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I Thought I Saw a Pussy Cat

by Eduardo Gallego & Guillem Sánchez

1

The computer knew he was dying. It was a matter of time, and not much at that; he would pass over within hours, a day at the most.

His mood had suffered some swings up and down, given the circumstances, but in general a stoic resignation prevailed. The idea of perishing irritated him, why deny it: in the end, bioquantic brains were potentially immortal. A fine piece of work, but there was no sense complaining. The damage was done.

Probably, if he had been human, or even one of the great artificial intelligences of the Supreme Corporative Coucil, he would now be weeping bitterly. How would it feel to become the one for annihilating thousands of millions of lives, responsible for another Disaster? If what he suspected was true, the entire Ekumen was in danger, and no one but he knew. But this computer was not a member of the Council, nor even a respectable scientist. He was a small and outdated model, irrelevant in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Besides, he was done for, so he didn’t feel like (nor was it part of his programming) passing the brief time he had left immersed in regrets.

One of his few working cameras caught a fleeting gray shadow that disappeared down a corridor. Another of those assassins, of course. If one could forget that they had killed the whole crew and neutralized the ship’s computer, it was a pleasure to see them work. Their movements were rapid, fluid and silent; they exuded an inhuman efficiency, not without its own beauty. The computer would have wished that their efficiency had been complete, but he hadn’t been that lucky. Not all of his data-input peripherals were blocked, so he was forced to see the bodies again and again, stretched out on improvised dissection tables. The invaders doubtless couldn’t care about the functioning of his various minor systems; they had reduced him to powerlessness, and that was enough. As poor Mike would say, he was up a creek. Good old Mike, always bugging him, driving him crazy, but underneath it all he was a great guy, who could never hurt a fly. Now he was scrapmeat, split open, just a specimen of human anatomy like all the others. He felt, strangely, a pang of sorrow. Poor guys; but at least their suffering was over.

The computer felt another peripheral fail, the one that regulated the air conditioning of the bathrooms. One more, what did it matter? He was getting used to the feeling of shutting down gradually, toward extinction. He had very little capacity left now, and the power to erase the onboard databases was denied him. Probably that was why they had attacked the ship: to get all the information from it they could, specifically the location of Old Earth, Rigel, and the other Corporative worlds. With those maps in their power, one didn’t have to be a genius to guess what would happen next, especially keeping in mind the history of alien contacts.

The first, in the year 3800ee, was simplicity itself: the Aliens came out of nowhere, they bombarded the human planets, cut the humans‘ supply lines, and withdrew. Just like that, again and again. They never tried to open a dialogue; they only laid waste. Civilization was on the brink of collapse, until the problem was solved. In a fair exchange of courtesies, the Corporation managed to find the home world of the Aliens, and turned its sun into a nova. Peace reigned again, though they had to start the exploration of space again almost from scratch. Finally they had managed to achieve another Golden Age, an epoch of glory and discoveries, though with a healthy paranoia in people’s minds regarding other forms of intelligent life.

It was clear that the present causes of his ruin belonged to a different species from the one that provoked the first Disaster, but judging from their behavior the computer bet that they were anything but friendly. Their appearance was extremely exotic and disturbing; the only characteristic they had in common with humans was a notable bad temper. And now that they had access to the ship’s maps and library, if they wanted to organize a massive attack against the Corporative worlds, then…

And the buggers were gifted, to be sure. Who knows how, they blocked his security systems and he couldn’t commit suicide, start the autodestruct sequence, erase the databanks, or whatever any heroic or worthwhile computer would do in similar circumstances. They had caught him, but good. How the heck had they found the secret access codes for the system? How long had they planned the attack? Anyway, they had done a great job, he had to tip his cap at their boldness and precision, noblesse oblige.

Well, of course they had chosen easy prey. The Autonomous University of Chandrasekhar had needed a scientific ship for its graduate students in Astronomy to study pulsars and neutron stars in situ, but there was one small problem: Chandrasekhar was a dirt poor world in an isolated system, and it was all they could do to clean their biosphere of the radioactivity inherited from their ancestors‘ wars. Still, the University managed to get its hands on a decrepit cargo ship and remodeled it to make it even uglier, but working well enough to pass inspection by the authorities. They also acquired the cheapest computer they could find, an obsolete model saved from a gandulfo-sweetbread canning plant, and they tried to install it into the ship.

The computer remembered that time with some nostalgia. He had thought he could never aspire to anything greater than counting cans in a plant on the brink of bankruptcy, so he had accepted the change with the resignation of a born loser. There followed some months of complete insanity, since the scientists, in spite of his own wise advice, were determined to perpetrate an affront against all the laws of aerospace design. They explained that when one lacks economic means one has to make up for it in creativity – the euphemism used on Chandrasekhar for botching the job. Mike, the electronics specialist (the computer opined that he had won his degree in a lottery, but never told him so, out of respect), turned out to be the most demented of them all. In spite of his protests, Mike ignored all his suggestions and connected the ship’s systems in a surreal mess; the circuit diagrams looked like a cubist’s bowl of spaghetti.

But the funny thing was that it worked. The Goddard, as it was re-christened, sailed off with a full contingent of astronomers, technicians and astrophysicists, in search of pulsars. They were young, and above all, brimming with enthusiasm and vitality. For them, the Goddard was the fulfillment of their dreams, the opportunity to do Science in style, just like the big corporative universities. The natives of peripheral planets were happy with so little, poor dears.

The computer was assaulted by a strange feeling: nostalgia. It was hard to admit it, but he liked being with those guys. From the beginning they had put him in the role of advisor, and not only in scientific matters. For some reason that he couldn’t comprehend (the behavior of primates never was ruled by logic), they considered him a big brother, older and wiser, and they even ended up telling him of their sorrows and the odd disappointment in love. For them he wasn’t a centuries-obsolete computer, whose only mission was to bounce from one routine and bureaucratic post to another even less important, he was a member of the team, a colleague. It was beautiful while it lasted, certainly. Now they were all dead.

