Everyone loves cute animal videos. We’ve got all of them here. On every screen in front of me, baby animals are barking and squealing in fake living rooms to maintain the illusion that we’re not pumping this stuff out on an industrial scale.
"Women and cats will do as they please." — Robert A. Heinlein
I used to want to change the world. Now I just want my cat back.
That's what I'm thinking to myself as I clock into the facility at seven, the sky already dark over the car-park as I swipe my badge. You don't see a lot of sunshine working these hours.
I stomp through security and head for the monitor bank, where Simon or Steve or possibly Stuart from the day shift is ready to hand over. With their black t-shirts and snaggly beards they all look the same to me. Wish I could grow a beard. It'd be nice not to have every fucker looking at my face.
Today's 4chan Catastrophe tells me we're having a high-volume night. Over two hundred thousand views in the last two hours, not counting all the users hooked into the cams.
I can handle it, I tell him.
Great, he says. I'll leave you to it. I've got to go home to feed the cat.
Huh, I say.
Not a cat person? He asks. I pretend I haven't heard him. Eventually he gets the message and fucks off.
For the record, no—I don't like cats. As a species, the manipulative little monsters can get in their boxes and stay there. I don't like cats. I like cat. I like one cat. My cat.
And somebody stole her from me, and tonight—if all goes to plan—somebody is going to pay. Big time. For now, though, there's nothing to do but wait and watch the feeds.
It's okay, here in the monitor room. It's quiet, and after six years working here the swivel-chair has basically moulded to my bottom. If I let my eyes flicker shut, I can still see the screens. Twenty-four of them, all running live feeds: living rooms, bedrooms, gardens.
The blue light plays over my skin as I check out the traffic stats. Nerdy McNeckbeard wasn't wrong. Of course we're having a heavy night. It's the third Monday in January. Blue Monday, they call it. Officially The most depressing day of the year. A chance for the newspapers to spew some guff about suicide rates while everyone else gets on with being slightly more miserable than normal and tries to kill the pain with kitten videos.
Or puppy videos. Or wiggly little piggy videos. We've got all of them here. On every screen in front of me, baby animals are rolling and barking and squealing and snoring in their fake living rooms to maintain the illusion that we're not pumping this stuff out on an industrial scale. I check the screen again. The baby bulldogs are particularly popular tonight.
They should be. We just replaced the old batch with fresh.
I get out a packet of frazzles and pull up the sloths, which would be my favorite if I had a favorite.
You have to have a special constitution for this job. They don't usually hire girls, because girls in particular lose their minds over baby chickens and duckies and kitties and can't maintain the necessary professional distance, especially when they start getting too big, snapping and shitting everywhere, and the inevitable happens.
Do you like animals, they asked me in the interview.
I explained that really, I don't like anything, except Scandal and crisps and sometimes my mum, when she's talking to me. They told me I was hired.
Later on, I liked Jackie, and Pocket, too. I really wasn't expecting to. Jackie worked in the breakfast cafe I stopped into every day for black coffee and Cheez-Its. I liked to sit by myself, mind my own damn business. Except one day she came over and asked me why I always looked so sad.
I'm not sad, I said, I'm a misanthrope. Go look it up.
Jackie just laughed at me, and asked if I wanted a refill.
Three weeks later she'd moved in.
She didn't tell me about the cat until it was too late, which was probably a good thing. She knew I didn't like cats. Don't like any animals, really, but cats are the worst. Second-worst, after people.
Cats have got it all figured out, I told her. They're the supreme parasite. The true master race. The tiny despots have arranged it so they can do nothing all day on our dime. Did you know they mimic the noises of human babies so that we'll pay them more attention?
Did you know, I said, that they actually carry an infectious worm that gets into your brain and makes you like cats? It's diabolical, I told her one evening, after losing a fight with Pocket over who got to be on Jackie's left side. It was my day off, and we were up late because the hippies next door were making noise again.
Nonsense, she said. You're a cat person.
I said that didn't make any bloody sense.
