Andrew J. Solberg
Pet lovers understand that getting a new animal can be a crapshoot -- you might end up with a great animal, but you might get a dud. Of course, a dud may not be the worst-case scenario...
Sanford and I both work at the local lab; he's a computer jock and I do research in microelectronics. We rarely cross paths in the office, but we've remained close since college. For instance, every Friday we make a point of going to Garvey's Pub to drink and talk.
It was on one such expedition that we spoke of Sanford's calico.
He had gotten the cat recently, apparently from an animal shelter in Phoenix. He had paid for the papers and shots out of his own pocket, and though the cost was only a fraction of that one might pay in a pet store, it put a serious dent in his paycheck. Sanford claimed not to mind, however, as the calico was delightful company and easy to care for.
It was an outdoor cat, according to my friend, and it preferred stalking about under the hedges of his backyard to loafing on a sofa all day. Sanford would let it outside in the morning when he went to work, and when he returned it would be standing by the door, meowing amiably and ready for a good scratching. The eternal bachelor, Sanford found this very pleasant.
It seems the calico (Sanford, eccentric as always, refused to give the beast a name) was something of a hunter. More often than not, Sanford pulled into the driveway only to find a mouse or small bird lying dead and bloodied on the front stair -- presumably as a gift for him. Sanford decided that, for all its barbarism, this little ritual was incredibly cute and he would reward the purring kitty with a tin of sardines for its trouble.
Did I mention how strange Sanford is? I should have.
At any rate, the calico, being as subject to Pavlovian dynamics as any other creature, accelerated its campaign against the local fauna (and occasionally flora) in hopes of receiving its just piscine desserts every day. This stratagem seemed to work well -- the cat got its fish, and Sanford got a regular supply of deceased delicacies on his walk. Sanford found this to be a scream, and was considering keeping a kind of scrapbook of the calico's "trophies." He thought nothing of the rapid depredation of the local wildlife population.
As a kind of afterthought, Sanford mentioned that on the previous morning the calico had dragged in a mutant mouse. It looked perfectly normal in every respect, except that its tail was scaled like a lizard's, and blue.
The following Monday Sanford did not come to work. He was also not there on Tuesday, and the word came down the pipeline that he was AWOL. When he didn't show on Wednesday, I decided to check up on him.
That evening I pulled my rebuilt Catalina into Sanford's drive and parked it. The house looked like a sepulcher: shades drawn, no lights, papers piling on the lawn. It looked like Sanford had just pulled up roots and left. However, if you knew Sanford like I know Sanford, you would know that Sanford never leaves home without putting a tailor's mannequin in the window, presumably to ward off really stupid and myopic burglars. I climbed to the front door and rang the bell.
I had barely released the button when the door opened a crack. A moment later it was flung full open, and Sanford was dragging me inside. "In! Quick!" he hissed, and slammed the door.
Sanford looked terrible. He had huge, dark circles under his eyes, and the stain on his lips told me he had taken up chain-smoking again. His T-shirt had mustard stains on it, and he wasn't wearing anything else. In short, he looked like a body found in a ditch, and I told him so. He seemed not to hear me.
"Anybody see you? Anybody follow you here?" His eyes glittered at me in the near-darkness. I shook my head. He looked relieved.
"Jesus. You don't know what I've been through, man..." He looked like he was going to collapse. I ushered him into his own living room and made room on a recliner by clearing away a stack of newspapers. I knew where everything was in his kitchen, so I fixed him some coffee and a sandwich and tried to make him comfortable.
He looked a lot better after eating something. I pushed some comic books off the sofa and sat down to watch him. He took a long pull at the coffee and sat back heavily into the comfortable chair. "Sheez..." he breathed, closing his eyes.
At that moment there came a noise at the back door. It was a grating sound, of something rough being dragged across something metal. Claws on the screen door -- oh! The calico. "Shall I let it in?" I asked, rising from my seat. I stopped when I saw the look of horror on Sanford's face.
"No! Don't! The cat... who knows what it's gotten into? It's not safe, man! Don't let it in!" It poured out in a rush of panic. I got him some more coffee and tried to calm him down. When he seemed a bit less jumpy, I asked him to tell me what this was all about. He looked at me with the unwilling stare of a man forced to relive his worst nightmare.
"They're in the freezer."
There were three things in the freezer. One was a pound of ground chuck roast that had been there long enough to be harder than a brick. The other two were not hamburgers. They were sealed in zip- lock baggies.
