Chapter 11

Chapter 11

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Despite the warm sunshine, the brilliantly blue sky, and the soft, welcoming grass under her feet, Flora felt a sudden chill.

“What do you mean, you ‘doubt anything around here has been toxic for a long time’?” she said.

“I mean just that,” said Viktor, still in that oddly calm, absentminded state. “Maybe it was toxic before, many a hundred years ago. But I think we haven’t lived in a toxic environment for a long while now.”

Viktor wasn’t looking at Flora. He patted the base of the angry orange kitty’s drenched tail. At this, the kitty begrudgingly stopped growling madly, perfected his curled-up position in Viktor’s helmet, then groomed himself. Fortunately, the hard black helmet hadn’t absorbed water. Any liquid that hung to its surface was evaporating quickly, alleviating Flora’s concern for the kitten’s health.

But Flora couldn’t understand what Viktor meant. Perhaps the trip down the river had made him go crazy, just like it had shaken Flora to the core. Perhaps he’d cycled through shock, bitterness, jealousy, guilt, anger, then pity and fear, just like Flora, when faced with the seeming beauty and magnificence of the nature outside of the pit. He was confused. Taking off his wet T-shirt and suddenly exposing such a great surface area of his skin to this much sunlight had definitely been a mistake. That must be why he’d said what he’d said.

Because, otherwise, Flora couldn’t explain:

“Why are we living in the pit, then?”

Viktor looked up at that question. “To keep everything outside of the pit from becoming toxic. To keep it as is. That’s my guess.”

Flora almost wished that she was still gulping down river water, because the sudden sourness in her mouth tasted too harsh. The hair on her arms stood on ends.

“Do all pitkeepers know about this?” she asked. “That the environment outside of the pit isn’t toxic?”

“No. Definitely not. All the monitors say the toxin levels are high. Firmament isn’t just an algorithm for videos, it’s an algorithm that governs everything in the pit. The air conditioning, the water filtering, the ration plan adjusting, all of that. And never in the past hundred years has Firmament registered clean air or water outside of the pit. We rely on it completely, so no other pitkeepers know about this. But just look at this.” Viktor looked around. “How is this toxic?”

“So you’re saying, Firmament is broken?”

“No. My guess is that it’s tricking us. It’s making us think that the outside is unsafe, while entertaining us with the videos to keep our complaints to a minimum.”

“Then how did you find out about the outside?” Flora asked. “Why are you… How are you so calm?”

“Because I was going to die before I found out,” Viktor said.

“Now, what is that supposed to mean?”

Flora knew she sounded angry. Maybe she was, from confusion.

Viktor sighed. “Why don’t you sit down?”

Flora sat down, mainly to make Viktor spill whatever secrets he had to spill, not because she approved of his keeping the wonder of the outside world secret from the rest of the pit residents.

He gazed down at the orange tabby in his helmet and spoke as he scratched the middle of the cat’s forehead:

“My guess is that half of what we’ve been told is true, and half isn’t. Or, everything we’ve been told has been true, but isn’t so anymore.

“The part that was true is that everyone died, except for us in the pit. Otherwise, the total lack of outside contact makes no sense. No airplane, no radio signal. Also, no records of airplanes or radio signals for the past century. Believe me, I’ve looked. It was one of the reasons I became a pitkeeper, to understand what was going on. Do you know how you become a pitkeeper?”

“No,” Flora said, “not exactly, I don’t think.”

“But you know that we aren’t allowed to have children?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know how you become a pitkeeper: through the vow that you won’t have children. That promise to leave more space for everyone earns you the right to patrol others. I didn’t mind that. I still don’t mind that. For countless millennia, people who took up special roles in society have vowed to never have children. Men and women of religion. Philosopher-rulers. I think it was Plato who talked about them. I don’t know if they really existed, the philosopher-rulers. But they were supposed to be people who never got to have children, never their own family life, to avoid corruption…

“But I don’t think that even if I hadn’t become a pitkeeper, I’d ever have had children. Not in the pit, no. And I see a lot of people thinking the same way—the people who aren’t pitkeepers, I mean. Being a pitkeeper is just a convenient way to avoid questions. Can you believe it, that in there, in that pit, people still ask other people why they don’t have children? Some couples have seven children! Then they wonder why there is never enough space—space in that obviously limited environment inside the pit.”

Viktor shook his head. He didn’t sound angry or frustrated. Not one bit. He’d been angry and frustrated in times past, maybe. But not anymore. His expression was blank—completely absorbed in the kinds of ruminations that had kept him awake at night for decades. He could repeat these thoughts in his dream, and whenever he repeated them, he found himself in a dreamlike state—as he was here, now, in the sunshine-filled meadow.