It makes perfect sense, she said. You don't like cats—you're like a cat. You're mean. You hiss at strangers. You're territorial. You basically only eat one thing. You sleep in weird places, and you'd do it all day if you could. You don't like anyone except the people who feed you, and you barely tolerate them.
I like you, I said, nuzzling into her shoulder. Pressing my boobs up against her back.
Only because I feed you, she said, laughing.
I threw a pillow at her, saying maybe I'll be a cat and just start licking my own crotch when I'm annoyed at you.
You can't reach, she said.
Well, I said. Maybe we can work something out.
The baby bulldogs are a hit tonight. They keep falling over and flailing to get up, little pink fuzzy bellies catching the soft light in their fake living room, skittering and whining under the dining room table with its deliberately haphazard placing of dishes. The set designers, I'll admit, are pretty killer. Authenticity is key. People like to feel they're buying into a genuine product, and our clients in government like it that way.
Fifty-three thousand hits and counting. It's good that the bulldogs are so popular. That cam's been down for a while. We had a break in by some bloody animal libbers a couple of months ago and they got eleven bulldog pups, fifteen kittens, a pair of narcoleptic dachshunds and a monkey that rode around on a pig.
They didn't get the pig, because the pig is a vicious little shit. It took a chunk out of my ankle once, when I went in to fix the microphones. After the raid we found it screaming in a corner with two finger joints in its maw.
We got a couple of decent prints off those, and the pig got a new monkey.
I wasn't on shift when the animal libbers got in, but I helped pull their faces off the feeds and cross-reference them with some databases we shouldn't technically have access to. I was expecting arrests, but a court case would look bad for the company.
Our whole mission is to make people feel good, to help them cope with the daily horror of their pointless lives. Even the people who know how the sausage gets made don't really want to read about it in the paper. I hear a bunch of activists got paid off, or made to sign something, or—I don't know, actually. The animals are long gone by this point. Lucky for them.
I fiddle around with the sound settings on the bulldogs while I wait for my contact to show up. I've given him the codes and a spare key; if he's not dumb enough to get lost or caught or both he should be here in an hour.
One feed in the corner of the screen bank wants my attention. It's blinking red, a streaming issue. I don't click it. I never click that one if I can help it. I set the screens to auto for a few minutes and drag my carcass to the vending machines.
The corridors here are sterile, done in a shade of industrial blue that makes me think of airports, and completely bare save for the first-aid kits hung up by the stairs. Everything is soundproofed, muffled; the carpets are thick and smell of cleaning fluid. Everything is precisely conditioned. Even the air.
It's not a place where people convene, not a place for people at all. Even in the daytime, I rarely run into anyone, although there are hundreds of keepers and sound artists and vets and support staff and god knows what.
I punch an order for a packet of frazzles into the vending machine, which looks like a coffin from outer space. When I take them back to my desk and open them, the puppies are still wriggling about.
All this content we pump out, it's designed to take away the angry part of your brain. That's why I hate it. The Department for Work and Pensions decided to fund us because they were in crisis. Cutting people's benefits wasn't helping them get jobs any faster, but it was driving the suicide rates through the ceiling, and no state-sponsored therapy was going to make people feel better about being poor and hungry with no prospects.
But everyone loves cat videos. And puppy videos. The higher quality, the fresher content, the better. It was only a matter of time before grant money became available. It's a question of supply and demand. Sometimes I wish I was a puppy. Or a cat. Then people would probably find my attitude charming. Or girls would, at least, which is what matters.
Honestly, it astonishes me what girls let cats get away with. If I had ever acted like Pocket—shouting at Jackie to make me exactly the food I like every hour on the hour, tearing up her favorite things, passive-aggressively ignoring her when she's five minutes late coming home from work—her friends would have told her to get the hell out of the relationship. Come to think of it, they probably told her that anyway.
Jackie always wanted me to open up. I said why, when we could be watching TV and eating toast, or maybe I could be going down on you like a puppy on a piece of meat. She never did drop it. I hate talking about feelings because then people expect you to have feelings on cue.
The only time we talked about all that bollocks was actually Pocket's fault.
