Title: Skippable Kitties and Those That Aren’t
Genre: Science Fantasy, Dystopian
Flora loves nothing more than cats. And Firmament, an advanced algorithm, shows her exactly the kinds of videos she loves.
So, with a practically infinite reservoir of cat videos, Flora is fairly content–even while living in a coffin-like booth. All human survivors live in one of these booths in a pit, after all.
All is well, until an undeniably real-sounding meow interrupts Flora’s regular cat-video-viewing session.
When confronted with the real, what is a person used to the virtual to do?
A whimsical standalone short novel with cats, an advanced algorithm, and the last of civilization’s survivors.
Firmament knew exactly what Flora loved and Flora loved it for that.
Persians, Norwegians, Siamese; every kind of Shorthairs and Longhairs originating from all kinds of countries, now gone; with every possible combination of stripes, dots, lines, and swirling patterns created with their beautiful, fluffy-looking, probably-nice-smelling fur—in short, cats. Flora loved nothing more than cats.
Because Firmament knew this, it had been retrieving all cat videos from its archives and reediting them to show Flora the best parts only: cats chattering at the sight of a bug, cats chasing after toys, cats kneading their owners to the point of happy semi-suffocation.
It wasn’t like this from the beginning—meaning, more than a decade ago, when Flora had first received her very own Firmament account. Back in those early days, she used to have to skip some videos, things titled along the lines of “MY DAD HATED CATS—SEE HOW HE REACTS TO MY CAT NOW.”
Flora wanted nothing to do with people who dared to hate cats. Not even virtually, across spacetime, with them existing in some reality a hundred years ago when people used to own houses that had two or more bedrooms, and Flora existing here, now, in a space the shape and size of a six-person coffin, if there was such a thing.
Seriously, how dare they? They owned that much stuff and still needed room to hate cats. Phew. You could just see how rude they were by the way they capitalized the whole title of the video.
But no matter. That period of trial and error was over. After Flora had skipped those crap videos twice or thrice, Firmament had gotten the message: No monsters who dislike cats, gotcha.
Talk about advanced algorithms. Firmament was as intelligent as humans had managed to make those things before most of them had died. Put in a hundred likes and dislikes, and it knew you better than any living breathing thing. (Meaning, any living breathing human, since they were the only living breathing things that still existed with the exception of some moss, mushroom, and primitive ocean plants.)
Flora tossed back her heavy mass of messy hair that reached her waist. She rubbed her eyes. They ached from the blue-light of the screen, which was the only light source. Realizing that she’d been gradually crawling toward the screen out of her desire to touch the cats, be with them, feel them closer, Flora scooted back by half a feet.
As soon as Firmament sensed her attention fading, it sped things up: faster cuts, more movement, play, cats, play, keep Flora excited in her little booth!
Ah, yes, the booth.
The booth was the official term for the six-person-sized coffin. It was the only thing she could call her home; the only thing that belonged to her and her alone.
At its one end, the head part, shall we say, the screen glowed. Right now, it showed even more hyperactive kitties jumping and doing cute little silly things, like punching at the air as if at an invisible enemy; then another kitty came, rolling on its back, asking its owner to rub its belly; then another, which bit its owner. Standard reactions from Firmament, after noticing that Flora’s eyes had wandered off the screen; it was struggling to keep her focused.
But Flora ignored the screen for a moment—at which Firmament immediately showed loudly meowing cats—and glanced back at the other end of the booth.
There was the mat, in the feet part of the booth. Flora was sick of the mat. It belonged in one of those middle school gyms where kids from the previous century used to have P. E. classes. Even though her butt hurt from long-term sitting, she didn’t want to sit on that. It smelled of old sweat. Her own sweat, granted, but what did that matter? Nobody enjoyed smelling old sweat.
And yet, that mat was where she lay when she wasn’t watching cat videos or performing the mandatory stretches that Firmament required of every person who had been staring at the screen for more than four hours at a time without moving. The voice prompt that reminded the user of the stretches—and the movement monitoring system embedded into the booth—was Firmament’s way of ensuring the well-being of its users.
“It’s been four hours,” the voice of an authoritative grandmother would say.
The pit residents called her “The Firmament Lady.” She sounded like the type of grandmother who didn’t let her grandchildren call her grandma, and heaven forbid, never “nana”; the type who meticulously combed her shoulder-length silver hair to put it into a perpetual bun.
“Time to stretch,” she’d say, in that eternally-commanding voice, as if she’d existed forever.
But that couldn’t be. Flora had heard that the stretching reminders had only begun shortly before she was born, which was twenty years ago. And the pit had existed for a century. So the Firmament Lady couldn’t be an eternal being—though people did guess that she was no human. Probably an algorithm-generated voice—a combination of a bunch of human voices, averaged out. For those things, time didn’t exist. Did that count as eternal? Timelessness through inorganic-ness?
At any rate, if the voice belonged to a real person, Flora imagined this grandmother as a person who never wore silk, condemning it for its impracticality. Wool and cotton—they were that lady’s go-to fabric. No perfume, god, no. Just the smell of bar soap. All this, regardless of how monied she was, for frugality was a philosophy, not merely a forced lifestyle.
Come to think of it, it was about time that the Firmament Lady’s voice prompt would stop the cat videos. Flora didn’t like that.
So, even without the automatic voice prompt, Flora stretched a little. Simple stretches.
Figure Four: lying on her back with her feet flat on the floor, then crossing the left foot over the right quad, lifting the right leg off the floor. Then the other side.
Frog Position: on all fours, then sliding her knees wider than shoulder-width, turning her toes out, holding.
