A crippling disease has made the body of Grace’s wife a prison for her erratic, reclusive brain. The only hope for their marriage? A video game where she rules over kingdom of cats.
Written by iO9 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders, “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” is part of Press Start to Play, an anthology of game-centric short fiction that features work by Daniel Wilson, Chris Avellone, Rhianna Pratchett. Out this week, the book’s got a great story from the viewpoint of an NPC leveling up to become a main hero character, a text-adventure-based tale about four friends coming to grips with the death of an online gaming buddy and an entry built around the chilling realization that an alternate-reality game has actually altered reality.
You can read the entirety of “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” below.
Rat Catcher’s Yellows
by Charlie Jane Anders
The plastic cat head is wearing an elaborate puffy crown covered with bling. The cat’s mouth opens to reveal a touchscreen, but there’s also a jack to plug in an elaborate mask that gives you a visor, along with nose plugs and earbuds for added sensory input. Holding this self-contained game system in my palms, I hate it and want to throw it out the open window of our beautiful faux-Colonial rowhouse to be buried under the Autumn mulch. But I also feel a surge of hope: that maybe this really will make a difference. The cat is winking up at me.
Shary crouches in her favorite chair, the straight-backed Regency made of red-stained wood and lumpy blue upholstery. She’s wearing jeans and a stained sweatshirt, one leg tucked under the other, and there’s a kinetic promise in her taut leg that I know to be a lie. She looks as if she’s about to spring out of that chair and ask me about the device in my hands, talking a mile a minute the way she used to. But she doesn’t even notice my brand new purchase, and it’s a crapshoot whether she even knows who I am today.
I poke the royal cat’s tongue, and it gives a yawp through its tiny speakers, then the screen lights up and asks for our wifi password. I give the cat what it wants, then it starts updating and loading various firmware things. A picture of a fairytale castle appears with the game’s title in a stylized wordmark above it: THE DIVINE RIGHT OF CATS. And then begins the hard work of customizing absolutely everything, which I want to do myself before I hand the thing off to Shary.
The whole time I’m inputting Shary’s name and other info, I feel like a backstabbing bitch. Giving this childish game to my life partner, it’s like I’m declaring that she’s lost the right to be considered an adult. No matter that all the hip teens and twentysomethings are playing Divine Right of Cats right now. Or that everybody agrees this game is the absolute best thing for helping dementia patients hold onto some level of cognition, and that it’s especially good for people suffering from leptospirosis X, in particular. I’m doing this for Shary’s good, because I believe she’s still in there somewhere.
I make Shary’s character as close to Shary as I can possibly make a cat wizard, who is the main advisor to the throne of the cat kingdom. (I decide that if Shary was a cat, she’d be an Abyssinian, because she’s got that sandy-brown-haired sleekness, pointy face and wiry energy.) Shary’s monarch is a queen, not a king—a proud Tortoiseshell cat named Arabella IV. I get some input into the realm’s makeup, including what the nobles on the Queen’s Council are like, but some stuff is decided at random — like, Arabella’s realm of Greater Felinia has a huge stretch of vineyards and some copper mines, neither of which I would have come up with.
Every detail I enter into the game, I pack with relationship shout-outs and little details that only Shary would recognize, so the whole thing turns into a kind of bizarre love letter. For example, the tavern near the royal stables is the Puzzler’s Retreat, which was the gray-walled dyke bar where Shary and I used to go dancing when we were both in grad school. The royal guards are Grace’s Army of Stompification. And so on.
“Shary?” I say. She doesn’t respond.
Before it mutated and started eating people’s brainstems, before it became antibiotic-resistant, the disease afflicting Shary used to be known as Rat Catcher’s Yellows. It mostly affected animals, and in rare cases humans. It’s a close cousin of syphilis and Lyme, one that few people had even heard of ten years ago. In some people, it causes liver failure and agonizing joint pain, but Shary is one of the “lucky” ones who only have severe neurological problems, plus intermittent fatigue. She’s only thirty-five years old.
“Shary?” I hold the cat head out to her, because it’s ready to start accepting her commands now that all the tricky setup is over with. Queen Annabelle has a lot of issues that require her Royal Wizard’s input. Already some of the other noble cats are plotting against the throne — especially those treacherous tuxedo cats! — and the vintners are threatening to go on strike. I put the cat head right in front of Shary’s face and she shrugs.