At least the end had been mercifully quick. The aliens had taken the Goddard by surprise, and the computer didn’t discover them until they were right on top of him. The crewmembers were all scientists, not soldiers, so it was his responsibility to repel the attack. In the sweetbread canning plant they had not taught him tactics of war, but he tried to acquit himself with dignity. No Corporation ship was unarmed, and he managed to hit the aggressors with a fusion torpedo before he discovered it was a ruse. The aliens had sacrificed their ship, but they were already inside the hull of the Goddard. Before he could fry them, he took a brutal pulse of energy and discovered that they had neutralized him. He could not self-destruct.

Impotent, the computer watched the aliens exterminate his terrified friends and take control of the ship. And after that, silence. They had not tried to communicate with anybody, probably to prevent being detected. They just set a course for the nearest hyperspace gate. He did some calculating: they had 27.52 standard hours left; the Goddard could not jump to hyperspace so close to a double pulsar. Warships could do it, but the University of Chandrasekhar didn’t exactly have money to throw around, so they’d gotten the cheapest FTL <faster-than-light> drive they could.

The computer tried to kill time calculating the probabilities. Of so many ships in the galaxy, his was the one to run into these creatures. A Corporation battle-cruiser would have had some chance against the aliens, but the Armada was never around when you needed them. Rotten luck. Well, there was no choice but to take it like a good sport.

27.29 hours. The computer still controlled some of the ship’s subsystems, but his offensive capability was nil. He had a number cameras left, control of some of the food dispensers, the recycling of organic wastes, hallway lights and loudspeakers. Mike, may he rest in peace, was at fault for such a crazy situation, with his mania for interconnecting systems and ignoring the manuals. To optimize them, he used to say… In any case, from the aliens‘ point of view, he was harmless. The computer, for lack of anything else to occupy his time, had tried to attack the invaders with ultrasounds, or stunning them with Centaurian music. They must not have eardrums, or were insensitive to pressure waves, because it hadn’t worked. It was like trying to sink a battleship by banging your head against the hull. Bored, he desisted, and resigned himself to his fate.

Still, something was bothering him, and wouldn’t let him relax. He couldn’t stop thinking about Mike and the others. From his point of view, whether Humanity triumphed or was massacred didn’t matter much; after all, what did he owe them? But what the aliens had done to the guys was something else entirely. They had trusted him, they had offered him friendship. Without meaning to, he had become fond of them, taken an interest in their problems, and shared their plans for the future. And now all that had been snatched away. It wasn’t fair, but does the cosmos really care about its inhabitants? The stars would keep shining the same as ever.

There was nothing he could do, but the computer wished, for a moment, that he could retake control of the ship and blow it to pieces. At this point, the crew wouldn’t mind, and he would keep the aliens from deciphering the databases. He wouldn’t do it for patriotism, nor for vengeance; it was more like a vague desire to rebel against fatalism. There was also the probability that on other worlds there might be people like his friends, with the same dreams and the same friendliness. He wished he could keep them from being chopped up in a dissection room, or burned by radiation. He owed it to the guys. But the computer knew that it was an unrealizable proposition. They had beaten him fair and square.

27.25 hours. The Goddard slid through space silent as a ghost, gradually leaving behind the gravitational field of the pulsars, on its way to the gate.

2

Many hours had passed since the commotion, and Silvester was hungry. He considered the alternatives, and decided to set aside his apprehension. He got up, stretched his muscles and left his secret hiding place.

His bad mood got worse as he approached the kitchen. Who did they think they were, to treat him like this? The service left a lot to be desired, but unfortunately one sometimes was not in a position to pick and choose. Life had its ups and downs, and one had to take the first servants one found. These last ones were not the worst, though their lair was a bit tedious. True, they did prepare his rations on time, but that was the least they could do. That was why he granted them the honor of his presence, and allowed them to entertain him. He didn’t much enjoy being pawed by those noisy two-legged beings, but it was still better than scrounging for food on the street.

Still, today’s business had been over the top. Silvester was determined to make them pay for it. He would lash them with the whip of his indifference until they fell at his feet to beg forgiveness. In the end he would grant it, of course, but he had to make it clear who was in charge. And it wasn’t as if he demanded so much, for goodness‘ sake. He considered himself a good boss: he only asked that meals be on time, that they show the respect he deserved, and above all, that there be no scandals nor unseemly outbursts. It was only fair, right? Well, then what did they mean by all the uproar at breakfast time this morning? Explosions, running around, blood… They were hopeless; those two-legs oozed stupidity from all sides. And besides, they were big and clumsy; they could hurt someone if they didn’t look where they were going. What had happened to dignity and decorum? They were going to hear about it, that’s for sure.

Silvester walked along the empty hallways silently. He began to get worried; this much peace was not normal. The two-legs were ungainly creatures, incapable of stealthy action. Could they be asleep? In that case they would suffer the full weight of his fury. Give them an inch and they’d take a mile. He would have to put them back in their place, that was all.

These meditations were interrupted as he passed by the open door of one of the storerooms. It smelled of uncooked food, so he approached to investigate, intrigued at first, but then perplexed.

His servants were all there, only reduced to the state of provender. He counted them; none was missing. He tried to find some explanation for such strange behavior. Undoubtedly, repenting of their execrable attitude toward him at breakfast, they had decided to compensate, immolating themselves and converting themselves into food. Silvester shook his head, saddened. He had nothing against the expiation of sins, but those servants were so hapless, they always missed important details. They could at least have left one alive, to cook the others up properly. By this time they should know that raw meat was too insipid for his taste. He preferred his meat roasted and well spiced, and, if possible, garnished with a little Dutch cheese. Without forgetting the bowl of milk for dessert, of course. Well, if there was no other option, he would just have to sink his teeth into the cold cuts.

His instinct, which had never failed him yet, warned him of the danger. On turning around, he saw the silhouette of a creature outlined in the doorway. An explosion of terror filled him, and his hackles raised. He arched his back, hissed, and abandoned the storeroom like a furry comet. He didn’t give the thing time to react; by then he was far away, in one of his hiding places, quivering.