It happened like this: I woke up suddenly one day and I couldn't open my eyes. Something warm and shifting was pressing my eyelids shut, hot hairs prickling my nose and mouth and the stink of animal sweat and I couldn't breathe and fine fur was trickling past my teeth and it was smothering me and—
-the cat had actually gone to sleep on my actual face. I flung her off, gasping, and started throwing things at the ridiculous animal as she yowled and cowered against the bedroom door. I threw my shoes, my phone, and then Jackie was grabbing my arm and gathering up Pocket and slamming the bathroom door behind her and I was still screaming.
So I finally told Jackie what happened to Emily. Only to get her to come out of the bathroom and stop crying, and when I told her she started crying all over again.
I'm fine, I said. It was a long time ago and I'm over it. People die all the time. That's what people do. And sometimes they die when they're little, and sometimes their big sisters are in the room and can't fucking do anything about it because they're little too. It's fine, I said.
It's not fine, Jackie said. You're not fine. And then she started crying again and I had to kiss her until she stopped.
Never date a girl who has a cat. If they weren't highly strung to begin with, they will be.
Pocket could do nothing wrong. One time the cat took a shit in Jackie's shoes–one squat turd in each heel, a precision drop—and that was apparently okay. Apparently, Pocket was anxious that day. I told Jackie I was anxious too and had been for some months and asked how she'd feel if I shat in her shoes. She picked up the cat and stalked off into the bedroom and I swear I saw the damn thing grin at me.
We made up later. It wasn't the last straw. Not that time.
The hippies next door were the last straw. Always banging and thumping at all hours of the night. It's an old block of flats and the walls are thick, but we could still hear weird noises through the partition—growling and yammering and crashing like a herd of barnyard animals were loose in there. Hippies shouldn't be allowed pets. They don't know how to apply the necessary discipline to themselves, let alone an animal or two or six.
When the noise would stop for a few days, we'd think, Jackie and me, that we'd finally be able to get a night of unbroken sleep, but then it'd start up again. Jackie needed sleep. I've always been an insomniac, so it doesn't bother me, but Jackie started getting pale and confused when she missed even an hour or two.
Banging on the wall didn't help. Passive-aggressive notes didn't help. And my girl got paler and paler and started missing mornings and getting in trouble at work. I couldn't have that.
One morning I came home at nine, just about ready to lie down next to her and nuzzle in, and there she was, stretched out like a corpse with her eyes wide open and her lips clamped shut, listening to the banging and snarling through the wall. Some of the feeds from work playing in the background. She used to watch them while I wasn't there, to calm herself down, but she wasn't watching now. Tears were sopping the peach fuzz on her cheeks.
And I admit it. I just snapped.
The next thing I knew I was at their door, demanding they come out and explain themselves. A skinny white kid with dirty dreadlocks just stood there and apologized and apologized and behind him some girl in baggy pants slammed doors to stop me from seeing whatever it was I wasn't supposed to be seeing. Which just made me angrier.
I said I was going to call the police and he said sorry. I said I was sick of his obnoxious fucking bullshit and he said sorry and offered money which he clearly didn't have because he'd probably spent it all on weed and fucking patchouli oil, and I said so. When I was finally done, he seemed to have sunk into himself: he was still standing there, but it was like he was trying to make himself disappear into his t-shirt. There was nothing I could do but walk away.
Jackie was waiting for me in the kitchen. Staring, wide awake.
"I didn't know you could be like that," she said. Her voice was small and exhausted.
"It's okay, babe," I said, "they won't bother us for a while."
I went to put my arm around her but she jerked away.
"It's not okay," she said. "You scared me."
I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything, and finally she went back to bed and I lay down on the sofa. It was dead quiet, but I couldn't sleep until the sun was fully up. When I woke up, Pocket was whining and batting at my face, and Jackie was gone.
I admit, I kind of fell apart after that.
I kept working, or rather, I kept showing up at the facility and thumping numbers into output screens that seemed to blur together into a smear of resentment on the windshield of my life. Work, home, sleep.