Then she looks up, all at once lucid. “Grace? What the fuck is this shit? This looks like it’s for a five year old.”
“It’s a game,” I stammer. “It’s supposed to be good for people with your. . . it’s fun. You’ll like it.”
“What the fucking fuck?”
She throws it across the room. Lucidity is often accompanied by hostility, which is the kind of tradeoff you start to accept at a certain point. I go and fetch it without a word. Luckily, the cat head was designed to be very durable.
“I thought we could do it together.” I play the guilt card back at her. “I thought maybe this could be something we could actually share. You and me. Together. You know? Like a real couple.”
“Okay, fine.” She takes the cat head from me, and squints at Queen Arabella’s questions about the trade crisis with the neighboring duchy of meerkats. Queen Arabella asks what she should do, and Shary painstakingly types out “why don’t you go fuck yourself.” But she erases it without hitting send, and then instead picks “send an emissary” from among the options already on the screen. Soon, Shary is sending trade representatives and labor negotiators to the four corners of Greater Felinia, and beyond.
After a few days, Shary stops complaining about how stupid Divine Right of Cats is and starts spending every moment poking at the plastic cat’s face in her lap. I get her the optional add-on mask, which is (not surprisingly) the upper three-quarters of a cat face, and plug it in for her, then show her how to insert the nose plugs and earbuds.
Within a week after she first starts playing, Shary’s realm is already starting to crawl up the list of the 1,000 most successful kingdoms — that is, she’s already doing a better job of helping to run the realm of Felinia than the vast majority of people who are playing this game anywhere, according to god knows what metrics.
But more than that, Shary is forming relationships with these cats in their puffy-sleeve court outfits and lacy ruffs. In the real world, she can’t remember where she lives, what year it is, who the President is, or how long she and I have been married. But she sits in her blue chair and mutters at the screen. “No you don’t, Lord Hairballington. You try that shit, I will cut your fucking tail off.”
She probably doesn’t remember from day to day what’s happened in the game, but that’s why she’s the advisor rather than the monarch — she just has to react, and the game remembers everything for her. Yet she fixates on weird details, and I’ve started hearing her talking in her sleep, in the middle of the night, about those fucking copper miners and how they better not try any shit because anybody can be replaced.
One morning, I wake up and cold is leaking into the bed from where Shary pulled the covers back without bothering to tuck me back in. I walk out into the front room and don’t see her at first, and worry she’s just wandered off into the street by herself, which has been my nightmare for months now and the reason I got her RFIDed. But no, she’s in the kitchen, shoving a toaster waffle in her mouth in between poking the cat face and cursing at Count Meesh, whom I named after the friend who introduced Shary and me in the first place. Apparently Count Meesh—a big fluffy Siberian cat—is hatching some schemes and needs to be taught a lesson.
After that, I start getting used to waking up alone. And going to bed alone. As long as Shary sleeps at least six hours a night—which she does—I figure it’s probably okay. Her neurologist, Dr. Takamori, was the one who recommended the game in the first place, and she tells me it’s healthy for Shary to be focused on something.
I should be happy this has worked as well as it has. Shary has that look on her face — what I can see of her face, under the cat mask — that I used to love watching when she was working on her diss. The lip-chewing, half-smile, when she was outsmarting the best minds in Melville studies. So what if Shary’s main relationship is with these digital cats, instead of me? She’s relating to something; she’s not just staring into space all day anymore.
I always thought she and I would take care of each other forever. I feel like a selfish idiot for even feeling jealous of a stupid plastic cat face, with quivering antennae for whiskers.
One day, after Shary has already been playing Divine Right of Cats for four or five hours, she looks up and points at me. “You,” she says. “You there. Bring me tea.”
“My name is Grace,” I say. “I’m your wife.”
“Whatever. Just bring me tea.” Her face is unreadable, half terrifying cat smile, half frowning human mouth. “I’m busy. There’s a crisis. We built a railroad, they broke it. Everything’s going to shit.” Then Shary looks down again at the cat screen, poking and cursing.