“You deal with both kinds,” Viktor said, “the ones who never see a future and the ones who are blind, therefore always think they see a future, even though there isn’t one—and it makes you wonder: what the hell. I mean, what the hell, Flora.” Viktor didn’t look at Flora as he said so. “What the hell are we doing, in that pit? When was it going to end, the patrolling, the staring at the screens instead of anything real, the repetition? And if it ever ended, wasn’t it just going to repeat once more some thousand years later?

“Because, people forget, Flora, people forget. I mean, before this, people talked about moving to the moon, to Mars, to whatever planets, to fill it with more people, more stuff, and— Gosh, I just thought too much, you know? That’s always been my problem. Always thinking too much.”

Flora recalled Viktor’s hurt look on the day when she’d first met him. Specifically, when Flora had said that she didn’t own anything except her mattress, he’d cringed, if memory served her correctly.

In that moment, he’d probably extrapolated on that one clue—Flora’s lack of belongings—and imagined a dozen things: that her mother didn’t care much about her; that she’d never learned what it meant to own something; that she might have been a different kid in a different world; that being a different kid who is used to a million belongings wasn’t a good thing either; then what was good, what should he want? Etc, etc…

“I wanted to die,” Viktor said. “The surest way to want to die is to wonder how to live, to question the things that keep the rest of the society together. I’d wondered too much, and there were no answers.

“I wanted to die and I didn’t want any of the pit people to find my body. I wasn’t worried about them eating me, no. Actually, if they’d thought of doing something so practical and driven with an already dead person, I would have been too surprised to mind. Not that anyone can be surprised after his death, ha! But you see what I mean.

“What I was afraid of was that they’d find my body and ignore the fact that I’d killed myself—turn my suicide into an accident. Like the bunch of people who supposedly died of food poisoning recently.”

Flora remembered Josephine mentioning them.

“They didn’t die of food poisoning?” she asked.

“No, they committed suicide,” Viktor said. “The whole bunch of them. It’s impossible to be the only group to die of food poisoning from canned food that everyone else is eating too. They probably ingested stuff way worse than bad food. Who knows what. Detergent. Lead of some kind. I don’t know. Maybe they ate the can. We didn’t investigate. There are too many people and too few of us. There have been many cases like that one.

“I wanted to die and didn’t want anyone to find my body. So I thought of the river. It flows away from the pit to somewhere, though I didn’t know where.

“I hoped that the unfiltered river water had enough poison in it. But just in case it didn’t, I had to jump from someplace extremely high; crash when I hit the surface, or when I hit the river bottom, or at least, increase the likelihood of drowning. Then the river could take my body away. Then the pitkeepers would wonder where I went, but never find me. I guess they still could have made up some bullshit story about me, that I’d fallen by accident, but there’d be no body. That thought made me grin—that imaginary scene of them wondering just where I went, when there was no anywhere else outside of the pit that they knew of.

“So I climbed up to the 1,200th floor, which is the topmost floor and more than 600 floors higher than where I usually patrol. You know that. I patrol the floors and columns close to your booth, 598-PPPPW.”

Flora nodded.

“I climbed, and people didn’t question me, seeing me in my pitkeeper’s uniform. I took occasional breaks, which I found funny; a man trying to die, needing to take breaks. But you’d never imagine how much energy it takes to die.

“I climbed on my off day, so that I could take plenty of breaks and no one would look for me for a while. Within that day, I reached the top floor.

“From there, I looked down at the river. It was almost impossible to tell that there was a river at all; you can’t really hear it from there. When you walk along the walkways there, you hear more of the Firmament videos from each of the booths than anything echoing in the pit.

“And when I looked up, there was the ceiling. It was the first time I’d ever been that close to the ceiling, and I could tell how thick it was. I could hear nothing of the outside world, if there was much that could be called a ‘world’ outside at all. The seal that attaches the ceiling to the top of the cliff is so thick. At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything penetrating it. No air, no rain, not a single dust particle.

“Before that day, multiple times, I’d gazed up at that ceiling, trying to see if an airplane flew past, or a bird. I never saw one. So I didn’t question what I’d been taught since childhood: we put ourselves in the pit—we, my people, my ancestors, that is—and we, as a group, as an average, deserve to be there, isolated from the world that we used to be allowed to live in.

“Content with a false sense of control given by Firmament. Content with fakeness. Content with memories of others. Content with the ability to sympathize, imagine, put oneself in another’s shoes instead of ever using the ability to live one’s own life in one’s own shoes.

