Dead Cats

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"What I’m doing here could change the world," Robert said, grinning up at me like he always did.

"What you're doing here is immoral." I replied, glaring back down at him through the shine of my glasses.

"I’m wounded." Leaning back in his chair, Robert held a hand to his heart. "I was expecting you to say that, but actually hearing it is another thing altogether."

Robert had way of brushing off the things he considered unimportant, like criticism and concern. Crossing my arms, I settled down in the darkness of the observation room. On the other side of the window, a young woman sat at steel table, the gleaming surface bare except for an equally unornamented box. Because of the way the lights shone, I almost missed Robert’s customary grin.

"I can't believe she agreed to this," I said, suppressing a second sigh. "How much credit is she getting, anyway?"

"Uh, professor?" Alice's voice crackled through the speakers nearby. "Is it alright to begin?"

"It's fine," Robert replied, leaning forwards to press the 'talk' button underneath the window. "You can start at any time."

"That's it?" I asked. "No voice recorder, you aren't even going to state your expectations from the test?"

"Just watch," Robert replied. "I'm fully expecting failure again this time."

Again? Does he have a breakthrough on his hands, or not?

Alice stretched out a hand towards the metal box, taking a deep breath as her fingers closed around the handle. Pulling on the metal bar, she twisted it sideways, a metallic click sounding as she released the locking mechanism on the lid. Lifting the cover away, she turned her head to the side as the contents of the box were revealed. From where I sat, I could barely make out the still form of a dead cat inside the metal container.

"Test number 14, failure," Alice said, closing the lid once more. Stepping away from the table, she strode to the nearby doorway and left the room. She’d soon be scrubbing at her hands in the laboratory sink.

"Ah, poor thing," Robert said, disregarding his own part in the student’s distress. "Such a gentle soul."

"I don't understand." Shifting in my seat, I turned towards the professor as his grin returned. "Is that it? A dead cat?"

"Come with me." Robert said, rising to his feet and hurrying from the room. "You'll see."

"I'll see what? Another dead cat?" Rubbing at the bridge of my nose, I tried to recall what the professor had said earlier that day. "You’ve done two sets of experiments yourself, twenty tests to a set, plus the fourteen tests Alice had done... assuming that half the tests were failures and you weren’t reusing the corpses each time that was what? Twenty-seven dead cats? Do the shelters even go through that many in a month?"

"Yes and no," Robert replied, opening the door to the testing room. "This isn't Schrodinger's original experiment. In that test, the chances of the cat dying increase with time, to a point. In this one, the cat is either arbitrarily dead or alive. We don't kill any cats, it's already dead when it goes into the box."

"I know that," I said, frowning as Robert closed the door behind us. "Did you forget who put the cats into the box when you were the one opening it? I didn't understand the point of the experiment then, and I don't understand it now. The cat is either dead or alive, but you already know which one it is. What's the point?"

"The point is that Alice doesn't know that," Robert said. As always, his manic grin was currently plastered over his face. "She thinks the box gets filled with a live cat at the start of each test, and it either suffocates to death or is saved by her. In reality, not one of the live cats has died from being locked inside the box."

"That's what I mean when I say it's immoral," I replied. "It was fine when I was the one putting the cats into the box for you, but you are going to traumatize that poor girl for life. This isn't even a real experiment in the first place!"

"You misunderstand," Robert said, reaching towards the box's lid. "When I was opening the box, you made sure to change it up. Sometimes, there was a dead cat, sometimes there wasn't. Did you flip a coin or something?"

"I did." Glancing down at the box, I briefly remembered handling the animals, both living and not so much. "How do you do it?"

"Every single one of Alice's fourteen experiments has ended in failure," he replied. Every one?! I opened my mouth to speak, but he raised a finger to indicate he wasn’t finished yet. "The point is that I expected either a dead cat, or a live cat. I open the box, and there it was. After I put the cat in the box for Alice, I make her wait in the room for a while. Even though she doesn’t see me put the cat into the box, she thinks it has surely died, and expects to see a dead cat. She opens the box, and there it is."

"Even if she didn't, there'd still be a dead cat, right?" I asked. "It's not like there's anything special about her expectations."

"What if there was, though?" Robert asked. Turning the handle of the box, he lifted the lid, letting the light shine down into the steel confines. "What if there was some way you could expect a dead cat, and when the opened the box there'd be a dead cat inside, no matter what?"

"That’d be breakthrough indeed..." Sitting at the bottom of the box, there was nothing but air. “What-”

"Fourteen times, Alice has opened this box to reveal a dead cat," Robert said with a grin. "That doesn't mean, though, that I put fourteen cats into the box at all."