According to my link, it was 121 years into the mission when RNE, the ship’s computer, woke me up. I guess I’m 156 years old now.
The wakeup went as smoothly as advertised. It takes about two days to bring someone back, but when the systems wake you, you’re as alert as you ever are in the morning, and all cleaned up. The hibernation gear exercises your muscles electrically, so you’re probably in better shape than when you laid down, years and miles in the past.
My first words will not be recorded here, but the first printable thing I said was “RNE, what’s up?”
“Good morning, sir.”
“Don’t call me, sir, Arnie, you know I don’t like it.”
“Sorry, Kate. It’s my training. And frankly, I’m worried about the cat.”
It took me a moment to think of a reply. “Arnie, we don’t have a cat.”
“Kate, unless I am seriously malfunctioning, we do in fact have a cat. That’s why I woke you. You’re the designated handler of Anomalous Issues.”
True enough. As ship’s engineer, I have sufficient command authority to do whatever’s necessary, and am most qualified to deal with anything that might go wrong during the mission. If need be, I can authorize waking the Captain or others of our twenty crew members. I do not recall cats being mentioned in the training.
“Show me the cat, Arnie. Where is it?”
“It’s right outside the hatch to the Revival Bay, Kate. It has been moving around the ship, but mostly stayed in the command area. I’m not sure why it is here now.”
“This is a normal sized cat, right? Not a tiger sized?”
“Correct, Kate. It appears to be a young yellow cat of normal cat proportions, based on what I have in the database.”
“OK, Arnie, let’s meet the cat. Open the Revival Bay doors, Hal.”
“I can do that, Kate.” And he did.
And a small yellow cat walked into the Bay, meowing. It looked like an ordinary cat to me, but there’s no way a live cat could be on the ship over a century into the mission. There’d be nothing to eat, for one thing, so this couldn’t be a tenth-generation stowaway.
The cat continued to meow, and it put its paw on my leg. Definitely a real cat, it stuck its claws gently into my calf.
“Have you fed the cat, Arnie?”
“No, Kate, I just started your revival as soon as I saw it.”
“We’d better feed it. Can you synth some cat food?”
“I could print some fish or chicken. I don’t think I have a kibble recipe.”
“Try some tuna. I think cats like tuna. I’ll bring it to the galley.”
“As you say, Kate.”
I climbed off the revival bed and started for the door. The cat led me in that way that they lead you, walking about a half step ahead of me, slower than I wanted to go. Its ears were pointed back at me and every few steps it stopped and turned to see if I was following it.
I guess it was just luck, but it was heading in the right direction toward the galley. Arnie had turned on the galley lights, and the cat went right in, after pausing by the entry to make sure I was following.
“There’s a dish of tuna in Receiver One, Kate.”
There was, and I took it out and put it on the deck. The cat, without a bit of thanks, went to the dish and began eating. Meanwhile, I found a bowl and filled it with water, and set it beside the food dish.
“Arnie, have you recorded the cat’s activities?”
“Yes, Kate. I’ll run it on the galley screen. It started just over two days ago, in Command.”
The recording showed an empty command area, as seen from the large screen at the front of the room, looking back toward the crew seating. After a few seconds of nothing, a yellow cat walked out from behind the Captain’s seat and jumped up into it. It sat looking forward. I thought it looked like it thought it belonged there but then cats always do.
“Um, Arnie, the Captain is in his pod, isn’t he?”
“Yes, Kate. All the crew except you are still in their pods.”
Arnie began running a picture-in-picture, showing views of all the pods. Only mine was empty. I was strangely gratified not to see myself lying in my pod.
The cat on the screen curled up and went to sleep.
“Speed through the boring bits, Arnie.”
“I have over two days of video, Kate, and the only time we don’t see the cat is when it walks behind something that blocks the camera view.”
“I guess we’ll dispense with the long form viewing, then. Did you observe anything else? Mice, perhaps?”
“Mice, no. Observations, yes. Often my recordings show the cat walking out of view in one area, and walking into view in another, but there’s no recording of it moving between the two areas. Other times, I have it wandering the passages between areas, but sometimes I haven’t been able to discern how it got from one area to the other.”
“Could it be using the ventilation ducting?”
“I can see all the duct grillwork, and none of them are open. I can’t see inside the ducts without sending in a crawler, but there seems to be no opening it could use.”
“Marvelous. We have an impossible cat, and somehow it’s my problem. I’m an engineer, Arnie, not a biologist.”
