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Short Story

To Herd A Cat

By Dana Luery Shaw

“Finally, I will show everyone what I am truly capable of.”

Lore

“Finally, I will show everyone what I am truly capable of.” The professor flipped the first switch. A crackling light flashed in the laboratory, illuminating the gearwork tools scattered haphazardly across the floor, the notes and hand-drawn blueprints pasted over the dingy walls, and the thin layer of white hair dusted everywhere. The light glinted off his impish grin before fading into darkness. “They all said I was mad. Mad!” He paused. Well... come to think of it, I don’t believe the word “mad” was ever used. “Annoying” is more prevalent. “A dud.” “Disappointing.” “Never going to get tenure.” Ah, yes, that was it. “They said I would never get tenure! Tenure!” he shouted into the gloom. “That my inventions were merely expensive paperweights! Well... no more!” He reached to flip the second switch, but it stuck a little. Probably from when Mauczka spilled coffee all over it. It took another three tries before it, too, fell before his awesome and terrible power. A low hum vibrated through the laboratory. “For too long, I have been disrespected, my ambition unappreciated, and my work criminally underfunded by my so-called colleagues at the LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png5 University of Piltover’s Engineering Department. Do they know how hard it is to climb up the ladder of academia without the support of a wealthy family or patron? Of course not! If they did, they would recognize the disadvantage I have had to overcome to rise through the ranks like... like cream atop milk!” At those words, a happy trill sounded from the other side of the room, but the professor’s attention was entirely on flipping the third switch. The hum grew louder, and the lights began to flicker. A soft blue glow emanated from the opposite wall. The machine. The professor’s pride and joy. The thing he would be forever remembered for. Ready, finally, after all these years of experimentation, of failure, of pulling out the last of his remaining hair, of starting again from scratch, over and over and over. Ready to be tested. And with all three switches flipped, the machine was prepared to enter its second phase. The professor walked slowly across the room, savoring the feeling of superiority as he... Wait. Where was Mauczka? She was supposed to be strapped into her chair. “Oh, for... Mauczka? Mauczka!” He dropped to his hands and knees as he searched for her under his work bench. When he heard a soft mrrow from beneath the bed against the far wall, he sighed and peered under it. There lay Mauczka, the small white cat who was the professor’s truest companion, curled up just far enough away that he had to squirm halfway beneath the bed to grab her. Mauczka kept him company while he worked in this abysmally small laboratory-slash-bedroomless apartment, and she always listened when he needed to rant about something inane his colleagues had done or said, often nodding along or offering a supportive chirp. All she asked was that he remember to feed her on time. When he didn’t, her keening whine would remind him. If he left her wailing for too long, the neighbors would pound on the door or send annoyed notes via pneuma-tube. “Mauczka,” he said, his voice softening as he tried to place her in the harness again. Was she always this wiggly? “Mauczka, I need you to stay here. What about a treat?” Mauczka eyed the professor warily as he reached into his pocket and offered her a small piece of the pastry he had been saving for when he was hungry. The wariness did not let up as she grabbed it from him and dropped it to the ground in her usual pre-eating ritual. Soon enough, though, she allowed him to strap her into the harness, making a pouty face when he replaced the brassy metal cap atop her head. On the opposite side of the machine, the professor, buzzing with excitement, strapped himself into a similar harness and donned his own metal cap, covered in crystalline artifacts. He had spent the better part of a decade painstakingly researching them, scouring much of the world for the ones with the correct frequency resonance, then experimenting with them until he got the combination of their powers and intensities just right. He could have finished in three years, had the dean given him proper funding. Of course, utilizing some of Zaun Crest icon.png Zaun's volatile technology might have helped speed things up as well, but that was unthinkable at the university. The professor turned his attention back to the metal caps. Several of the artifacts lit up, while others beeped. “It’s all coming together now. When I pull this lever”—he gestured to the large lever built into the machine, practicing for his presentation to Dean Svopalit—“I will prove that the mind is not rooted in the body at all! That the brain is merely a housing for the mind! That the mind... can be easily switched between bodies, with no loss of identity. And everyone,” he added in a low mutter, “will see just how wrong they’ve been about me.” Yes. Once he pulled this lever, no one would ever forget to include him in interdepartmental memos again. No one would mock his failed experiments, or refuse to let him teach the good classes, or give him the runaround for six months instead of letting him argue his case for why he deserved additional grant money. Finally, LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png4 Professor Andrej von Yipp would be given the appreciation he deserved. Heart beating wildly, he pulled the lever. He felt a jolt travel through his body as his eyes rolled back in his head. Mauczka’s wail rang in his ears... ... and then he blinked, adjusting to a new brightness. When did I turn the lights on? He