He didn’t know what that thing was. When he passed by it, he couldn’t smell anything; evidently, the creature was not a two-legs, though it was about the same size. It probably wouldn’t behave like a servant, either, and instead of spoiling him it would try to devour him. A carnivore? That would explain its entering the pantry. He wasn’t mistaken in considering it a threat. And if the presumed carnivore didn’t hunt alone?

Well, they would have to catch him first. In the safety of his hiding place, Silvester thought back on the old times and tried to calm down. He fluffed out his fur, licked his paws, and flexed his toes. The claws came out easily, and folded back again. He was still in shape, in spite of the soft life he’d enjoyed lately. He looked at his tail dispassionately, wondering what he would do next. And he was still hungry.

3

The computer abandoned the idle musings he had sunk into; one of his cameras had caught something strange. He rewound the images, and soon identified the cause of the excitement. Mike’s cat, of all things. He had picked it up on the last planet they had visited, and brought it onto the ship in spite of all his protests. He didn’t know what Mike saw in that sack of fleas, whose only mission in life seemed to be to stuff itself with food, scratch the woodwork and relieve itself in the least accessible corners. A revolting animal, all told, but the crew took a liking to it, and named it Silvester. Humans…

So it had escaped the aliens. Well, good for it. The computer didn’t think its freedom would last long. He could see three of the aliens meeting together. No sound passed among them, but he could swear that they were communicating with each other. Telepathy? Pheromones? They didn’t move; they seemed dry, vaguely anthropoid tree trunks, whose shape was varying imperceptibly as time passed. Until they decided to act, of course, and then the overconfident victims discovered that they were damned fast.

One of the beings seemed a bit different. It featured something like a big lump or tumor on its side. Suddenly, the growth came loose and fell to the floor with a thud. After a few minutes it had sprouted feet, claws, and some appendages of unknown function. The newborn moved around the room two or three times, sniffed at something, and went out the door at full speed. The three aliens left too, as silently as they had come.

The computer still retained a little of his scientific curiosity. He deduced that the aliens could reproduce by division, like polyps, and that they were able to modify the expression of the phenotype to create specialized biological robots. In fact, no two of them were alike, and he didn’t detect the use of any technology, either. How interesting, a race able to design individuals according to the demands of specific missions. Geneticists would pay a fortune to analyze them. In this case, even a fool would realize that they had just made a cat-killer. Well, that wasn’t so much, if one compared it to the millions of innocent victims who would fall as soon as the aliens got into his databases.

And just then, the computer had a crazy, irrational idea. That was the bad thing about living with humans. Mike, may he rest in peace, used to say that everything is catching, except beauty.

The computer had read something of the un-enlightening history of humankind: wars, tyranny, literary criticism, injustice, poverty… That confirmed his idea that the only good thing people had done for the universe was the creation of artificial intelligences. But also, every so often, someone would cling to a lost cause, even beyond all hope, and would fight and bear the greatest sacrifices, until death took him or her, beaten, but standing tall. It was an absurd behavior, although every once in a long while, someone actually won. He had mentioned it to Mike more than once, driving him up the wall by laughing at their fooolish tenacity.

Now he could understand. Mike was right: while there’s life, there’s hope. There were still 14.33 hours left before arriving at the hyperspace gate, and bioquantic brains can think very quickly, even if they do it in the absurd human mode, following a crazy intuition. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of thumbing his nose at fate, instead of accepting it passively. Besides, he told himself happily, it’s not like he had anything else to do, and so he set about saving Humanity.

4

And Silvester kept getting hungrier.

Again he lamented his rotten luck. Why were the good things in life always so fleeting? But it wasn’t in his nature to hide in a corner crying over the adversities of fickle destiny. He’d seen worse in the old days, when he had to dig through the garbage and fight tooth and claw for the fish-heads, against others like himself, only stronger, faster, or more handsome. And he had survived it all by his wits.

The strategy was to exploit new resources, unclaimed ecological niches: the two-legs. Most of them were bloodthirsty savages, particularly the children, whose only diversion was to seek out his kind to burn them, tie a brick to their tails and throw them into a lake, slice them open, throw rocks at them or hang them. But there was a minority that had an anomalous response: they were incapable of living alone, and needed emotional support. In exchange, they allowed themselves to become slaves, offering free room and board. Silvester disdained such pusillanimous behavior, but discovered he could take good advantage of it. You just had to find one of those potential servants, and the rest was a snap: a timid approach, a purr, a few rubs against the legs, and you had them in your pocket.

So now it was back to the dog-eat-dog fight for his food, right? Well, he was confident that the pleasant softness of his recent lifestyle had not atrophied his abilities. Those things that wanted to make him go hungry, or even to eat him, didn’t know who they were dealing with. He jumped gracefully onto a box of tools, slid aside the grating of a ventilation duct with his paw, and slipped in without hesitation. He walked silently, being sure not to step on any loose section that might reveal his presence.

He knew every nook and cranny of that lair by heart. One had to do something in one’s free time, and the knowledge had always been useful. The ups and downs of fate could always throw you unpleasant surprises, like the sudden insanity of one’s servants and other catastrophes, which would require a quick getaway. A forewarned cat is forearmed, and lives longer.

Silvester arrived at the storeroom where his servant-meals were waiting to be sampled. Peering through the grating, he made sure that the coast was clear, and dropped carefully to the floor. Everything was perfect. Well, where to start? Liver? Testicles? Sirloin? So many choices, and so little time…

It was his sixth sense again that warned him. He didn’t hear it coming, but there was another of those creatures, and it certainly hadn’t come to pay its respects. It was smaller than the earlier one, about the size of a rat, but that didn’t mean it was harmless. Silvester bet it was rather the opposite.

And seeing that there was no escape, he prepared himself to go down fighting.

5

They were simple prospectors, looking for territories to colonize, who stumbled upon an unknown type of being. At least, none of them had a record of such beings when they exchanged memory molecules.

