Working on the robo-cat test team was exciting, to say the least…
Everyone on the team, including me, was excited to be here. I mean, you’d think being part of the team that built the first artificial feline emulation drone would be exciting all the time. After all, in theory, you get to work with cats all day, every day. You get to pet cats and feed cats and write about cats and film cats and study cats. Kind of the dream nowadays, right? In truth, the excitement lasts about a week and then you run smack into reality. Have you ever actually watched a cat? For eight whole hours? With a notebook in your hand to document every move, down to the minute? No, you haven’t. If you had, you’d be on this team.
And you’d be dead right now.
The boredom drove most people away. We had thousands of applicants in the first two days the test team opened up, all people who just wanted to work with “sweet kitty faces” with the “toe beans” and “fluffy butts”. It took us a week to narrow the list to the final dozen. Most of the applicants weren’t all that interested in the job when they learned they couldn’t give the cats cute nicknames and claim one for their own. When we showed them exactly what we did all day and how much time we spent with a piece of one-way glass between us and the cats, they got even less interested. Most of them didn’t last long enough to see just how much detail they’d have to put at the end of their shift into the Multiple Entry Organizational Working Document.
MEOW Doc. Har har.
Anyhow, we built a team and settled in fine, eventually. We took our shifts and worked through time studies and broke out individual behaviors and encoded them into the emulator module. No big deal. Twenty-three cats pretty much acted like you’d expect twenty-three cats in a climate-controlled, well fed and watered habitat to act. Some of them were friendly, some standoffish, some shy. We kept meticulous track of the relationships on a huge chart on one wall of our lab with pins and yarn and flags. It was complex, but useful. Every bit of what we learned went into the robo-cat’s cognitive matrix. We figured we were about three months from activating the prototype to see if we really had created the perfect human-friendly hunter-killer robot.
Then came Onyx.
Onyx killed all the boredom. I wish she had stopped there.
We got her from a local kill shelter. Her third family had turned her in two weeks before for reasons the shelter didn’t bother to write down in any great detail. A couple of us tried to find out her story but we had no luck getting in contact with anyone who knew more about her than what you could see. The only notation on her record was a single line: “Not good with children”. That was, as we later learned, an understatement.
She was beautiful, jet black and sleek, like a shadow with calm, watchful green eyes. She took to the lab habitat immediately, claiming a napping spot in a window hammock that got sun most of the afternoon, and an afghan I brought from home a couple of months before. The afghan is probably what saved me up to now. She seemed to recognize me more easily, even through the one-way glass. Our guess was the afghan still smelled a little of me, even after washing, or perhaps she remembered that I had given it to her. I don’t know. It was not the only odd thing about her.
About a week after she arrived, things in the habitat got…weird. The other cats shifted their behaviors such that they never spent much time around her. They didn’t actively avoid her that we could see; they simply managed not to be around when she was around. A room full of cats would clear out for no good reason and a couple of minutes later, Onyx would saunter in, like a queen entering her throne room. All the feline relationships went awry, like she exerted a sort of gravity. You could see it happen day by day in the relationship web. Catherine, God rest her terrified soul, made a time lapse video of the changes. Watching it was eerie. You could see Onyx’s influence warp and change the strands like a supermassive black hole moving across spacetime day after day, week after week.
That should have been the big warning. We should have known that something was happening beyond our knowledge and we should have seen very clearly that Onyx was the cause, somehow. We should have gotten rid of her right then and there. Most of the team, in fact, wanted to. Catherine and Rowan even called a special meeting to discuss it. Things got heated. Catherine showed us the video. Rowan and Tony showed how the cats had all but stopped eating and drinking in the same rooms Onyx ate and drank. We could see the great hole of cat-lessness in the habitat filled only by Onyx and how that hole was growing. That’s the word Jamel used right before he disappeared from the meeting. He came back a few minutes later with Onyx stuffed into a duffel bag — she went along with surprising calmness. He nearly got her out the door before I stopped him.
Sorry, Jamel. You were right.
Anyhow, we kept working and things got weirder and weirder. We would have stopped but how could we have? We were so close. Activation Day was only a month away — one month left after four years of the most boring work you could ever imagine, like watching grass grow if the grass had fur and licked itself a lot. No chance we were going to pull the plug now. That discussion got heated too, but this time there were more of us than just me on the side of pushing through. No one even talked about getting rid of Onyx. What was the point? In a month, we’d be rid of all of them. I’m not quite sure Onyx liked it when Catherine brought up that point. She glared down from atop the cabinet that housed the emulation unit.
