By Michael Cains.
Charles didn’t know if the cat hated the cleaning robot first, or the other way around. The battle seemed to gradually start, developing into a no-holds barred war lasting until the inevitable end.
Joeline and he got them both the same day. A few months later she moved out to live with Toby, leaving him with an ultra-modern unit he didn’t like, in a suburb he detested, with an expensive mortgage. And a black and white cat with one blue and one green eye. She called him Patches, but Charles called him ‘the cat.’ He didn’t like him much and except for mealtimes the feeling was mutual. Pretty much.
The iZumba cleaning robot was one of the many gadgets Charles made an excuse to buy, probably one of the many reasons why Joeline left him. Her technical needs were easily served by an iPhone, and her Tesla.
‘A robot vacuum cleaner will save us heaps of time. Keep these glossy floors spotless.’
It did. Fastidiously. Charles immediately connected it to the house WiFi and went about programming the disk-shaped device when it was slotted into its charging station where it deposited sucked-up refuse. Joeline started a similar process with the cat and his dirt-box, minus the WiFi.
At first Toby used to sit atop the robot’s charging station. ‘I guess they love each other,’ Joeline cooed. That was before the real war began. Not the one with Joeline. She just moved out when she found someone better.
‘Goodbye Charles. Goodbye Patches,’ was all she said. At least the cat got a tickle under its chin.
Patches initial fascination with the iZumba quickly degenerated into a rabid hatred. A kitten that loved chasing ping-pong balls took on the device the first time it emerged from its station on its programmed mission. That was before it started to program itself.
Charles used to watch the little kitten bravely stalking a robot twice its size. Crouching, swishing tail, eyes like saucers. Charles only heard the first engagement – a feline wail, then frantic scrambling on those polished floorboards as the cat ran under the bed to hide. iZumba just kept cleaning the hall, paying special attention to the front doormat. He giggled as the cat peered around the doorway, fleeing back to hide as the robot pivoted.
He thought it was a fear the cat would overcome as it grew as big as the robot, but it got worse. All it would take was the small ‘bing’ and the faint whirring as iZumba emerged from its station to commence cleaning, and the cat would vacate the room, hiding under furniture it couldn’t yet jump onto. The robot definitely had the upper hand when the cat was small, but as it grew it became more athletic and smarter. And just as evil.
The cat worked out the cleaning robot’s obsession – dirt, dust and mess. What started with shovelling kitty litter out of the dirtbox just as the robot entered to clean, developed into experimentation with a range of other items. It would clutter the floor with objects removed from tables and benches. Charles only discovered them when he emptied the robot’s station. Then there were the clothes the cat dragged to force the robot to go around. Smaller items it could move aside with its small flexible arm after assessing the size with its unblinking yellow eye. Liquids prevented little problem as the robot had been designed to mop up spills, even excrement, squirting water from its nozzles.
IZumba was too heavy to move or overturn. The metal arm prevented the cat sitting on top, but the cat worked out its vision limitations and would charge from behind pushing it off its line, compelling a repeat of the cleaning. Then it learned to push things in front of it, or drop them from tables and benchtops. After finding glass shards in the waste, Charles learnt tidiness for the first time, putting things away when he remembered. He would come home to find heavier objects lined up in doorways, designed to prevent the iZumba’s access. The cat dragged shoes, boxes, and books into position, but the robot got better at dragging them aside to complete its tasks, thwarting the cat. It also got good at squirting water directly into the cat’s face.
Charles watched this with detachment, still missing Joeline, and wondering why he had kept the animal. He got used to the nuisance of it moving stuff, and mounted a small security camera in the kitchen dining area so he could check what was happening when he wasn’t home. The entertaining battle hadn’t become deadly. Yet.
He had programmed the iZumba not to work after dark so was surprised to hear it whirring around the lounge one night after he had gone to bed late. He heard the cat jump off the bedroom chair where it usually slept, to investigate. Then nothing. He couldn’t sleep, waiting for the cat to cry out as it usually did when the robot used its arm or a squirt to defend itself, or to provoke. Eventually he padded into the large loungeroom, half lit from streetlights outside the window with its open blinds. He walked straight into a standoff.
The cat was lying on the large smoked glass coffee table, peering down at the robot. Both were immobile with eyes glowering in semi-darkness, waiting for other’s first move. The cat had its back legs braced against the heavy metal pot that lived on the table, usually filled with homeless junk. Eventually the iZumba moved first, cleaning underneath the couch, then returning alongside the coffee table. Wrong move. The cat’s timing was perfect, kicking the pot to land squarely on top of the robot with a resounding metallic clang and roll noisily across the floor. The iZumba’s gears protested as it ground to a halt. The cat gloated down in triumph. The robot stared back unblinking before wobbling off to its docking station.
‘Lights on!’ Charles called, and the room’s LEDs instantly responded. The cat bolted out and Charles followed the struggling robot limping to its home. He spent the rest of the night repairing the damaged wheels on the complex device, using all of his engineering skills. He put it back to recharge, scoffed down breakfast, and ran to catch his rideshare. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
It wasn’t around when he got home late that night, unusual with the lure of food. The iZumba was in its station, green light blinking, not shut down. Also unusual. He found the cat crouching in the bath where it looked like it had been hiding a while. It was shaking and ran away meowing when he tried to pick it up. He flicked on his laptop to see if there was any explaining video captured, and watched what looked like an involved pursuit taking place with the cat being relentlessly trailed by the robot. He saw it jump up onto the kitchen bench, and the device waiting motionless below. Green light flashing. Watching. After an hour of this the cat became bored and jumped down. iZumba launched into life and sped straight at it, metallic arm with claw extended in its direction.
The cat yowled and sped down the hallway to the bedroom, probably onto the bed, its usual safe space. iZumba followed purposefully. Charles never worked out what had happened as the camera oddly stopped recording. He fed the cat which was looking decidedly worse for wear with patches of fur missing.
The next day he came home to see the cat’s revenge. Somehow it had overturned a small table and pushed it against the bedroom doorway while the robot was inside. It couldn’t get out, shutting itself down when it had finished cleaning. Its light was flashing an angry red indicating it needed charging soon. Charles thought it was quivering.
‘Two – one. I think you’re ahead on points cat.’ It stared at him, unflinching.
A week later he got home early, calling out for the cat. No sign. He wandered around all the usual places in the big unit. Still no sign. He checked his dirtbox in the laundry. It was empty, completely cleaned out, except for the stains of a year’s use. No kitty-litter. No cat.
He watched the iZumba vacuuming the floor in the kitchen. It stopped briefly, its unblinking eye fixed on him, then continued. Nothing on the laptop from the camera – the WiFi had mysteriously been turned off again. He looked inside the robot’s refuse station. It was full to the brim with dirt, and kitty litter. And the cat’s collar.
Charles never did find the cat, but never really missed him. The iZumba kept doing its job reliably and meticulously. Sometimes Charles would look at it busily working to see it stop and flash its pale yellow eye in his direction, watching him intently.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael escaped regular employment two years ago, and when not renovating or travelling anywhere with his wife in their Avan campervan, he writes. He never really stopped this since school, receiving frowns for his creative responses to staid organisational communication before finding a niche as a part-time motorsport journalist for fifteen years. He leans towards Speculative Fiction, but will try anything, rediscovering a latent love of poetry and short stories. A novel or three are in progress.