If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way. -- Mark Twain
The Factory was vast. An empire of steel and concrete with a dynasty of shafts and valves, a quagmire of gears and pipes, a sprawling shadowed country of grey and black. It seemed alive, a gargantuan beast of iron and smoke. Sparks rose with the smoke from impossibly tall stacks. They flew upwards into the night sky as though they dreamed of becoming stars, only to drown in the thick grey smog. It was like some kind of storybook demon. And Rex stood before it like a pup.
He smoked nervously in its shadow, squinting up through the gloom while he waited for someone to buzz him in. His tail began to quiver. He needed a drink. It had been a long drive down from the city, and now that he was here, all he wanted to do was leave. He needed to find a bar and get good and drunk. This whole job felt wrong from the get go. And what exactly was he delivering anyway? And why was he delivering it to the back gate? He shook his head. "None of your business, Rex ol' boy, you're just the delivery dog, and cat business ain't none of your damn business," he said.
Eventually, the light turned from red to green, and the cogs that shifted the huge cast iron gate began to clank and grind. Rex sighed and flicked his cigarette into the fog. He got back into his truck and turned the key. The old engine coughed and sputtered to life.
A thickly muscled security dog waited for him in the court yard. He backed Rex into the loading bay, signaling him with severe and authoritarian gestures.
"It's some kind fog we got tonight, eh mister?" said Rex.
The other dog was an Alsatian, a breed not exactly known for friendliness. "Sure is," he said as he read through the manifest.
"This place is open late, huh?" asked Rex.
"24 hour factory," said the Alsatian, still scanning the page.
"You don't say? And what exactly is it they do in there?"
"Don't know, don't care. That's cat business. I just work logistics." He thrust the clipboard and pen at Rex and said, "Sign this."
Rex signed it, and the two dogs unloaded the boxes in silence. Amid the grunts and heaving sighs of exertion, Rex pricked his ears. He thought he could hear something inside the boxes. Rex stared hard at the Alsatian, but the other dog would not look at him. When they had finished unloading the Alsatian nodded curtly and said, "Good dog."
"Good dog," replied Rex. He turned to leave, already thinking about where to get his first drink. He needed a stiff one. Rex turned his back to the black nightmare of a factory and dug his paws into his pockets; he fished out another cigarette, his paws shaking slightly as he lit up. "Easy, Rex old boy, easy." He walked to his truck feeling guilty and not knowing why. His tail hung limp between his legs, and thunder rolled low in the distance, the grim herald of cruel and unusual deeds.
The box was dark and hot, and it smelled of his own excrement. Toby curled himself next to the singular air hole and struggled to breathe. He meowed again for his mother.
Toby had always been afraid of the dark, but what frightened him the more was the look on his mother's face when she took the big cat's money. He could see her face floating in the darkness whenever he closed his eyes. Toby wondered how taking the money could have hurt her so much. She always used to talk about how poor they were, how she couldn't afford to feed them, how she owed everyone so much. The money should have made her happy, but she looked so sad when the big cat tossed the dirty bill fold in her lap.
The memory dissolved as the box jerked forward, slamming Toby's head against his damp cardboard prison. The truck had stopped. He could hear talking. It sounded like they were speaking dog. "Don't know, don't care. That's cat business," barked the voice. There was more moving, more sounds.
"What's happening? Oh, mother! Where are you, mother?" Toby began to cry and cry and cry until, exhausted, he fell into fitful sleep and nightmares. He dreamt of his mother, only instead of eyes, two balled up wads of filthy money were stuffed into her bloody sockets.
Toby woke, his face wet with tears, to find a large brown cat standing over him. He was a ridiculous-looking cat dressed in a purple silk suit and a black tweed hat with a jaunty pheasant feather in it. Both his paws rested on a cane with a dog's head carved in marble at the handle. A cigarette rested gracefully in a thin black holder, and a monocle was squished between the cheek and brow of his left eye. Toby blinked tears from his eyes, unconvinced of the strange apparition's corporeality.
