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Cats of the Far Future

This article originally appeared in Cepheus Journal #014 and was reprinted in the January/February 2024 issue with permission

One of the hallmarks of an advanced species is tool use—using the natural resources around them to create items that they can then use to shape the world to their needs. Beyond axes and screwdrivers, this tool creation can even extend to living beings: domestication.

Many species of animals (and plants) have been selectively bred over generations to meet the needs of communities. Sometimes for food, sometimes to solve problems. As our technology has improved, the speed and precision in which animals can be tailored has increased. When we look to the far future, there’s no reason to assume that we won’t continue to selectively develop our animal companions.

Cats were domesticated for their utility in controlling rodent populations in areas where grain was important. Over time, they grew into pets that fulfilled an emotional need for us. There have been many different domesticated animals over time, and recent research has implied that the same selective process can be applied to almost any animal. If you prefer a more exotic flavor for your campaign, you can equally use pangolins, kinkajous, or, if you must, dogs. But for this article, we will discuss cats, and you can extrapolate according to your needs.

Domestic Cats

The first role for cats in the far future is the same role as they play in modern society today: pets. They provide interest and companionship and are a subject of empathy and nurturing. They can vary from behaving almost entirely like an animal, to having a very pronounced personality. Many breeds exist, with different colorations, coat patterns, and hair lengths.

Domestic cats are easily acquired. Class C and lower star ports, where the rents are cheap, may even have pet stores and have people knowledgeable of the import and export regulations for animal commerce. Any large city outside of a spaceport will certainly have pet stores. Domestic cats may cost between Cr10 and Cr100 depending on the breed or rarity. On worlds with a breathable atmosphere, there may also be shelters where animals are available for free or for a nominal donation.

Professional Cats

Humanity’s use of cats evolved from protecting granaries to keeping seagoing vessels rodent free. In that spirit, much like many municipal fire stations still have laws about keeping dalmatians on the books, ships of the far future may officially employ a ship’s cat, traditionally to reduce the transmission of other unwanted animals from planet to planet. And, for this new role, there are cats that have been specifically bred and trained to be of actual utility, rather than just window dressing.

Higher-trafficked Class A and B star ports may have a specific store selling professional pets. This will seldom have frontage to attract customers, but relies on customers either looking them up, or getting references. Each cat they have will be unique, with its own history and pedigree. Like an art or antique dealer, the shopkeeper will be very familiar with the animal, its best uses, and its personality.

Professional cats are particularly attuned to changes in air pressure and quality. They can act as an early warning system for leaks and help pinpoint their location. They are a useful defense against your atmosphere leaking out, tainted atmosphere leaking in, fluid and volatile spills, or dodgy cargo. Sniffing out short circuits is also a valuable talent.

Many professional cats are attuned to the moods and feelings of those around them. They can help put passengers at ease, and even have adverse reactions to those who are stressed and concealing something.

Professional cats are raised for shipboard life and are trained to find secure shelter during take-hold alarms, and sealed compartments during pressure alerts. There are even environmental suits specifically made for cats which well-trained ones know how to put on and seal up themselves.

A professional cat may cost between Cr100 and Cr1000, with the higher price ranges having more of the skills listed above. In some regions there are subsidies for ships carrying an official ship’s cat, and tax breaks as they are considered registered members of the crew.

Cats as Peripherals

Cats have good senses and can fit in small places. They also have a natural curiosity that can be used to an advantage. Some star ports offer an upgraded version of cat (or will upgrade a suitable cat) with a neural shunt and communicator, which allows for a variety of other functions.

First off, everything the cat sees and hears can be transmitted digitally. It may be recorded for later perusal, or else viewed in real time. This includes the cat’s superlative night vision, and focused hearing. Of course, the cat looks at what it wants to look at and listens to what interests it. So, it may not always be what you are interested in. But it is far more subtle than security cameras.

An upgrade to this basic functionality allows for a small amount of feedback to the animal. You cannot remotely control it, but you can give the cat “urges”. To the cat it feels as if there is some reason, it isn’t quite sure of, why a certain area or person is interesting. They are more likely to observe that person or go to an area. This is only a mild urge and should something else interest them more (or if their fight or flight instinct kicks in) they will follow that.

A similar upgrade allows for a certain amount of motor control. Something complicated like walking or jumping cannot be done. But the cat can be made to nod or shake its head, allowing for very simple two-way communication. It can also be encouraged to keep its head (or all of it) still, if it happens to be looking in a direction or in a position of interest. While you can override a cat’s impulses, if you do so for too long when there are outside stimuli that would cause it to act in a contrary fashion, it will become distressed. When released it will likely flee and hide somewhere.

Uplifted Cats

One of the traits that an animal can be bred for is intelligence. An uplifted cat is one that has been selectively bred or engineered to maximize its cognitive ability. Although smart, such creatures do not rise to the level where they are unambiguously true sophants but are comparable to chimpanzees. On some worlds this is sufficient to afford them the legal protection of minor children, but they are few enough that most worlds have no settled law on the matter.

