Chapter 10

Chapter 10

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Flora came to just as suddenly as she’d blacked out. The water murmured like a constant lullaby all around her. She was drenched, as before, from head to toe. Then she realized: she was floating downstream on her back; she could see the thin strip of greenish-white sky way above her.

Strange, that the river had become so peaceful, so slow-tempoed. Even stranger? That her surroundings began to brighten.

This could not be. All was over. Flora was dead and imagining things. Maybe she was in heaven. She hoped she was, if there was a heaven; heaven, rather than hell…

A ray of light pierced Flora’s eyes. She floundered to look ahead, instead of up. And what she saw next made her seriously wonder if she’d gone crazy:

In front of her, the sky presented itself in the gap that divided the pit structure in half. In front of her. Not just above her. That sky was outside. Flora was reaching the end of the pit, and from that end had come the piercing light.

“The end.” Such a puzzling, never-considered-before concept, and on top of that, that sky, a blue sky—

—like the ones she’d seen in the cat videos on Firmament. In those videos, in which cats liked to sit on window sills and gaze out no matter what season, what weather, at the snowflakes, raindrops, rainbows, sunshine—in those videos, Flora had seen a sky as lightly, gently blue as this.

Impossible.

Flora moved her limbs in an attempt to swim forward, toward the sky.

She’d never swum before. There was no swimming pool in the pit structure; also, no bathtubs large enough for swimming. But she’d seen some videos of swimmers.

Not of professionals, no; not usually. Watching a line of people obey a single ugly quacking signal, jump into the water in unison, swim to the other side, then back and forth for however many times previously agreed upon, pushing their physical and mental limits—that happened to exhaust Flora immensely. All those hardworking people, now gone. The thought depressed her thoroughly.

But when she was a child, she’d watched some videos of children playing at their local pool for birthday parties and such. From early morning to late afternoon, they played. Oh, how she’d envied them for their privileges.

Sometimes those kids went home before sunset, but not because they wanted to, rather, only because their multicolored neon inflatable pool tubes had deflated and become useless. That was the only reason they ever went home before the sky-blue sky turned into some other color, like orange or purple.

Flora tried to recall the arm and leg movements of those children. Very inconvenient, that she didn’t have a tube. The children’s movements hadn’t really been focused on staying afloat (the tubes took care of that part) or propelling themselves in one direction; they’d wanted to circle round and round to attack their friends with toy water guns.

But Flora managed. She gulped a lot of water, but she wasn’t sinking. The river cooperated. No more slapping her left and right. No more pouring water on top of her.

Eventually, Flora did reach the end of the pit alive and awake.

She turned around, looking back at the utter darkness that she’d left behind. The river continued to carry her, even gentler now that they were outside. “They”—the river and Flora.

If the switch from being inside to being outside had been the only change, Flora would have kept gazing at the immense rock wall that formed the outer shell of the pit: a cliff, split in half.

But another, much more intriguing change required her investigation: that of darkness to light.

With her head firmly held above the surface through continuous kicks, Flora eyed the blue sky and some fluffy clouds that resembled a delicate veil.

And that thing—that blinding thing there, in the sky—was that… the sun?

And this warmth on her face and her limbs whenever they surfaced—was this… warmth from the sun? So unlike any warmth in the pit? Unlike any kind of warmth generated by electricity and the presence of hundreds of thousands of people squeezed into limited space?

To realize that some people had lived their entire lives under this sky and its clouds and its sun; to know that they’d taken it for granted; to imagine what her life would have been like, had she been given the opportunities given to them—such thoughts bewildered Flora greatly.

Shock, bitterness, and jealousy—they didn’t help with her swimming. One could only process so many things at a time, and physical movements required a lot of energy. Overthinking didn’t help.

Neither did the guilt, which soon followed. Strange, very strange, how she felt guilty for feeling shocked, bitter, and jealous; for being the kind of person who felt such emotions when presented with this beautiful, magnificent scenery.

Then came anger. Of course Flora had the right to feel whatever she wanted to feel. She didn’t have to feel guilty about it. That was the one feeling that she definitely didn’t need.

But anger? Yes, anger. Anger was an emotion that made one feel stronger, driven. Anger, at having been robbed of this environment, sounded like a great emotion to stick to.

Because, Flora registered this: how the light and warmth of the sun fostered a strange sense of confidence.