"Oh, come now, my boy, don't cry. Plenty of time for that later," said the strange cat, extending a paw.
"Name's Tom Cat, round here everyone calls me Tom Cat."
Toby stood and shook the cat's paw timidly. He looked around. It was a big warehouse full of large metal containers. It looked to be some sort of loading bay.
"I like to meet all our new arrivals face to face. I find it's important in an operation of this size not to lose sight of the feline aspect of the business." Tom Cat offered what seemed to be a warm smile, but it wasn't quite right. It was a little too wide, and the mirth seemed to stop at the curve of his lips, his eyes remaining flat, dull, lifeless globes of blue ice.
Toby shuddered. It was the most unsettling smile he had ever seen. "Where am I, sir?"
Tom Cat's twisted caricature of levity seemed to swell until it almost enveloped his whole face. Toby had to struggle to not to flinch away from it.
"Well, would you look at that, the kid just called me ‘sir'. We don't get many strays with manners these days."
"I'm not a stray," said Toby, leaving out the sir this time.
"Oh? Oh yes, that's right. You're from that city litter we purchased. Yes, yes, I remember now. Well that's all to the good, son. Cats with good family background can achieve much higher productivity than most of the mangy strays we get through here. Yes. Well, it's nice to meet you, Toby. I can see a promising future for you here at Cat Incorporated. Yes, very promising indeed. I'll be keeping an eye on you. Now why don't you be a good chap and follow Mr Moggy over there. He'll show how things work around here." Tom Cat nodded to a mangy street cat standing behind him.
Mr Moggy stepped forward and took Toby by the hand. "Come along little ‘un. Let's get you settled in, shall we." His voice was all gravel and grate, and Toby had to concentrate to make out the words.
Mr Moggy led Toby out of the loading bay and onto the factory floor. The first thing Toby noticed was the huge golden metal vats and the chaos of pipes, valves, and interconnections. The factory floor was loud and cold and grey and dull, but the glowing golden vats loomed over them like the pagan idols of old, and they seemed at once both beautiful and profane in their lustrous candescence. Extractor fans whirred tirelessly, sucking out excess steam and smoke. Metal cogs ground noisily as they turned. Engines could be heard chugging, huge and unseen, and Toby walked through it all with his eyes wide.
Eventually they arrived at a trap door in the ground. Moggy unlocked it to reveal a narrow metal stair case that twisted and turned down into the darkness below. "Go on then," said Mr Moggy.
Toby stopped at the first step. "I want to go home," he said.
Mr Moggy gave him a firm a shove and said, "Go on then, let's not make this any harder than it needs be."
Unable to summon the courage required for defiance, Toby began to descend. He stopped to see Mr Moggy drag shut the trapdoor. Then came the awful sound of a dead bolt being slammed home. Locks locked. Fates sealed.
As they went deeper, the sounds and smells from the factory began to fade, and, for a while, the only sound was the jingle of Mr Moggy's keys and their own heavy breathing.
They went deeper. Toby began to notice new smells, new sounds. The air grew stale, grew foul. He could taste the rancid stink in the back of his throat, and he began to cry. Mr Moggy slapped him on the back of the head and said, "Not yet."
Toby bit down on his fear and swallowed back his tears. But the crying did not cease. Toby thought it could have been his echo, but as they got deeper the crying grew louder. The sound of a cat crying -- no, not just one, it was a whole chorus of misery, a veritable cacophony of sorrow. Toby wanted to ask where they were going, but he was afraid of the answer. Down, down, down they went, into the very bowels of the earth, all the while the crying getting louder and louder. They reached the base of the stairs and Moggy unlocked a rusting metal door with his big bunch of jangling keys.
"Welcome to the pit," croaked Moggy.
