Thursday! The E-Zine for November 29, 2023
Four years! Woo!
I’d like to tell you I have big plans for Thursday! this year. I’d like to hint coyly but with the impatient excitement of a ten year old boy with a live frog clasped behind his back about all the things I’ve planned to make Thursday! a Substack juggernaut and me a Legitimate Professional Writer.
I’d like to, but I can’t. I won’t. I don’t have any big, fancy plans. I have only a desire to get better issue by issue, zine by zine, poem by poem, story by story. I desire only to be worthy of your time and your enthusiasm. I want you to love Thursday! as much as I do — if such a thing is possible — so that you open every issue and share my creations with everyone you can imagine would enjoy them. That comes with time, determination, and the relentless patience of a stream carving a tiny rift through a great slab of granite. It’ll happen. It’ll come. You’ll be with me the whole time, reaping the rewards of my progress. Heck, you’ve come with me this far, right? Some of you have been subscribers of Thursday! back in the Tinyletter era, so I know you’re up for whatever tiny acts of shenaniganitude1 I commit to make this weekly venture into my imagination more fun and meaningful2 for you and yours.
This week, I have three haiku I’ve written over the past couple of weeks. I keep coming back to haiku, much for the reason I prefer to write shorter stories. There is a deep challenge to me in packing a lot of good stuff in a smaller space. I’m not usually a neat freak, but the idea of creative efficiency — a lot of “taste” in a small treat —holds a lot of appeal. On the other hand, this week’s story is one of the longer ones I’ve published in Thursday! so I might just be full of beans. Who knows?
Anyhow, let’s go!
At the four-way stop A frog hops across the road Heedless of the rain.
Bright Jupiter winks At a candy corn sunset And foraging deer
Power Poles at Night
Long shadows connect Electric steel sentinels Across buzz-cut fields.
My dream is to support my family with my art. Can such a thing be done? Yes! But I need your help.
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I’m going to take my time with this. I know she’ll grant me that. She likes me. God knows why, but she does. My name is…oh, that doesn’t matter. I’m a behavioral scientist and programmer and the last surviving member of the project we all called The Robo-Cat Team. We succeeded. I wish we hadn’t. But...let me try again. Everyone on the team, including me, was excited to be here. I mean, you’d think being part of the team that built the first artificial feline emulation drone would be exciting all the time. After all, in theory, you get to work with cats all day, every day. You get to pet cats and feed cats and write about cats and film cats and study cats. Then, when you get all the data each day, you dump it into a giant learning matrix that you built with your own cleverness and coding wizardry. Kind of the dream nowadays, right? Cats and genius, with some cool AI thrown in? In truth, the excitement lasts about a week and then you run smack into reality. Have you ever actually watched a cat? For eight whole hours? With a notebook in your hand to document every move, down to the minute? Then, when you get all of that, you have to run the AI processes and check for bugs and bad bits of data? Fix those and feed them back in until the matrix has finished its iterative processes? No, you certainly haven't done all that. If you’d lived with that daily tedium, you’d be on this team. And you’d be dead right now. We wrote the boredom into the initial specs, just to drive most people away. It worked, but even so, we had thousands of applicants in the first two days, all people who just wanted to work with "sweet kitty faces" with the "toe beans" and "fluffy butts". It took us – me and Lacey, the project manager who I found dead, laid on the floor next to my bunk…well, I’ll get to that – it took us two weeks to narrow the list to the final dozen. Most of the applicants weren't all that interested in the job when they learned they couldn't give the cats cute nicknames and claim one for their own. When we showed them exactly what we did all day and how much time we spent with a piece of one-way glass between us and the cats, they got even less interested. Most of them didn’t last long enough to see just how much detail they’d have to put into the Multiple Entry Organizational Working Document. MEOW Doc. Har har. Anyhow, we built a team and settled in fine, eventually. We took our shifts and worked through time studies and broke out individual behaviors and encoded them into the learning matrix. No big deal. Twenty-three cats pretty much acted like you'd expect twenty-three cats in a climate-controlled, well fed and watered habitat to act. Some of them were friendly, some standoffish, some shy. We kept meticulous track of the relationships on a huge chart on the biggest blank wall of our lab with pins and yarn and flags. It was complex, but useful. Every bit of what we learned went into the robo-cat's cognitive emulator. We figured we were about three months from activating