wondered if he had lost consciousness. He wondered how much time had passed. He... oh, goodness, what was that horrible smell? Von Yipp’s nose twitched just before he sneezed, three times. But it didn’t sound right. Not only was it loud, hitting his ears harder than any time he’d sneezed before, but it was undeniably... adorable. It was an adorable, tiny sneeze. Von Yipp looked down at his hands... no, his paws... Mauczka’s paws... “I’ve done it!” he tried to say, but it came out as a satisfied purr. Aha! I can only make cat sounds now. Touching his fuzzy little face with his new paws, von Yipp laughed—rather, he chittered—in delight. “I’ve successfully switched bodies with—” He suddenly recognized the odor he smelled: smoke. Not good. Potentially very bad, in fact. He pushed the metal cap off his head and saw that several of the artifacts were beginning to fracture, melt, or sizzle into steam. And about half of them were irreplaceable, one-off pieces that could not be recreated. “Oh gods,” cried von Yipp, the words coming out as a formless caterwaul. “We must switch back before the artifacts are destroyed!” He slid the cap back on his head, reached his paw over toward the lever—thoughtfully installed at a level suitable for a human inhabiting a cat’s body—and tried to pull it down. It held fast. Von Yipp stretched as far as he knew he could based on his experiences in a human body, and then he stretched even more. He slinked out of the harness and put all of his weight onto the lever. But it was metal and slippery, and he had no way of holding on to it without the cap slipping off. “Drat!” he yowled. “This would be so much easier to operate with thumbs!” That’s when he realized—his human body still had thumbs. He just happened not to be in it at the moment. Somebody was, though. And she could use those thumbs to pull the lever and switch them back before it was too late. “Mauczka!” he trilled, hoping to catch her attention. He couldn’t see her on the other side of the machine. “Mauczka? Do you understand me?” A scream was the only response. Von Yipp slid the cap off his head again and ran around to the front of the machine. There, he saw his human body leaning forward, straining against the harness, face panicked. “I need to get out!” Mauczka shouted in von Yipp’s voice, sweat cascading down her balding head. “I don’t want to be in here!” She’s already picked up human language, von Yipp thought as he stalked over to her. How very unusual. “You can press the button in the middle of the harness to release yourself!” he meowed, hoping she could comprehend. Mauczka looked down at the harness in confusion. She tried to lower her head to the button, presumably to bite it, but this feat could not be achieved with von Yipp’s relatively inflexible body. “You do it!” she cried. Oh good, von Yipp thought as he leapt onto her lap and pushed the button. At least she can understand me. The harness released Mauczka right away. She bent forward and tried to stand on her human hands and feet, but fell to the ground gracelessly, limbs akimbo. “Now I need your help with this lever!” von Yipp wailed as he ran back to the cat side of the machine. “No, I’ll be over here.” “What?” von Yipp hissed. He whipped his head back to see Mauczka lying on the ground, unconcerned. “I don’t want to get up.” “You have to!” von Yipp spat at her. But then he felt a drip coming from above him, and... Oh no. The thaumatic catalyzer had completely melted. He looked down at the floor and found shards of two other artifacts that had disintegrated. Even if Mauczka pulled the lever in record time, it wouldn’t be enough. He sat on the ground beside the machine. I... I’m stuck in this cat body. Dismayed, von Yipp looked to Mauczka, who was trying and failing to crawl under the bed. And Mauczka... he realized with growing horror, is stuck in mine. A wave of catastrophizing anxiety washed over him, culminating in spasms as he coughed up a disgusting hairball. Everyone would find out that von Yipp, for all his big talk about the invention that would change the course of history, had instead made himself a cat. What an idiot, they would say. He would never live it down. Forget about tenure—his colleagues would laugh him out of the Engineering Department. He’d have no money and no way to earn it. He’d lose the apartment and live as a stray cat on the streets, and be forced to learn to hunt rats down in Zaun... There was no way forward. It was during this awful epiphany that Mauczka screamed as loud as she could. Von Yipp began to panic. Had his body been hurt? Would he lose an arm? A leg? An eye? Would there be anything left for him to return to one day? He sprinted over to Mauczka and jumped on her chest. “What?! What’s wrong with my body? What did you do to it?” Mauczka stopped screaming. She looked von Yipp dead in the eye, then shouted, “HUNGRY!” “Hungry?” He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or angry. “You’re screaming because you’re hungry?! That body wasn’t hungry last time I was in it!” “I AM WASTING AWAY!” Mauczka wailed. “SKIN AND BONE! STARVED! CLOSE TO DEATH!” “Shhh, shhh, calm down.” Von Yipp’s apartment was within university-owned housing, and it was the middle of the night. He could practically hear his neighbors striding angrily down the hallway to bang on his door and tell him to be quiet. “You can’t get food just by screaming!” “Yes, I can,” Mauczka said, her voice returning to a whiny tenor. Ugh, have I always sounded like that? “It’s worked for me before. Why shouldn’t it work now?” “Because usually I am the one who feeds you! But I can’t do that right now, so please, please, Mauczka, don’t—” “DYING! UNDERFED! NEVER HAD A SINGLE BITE OF FOOD IN ALL MY LIFE!” Von Yipp tried to think quickly, but it was difficult in this tiny apartment with a giant