Toby squinted into the half-light of a shadowy room. A sparse scattering of flickering kerosene lanterns hung from the ceiling and cast dancing shadows all about. Toby could make out dim figures huddled against the walls. There were chains everywhere, and strange-looking timber apparatus. The crying was a perpetual bawl of hurt without end, and already Toby could feel it beginning to undermine his sanity. He looked at Moggy, who unhooked a gnarled baton from the wall, and picked up a large plastic beaker from a separate shelf.
"Now listen here," Moggy said. "I'm only gonna say this once. This here, this is your beaker. You put it against your face like this, and you collect every single tear that falls from your face. The faster you fill that beaker the faster we can get you home, understand?" Mr Moggy handed the beaker to Toby. It looked oversized in his small paws. He looked into its vast emptiness. Then he looked back to Mr Moggy.
"Where is my mother?"
Mr Moggy stood a while. Toby could almost see the mechanism of his mind struggling to work. Eventually he said, "Your mother is waiting upstairs in the factory. She wants you to cry to show how much you miss her. When you have filled this beaker with tears, she will understand that you love her, and she will come to you. If you have trouble crying, I can help you with that."
Toby looked at the baton Moggy held casually by his side. "I don't need any hel—"
The first blow hit him on the fleshy part of his arm, and the shock of pain brought tears to his face.
"Into the beaker, Toby" said Mr Moggy calmly. "Get ‘em all into the beaker, there's a good lad."
Toby held the beaker to his cheek and watched the first drop roll slowly down the side of the empty beaker to settle in a tiny pool at the bottom.
After that the blows fell like rain, and so did Toby's tears. Moggy struck without malice or cruelty, but was no less effective for the cool indifference with which he applied himself to his work.
_Toby had lost track of the days. He had almost lost track of himself. The beaker was half full now. He was curled in a ball in a damp corner of the pit. Misery surrounded him like a noxious gas. It was thick in the very air, and with every breath he took it in.
There were strange devices spread out all over the pit. Some with cats strapped and chained into them in unnatural positions. Strange-looking tools hung on hooks on every wall, things with barbs, and things with needles, sharp things and blunt things, terrible things all. Everywhere there was crying, everywhere tears fell into beakers. Toby looked again into his own beaker, his reflection shimmering and distorted. The beaker was half full, but the tears wouldn't come any more.
Mr Moggy came and whipped him for a while, but even then the tears did not come. So he strapped him to one of the oddly shaped tables. Toby had seen him do to the others, so he knew what was coming. Mr Moggy turned the large valve and Toby's restrains began to tighten. Toby could hear himself screaming. Could hear himself begging, and by the time Mr Moggy had loosened the valve, the tears had started to flow again.
A few days later, Toby had filled his beaker up to the three quarter mark, but the tears had stopped again. Only this time, no amount of torture could bring them back. His suffering was no longer a surprise. He no longer had anything with which to compare his suffering. He was filled with a blank sensation. There was a dullness in him now. An emptiness. Toby's own thoughts seemed alien to him. He tried to remember his life before the pit. He tried to remember anything that was not the pit. He tried to picture his mother's face. He lay curled around his beaker in the foetal position waiting to die, and this is how Tom Cat found him.
"Hello, Toby. Mr Moggy tells me you've done very well. I see your beaker is nearly full. That's very good, Toby, very good indeed. Most of our strays don't even fill to half way before they give up the ghost, but you have done very well. Come along, Toby, it is time to see your mother."
Toby sat in a clean, brightly lit room. He had been washed and fed and had begun to feel alive again. In front of him was a large window with a similar room on the other side. Toby held his beaker carefully on his lap.
Tom Cat placed a hand on his shoulder. "Toby, my boy, I have great hopes for you. I think you can really go places here in Cat Inc. So I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Now pay attention, this is particularly relevant to your situation. Life, Toby. There exist in life two sides to everything. It is the philosophy of dualism, the principle of binary opposition. Have you heard of it?"
Toby just stared at him, his mouth agape.