An uplifted cat possesses many of the senses and training of professional casts, but also has a degree of autonomy and understanding. It can draw basic conclusions from what it perceives and anticipate the results of actions it chooses to take.

With this advanced cognition, they also gain personality, moods and preferences. There will be foods they like, people they don’t like, and a willingness to express these feelings. At a fundamental level, they are still cats.

The physical morphology of an uplifted cat is much the same. As such, they cannot use tools that require grasping, operate complex machinery, write, type or talk. They can, however, operate simple machinery (e.g., doors, windows, and airlocks) with suitably accessible controls, and can understand several hundred words. Through nods, eye blinks, meows, and body language they can communicate at an elementary level to those that are familiar with them.

It is hard to put a price on uplifted cats. In areas where they are protected, you cannot buy or sell them. The initial lab work required is prohibitively expensive to do one on spec. As this is a genetic change, they can breed true, and their territorial instinct will tend to eventually urge families to split up as their children reach maturity. So, the most likely way to encounter one is serendipity from another owner.

Robotic Cats

Moving from biological forms, to forms inspired by biology, we have robot cats. At the low end, these are mere toys. For Cr10 to Cr100, you can get a creature that looks somewhat like a cat and sounds and acts much like one. No one will confuse it for a real cat, and it will have few functions other than entertainment.

Higher grade models range from Cr500 to Cr1000. At this price point they do not appear any more realistic. Internally, they are fully fledged peripheral devices. When synchronized with a computer (handheld or ship’s computer) their visual and auditory inputs may be accessed remotely. Similarly, their posture, movement, and vocalization may also be controlled remotely.

For each Cr100 spent beyond this, an additional capacity may be added. Upgrades include, but are not limited to atmosphere composition sensors, radiation sensors, 0.1 liter storage bay, single shot hypodermic needle, printer, fire extinguisher, or self-destruct mechanism.

Adventure Seeds

High Touch Cargo

A power surge, or other accident, causes a container the players have commissioned for transport to go on the fritz. It turns out to be shipping a hundred or so cats, who are now no longer in suspended animation, but are freely roaming the cargo bay, and possibly the ship (depending on how professional the DM chooses to make them).

Venting them into space would void their cargo contract, any chance of payment, and put their ability to secure future cargo contracts with the primary and other vendors at risk. Wrangling the cats and getting them safe and sound through the remaining days in jump and to their destination will put them in a good light with their vendor and will likely get them plum jobs in the future.

Payment Drop

During some dodgy adventure, the players are required to make a surreptitious exchange with an untrusted party. In a classic film noir scene, they are to make the exchange on a park bench in a public place, where all can be seen. When they get there, they discover that their contact, Felix, is an animatronic cat. It will validate who they are and what they have brought through its sensors, communicate to them through an internal speaker, and when the transfer is approved, it will pop open an internal storage compartment.

If things go wrong, or a double cross (on either side) has happened, it will jump down a nearby drain to escape underground. If it is pursued too closely, or it is sensed that the exchange has a tracker, it will self-destruct, destroying all evidence.

The Lineup

A law enforcement agency the players work or contract to has been closing in on a subversive group undermining the current authority. They got an informant to insert a beacon into the last exchange to break open their communication network. A counter informant alerted the group prematurely and the contact has gone to ground. Tracing the beacon leads to a cat shelter.

This, with other evidence, suggests that the group has been passing information via an uplifted cat with a data drive collar, facilitating exchanges by the cat being surrendered to the shelter, and being adopted by a recipient. The problem is that there are a dozen or so recent arrivals at the shelter. The players are called in to “interrogate” the cats and attempt to work out which are normal cats, and which is the uplifted subversive.


The players are assumed to have a registered ship’s cat. They are visited by a very tired, very frustrated officer from the Star Port Authority, who immediately informs them that they are not in trouble. It’s another ship on a nearby dock, that they strongly suspect. It evaded a naval inspection claiming a medical emergency (the XO was in labor), got a priority landing, and the entire crew left and are now holed up in hospital, out of reach of the authority

They wanted to impound the ship as abandoned, but their records show there is still a crew member on board. It turns out that they have a fully registered ship’s cat that, somehow, is an official officer of the ship, and some smart alec crew member filed the paperwork to make him acting captain as they fled. To make matters worse, a public defender has wriggled up out of the woodwork from somewhere to represent the ship, and its acting captain, to resist being inspected. She has argued that the captain has not been uncooperative, but the onus is on the start port to provide someone who can communicate with it in a way it understands.

The starport officer would really, really, really like to nail these conniving bastards to the wall. To that end he wishes to contract out their ship’s cat as a “translator” so that they can officially deliver their subpoena to the ship.