Ves knew better than to implant cat ears onto his head on a permanent basis. Playing with toys like the ones attached to his head right now was fine for a short period of time, but he did not wish to be stuck with them forever!
He had become very paranoid about his body changes in recent years. Having the mad Dr. Jutland mess with almost every aspect of his body years ago had left an invisible scar behind.
Who knew what kind of hidden bioprogramming the organic products carried. They might even be a possible means for House Laterna to keep tabs on everyone who used their products!
Even their cats themselves were rather suspect, now that he thought about it. Every cat he spotted displayed intelligence beyond baseline house cats. Who knew if their instincts contained programming that induced them to spy or steal from their owners.
Still, as long as Ves didn't buy any of the products, there was no harm in indulging in them for a while. He didn't hesitate about the organic cat ears placed on top of his head and readily paid for them without thinking about it further.
\"Nyaaah! Thank you for your patronage, customer!\" The catgirl gleefully cheered as the money transferred over. \"By the way, why not add a tail while you're at it? Your new look won't look complete without an elegant tail sticking out of your-\"
Ves quickly shook his head. \"No thanks. The ears are already enough. Tails are a bit of a hassle and it'll be a pain to sit on chairs.\"
\"That's no problem at all, nyaaah! All of the chairs and seats in Felixia feature a convenient hole where you can freely stick out your tail!\"
Despite the catgirl's protestations, Ves refused her suggestion and already moved on. As they calmly browsed the strange cat-themed goods for sale, Gavin and the rest of his companions looked at him weirdly.
\"What's the matter with you guys?\" He frowned as his black-furred cat ears twitched in irritation.
\"You look.. different.\" Gavin lamely replied. \"No offense boss, but most of the time you're always serious and focused on your work. Seeing you with a pair of cat ears is... disturbing.\"
Ves maintained a flat expression, which looked even stranger now with his new additions!
\"Even I want to enjoy some fun sometimes, you know. It's just that you haven't seen me having fun while I'm working on my design projects. I'll have you know that I am still capable of laughing!\"
\"Are those ears really great?\"
\"They're quite fantastic actually. Whoever engineered them did a good job in making them feel unobtrusive. I quite like the enhanced hearing, though I don't know how they managed to do that. I'm definitely going to study them in more detail once I return to the Barracuda!\"
Ves suspected that the cat ears incorporated some aspects of neural interfaces in a limited and miniaturized form.
The group moved on to a stall selling miniatures of bestial mechs. From ferocious tiger mechs to agile cat mechs, the diminutive models on display represented almost every variety of cat-based mech in use in the star sector!
The stall also offered a selection of non-feline bestial mechs. Their inclusion livened up the display and enriched their vision.
\"It's a shame the Komodo Star Sector doesn't have a strong bestial mech tradition.\" He idly remarked as he studied the wares from the lens of a mech designer. \"These mechs are all successful products in the markets they emerged, but...\"
\"Most mech buyers still prefer humanoid mechs.\" Gavin summed up.
Imon Ingvar scoffed from the side. \"Animal mechs are a pain to get used to. While their mobility is great on rough terrain, it's not worth the trouble of mastering them when humanoid mechs can fulfill the same almost just as well.\"
\"Humanoid mechs and bestial mechs each have their own advantages.\" Ves sagely replied. \"It's just that the conditions in a remote star sector like ours doesn't offer the best conditions to showcase the strengths of the latter.\"
The learning curve of bestial mechs was higher than that of humanoid mechs. The additional hurdle of adjusting to an animal-shaped body required additional directed training that some mech academies simply couldn't afford to include in their curriculums.
While they argued about the merits of bestial mechs, Ves made sure to reserve some of his attention on studying the miniatures on display. Each piece represented a really successful mech model.
Only a handful of spaceborn mechs counted in their midst despite their higher utility in battles in space. The predominantly bird-shaped mechs functioned pretty much like fighter craft as they eschewed limbs and in some cases even wings in order to present an efficient package optimized for battles without solid ground or gravity in the mix.
\"Why aren't spaceborn bestial mechs more popular among you spaceborn pilots?\" Ves asked the Ingvars directly.
Imon sneered. \"They don't pilot like real mechs. They're worse than frontline mechs because they don't have articulated limbs. When you strip a mech of its arms and legs and slap a couple of weapon barrels on their flanks, they've lost almost everything that makes a mech a mech! No mech pilot I know enjoys piloting these fake mechs! The only ones who do are those whose genetic aptitudes don't allow them to pilot anything better!\"
This sounded like a prejudiced answer to Ves. Nonetheless, what Imon just said encapsulated the outlook of many mech pilots towards these types of mechs.
His sister offered a more nuanced opinion.
\"Bestial mechs in space may perform better when you look at their numbers, but most of us prefer to stick to a humanoid form. Even the legs that some of you mech designers find redundant can still be useful. Flying around in a mech without legs like most frontline mechs designed for space warfare end up is way too disturbing.\"
The two mech pilots both underscored the comfort that a humanoid form provided. Ves understood their sentiment, though a part of him still thought that mech pilots were being a bit too inflexible.