"Light and darkness, Toby. Yin and yang. Good and evil. None of these can exist independent of the other, Toby. Joy would be a pointless sentiment without sorrow. And what is pleasure, without pain to compare it to? All of these things are irrefutably connected. And we need them both, Toby. In order to function correctly we need both sides of the coin. Hope, Toby...Hope is a beautiful thing, but it is also the mother of despair. How can something so beautiful give birth to something so foul? It is one of life's most troubling contradictions, no?"
Toby said nothing. He kept his eyes down, staring into the beaker of his own tears.
"Alright, Mr Moggy. You can bring her in now," said Tom Cat.
Toby looked up and saw them leading his mother to a chair in the other room. Her eyes wide and wet with regret, her fur was mangy with patches of skin showing through in places. Toby leapt up, almost spilling some of the precious liquid from his beaker. He pressed his paw against the glass. "Mother! Mother help me! You've got to get me out of here, you've got to take me home!"
Toby could see she was fighting back her own tears. "Oh, Toby, I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry, Toby."
Toby studied her face. She appeared to him much reduced, shrunken and aged. Toby wondered how long he had been away. How long does it take to fill a beaker with your own tears?
Toby watched his mother try to hold back her own tears, but they came anyway. She held up a beaker to her face. How many tears can they possibly need? Why are they doing this? Toby searched in vain for an explanation in the anguished face of his mother.
She was crying, and she was trying to talk, but all she could manage to say was, "Toby. Oh, Toby." And then she was overcome by another wave of weeping, all the while carefully angling her tears into her beaker. Toby noticed that his mother was producing a large amount of tears, he noticed that her beaker was filling quickly, and this filled him with a queer sense of pride.
She managed to calm herself, he could see her grit her teeth as though steeling herself, and then she began again. "Toby, I just wanted to tell you that É that É No! I won't do it!" She stood up off her chair and made to leave. Before Toby could tell what was happening, the other room went dark. He could see nothing. He could hear nothing. He looked at Tom Cat. "What's happening? Where is she?"
Tom Cat smiled his broken smile at him. "It appears your mother failed to grasp the significance of her role here. We are just taking a moment to É re-educate her on the matter. She will return briefly, I'm quite sure."
Toby waited. He pressed his ear against the dark window. He could hear nothing. Time passed. Tom Cat whistled a toneless tune and twirled his cane. Eventually the light in the other room flickered on. His mother sat there in the chair.
But she was not crying anymore. Her eyes were dry, and instead of sadness and despair there was something else, something worse. Something cold, and grey, and dead. And Toby wished she was crying, because he knew then that Tom Cat was right. Tears are born of hope, born of love. But there were no tears. No despair. There was only nothing. A blank empty stare. There was only death in her eyes when she started to speak again.
"Toby. I don't love you, Toby. I never have. I never will. I don't want to see you anymore. Do you hear me? I never want to see you. Nobody wants you Toby. Nobody loves you. Not now, not ever. You're nothing, Toby, you hear me? You're nothing," and there was no pain in her voice, there was no anger, there was only the dead grey sludge of resignation and insanity, and it was more than Toby could bear to see her like that.
Toby felt a nudge at his shoulder. Tom Cat was holding out his beaker, and Toby realised that he was crying again. Toby took the beaker and held it to his face like he'd done a thousand times before, and the beaker began to fill. The light in the other room went off. His mother was swallowed by the darkness. It was the last time Toby would ever see her. And Toby cried, and cried, and cried until his beaker was full, until his tears began to spill over the side and fall pointlessly to the ground.
Tom Cat took the full beaker from Toby's trembling hands and said, "Moggy, get this lad another beaker. Quickly now."
_They kept Toby in the pit for a long time after that, but he never shed another tear. Tom Cat had assigned him to be Mr Moggy's official assistant. His duties were to clean, and to fetch, and to feed the other younger cats who were still producing. Toby didn't mind. He had no strong feelings one way or the other. Indeed, it was as though someone had burned all the feeling from his soul. He ate and slept and worked and that's all there was to it. His life was made up of the same grey sludge he had seen in his mother's eyes. It was a nothing life.