I bring her tea, with a little honey, the way she used to like it. She actually thanks me, but doesn’t look up.
Shary gets an email. She gave me her email password around the same time I got Power of Attorney, and I promised to field any questions and consult her as much as I could. For a while, the emails were coming every day, from her former students and colleagues, and I would answer them to the best of my ability. Now it’s been weeks since the last email that wasn’t spam.
This one is from the Divine Righters, a group of Divine Right of Cats enthusiasts. They’ve noticed that Shary’s realm is one of the most successful, and they want to invite Shary to some kind of tournament or convention…or something. It’s really not clear. Some kind of event where people will bring their kingdoms and queendoms together and form alliances or go to war. The little plastic cat heads will interface somehow, in proximity to each other, instead of being more or less self-contained.
The plastic cat head already came with some kind of multiplayer mode, where you could connect via the internet, but I disabled it because the whole reason we were doing this was Shary’s inability to communicate with other humans.
I delete the email without bothering to respond to it, but another email appears the next day. And they start coming every few hours, with subject lines like “Shary Please Join Us” and “Shary, we can’t do it without you.” I don’t know whether to be pissed off or freaked out that someone is cyberstalking my wife.
Then my phone rings. Mine, not hers. “Is this Grace?” a man asks.
“Who is this?” I say, without answering his question first.
“My name is George Henderson. I’m from the Divine Righters. I’m really sorry to take up your time today, but we have been trying to reach your partner Shary on email and she hasn’t answered, and we really want to get her to come to our convention.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Please leave us alone.”
“This tournament has sponsorship from—” he names a bunch of companies I’ve never heard of “—and there are prizes. Plus, this is a chance to interface with other people who love the game as much as she obviously does.”
I take a deep breath. Time to just come clean and end this pointless fucking conversation. We’re standing in the kitchen, within earshot of where Shary is sitting on a duct-taped beanbag with her cat mask and her cat-face device, but she shows no sign of hearing me. I realize Shary is naked from the waist down and the windows are uncovered and the neighbors could easily see, and this is my fault.
“My wife can’t go to your event,” I say. “She is in no condition to ‘interface’ with anybody.”
“We have facilities,” says George. “And trained staff. We can handle —” Like he was expecting this to be the case. His voice is intended to sound reassuring, but it squicks me instead.
“Where the fuck do you get off, harassing a sick woman?” I blurt into the phone, loudly enough that Shary looks up for a moment and regards me with her impassive cat eyes.
“Your wife isn’t sick,” George Henderson says. “She’s. . . she’s amazing. Could a sick person create one of the top one hundred kingdoms in the entire world? Could a sick woman get past the Great Temptation without breaking a sweat? Grace, your wife is just…just amazing.”
The Great Temptation is what they call it when the nobles come to you, the Queen’s Wizard, and offer to support you in overthrowing the monarch. Because you’ve done such a good job of advising the monarch on running Greater Felinia, you might as well sit on the throne yourself instead of that weak figurehead. This moment comes at different times for different players, and there’s no right or wrong answer — you can continue to ace the game whether you sit on the throne or not, depending on other circumstances. But how you handle this moment is a huge test of your steadiness. Shary chose not to take the throne, but managed to make those scheming nobles feel good about her decision.
Neither George nor I have said anything for a minute or so. I’m staring at my wife, whom nobody has called “amazing” in a long time. She’s sitting there wearing a tanktop and absolutely nothing else, and her legs twitch in a way that makes the whole thing even more obscene. Her tanktop has a panoply of stains on it. I realize it’s been a week since Shary has gotten my name right.
“Your wife is an intuitive genius,” George says in my ear after the pause gets too agonizing on his end. “She makes connections that nobody else could make. She’s utterly focused, and processing the game at a much deeper level than a normal brain ever could. It’s not like Shary will be the only sufferer from Rat Catcher’s Yellows at this convention, you know. There will be lots of others.”
I cannot take this. I blurt something, whatever, and hang up on George Henderson. I brace myself for him to call back, but he doesn’t. So I go find my wife some pants.
Shary hasn’t spoken aloud in a couple of weeks now, not even anything about her game. She has less control over her bodily functions and is having “accidents” more often. I’m making her wear diapers. But her realm is massive, thriving, it’s annexed the neighboring Duchys.