\"Spaceborn bestial mechs still have their roles. Even if they aren't as flexible as humanoid mechs, they are simply more efficient if you compare by tonnage.\"
The Ingvars and Ves still disagreed with each other, but that was fine. As a mech designer, Ves ought to be tolerant of the opinions of his customers.
After he finished studying the various miniatures, the group moved on to browse the other goods for sale.
During their stroll, Ves continually prodded the cat ears planted on top of his head with his fingers and his thoughts. It was uncanny how real they felt and how comfortably they melded in his conscious and unconscious body operation.
Since he currently grew his messy black hair long enough to cover almost both of his human ears, to all intents and purposes Ves looked no different from the catgirls and catboys in the crowd! They even raised their cats at him in greeting as if he was a fellow member of their cat cult!
\"Are those ears nice, boss?\"
\"They're actually quite pleasant. I think I'll keep them for as long as they last.\" Ves replied with increasing satisfaction. \"They're so soft. Petting them and feeling the sensation of having your ears being petted is quite sublime.\"
He simply couldn't stop touching his cat ears! There was just something soothing and addicting about his ears being caressed. Faint memories of his younger self being hugged and embraced by his then-living mother came to the fore. What would she think when she saw him right now?
\"Can you buy me a pair as well?\"
\"Go buy your own if you fancy them so much.\"
Gavin looked sick. \"I can't afford them! You don't pay me enough!\"
\"Then buy something that is priced within your means! There are plenty of cheaper organic cat ear attachments for sale!\"
\"They aren't as good as yours!\"
\"Then too bad! I'm not giving you a raise.\"
\"How about a bonus then for my loyal service so far?\"
\"Let's wait for the performance evaluations that happen at the end of the year.\"
As the space peasant lamented his poverty, Ves gleefully diverted to a nearby park and began playing around with the cats who idled there and looked for human companionship.
He picked up a handsome grey-striped shorthair cat that oozed coolness. The aloof cat exhibited masculinity in a way that probably attracted a lot of female cats during mating season!
\"Mrow?\" The cat mewled when a random human picked him up. \"Mrow.\"
\"You're pretty mature for your kind.\"
\"I'm not like other humans.\"
\"Hey, I talk with cats all the time! And don't call me a fake cat! My cat ears are just an accessory!\"
\"Mrooooow mrow!\" The cat squirmed in his grip, trying to get away.
\"Oh, you're hungry? Why don't I buy you some yummy snacks?\"
That quickly got the grey cat to subside. The apparently sentient animal directed his cute, huge eyes at Ves as if pleading for the tasty treats he was promised!
\"Hahaha, you're so cute!\"
As Ves bought some expensive snacks that delighted the grey cat and attracted the attention of other felines, he began to subject it to some questioning.
Meanwhile, Gavin, Nitaa, Crindon and the Ingvars looked on with gaping mouths. They weren't entirely sure whether their employer could truly communicate with cats or if he was under some sort of delusion!
\"How do you like it here?\"
\"Yeah. There's cats everywhere. I can understand why you don't feel like you have enough space.\"
\"I'm glad to hear you're being well taken care of. Accepting treats from humans every day sounds like a lovely way to spend your days.\"
\"I believe you. Thanks for warning me. It's a shame you cats are like that, but I guess you're already comfortable here on Felixia.\"
Gavin couldn't hold in his curiosity. \"What did you find out?\"
In fact, Ves did learn something very important. Some of the cats here like the grey cat he held right now were designed to be more than pets.
They'd been engineered to act as spies and informers on behalf of House Laterna!
Ves already formed this suspicion beforehand, but that was mainly his paranoia cropping up. To find out from the grey cat that this actually took place alarmed him quite a bit!
To be fair, the grey cat believed that most cats sold on Felixia were perfectly fine. Only a small proportion of cats served as spies, which made it very hard for investigators to find anything fishy about them. The chance of encountering a spy cat was very small, though the grey cat happened to be a part of this secret program!
This also explained why the grey cat was so smart!
\"Still, I can't believe you just said that to me in my face.\" Ves told the cat. \"Aren't you supposed to keep that to yourself?\"
\"Hehe, I get your point. You don't have any say in what you are. I'd be pissed too if I was in your place.\"
\"If you could talk to your creators, they probably won't like what you have to say. That's why sentient animals like you aren't granted human vocal chords.\"
The topic of sentient animals aroused a lot of controversy. The overall consensus in human space was that sentient cats, dogs and other pets were okay, but only if they remained animals.
When geneticists created pets that started to speak or communicate like a human, a lot of existential crises took place!
Right now, the predominant rules mandated by the Big Two firmly forbid uplifting pets into a fully-fledged sentient race.
Who knew what geneticists might cook up in their labs if this rule wasn't in place. Humanity would have engineered their own doom if they came up with a species superior to humans in every aspect!