“Yes, Kate, but you are the designated crew member for anomalies of all kinds.”
“Not animalies, though.”
“I don’t understand, Kate.”
I was about to start asking questions about whether we could hibernate a cat when the alert lighting started flashing, and one of Arnie’s automatic warnings sounded:
“ALL COMMAND CREW TO COMMAND DECK!”
That was me. I ran up to Command, followed by the cat. I took the command chair, as ranking person who happened to be awake. There was something visible on the big screen.
“The object just passed us, pulled in front, and is pacing us. Our velocity is nominal, 0.25 c. It matches nothing in my database, and I know of nothing that could catch us up and maneuver like that.”
“Well, 120 years of technological improvement, I suppose Earth might have something new. Does it have any markings? Is it signaling?”
“There are symbols on the side. I recorded them as it went by. Displaying.”
The picture on my command screen showed symbols, all right, but nothing like any letters I knew about.
“No known language, Kate.”
The thing ahead of us was rotating, to fly backward, facing us. In profile it seemed to be made of an open grid of beams or pipes. It had no visible hull: I could see stars through the grid.
When it had turned to face us, I was expecting a giant laser blast or something, destroying us in seconds. Arnie was of course unarmed: we don’t expect to encounter anyone in interstellar space. Even if others are out there, the space is too large for chance encounters. And, until today, the prevailing wisdom was that no one is likely to be out there.
“Is it signaling?”
“Nothing that I can detect, Kate.”
The face of the alien ship–my god, alien ship–was flat. It began to glow, displaying a sort of matrix of hexagonal tiles, like a chunk of a honeycomb. The tiles were black and white for a while, but kept shading in and out of my vision.
“I think it’s trying to communicate, Arnie. Are you getting anything besides the tiles?”
“Yes, Kate. On the cosmic background frequency, there’s a tone going on and off.”
“Let me hear it.”
The tone was regular off and on. I saw no pattern other than beep beep.
“Arnie, send them a tone back on the same frequency.”
Instantly, the alien ship’s display went dark, and the tone went very slow, long beeps and long pauses. Then it went light, and the beeps were short and frequent.
“I think we just learned yes and no, Arnie. Send rapid beeps.”
The display flashed once, paused, twice, paused, three times, paused, five times, and stopped.
“Arnie, send seven beeps, then eleven, then thirteen. Then give me a screen button so that I can beep directly.”
A new button appeared on my screen.
The tones and display now became very complicated, and slowly the hexes on the alien ship displayed a very credible sketch of a cat’s face.
At the same time, the cat jumped up onto my lap, and put its paw on the screen, sending a very long single beep.
The alien ship’s display flashed rapidly, then began to display a simple cartoon. It showed a square and a circle side by side. A line appeared, traveling from the square to the circle. On the end of the line was a sort of C-shaped thing, like an open claw.
After that ran for a while, the picture changed to a large C-shape, and a stick drawing of an animal, presumably our cat, going into the C which then closed.
That repeated for a while, and then the picture went back to the square and circle, showing the line going back to the square, now with a round O-shaped thing on the end, with a dot inside.
“Arnie, I think they want their cat back.”
I swear this is true, and it’s in Arnie’s recordings. As soon as I said that, the cat sent rapid beeps.
The rest is all on the recordings, too. I suited up and went into the cargo bay, had Arnie evacuate it, and open the hatch. The alien had pulled alongside us, maybe 50 meters away. They had an open hatch, but I couldn’t see inside it.
Shortly, a line came across, right into the cargo bay. On the end, as advertised, some kind of pod with an obvious door. The line was attached to the pod with a simple sort of latching hook. I disconnected it, pushed the line back outside the hatch. and closed our hatch.
Arnie replaced the bay atmosphere, and opened the inner hatch. The cat came in and stood by the pod. I took the hint and opened the little door. The cat went inside. I leaned down for a look and the cat licked my visor. I sealed the cat inside, closed the inner bay hatch, and we repeated the process.
The alien ship shot the line back into the bay, I attached the cat’s pod, and the line drew the pod, and the cat, back to the alien ship. I saw their hatch close, and thought I saw someone, or something waving, but it doesn’t show on our video of the proceedings.
The alien ship moved back in front of us, flashed multiple colors on its screen, beeping rapidly. Then it turned around, veered off and moved away at far greater than our velocity.
I returned to my hibernation pod, feeling confident that there’s at least one alien race out there that will think of us favorably. But I have no idea how they lost their cat, nor how it turned up in our ship. I’m just glad we were able to get it back home.