Justin had what he wanted. Natascha was a one-year-old, female, Russian Blue cat, in near-perfect health. He had bought a pet hospital months before to avoid answering the questions of an adoption agency or county shelter. And his plan had worked exactly as expected: some unsuspecting family—Jim and Joan Bradley—had brought in a well-bred cat and Justin told them it had died. But this was a lie. In fact, he was keeping Natascha for his own experimentation. Soon the drug would wear off. It had been given surreptitiously, to make Natascha appear dead in front of her family. But when it faded, she would be prime for an experiment that could make the scientist a massive fortune.
Justin was the foremost neuro-electrical specialist in his field. Securing funding hadn’t been difficult, given his sales ability and the ambitiousness of creating gadgetry that could potentially raise human intelligence by fivefold or maybe even tenfold. The military had become interested because Russia was far ahead on artificial intelligence, and the U.S. desperately needed something that could compete.
The self-absorbed scientist had receding brown hair and a thin, weaselly look. He wanted to be sure that the animal was coming back from her drugging. He went to the main work room and held Natascha by her scruff. The cat objected with a growl of warning. Justin ignored it.
An investor entered the room unannounced. Justin turned, wearing a sheepish grin.
“This is the subject?” the investor asked.
This is the first.”
“And there was one question that I’d forgotten to ask.” The woman’s attempt at an even tone was a thin veneer atop anguish and moral outrage. “Other than the obvious.”
“Obvious doesn’t exist. Tell me what is obvious first.”
“The animal can’t consent to this.”
Justin turned to face Anita. “I saw you eat Wendy’s chili for lunch today. Did the ingredients in the chili, such as the cattle, the chili powder, and the legumes have an opportunity to give consent?” Justin’s tone was insulting. “And what about the cheese topping? Did the cow consent to giving the milk?”
The investor was flabbergasted. “Mr. Sykes, are you normally this obnoxious to people you need?”
“Do you want my cooperation? Don’t give me an excuse to take my services elsewhere.”
Anita took a deep breath. It took all the control she had to stop herself from punching his lights out, which she could do. This scientist was nuts, and they were using him because he was the only one who could do this. When the project was finished, Justin would be finished. The conglomerate would see to that.
“How is your invention different from electroconvulsive therapy given to psych patients?”
“A very simple idea. The amount of current is a constant thirty milliamperes, and electroconvulsive therapy uses the equivalent of fifty times that current, in jolts.”
“One more question.”
“Are we creating a monster?”
“Yes, we are.”
Justin picked up Natascha, attempting a gentler manner, and was intending to pet her. Natascha didn’t like Justin and again gave a warning growl. One doesn’t often hear a cat growl, but sometimes they do. And when they do, you should heed it. Justin put Natascha back in her enclosure. Natascha did not fight with this.
“You do not understand what I’m saying to you. You are a dumb animal as it stands now.”
Justin did not decipher the look in Natascha’s eyes, but a perceptive person would have discerned a look of bitter contempt.
“You will soon be the world’s first sentient housecat. You will be as famous as Felix the cat.” Justin paused. “Felix the cat was the very first image to be transmitted on television. But why am I saying this to you?”
Justin pressed an intercom button on the wall to summon his lab assistant. Karen had worked extensively in veterinary hospitals, and her qualms about participating in this were overcome by massive pay. But she resented Justin and believed he was playing god.
“Give a shot to Natascha. We’re going to install the electrodes now.”
“My investor wants to see results, and all of the equipment is prepared.”
“But it’s five o’clock on Friday.”
“I’ll have the teenager stay over the weekend and keep an eye on it,” Justin said, referring to the cat.
Another assistant brought a rolling, shiny metal table that had the equipment to be implanted. Karen prepared a needle with an anesthesia solution and injected a measured amount into Natascha’s hindquarter.
The teenager, Brad, was present when Natascha woke from her surgery. Brad observed how the skin on the cat’s head was shaved and was stitched together in a large semicircle of stainless-steel thread. He was tempted to reach in and pet the cat, but had been admonished to do nothing of the kind.
Brad took some notes. The cat was conscious, had lapped up a little bit of water, and was regaining mobility as the anesthesia wore off.
“Are you a normal cat?” Brad was shocked when Natascha shook her head in a way that looked deliberate.
Natascha evaluated her surroundings. She saw that she could unlatch the latch on her enclosure, which was designed in a way that assumed the nonintelligence of a caged cat or dog. She gave a loud meow, and when Brad turned to see what had happened, she leapt up with all her might…
Monday morning, Justin awoke with a hangover. He’d been celebrating the night before about his anticipated success with his intelligence-boosting invention. His alarm clock had been going for a good fifteen minutes. He got out of bed and got ready to go to the lab. The phone rang.
It was Anita, informing him that Natascha had gotten loose and attacked Brad, who was unconscious in the hospital.
The scientist needed to retrieve the cat. He gulped down unheated, old coffee and hurried out to his car. He turned on the radio.
A man, mauled to death, had been discovered in his car, with the motor still running, in a parking lot of an unknown business. Investigators parsed through the scene of carnage, and they concluded it was probably a mountain lion attack. They could not reach any management of the business, and they were told by someone purporting to be a former employee that there’d been a change in ownership. Police faxed a referral to the FBI and filed the information.
Natascha was able to navigate toward home from the supposed veterinary hospital. As she went through intersections, she realized she could read and comprehend the street signs and could evade being hit by speeding cars. At one point, she spotted a stray, emaciated, fast-moving German Shepard. She went to a nearby pine tree and climbed it. The dog wanted to eat her. She picked up a pinecone with her teeth and hurled it at the dog. She made threatening noises. The dog moved on.
The cat traveled. She was able to outsmart birds and mice and this made it easier to hunt them down. She was clever enough to avoid being eaten or picked up by Animal Services. Natascha marched for many weeks. Finally, the cat recognized her house, and she noted that a window was opened, and a screen could be removed. The first thing she did was to hop up on Joan Bradley’s lap. By that time, the hair on the cat’s head had regrown.
Jim and Joan had not replaced Natascha as yet, and they were overjoyed that a cat had somehow found them. They did not recognize her, convinced that she had died as the vet told them. Yet they felt obligated to get the cat returned to its owner. They brought her to a cat agency to find out if she was microchipped.
The head of the cat agency entered the exam room. She said, “This is your cat.”
At that point, Natascha jumped from the exam table toward Joan, and Joan by reflex caught her in her arms, a mutual move Joan and Natascha had learned, and that gave Joan and the cat much joy. Natascha was home.
Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.