by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Dragon’s Hoard, June 2015
The cardboard box, labeled Yay! PlayCube! on its sides, was more than big enough to hold Cooper, the blonde, curly-furred Labradoodle. Yet, somehow, Shreddy knew better than to hope that the Red-Haired Woman had brought in such a large, sinister box for any reason as comforting as to haul the annoying Labradoodle away.
All three of the Red-Haired Woman’s pets — Shreddy the tabby, Cooper the Labradoodle, and Susie the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel — watched as she sliced through the tape on the edges of the box and unfolded the top flap to open it.
The Red-Haired Woman drew out a strange bundle of white plastic cords and a big cube. The two dogs wagged their tails happily, excited to see what their brilliant master had brought home to make their lives more magical. Shreddy twitched his tail too, but, in the language of his feline body, that twitch meant anxiety. Unlike the dogs, he didn’t think the Red-Haired Woman was a brilliant sorceress who conjured strange sounds from her smartphone and warm food from the kitchen out of nothing.
Shreddy loved the Red-Haired Woman, but he knew about technology. It could be wonderful. It could also be dangerous. Either way, the Red-Haired Woman seemed to have different ideas from him about how to use it. He’d warred with her over technology before.
So it was with trepidation in his whiskers and schemes in his heart that Shreddy watched the Red-Haired Woman set up the white plastic cube beside the TV and hook it up with twisting, twining white cords. By the time she was done, the cords clung to the base of her TV like an octopus trying to strangle a diver.
Shreddy had seen ViewTube videos on the Red-Haired Woman’s smartphone of octopi and their tentacle-happy ways. Nothing good could come from a piece of electronics that looked so much like one of those creepy monsters of the deep.
Shreddy lashed his tail angrily against the carpet as he watched the Red-Haired Woman take the knobby end of one of the weird white tentacle-cords in her hand. She pressed a button on the PlayCube, and the TV screen sprang to life with a flourish of music and flashy colors unlike any of the safe, wholesome videos that it usually played. The Red-Haired Woman withdrew across the room to her couch, where the two dumb dogs eagerly jumped up, mauling her as they settled onto the cushions on either side of her.
For the rest of the evening, Shreddy watched in horror as his Red-Haired Woman stared slack-jawed and zombiefied at the TV screen. She clutched the tentacle-cord’s knob in one-hand, and she idly stroked Susie, curled against her side, with the other. All the while, techno-beats and synth-pop chords screeched from the TV speakers, assailing Shreddy’s sensitive, feline ears, and an animated dragon danced on the TV screen.
Night after night, the demonic PlayCube with its animated dragon summoned Shreddy’s Red-Haired Woman to it. Hour after hour, Shreddy watched her life being sucked away. After a full week of the intolerable situation, Shreddy had seen more than enough. The PlayCube was more than a video game system — it was a portal into a parallel dimension. An evil dimension. It had to go. And Shreddy felt that Cooper should be the one to do it.
Until the PlayCube, Cooper was the worst thing the Red-Haired Woman had ever brought home. If Cooper had been a brighter dog, Shreddy might have considered him his arch-nemesis. As it was, Shreddy had to settle for considering Cooper a bumbling idiot and reserving arch-nemesis status for the crazy Calico who lived across the way.
Shreddy made his pitch to the curly-blonde Labradoodle to no avail. Cooper remembered the time that Shreddy had convinced him to bury the Red-Haired Woman’s smartphone in the garden. That had not gone well.
“You’re just angry,” Cooper said, “because you don’t know how to turn it on.” He knew that Shreddy liked to play the games on the Red-Haired Woman’s computer, whenever she left it running.
“The PlayCube is different,” Shreddy spat through his whiskers. “It’s evil.”
“I like it,” Susie commented, flouncing into the room with her curly ears flopping. She turned up her speckled nose at Shreddy and said, “When the master plays it, she lets me sit on the couch and snuggle with her.”
Incited into immediate action by Susie’s infuriating demeanor, Shreddy lowered himself to the carpet, raised his haunches and began to wiggle them in preparation for a terribly dangerous front-on pounce at the offending electronics. Before he could launch himself at the PlayCube, however, he was bowled over and thoroughly woofed at by Susie.
“I told you! I like it!” she barked.
Utterly surprised by the force of Susie’s conviction, Shreddy escaped to the top shelf of the corner bookcase and began licking his paw diffidently.
Never mind. He could wait. Susie couldn’t defend the PlayCube all the time.
* * *
The Red-Haired-Woman took the dogs to the dog park the next day.
Shreddy knew better than to attack the PlayCube directly with his teeth — he’d learned the hard way not to chew on electric cords. But he’d seen the Red-Haired-Woman drop her smartphone in a banana-honey sandwich she was making once. The smartphone had been covered in sticky, gold honey, and she freaked out over whether it was destroyed. (It wasn’t, but the Red-Haired-Woman didn’t make sandwiches one-handed while playing games on her smartphone anymore.)