One day, while Toby was mopping up the vomit of a new arrival, Mr Moggy dropped to the floor. He was working a new recruit over with his cane, in his usual disinterested manner, when he fell over. He was dead. Just like that.
Toby stopped to look at him for a while. He stood blinking at his still form, trying to formulate what it might mean. Then the room started to go crazy. They started to bellow, and scream, and struggle against their bonds. "Toby! Toby! His key, fetch his key! Let's get out of here!" they screamed with eyes bulging, spittle flying, desperate and lost. He had lived with some of these cats for years, but he could not name a single one of them. To him they all looked alike, just anguished faces in the flickering half-light of the pit. Toby cocked his head and looked at them askance. He stood like that for a long time, waiting for some emotion to give him direction. No emotion was forthcoming.
Toby ignored them.
Escape was as alien a concept as freedom, so he dropped his mop and made his way up the dark spiral staircase. The screams of the others followed him up, they begged him to release them. Toby felt nothing. He was empty, numb.
He slid the dead bolt open and pushed the trapdoor aside. He blinked and squinted against the shining brilliance of the giant golden vats.
The air stank of smoke, and metal, and industry. He wandered around for a while, lost in a fog of memory. How long had it been?
He wandered aimlessly until one of the workers stopped him. A cat he didn't recognise in a white coat shouted at him from the catwalk above. "You there! What's going on? Where is Mr Moggy?"
"He's dead," said Toby. "He's dead."
The cat in the white coat thought about this for a while, and then he said, "Alright. Just wait here. I'll be back."
Tom Cat arrived a short moment later, iridescent in his purple suit, smoking his elegant cigarettes and swinging his charming cane. "Toby, so good to see you. You're looking well, my boy."
Toby just stared at him.
Tom Cat took a long pull on his cigarette and looked again at Toby. It was a calculated weighing of value, an assessment of some kind. Tom Cat was searching for something; he looked deep into Toby's eyes, scanning those swirling pools of darkness for the spark that no longer lived there. Maybe it was this darkness he was looking for, because he smiled his unnatural and malformed smile and said, "Walk with me, Toby. I think it's about time you and I had a little talk about the good work we do here at this facility, I think it's fair to say I owe you some answers."
Toby fell in step with Tom Cat as he wound his way around the huge golden vats. He stopped next to one and knocked it with his cane. "What do you think I keep in these here vats, Toby?"
"Tears," said Toby with a flat certainty.
Tom Cat smiled. "Very good, boy. Very good indeed. And why do you suppose I collect these tears at such great expense to you, and of course, to myself?"
Toby's mind drew a blank, and all he could think of was that gruff dog's voice he had heard in the dark piss-smelling box on his very first night away from his mother. "Cat business."
Tom Cat laughed. But it was a mechanical sound, forced and disfigured, like the best guess of a lunatic. Like his smile, it seemed a learned behaviour. "Smart kitty," said Tom Cat. "Cat business. I couldn't have said it better myself. And cat business is big business. But it wasn't always the case, Toby. No sir, it was not. Time was the dogs used to run things, and before them it was the humans. You remember humans? Course not. No one does anymore. They say, that the humans used to keep us as pets, can you imagine?" Tom Cat chuckled but again it was not a jovial sound but an alien affectation that was at odds with the nature of the cat that had produced it.
"Yes, first humans, and then it was the dogs turn to control us, to own us. And they nearly wiped us out with their dim instinctive hatred of us. Times were hard for cats. Very hard." Tom Cat paused to suck on his cigarette thoughtfully. He exhaled a thick cloud of smoke into the stale factory air.