screaming person beside him. He’d thought his sneezing was loud, but this was simply unbearable. All of his senses were different, really. He could see much better in this low light than he could before, his whiskers caught the movement of every piece of dust, his nose pierced through the smells of sweat and oil to land upon something buttery and golden and... “Mauczka! Your pocket! Check your right pocket!” Mauczka thrust her hand into the pocket of von Yipp’s lab coat. It looked like she didn’t know how to use her new fingers—she kept them together as she swiped around, likely confused at her lack of claws. But she managed to pry the pastry out, and sniffed it delicately. “What’s this?” “What’s... You already ate some of it!” “Smells different,” she said with a shrug as she dropped the pastry on the ground. It was disturbing to watch his own body eat off the floor, tearing through a baked good like it was the innards of a rat. And he knew exactly how disgusting these floors were. That was the crux of the problem: Mauczka, in von Yipp’s body, couldn’t help but act like the cat she truly was. It’s a vindication of my theory of the mind, he considered, though I wish I could enjoy it more. No, what von Yipp needed to focus on was making a plan. He had a meeting with the dean in two days. He would have to appear before her, as normal as could be, and try to convince her to give him more money. Von Yipp knew there wasn’t a way to repair his machine during the lifespan of this cat body, so he would have to propose another project. Something new. Something that would make his transformation seem deliberate, designed to show off his genius in a unique and creative manner. It would be a challenge, but not impossible. He just needed to help Mauczka act like a human during the meeting, and to hope that Dean Svopalit was in a good mood. With luck, he would be ready to astound his colleagues by the end of the semester! Von Yipp watched Mauczka paw at the floor as she attempted to bury the rest of the pastry in the cold concrete. “Oh, Mauczka,” he mewled. “Did you enjoy that pastry?” She flopped onto her back and stretched to show her belly. That’s probably a yes, von Yipp thought with a smile. At least, it was an approximation of a smile, as good as it got for a cat. Really, it was more of a sign of aggression. Sort of the opposite of a smile. “I know where you can get more,” he purred. “But you’ll have to listen to me. And not like that time I tried to teach you to use a toilet. You’ll have to really listen.” It was here that he realized he would need to teach Mauczka to use a toilet. But he shook that thought aside. “Do you think you can do that?” He waited for a response. “Mauczka?” Still nothing. And then, he heard the sound of a human body’s deep inhale. “I’M! STILL! HUNGRY!”

The University of Piltover was one of the least peaceful places to pursue an education. The fault usually lay with the prestigious Engineering Department—lots of explosions, fires burning down half a wing of the dance department, and students and professors crashing their inventions into the structures around campus. The university wasn’t an ivory tower so much as a chaotic playground for people with talent and intelligence. That was what had drawn von Yipp in the first place, as a student and later as faculty. That said, there were certain expectations of decorum. For example, there was unofficially a rule that the amount of damage a professor caused had to be matched by the importance of their invention. But the most well-known rule was that animals were not allowed on campus. This was a rule that Dean Svopalit had insisted upon, and she wielded considerable power. Professor von Yipp’s post-machine-mishap plan for getting around this had involved Mauczka smuggling him in beneath a large overcoat, but he did not own one, and he didn’t have time to instruct her in the intricacies of commerce. None of his sweaters were quite large enough to conceal an adult cat, either. And letting Mauczka run around in von Yipp’s body, unaccompanied? Out of the question. She couldn’t remember such simple pleasantries as “Lovely weather today, isn’t it?” or “please” or not knocking over mugs filled with hot coffee, so clearly she could not be trusted to have a complex conversation. If he could have rescheduled his meeting with the dean, he would have. But it had already taken months to find an opening in her schedule, and his plan had to move quickly, especially as he needed to explain the pivot away from his research from the last decade. So instead, von Yipp attempted to ignore the astonished stares from students and faculty as Mauczka, in his body, sauntered onto campus with a cat on her shoulder. Well, “sauntered” was a generous term for her stumbling, halting gait. She had already bumped into more than one statue on the lush green courtyard between the brick and limestone buildings. Luckily, the sheer audacity of bringing an animal to campus meant that they were left well alone. No one wanted to be within firing range when the dean heard about this absurd abandonment of protocol. One day, von Yipp mused as Mauczka finally reached the main building, there will be a grand statue of me out here. “The Engineering Department is just up those stairs and through that door,” he said. “Do you remember how to open a door?” “No.” “With your thumbs, Mauczka. Use your thumb to help you grip the doorknob and turn it.” “I don’t like them.” “Your thumbs? But they’re so useful. How could you not—” “They feel weird.” “Well, you’re going to have to use them if you want to get your next pastry.” The only reliable way to get Mauczka to do anything she didn’t want to was, as ever, bribery. When Mauczka reached the door, she extended both hands outward and tried to turn the knob without using her thumbs at