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The orange tabby protested more loudly and incessantly as Flora ran faster and the shaking of his helmet nest in her arms became wilder.
“Please stop meowing, please,” Flora whispered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Viktor whispered from behind her. “We just have to reach that forest before they see us, then we’re good, we’re good.”
Viktor meant the deep dark forest about five hundred paces in front of them. As far as they could see, that forest was the only hiding place available. Aside from it, the landscape that flanked the river consisted solely of a never-ending meadow—green grass after green grass, as flat as terrains got.
Not counting the cliff with the pit, that was. That would have been a nice hiding place, given its many layers, residents, and substantial size. But getting closer to the cliff was out of the question; that cliff and the people coming from it were who Viktor and Flora wanted to run from.
The hollers behind Flora, Viktor, and the kitty grew louder. But Flora could tell: the voices still echoed, meaning that they originated from inside the pit, not outside. If those pursuers were coming by boat, they were probably struggling in the high-speed torrent despite the vrooming motors; possibly crashing into the rocky walls—possibly sinking.
“Come on, come on,” Viktor hissed, hurrying Flora from behind her.
“I know, I know,” she said.
“Where are they?” a young man shouted from the river.
Viktor and Flora gasped.
No one had responded to the man’s question, but that man’s voice, it had sounded crisp and clear. And the motor vrooming had amplified without the echoes. That meant that at least that one man had managed to leave the cliff chasm with the boat, with enough composure to ask “Where are they?”
Viktor and Flora accelerated toward the forest while glancing back.
But once Flora spotted the young man—a uniformed pitkeeper in an orange lifeboat with several other people—she sighed in relief. She turned away from the river and fully concentrated on getting to the forest.
“Good,” Viktor said, equally relieved once he saw the man, “they’re going to take a while.”
Because, none of those people in the lifeboat had answered the man because most of them were too busy looking around. No doubt, the same confusion that had overwhelmed Flora overwhelmed them now. Those who sat quietly did so from shock, not deliberate intent. That gave Flora and Viktor time to hide.
Quickly, the two jumped into the forest.
“Ouch!” Flora said.
“What?” Viktor said, alarmed.
“Shoes, I tell you. Shoes.”
Little broken twigs and dry leaves filled the forest floor, pricking Flora’s soles. But neither she nor Viktor slowed down. In fact, Viktor sped up, running ahead of her. He rummaged through the bushes in search of a place large enough to hide them both. When such a space didn’t present itself quickly enough, he held apart the bushes around a smaller spot.
“Hide here,” he said.
“I’ll find another spot. You hide with the cat.”
Voices approached—male and female, multiples of them.
“They’re coming,” Viktor said. “Quickly. Come on.”
Flora hopped into the shrub space that he’d pried open. Once she sat, he let go. The shrubs returned to their more or less original positions. Viktor collected an armful of leaves from the ground and threw them on top of Flora and the shrubs.
The people noise grew even louder. Now, Flora could discern familiar voices amidst unfamiliar ones:
“This is the only place they could have hidden in!” Ellie shouted at the top of her lungs, excited to the point of sounding eagerly angry.
Flora didn’t want to imagine what Ellie imagined that Viktor was doing to or with Flora in the forest.
For heaven’s sake, Ellie, can’t you guess that right now, we both couldn’t care less about sex, or even love?
Despite the frustration, Flora’s senses eagerly collected every information available, just in case it might come in handy later:
The rich scent of the earth, created through the decomposition of the many layers of old fallen leaves over the decades.
The taste in her mouth, now definitely bitter and sour without the slightest hint of sweetness.
And especially sounds. The approaching footsteps—some sounding like marching, others more irregular, as if they didn’t want to walk toward the forest.
“You,” a man said—the young one from earlier? He sounded similar, yet different, rawer—“you sure your friend didn’t tell you anything? Imply anything? Where she was headed, what she planned on doing?”
“I tell you for the thousandth time,” Josephine said, “she loved nothing more than staying in her booth and watching cat videos.”
Flora shivered and hugged the helmet with the kitty tighter. Those people had dragged Josephine here—for what?
“What did you throw these in the river for, huh?” a stern middle-aged woman asked. “Huh?”
Plastic clashed against each other. The detergent bottles that Flora and Viktor had left on the grass—someone was kicking them.
“Just for the heck of it,” said Josephine. Someone was shaking her—probably the woman.
“People don’t throw detergent bottles in the river for the heck of it,” the woman said.
“I do,” Josephine said. “I’m not ‘people,’ I’m me, suck it!”
More such directionless questioning and answering followed, mixed with other conversations, which all had one thing in common: they were getting closer.
Flora held her breath.
On one side, those pitkeepers with Josephine; on the other, Viktor, rustling in search of a second hiding place.
Ellie was right; the forest was the only place where they could hide. So, of course, the pursuers came here. Ellie hadn’t needed to shout like that to make their logic clear. All Flora could do was to make herself as small as possible, and make no noise…
But unfortunately, the kitty in the helmet didn’t see this as the moment to hold his breath.
“What was that?” a man said, the first one that Flora had heard—the one with the clearer voice.
