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A Practical Application of the Buttered Cat Paradox

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“Cecil!” Carlos practically sprinted into the radio station, carrying a piece of toast in one hand and a ball of twine in the other.

“What is it? Is there some emergency? Is that … wheat?”

Carlos glanced down at the bread he was holding. “Oh, um, yes, but that’s not important. Well, I suppose it makes what I’m about to do potentially illegal, but after the initial test we can try it with potato bread, or rye, and I bet it would still work.”

“What test?” Cecil’s eyes lit up (literally, Carlos thought, though it was always hard to tell for sure). “Are you here to do science?”

Carlos nodded. “I was thinking about Khoshekh and his kittens, and how it’s really too bad that they’ll have to spend their entire lives hovering in the men’s restroom.”

“Khoshekh seems perfectly happy here,” said Cecil. “He purrs like anything.” Carlos winced, remembering what that purring had sounded like. “But you’re right about the kittens. A young cat should have a chance to play, to explore, to hunt, before settling down in a fixed point in midair.” And Carlos thought of a … cat … like Khoshekh actually being able to hunt, and thought that maybe this was a really bad idea. But … he really had to see if this worked.

The rodent and bird populations of Night Vale were probably heavily armed, anyway. 

“I remembered a proof—well, I guess you’d call it a proof—that I read once in college.” It had been a joke, posted on the door of one of his professors’ offices. “Demonstrating how to make a cat hover. The idea was that, cats always land on their feet, and toast always lands butter-side-down, so if you attach a piece of toast to the back of a cat, butter side up, then, since it can’t land on both sides at once, it won’t land at all.”

“Neat!” said Cecil. “Does it work?”

“Well, uh, I’ve never seen it demonstrated in person,” said Carlos. “But then, my adviser was allergic to cats.”

“And they let him live?”

“Her,” Carlos corrected, choosing to ignore the rest of the question. “Anyway,” he went on. “I hypothesized that we could basically perform that, in reverse, with Khoshekh. Attach the toast to the cat’s belly, so that the feet and the butter both face down. And maybe that force will counteract whatever it is that’s keeping him afloat.

“That sounds … scientific,” said Cecil. Carlos thought that actually it was probably one of the least scientific experiments he had ever undertaken, but, well, that in itself was an experiment. “I’m still worried about using wheat, though. Can’t we try something else?”

Carlos shook his head. “The original proof said ‘bread,’ he said. “And ‘bread’ without a qualifier means wheat. If we used, say, cornbread, and it didn’t work, we wouldn’t know if that was because the bread was wrong or because the whole thing didn’t work in reverse. You can’t change too many variables at a time, see, that’s unscientific.”

“Ohh, I see,” said Cecil. “Well. We can’t do things unscientifically, can we?”

“And I’m allowed to break some laws for science, it’s in my contract,” Carlos added.

Cecil looked relieved. “I have an hour before the broadcast starts,” he said. “If this works, I’ll have to change tonight’s material on pretty short notice.”

Carlos followed Cecil to the men’s restroom. He’d met Khoshekh before, but this was the first time he’d seen the kittens. He wasn’t sure what to expect—Khoshekh had presumably reproduced asexually, somehow, so would the kittens all be miniature versions of him? Would they all make that same horrible sound? Have too many teeth?

As it turned out, they were utterly adorable.

They all looked different, too. Each was longhaired, like Khoshekh, but while Khoshekh was just kind of … brownish … the kittens ranged from solid black to pale silver. One of them, floating at about the level of Carlos’ face, looked at him, opened its mouth, and—pinged.

“They each have their own meow,” said Cecil. “Isn’t that sweet?”

Carlos unwound a length of twine. “So, I’m just going to wrap this around Khoshekh’s midsection here, like so, and—” He found himself on the floor, filled with an existential panic and covered in far more blood than a cat scratch ought to be able to produce.

“I forgot to say,” said Cecil. “He doesn’t like having his belly touched. Are you all right?” He reached down to take Carlos’ hand to help him to his feet, and as soon as Carlos felt his touch, the panic was gone. He filed that away in his mental “to investigate” folder.

“I’ll be fine,” Carlos said. Despite all the blood, he didn’t seem to be wounded anywhere … “Um. Maybe I’ll try one of the kittens?” He tentatively reached out to the kitten that had pinged at him and scratched behind its ears before making any further attempt. It made a series of electronic-sounding beeps that, Carlos had to admit, were actually pretty cute.

“Aww, she likes you!” said Cecil.

The attempt to tie the buttered toast to the kitten went much more smoothly, and it looked at Carlos with wide eyes, then—fell. Carlos caught it, though, and set it on the ground, where it proceeded to lift up each paw in turn, eyeing them skeptically.

“It works!” Carlos could scarcely believe it. Joke science—mad science—worked in Night Vale. He’d been hoping—actually, after everything he’d seen, he’d thought it would. But still, it was a bit of a shock to see … well, to see a kitten not floating in midair. Said kitten had now almost figured out how to walk and was headbutting his leg. It looked up at him and beeped some more. “Okay, I’m going to run over to the Ralphs and get some more bread and butter, and grab the toaster from my car. I’ll get rye bread this time.”

When he returned, Cecil was (somehow) rubbing Khoshekh’s belly. The kitten was hovering again, though not in the same spot. “What happened?” Carlos asked. “Did the effect wear off?”

“Oh.” Cecil looked embarrassed. “She licked all the butter off the bread. I didn’t think about it ruining the experiment, but they don’t get enough attention in here. I figured she could use a treat.”

“No, no, that’s fine,” Carlos reassured him. “It actually proves that the cats can be moved from their original locations. So, that’s good.” He pulled out a stick of butter from his bag and tried not to be too unnerved when Cecil handed him a very sharp, very ceremonial-looking knife to spread it with. The first kitten’s toast re-buttered, he went about tying toast to the rest of the kittens, and soon they were all wobbling on the floor on uncertain legs. “Um … why don’t you do Khoshekh? I think he likes you better.”

But Khoshekh, who just a few minutes ago had been accepting belly rubs from Cecil, refused to let him come near him with the toast, baring his too-many teeth and hissing. If you could call it hissing. “I think Khoshekh would rather stay here,” Cecil said. “Still! Great news about the kittens! I’ll be sure to let the town know about this, and the kittens that have been adopted can go to their new homes.”

“Oh,” said Carlos. He’d … gotten sort of attached to the kittens in the short time he’d worked with them. “I didn’t realize they’d been adopted already.”

“Well, most of them have,” said Cecil. He reached down and picked up the original test subject, who had been trying to climb up Carlos’ leg. “She hasn’t been. And she definitely likes you. Do you want to take her home?”

Did he want a toast-wearing, sometimes-hovering kitten that sounded kind of like R2-D2? Carlos was almost embarrassed by how quickly he said yes.