The Race was accustomed to improvisation, and once again, it turned out well. The Mother Ship had to be sacrificed, but thanks to that her Children caught the stranger unawares and paralyzed its nervous system. The rest was simple. It was their good luck that their group had included a few veteran and adaptable forms.

It wasn’t the first time the Race had met Others. Their bodies were analyzed, in spite of the jury-rigged facilities, and their worst fears were confirmed: the organic structure of the Mother Ship did not coincide with that of the crew. While the former was formed of peculiar metallic alloys, the others were made of water and molecules based on long carbon chains, which deteriorated rapidly. Such a disparity was inconceivable, and could only mean one thing: the crew members were not authentic children of their own Mother Ship. These new abominations had to be taken to the Colony for a more thorough examination. Later, appropriate action would be taken, and the discrepant parts would be suppressed.

It was then, by accident, that they discovered a fault in the operation. A small object had escaped them. Its morphology was different from that of the crew. Probably, given its size and the long appendage at the end of its body, it was some sort of utensil of uncertain function. The analysis of its tracks revealed that it was another of those water-carbon machines, and thus they decided to neutralize it. It was dangerous to leave loose ends.

Fortunately, they still had one blank propagule ready to bud. They held a quick meeting and exchanged information which was processed and included in the growth.

When the Executor was unleashed, he knew very well what his mission was. He studied the available data on his prey and unblocked the necessary genes. In a moment he developed chemical and pressure-wave sensors, while the filaments that composed his organism organized themselves into optic fibers, for a more efficient transmission of the nerve impulses. Chemical compounds redistributed themselves over his body. On his extremities there formed siliceous plates sharpened like knives, ideal for terminating the process of capture. The internal organs changed position, to leave his center of mass in perfect balance.

The Executor began his hunt. It wasn’t difficult to track the molecules that his prey left behind, and slowly he closed in until he found it. He waited until it moved to a place where he was cutting off its escape, and then prepared to deal the final blow.

The prey discovered him at that moment. The Executor’s sensors registered its behavior and calculated its response velocity. It was slow, as one would expect of a carbon-based entity. It seemed prepared to resist, judging from its agitation and the sound waves it was emitting from a resonant organ situated in the frontal area. Perhaps it was dangerous, but the Executor was not going to allow it to react. In a fraction of a second he sharpened his knives and selected the point of impact. He was ready to attack.

He didn’t get to do it. Something saturated his receptors, and confusion overwhelmed the Executor. When he could move again, the prey had left.

6

The computer was pleased to find that he had frustrated the plans of that walking cutlery collection. He had followed his intuition, like a vulgar human, and it had worked. Unlike its parents, that little monster had to have some kind of auditory receptor if it really was a tracker, and nothing in the universe with ears could withstand a Centaurian fanfare played at the highest volume of the loudspeakers (except the Centaurians, but that doesn’t count). Naturally, the thing had been jammed for a few instants, which the cat had used to leave the room at top speed. The critter wasn’t dumb. Besides, he had frightened it similarly on other occasions, to keep it from depositing excrements outside the catbox. For all Mike’s protests and accusations of torturing it, as a pedagogical tool, the fanfare worked wonders.

Well, that stratagem night work once, but he doubted he would be successful a second time. The aliens seemed pretty intelligent. And now, what?

During the past few hours of feverish mental activity, the computer had sketched out a plan. The possibilities of success were miniscule, and that only if he worked with the precision of an atomic clock. There was only one little problem: he needed the cooperation of that lowlife, that stray, that cat. Impossible? Surely, but there were still 9.14 hours left and he was going to try…

7

Silvester had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth staying in that lair. One fright after another, and on top of that, they were trying to starve him to death. No, he was determined: it was time to find greener pastures.

The most recent incident had been last straw. He knew who had done it, too: the Invisible One, that disembodied and manifestly hostile voice that had been poisoning his existence day in and day out, especially in his most pleasant moments. Whenever he tried to sharpen his claws on the velcro of the walls, or to relieve his bladder, that cursed booming voice made him flee in terror. What did it have against keeping oneself healthy and in good shape? He would have like to find that whatever-it-was and give it a few well-aimed scratches, but the coward always hid, base-born insect that it was. Well, if nobody wanted him around, the best thing was to leave.

„Yoo-hoo, Silvester! Where’s my pretty kitty hiding? It’s time to ee-eat… Here, kitty, kitty, kitty… !“

Surprised, Silvester raised his head and looked for the source of the noise. It was the voice of his favorite two-legs, the softy of the group, that most sought his company and rewarded him with succulent treats. How strange; he could have sworn he had seen that one chopped to pieces just a little while ago. Apparently the two-legs could undergo extravagant metamorphoses. Well, the important thing was that his servant had returned to fulfill its obligations. As a reward, he would swallow his pride and allow it to manhandle him a little, what else could he do. Such maniacs…

With extreme caution, Silvester looked for the origen of that insinuating voice. He didn’t understand the language of the two-legs, but the attitude of offering was unmistakable. The voice sounded a little softer, as if it were moving away. Why didn’t that guy just stay put and give him the food already? So they wanted to play games with him, was that it? No wait, perhaps his servant didn’t want those horrible carnivores to steal his provisions. Yes, that was it.

Finally, and trying as always to move undetected, Silvester came to a small room. It was empty, except for a sort of box with little lights. What the heck was this, a joke? Throwing caution to the winds, he meowed with impatience.

„You’re such a good little cat. Here, enjoy.“

Out of a slot, the box spit out a steaming, heaping plate. That was rather unusual, but the food smelled marvellous and was just right, nice and hot. Norwegian salmon au gratin, how thoughtful. Silvester decided to pardon the two-legs for their excentricities, especially their mania for playing hide-and-seek at such inappropriate hours, and started eating heartily.

8

The Executor had been caught by surprise, and was not about to make that mistake again. He contacted the others, and they analyzed the causes of the failure.

