Writer Wang Nuonuo's imaginative take on an age-old question
There are many cats loitering near my house. It’s not hard to tell them apart—the well-preened have their owners and will fix you with death glares, and the less glossy ones will simply wander around homeless. But whether lowly or high-born, there is an evening each week when they all assemble on the grass in the residential compound for what seemed to be a class struggle session.
Dozens gather, placing themselves neither too close together nor too far apart; standing, crouching, lying—splayed out, curled in, or hiding as cats do. While daylight encounters mean raised hackles and yowling, at meetings in the night there is near-silence. They were like goblins boring their way from under the earth, working quietly with their profound sorcery.
One evening I tailed my Ami as she slipped off to a meeting. The moon hung big and bright in the sky like the yolk of a salted duck egg. Ami crossed the yard and went through the undergrowth, her shadow trailing long and narrow. As she approached the other cats her tail stiffened toward the moon and coiled into a question mark. A fat black-and-white cat perched at the passageway shifted aside to let Ami enter the gathering spot.
The place was encircled by cats. Some were licking their paws and grooming themselves, while others hung back and paced about; still more had curled up for a quick catnap. But each and every one of them kept silent.
“…Until meow, we cats have been the custodians of the key to the door of space and time,” a smooth voice was saying. It was oddly compelling, like that of a gypsy psychic. “Though it is not the desire of our kind, who apart from us can bear this heavy responsibility?”
The yawning, scratching, and licking of fur came to a halt, and the atmosphere between the cats took on a grave aspect. Several dozen pairs of emerald and sapphire eyes were locked on the cat who was speaking. Her name was Sonia Yev. Every few months her belly would swell up and she’d park herself by the fountain, immobile, looking filthy and languid to all the world. People would feed her and rub her bulging belly until she gave birth again, and carry off her litter back home to raise.
'We won’t forget our fallen compatriots. The contribution you made for the sake of the universe will always be remembered. Ami, tonight…your time has come! The time for you to give something of yourself for this world.”
Although I didn't know what they had in mind for Ami, I still got an ominous feeling from the serious atmosphere about. Ami stood and made to step forward, but just then a young cat strolled between her and Sonia Yev.
He was a rather handsome feline—his four paws like padded snow, and his coat was tidy. He turned his body and began to address the cats passionately. “Is this to be the predestined lot for cats? Have we never given thought to revolt? Meow.” No sooner had his voice dropped off than two or three cats scrambled to their feet to let out low hisses at the snow-pawed one. This was obviously the custom for cats expressing their hostility.
“Oh Mike…this doesn’t concern you. You’re barely an adult…this is your first time attending a meow-ting. Oh, you pitiable child!” Sonia Yev motioned for those few riled up cats to stand down and went on, “All of us live our lives within this universe. Atoms collided, space-time warped and then life was born…since then more and more has been happening, everything in the universe is headed for chaos. Humanity has dedicated many years of research to this and dubbed the process ‘entropy.’ With increasing entropy nothing will be as simple as it was to start out with. There are limitless possibilities for depleting the universe’s potential energy until there’s practically nothing left. After this, the universe will sink into its heat death for an infinite time!!!'
“I get it, I know meow,” a grayish-brown tabby by the name of Smelly chimed in. A lively but also restless and curious sweetheart, she’d just last month been in heat and had gotten spayed by her owner. At present, her pupils were brimming saucers of moonlight. Exquisite sentiments unrelated to sexual desire could be read across them, “Our duty as cats is to slow this increase in the universe’s entropy by just a bit. That is why we have the box.”
Her tail swung off to the right, indicating a small, worn-out black box beneath Sonia Yev’s body. Only now did I notice that this black box was the focal point around which the cats had formed the circle.
“The box, how can you not despise this box, meow?” the snowy pawed cat Mike spat in indignation. “How many of our brothers and sisters have entered this box and never came out alive? Why do we still go on delivering ourselves into this cat-killing device?”
“Mike…all of them lived…” Ami, who was the focus of the evening, who had been silent all along, piped up.
“No, no, no, I've seen it! I saw it once! Last week…the box was opened…and Jiangbao was lying coldly on…”
At this point, Mike’s tail drooped down, like any cat or human in the face of dejection.
There was warmth in Sonia Yev’s eyes now: “I know you and Jiangbao were close enough to have shared a ball of yarn…poor Mike. The moment that box opens, the universe instantaneously forks into two. Unfortunately, you exist here in the universe where he died. In the alternate universe, the two of you are still living safe and sound together. Don’t believe it? Go ask Ami.”