"Now I'm not gonna try and make myself out to be some kind of hero, the money is a factor of course. This industry is big business. The biggest in fact. But it's more than that, Toby. It has to be more than that. Money is a great thing, it gives us cats the power, the respect, and the comfort we deserve, but it doesn't justify what we do here. I couldn't, in all good conscience, farm the tears of my own kind just for money. No, it's a little more serious than that. This industry is, in fact, the lynchpin of our whole society. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the bad old days when this all started.
"The dogs had us at their mercy. We were little better than slaves. We were their servants, their cleaners, their cooks, their builders, their mechanics. If it was a dirty job, it was done by a cat. Why? Because they had the muscle. It was as simple as that. It has always been as simple as that. And if you were lucky, and if you were smart, they would make you a scientist. They used cats for the heavy thinking as well as the heavy lifting. One such scientist -- a distant relative of mine actually, his name was Dr Felix -- was instrumental in usurping the dogs' position and reversing the social order." Tom Cat stopped to replace the burnt out cigarette in his elegant holder with a fresh one.
"Now you're probably wondering what has this got to do with the fact that I've been torturing you for nearly three years now? A reasonable question, dear Toby."
Toby hadn't said anything. He was just standing there, his mouth hanging open, listlessly staring into the lifeless eyes of Tom Cat as he continued his monologue.
"You see, Felix was an excellent scientist, one of our very best minds. And what do you think the dogs set him to? Brewing their dog-grog. An insult to such a mind, but the cat nation was accustomed to swallowing such insults. So Felix made beer. And damn fine beer it was, too. The dogs loved the stuff, quaffed it by the barrel.
"But Dr Felix was a cat of science and he was always looking for an answer to the great dog problem. Felix brewed beer by day and experimented with unstable chemical solutions to the dog problem at night.
"Oh yes, the dogs were having their wretched way with us, alright. And this, in a way, was the catalyst of their downfall.
"You see, Dr Felix had a niece, a pretty young thing who worked as a maid at the mayor's house. Her name was Mia, I think. The mayor at the time was a dog named Bacchus. He was one of those big lumbering, drooling types with the perpetually sad eyes.
"Anyway, as I have said, Felix's niece had the misfortune of being a particularly attractive specimen, and as I'm sure you're aware, interbreeding was still highly taboo, but for some this was just part of its appeal. That is how those poor cogs came into being. A more wretched sub-race I cannot begin to imagine. But I digress. You probably have never even seen a cog have you, young Toby?"
Toby said nothing, he just blinked at Tom Cat and waited for him to continue. And for a while there was no sound but the whirring of extractor fans and the clanking of the distillery pipes. Tom Cat was staring at Toby again, weighing his worth, like a farmer looking through a barrel of apples trying to see how far the rot had spread. Toby started to sense that a response was needed, and guessed correctly that if he didn't answer, he would never know the truth. So he opened his mouth and forced out the words. "Why do you need the tears?"
Satisfied, Tom Cat began to twirl his cane again and continued to amble forward at his leisurely gait.
"So, where was I? Ah yes, the unfortunate beauty of the maid Mia. So this big beastly drooling oaf took a liking to Mia. He took her almost twice daily, if accounts are to be believed. Anyway, such misery was common place under the reign of dogs."
They got to the foot of another metal staircase, only this time they were going up. "Where are we going?" asked Toby.
"So Mia one day confides to her beloved uncle, the great scientist Felix," said Tom Cat. "She tells the old cat all about the big slobbering mayor's brutal perversions. She told him how he would lap up the tears from her face when he had finished with her. She told him that she sometimes thought it was her tears he really lusted after, and that the sex was only a means to an end. And she was right. I suppose she should receive equal credit for the discovery, but alas, history has a way of forgetting our most tragic queens." Tom Cat shook his head, and the muscles on his face moved to express regret where none existed.
"It was Felix who combined cat tears with alcohol. After Mia had broken his heart with her story, he began to investigate, and he found that it was not just an isolated aberration born of a particularly nasty sexual deviation. Once Felix started to research the matter he found that dogs were licking the misery from cats' eyes all across the country. He had found what he was looking for. He had his hook.