Oh, how angry she was for having been robbed of the natural confidence that the sun used to gift to every organism on the surface of the Earth.

So, of course she felt shocked, bitter, and jealous of those who’d misused that confidence. This light and warmth must have been how the children who’d played in those swimming pools a century ago had ended up dead; they’d carelessly and confidently multiplied and polluted, guaranteeing their own demise…

No. Wrong. Things hadn’t turned out that fair. Those children hadn’t guaranteed their own demise, but that of their children, or their children’s children.

The children in those videos—the robbers—had died, leaving most of the Earth so inhabitable that the survivors had to retreat into the pit.

Radioactivity, Flora had been told. Mercury and lead from mining. Pesticides. Industrial wastewater. Fine dust, killing people with every breath.

But if such dangers were real, how come the sun shone so brightly? And the air was so breezy, so breathable?

This didn’t make sense.

Confusion replacing anger, Flora dared to glance around despite swallowing some water here and there. And she couldn’t have begun to do so at a more opportune moment, for she found the two beings for whom she’d jumped from the height of more than 500 coffin-booths.

“Viktor!” she said—finally, the first and last syllables of his name, together in one word.

She swam toward him.

He glanced up and waved at her. He’d taken off his boots, socks, and his helmet. They were all laid on the unbelievably green grass that surrounded the river banks. Flora hurried toward him while he unzipped his bloated uniform jacket. Water spilled.

Flora panicked. Her long, wet hair suddenly felt a hundred times heavier. That much water inside his jacket, for such a long period of time—what had happened to the kitty?

“Viktor, where is he?” she said.

Viktor didn’t answer; he hadn’t heard, too busy wringing out the jacket, then considering whether he should take off his white T-shirt too.

Flora swam faster. She didn’t see the towel anywhere—the towel that had swaddled the little kitty; the thing that was supposed to protect it.

“Viktor!” she said.

Now he looked up. “He’s fine!”

“He’s— The kitty’s—”

“Look!”

Viktor held up his helmet and tilted it at an angle so that Flora could clearly see: a wet orange fur-ball curled up inside.

Flora laughed out a relieved sigh—she couldn’t decide which one to do first, laughing or sighing. Ever since jumping from the ladder, she hadn’t been able to decide what to think, what to feel. Too much new information overwhelmed her senses and mental processing capacity.

But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except the fact that the kitty was alive. That was what was so glorious about her kitty—that he eliminated all concerns about everything else except for him.

Flora had to get closer to her kitty, to touch him, to smell him, to hear him meow. Right now. Yes, that was what she had to do. Not overthinking. Not feeling guilty.

All those thoughts and emotions, they could be lies. This sky, this grass, they were too unreal for her to trust. And that cliff, with a flatland at the top, split in two with the chasm in the middle and a greenish bulging glass ceiling connecting the two sides—was that really where she’d been born and spent her entire life? The pit structure, looking so much smaller and harmless from this distance?

She had to get to Viktor and the cat. Swimming became easier the further she went downstream because the river expanded, allowing the water to flow at a gentler rate. Also, the water became more transparent as the river became shallower.

Flora could tell: the river didn’t hide anything dangerous. No sharp plastic or metal; no monsters—unless the lack of visible danger was a sign of even more deadly things lurking in the water. See, how paranoid she was becoming?

Modern waste, you couldn’t see with your eyes and didn’t feel with your other senses either; they came quietly, invisible, intangible, and killed you over time. It must be that kind of a waste which surrounded them here, in this misleadingly innocuous-looking meadow and clean river.

Eventually, Flora’s toes reached the ground. She half swam, half waded, until she finally walked out to a spot a bit farther downstream than where Viktor and the kitty were, but close enough.

She wrung out the ends of her T-shirt for two seconds—the amount of time she was willing to give herself for such an unimportant task—and stumbled toward Viktor, who’d sat down on the grass and was gazing into the helmet—at the kitty.

He’d taken off his white T-shirt after all, and spread it out on the dry part of the grass. His skin was as pasty as hers. Both weren’t exactly pale in color (Flora had seen way paler people in the pit before), but rather, looked unhealthy from a shortage of sun exposure up to this point in time in their lives. For Flora, “up to this point in time” was twenty years; for Viktor, it was fifty years or so. No wonder his skin looked even unhealthier than hers.