all. Von Yipp sighed. This would have to do. “The dean’s office is just down the hallway,” he trilled as they entered the bustling hall. He felt like he hadn’t been here in ages, but the smell of sulfur and grease, as well as that low static hum that came with any active hextech element, welcomed him back like an old friend. One good thing about his new senses was that these scents and sounds affected him more. He could almost feel himself tearing up before wondering if cats could cry. Mauczka, however, did not enjoy the sight of dozens of students milling about. Luckily, one of the lessons she had actually absorbed was not to scream when she was displeased. Instead, she whispered, “Too many people. I don’t like it.” “You have to walk through them. But don’t worry, they won’t step on your tail.” And they didn’t. Certainly, they gaped at Mauczka with von Yipp perched atop her shoulder, but they did not approach. Mauczka, however, was still uncomfortable, and so she drew herself up to her fullest height and... hissed. “Mauczka! People don’t hiss!” Von Yipp’s cat body couldn’t blush, yet his face felt very hot. He couldn’t tell whether it was because a cat was meowing loudly in a place where no animal should be, or whether it was because a professor was hissing, but the students quickly cleared out of the hallway. With no further distractions, Mauczka located the dean’s office and opened the door to the large, plush, many-windowed room. Dean Svopalit sat behind her oaken desk, gazing down with pursed lips at a research file. As Mauczka entered, the dean began to speak. “So. Von Yipp. Another extension, or is it an additional grant? Because I’m...” She trailed off as soon as she looked up. Von Yipp could see the telltale signs of an angry and explosive lecture beginning to form, so he sought to cut it off. “Tell her... she looks... well rested?” Instead, Mauczka leaned over the dean’s desk and blinked slowly. “Would you like a pastry?” Of all the niceties for her to remember, von Yipp thought murderously, this would be the one that sticks. Dean Svopalit, in a voice so quiet and scathing that von Yipp heard the end of his career in it, whispered, “Close. The door. Now.” As soon as the door was shut, he closed his eyes and pressed his ears flat against his head, waiting for the shouts that would inevitably follow... ... when he felt himself being lifted off Mauczka’s shoulder. Panicked, he began to wriggle—was the dean going to throw him out a window? But he looked up into her face and saw the biggest smile he’d ever seen. “Who is this widdle girl?” she asked in a singsong voice as she rubbed her nose against the top of his cat head. “Who is this baby?” Von Yipp, stunned, looked back at Mauczka, who was frowning at this gross mishandling of her cat body. “Well, for goodness sake, tell her my name!” “Von Yipp,” she said. Dean Svopalit shook her head with a dark chuckle. “Only you would name a cat after yourself, Andrej.” “No, tell her your name!” von Yipp whined as the dean pressed her face into his fur. No wonder she didn’t allow animals on campus. This was embarrassing! “Oh! Mauczka.” “Mauczka!” the dean cooed, rubbing von Yipp’s cat cheeks while making little kissy faces. “My little Mauczka, so soft and so sweet!” After a few more minutes of petting the cat, she looked up at Mauczka sharply. “Not a word of this outside this room, von Yipp. You hear me?” Mauczka nodded. Von Yipp purred in delight. “Perfect. We can tell her that she has to provide funding, or we’ll—” “I know you’re here to talk about your invention,” Svopalit said. “To ask me for more funding for whatever has gone wrong. But I simply don’t have the time. You’ve wasted it by bringing this... this...” Von Yipp tried to make himself purr again, but it came out as a strangled yelp. “This chatty little angel into my office.” “Mauczka, listen to me, and repeat what I say. Nod if you comprehend.” Mauczka nodded, but the dean took this as a sign that she agreed with her. “Excellent, I am glad you understand.” “Wait!” Mauczka cried as she listened to von Yipp’s frantic meows. “I... have been at this university for thirteen years, and—” “And what have you done in that time? Prattled on, day in and day out, with nothing to show for it. Do you know how much you’ve cost me over the years, von Yipp?” “Ugh, now she’s going to lecture me.” “Now she’s going to lecture me,” repeated Mauczka. Von Yipp winced. “At least one of us is doing some lecturing!” the dean said with a roll of her eyes. “When did you last teach a class? Some of us actually invest in this university, rather than constantly demanding that it invest in us.” He perked up. “Would... teaching a class make the university more interested in investing in me? Because I could do that. Happily, as long as I have time to prepare.” Mauczka relayed this to the dean, who grinned an evil grin. “Well then. Professor Bunce had to drop his course load for some silly family obligations, something about someone being on their deathbed.” Bunce? Von Yipp’s heart sank into his fuzzy little toes. No... surely, she can’t mean... “Which means we need someone to teach his intro-level class.” She looked up over her spectacles pointedly. “I hate teaching those first-year imbeciles! They don’t know anything. They’re not able to assist in my research. They’re... they’re children!” The dean lifted von Yipp and handed him back to Mauczka. “Sounds like your Mauczka is a little cranky.” Mauczka leaned down and whispered in von Yipp’s ear. “So... do I tell her you hate the children?” “No! Tell her I’ll do the class!” Mauczka gazed at the dean. “I’ll do the class.” “Excellent.” Svopalit stood, gesturing toward the door. “It’s in Room Two-Seventeen. You’d better hurry.” “Right now?!” “Right now?” “It’s just Intro to Hexographs, Andrej. Even Mauczka could teach it.”