Here my Ami’s ears pricked up: “Our only recourse to slowing down the increase of entropy in the universe is to split it. This box houses a radioactive isotope. If its nucleus decays, it will trigger a poison capsule and the cat inside the box will die. We have no means of predicting or otherwise determining whether the nucleus will decay or not. Instead, we are left waiting until the box opens to observe the moment. By giving observation to this micro-scale uncertainty, there are cascading consequences on the macro-scale. In this instant the universe has no way of self-cohering and must cleave in two. In another universe, Jiangbao lives on.”
“That world…are we able to go there? Could I find Jiangbao?” Mike asked.
Sonia Yev shook her head: “Once we initiate our observation of the life and/or death of the cat inside the box, then two parallel universes will have been created. We have opened this box countless times, and created untold parallel worlds. This quantum superposition magnifies the effect on the macroscopic universe. Moreover, these universes develop side by side, never to link up again. These untold universes are bound together in their infinite possibilities for divergence, and every month, when we cats gather under cover of night, it is the point of divergence.”
“These parallel universes, are they the same as ours?”
“The life/death state of Jiangbao having altered will set a butterfly effect in motion, rendering that universe different from ours. Some universes that branched off early are as different to us as night and day. But the universe in which Jiangbao lives only diverged this past week, so the two universes ought to be more or less the same.'
“But…” Mike had more to say.
“Stop yammering! This little brat is so annoying!” A little yellow stray who previously hadn't made so much as a peep had finally had enough, and bounded up onto a manhole cover, looking imposing and every bit worthy of its nickname: Little Lord of the Overturned Trash Bin.
“Well, then let us begin,” Sonia Yev said with an air of finality.
Ami didn’t hesitate a moment longer. She strode up and into the black box, ignoring the tears welling in Mike's eyes all the while. Then, in the instant the box was about to be closed I charged from out my hiding place in the woods: “Cut it out! You can't take Ami away!”
“This is for the sake of the universe. She is not the only cat doing this sort of thing. Every night there are countless cats in other places all over doing the same.”
“That can't be! I don't want my cat to die!”
Ami fixed me with her amber eyes: “All day long we idle our time away, eat, and wait foolishly for death. Just the same, we treat humanity (our ‘owners’) as little more than servants in charge of cleaning up our poop. Can’t you see that we wantonly bully and humiliate you? Have you ever thought about that? Why is it we are able to go on like this, without the slightest burden in our hearts, yet still facing each day like some noble master?'
I couldn’t answer.
“Because we have our mission set before us, be it beyond humanity’s comprehension, or even our own. And although it’s something as ineffective as splitting the cosmos, which does little to slow the march of entropy, a mission is a mission all the same. We must save the universe.'
Seeing the determination in her gaze, tears began to stream down my face.
“The universe divides into two, but there’s bound to be but one where you and I can be together.” Unable to reach my shoulder, she placed a furry paw over my ankle, “I will remember all the time we spent together. Please pardon me for all my misdeeds from the past.”
Upon hearing such words from Ami, who generally received my affection with indifference, or else kicked and clawed frantically, I was devastated.
It isn’t everybody who gets the chance to see their own pet enter a state of superposition between life and death.
So I turned my back on the scene, as I couldn’t bear to watch.
From then on, and for many years to come, if by day I happened to see a cat that looked like it needed a good boxing around the ears, my thoughts would turn to Ami. Countless nights with the moon right overhead. Countless cats walking into that black box. If only for the sake of slowing the march of entropy just a little.
Translated by Jesse Young
Author’s Note: Why do cats gather at night? Many of my cat-lover friends have pondered this question: Ever week or two, their free-range cats would disappear for a night. Like workers clocking in, they would vanish from home when the time comes. In the open spaces of the residential compound, they gather with feline siblings from all around in a conference. But not a word is exchanged among them: They just lie or crouch in silence, as if protecting a secret that only belong to the night. This was the inspiration for my story.
Born in the 1990s, Wang Nuonuo was the recipient of 2017’s Best New Writer of the Galaxy Award, the highest award of Chinese science fiction. She is also one of the most followed users on Zhihu, China’s biggest Q&A site. Wang has published a number of short stories in Science Fiction World magazine, and an anthology titled Silent Earth in 2019, with stories covering themes from space colonization to genetic engineering. She writes with a sense of humor and often with influences from mythology. Wang has a Bachelor’s degree in economics from The University of British Columbia, and a Master’s degree in environmental economics from the University of Cambridge.