Shreddy could only assume that honey had magical powers to disable electronic devices. He could well believe it. The bees that lived in the garden were mysterious, mesmerizing creatures. Their buzzing held music and danger. A golden elixir drawn from a hive such as theirs must be powerful stuff.
If Shreddy could coat the PlayCube in honey, it would be safe to chew the dread thing to death.
The Red-Haired Woman kept the honey in a cupboard over the kitchen sink. Shreddy had learned how to open that cupboard long ago when she’d made the mistake of storing catnip there. Now she stored catnip in the refrigerator.
Shreddy perched on the edge of the sink, reached up to open the cupboard, and then jumped inside. He found the honey bear and clasped it with his jaw, teeth piercing its plastic belly. He shuddered at the shock of sweetness that oozed onto his tongue.
The honey bear was awkward and heavy for his jaw, but Shreddy held it tight in his mouth as he jumped down from the cupboard, trotted through the kitchen, and returned to the electronically haunted living room. He placed the honey bear on top of the PlayCube, and then he truly ripped into it, gnawing and clawing until it was a shredded, tattered, sticky wreck.
Honey dripped down the sides of the PlayCube.
Shreddy gave the honey a moment to work its magic. Then he set into the cords with a vengeance, gnawing down hard with his back teeth. His tail lashed. His eyes dilated with the satisfying joy of feeling his teeth sink right through the plastic coating of the cords and into the thin metal wires inside.
He didn’t notice that he’d set his back foot on the power button until he felt the unmistakable ZAP of electricity in his mouth.
Shreddy jumped back, his paws tangled in the cords, and clonked his head on the hard plastic of the knobby controller.
A buzzing in his ears joined the tingling that lingered in his mouth. Shreddy opened his eyes; he didn’t remember shutting them.
Although it was midday, the living room and the windows that looked outside had gone dark as night. Shreddy could still see with his cat’s eyes, but he knew that something was very, very wrong. He looked up, and where the rectangular TV screen had been, there was a swirling vortex — black and purple, roiling like storm clouds, sparking with electricity. Nothing could have impelled Shreddy to enter that vortex, not willingly.
He wouldn’t have done it to save the Red-Haired Woman’s soul. He wouldn’t have done it to save his own skin.
Yet, the twining white cords tightened around Shreddy. He struggled, but like an octopus dragging a diver into the deep, the white cords dragged Shreddy, spitting and hissing, into the vortex.
Wind battered Shreddy as he entered the swirling clouds. His ears popped, and his fur stood on end — not from fear but from static electricity. Then the wind died, and the air stood still.
The white cords dropped Shreddy on hard dirt, untwined from him, and withdrew back through the vortex that was now behind him.
Shreddy looked around the dark chamber that he found himself in. From this side, he could see his empty living room through the purple-swirling vortex. Other vortexes looked out on other rooms that he recognized from looking through the windows of other houses in the neighborhood — other houses with PlayCubes.
Shreddy considered jumping back through the vortex to the relative safety of his own living room, but his curiosity got the better of him. If the portal had carried him into a parallel dimension, how could he not explore it?
Cautiously, Shreddy crept away from the array of portals, keeping so low to the hard ground that his stripy belly dragged in the dirt.
Auto-tuned laughter echoed through the cavern, and bursts of colorful light bounced off of the rocky walls. A spotlight shone in a perfect circle on Shreddy, throwing his cowering body into sharp relief.
“You can’t hide, Cat.” It was the voice of the animated dragon from the Red-Haired Woman’s game on the PlayCube. “You’re in my realm now.”
Shreddy’s fur fluffed.
“What do you want, Cat?”
Shreddy pressed his body against the ground, but he couldn’t will himself to melt into the dirt. He looked up at the dragon.
Emerald wings, ruby eyes, and belly scales that shimmered like mother of pearl. The dragon had been hidden in the shadows, but now dancing spotlights glittered off of her Technicolor body. She looked magnificent, but she was nothing more than a lowly leech, draining the life away from all the PlayCube players in the neighborhood.
“Leech,” Shreddy murmured under his whiskers.
“What was that?” the dragon bellowed, her voice climbing to an unreasonable auto-tuned pitch.
“You’re a leech,” Shreddy said. “You’ve been draining my human’s life away. And I want it back.”
The dragon chuckled, her mother-of-pearl belly swelling with the laughter. “Brave cat,” she said.
Shreddy didn’t feel brave, only right.
“I can’t give your human’s life back. I need it for my hoard.” The dragon swung her giant tail, covered in cobalt spikes, to gesture at a pile of gold coins heaped against the cavern’s far wall. “Go, look at them.”
Shreddy didn’t move.
“Go!” the dragon roared. “Look at how beautiful my gold coins are!”
Terrified, Shreddy scurried across the cavern to the pile of coins. Shivering in terror, he stammered at the giant dragon watching his every move, “Yes, they’re… very shiny.” She seemed mollified.