Von Yipp despaired as Mauczka tried and failed to hold a piece of chalk, and thus could not write his name on the board. This is going to be excruciating. Quickly, he meowed instructions, things for Mauczka to say. “I,” she said with her back to all the students in the cavernous lecture hall, “am Professor von Yipp, and I will be teaching you for the rest of this sem... s... this term.” She can’t handle the word “semester,” von Yipp thought with dread. She can’t write my name yet, let alone draw the graphic representations she’ll need to use in these proofs. How is she going to teach this class? Luckily, these were first years, idiots who barely knew what hexographs were. They were also seemingly too busy staring at the cat yowling on the desk to notice that their professor couldn’t write. “Mauczka, follow the shapes I’m making with my paws. Try to copy that on the board.” He traced out his name on the desk, letter by letter. Mauczka stared, gears visibly turning in her head, as she wrote a gross approximation of Professor von Yipp on the board, chalk held between her palms. This took six full minutes. Sweat gathering between his paws, von Yipp turned to the class to see one brave student raising her hand. He directed Mauczka to call on her. “Professor von Yipp,” the student began, “I wanted to make sure you knew where we left off. When Professor Bunce left, he had just finished speaking to us on quadrillic hexographs.” “Quad... hmm, yes, I see.” Mauczka glanced at von Yipp, who urged her to continue. “Where we left off,” she said, blankly. The student stood, her notebook in her hands. “The hexograph tracks the state of vibrational frequency in the magic powering a hextech drive,” she recited. “Correctly reading the oscillations allows us to better understand the way a specific crystal will interact with...” She frowned. “Are you... listening?” Von Yipp yowled as Mauczka tried to curl into a ball beside the lectern, laying her head down in her hands. “What are you doing?! You have to teach!” “How do you ever sleep when your back is so... not flexible?” Mauczka whispered as she turned onto her back, unconcerned. “Mauczka!!” Mauczka cleared her throat. “I’m resting my eyes,” she said loudly, so the students could all hear. “If you’re so boring that you make me fall asleep, you...” “You’ll get a failing grade.” Surprisingly, this was not the worst teaching approach von Yipp had ever encountered. “Yeah, you’ll get a failing grade,” Mauczka said. A gasp rippled through the room, and the students whispered to each other. With his enhanced cat hearing, von Yipp heard snippets: “I knew this was a difficult class, but...” “There must be some reason for this.” “Maybe... he’s trying to teach us how to present in an engaging way.” “So we can get funding for our experiments?” “Yes, that’s it! No professor would be this... callous, otherwise.” Von Yipp shook his head at their naivete. They would be disabused of that notion quickly. Mauczka urged the student to continue with an impatient wave of her hand. “Keep going about your... quid... hex... thing.” With an audible gulp, the student began to recite again, this time with bigger hand motions and metaphors. Von Yipp kept an eye on Mauczka. He had to make her listen—this charade needed to go on for months, and a cat couldn’t bribe a human adult with pastries while people watched. I must find another way to motivate her. When the student finished, Mauczka opened an eye and nodded. “Good, uh, explaining. Well done. You can all go now. More next time.” There was supposed to be a full hour of lecture, but none of the students mentioned it. They bolted out of the classroom, relieved that they were not asked to entertain this strange new professor. “Can we go home now?” Mauczka whined as the last student left. “I’m hungry.” “Fine,” said von Yipp, taking his place on her shoulder as she bumped into yet another wall. If things continue on like this, how long can we keep this up?