But Viktor didn’t seem as surprised as Flora. To the contrary—he acted as if he was more relaxed here than inside the pit; as if his home was here, not there.

If Viktor had been outside before, and the sun hadn’t affected his skin in any visible way, could Flora rest assured that the exposure wasn’t going to kill her?

She wanted to believe so. Everything just felt too good to hate. The soft ground beneath her feet sank at her every step. The grass tickled her soles and ankles. The sun felt warm on her skin. Her T-shirt was going to take a while to dry, but most of the water on her bare forearms had already evaporated. A wonderful development of evolution, this thing called the human skin.

She laughed, unsure about herself, because never had her surroundings so actively interacted with her, and never in such a predictably unpredictable way.

A breeze blew; the grass danced erratically; the water on her arms evaporated faster; she felt lighter; she laughed, thereby slowing down slightly; the dirt under her feet sank a tiny bit further; that little extra friction caused her to slow down more; the sun took that chance to warm her and dry her.

Up to that part, Flora could follow the logic, the cause and effect of nature. But after that? No human could keep up with every stimulation, or else that person would go mad.

Total unpredictability. The thought scared her somewhat.

And she suddenly pitied the children who used to play with the tubes in the swimming pool.

Strange, how strange. From shock, bitterness, and jealousy to guilt, then anger, then pity.

And fear.

The delight at being in the land of the unreal—of the things she’d only seen on the screen in her booth—faded and she became aware of the immense scale of everything that was outside of the pit. She couldn’t help but feel small.

In the pit, she’d been one human out of hundreds of thousands. Outside the pit, she was still one human out of hundreds of thousands, but now, one from a cliff which was one out of—how many more cliffs, all across the Earth?

Flora wished her thoughts wouldn’t spin so endlessly. But she couldn’t turn off her mind. She also couldn’t stop the breeze or the sun or the grass or the dirt just to stop thinking about them.

How overwhelmed the children in the swimming pool must have been, all the time. The water, the wind, the sunshine, their voices, their water guns, their parents, the color-changing sky—everything, constantly and endlessly transforming…

Flora felt sick.

Here, without the screen, without Firmament, there was no escape. No editing, no highlights, no featured videos, no organization, no turning off. All she could do was to move forward, toward Viktor and the kitten.

“I didn’t think you’d really jump after me,” said Viktor, once Flora came close enough for a conversation.

“I couldn’t let you take him here without me,” she said simply, and smiled.

Viktor grinned back. Something about jumping in the same river had bonded them.

The kitten, however, was furious. He growled like mad. Thankfully, he didn’t attempt to flee from Viktor and Flora, the two nitwits who’d dared to dump him in water so unceremoniously. He could have fled, across the meadow, into that thick deciduous forest, away from the river. But perhaps the surroundings unsettled the kitten as much as it unsettled Flora, and he wanted to stay with familiar fools rather than no one at all.

“I don’t have a single dry piece of clothing on me,” Viktor said.

“Me neither,” Flora said. (Not that she’d ever had many dry pieces of clothing on her.)

“I figured staying in the sun is better for him until he dries or until we find something to dry him off with,” Viktor said. “A leaf or something. A big one.”

They looked around—Viktor sitting, Flora standing.

“That forest, then?” Flora said.

“Yeah. Maybe. Except, I don’t know what’s in there. Maybe there are animals there.”

“Animals? Cats?”

“Cats, or other animals. I didn’t see any from up there, but now I’m here and the forest looks much bigger than what it looked like from there.”

“Up there?”

“Yeah,” said Viktor absentmindedly. “So different, every single place, every time…”

Flora frowned. This was no time for generic talk. The kitty, based on Flora’s extensive study on his species, was at risk of catching a cold. She wanted to skip over the slow part of the conversation and move on.

“Maybe one of us should stay with him here while the other checks out the forest,” she said. “I’ll go, if you want to stay. And I’ll test what the trees there do.”

“What do you mean?” Viktor said.

“I mean, everything outside of the pit is supposed to be toxic, isn’t it? So, before using any leaves to dry him or feed him or whatever, I’ll test them on myself. Assuming that there aren’t human-specific or cat-specific toxins, that’ll save him from the worst of the poisonous plants.”

“I doubt that anything here is toxic. At least not from industrial waste.”

Now it was Flora’s turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I doubt anything around here has been toxic for a long time.”

Now, that was a topic that Flora couldn’t skip over.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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