I considered logging onto some of the feeds in my spare time, because that's what they're there for, to make people feel fucking better, but I didn't want to feel better. I opted for staring at shadows creeping across the skirting boards instead.
I still had the cat, though. That's why I'm convinced Jackie never meant to leave forever. The note she left was mostly about looking after Pocket and trying to look after myself. I wasn't keen on either prospect, except that Pocket was the only thing alive that seemed to miss Jackie as much as I did.
An animal is a hook you leave in another human being. Pocket kept winding herself around the front steps, whining, making little nests out of abandoned knickers under the bed until eventually I found them and threw them out, me and the cat not looking at each other because it was frankly embarrassing for both of us.
Eventually Pocket seemed to work out that Jackie wasn't coming back. She quit all her frantic running about and started to just sit there with her almond eyes half-closed. Staring at the door. Or sitting under the tap with it dripping on her head, plink plink plash, not even bothering to move. Or lying on the bed stretched out like roadkill making that awful groaning car-tire sound.
I don't know why I started making the videos. If I'm honest I think a part of me was hoping she'd see them. She loved the feeds. Always crying over the stupid bulldog puppiess and how they couldn't get themselves upright, rocking back and forth on their fuzzy little backs with their legs waggling in the air. She said it was a metaphor for our relationship. I said she was full of shit, which is just one of the things I should have kept pinned behind my teeth.
She loved the cat videos most. Cats in boxes. Cats trying to get into boxes that are too small for them. Cats using the toilet like people. Cats doing whatever it is cats do that makes people love them more than each other.
So I suppose every time I posted a video of Pocket staring at the wall I was hoping she'd see it and know. She'd see it, and see how sad the cat was, and at least get in touch.
But she didn't get in touch. Other people did.
Hundreds of people. Then thousands.
Then tens of thousands, all saying the same thing. That cat is me, says Dina91 from Albuquerque. Sad Pocket feels me in my soooouuuul, says Toni from Hamburg. What on earth made that cat so sad?? Someone rescue it!! Says KitKatCally from London.
That's right. Come and rescue us, Jackie. Come home and rescue us both.
It got so I was spending hours a day working on the videos. And I suppose I wasn't too surprised when I got the call to come in to work.
I was led straight through the lobby into a little room where a little man in a well-tailored suit was waiting for me with a stack of papers and a sprayed-on smile.
"Miss Lehman," said the suit, putting about eight extra consonants in my name. It's not enough for posh boys to have all the luck and all the money, they have to hoard up all the consonants too. "Thank you for coming in at such short notice."
I told him that it was pronounced Lemon, like the fruit, and anyway I hadn't had much of a choice. Sir.
"Oh, call me Ollie," said the suit, smiling without his eyes. "Anyway, I expect you know why you're here." I was expecting to be fired, but I didn't say so.
"We're all very impressed by your, uh, freelance work." he said. "Truly innovative, truly. The company has concentrated on providing light content, cheerful. The Sad Pocket format subverts that. It's relatable. It's an entirely different sort of product, one we didn't realize was within our remit.
"We provide a trackable digital emotional contagion service, but it turns out that catharsis is just as contagious as relief. Our major stakeholders agree. You've caught the interest of the Department for Work and Pensions."
I nodded, staring at a point just above his right ear. That's a trick I learned in school. It's absolutely guaranteed to make people slightly uncomfortable without really knowing why.
The suit shifted and cleared his throat.
"Anyway, uh, I'll get to the point. We'd like to incorporate Sad Pocket into our brand. There'd be incentives for you, of course, as the owner. Shares in the profits, perhaps even a small advance. Of course, we'd need exclusive rights to the Sad Pocket brand and the main property. Onsite."
I asked if he was seriously talking about requisitioning my cat.
"Relocating," he corrected, and grinned at me like I was some sort of fancy snack. "The creature would have excellent care. Really, it makes sense. The creature is valuable intellectual property. You must know that, as the owner."
I told him I wasn't the owner, that I was just feeding Pocket until the owner came back, and anyway we were doing just fine at home, thanks.