By this point, the cats all stayed in one room now, a room into which Onyx didn’t go, like she had claimed the rest of the habitat but deigned to grant the other occupants their own place to exist. We kept on our work, observing what we could, which was mostly Onyx’s behavior. The other cats simply didn’t do anything anymore. It was like their essential catness was all but gone.
Then they started to die.
One by one, we found them under beds or in closets. Tucked away meticulously. Hidden neatly. Quick, tidy fatal wounds in critical places. Or broken necks. Or suffocation, believe it or not. We knew it was Onyx, of course. Who else could it have been? The team tried to hunt her down but she evaded every attempt. I didn’t join in. I stayed in the matrix room and kept working. If we could finish, then we could activate the robo-cat early and — oh, here was a most interesting thought — Onyx might just be its first test.
The other reason I didn’t join in was because I knew exactly where Onyx was all the time. She was right next to me, with her head against my leg, napping happily. Her purr blended in perfectly with the low hum from what we called The Den — the charging chamber for the robo-cat and the place from which it would emerge just as soon as I finished the last bit of encoding. Onyx liked The Den. It had become her favorite place to sleep, curled on top of it and a faint smile on her whiskered face. I had an odd thought that she had finally found home. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t have told you, mostly because I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I was too busy coding and coding, trying to push Activation Day up as far as I could without anyone else knowing about it. And all the while, Onyx slept against me.
Finally, I was done. I finished the last check and stretched my sore back. Onyx woke up, blinked at me with sleepy eyes, stretched, and put her paw on the keyboard. I looked at her quizzically and she meowed once, sharply but not loudly. It was a statement. Wait, she seemed to say. Not yet. I did wait and I watched as she leaped down from the desk and padded over to The Den. She meowed again from the darkness and I knew exactly what she said. Now.
I took a deep breath and hit the Enter key. The Den lit up with a soft, dangerous blue light and I smelled from within it the scent of burning hair. Onyx! She was inside it! I started to get up, but sat back down. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t help. If she was in there, the only thing that could save her was shutting down the process right now. And that wasn’t going to happen. I would not stop the project now. But that really wasn’t why I sat back down. Onyx had gone into The Den on purpose. This was what she wanted. Don’t ask me how I knew that, but I knew. Onyx has gotten herself intertwined with the robo-cat somehow and what was happening inside was what she wanted from the moment she walked into the habitat. Crazy? Yeah, probably, but not nearly as crazy at what happened over the next two days.
The robo-cat worked. Well. We had successfully created an apex predator the likes of which the world had never seen before, more skilled and savage than any of us could have imagined. It hunted down every member of the team quickly and quietly and killed them with casual, playful ease. I saw it kill the last of us. Catherine. The one who had been most suspicious about Onyx. The one who had all but told us Onyx was not merely a cat but something from humanity’s most unspeakable nightmare. I saw the way it moved and the way it looked back at me as it licked her blood from her paws and leaped into the shadows. That’s when I knew for sure what we had done.
We had given Onyx immortality. We had sealed our own doom.
I don’t know how she did it, but she had become one with our project. She had merged herself with the plastics and alloys and hyper-reactive circuitry and created herself anew. She was not just a cat but a nearly unstoppable, uncatchable killing machine and she was learning how to use her new body and her new senses by practicing on us in the habitat.
I’m glad I was her favorite. It means she saved me for last.
She’s coming now. I hope she kills me fast. I was her friend, not her prey.
I hope she remembers.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a story, I know. My only excuse is that I’ve been busy with a couple things and have also been battling a couple life issues. But you don’t want to hear about all that (unless you really do, in which case I have a newsletter where I talk about stuff like that).
This story came from a weekly prompt post tied to a Facebook group to which I belong. The group is, quite honestly, one of the few reasons I still hang around that particular platform. I wrote the story last week but didn’t get around to revising it until just tonight.
And then I have more stories to come. Seriously! I’m not even fooling around here! Keep your eyes open.
(Photo Credit: ClaudiaWollesen on Pixabay)