Everyone in the pursuer group held his or her breath. As if to welcome them, the orange tabby meowed once more.
“Was that a cat?” the clear-voiced man said.
“I think it was,” the raw-voiced man said.
“Viktor was hiding something in his jacket before he jumped,” the clear-voiced man said.
“You, what do you know about a cat?” the stern woman said.
“You need to be more specific than that,” Josephine answered indignantly.
“You know what I mean!” the woman said. “Did your friend talk about a cat?”
“Oh, yes, definitely,” Josephine said, laughing, “all the time.”
The woman groaned. “Did she and Viktor meet regularly to discuss cat-specific things?”
“I have no idea what she did in her spare time.”
“But the cat? Have you seen one? A real one. Answer me!”
“Of course I haven’t seen one! Where in the pit was there ever a cat, or any animal?”
Flora admired Josephine’s valor. Her friend, such an amicable person, so hopeful, and now, so brave.
Then the kitty meowed again.
The group outside the forest shut up. Everyone listened for the next…
“Well, I don’t know about back there, but here’s a cat, for sure,” the raw-voiced man said.
“Is the cat dangerous?” the stern woman said.
“What do you mean?” Josephine said with greater indignation.
“I mean just what I asked,” the woman said. “Is the cat dangerous or not?”
“How should I know?”
“Should I go in?” Ellie said. She sounded impatient.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, though Viktor had scorned no one; all Ellie’s hellish fury required was that she felt like she was scorned. She was ready to capture Viktor and make him pay for running off with some random girl.
“Wait,” the raw-voiced man said, “better to have them come out. Viktor!”
A breeze blew, rustling the leaves of the trees and shrubs.
Flora quickly added up all the voices that she’d heard so far: Josephine, Ellie, the stern woman, and two men with similar voices—one raw, one clear. Five people. Could Viktor and Flora handle five people while protecting the cat?
“Flora,” the clear-voiced man said, “we know you’re in there!”
Another breeze rustled through the forest. Flora was glad that she and Viktor had been drenched in the river water. Not that humans had particularly acute senses of smell—but still, the thought of smelling the same as the elements around them calmed her.
“We’re not going to hurt you or the cat, so come out,” the raw-voiced man said.
Flora realized that at some point, Viktor’s rustling had stopped. Either he’d found a hiding place or given up. At any rate, he wasn’t moving, which meant that he had no intention of cooperating with the people outside.
“Now, should I go in?” Ellie said impatiently.
She wanted to be the one to go in; she hadn’t said “should we go in.” Perhaps Ellie planned on doing something in the forest while the other pitkeepers weren’t looking. Like those bad cops in the old movies on Firmament; the ones who beat up the suspect when the cameras were turned off.
“Is that a good idea, to send her by herself?” the clear-voiced man asked someone.
No one answered, but someone in charge must have given the go sign, because soon, the tree branches near the forest edge shook.
The cat meowed even louder than earlier.
Stop. Please stop.
Give me the pause button. The rewind button.
For heaven’s sake, little one, don’t you remember yesterday—or an hour ago—when I rescued you? Trust me, I’m telling you, shut up.
At this point, Flora felt like the cat was ridiculing her. How silly are you, it seemed to say, to think that I can be controlled like one of your video cats that died a hundred years ago? Did you expect me to jump when you want, to feed when you want, to sleep when you want?
No personalized recommendation on Firmament could eliminate this kitty from Flora’s reality. Barring time traveling, crossing to an alternate reality, or teleportation—which were all science fiction concepts that the serious scientists of this universe hadn’t figured out before they’d died with the majority of the humanity—this kitty inside Viktor’s helmet was here to stay.
I am real, he meowed. I breathe. I feel warm and fluffy in your hands. I smell nice. Don’t you dare command me, human.
Ellie’s approaching footsteps stopped for a moment. Flora hoped for a miracle—that Ellie, in her fury toward Viktor, hadn’t heard the kitty. But then, purposefully, the footsteps proceeded toward Flora.
With Ellie’s every step on the forest ground, Flora imagined what would happen to her. Was Ellie going to crush Flora like the leaves under her feet? And the kitty too?
But before Flora could imagine the details of the worst-case scenario, the shrubs a few feet away from her shook.
Ellie yelped and fell.
Chk chk—someone cocked a gun.
Then, to Flora’s utter terror—a loud bang followed. A gun had been fired. A gun! Flora hated guns, even on the video game streams on Firmament, and now it had come to this, in the utterly real reality.
Josephine screamed outside the forest. That was one good thing, that Flora’s friend wasn’t close to the deadly weapon. From the lack of subsequent screams or wails, Flora guessed that the people outside the forest had taken cover and no one had been injured.
Neither had anyone inside the forest been hurt, because instead of agonized cries, Flora could hear the suppressed panting and struggling of two people: Viktor and Ellie.
“Pretend you’re dead,” Ellie hissed in a low voice.
“What?” Viktor whispered.
“Pretend you’re dead!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, now it’s too late. Now they’ve heard us struggling.”
“What are you even— No no no no.”