“I felt sickened all the time, disgusted all the time. How was it that people didn’t ask questions? How was it that they could trust anything on Firmament to be real? How could they so easily succumb to the imagined pleasures that their brain so readily interpreted as real, even though in the real reality, they sat in a booth not big enough to allow them to stand?

“I was ready to die, to put them behind, to put myself behind, me who felt sickened by other people’s methods of coping with reality, because, let’s face it, all I could offer was ‘Let’s question things together,’ and no answers at all. Can’t blame anyone for not sharing my sentiments.

“After examining the ceiling and confirming that my despair had some validity, I hung from the ladder, ready to launch myself from it, so that I’d fall straight into the river instead of smashing into one of the lower floors. I’d imagined doing so countless times, which is how I told you how to do it, though today was the first time I’ve actually done it.

“Because, on that day, when I’d initially planned on jumping from the ladder, I looked up at the sky, or should I say, the ceiling, for one last time.

“And there I saw…

“A cat.”

A moment of silence.

“A cat,” Flora said.

“A cat,” Viktor said again. “Do you know how wide the chasm is, on the top floor at column PPPPW?”

“No.”

“It’s at least as wide as two booths.”

So, more than fifteen feet.

“And the ceiling covers the entire gap between the two sides of the pit,” Viktor said, “and out of the blue, I saw a cat crossing it. Completely randomly, just like that, as if that was the most natural thing to do, it stepped on the glass the way cats do, softly and soundlessly, and then disappeared to the other side.”

“Was it him?” asked Flora, nodding toward the orange tabby who’d closed his eyes, dozing off, warm and cozy in the sunlight.

“No. It was a grown adult cat.”

“His Mommy or Daddy?”

“Maybe. It was grayish, but I wonder if that’s how all color looks under the ceiling. I mean, the sky doesn’t look blue from the pit, does it?”

Viktor looked around. Flora did the same. He was right. She’d never known the meaning of “sky-blue” until she’d been carried outside of the pit by the river.

“I saw that cat,” Viktor said, “and do you know what else I saw? When I squinted, when I examined really closely, at a certain angle, I could see cracks.”

“Cracks in the ceiling?” said Flora.

Viktor nodded solemnly.

Flora felt yet another chill. “But I thought the ceiling was, was…”

What had she thought? That the ceiling was going to last forever?

Even diamonds could be cut. Nothing lasted forever.

Viktor shook his head. “It wasn’t indestructible,” he said. “And the strangest thing happened. Its lack of indestructibility made me laugh! Once again, I was disgusted by how twisted a person I was. But nevertheless, from then on, my desire wasn’t to go down; it was to go up.

“There wasn’t supposed to be any living creature outside. We were supposed to have killed them all, except for some moss and mushroom. So where had the cat come from?

“And that ceiling, which was to protect us from the toxic outside world, it was going to break. Perhaps I didn’t have to kill myself after all! Perhaps I could wait for the day of our demise—then I could celebrate, for being able to mourn the end of humanity, together with the others.

“I climbed back onto the walkway instead of jumping from the ladder. And this time, I traveled horizontally, from PPPPW to ZZZZZ. As close to that point there as possible.”

Viktor pointed at the cliff. Atop it was the flatland, only interrupted by the arch shape of the greenish glass ceiling.

“You might have noticed that the booths end way before that cliff ends,” Viktor said.

Flora nodded.

“After I reached column ZZZZZ, I had to climb along the cliff wall,” Viktor said.

Flora gasped. “How?”

“I just did. For a time I worried that someone from the other side of the pit might notice me, but I soon realized that it was a pointless worry. Nobody cared about what happened outside. Unless, I guess, there’s as much noise as we made today.

“Anyway, I climbed laterally, and it wasn’t as dark up there on the 1200th floor as it was dark at the bottom of the pit, so that was good. I climbed for quite some time. I figured, ‘Well, I was planning on jumping from this height anyway. Makes no sense to be scared of this height now.’ And that ‘anyway’ part, oddly, pushed me to keep going.

“Isn’t it strange, that the thought of death kept me going? I found it strange.

“So I climbed, with only the ceiling accompanying me, and the river, of course. Almost soundlessly, it flowed. But I knew it flowed.

“Then eventually, I saw a brighter light, unfiltered by the ceiling, and a gap in front of me, not just above me. There it was, the end of the pit.”

“I can’t believe you climbed that entire stretch,” Flora said. “With what, did you have some kind of climbing gear?”