Over the next few weeks, von Yipp struggled to adjust to life as a cat. He felt small, powerless, at the mercy of something much larger and less intelligent than himself. As a university professor, none of these feelings were new, but they were certainly magnified now. Mauczka was... still a cat, but her attention span and level of care seemed to have gone up. She had learned how to pronounce some of the more difficult terminology. With von Yipp’s help, she explained away her awkward penmanship as the result of a summer injury, and she seemed to enjoy giving students caustic feedback when they answered a question incorrectly. He wondered whether her progress was because her mind inhabited a human brain, and whether the structure of the brain actually did have an effect on how the mind functioned. He still felt entirely like himself, though. Still as whip-smart and ambitious as ever. Von Yipp needed to find a way to reveal himself as a cat to his colleagues, one that would impress and intimidate, and he was just as driven to succeed in this endeavor as he’d ever been. Until then, they had to continue pretending everything was normal. Which was why the little things Mauczka refused to do bothered him so much. They had a long road ahead, and even the smallest missteps could cost them. “Your nails are filthy and disgustingly long,” he hissed. “You have to cut them.” “Why can’t I just scratch things until the long parts fall off?” “Because human nails don’t work that way. You’d be left with a bunch of bleeding fingers.” “So I don’t cut them. No big deal.” Von Yipp struggled to think of a reason why Mauczka would have to cut them beyond “the students will complain to the dean about your hygiene soon,” as that didn’t seem to faze her. She had been just as reluctant to have her claws trimmed when they were in their original bodies, and treats were even less effective now that she could get them for herself. He was beginning to feel desperate. “You’ll... you’ll go to jail!” he blurted out. “Okay.” “You don’t want to go to jail. Your cat body would starve to death while you were gone.” “I don’t know what jail is.” Von Yipp sighed. “Think of how much you hate it when I pick you up and hug you.” “Horrible,” she said with a shudder. She nodded at the machine, still taking up a considerable amount of space in the apartment. “The only thing I hate more is that harness.” “Jail is worse than the harness.” Mauczka rolled her eyes. “I will not go to jail. And if I do, I’ll just... wiggle out of it. Like I always do.” Von Yipp was getting a headache. “Jail is not something you can wiggle out of.” “Sure it is.” “No!” he spat. “It’s not! You’ll go to jail for... not trimming your nails, and the wardens will give you food you don’t like—” “So I’ll cry.” “They won’t care, Mauczka!” “You always cared when I cried.” “Because you’re a cat!” “So?” Mauczka asked flatly. “So you’re in a human body now! You’re not cute anymore!” Mauczka gasped, eyes wide. Evidently this was a revelation to her. “I’m not?” “No.” “Because I’m in your...?” “Yes.” “So I can’t...?” “You can’t get away with whatever you want anymore.” Mauczka stared into the distance, brow furrowed in thought. Von Yipp wondered if he’d gone too far. But she needed to realize there were different rules for when you were cute and tiny and fluffy. You might be less powerful in some ways, but in other ways, you called all the shots. An interesting thought. Mauczka walked over to the machine. Some parts of it were shiny enough that she could see her reflection—and she was not happy with what she saw. She pulled at her cheeks and frowned. “I’m... hideous! Change me back!” Rude. But perhaps she finally understood what it meant to inhabit von Yipp’s balding, prematurely aged body. “I already told you that I can’t do that. We don’t have the proper crystals. So you have to listen to me if you don’t want to... to go to jail.” “Fine,” she huffed. “I’ll trim my nails.” “And wash your hair.” “With water?! We didn’t agree to that!” This was going to be a long night.

A month and a half later, the dean’s calendar finally opened up. Mauczka and von Yipp went once again to her office, and let her coo over the cat body with the door firmly shut. “I have heard some reports from your students,” Dean Svopalit said. But Mauczka changed the subject. She and von Yipp had been rehearsing this speech for a full week now. “IhopeyouhaveseenthatIamcommittedtothisuniversity,” she said in one go. “AndnowIfeelthatIdeservethefundingforanewprojectofmine.” She took a deep, gasping breath. “Soifyouwouldbesokindastogivemeyourstampofapproval—” “Slow down, von Yipp. I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” Mauczka looked to von Yipp for approval. He gave her a small nod. “I... hope...” she began, going as slowly as she could, “you... have... seen... that...” “Enough.” The dean looked annoyed. “From your midterm reviews, it sounds like things are going reasonably well. A few complaints, but it’s just an intro-level class. No one really cares so long as there’s a warm body up front. It’s basically babysitting.” Von Yipp mewed his agreement. “Now. You’ve mentioned that you want funding for a new project.” Mauczka nodded. “Perhaps that will be good for you,” the dean continued. “You’ve been tinkering for long enough on your ‘theory of the mind’ machine, or whatever you call it. I’m glad you’re finally admitting defeat. It was foolish to even attempt. In any case, you have the paperwork filled out? The grant proposals written?” Another meow from a fuming von Yipp, and Mauczka nodded again. They had been practicing writing, with Mauczka following the lines von Yipp made with his paw. She wasn’t good, by any means, but it was practically legible now. Even so, it had taken weeks to fill out the paperwork by hand, as the clacking keys of the typograph scared Mauczka and gave von Yipp migraines. “And you’ve recruited the graduate students to work on it?” Von Yipp stared. Graduate students were not recruited until after a project had been approved. Historically, von Yipp had difficulty getting anyone to help him—something about his “abysmal track record” and how working with him was akin to “setting your resume on fire.” Clearly, Svopalit was trying to give him the runaround. Again. “Uh...” “No grad students yet? Oh, well, I guess you’ll have to go find some.” Dean Svopalit smiled as she patted a thick stack of folders beside her. “But be warned, most of the good ones have already been taken.”