When I look over her shoulder, the little cats in their Renaissance Europe outfits are no longer asking her simple questions about how to tax the copper mine — instead, they’re saying things like, “But if the fundamental basis of governance is derived from external symbols of legitimacy, what gives those symbols their power in the first place?”
She doesn’t tap on the screen at all, but still her answer appears somehow, as if through the power of her eyeblinks: “This is why we go on quests.”
According to one of the readouts I see whisk by, Shary has forty-seven knights and assorted nobles out on quests right now, searching for various magical and religious objects as well as for rare minerals — and also, for a possible passage to the West that would allow her trading vessels to avoid sailing past the Isle of Dogs.
She just hunches in her chair, frowning with her mouth while the big cat eyes and tiny nose look playful or fierce, depending on how the light hits them. I’ve started thinking of this as her face.
I drag her away from her chair and make her take a bath, because it’s been a couple days, and while she’s in there (she can still bathe herself, thank goodness) I examine the cat mask. I realize that I have no idea what is coming out of these nose plugs, even though I’ve had to refill the little reservoirs on the sides a couple times from the bottles they sent. Neurotransmitters? Pheromones? Stimulants, that keep her concentrating? I really have no clue. The chemicals don’t smell of anything much.
I open my tablet and search for “divine right of cats,” plus words like “sentience” “becoming self-aware” or “artificial intelligence.” Soon I’m reading message boards in which people geek out about the idea that these cats are just too frickin smart for their own good and that they seem to be drawing something from the people they’re interfacing with. The digital cats are learning a lot, in particular, about politics, and about how human societies function.
On top of which, I find a slew of economics papers — because the cats have been solving problems, inside the various iterations of Greater Felinia, that economists have struggled with in the real world. Issues of scarcity and resource allocation, questions of how to make markets more frictionless. Things I barely grasp the intricacies of, with my doctorate in Art History.
And all of the really mind-blowing breakthroughs in economics have come from cat kingdoms that were being managed by people who were afflicted with Rat Catcher’s Yellows.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Shary is a prodigy, she was always the brilliant one of the two of us. Her nervous energy, her ability to get angry at dead scholars at three in the morning, the random scattering of notecards and papers all over the floor of our tiny grad-student apartment — as if the floor were an extension of her overcharged brain.
It’s been over a week since she’s spoken my name, and meanwhile my emergency sabbatical is running out. And I can’t really afford to blow off teaching, since I’m not tenure-track or anything. I’ll have to hire someone to look after Shary, or get her into day care or a group home. She won’t know the difference between me or someone else looking after her, at this point, anyway.
A couple days after my conversation with George Henderson, I look over Shary’s shoulder, and things jump out at me. All the relationship touchstones that I embedded in the game when I customized it for her are still in there, but they’ve gotten weirdly emphasized by her gameplay, like her cats spend an inordinate amount of time at the Puzzler’s Retreat. But also, she’s added new stuff. Moments I had forgotten are coming up as geological features of her Greater Felinia, hillocks and cliffs.
Shary is reliving all of the time we spent together, through the prism of these cats and their stupid politics. The time we rode bikes across Europe. The time we took up Lindy-hopping and I broke my ankle. The time I cheated on Shary, and thought I got away with it, until now. The necklace she never told me she wanted, that I tracked down for her. It’s all in there, woven throughout this game.
I call back George Henderson. “Okay, fine,” I say without saying hello first. “We’ll go to your convention, tournament, whatever. Just tell us where and when.”
I sort of expected that a lot of people at the “convention” would have RCY after the way George Henderson talked about the disease. But in fact it seems as though every player here has it. Either because you can’t become a power player of Divine Right without the unique mindstate of people with Rat Catcher’s, or because that’s whom they were able to strong-arm into signing up.
“Here” is a tiny convention hotel in Orlando, FL, with fuzzy bulletin boards that mention recent meetings of insurance adjusters and auto parts distributors. We’re a few miles from Disney World, but near us is nothing but strip malls and strip clubs, and one sad-looking Arby’s. We get served Continental Breakfast, clammy individually-wrapped sandwiches, and steamer trays full of stroganoff every day.