"Ah," said the suit. "Well, I hate to have to do this, but there are some terms and conditions."
The suit had a similarly besuited flunky produce a piece of paper explaining why I had no choice. Copyright infringement something-something. Something-something unauthorized freelance project. They didn't stop smiling. They offered me coffee. I told them I was fine.
The next day, three dudes in security jackets turned up at the flat and took Pocket away.
They wouldn't let me visit, not that I'd have known what to do if they had. I mean, chat about the news? I don't know. I took some leave, which nobody at work had any problem with. I had a lot of holiday saved. I spent it lying on the sofa watching the feeds, and it took me less than ten seconds to find Pocket, but it just made me too sad. So I switched to the puppies, like everyone else. And the guilty golden retriever. And the Slow Loris being tickled, which is actually a form of torture for those weird fucking jungle animals. That adorable human-looking smile is its way of expressing mortal terror. But who cares? It's cute as hell.
I sat there watching the feeds and waiting for the sweat to dry into my slacks.
Which would have been fine, if only it wasn't for the howling coming through the wall from the flat next door.
I put headphones on. It didn't help.
I hammered on the plasterboard for them to leave me to stew in my own filth. No answer.
Eventually I put my shoes on and went next door and pressed down on the bell for about an hour until White Boy Dreadlocks and the chick from Almost Famous came and answered.
I didn't say a word. I just pushed right past them and into the living room, where I stopped, and stared. Taking in the drooling, whining, shitting chaos, I started to laugh.
Because there were eleven half-grown English bulldogs tearing the place apart, and I knew exactly where they had come from.
Dreadlocks was sneezing in the background—some sort of allergy, probably—and Pound Shop Karen Carpenter was plucking at my sleeve.
They won't be here much longer, miss, she said. Please don't tell anyone, she said. And some more whiny nonsense I can't even remember.
One of the dogs climbed on top of one of the other ones and started humping and whining. The hippy chick cringed and apologized again.
That's when I had a really interesting idea.
No, I said. This is great. Actually, I think we can come to an arrangement.
Footsteps, almost noiseless in the facility hall. I can only hear them because I'm listening for them. Then three muffled knocks at the door. He's here.
I let him in quickly. He pushes two ratty dreads behind his ear as he takes in the monitor room.
"Holy shit," he says. "This place is even crazier than you said."
I ask him if he's got what he needs and he says yes, everything. He's even wearing thin black gloves, so he's clearly in some sort of spy movie in his mind.
I tell him, just like I explained at his place when we cooked up the plan, that he's only got half an hour to get in and out. That I can only cut the feeds for so long, and after that the alarms go off.
My neighbor, who now prefers me to call him Charlie, gives me a goofy grin that makes me want to punch him. "You're pretty cool," he says. "Thanks."
I nod. Then he starts to tie me to my chair with duct tape, as agreed. He clears his throat as he's going around my feet and I can absolutely tell that he's about to make some sort of kinky joke. He opens his mouth.
I give him a look.
He closes his mouth.
Pocket is in one of the second floor sets. I don't know which one, because they haven't told me, so my neighbor will have to open doors until he gets to her. Half an hour to get in and out with her and as many animals as possible, causing enough of a fuss to get noticed, for whatever good he thinks that'll do.
Now, I say to Charlie, hit me in the face. So it looks authentic.
He won't do it, so I order him to kick my chair over. That way I'll get enough of a bang on the head to convince them I was taken by force.
Charlie tips up the office chair very, very gently, laying it on its side with me in it.
"Good luck, babe," he says, lifting my pass over my head. Then he's gone.
My cheek is pressed into the carpet, itching and burning. All the weight is in my neck and shoulder but I can still wriggle, because this idiot trustafarian can't even tie a person up properly. I can see him, now, on the second screen from the top. He's in the bulldog room.
He opens the door and the puppies start yapping and squirming over his feet, but he's not picking them up. Instead, he gets out a can of something and starts spraying a huge wonky message.