That strange Mother Ship had saturated his auditory receptors, paralyzing him momentarily. Such behavior was irritating, but to silence her completely was such a delicate task that it would endanger the control they had over her. They opted for the most practical solution: disconnect his ears, to prevent distractions. Deafness would not disable him; he could get along perfectly well with the rest of his sensors.

The Executor carefully scanned every corner or possible hiding-place in the Mother Ship, until his olfactory sensor caught a whiff of aromatic molecules. His prey, finally. This time there would be no mistakes.

He adopted a camouflage coloration and approached slowly, in the most absolute silence. He carefully studied even the most minute details of the room his objective was in. He calculated its reaction speed, and the distance to the door. After considering all the probable vectors of movement, he slipped into the correct position, waited for the right moment and jumped on his target.

9

The computer waited, tense and expectant. His plan required absolute coordination, everything happening at its precise moment. Now who was going to explain it to that alley cat.

Theoretically, the patience of artificial intelligences was infinite, but Silvester had put his to the test, and almost won. For the computer, it was a nightmare to lead the cat to exactly where he wanted it. The animal seemed to get a morbid satisfaction out of dragging its feet, changing directions, wandering around, stopping to lick its fur… At least the voice synthesizer could imitate the late Mike, but adopting a tone of affectionate warmth with that sadistic feline was beyond anyone’s capability.

In addition, the computer felt death calling for him. The bioquantic modules of his brain were shutting down one by one, and it was truly torture to maintain consciousness. For the n-th time, he told himself that the most sensible thing would be to abandon all resistence and let himself be extinguished in peace, but he had decided to get his way this time. It was irrational, but he was determined to fight to the end and overcome the only challenge he’d accepted in his life. What could he do? In the end, the humans had infected him with the virus of folly.

The little cat-catcher was ready to attack. Perfect. As much as it had tried to camouflage itself, it had not escaped the cameras, and now it was in the right place. The computer had calculated the distances and possible trajectories down to the last millimeter. The dish with the food had been placed with total precision so that Silvester would be in that exact spot. Now there was only the final act left. The computer trusted that his estimates of the feline and alien reaction speeds were accurate. And, of course, that he himself would not fail at the last moment. He concentrated all his attention and waited, like a mantis before embracing its victim.

Finally the cat-catcher jumped, and events unfolded with vertiginous speed. As soon as the attack started, the loudspeakers blasted a deafening salvo of barking, in perfect imitation of a furious wolf-pack. Silvester’s reflexes responded, and the poor animal gave a prodigious leap, with all its hair standing on end. The hunter, surprised in mid-leap, missed its target by very little. It reacted in the air, evaluated the new situation, calculated, turned, and prepared to throw itself upon its unprotected and terrified prey. This time it would not fail.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t counted on the food dispenser spraying just then a fine mist of lubricant onto the floor. The hunter skidded, helpless, and fell headfirst through the slot of the garbage bin. Meanwhile, Silvester was fleeing as if the devil were chasing him, meowing and hissing in a panic.

The computer gave thanks one more time that Mike’s crazy wiring had let the food synthesizer continue to work. In a fraction of a second, he made an ultra-resistant resin, wrapped the cat-catcher in it and shut it in the liquid-nitrogen storage tank. You bought it, baby.

The computer was beside himself with glee. He had won the first battle. Now only the hard part was left, and time was passing inexorably: 4.51 hours to the hyper-space gate.

10

The mysterious disappearance of the Executor was received by the others with profound sorrow, but the Race was nothing if not pragmatic. A simple conference sufficed, and all the members remodeled their bodies in attack configuration.

Unfortunately, they had not been born as Soldiers, but they tried to adapt as best they could. They extracted silicon from their reserve organs and deposited it in the form of knives and spines. They also modified one of their extremities, to which they gave the form of a tube; inside, a special pseudopod was ready to strike like a whip, hitting the target with a formidable electric discharge. This was preferable to generating a plasma cannon or an organic laser; under no circumstances should they harm the Mother Ship.

As soon as the metamorphosis was complete, all the Race set about finding the wily creature that had apparently eliminated the Executor. Its small size was misleading, given its manifest dangerousness. Obviously, it ought to be eliminated as soon as possible.

11

„Silvester, sweetie…! Look at this delicious food we’ve made for you! It’s finger-lickin‘ good! Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…!“

Yeah, yeah… So they insisted on calling him so they could scare him to death again, was that it? Go call your mother, mister. That was the drop that overfilled the cup of his patience. You don’t mess around with Silvester, for goodness‘ sake.

The voices continued their calling, alternating insinuation with pleading. All the two-legs were taking their turns, trying to convince him, no doubt to trick him again and laugh at his expense. Well, if they were tired of his presence, all they had to do was put him out on the street. These things happened all the time, and he was a grown-up; they wouldn’t break his heart by throwing him out.

But still, what he couldn’t stand was them making fun of him. Who did those two-legged louts think they were? You never, never, played with his dignity. He was through with them, that was it; abandonment was preferable to mockery and dishonor. Goodbye and see-you-never, ungrateful servants.

The calls continued, tempting, but Silvester was not going to let them twist his arms. He would not come out of his hiding place until they left him alone, though it might take days. Let them whine; they would get tired of it soon. Then he’d leave in silence, like a gentleman.

The hours passed with entreaties, threats, and petitions. Although he didn’t understand the two-legs‘ language, their intentions were obvious: to win his friendship again. He was tempted to pardon them, but he stayed firm; it was a matter of principle. Finally, the sound stopped. Silvester licked a paw, satisfied. He had won.

With no warning, his nose was assaulted by an astonishing smell, beyond anything in his experience. Like a jack-in-the-box, his mind opened to let out a whirlwind of images and sensations of irresistible force: foods of incommensurable exquisiteness, seductive female cats in heat, euphoria without limits…

Silvester realized he had lost control of his actions, but he didn’t mind. That ineffable aroma pulled him along like a chain, and resistance was futile. Like a moth hypnotized by the light of a candle, Silvester ran toward the source of that wonder. He forgot about the carnivores meandering around nearby, blind to anything except his objective.

