It was Chrismas eve, and he was alone.
This wasn’t necessarily unexpected. He and Ellie knew, when they’d taken the prospecting job — fly a two-person spaceship out through several jumps to unknown worlds and asteroids, and run analysis from orbit to mark those those that might be interesting to mine — that it would be a lonely job.
But it hadn’t mattered. Not really. They’d been married 10 years and all the very advanced science had confirmed they were thoroughly and completely infertile. So, there would never be children.
They had an orange cat, Mr. Kibbles, and Ellie, and Evan were all that was needed. They’d spent ten years in the ship…. Deliriously happy ten years, while their hair got some white threads, and Mr. Kibbles moved slower and slept more on either of their laps.
But Mr. Kibbles had died around summer. It was one of those cat things. He was fine one day and then suddenly he had some kind of galloping cancer that had killed him within the month.
The ship had gotten quieter and less fun without Kibbly. Evan hadn’t realized how much they’d been depending on Kibbly to fill a child’s function: he was someone to love on, and care for and indulge. Suddenly it felt like something was missing.
Ellie had looked up places they could stop that might have a kitten. Some of the replenishing outposts had got cats — and dogs — now, though they needed to be smuggled out of Earth, where someone had got the idea that no, you couldn’t take pets to the colonies, because they might damage the local eco-system. Even if they’d never found a planet with life, and even if they were already taking humans and all the farm animals. It was pure bureaucratic insanity. And people were getting around it, of course. But– But there were very few cats and dogs, and they cost the Earth. Evan had vetoed getting a kitten for that reason, only. They really couldn’t afford that kind of expense. It would erase their nest egg for retirement.
But they felt older without Kibbly. Older and less…. energetic. Until around September Ellie had gotten all giggly and told him she was going to get him a cat anyway and no, it wouldn’t cost the Earth. He got the feeling she was planning something for Christmas.
Only Ellie had never made it to Christmas. She too had got one of those cancers. Probably had it for months or perhaps years. But when it showed as a bad cold and extreme tiredness, the med analyzer on board said it was too far gone to stop. She’d refused to go to a hospital in an exchange center, or back to Earth. If it couldn’t be treated, she’d die the way she’d lived: in their little two-person spaceship, in space.
It was now a month since Evan had consigned her body to space. He was only grateful it was so fast there was only a really bad week at the end.
Well, it was a lonely job, but it was the only job he knew how to do. Sure, he could go back to Earth and retire. Or perhaps find another job. But that would be leaving the place where he and Ellie had lived.
It was Christmas Eve and he walked through the ship like a dead man. Like he was the one who had died, and Ellie and Mr. Kibbles were alive, there, somewhere, just out of the reach of his senses.
If he looked, just through the corner of his eye, he could see Ellie sitting on the sofa, petting Mr. Kibbles. And he wanted, more than anything, to go there, to be with them.
It was probably going to end like that, sooner rather than later, he thought. Lone prospectors had the highest suicide rate in the universe. But the thing was, he had a bad feeling that if he just took too many sleeping pills or something Ellie would look at him with her more in sorrow than in anger look. She’d be disappointed in him when he saw her. And that’s not something he ever wanted.
So he walked around the ship. It was Christmas eve. Ellie had always decorated. She had an old box of decorations somewhere in the storage area. And he and Ellie would sing Christmas carols by the tree. And they would cook something special for Christmas and give Mr. Kibbles one of the very expensive cans of food they kept for special occasions. Then more often than not all three would fall asleep on the sofa, Ellie, Evan and Mr. Kibbles, while the Christmas tree lights lent a particular cheerfulness to their nap.
He went into the storage area and with sheer bloody mindedness found the tree, and put it up. It felt like eating a treat you couldn’t taste, but he put it up, and lit the lights. Ellie’s work area — where she did little crafts or fixed the cleaning bots — was walled off with a curtain, like she’d been working on something in secret. He had no idea what.
Singing Christmas carols wasn’t going to happen. Not by himself. But he did fall asleep on the sofa, and dreamed of Ellie singing Christmas Carols, with Mr. Kibbles purring around her ankles.
