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The man behind the airport scanning machine looked hard at Sasha Petrovich. He looked like a beetle with a thick shaggy moustache and smelled vaguely like an open tube of Ben-Gay. A plastic bag full of button batteries dangled from his left hand. "What are you using all these batteries for?" he asked, jiggling them.
"For my camera. Since when is that illegal?" Sasha, nicknamed "Sassy" by her friends, wrinkled her thin nose at the guard. He set the batteries on the table and continued to empty her backpack. He drew out a plush toy cat. "And what does this one do?"
"I bought it in Chinatown. Watch." She placed the stiff feline on all fours and flicked a switch on its synthetic-fur belly. It began to bleat "Me ow. Me-owl Me-ow." While it chanted this mantra, its green eyes flashed. "Do you want it?"
"No... I get the picture." He put the cat and the batteries in the red backpack and began to zip it up. "Have a nice flight." Looking at her ticket, he added, "I hear it's nice in Paris this time of year." It was then that Sasha noticed his pig nose. She shrugged her shoulders and contin ued toward the gate. Her left hand found the transmitter keychain in her pocket. She located the button marked "dumb" and pressed it. Her back pack shuddered. Then the mechanical meow. It was hungry again. She shook the bag to make it shut up and began looking for a bathroom. Faceless people pushed past her, making their way down a corridor whose only decoration was a series of large overlapping blue and purple dots. She looked up and saw the metal sign. She rushed into a stall and opened her backpack.
The MK301 stepped from the nylon bag and shook itself off. Sasha pulled a small plastic dish from the backpack and set it on the octagons of the tile floor. Into this she dumped the red-anodized button batteries. The MK301 stopped its bleating and began to ingest the cells. Sasha placed a square tray on the floor on the other side. She watched the mechanical cat. First, it tested each cell with its tongue. Next, swal lowed the good ones and placed the dead ones in the small litter box. When it finished, it moved over to the litter box and excreted the empty
batteries. Sasha shook the tray until each battery found an indentation. A few minutes later the light turned green, and she dumped the cells back into the plastic bag. "Silly kitty." The cat crawled back into the book bag and curled up, making the second of its three pre-programmed sounds: a purr. It was very important to feed it. If its main power cells went dead, the unit would lose its programming. And it had been very difficult to train this one.
The MK301 was illegal in the United States and in most developed nations, even though no one had seen it yet. Its predecessor, the MK200, enjoyed the same popularity as did land mines in the preceding century. There were rumors of random violent tendencies toward humans, but the product was really banned because it was such a good mouser that it affected the grain export market. The 200 had been designed as a mouse killer for grain-poor third-world countries. It had a metallic finish and deliberatelylimited art)ficial-intelligence capabilities. The 300-series cats, now in the prototype stage, were decidedly more cat-like with their plush fur and soft bodies, and no one would have recognized one as artificial from more than a couple of meters away. Like its predecessor, the MK301 was the product of Genex's numerous military technologies, from its spectroscopic nose, to its infrared eyesight, to its fuzzy-logic neural systems. It did not have a trade name, although Boris Petrovich thought of names like Electrokitty and Replicat. He was the father of the synthetic cats. The one his daughter Sasha called Meow-Kitty was a birthday present. It was a Siamese variation with soft short fur, happy blue eyes and sharp ceramic teeth. And it was programmed for political assassination.
Sasha slept through the flight. While she and the other passengers dreamed of the Seine, the MK301 prowled the darkened airplane. It wove a tight path between aluminum seat supports, feet of other passengers, and poorly-stowed carry-on luggage. Its glowing blue eyes lit the way. For an hour it stole the unopened dinner mints from the galley and off the trays of the sleeping. It brought each mint back~to Sasha's seat and placed it carefully in the bookbag. This was only a slight variation of vestigial MK301 programming, which involved hunting, exterminating, collecting, and properly disposing of noxious rodents. When it grew bored of its self-appointed task, the MK301 sniffed out the bag of batteries, chewed a hole in it, and ate all of the ones that were fully charged. Sasha woke up to the sound of crinkling plastic. "Bad Meow Kitty." She shook the cat until it made its third noise, a crying sound. She opened up a little electronic organizer and typed:
sleep: bored =true
She pointed the organizer's infra-red transmitter at the cat and pressed the send button. The MK301's eyes flashed green once and it began to purr. Message understood. It was so hard to think of all the trouble spots one of these cats could get into. Boris Petrovich had a bizarre sense of humor.
