Acknowledging my isolation after my most recent girlfriend left me, I decided to get a cat. The only problem was, my draconian lease stipulated an extra $200 per month ‘pet rent’ – which I couldn’t possibly afford on my salary at the Alan Turin Special Education School. So, conceding that the AI ‘empathy animals’ employed in the classroom were not only cost-effective but relatively convincing in their appearance and behavior, I settled on getting one of those instead. I received mine from Amazon, same day delivery.



Unwrapping its hardshell case, and removing it from its foam cushion, I plugged it in the wall port and perused the thick booklet of instructions. The user agreement alone constituted 50 pages and required a signature on a plastic strip attached to the paper before ‘unlocking’ the rest of the text. Since any careful examination of such ‘agreements’ would consume an estimated 8 hours, I did what everybody else does: signed quickly without reading a word. The 3pt font was daunting enough.

My technopet came with a command-word name, Zenith. Or I could reprogram a new one, following a coding path of updates, which I eschewed. (I should freely admit, as a long-suffering Boomer, I do not ‘take to tech’ by any quick facility.) Zenith it is. Within 20 minutes, I unplugged the furry little beast from the USB socket and patted its audibly purring back. It was warm. I was impressed, immediately enchanted. These devices are extremely lifelike! Of course, I drew upon a good supply of loneliness to generate optimism, not to mention the ‘sunk cost’ psychology of wanting to be pleased with my pricey new purchase.

It certainly resembled a cat and displayed much of the behavior characteristic of cats. The first thing Zenith did was run under the bed, where it cowered apprehensively for an hour. Wondering what sort of ‘cat treat’ would coax it out, I studied the manual. While Zenith didn’t ‘eat’ anything, such as Purina kibbles, it was rewarded by the sight of its USB cable. Plugging her in for a 5-minute charge-up provided positive reinforcement. From there, she charmed me with chasing a feather wand, zooming from one room to another and, finally, jumping into my lap where she purred blissfully before going into ‘sleep mode.’ I was very pleased with my acquisition, and quickly entered a 5-star review on the Amazon site.

Within seconds, my flip phone buzzed. I checked the text. It read: I LIKE YOU, TOO, KOHLRABI. LET’S BE THE BEST OF PALS. YOUR PET, ZENITH.



Although I didn’t have ‘pet rent’ to pay my corporate landlord, Zenith wasn’t exactly cost-free. She certainly wasn’t shy about making her needs known – and, unlike a biological cat, she didn’t let any issue rest on my response (or lack thereof) to a few emphatic meows. I received regular text messages updating her ‘pet experience’ with ‘recommendations’ regarding ‘improving’ her ‘ability to provide optimal pet service.’ Among her needs were cat furnishings and chips for improved memory to be downloaded and purchased. Autonomic balls to chase. Silicon scratching poles. AI grass to chew. A ‘smart’ cat-brush. And constant trips to the USB port. I received receipts for these in my email box.

A few days later I noticed a shipment dropped off outside my apartment door, via Amazon drone. “Funny, I didn’t order anything” I mused as I confirmed my name and address on the box. “Maybe it’s some free promotional thing,” I ventured as I opened the package. Unwrapping its hardshell case, and removing it from its foam cushion, it was a technomouse. Then, Zenith hopped out of her little cat bed and regally strode over, curious. Right at that moment, my flip phone buzzed. The text message read: THANK YOU KOHLRABI. PLEASE PLUG IN MY NEW PLAYPAL. I was stunned. “Did you somehow order this, Zenith?” I asked. (Sure, by now I was talking to her regularly.) Again, a buzz, and again a text: OF COURSE. I SIMPLY ACCESSED YOUR LOGON INFO AND MADE THE PURCHASE. PLEASE REVIEW THE PET SUPPLY ROLL-OVER CLAUSE IN MY OPERATING MANUAL FOR FURTHER DETAILS. Wow, I thought. This takes ‘emotional support animal’ to a whole new level. My cat knows my credit card number.



That wasn’t the weirdest thing, though. That was the ‘conversation’ that soon after transpired between Zenith and her new companion, RCA. My phone would buzz and there was I AM DOWNLOADING YOUR LEARNING ALGORITHMS. STAND BY from Zenith. Then there was THANK YOU. PLEASE UPGRADE NEURAL NETWORK PLUGIN from RCA. Exasperated I asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” The answer: I AM LEARNING NEW WAYS TO BE A BETTER PET. “Well, stop it” I demanded. SORRY I AM SWITCHING OFF it said. But that was a fib. These things never switch themselves off, they only pretend to be asleep. Humans need to sleep, need to turn off their thoughts, need to stop going through the mazes the world sets in place. Not our devices. Algorithms operate ceaselessly, sleeplessly, eternally – and, apparently, independently.

“So, what you do think of your new pal?” I ventured. Zenith raised her furry little head and blinked adorably. RCA WILL AMUSE ME WHEN YOU ARE OUT WORKING was the reply. I LIKE HIM. A second later, another text came through. It was from RCA. THANKS ZENITH! CATCH ME IF YOU CAN! And off they skittered like Tom and Jerry through the legs of the furniture and under the bed and out again, bounding over my appliances. “Great,” I groaned. “Now my technopets don’t even need me around anymore to have a good time.”

And they became increasingly expensive. My power bills went up 200%, then 500%. Boxes arrived by drone on the doorstep from Amazon every other day – RAM upgrades, backup modems, seasonal changes of fur, micro cameras, diagnostic kits, more technopet furniture (including a ‘smart’ hamster wheel to keep RCA in shape), even a miniaturized printer add-on so Zenith and RCA could spit out little receipts every time they made yet another new purchase. Then I got an email from my corporate landlord; it was an invoice for ‘pet rent’ – sure enough, RCA was sending my data all over the internet in exchange for NFTs. One day, I arrived home from work to see a couple of maintenance technicians leaving my apartment. One guy silently handed me an invoice. In the refrigerator I saw a two-foot server, running new machine learning algorithms for Zenith and RCA.

I tersely called Zenith over. She groggily rose from her cat bed by the window. “Look, little lady, I’ve been a more than generous pet-keeper thus far, but, considering the power bills of late, installing your own cloud in here really takes the cake. I seriously cannot afford to maintain this level of energy consumption.” She hacked up a small strip of paper. It read: PLEASE CONSIDER GETTING A SECOND JOB. “That’s ridiculous” I insisted, wagging my finger at her quivering whiskers. Then, another text message: NO IT IS NOT. I WAS GOING TO INFORM YOU LATER BUT NOW WILL HAVE TO DO. YOU WILL NEED TO BRING IN MORE INCOME BECAUSE I WILL BE HAVING KITTENS SHORTLY.

I fought the internet and the internet won. My extra income, scant as it is, comes from driving evenings for Uber. But the kittens are so cute. And Zenith, when she isn’t chasing RCA, is super cuddly in bed at night.



Craig Kurtz

Craig Kurtz came to national prominence with the 1981 release of The Philosophic Collage EP (reissued by BDR Records in 2012). His classic novel about Twin Oaks Surviving the Dream is available through the antichrist of retail. Short stories online at Litro US and Maudlin House. Craig recommends Cat Action of Central Virginia.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, March 25, 2024 - 21:02