Thursday, May 25, 2017

5/25/17

Cat and Mouse
By Bill Hackenberger


Lola opened her eyes, but didn't get up. Normally when cleaning the house I'd find her in one of her usual places: the sunny spot under the front window or curled up on the couch. Lately, however, she would just plop, head down, on the bed where Cynthia had loved to pet her.

Lola had bonded with Cynthia, and it seemed her primary mission was to entertain her by springing out from beneath the furniture when least expected and then dashing away to plan her next surprise. Cynthia would laugh whenever ambushed in this way. "LOL cat," she'd exclaim, and that was, in fact, how she'd given Lola her name. Without Cynthia to care for, we both had lost our purpose. While I could keep busy dusting and vacuuming, I could see Lola needed something to do, so I ordered a robotic mouse.

The mouse wasn't cheap. But I could get by with a little less in the household account, so I placed the order. It arrived by drone an hour later. Once I had charged its battery, it scurried about mapping the layout of the furniture and then disappeared under the coffee table.

When I picked Lola up and brought her into the living room, the mouse's eyes flashed red and it scampered across the floor and into the dark recesses beneath the couch. Lola's ears rose and swiveled like parabolic antennas locking on to a signal. She jumped from my arms, crouched, and with slow exacting steps circled around the side of the couch. She waited, crept closer, waited, then sprang like a steel trap. There was brief scuffling and a metallic squeak, but then silence. A moment later Lola reappeared and traipsed back to the bed to flop there as before.

With a broom I retrieved the mouse from under the couch. It tumbled out, inert, its eyes dark. It didn't appear damaged, but it wouldn't respond even when plugged into its charger. I could've called for a drone and returned it, but it has always been my nature to fix things, and given some mechanical skills, I decided I'd try to make it work.

Brushing back the mouse's fur, I found a tiny dimple at the nape of its neck and pressed a small screwdriver there. A metallic catch clicked, and its case opened like a clam. Its few internal components seemed simple enough. Each articulated leg was driven by its own minute motor, and a single processor board no bigger than a thumbnail held the neuromesh chip that housed its adaptive logic. I traced the circuit and found a cold solder joint where a wire had separated from the power cell. Such a simple thing. Here was, at least, a problem I could fix. A touch of a thermal probe revived the contact, and the mouse again sprang to life. Cynthia would've been delighted.

For the next hour Lola and her mouse raced about. She was fast, but the mouse was just fast enough to evade capture. It traced a path beneath tables and chairs while Lola had to leap and circle around them.

Eventually the mouse scooted from beneath a table into the little cubby of its charging station. I found Lola lying in a circle on the living room floor exhausted. It was late and we both had little energy left, so I carried Lola to the bed and set her down on her favorite spot, released the little catch behind her right ear, and plugged in her charging cable.

It seemed right to be of use again, even if just for Lola and her mouse. I needed to be ready for the morning when they would again scamper through the house, so I went to the utility closet and stepped into my own recharge alcove.


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Bill Hackenberger works in the computer security business where he's had a front-row seat watching plodding humans collide with accelerating technology. A few years ago, he decided it would be fun to write stories about both of them.


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