The dragon reached one of her talons down and daintily grabbed a single coin between two of her silver claws. “This one belongs to your human.”
Shreddy saw a number inscribed on the coin — 23. He looked back at the pile of coins and saw that they all had different numbers. “What does the number mean?”
“The more life that a human gives me, the higher the number. Also, the more valuable.” The dragon sneered, showing her topaz teeth, and tossed the Red-Haired Woman’s coin back on the pile. “Twenty-three isn’t very good. Your human is pathetic.”
“If it’s not valuable, then let me take it.”
“Valuable or not, it’s mine!” The tone of the dragon’s voice jumped all over, not restraining itself to a single octave. Tendrils of smoke escaped her nostrils. She shifted her emerald wings. Then she said, “However, I will dance you for it.”
Confused, Shreddy asked, “Dance me for it?”
“You’ve watched me dance! I’ve seen you!” the dragon shouted. “Don’t play dumb, Cat.”
Shreddy hadn’t paid much attention to the rules of the PlayCube game. He did remember the dragon dancing though. She looked ridiculous.
“Cats don’t dance,” he said.
“Do cats squish if you step on them?”
Shreddy considered his options. They mostly involved twining tentacle-cords and stomping dragon feet. “All right. I’ll dance.”
A distortion-heavy metal-rock bossa nova song rang through the cavern, drilling its way into Shreddy’s spine.
The dragon swayed her tail, shuffled her talons, and flapped her wings — seemingly to three different beats. The air around her exploded in fireworks. She pirouetted looking more like a child’s top than a ballerina. Yet flowers and a banner reading, “OUTSTANDING!”, fell from the dark ceiling of the cavern.
Shreddy tried to sway to the beat, but all he managed was an irritable tail-twitch.
The dragon pirouetted again, and two more banners fell for her.
Shreddy turned in a few circles, pretending for his dignity that he was settling down for a nap rather than dancing, but nothing fell from the ceiling for him.
The song ended in a hideous blare of brass.
A rainbow arched over the dragon, and her auto-tuned laughter filled the cavern. “I won, Cat. Play again?”
“What was that?” she roared. “You want me to find out whether cats burn if I breathe fire on them?”
Shreddy danced again. And again. By the fifth contest, he’d worked himself up to shifting his weight from one paw to the other and swishing his tail. By the fifteenth, he raised himself to standing on his back paws and did a little jig, earning himself a banner that read, “NICE!”
By the twentieth contest, Shreddy realized that the dragon was sucking his life away just like the Red-Haired Woman’s. He would dance in this torture chamber until he died. He’d never sleep on the Red-Haired Woman’s bed again, feel her idle caress in the early morning, or sit on her lap. He was doomed to be an animated, dancing fool, two-dimensional on her TV screen.
Shreddy couldn’t take it anymore. Let the dragon burn him, squash him, or strangle him with white tentacle cords. Anything was better than this.
Shreddy ran for the portal home to his living room.
The music stopped.
In a small, high voice, the dragon said, “Don’t you want to save your game?”
“God no!” Shreddy yowled, ready to leap into the swirling portal.
“Are you sure?” The dragon sounded so sad.
Shreddy twisted one ear to the side, intrigued. “I’m sure,” he said. “Delete my game.”
The dragon sighed, steam rising from her nostrils. Then she lumbered over to her pile of gold coins, lifted a single coin, and flipped it into the air. It twirled, arcing through the cavern and plopped into a well of lava on the far side.
Shreddy blinked in surprise. “Delete all games,” he said.
“No!” the dragon wailed, her voice tripping up and down a dozen octaves. Yet, she picked up another coin.
* * *
The tentacle cords lay as lifeless as calamari on the living room floor. Shreddy napped smugly on the couch.
Cooper and Susie came tearing in with as much energy as if they hadn’t spent the afternoon playing fetch and chase at the dog park. Susie jumped onto the couch, crowding into Shreddy’s space. The Red-Haired Woman followed her, grabbing the knobby PlayCube controller off the floor on her way.
“Ew,” she said. “Why is this sticky?”
Cooper slobbered the honey off of the PlayCube, despite the Red-Haired Woman’s protests. She cleaned the honey off of the controller with a tissue. Then she tried to start her game.
“What the hell? Level one? I was on level twenty-three!” She pulled her smartphone out of her pocket, touched the screen, and then held it to her ear. “Hey, Tony, are you having trouble with Dance, Dance, Dragon?”
Shreddy heard the voice in the phone say, “I emailed customer support. They said it was an irrecoverable server crash. A complete wipe of the system. Everyone’s saved games were lost.”
“I know. Want to play Space Blazer Online?”
Shreddy’s ears perked up. He loved watching the tiny spaceships fly around the Red-Haired Woman’s computer screen when she played Space Blazer Online. And the best part was there was no room for Susie or Cooper on her desk chair.
But there was plenty of room in her lap for a brave, dragon-defying cat.