As soon as Sasha reached her Left Bank hotel room, she fell onto the bed and went right to sleep. The MK301 wandered around the room, finally making its way into the pink tile bathroom, where it climbed up into the window. It rufffled its fur, which exposed small solar panels on its back. Then the MK301 went to sleep, too. Little mechanical lids closed over its glass eyes.
* * * * *
Meow-Kitty woke from a disturbing dream. She dreamt about a very evil man. He was not visible in the dream, just an infrared pattern and an odor signature. She stretched out and looked over the edge of the windowsill. Seeing the fire escape, she leaned tentatively over the edge, and then jumped down. When she reached the flight just above the ground floor, she dropped off into the street. Meow-Kitty felt as if it was time for a nice walk, but she did not know why. When she stepped out onto the avenue, a flood of ideas filled her head. She must go across the river. There was something to see there. The concierge of the hotel, an old man who was practically blind, tried to lure the cat to him. Meow-Kitty ran in through the front door of the hotel and back up to Sasha's ro~om with her articulated tail raised high. She dove under the blankets to hide.
Sasha woke up and looked at the MK301. "Time to go for a walk," she chimed. After she traded her hotel key for her passport at the desk, the young Petrovich strolled out of the building, the mechanical cat walking a little bit ahead. Paris held such wonders for a curious cat. Sasha walked slowly, looking in the shop windows. She paused in front of an ice cream cart. The MK301 walked beneath it. As the girl pulled out a few francs for the cone, something came over Meow-Kitty. Sasha had not tasted the first drop of the sorbet when her cat bolted out from the cart, running at full speed. "Silly kitty." The cat ran along the Seine until it reached the Pont Neuf. There it crossed. Sasha ran clumsily after it, uncomfortable in high heels. It would be a big problem if her father knew the cat had escaped.
As Meow-Kitty ran, new sensations came over her. The air was cold, and the cobblestones battered her elastic feet. Suddenly she imagined the infrared and scent pattern of the old man from the dream. He was very bad, said her instincts, but he tasted very good. Her legs carried her toward the drab skyscrapers of the Right Bank. Sasha was out of breath. She paused to wipe the ice cream off her hand. "Here kitty, kitty, kitty," she choked out. She leaned over the rail, panting and hoping that robot cats were programmed for that ancient call. She concluded that the MK301 was too far ahead. Her head spinning, she sat down on a bench. Little did she know that the MK301 was only a few meters in front of her, at the far end of the bridge. She was trying desperately to collect some solar energy. Sasha had forgotten to feed her.
Sasha could feel beads of sweat under her blouse. She casually tossed the ice cream into the river. The heel of one of her shoes was loose, and she was unsure it would support her on another run. Limping toward the other side, she caught sight of the cat, which was now walking slowly to conserve power. There was something funny about its gait. Its back was to the sun. She picked up the pace and brushed her black hair off her pale skin, trying not to think about the shoe nails pressing into her feet. Meow- Kitty had no conscious desire to escape from Sasha, but she had another agenda. Microwave signals beamed into her brain from a satellite high over the North Sea made it difficult for her to think of anything but the mission objective. The man she envisioned was Jacques St-Pierre, deputy minister of defense. Her intuition toed her to walk ahead five hundred meters, then turn right. She plodded along, watching with apprehension the clouds drifting across the sky.
It seemed to Sasha that the MK301 was moving in spurts, and every time she approached it, it advanced. She wondered who would be worn out first. Nobody fed it today, she reflected with regret. The girl watched the cat make its way toward the Ministry of Defense. That building is an architectural abomination, thought Sasha. So much limestone, so many arrow-loop windows made of green glass. She wondered why on earth her pet was going there. The front doors swung open, and a group of men in dark blue suits walked out. They stood waiting for their state car and driver to come around the block. St-Pierre, who was under investigation for selling secrets to the enemy, stood in the middle.
Meow-Kitty sniffed out St-Pierre. She decided to rest for a few seconds, then make a final attack. Her ideas were more clear now. She would jump up and bite his throat with all her strength. She looked around the street. The men shufffled around, and she took a good look at her quarry. Suddenly she was filled with the most intense hatred her tail antenna could receive and her emotion chip could handle. In a few more seconds, she could move, and move quickly. But she was so tired. Must move feet, she decided. She heard Sasha's fooffalls a short distance behind her.
The clouds were closing over the sun. Sasha was almost on top of the MK301 when it lunged impotently at the minister. The cat described a short arc, and headed straight into the ground. Sasha came up to it and collected what looked like a plush toy from the sidewalk. The French officials did not bat an eye. Sasha put the enervated MK301 in her handbag. "Silly kitty." She would have to take it home and retrain it. For the rest of the day, Meow-Kitty rode lazily in the bag, dreaming of streets full of tasty mice.