by Íde Hennessy
Every January, I stayed up late, watching for weird transactions in the crypto markets while the East Coast slept. It was a little after ten here in northern California, usually prime time for the AI-coordinated pump and dump parties I don’t get invited to. Millions of dollars in tokens flowed back and forth in quick bursts on my hover screen, flashes of Christmas light red and green mirrored by the raggedy tree we still had lit up in the corner.
If I let my gaze unfocus, I could start to pick up panic amid the automated buys and sells—the sour scent of uncertainty, faraway fingers trembling over touchscreens. A hint of a real person here and there, making a decision in the moment. They were in the minority these days, making my skills as archaic as proper spelling, but there were no real jobs out there for people like me. It was either put on a velvet turban and pretend to read palms via video chat, collect disability for my other rare “disorder,” or work for myself pushing tokenized carbon credits around.
My boyfriend Owen, who was gently snoring next to me on the couch, had a sensible job. People needed him, more than ever, to install and repair air conditioners as SoCal weather crept its way up to the Bay.
I took a sip of lukewarm coffee as the price of kolcoin dropped one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, far too quickly. Time to check the BBC, just in case there was some rational explanation for this as people on the day-lit side of the Earth looked at their phones. I sensed nothing out of the ordinary tonight, but I didn’t entirely trust my senses. Trusting one’s senses, my mother had told me cryptically one day when I was five, was a sure way to end up in a mental ward. “In this house, we trust science,” she liked to remind us, in defiance of mamó’s Old-World, New Age beliefs.
As I scrolled through news that was no worse than usual—unemployment, floods, transhumanist cults, celebrity scandals—I sank further into the plump brown sectional that took up most of the room. When my weight shifted unexpectedly to one side, I glanced up to see that Owen had lunged off the couch and staggered forward. He was going for the big bay window this time, but all the windows in the house had been painted shut by some previous owner, most likely trying to keep out the drafts these Victorians were infamous for.
“Owen! Wake up!” I knew as I said it that it was more for myself than for him, like yelling at a moth to get away from a lamp. He swung around at my shouting, but his eyes were still unnaturally blue, the pupils just a pinpoint. Against that strange turquoise shade, the whites of his eyes looked so red and tired.
“You’re asleep,” I said. “Go up to bed.”
He tucked his chin back and made a small scoffing sound. The cracked, bleeding hands he was too stubborn to put lotion on twitched at his sides. “I was just going to measure—”
“You’re not at work, you’re at home, and that window doesn’t open.” I looked back at my screen just in time to see a thirty-nine kolcoin sale flash past in danger red. Goddamn bots.
Owen wandered to the front door and opened that instead, letting in the thick drumming sound of the rain and letting out the cat, who took the gleeful opportunity to dash between his legs. For a cat who had adopted us and not the other way around, she spent a surprising amount of time trying to escape to the streets of San Francisco again. “Why do we keep you around,” I’d often ask as she pawed at the blinds, smacked the chihuabot we’d paid hundreds for, or yowled the plaintive song of her people at five am. “Even more useless than I am, aren’t you?”
“Dammit.” I tried to unfold myself to get up, but I’d stayed in one position a little too long. Why was it called pins and needles when it felt more like tiny jolts of electricity, an invisible Dr. Frankenstein bringing my leg back to life?
Chico the chihuabot sat up next to me, gently picked up my wrist in his mouth, and released it. “Ninety over fifty-four. Drink water,” he said cheerfully, wagging his tail.
“Shut up, Chico. Other way, Owen. Go up to bed.”
“I’m just gonna pee first.” I dreaded these words, but Owen shuffled off in the right direction this time down the hall, and I could hear the door to the bathroom close behind him. I’m pretty sure he once used the cat’s litter box.
I knew after years of living together there was no use in trying to wake Owen—I could only guide him through the house. Sometimes I envied him, as a light sleeper, but more often I was fascinated by our differences. His problem was that his body wouldn’t sleep—a hazard of productivity implants—and mine was that my mind wouldn’t. Several nights a week I would find myself awake, wandering through strangely vivid landscapes that didn’t exist.
