers. The cat thing watched with interest but didn't move. Holloway retrieved a dog collar and a leash from the drawer. He almost never put them on Carl, but sometimes they were necessary when the two of them went to Aubreytown. He closed the drawer and then went back to the cabin door, slipping out before Carl could change his position from the window. Holloway went over to the dog and in full view of the creature slipped the collar around Carl's neck and latched the leash onto the collar.
Carl took in the collar and the leash and glanced up at Holloway, as if to say, What the hell?
"Trust me," Holloway said to Carl. "Heel!"
Carl was frustrated, but he was also well trained; any dog that could wait for an order to detonate explosives was one that knew how to listen to its master. He reluctantly came down from the window and stood next to Holloway.
"Stay," Holloway said, and walked back the length of the leash. Carl stayed. Holloway glanced over at the cat thing, which seemed to be taking this all in with interest.
"Sit," Holloway said to his dog. Carl actually glanced over to the cabin window and then back at Holloway, as if to say Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the new guy. But he sat, an almost inaudible whine escaping as he did so.
"Down," Holloway said. Carl lay down, dejectedly. His humiliation was complete.
"Heel," Holloway said again, and Carl got up and stood by his master. Holloway was still looking at the cat thing, which had watched the whole event. Holloway slid his hand along the leash so that Carl was close by his side, and started walking toward the door of the cabin. The cat thing stared but didn't move.
Holloway opened the door to the cabin but stayed outside with Carl for a minute. Carl got ready to burst through the doorway but Holloway cinched him close, compelling him to heel. Carl whined but then quickly calmed down. He had figured out how this was going to go.
The two of them walked slowly through the doorway. The cat thing remained on the desk, eyes wide but not making any panicky movements.
"Good dog," Holloway said to Carl, and walked him right in front of the desk. "Sit." Carl sat.
"Down," Holloway said. Carl lay.
"Roll over," Holloway said.
Holloway swore he heard his dog sigh. Carl rolled on his back and lay there, paws up, looking at the cat thing.
The cat thing sat there for a moment, looking at the open door and then back at the dog. Then it walked over to the edge of the desk and slid itself down into the chair. Carl made to move himself into an upright position, but Holloway laid his hand on his dog's chest. "Stay," he said. Carl stayed.
The cat thing slid off the chair and onto the floor less than a foot from Carl's muzzle. The two animals regarded each other curiously; the cat thing glanced up and down Carl's prone form while Carl, for his part, snuffled madly, trying to process every last particle of the cat thing's scent.
The cat thing edged closer and then oh-so-very-carefully reached out a hand toward Carl's muzzle. Holloway surreptitiously put a little more pressure on Carl's chest with one hand and tightened his grip on the leash with his other, ready if Carl overreacted.
The cat thing touched Carl's muzzle, withdrew its hand slightly, and then touched it again, stroking it softly. It did this for several seconds. From the other side of Carl, his tail thumped lightly.
"There it is," Holloway said. "See, that's not so bad."
Carl turned his head a bit, flicked out his tongue, and gave the cat thing a very wet slurp across the face. The creature backed up, sputtering indignantly, and tried to wipe off its face. Holloway laughed. Carl's tail thumped more.
The cat thing's head snapped up suddenly, as if hearing something. Carl squirmed at the movement, but Holloway held him down. The cat thing opened its mouth and wheezed for a moment, as if having trouble catching its breath. It looked at Holloway, then at the door. It bolted and was out of the cabin and gone.
After a minute, Holloway took the collar off Carl. The dog leapt up and raced out the door. Holloway stood and followed at a rather more leisurely rate.
The dog had stopped at the edge of the platform, looking up into the foliage of one of the eastern spikewoods, tail wagging lazily. Holloway suspected their guest had made its way off the platform in that direction.
Holloway called Carl to him, headed back into the cabin, and gave his dog a biscuit once the animal came through the door. "Good dog," Holloway said. Carl thumped his tail and then lay down to focus on his treat.
Holloway walked over to his desk, picked up the infopanel, and watched the video of their guest. By now he was sure that he had been the first human ever to see a creature like it; if someone else had found one, they'd almost certainly be pets by now, given their intelligence and friendliness. There'd already be breeders and pet shows and advertisements for Little Fuzzy Food, or whatever. Holloway felt fortunate his own strain of avarice didn't run in that direction. Breeding pets was more work than he would want.
Be that as it may, the find of a previously unknown mammal that large was significant. Not for Holloway, who would be hard-pressed to make any money off it, nor for ZaraCorp, whose own interest in the local flora and fauna was largely limited to when their remains turned into oily and exploitable sludge. But Holloway knew one person who would be very interested in this cat thing. Strange cat things were right up her alley.
Holloway saved and closed the video file, and smiled. Yes, she would be very happy to see this video.
The only real question was whether she'd be happy to see him.
Fuzzy Nation is out from Tor Books on May 10.