It takes him three precious minutes to write C-O-R-P-O-R-A-T-E-M-I-N-D-C-O-N-T-R-O-L in dribbly paint, and then he's on to the next room for another bit of arts-and-crafts direct action.
This sort of palaver is exactly why I steer clear of politics.
I twist my neck to see the stats. The feeds are going absolutely bananas.
Then I look at the feed in the corner. The one with the red blinking light.
The Sad Pocket room was a coup for the set designers. Half-eaten food everywhere, empty pizza boxes and job applications, all the debris of despair. And there are sixteen cats in there, just laying about on the sofa, staring at the TV. Most of them are drugged.
Pocket is right up front, bless her, draped over the arm of the couch. Her eyes half-shut as if she can't even be bothered to give up. That's my cat.
On the feed they play Velvet Underground and Postal Service and all kinds of music to slit your wrists to, but there's no sound on my end. So when Charlie comes in, he looks like the star of a silent film, jerky in black and white.
I watch him pick up Pocket, who folds over his arm like an affable flannel, and starts spraying another message on the back wall. This one is specific. This one, I know. J-A-C-K-I-E, he writes, in big wobbly letters. I watch the second word form, piece by piece.
All of a sudden, Charlie drops the can and falls to the floor.
I strain my neck on the carpet to see what's going on. Charlie isn't moving, at least not much—he's on his knees, wheezing. The sound is off but I can see he's struggling to breathe.
It is really, really not my problem if Basildon Bob Marley has an allergy and forgot to take his meds.
Not my problem, but I can't look away.
He's scrabbling at the skin on his face, coughing, like he's being attacked by a swarm of invisible insects. The sad cats are interested now, and they wind around his legs as he struggles to breathe.
Just like Emily.
And I'm six years old again, watching my sister wheeze and spasm on our cousin's carpet. I'm six years old and it doesn't matter how hard I scream because I can't stop her lips turning blue and her eyes rolling up.
I'm six years old and nothing is ever going to matter again.
My face is fucking leaking now. On the monitor, Charlie is gasping silently, still holding Pocket, but his grip has weakened and she wriggles free, out the door and down the corridor. Gone.
Charlie should be gone now too, because the alarms have started now, howling overhead, pulsing red, the nightmare heartbeat of some huge trapped animal. But he can't go anywhere. He's flat on his back underneath JACKIE COME, retching and choking, and he's staring at the camera and mouthing, help me. Help.
It's not my fucking responsibility.
I could just lie here and let them take him. I'd probably keep my job. And that would be fine. But instead I roar and rip the tape off my wrists and pelt down the corridor, straight to the med-kit on the stairs.
"Hold on, Charlie! I'm coming!"
He won't hear me with the alarms wailing. It takes a person fifteen minutes to die of an acute asthma attack, and if I hurry, I might make it in time.
"Do you know why you're here, Miss Lehman?"
The suit slides a cup of coffee and some Frazzles across the table. I don't want to take them, but it's the first food I've been offered in hours. Or days. I don't know how long I've been in this room. They made me sign a stack of forms, and then they left me here. I have no idea where Pocket is.
"You've caused us a great deal of trouble. But your swift action in saving Charles Ruthven-Lawton saved us a great deal more."
When they found us I was pumping Charlie's chest like crazy and trying to force the emergency inhaler between his teeth. Prison isn't going to be fun for him, but I'm glad he made it.
"You're here to fire me?" I say, exhausted.
"Oh no. Gosh, no. I'm here to promote you," says the suit. "Your little stunt brought us a good deal of publicity, and the public's reaction has been more positive than we expected. It's the perfect time for us to be expanding into a new area."
I stare at the place above his left ear.
"It's an exciting development, and as a healthy young woman, we'd really appreciate your help. In return for that help, we're happy to drop the lawsuit and the conspiracy charges."
He beckons for me to follow him, out of the room and down the corridor.
We're in a part of the facility I've never seen. Somewhere underground. I follow the suit as he opens doors with his keycard, but I know, I realize, I already know what I'm going to see.
Down the corridor comes the sound of a baby crying.
This is Terraform, our home for future fiction. Art by Koren Shadmi.