The first contained a bird. It was the size and shape of a sparrow, but its feathers were all colors of the rainbow. Its beak was curved slightly like a finch's, and it had eight talons on each claw. Its tongue, protruding slightly, would have been six inches long if extended fully. It was clearly not a local bird.
The remaining specimen was beyond "not local." It was not terrestrial.
It was the size of a large rat. It looked something like a wolf spider, but stretched to the length of a shoe. It had thick tannish bristles with spots, like a leopard's. At the end of its body was a vicious-looking stinger. Its grasping palps were tipped with what can only be described as three fingers and an opposing thumb.
Both creatures were severely mauled. There was no question that the calico, fearless feline hunter, had been on one hell of a safari.
"Where'd they come from? What are they?" Sanford wanted to know. I couldn't help him. But the calico could.
"Oh, no," said Sanford, backing up. "I'm not letting that cat back in here."
The cat chewed noisily on its Tender Vittles. Sanford looked strung out as an addict, and he sucked on his cigarettes like they were full of gold dust. We watched the cat eat, and waited.
Eventually the calico finished, burped, and curled up on the carpet to sleep as if nothing had happened.
Sanford and I exchanged glances.
We watched the cat all through the night.
The next morning Sanford gingerly fed the cat some sardines. It mewed happily as the can opener ran, and gobbled the fish down as soon as they were under its nose. Then we let it out into the yard.
It seemed to have a standard routine of yard traversal: it would sniff every plant and pebble in turn, as if conducting an inventory. Then it would hunker down in the shade under the bushes and lie in wait for prey. There in the shadows, it looked like a little tiger. We watched it carefully from the bathroom window with a pair of binoculars.
Over the next few hours, the calico made several attempts to bag a cardinal which was trying to hunt up grubs on the ground. The cat would dash out from cover, a blur of color, but the cardinal would swoop out of danger just in time. The hunter would then pretend indifference, and would saunter casually back to its hiding place, as if preparing for a lazy afternoon nap. Fifteen minutes later, it would try again, with similarly poor results.
Around 12:30 the calico slipped through surveillance.
"Where'd it go?" Sanford asked. I took the glasses, but the cat was not in the yard. I berated him for letting it get away without seeing which fence it had jumped, but he insisted that it has simply disappeared. Naturally, I didn't believe him.
"Alright then, Mr. Know-It-Fucking-All," he blustered. "You track the little bastard tomorrow." That gave me an idea.
That evening the calico left a gift on the stairs.
Owls don't have fangs, do they?
The next day saw a repeat of the previous ritual, with one exception. The technology level of calico-tracking had advanced a century or so.
We had fitted a small signal emitter, courtesy of the lab and its generous after-hours policy, to the cat's collar. We had also borrowed an oscilloscope, a receiver, an amplifier, a multiband gain unit, several i/o boards, and the most advanced terminal from my division. Sanford's bathroom looked like Arecibo, and we could have heard a spider piss if it didn't put the seat up. Ah, modern science.
The cat went through its standard motions of local hunting, the results matching well with the previous day's foray. It bumbled around the yard until almost three in the afternoon before vanishing.
We peered at the screen. One second ago, the cat had been licking its paws in the middle of the lawn. The next moment it was simply not there. The computer confirmed what we thought we had hallucinated: the cat had made an instantaneous translation out of the range of our equipment.
Well, not quite instantaneous. A rigorous analysis of the shifting of the signal wavelengths showed that, at the moment of transmission loss, the calico had been receding at a rate just under the speed of light.
The calico did not return that day. However, Sanford and I were awakened just after midnight by the familiar scraping at the door screen, and we admitted the wayward cat. It bore with it a small creature, something like a cross between a parakeet and an opossum. It was thoroughly mauled, and quite dead. Further investigation showed that its left ear was pierced with a ring. The ring held a series of round metallic tags with bizarre spidery markings.
It took two pots of coffee to calm Sanford down.
Sanford got rid of the cat. I don't know how, or where it wound up, and I'm sure I don't want to know. Science is good for lots of things, but there are some mysteries that don't bear looking into.
I live in Melbourne now, designing printed circuit boards. It's kind of dreary work, but it's a long way away from Arizona.
I figure when the aliens come to find the predator that has been hauling off their pets, this is the last place they'll look.
Andrew J. Solberg (email@example.com) is a construction contractor in Houston, Texas, The Land That Culture Forgot. He got hooked on electronic media in college but stubbornly refused to drop it for more adult pursuits such as bowling or grumbling. He enjoys writing as well as playing bridge, listening to live music, and tromping around the United States. One day he hopes to revert to a life of violence and savagery. (Bio last updated in 1993.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Andrew J. Solberg.