the prototype to see if we really had created the perfect human-friendly hunter-killer robot. The army was going to love it. We had already worked up numbers on how many soldiers wouldn’t have to go into harm’s way because of our work. They were…impressive. Then came Onyx. Onyx killed all the boredom. I wish that was all she had killed. We got her from a local shelter. Her third family had only had her two weeks before they brought her back and the shelter hadn’t given any specific reasons why. That should have told us something. A couple of us tried to find out her story but we had no luck getting in contact with anyone who knew more about her than what you could see. The only notation on her record was a single line: "Not good with children". That wasn’t enough to exclude her from our project – we needed cats with a certain amount of aggression just like we needed the placid ones. I was the one who went to pick Onyx up and from the very beginning, I adored her. She was jet black and sleek, like a shadow with calm, watchful green eyes. She took to the lab habitat immediately, claiming a napping spot in a window hammock that got sun most of the afternoon, and an afghan I brought from home a couple of months before. That afghan is probably what saved me up to now. She seemed to recognize me more easily, even through the one-way glass, which...we have no idea how that worked. Our guess was the afghan still smelled a little of me, even after washing, or perhaps she remembered that I had given it to her. They didn't know. It was odd, but they didn’t have time to ponder it much because of what happened about a week later. The only word I had for it at the time was...weird. Usually, the cats all mixed and mingled, like you'd expect. They formed relationships with each other, all of which we charted, but Onyx changed all that. Somehow. The other cats shifted their behaviors such that they never spent much time around her. They didn't actively avoid her that we could see; they simply managed not to be around when she was. We’d be sitting there, cataloging their various stretches, yawns, and trips to the kibble dishes when suddenly, all their heads would perk up and they’d leave. A whole room full of cats would empty for no good reason we could see, but then a couple of minutes later, Onyx would saunter in, like a queen entering her throne room. Pretty quickly, all the feline relationships went awry in odd ways, like she was exerting a sort of gravity. You could see it happen day by day in the relationship web. The strings of yarn that connected the cats developed an Onyx-shaped void right in the middle. Catherine, God rest her soul, made a time lapse video of the changes to the web and showed it to us during one of the meetings. Watching it was eerie. You could see Onyx's influence warp and change the strands like a supermassive black hole moving across spacetime day after day. That set us on edge. We saw something happening beyond our knowledge, we saw very clearly that Onyx was somehow, and we did nothing. Okay, that's not exactly true and I guess it’s okay to say all of this now. Most of the team wanted to get rid of Onyx quickly. Catherine and Rowan even called a special meeting to discuss it. That’s when she showed us the time lapse video. It was like a bucket full of cold water over our heads. Rowan and Tony showed us how the cats had all but stopped eating and drinking in the same rooms Onyx ate and drank. We could see the gaping hole of regular cat-lessness in the habitat filled only by Onyx and how that hole was growing. That’s the word Jamel used right before he disappeared from the meeting. He came back a few minutes later with Onyx stuffed into a duffel bag -- she went along with surprising calmness. He nearly got her out the door before I stopped him. I stopped him. They all wanted to get rid of her but I stopped them. Sorry, Jamel. Sorry, everyone. You were right. Things got heated after that, but I managed to cool everyone off and suggested that maybe we hadn’t read everything the right way. I convinced them another week or so wouldn’t kill anyone. Besides, how could we stop now? We were so close. Activation Day was only a month away -- one month left after four years of the most boring work you could ever imagine, like watching grass grow if the grass had fur and licked itself a lot. How could we pull the plug now and let all that go to waste. That discussion got heated too, but this time there were more of us than just me on the side of pushing through. They all but forgot about Onyx. I hadn’t, though. I kept an eye on her, curled up in the corner after climbing out of Jamel’s bag. What was the point? In a month, we’d be rid of all of them – which was part of the original plan. They’d go back to shelters or we’d euthanize them if the shelters wouldn’t take them back. We’d all agreed to that at the very beginning. Oh, but Onyx didn’t like when Catherine brought that up. She leaped on top of the cabinet that housed the learning matrix and glared down at her. By this point in the project, all the cats kept themselves to just one room – the one room into which Onyx didn’t go, as