It must have been a very good dream, because halfway through it, he felt as though Mr. Kibbles had climbed on the sofa, and snuggled near him, purring. He reached down and petted him and the purr became louder. It felt a little odd, but then–
It wasn’t till he woke that he realized there was a cat snuggled to him and purring. In the state between sleep and wakening, he had a feeling like … like a cat had sneaked aboard. But how was that possible, when they were out in space. Had Ellie’s big surprise been some kind of space-time manipulator?
He blinked and woke more and realized it was…. a cat doll. Though that was perhaps not right. It moved as a cat did in its sleep. It twitched and rearranged itself like a real cat. A cat robot? Evan petted him again. He was covered in the softest synthetic fur, much softer than any real cat’s. And he recognized one of Ellie’s oldest and most loved coats that she used to wear in winter on Earth. Why she’d brought it on shipboard no one knew, it but was obvious she’d found a use for it.
“Hey fuzzy!” Evan said, and the robot cat opened realistic green eyes and headbutted him.
Feeling more cheerful than he had in a long time, both because it didn’t feel so alone, and because Ellie had made this for him, he got up from the sofa and made himself breakfast while talking to Fuzzy.
He told Fuzzy all about Ellie and Kibbly and how lonely the ship had been without them. “I guess,” he told Fuzzy, who was playing with ties on his shoes just like Kibbly used to do. “I don’t need to feed you, right. Well, maybe charge you now and then. I wish I knew what Ellie meant for me to do.”
Like that, Fuzzy lopped away, running. “All right. wonder what I said to offend him.”
But when he came back, Fuzzy had a folded paper in his mouth. They almost never used paper on ship board. Only if you needed some communication that you didn’t want ever changed, and that would be needed again and again and was worth the space of keeping it.
Evan recognized Ellie’s handwriting right away.
“My Dear Evan,” it started. “I started project cat before I knew I wouldn’t be here for Christmas. My idea was to create a sort of toy cat — he has some AI capability and will learn, the longer he stays around — to fulfill our need until we came upon a suitable kitten who wouldn’t cost the Earth.
But now I know I won’t be here for Christmas, so I’m leaving you this robot cat as a reminder that I love you, very very much.
You must remember my dear that life goes on. Your life goes on after mine has ended. This means that yes, you might have to leave the job and go back to Earth and do something else. Or it might mean that you find a nice young lady who will like the job, and maybe even bring a kitten with her.
Whatever it means, I don’t want you or your life to end with my death. You are too wonderful a person not to share yourself with others you love, be they young ladies, or cats, even — just? — friends.
Love and live. And take the robot cat — I call him Fuzzy — with you as a reminder of my eternal love.
Evan sat there a long time, reading the letter again and again. He only came out of it as Fuzzy started gently headbutting his ankle.
Reaching down, he petted Fuzzy’s head. “I guess,” Evan said. “I’ve been an idiot. And it took Ellie to show me that. As it usually did. And maybe, just maybe, she’s right.”
He made himself a good Christmas dinner, and sat on the sofa, petting Fuzzy.
There was this place where they refueled that he’d heard rumors was having a stray cat problem. Of course, when that news had gone out it probably meant every cat lover in the Galaxy was headed that way. By the time he got there there might be none. But it was worth a try. And till then he had Fuzzy.
He ran his hand through the unbelievably soft fur, as it dawned on him: Ellie might be gone, but she’d said her love was eternal. And it was. She’d loved him enough to plan on his having company after she was gone. And she’d sacrificed a favorite jacket to make the little bot fuzzy.
“Thank you, Ellie,” he said, and felt as though she’d heard. Felt as though she was smiling in his mind.
It still seemed sacrilege to think of maybe finding someone else, but there was a sort of informal bulletin board for people in his situation. Maybe there was a nice lady out there without a companion to fly with.
Fuzzy headbutted him again. In his green eyes, Evan saw the reflection of all his Christmases with Ellie, all the love and devotion she’d poured on him. She’d made him Fuzzy even as she was dying.
He would never dishonor her by throwing her gift back in her face.
“I promise,” he said. “Life will go on. There will be another kitten. There will be another wife, or maybe just a good friend. And I’ll keep Fuzzy. Wherever I go, Ellie, I will take him with me as a proof of your love. What you did showed me how much you cared. I cannot throw away what you held valuable. Even if it is myself.”
As though he understood, Fuzzy purred and turned upside down for a belly rub.