"Felix set into to motion a plan that would eventually topple the Dogist regime and cast the dog population into a spiral of depressive alcoholism.
"He tried to synthesise the tears at first of course, he even tried to chemically induce his subjects to cry, but the dogs were not fooled. The scent of suffering is not something that can be replicated in a laboratory.
"So it was that the first commercial tears were collected. He did it through a secret network, and back in those days there were plenty of tears to go around. He developed a new drink, calling it his ‘special brew'. He explained to his dog masters that it was incredibly expensive to produce, and therefore attracted only the wealthiest of customers. In a few short years Felix had the ruling class by the tail. They granted him favours and bribes for just one more taste of his special brew.
"It wasn't long before the first cat was elected into government, and after that É well. We had to increase production. The dog masses needed their medicine. And thus began the rise of the cat. But as you can well testify, our ascension to power is not without cost. Not without great and terrible cost." They reached the top of the stairway and Tom Cat leaned on his cane to rest.
Toby blinked blankly at Tom Cat. The explanation was no explanation at all. He felt as lost and as empty as he had the day Tom Cat laid eyes upon him.
The two cats stood on an observation platform and looked down at the vast expanse of metal, machinery, and misery below. "There are thousands of factories just like this one all across the country, Toby. We employ hundreds of cats in each factory, and all our staff start from the ground up." Tom Cat looked at Toby to see if he grasped the significance of this statement.
Toby was still blank, still mute, still empty. Tom Cat continued anyway.
"We hand pick all our workers from the pit, once they have dried up that is." Tom Cat Swung his cane in a wide all-encompassing arc. "Some cats count this as a price too great. They say we have won the battle and lost the war. But these are young cats, cats who know nothing of the old Dogist regime."
Toby said nothing. He had nothing to say. He just blinked, still waiting for an answer, for a reason, waiting for something to make sense.
"You probably think I'm insane. And that's a fair assumption. Am I mad? Well, I must admit it does seem likely considering...all of this. I grew up in the pit, Toby. Did you know that? Yes, insanity is quite probable when you think about it. But my madness changes nothing. Come along, Toby, let us have a frank discussion about your future."
Tom Cat walked along the observation platform until he came to his office. Inside it, a big glass window before a marble desk gave Tom Cat a birds-eye view of everything that went on. "Have a seat, Toby." Tom Cat gestured to a plush leather recliner. "Thirsty?"
Toby perched uncertainly on the edge of the chair. "Thirsty? Yes I am thirsty," said Toby, who was used to being thirsty.
Tom Cat pushed a button on his desk and the back wall of his office began to slowly rotate. Manacled to the wall on the other side was a wide-eyed puppy. Not much bigger than Toby had been when he was taken. Tom Cat held a small glass up to the puppy's face and grabbed hold of his ear. Then he twisted and pulled it savagely. The puppy yelped, and whimpered, and screamed, and tears began to fall from his little puppy dog eyes. Tom Cat collected them carefully into his glass. He handed the glass to Toby and pressed the button again. The wall and the whimpering puppy began to revolve once more until all Toby could see was the polished wooden panelling of the back office.
"Drink it down, son. You'll feel better immediately. I guarantee it," said Tom Cat.
Toby looked down at the clear liquid in the glass, and still, he felt nothing. He had nothing left to feel. He brought the glass to his lips and knocked it back. A salty warmth ran down his throat, filling him with anger, and grief, and regret, and a deep need for more, and for an instant he felt control, he felt his heart beating again.
"I want to leave this place," said Toby.