Professor von Yipp did have an office at the university, technically. Technically, in that it was once a lavatory, but the pipes stopped working several years ago. It still smelled of sewage on hot days. And it was so small that it could barely fit a desk and a person in it at the same time. But it had his name upon the door, so it would do for now. Unfortunately, the office was too small for the door to close when faced with the addition of a second chair, so the graduate student interviews took place with the chair in the middle of the doorway. The back legs were easily jostled by anyone walking past, but von Yipp would not let this inconvenience bother him too much. Not more than having to jump through this hoop in the first place, or the fact that the dean was operating under the completely false assumption that his machine hadn’t worked, when it had. “Ask her about a time when completing the experiment was more important than following protocol or ethical standards,” he urged Mauczka. It was the most important question in the interview, and all two of the previous interviewees had answered poorly. The young woman in front of him frowned and shifted in her seat, the scrolled papers in her lap rustling. “Well,” she said slowly, her eyes flitting up to von Yipp’s cat face with discomfort. “I suppose I’d have to say... never. An experiment that doesn’t follow protocol is one where the results can be easily called into question, and I strive to—” Blah blah blah, the rest of what she had to say didn’t matter. Von Yipp already knew she was out. But he had Mauczka finish the interview and kindly inform her that they would let her know within two weeks whether she had secured the position. The young woman shrugged, seemingly no longer interested, before she stood to leave. Mauczka pushed the next file toward von Yipp. “This is the last one? Then we can go get pastries?” Really, he would need to have a discussion with her about nutrition at some point. His human body was beginning to look pallid and undernourished from eating a pastry-based diet. Von Yipp scanned the page. “That can’t be right. It says we’ve double-booked. Just... ask one of them to come back tomorrow.” Two sets of footsteps clambered down the hall. Two men, one with a long face and a thick mustache, the other with big sideburns and a mug of steaming tea, stopped in front of von Yipp’s door. The mustachioed one glanced down at the chair. “I’ll stand,” he said gruffly, gesturing for the man with the sideburns to take a seat. He did so, setting his mug down on von Yipp’s desk. Mauczka looked at them. “My mistake, I’ve double-booked us. Would one of you—” “You haven’t,” said the seated man, his face stony. “We’re a package deal, we are,” the man with the mustache said lightly. “Jakubb and Natyaz Batadel.” He gestured between them as he spoke, indicating that he was Jakubb and the man with the sideburns was Natyaz. “Ah, brothers. I see. Well, ask them about their work.” The Batadel brothers spoke guardedly about their studies—not unusual, since the university students had to take care that their ideas were not stolen. But they sounded talented enough. Now, for the real test. “Tell me about a time when completing the experiment was more important than following protocol or ethical standards.” The brothers exchanged a look. Jakubb cleared his throat, but Natyaz broke in to answer. “There was a part we needed that was not available anywhere in Piltover. So we went and got it elsewhere.” “That doesn’t sound like a breach of protocol,” Mauczka replied at von Yipp’s urging. “It was chemtech,” Jakubb said quietly. The words hung in the air. Von Yipp blinked. Chemtech, from Zaun, was... not well regarded in Piltover. It was banned from the university in order to keep Piltovan scientific endeavors unsullied. There were plenty of inventions in the department that exploded, but adding in volatile Zaunite chemicals would make already unstable machines even more dangerous. “What in the world did they need chemtech for?” von Yipp wondered aloud. Mauczka asked the question, and Jakubb shrugged. “We were creating something that we wanted only one person to be able to operate. We were investigating what makes each person unique, and... how much a person can change while remaining themselves.” “Ah. Interesting...” At the end of the interview, Mauczka prepared to give them both the standard “we’ll be in touch” line, but von Yipp stopped her. “Tell them they’ve got the job.” Mauczka looked at the brothers, considering, as Natyaz took another sip of tea. She locked eyes with him and asked, “How is your drink?” He blinked in surprise as he put down the mug. “It’s good,” he said, “but it’s a little cold now. I’ll probably just—” Without breaking eye contact, Mauczka slowly pushed the mug off the side of the desk. It fell to the ground and shattered, tea spilling all over the floor. Von Yipp, amused by this impromptu test, watched the brothers to see how they’d respond to such behavior from a professor. Neither Jakubb nor Natyaz batted an eye. “You’ve got the job,” Mauczka said. Jakubb nodded. “And what... is the job?” “I’ll tell you more when we get our approvals.”