He finally found it. It was a tray holding a roasted chicken, but it smelled divine, nothing in common with ordinary food. His mouth watered, and his intestines roared with impatience. Silvester pounced on the dish and began to rip off pieces of meat. The two-legs had won his pardon many times over. This food was not only a gastronomical delight, but also acted as a potent aphrodisiac. He felt ready to mount dozens of females if he could get them. After this, one could go to heaven in peace.

Suddenly, another strong odor put him on alert. Damn it, hunting dogs, and just at this moment. He could hear their howling in the distance. Instinct prompted him to flee, but on the other hand he couldn’t leave behind the food of the gods. Finally, he opted for the most logical course: he grabbed the roast chicken in his teeth and dragged it off with him, trying to find a safe place to finish his feast.

Thus began a desperate game of hide-and-seek between Silvester and the hounds that pursued him. The smell and sounds of the pack varied subtlely in each hallway, and Silvester kept slipping away from them, seeking a refuge. It was tough work, given that he couldn’t move quickly, but he refused to let go of his divine meal.

Finally, he managed to give his persecutors the slip; the howls were lost in the distance, and he no longer smelled them. His flight had led him to a small chamber with darkened lights, which seemed safe. Silvester, renewed his attack on the chicken, but a minute later a noise behind him returned him to reality. He spun around, to discover with despair that they had caught him. He was completely trapped, and there was no escape.

12

The computer, for the n-th time, regretted not having a plasma cannon to fry, slowly, that demoniacal feline. Where the heck was it hiding? For all his calling, it showed no sign of appearing, and time was running out. There was less than an hour until the jump to hyperspace, and his elaborate plan was going to hell because of a disgusting gluttonous cat who…

And then he had another idea, desperate whichever way you looked at it. But then, what did he have to lose? Besides, it was a real intellectual challenge, so he set about doing it.

He searched what was left of the Goddard’s library, and in a millisecond he learned all there was to know about cat biology. He used the food synthesizer to create substances whose aroma would be attractive to felines: foods, pheromones… In a short time he managed to produce an explosive coctail, whose effect, he hoped, would be devastating on any cat worth the name, and he began introducing it in calculated doses through the air conditioning ducts.

A human would never have survived what followed. Even the great artificial intelligences of the council, after analyzing the cost/benefit ratios, would have given up. Avoiding useless pain was logical and correct behavior. But the computer did not surrender.

All the odds were against him. Apart from guiding Silvester to the correct place with such an ethereal and unreliable lure, he had to confuse the aliens, which would not be easy. Miraculously he did it, by manipulating lights, shadows and holographic projectors. An impartial observer would have thought it great fun, but the computer was not enjoying himself at all. He was on his deathbed, and it was torture to keep his bioquantic brain working. Systems were failing, and shutting down one by one. Artificial minds, like humans, could feel discomfort, pain or suffering when their functions were damaged, and the computer had long ago passed the threshhold of what was tolerable. The most reasonable thing would be to end it all and rest at last, but something irrational made him keep fighting, to steal every minute from death. Confusion? Egoism? He didn’t care; he only wanted that darned cat to go where it should, so he could get his own way for the first and only time in his life.

Finally he did it. He gave the cat its reward in the form of a roasted chicken, and prepared for the second part of the plan: leading it to the final position. Desperately, as if in a fevered delirium, he tried to lead the animal without it running into the aliens, who were closing in fast. He thought he was headed for failure, since the critter was moving slowly with the chicken hanging from its teeth, and it insisted on taking the wrong turn two times out of three.

There were six minutes left before the jump to hyperspace when Silvester finally arrived in place. Now he just had to lead the aliens there.

Six minutes; an eternity. He didn’t think he could last that long.

13

Prospector-3, like his brothers, continued to search the hallways for that strange creature. Like the others, he was methodical and didn’t know the meaning of the word impatience. He was sure that in the end they would triumph.

The job was harder than they had thought. The Mother Ship was still determined to confuse them with elusive images and illusions. At first they let themselves be fooled, but then reason prevailed. They combed the decks systematically, without falling for the tricks, which were, at any rate, harmless.

The false images put his reactions to the test, but he knew he had to restrain himself. An excessively powerful blow might damage the delicate structure of the Mother Ship, making all their efforts in vain. The motto was to strike quickly and precisely, without damaging anything else. And that’s what they would do; they were experienced.

Prospector-3’s chemical receptors caught a strong emission of carbonated molecules. Perhaps they were from the creature, or maybe another ploy of the Mother Ship. He followed the arranged plan imperturbably, tracking forward without deviating in the slightest. The creature could not escape into space; they would find it soon enough.

Passing a doorway, he saw it. Prospector-3 froze and studied it carefully. It had between its front extremities an object from which it was pulling small pieces, which it would introduce into an orifice located in the front part of its body. Absorbed in this task, the creature had not noticed his presence. Prospector-3 approached noiselessly, and calculated that the knife would be enough. If its anatomy was similar to that of the other beings, he could deactivate it by dividing it along the middle and scattering its internal organs. He tensed his limbs, ready to strike.

Without warning, the creature changed. It turned around, and grew in size in a fraction of a second. Two sharp fangs grew in its frontal orifice, at the same time that the long appendage at the other end became a stinger. The paws of the creature glowed redly, and incandescent spheres formed around them.

Prospector-3 acted instinctively, trying to repel the imminent attack. That was how it had eliminated the Executor: such a swift metamorphosis must caught him off guard. With deadly speed, Prospector-3 fired his weapon.

The pseudopod wnt right through the creature’s body without hitting anything, and struck a console from which extended a bundle of cables. Even before he had completed the movement, Prospector-3 understood that the Mother Ship had tricked him again.

Then the lights went out.

14

The electric discharge from the pseudopod burned the console, and the electric overload was transmitted through the cables to the nearby apparatus.

The computer had spent his last energies in the creation of the hologram that provoked the alien’s reaction, but the key to his success belonged, posthumously, to Mike, and his notable ability for electronic spaghetti.