“Nothing. Just me and my trusty boots. And the ceiling, and light shining through it, and the river. They were there. So, I guess I wasn’t alone after all.”

“Unbelievable.”

Viktor smiled. “Believe, or don’t believe. But it is what happened. I climbed out, around the edge of the cliff, and from there, climbed up.

“I didn’t want to look around, if I could avoid it. The height just seemed so much more real in daylight than in the dark. I kept my eyes on the ceiling. It was the first time I’d seen it at my eye level instead of looking up at it from underneath.”

“I bet it was the first time anyone from the pit saw the ceiling at eye level,” said Flora.

Viktor chuckled. “Maybe. Anyway, after reaching the flatland atop that cliff, I lay there for a while, eyes shut, drenched in sweat. I was exhausted and the sun was setting. It is very beautiful, when the sun sets up there. I’m sure it’ll be beautiful from here too.

“Anyway, I collected my breath, not thinking about the mystery cat for a while, because you can only think about cats and such when you aren’t so out of breath. That applies to everyone, even a man who was about to kill himself.”

Flora agreed and nodded.

“I think I slept for ages,” Viktor said. “It must have been at least three hours, possibly five, or a day. Or two days. I’d meant to get up when the sun was done setting, but the oddest thing happened: the sun wouldn’t set.”

Flora shivered. “Time froze?”

Like in her booth. She recalled the rescue of the kitty, going to Josephine’s booth, returning to her booth, sleeping so deeply that it’d felt like a full day, and in the meantime, the towel drying—while outside, only one hour had passed.

“Exactly. Time had frozen, or at least, slowed down,” Viktor said. “It took me a long time to accept that, but it had. There was no other explanation. I felt hungry, but I had slept soundly. I felt rested like never before. Even after I woke up, the sun refused to set. Then I remembered that I’d climbed to find a cat—not to sleep, and not to ponder about the nature of time.

“So I got up and searched for the cat. Up there, there are some shrubs and small trees with leaves, but not much grass. It’s not like here.

“I looked around, at the shrubs and trees. The sun finally began to set. My stomach was grumbling, and it would have been worse, had I not been so fascinated.

“With nightfall, my surroundings quieted down, even the wind. But there are creatures that mostly come out at night. Nocturnal animals. Crepuscular ones. Cats in the wild have that tendency. I knew that. So I kept looking around, slowly treading on the shrubby ground, and then—

“I heard some faint meowing. Not just one meow, but multiple. Dozens.

“Soon enough, I saw eyes glimmering in the near-darkness. The sun had set and the moon was up, a crescent moon.

“And oh, so many eyes! You wouldn’t believe it, Flora. There is a whole herd of them. Dozens. Maybe hundreds, though I’ve only met dozens.”

“Of cats?” Flora said in disbelief. “Dozens and hundreds of cats?”

Viktor nodded. “They’ve been there for a while. I am sure of it, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many generations of them. There are babies, as small as him”—Viktor nodded toward the orange tabby—“and even smaller ones, too. They’re curious little things, sniffing around the ventilation ducts. I ended up staying in the flatland for days—very much prolonged days, but clearly marked by the rising and setting of the sun. I observed many of them. Their reckless, baby-animal curiosity. That must have been how he fell through the duct. And there are very old cats there, too, and cats in the wild do live a decade or so, no? I’m not sure.”

“Unbelievable.”

“Indeed.”

“What are they eating?”

“There are lizards up there. And very small mice.”

“But since when? For how long?”

“I don’t know exactly. Especially with the odd time bending that happened. Because, you know how much time had passed in the pit when I returned?”

“No.”

“A single day. No one noticed that I’d been absent for days. I’d only taken my one day off, as usual. That was it.”

“How is that possible?” Flora asked.

Viktor shrugged.

“Have you returned ever since?”

“No. I wasn’t sure that I’d really experienced what I thought I experienced. And I didn’t feel the need anymore. I didn’t want to die. I knew a secret. And I thought that one day, I’d have to do something with the secret. Today was that day. When I heard about what happened in your booth, I knew immediately: it must be a kitten that had fallen through the duct.”

Flora stared at her bare toes, which had by now dried completely in the sunlight.

“What do we do now?” she said.

Viktor looked at the kitten. “I think he’ll be hungry soon…”

His eyes wandered from Flora to the river. His jaw dropped. She followed his gaze. Her jaw dropped, too, in half puzzlement and half laughter.

A series of orange and yellow detergent bottles were floating down the river, all the way from the cliff, and Flora knew only one person who owned that many detergent bottles.

© 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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