“The Batadel brothers?” the dean asked, annoyed. “They were nearly suspended last semester.” “But they weren’t.” “They were not allowed to sign up for the more advanced courses.” “So they have more time than the average graduate student to work on my project.” With a frustrated wave of her hands, Dean Svopalit tossed the Batadel files on her desk. “Fine. But you were supposed to have more information to me about this big project by now, von Yipp.” “I am working on typing up the abstract. It will be with you by...” Mauczka trailed off. “By when?” She had been doing so well. Von Yipp, seated on Mauczka’s shoulder, was barely a word or two ahead of her, telling her how to respond to the dean, and she was getting so good at relaying his words almost exactly. But he saw the problem immediately, as it was also becoming difficult for his new cat body to ignore. The sun was peeking through the gorgeous window that overlooked the nice side of campus. And every time the dean moved her hands, the sunlight reflected off the timepiece on her wrist. It was hard not to chase after the tiny dot of light, but he managed to contain himself. Mauczka, however, was thoroughly distracted. The dean tried to follow Mauczka’s eyes to see what she was looking at, but quickly gave up. “You come into my office again and again, Andrej, to plead for funds for a project that will supposedly ‘change everything’, when we’ve all seen that’s past your capabilities,” she said in a low voice. “And you can’t even give me your full attention while you beg for my help.” “I...” Mauczka tried to pull herself away from the bouncing light, but to no avail. “You are... actually mad, aren’t you?” The dean stood and leaned over the desk menacingly, trying to make eye contact with Mauczka. “Because I can’t understand why you would waste my time and what’s left of my goodwill like this. I’m tired of funneling money into your ego-driven projects and seeing nothing come of it. Not usable data, not salvageable discoveries, nothing. And to top that off,” she said, raising her voice, “you insist on shrouding your ideas in mystery. You seem to think that the drama of the reveal is more important than proper oversight. I am here to tell you: It. Is. Not.” Von Yipp could feel the growl begin in the back of his throat, and before he knew it, he had lunged, claws outstretched, toward the dean. Mauczka blinked back into reality just long enough to restrain him. The dean sniffed. “I’ll need you to get rid of your cat.” “What?!” “She’s cute, I’ll give her that. But you cannot seem to heed my rule about animals on campus, which is an outward sign of disrespect. And I will not tolerate it from you.” If von Yipp were in his human body, he would have started yelling or throwing things. This wasn’t fair. How was he supposed to show what he could do, to finally earn the respect of his colleagues, when he was stymied at every turn by an unwilling dean? He extended a single claw and scratched at her desk. “Keep your animal off my desk!” Svopalit shrieked as she lifted von Yipp’s cat body by the scruff of the neck. “This is an antique. It... it...” The dean was silenced by what she saw. Into the lacquered wood, von Yipp had carved: I am v He no longer cared if he gave the game away. So his colleagues would know what had happened, and he’d be laughed out of the university. Fine. At least the dean would have to go to work every day and see how wrong she was about him when she sat down at this desk. He knew what he was doing. His machines worked, and worked beautifully! How dare she talk about things she knew nothing about? Von Yipp was a genius. He knew it in his tiny cat bones. If only he had been able to finish writing his name! She stared at it, and stared, and stared. “Von Yipp,” she said softly. A cloud moved in front of the sun, freeing Mauczka from the bouncing light’s beautiful tyranny. “Dean Svopalit.” “You... didn’t tell me... that you were working on animal intelligence!” she squealed. “No wonder Mauczka’s been accompanying you everywhere.” “Uh.” “What else can she do?” Von Yipp was taken aback by this sudden turn, but he’d be damned if he let it go to waste. “Mauczka, ask me what fifty-two times twenty-one is.” “Uh, Mauczka, what is fifty-two times twenty-one?” Taking pleasure in destroying the dean’s desk further, von Yipp carved 1092 into it. The dean gasped and clapped her hands. “Why, this is remarkable, Andrej! We’ve been trying and failing to enhance animal intelligence for years, but you...” She paused and looked at the human in front of her. “You’ve done something no one else could. And with a dramatic reveal, no less! I was... I was wrong about you.” She extended her hand for a handshake. Mauczka stared at it, unsure of what to do. “Shake her hand! You’ve seen me do it before.” Mauczka slapped her palm against the dean’s, still refusing to use her thumb to make a firm grip. “Now,” said Dean Svopalit, nonplussed as she sat behind her desk once again. “Let’s talk funding.”

“Just like we’ve practiced. Hold the pencil, follow the movement of my paws, and replicate what I’m doing.” “I’ll try.” Mauczka had already lost several pencils under the bed, and von Yipp did not feel like fishing them out for her. It took hours of careful sketching, erasing, restarting... but eventually, Mauczka had produced a reasonable approximation of what they would need to build. Von Yipp looked at it with pride. With her help, with the dean’s funding, with the Batadel brothers’ assistance... von Yipp would show them all what a real scientist could do. And these blueprints would be the first step toward making that a reality. Cue the dramatic reveal. The LoR Non-Champion Non-Spell Indicator.png1 Catastrophe Exosuit. Animal intelligence, indeed.

References

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