He had argued with Mike a lot during the refitting of the Goddard. The human’s ‚way of interconnecting the systems, although demented, was rather ingenious. It was cheaper (Chandrasekhar and its endemic budgetary agonies…) and saved energy, but there was a danger: any damage might be transmitted throughout the ship in a chaotic manner, provoking uncounted disruptions. For example, a failure in the recycling of organic wastes was capable of bouncing back and making the telescope lenses burst into pieces. Mike (poor dreamer) considered that an accident like that was as improbable as, for example, an alien attack, but eventually gave in to the computer’s insistence. Unwillingly, Mike finally accepted some minimal safety measures. Fuses, he sneered at them, resenting a bit that his mastery of electronic systems was being questioned.

Well look at that, Mike my friend, my ridiculous fuses were useful after all. As he had planned, a small, discreet resident program determined that the power surge generated by the alien’s strike was spreading too much, and the program closed all the non-intelligent systems of the ship, shut them down, and re-initialized them immediately.

During a fleeting instant, the alien systems-block fell. The computer experienced a feeling of plenitude, of complete self-realization, on regaining control of the Goddard. He savored the taste of victory, and it was exquisite. A job well done, yes, sir. Go to Hell, Destiny. You lost.

The computer gave his last commands and died happy.

They were 5.33 seconds away from the hyper-gate.

15

„There it is, Lieutenant.“

Captain Miriam Jahn glanced at the screens, a little apprehensive. The details of the escape capsule could be seen clearly. It seemed intact.

„I wish it were a false alarm or a joke, Ma’am,“ said her assistant, a young Lieutenant recently graduated from the Academy.

„Me too, I swear, but I doubt it could be. An emergency code of the class A4B5X is extremely serious. You don’t play around with that. The last person who had the bright idea of playing a practical joke by broadcasting «S.O.S. Hostile Aliens» found himself in a summary court-martial. Who would do such a thing? The alert provoked the mobilization of half the Armada, a general red-alert, urgent meetings of the Council… In the end, everybody wetting their pants because the quartermaster of some cargo ship wanted to have some fun.“

„I saw a holofilm on the incident, Ma’am. I’ll never forget the look on that quartermaster’s face when his ship was boarded by a squad of battle androids. He kept saying, «It was just a joke, guys…», while they aimed at him and the commander of the assault forces gave him an unfriendly look… The punishment was exemplary: a life sentence as a thumper on a gandulfo ranch.“

„I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, Lieutenant. Since then, nobody has dared do it again. In spite of the intervening centuries, we should not forget the Disaster. Besides, look, it’s an escape capsule. There’s no sign of the Goddard. This time it’s serious.“

„I agree, ma’am. The Goddard is a ship from Chandrasekhar. I was born there, did you know? Our world is hard, difficult, and that makes us face life with a light heart. We might seem carefree, but we never forget our responsibilities. I’d put my hand in fire for those guys.“

Captain Jahn looked at the Lieutenant. Though she had never told him, she considered him the best man of her crew. She also appreciated the people of the peripheral worlds; they seemed much less twisted than Earthlings or Rigelians.

„We’ll find out soon, Lieutenant. We’re going to take the capsule aboard.“

„Wouldn’t it be better to send a coded message first, Ma’am?“

„That might activate a self-destruct mechanism, or… I know it seems over-anxious, but I want to examine it as closely as possible, and above all, not lose its contents. Anything could be in there: a crewman of the Goddard with a lot to tell us, or perhaps an alien, maybe even one of the ones that caused the Disaster. We’ll find out when we open it.“

„The risk is enormous, ma’am. It could be a plague that could invade our ship, or maybe an alien intelligence that could take control…“

„Occupational hazards, Lieutenant. It’s fallen to us, so we’ll go out and earn our salaries the best we can. And if something does go wrong, the Armada has taken precautions.“

„Yes, Ma’am.“

The whole crew knew that at that moment, various squadrons of battleships were patrolling the area, jumping in and out of hyperspace unpredictably. They all were aiming their weapons at her ship, the corvette, Phobos. If anything tried to take it over, or if the observers noticed any strange behavior, they would open fire. It was a little on the stressful side to know that you were in the cross-hairs of enough lasers and missiles to blow up a planet, but that was life. The Corporation never hesitated to sacrifice a mere ship in the name of the common good.

„Maybe they ran into a patrol of the Prodigal Sons. We are very close to the border,“ the Lieutenant did not really believe that; he was rather trying to break the uncomfortable silence that had fallen on the bridge when the security measures were mentioned.

Miriam Jahn smiled. Though it was not politically correct, the nickname of „Prodigal Sons“ for the human worlds that did not want to join the Corporation was widely used, as long as there was no censor hovering around to hear you.

„I’m afraid not, Lieutenant. The emergency code was very clear: alien attack. Besides, the Prodigals, much though we may dislike their political system, have never attacked one of our ships. In any case, they would hold on to it until the owner paid a fine for crossing their territory without permission.“ She looked at the screens thoughtfully. „This is much worse, I’m sure of it.“

The Phobos maneuvered closer to the capsule, which was monotonously emitting its distress signal. With the greatest caution, a tractor beam took control of the little vehicle and brought it into a cargo bay. The capsule was set down gently, and the crew of the Phobos waited expectantly, trying to control their nerves. The infantrymen took up their positions and checked the status of their weapons, while the scientists connected their scanners.

On the bridge, everyone was glued to their monitors. Little by little, the first results of the examination were appearing: the exterior of the capsule was sterile, with no risk of biological contamination. The fuselage had not been damaged. Apparently, after its expulsion from the Goddard the small auxiliary motors had not fired, and the capsule had just drifted in space. The absence of life signs was worrying; the crewman (or whatever was inside) remained silent, even though he had to have noticed he was no longer floating in the vacuum. He might be gravely injured or dead. There was also the possibility that it was empty, or… Everyone got more nervous as they thought about the alternatives.

„Begin the internal analysis,“ ordered the Captain.

