17 April 2009

"Sam Spayed"

By Curtis C. Chen

The building manager unlocked the apartment and said, "You know they got a talking cat, right?"

Jake took his hand off the doorknob and stepped back.

Andy said, "Don't tell me you're afwaid of puddy tats, Jake."

The older detective scowled. "I hate talking animals."

Andy shook his head and stepped forward.

The first pet "translators" were just prerecorded audio chips triggered by sound. Then a couple of Stanford graduate students had refined the technology, using voice stress analysis and text-to-speech software. Now anyone could walk into any pet store in the country and get a patented "translation collar" to give his or her pet its own unique voice.

Andy pushed the door open and called, "NYPD!" Nobody responded.

Enough daylight was coming in through the kitchen window for him to see potted plants everywhere, half-folded newspapers on the dining table, and one mostly empty teacup on the carpet by the futon. There was a distinctly non-plant-like silhouette in the kitchen window. Andy walked over and saw a sleek orange cat, half-crouched on the windowsill and staring back at him with big yellow eyes.

"Hey there," Andy said. "I don't suppose you know where your owner is?"

The cat blinked its eyes slowly and started swishing its tail. It let out a short meow, and a second later, the hexagonal tag on its collar blinked green and said, "I can has cheeseburger?"

Andy groaned. Apparently their missing person had sprung for one of the novelty language upgrades.

He saw two empty bowls on the kitchen floor, picked up one of them, and filled it from the tap. The pressurized water hit the side of the bowl and spattered all over Andy's chest before he could shut it off.

The cat yowled, "You're doing it wrong!"

Andy put the bowl down. He saw Jake standing in the living room, grinning.

"What?" Andy said.

"I'm searching the bedroom," Jake said. "You have fun with your furry friend there."

"Fuck you," Andy replied.

The cat descended onto the counter and sniffed at the water bowl. "Do not want!"

"Yeah, yeah," Andy muttered.

"It has a flavor!" the cat said.

Andy looked at the bowl on the counter. He turned on the faucet and watched the water spray into the sink. The stream seemed more diffuse than it should have been.

Andy searched his pockets and found his Mickey detectors. The precinct had issued everyone drug testing kits after a sudden wave of knockout rapes in downtown. He opened the plastic canister, pulled out a strip, and held it under the tap water. The stiff paper turned red instantly.

"Son of a bitch," Andy said.

He turned off the water and unscrewed the aerator at the end of the spout. When he pulled it away, a small, shiny disk fell out of the faucet. The surface of the disk felt slimy and left a residue on his thumb.

Andy smiled and petted the cat with his other hand. "Good kitty."

"Also," the cat said, "your mechanic is a pony."


Audio: "Sam Spayed"

If there is a moral to this story, I suppose it would be: Humans are easily fooled.

We are hard-wired to fill in the blanks. Flash a sequence of still images at twenty-four frames a second, and we think we see motion. Show us strange phenomena that can't be easily explained, and we turn to conspiracy theories, religions, or both.

It's good and bad that we're predisposed to understand things in terms of story. Good, because narrative is a solid framework for all kinds of information dispersal; bad, because sometimes what you want to hear isn't what you need to hear, or even what's available. Reality can be a real buzzkill.

Music: Bass and Electric Guitar stems from "Code Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.



Yes, I'm afraid it has come to this: punny titles and gratuitous references to overexposed Internet memes. But hey, at least I'm not taping bacon to my cat.

Here's another link, just in case you're wondering where I got that punchline. And yes, I have made some Lolz featuring our own cats.

Simpsons fans may recall a similar translator idea in "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?" But the idea of a "universal translator" dates back to at least 1967, when Star Trek used it, and probably appeared before then in other fiction.

Would the ability to communicate with other beings help or hurt first contact and the establishment of peaceful inter-species relations? I have to agree with Douglas Adams here—it would most likely be irrelevant. Many people who speak the same language are still right bastards to each other.

Being able to talk to someone doesn't mean you're automatically going to like them. Or believe them, for that matter. As cops and doctors know, everybody lies. Even machines.