The first day, we all mill around for an hour, with me trying to stick close to Shary on her first trip out of New Hampshire in ages. But then George Henderson (a chunky white guy with graying curly hair and an 8-bit t-shirt) stands up at the front of the ballroom and announces that all the players are going into the adjoining ballroom and the “friends and loved ones” will stay in here. We can see our partners and friends through an opening in the temporary wall bisecting the hotel ballroom, but they’re in their own world, sitting at long rows of tables with their catfaces on.
Those of us left in the “friends and family” room are all sorts of people, but the one thing uniting all of us is a pall of weariness. At least half the spouses or friends immediately announce they’re going out shopping or to Disney World. The other half mostly just sit there watching their loved ones play, as if they’re worried someone’s going to get kidnapped.
This half-ballroom has a sickly sweet milk smell, clinging to the ornate cheap carpet and the vinyl walls. I get used to it, and then it hits me again whenever I’ve just stepped outside or gone to the bathroom.
After an hour, I risk wandering over to the “players” room and look over Shary’s shoulder. Queen Arabella is furiously negotiating trade agreements and sending threats of force to the other cat kingdoms that have become her neighbors.
Because all of the realms in this game are called “Greater Felinia” by default, Shary needed to come up with a new name for Arabella’s country. She’s renamed it “Graceland.” I stare at the name, then at Shary, who shows no sign of being aware of my presence.
“I will defend the territorial integrity of Graceland to the last cat,” Shary writes.
Judy is a young graphic designer from Toronto, with long black hair braided in the back and an eager, narrow face. She’s sitting alone in the “friends and loved ones” room, until I ask if I can sit at her little table. Turns out Judy is here with her boyfriend of two years, Stefan, who got infected with Rat Catcher’s Yellows when they’d only been together a year. Stefan is a superstar in the Divine Right community.
“I have this theory that it’s all one compound organism,” says Judy. “The leptospirosis X, the people, the digital cats. Or at least, it’s one system. Sort of like real-life cats that infect their owners with toxoplasmosis gondii, which turns the owners into bigger cat-lovers.”
“Huh.” I stare out through the gap in the ballroom wall, at the rows of people in cat masks, all tapping away on their separate devices, like a soft rain. All genders, all ages, all sizes, wearing tracksuits or business-casual white-collar outfits. The masks bob up and down, almost in unison. Unblinking and wide-eyed, governing machines.
At first, Judy and I just bond over our stories of taking care of someone who barely recognizes us but keeps obsessively nation-building at all hours. But we turn out to have a lot else in common, including an interest in pre-Raphaelite art, and a lot of the same books.
The third day rolls around, and our flight back up to New Hampshire is that afternoon. I watch Shary hunched over her cat head, with Judy’s boyfriend sitting a few seats away, and my heart begins to sink. I imagine bundling Shary out of here, getting her to the airport and onto the plane, and then unpacking her stuff back at the house while she goes right back to her game. Days and days of cat-faced blankness ahead, for ever. This trip has been some kind of turning point for Shary and the others, but for me nothing will have changed.
I’m starting to feel sorry for myself with a whole new intensity, when Judy pokes me. “Hey.” I look up. “We need to stay in touch, you know,” Judy says.
I make a big show of adding her number to my phone, and then without even thinking, say: “Do you want to come stay with us? We have a whole spare bedroom with its own bathroom and stuff.”
Judy doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. She stares at her boyfriend, who’s sitting a few seats away from Shary. She’s taking slow, controlled breaths through closed teeth. Then she slumps a little, in an abortive shrug. “Yes. Yes please. That would be great. Thank you.”
I sit with Judy and watch dozens of people in cat masks, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder without looking at each other. I have a pang of wishing I could just go live in Graceland, a place of which I am already a vassal in every way that matters. But also I feel weirdly proud, and terrified out of my mind. I have no choice but to believe this game matters, the cat politics is important, keeping Lord Hairballington in his place is a vital concern to everyone—or else I will just go straight-up insane.
For a moment, I think Shary looks up from the cat head in her hands, and gives me a wicked smile of recognition, behind her opaque plastic gaze. I feel so much love in that moment, it’s almost unbearable.
illustration by Tara Jacoby