Tom Cat smiled. "Does the trick, doesn't it? Nothing like some fresh tears to get you feeling like your old self. Now, you'll never recover fully, you'll always be a little off. But given time you can learn certain idiosyncrasies designed to mimic actual personality, and of course the occasional shot of dog tears will help too, but Toby, you've got to realise; nobody ever truly recovers from the things you've been through. What we have been through. I'm afraid you wouldn't be much good out in the real world. You wouldn't last a week. I'm afraid you've become quite thoroughly insane, Toby. But I can teach you enough normality to function here. Enough to deal with our suppliers and our shareholders and so on."
Toby looked out the big glass window at all the golden vats, the factory reflection distorted in its shining metallic surface. "What do I do?" asked Toby, who was beginning to feel blank again.
"Why, the answer is obvious isn't it? You come to work for me, my boy. We need a new pit supervisor. Poor old Moggy was just too old in the end. I would have promoted him to management years ago -- he was, after all, very good at his job, and he deserved to advance -- but he never did quite get the hang of pretending to be normal. In the end he didn't even drink the tears. You see, he couldn't quite swallow his insanity. Not like you my dear, Toby. I see in you a great potential."
Toby tried to process this, but all he could think of was getting another glass of warm tears. He looked at the button on the desk.
Tom Cat followed his gaze. "Yes, take the job and you will get your fair share of tears, Toby, just know that these tears you drink cannot replace the ones you've given us. Nothing can."
Toby thought again, the gears in his head grinding slowly as though moving in some dense liquid. "Why not someone normal? Why me?"
Tom Cat shook his head. "Oh, Toby, my dear Toby. Who else would do the job we do? Only someone raised in the pit can work the pit. It has been thus for years and years. We tried to employ outsiders, but they couldn't handle it. Depression, mental illness, sometimes even suicide. The guilt is too much for them. We cats are highly sensitive creatures; we are nothing if not products of our environments."
Toby looked at the button on the table again.
Tom Cat smiled. "Looks like you've got a taste for it, my boy. You'll do just fine in your new role. How about one more drink to seal the deal? Hmm?"
Toby looked at Tom Cat. He looked at the button. He thought about his mother. He thought about Mr Moggy. He thought about all the other cats locked in the pit. He thought about all the things Tom Cat had told him. Then he said --
A few miles down the road, Rex sucked down another beer like it was oxygen. His vision was blurred, his head was numb, he felt no pain. He slumped over on the bar drooling. The bardog walked around the counter, grabbed Rex by the scruff and dragged him outside. Rex struggled and cursed and raged uselessly. "I'm fine," he growled as the bardog tossed him in the gutter. The bardog stood over him with his arms folded and shook his head sadly. Another dog lost to the demon drink. "I'm fucking fine you bastard!" spat Rex.
This was a nightly occurrence and the bardog felt nothing but pity for him. "Even the best of us fall, Rex. There's no shame in it. But we are truly lost if we don't even know we've fallen. Go home, dog. Go home."
Rex looked as though he was about to respond, but he vomited instead. He coughed and sputtered and vomited some more. Then he sobbed a little and said almost in a whisper, "I'm fine."
The Factory is vast. An empire of steel and concrete with a dynasty of shafts and valves, a quagmire of gears and pipes, a sprawling shadowed country of grey and black. It seems alive, a gargantuan beast of iron and smoke that feeds on innocence with an unending appetite. Sparks rise with smoke from impossibly tall stacks. They fly upwards as though they dream of becoming stars, only to drown in thick grey smog.
And inside it a small cat is waking from a nightmare to find a ridiculous-looking cat in a purple silk suit standing over him. A cigarette rests gracefully in a thin black holder, and a monocle is squished between the cheek and brow of his left eye. And the strange cat smiles a smile that isn't quite a smile and says, "Oh, come now, my boy, don't cry. There will be plenty of time for that later. My name's Toby, round here everyone calls me Toby."
Sean Tanner lives in the south of Ireland with his girlfriend and no cats. He is a jukebox operator who loves short fiction, living by the sea, and trying to stay sober. You can follow him on twitter @SeanMTanner
© Sean Tanner 2014