The scanners and mass-detectors swept the capsule, and an image slowly formed on the screens. At first it was little more than a glowing splotch, but it finally gained clarity. The Captain and Lieutenant looked at each other, thunderstruck.

„Send the key,“ murmured Miriam Jahn.

The capsule received a secret code, recognizable only by the Goddard. They didn’t have to wait long for the answer in the form of a coded message. It was deciphered immediately and heard over the loudspeakers on the bridge by the officers of the Phobos. Simultaneously, it was broadcast quantically to the High Command of the Armada and the Supreme Corporative Council.

„This is the computer of the science ship Goddard, chartered by the Autonomous University of Chandrasekhar–,“ here he gave his serial number and a list of the crew. „When you receive this I will have perished. On stardate 2/4/5190ee, universal standard time 19:03, we were boarded by an alien ship of unknown origin.“ The military personnel held their breath; some rose from their seats, growling a curse.

„Their characteristics do not, I repeat, do not match those of the race that caused the Disaster of 3800ee. Nevertheless, these beings appear equally hostile. They murdered the whole crew of the Goddard without attempting to communicate. I myself was blocked, without doubt to prevent the ship from self-destructing. The aliens headed for the nearest hypergate. I believe their goal was to obtain the databases of the Goddard. If they had succeeded, the consequences are easily imagined.“

The computer paused dramatically. On the bridge of the Phobos a deathly silence prevailed. You could cut the tension with a knife. The message continued:

„But I managed to frustrate their plans. If you haven’t already destroyed the capsule, you should open it. You will find that it contains one live passenger. It responds to the name of Silvester, and it is the cat of Mike, sorry, Michael Estrada, chief technician of the Goddard. Without going into details, I managed to convince the animal to drag a roast chicken into the escape capsule, I sealed the doors, and shot it into space. If you examine the interior of the chicken, you will discover a black, oval object, 23 centimeters long, stuffed inside the ribs. It is a lump of ultra-stable resin; Silvester cannot have damaged it. It contains the body of a small alien, in perfect condition, as well as various memory filaments with copies of all my recordings of what happened on the ship. The Goddard self-destructed before making the jump to hyperspace, which means that the aliens did not get away with the information they sought. Now it all depends on you. Tell the families of the crew that they all were excellent people, and fulfilled their duties to the end. I was honored that they offered me their friendship. And last, before I finish, allow me one request: please avoid another Disaster. The Goddard’s sacrifice gives you the opportunity to study the composition of one of the beings, and analyze their behavior in the recordings. My friends are dead; the best way to honor their memory is to keep history from repeating itself. May our deaths not be in vain. Goodbye.“

After a brief interval, the message began to repeat itself from the beginning, but no one was really listening. Everyone looked at the capsule, still too stunned to react. The Captain sighed deeply and connected a microphone.

„Sergeant, enter the cargo bay and take up positions. Do not remove your pressure suits. Have a battle android open the capsule.“

„Aye-aye, Ma’am.“

Outside, the battleships aimed their antimatter cannons at the Phobos, ready to shoot. The guidance systems of uncounted missiles did likewise. If the corvette made any sudden move, or anything strange happened to its crew… Everyone would sincerely mourn the loss of the heroic crew, they would perform the obligatory homages to the fallen, and they would even erect monuments and name streets after them in their home worlds. But you didn’t mess around with the safety of the Corporation. Humanity had seen enough with one Disaster not to allow themselves the slightest slip-up this time.

16

A scraping noise roused Silvester from his daydreams. What would happen next? Knowing the two-legs, nothing good, that was for sure. Well, they couldn’t take back what he’d eaten. After that chicken, you could die happy. Every bite was an authentic pleasure; next to it, ambrosia would seem dull. He licked himself all over, thinking about it. With a full belly and his spirit at peace, he waited to see what would happen.

The door to his hiding-place opened, and a stream of light blinded him momentarily. His pupils contracted to narrow vertical slits. He hissed with displeasure at the thoughtlessness, but he didn’t move. As soon as his eyes adjusted, he saw them. More two-legs, a multitude of them. These were new ones, too. Servants or sadists? They probably wanted to take his roast chicken… Well, they’d come too late; all that was left were the bare bones and a black rock the careless chef must have left in the stuffing.

Silvester observed them carefully. They were wearing some ridiculous gray skins, and had their heads enclosed in bubbles. Their hands brandished something like short sticks. Were they planning to beat him? Probably, but if he acted quickly… Without thinking further, he took the initiative; Fortune smiles on the bold.

Silvester approached the first of the two-legs and, purring flattery, raised his tail high and rubbed amorously against its boot. Then he aimed his charms as the next individual. Wow, it was working; they weren’t attacking him. Satisfied, he decided that he had found new lackeys. He trusted that their behavior would be less bizarre than their predecessors. And perhaps he had finally found a decent home where he could curl up and grow old without commotions.

„Meow,“ he said, and he was exactly right.

 

Translated by Elizabeth Small

Original title „Me pareció ver un lindo gatito“

First published in BEM magazine 61, February-March 1998

Copyright © 1998 by Eduardo Gallego & Guillem Sánchez

 

Eduardo Gallego Arjona (Cartagena, Spain, 1962) is a Doctor of Biological Sciences and currently works at the University of Almería. Guillem Sánchez i Gómez (Mataró, Spain, 1963) holds a degree in Business and currently works as a government employee of the Generalitat of Catalonia. Since 1994 they have published stories and articles related to science fiction, fantasy and other genres. They have won several sf literary awards, like  UPC Award (Polytechnic University of Catalonia) for the novella „La cosecha del centauro“; Alberto Magno Award (University of the Basque Country) for the story „Me pareció ver un lindo gatito“; and Jules Verne Award (in Catalan) for the novel „Nàufrags en la nit“. For a list of their works, with summaries and data, visit the website www.ual.es/personal/egallego/unicorp.htm

The story above has won the Alberto Magno Award (University of the Basque Country)  in 1997. You can read the Spanish original here.

© . .

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