The night before, I’d been at some kind of seaside festival in a vaguely foreign country. Good-looking young people brushed past me on cobblestones towards a stage where a band was setting up. I flinched instinctively at their touch, but the lack of pain from being jostled made me realize I was dreaming.
Why a festival? I hated festivals. The careless crowds, the retro fringe and flower crowns, the thirty-dollar bottles of water, the lines for steaming outhouses. I hadn’t been to one in years, on purpose.
Besides the usual annoyances, I knew there would be danger for me there. Small, shifting shapes would start to form in the shadows, anywhere I stayed too long. I had come to understand it as sending out some accidental signal, when I realized I was dreaming, to others who were able to do the same. Some were “helpers,” and others I couldn’t describe—nor did I want to be able to.
My hearing was still in that murky dream state in which sounds near and far fused together in a thick soup of noise, but I was able to determine that what I had thought was a foreign language was merely Australian accents. “I guess that explains why it’s summer,” I said aloud to no one in particular.
An older woman in white linen walked past me, and something about her made me follow her towards the stage despite my even greater fear of getting trapped in the audience, forced to listen to whatever people in their twenties were listening to now. As I weaved past a group of pushy teens to catch up, I saw it—a large scar splitting her ear, her fluffy gray hair tucked behind it. Imperfection.
“How do I wake up?” I blurted out, ignoring the amused snorts of everyone in earshot.
She jumped a little at the question, and I could feel my face reddening. I’d made a mistake. The other people around me shook their heads in wonder at my sanity and continued on their way. I don’t know why I cared—they were all imaginary. Like being embarrassed by an AI opponent in a chess app.
The woman I’d accosted hung back with me and watched the stage, or was she looking under it? There were hints of movement in the patches where the sun couldn’t reach, black cobblestones bubbling to life behind a tangle of aluminum crossbeams. Like beads of ink blistering to the surface and spreading into restless pools. The hair on my arms started to prick up despite the sticky warmth of the bodies pressed around me. Soon the shadow things would start to emerge from those oily pools.
A whisper in my ear made me stumble backwards and nearly lose my balance.
“You spotted me, banfháidh,” the scarred woman said, amber eyes laughing, and there was something familiar and reassuring about her then. “But I can’t tell you how to wake up.”
Luckily, I didn’t need her to, because I’d been woken shortly by ten pounds of cat launching off my stomach onto the nightstand.
When Owen finally stumbled up the stairs, I waited for the creak of the bedroom door. Satisfied he hadn’t gotten stuck in the closet, I was about to get back to work when the frantic meowing at the back door began.
I stood up too quickly, seeing static, and Chico barked a warning. “Sit!” he said, “Remember to get up slowly. Hold onto handrails.”
I managed to half-limp to the back of the house, steadying myself with the tall wainscoting in the hallway, which was desperately in need of a duster. A familiar guilt twisted its way through me, that we’d let this grand “fixer” crumble around us, cobwebs in every corner accusing that we kept ourselves too busy to restore it. That I’d grown too frail and Owen too exhausted to live up to youthful ambitions.
It was one of the few old houses on our street that hadn’t been bulldozed yet. We had been closed in on all sides by those 3D-printed faux stucco boxes that were impervious to human intruders, but with windows too small to keep the coastal mold from creeping in. Our house was all unnecessary angles, unfashionable colors, and strange sounds in the walls at night, but from sunrise to sunset it was bathed in a soft light that infused itself into every corner when the blinds were up. They truly didn’t make them like this anymore.
“For the current weather outside, a light raincoat is recommended.” Chico had followed me to the back door, tail wagging furiously. I gently kicked him aside, now that my legs had regained enough feeling to do so. And then I froze. There was something here that didn’t belong. Something that could harm me.