Butterfly Position: sitting tall on the floor with the soles of her feet together, then bending her knees out to the sides.
No standing positions. Standing wasn’t an option; the booth ceiling was too low.
After about ten minutes of floor stretches, Flora returned to her crouching, seated position on the brown metal floor. It was warm with her own body heat, but preferable to the sweaty mat and even more preferable to the dictatorial voice of the algorithmic grandmother who reminded Flora that the booth was monitoring her movements at all times.
She concentrated on the cats on the screen. They’d just opened the cupboard with their little feet. They rummaged through its contents unbeknownst to the owner, sitting several feet away; said owner was dozing off on a mountain of cushions.
Those ungratefuls, thought Flora, considering the owner and his likes. If only they’d appreciated what they had, I might not be here.
Flora didn’t own cushions. Not even a single cushion. Not even a blanket or thick clothes. All she wore was underwear and a long T-shirt that functioned as an extra layer between her panties and the floor. That T-shirt used to be white once but now approached the state of an abstract painting created by throwing mud and dust on a cheap, thin canvas.
How did she know about abstract paintings despite spending most of her twenty-year life watching cat videos? Because in her early childhood, she’d seen those useless things called “abstract art.” Firmament had shown videos of those before Flora’s tastes had fully formed yet.
But even then, Little Flora had known better than to be touched by a few dots on a blank canvas taking up a ridiculous amount of space in the Museum of Modern Art in this and that big city. The hushed voices of visitors and the puzzled yet reverent gazes they threw at the dots had made Little Flora feel sick. She’d immediately marked those videos as “Dislike” and after two or three more similar tries (to figure out whether Flora disliked the paintings, the spacious museums, or people in general), Firmament had never shown her videos of any modern art, ever again.
After that came the period of magnificent sceneries, how-tos, and first-person shooter game playing streams. All kinds of memories of civilizations past, in the form of millions of years’ worth of video footages, had been tested on Flora to gauge her likes and dislikes.
The builders of Firmament had seen the end coming. They’d known that overpopulation and pollution would eventually drive the survivors into tiny booths like these, stacked on top and next to each other in a pit several miles deep, away from the landfills and toxic explosions. They’d concluded that the only way to keep the collective human mind alive until the situation improved was to keep the memories alive. Otherwise, people would go crazy from living on ancient canned food and being trapped in booths that were only dubbed so because otherwise, people would definitely call them coffins—and also, from smelling like you’ve been buried alive in a coffin.
Hence the sceneries, how-tos, and first-person shooter game playing streams. Some of Flora’s neighbors enjoyed such videos thoroughly.
Those videos just reminded her of where she could have gone and what she could have done, had humanity not been so fond of the likes of shooter games. So she watched cat videos. For escapism. But at least she was aware of her motive.
Just look at them. What wondrous creatures, and how lucky that people made so many videos of them before the cats went extinct! So cute, so lively, simply the most adorable creatures that the world has ever lost…
Flora sat up. On the screen, new cats had shown up: a black cat with yellow eyes and a huge dark gray Maine Coon. But neither was meowing; the latter was grooming the former without making a sound, in that uniquely elegant way of cats.
Again. Flora looked around. The screen boasted the most advanced features from humanity before it drove itself into the pit, but that didn’t include surround sound capacity without any physical speakers beside the ones attached to the screen.
This meow hadn’t come from the past in the form of videos recut by Firmament; this had happened too close, too real. The unfamiliar nature of the sound waves that had hit Flora’s eardrums told her so.
Undeniably. This cat was here. Right here—
Flora stared at the vertical ventilation duct in front of the screen. Because of that long pipe, about as thick as her skinny arm, she couldn’t see the rightmost portion of the screen. Sometimes that annoyed the hell out of her, especially when a cat tried to fish something out of a gap that happened to be displayed right in that part of the screen.
The only reason Flora didn’t remove the duct was that she didn’t want to suffocate to death, which she imagined to be very painful, and because she thought she had no right to kill the people in her line of the booth complex. Sure, people could breathe in the unfiltered air without immediately dying, but nobody knew what prolonged exposure could do to human health.
But the meow had come from there—inside the duct.
“He— he— hello?” she said, and immediately realized how completely idiotic she sounded.
Meowww, the cat replied, apparently relieved that someone had responded to its cries.
“Are you, are you what I think you are?”
Again. Come on. If it was a cat, it wasn’t going to respond in a human language.
In front of Flora, Firmament kept changing its video selection at such a great speed that it looked like it was having a fit, vomiting random colors and sounds. But she barely noticed its tantrum. All her senses were focused on that middle portion of the ventilation duct, right at her eye level. She couldn’t detect any movements inside because the pipe was made of hard, opaque metal; nothing smelled odd to indicate that something was stuck, causing bad air circulation—
Okay, that was it. Flora jumped from her seat and promptly smashed her head on the ceiling.
“Oh, fuck!” she said, at which the middle-aged man who lived upstairs yelled, “Language!” and Flora said, “Sorry!”
For a guy who spent most of his time watching porn, he sure liked his language clean.
Crouched in an awkward position, Flora approached the ventilation duct. She couldn’t just break metal, could she?
But at yet another meowing from the duct, Flora’s mind switched to Of course I must just break the duct, metal or otherwise.
She’d need tools. Something to break the pipe, something to replace the broken part with… like… like… like a plastic water bottle! And duct tape!
Flora wildly looked around. Other than her mat and her shabby clothes, she owned nothing. But she knew someone whose personality was the exact opposite of hers—someone who didn’t mind inconvenient trips and standing in long lines to get what she wanted.