if she had claimed the rest of the habitat for herself but deigned to grant the other occupants their own small place to exist. We kept on our work, observing what we could, which was mostly Onyx’s behavior, because she’s the only one that did anything. The other cats…I don’t know. It was like their essential catness was all but gone. Then the cats started to die. One by one, we found them under beds or in closets. Tucked away meticulously. Hidden neatly. Quick, tidy fatal wounds in critical places. Or broken necks. Or suffocation, believe it or not. We knew it was Onyx, of course. Who else could it have been? The team tried to hunt her down, tried to lure her out with treats and toys, tried even to set a little trap or two, but she didn’t go for any of it. I didn’t join them. I was too busy in the matrix room working and working and working. That’s what they wanted me to do. They all agreed, if we could finish, then we could activate the robo-cat early and -- oh, here was a most interesting thought -- Onyx just might be its first test. I didn’t say anything. I should have, but, well...let me tell you. The other reason I didn't join in was because I knew exactly where Onyx was the whole time. She was right next to me, with her head against my leg, napping happily. Her purr blended in perfectly with the low hum from what we called The Den -- the charging chamber for the robo-cat and the place from which it would emerge just as soon as I finished the last bit of encoding. Onyx liked The Den. It had become her favorite place to sleep, curled on top of it and a faint smile on her whiskered face. I had an odd thought that she had finally found home. Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t have told you, mostly because I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I was too busy coding and coding, trying to push Activation Day up as far as I could without anyone else knowing about it. When she wasn’t in The Den, she was next to me, napping and getting the idle head rub. I knew she wanted the project finished just as much as I did. Soon, I was done. I finished the last check and stretched my sore back. Onyx woke up, blinked at me with sleepy eyes, stretched, and put her paw on the keyboard. I looked at her quizzically and she meowed once, sharply but not loudly. It was a statement. Wait, she seemed to say. Not yet. I did wait and I watched as she leaped down from the desk and padded over to The Den. She meowed again from the darkness and I knew exactly what she said. Now. I took a deep breath and hit the Enter key. The Den lit up with a soft, dangerous blue light and I smelled from within it the scent of burning hair. Onyx! She was inside it! I started to get up, but sat back down. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t help. If she was in there, the only thing that could save her was shutting down the process right now. And that wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t stop the project now. Even if I had, I couldn’t save Onyx. No living flesh would last very long in The Den while it was active. But none of that mattered. Onyx had gotten herself intertwined with the robo-cat and what was happening inside was what she wanted from the moment she walked into the habitat. I knew that as sure as I had known that I liked Onyx from the moment I saw her in the shelter and would do anything for her. She was in my head and I knew. Crazy? No. Just…let me tell you.. The robo-cat worked. Well. We had successfully created an apex predator the likes of which the world had never seen before, more skilled and savage than any of us could have imagined. It demonstrated that fact by hunting down every member of the team quickly and quietly. It killed with casual, playful ease, just like the cat it really was. Remember Lacey? It left her bloody corpse next to my bunk the way a cat would leave a dead mouse as a gift…or a lesson. I knew for sure when it killed Catherine, who had been most suspicious about Onyx, who had all but told us Onyx was not merely a cat but something from humanity’s most unspeakable nightmare. I saw the way it stalked and slashed and the way it looked back at me as it licked her blood from her paws and leaped into the shadows. That’s when I knew for sure. The robo-cat was Onyx. We had made her immortal and we had sealed our own doom. I don't know how she did it, but she had become one with our project. She had merged herself with the plastics and alloys and hyper-reactive circuitry and created herself anew. She was not just a cat but a nearly unstoppable, uncatchable killing machine and we were practice for her. She was teaching herself how to use her new body by hunting each one of us down like prey.. I’m the last and I don’t have much time. She’s coming now. I was her friend. I hope she remembers. I hope she doesn't play. (Photo Credit: DivvyPixel on Pixabay)
It’s a word! I’m a writer and I say it is, so it is.
However you want to define that. Meaningful doesn’t have to be a Great, Important word. It could mean only that the stuff I write sticks with you for a little while and makes your week less tedious or sad or boring or what-have-you!