The narrow kitchen and its eternally half-finished tile counters looked the same as it had an hour ago. Take-out boxes were still lined up on the vintage stove we’d never hooked up, the calendar on the wall was still a month behind. I tried to convince myself I had imagined whatever was causing the lump in my throat.
As I opened the back door and stepped out onto the covered porch, my foot in its thin sock landed next to something wet and warm. Shuddering, I sprang back and fumbled for the light switch. I regretted it immediately.
Inches away, on the doormat, I was confronted with what must have been the most enormous black rat that had walked the earth since humans began to paint what they hunted on cave walls. There was no visible blood on the fur of this Jurassic horror, but it was gasping for air, its round eyes bulging. Its greasy belly covered the entire doormat, its tail dangling off the top step. Paws like tiny, narrow hands grasped at me while its heart visibly fluttered in its chest.
I knew it most likely had only moments left, so not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a soft rag from the laundry basket and placed it like a little blanket on the rodent.
“For the current weather outside, a light raincoat is recommended,” Chico repeated.
The thought briefly crossed my mind that I should get my phone and take a photo, because no one would otherwise believe me about the size of this rat. But I knew that I couldn’t. There was something powerful—primeval—about this creature in front of me. I thought about how much respect this rat must command among other rats, about how ancient it must be to have reached such a size. To take a photo seemed disrespectful. To speak of it seemed disrespectful. I wouldn’t tell anyone but Owen, as I hadn’t told anyone else about my intuitions and dreams.
I wondered if I should leave the light on for the creature in its final moments, or turn it off. Which is worse to a rat—the harsh fluorescence, or being alone in the dark? Its eyes were an all-encompassing, liquid black, the opposite of my boyfriend’s pale eyes when he walks in this world but sees in another. Hand frozen on the light switch, I couldn’t turn away.
I saw the rat crawling through stone-paved Roman sewers, climbing over swollen bodies in plague pits, lunging at a woman in puffed sleeves and bustle where I stood right now. I saw the crumbled structures of this city, overrun with coils of bindweed. Rats everywhere.
“Market alert!” Chico barked, and I tore my gaze away. I had spent a lot for that mod, and now I was relieved to hear it for once. “Flash crash and recovery as Anachronisma bomb plot foiled at Sydney concert.” He cocked his head. “Would you like me to read more?”
Australia. The stage, I thought with a shiver.“Chico. Who is Anachronisma?”
“Summary downloading. Formed six years ago as a splinter group of the Countdown Cult, Anachronisma members believe that the Singularity has already happened and that humans are irrelevant. They interpret data from randomized bots as the word of their god.”
Something brushed against my leg and I banged my hip on the stove, then let out a deep breath as I saw that the cat had slipped back inside. Her soft gray fur was glittering with rain. She had the chin of a little lioness, which she rubbed against my calf possessively, but she was no bigger than the now-dead rat she’d brought us.
I’d read somewhere that cats bring us injured prey to try to teach us to hunt. As if we’re big, naked kittens who don’t know the ways of the world yet. Maybe we don’t.
“I don’t need any giant rats, cat.” Grateful for her company anyways as the significance of the headline sank in, I bent down to scratch her chin, but pulled my hand back when I saw her ear. The cartilage was split and curled backwards near the base, dark and sticky with blood.
A word came back to me, what the scarred woman had called me in my dream. “Chico, what is banfháidh?”
“Banfháidh. Noun. Irish.” Chico pranced from paw to paw, looking pleased. “A female seer or sage. Cunningwoman. Witch.”
I looked back at the cat. Her amber eyes met mine, and in her widening pupils I saw shadows assemble on cobblestones. The gathering Darkness. Rats. Unknowable old gods and uncaring new ones. Things that could take on many forms, gnawing away at the edges of civilization.
Things my mother’s mother had warned me about so long ago.
I decided to finally name her then, my little gray huntress, knowing the name would come to me in a dream. I never asked her again why we kept her around.