Judging by the metallic clanks and frustrated grunts, it sounded like Ellie had tried to fire the gun once more and Viktor had stopped her.
“I’m not going to pretend to be dead and let them come here for the cat,” Viktor said.
“You traitor!” Ellie said.
“Traitor to what?”
“The pit. Humanity. Me!”
“All I did was jump in the river. What’s it to you?”
“What’s it to me?” Ellie said, incredulous. “We’re supposed to be partners, and you take some random girl—”
“I didn’t ‘take’ anyone.”
“You told her about the cat.”
“I didn’t tell her. I told no one, and there is no cat.”
“Don’t lie to me! You knew about the outside, didn’t you? You didn’t tell me anything about it. Me, your partner.”
“Yes, you, my pitkeeper partner. I don’t have to tell you everything.”
Ellie groaned in frustration.
Flora sympathized with Ellie. Until now, Flora hadn’t considered this possibility because it had seemed too unlikely, but now she knew: Viktor really had no clue that Ellie had a crush on him. That total indifference was what disheartened Ellie so much. Viktor hadn’t rejected her. He couldn’t, because imagining himself with Ellie was beyond him. Ellie existed on a plane that Viktor didn’t concern himself with.
Talk about alternate realities—not so fictional anymore.
“I’m giving you one chance,” Ellie whispered, out of breath. “Give up the cat and the woman, and you’ll live.”
“What, or else they’ll execute me?” Viktor said.
“Not just any ‘they,’ silly, Ursula!”
Ursula. Who was Ursula?
The leaf-rustling stopped. Flora scooted just a little bit to the left so that she could see Viktor’s reaction on the other side of the shrubs… Flora gasped.
Viktor sat on top of Ellie, but Ellie pointed a gun right at Viktor’s face.
Flora clasped the helmet with the kitty. Scary people, they are, little one. Scary people. Coworkers one moment, enemies the next.
“Ursula wants you dead,” Ellie said. “She said that she needs bodies. I assume she meant dead bodies. You should have run when I shouted from there that we were coming.”
So, that was why Ellie had shouted so loudly that Flora and Viktor must have hidden in the forest—to warn them.
“All I did was to jump from the ladder,” Viktor whispered. “There is no cat.”
“She’ll find it sooner or later, Viktor,” Ellie said. “Everyone out there heard it.”
“But it hasn’t been found yet. Besides, if there are cats, so what? I didn’t conjure them up. I’m not a wizard, or an alchemist, or—”
“For Christ’s sake, Viktor, who cares if you did anything wrong or not? If Ursula says you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
“Ellie?” the raw-voiced man called from the forest edge. “Everything all right?”
“We should help her,” the clear-voiced man said.
“Don’t worry, children,” an authoritative female voice answered. “If they kill Ellie, I’ll kill them.”
Flora retreated into the shrubs. That voice belonged to a sixth person in the pursuer group. An older lady. Seventy, eighty, maybe. That lady had made no sound so far—had waited, had observed.
“Ursula is here, in person?” Viktor whispered to Ellie.
“We should run,” Flora said without thinking.
Ellie whipped her head toward Flora. “You!” she hissed.
Flora cringed. “This is not what you think it is.”
Ellie struggled to free herself from Viktor. He climbed down from her but only to better pull her away from Flora. Ellie kicked and punched at the air, then at some dirt and leaves. Viktor had to hug her to stop her limbs from moving.
“And if they attempt to flee,” Ursula called from outside the forest, “we’ll go after them.”
Ursula sure sounded like someone who meant what she said. It was because of that voice—that all-knowing air that it gave off—as if its owner monitored everyone and everything at all times, though Flora couldn’t pinpoint why she felt that way.
Ursula, the owner of the authoritative female voice.
A grandmother-age person who wanted Viktor and Flora dead.
Her voice reminded Flora of wool and cotton—some sort of practical fabric—bar soap, a neat hair bun…
“Let’s set up camp here,” Ursula said. “Looks like we’re going to stay here for a while. You two, get the gear from the boat. You, stay with Josephine.”
The men murmured “Yes, ma’am” and went off. Flora guessed that the stern middle-aged woman had been ordered to stay with Josephine.
So, this boss lady, this Ursula, had planned for a night out in the meadows. She had no intention of hurrying the people in the forest; she had all the time in the world.
Many years ago, one of the Firmament videos had discussed the difference between normal people and psychopaths.
What would you do if you were chasing after someone with the intent to hurt that person, and that person was to hide in a closet? the video had asked.
Normal person: knocks on the closet, tries to break it, threatens, curses, kicks.
Psychopath: waits, because the prey is bound to leave the closet unless it wants to starve or suffocate in there.
Ursula was a psychopath. Flora was sure of this. But regardless of that, Ursula sounded familiar…
“Oh, how time flies,” Ursula said, delighted, but only mildly and nonchalantly so.
How odd that she sounded so authoritative at the same time. Nonchalant and authoritative—these were two adjectives that usually didn’t belong together. Perhaps the one adjective that summed up all of Ursula’s traits was: manipulative.
The dragging and shifting outside of the forest stopped; the two men, the stern woman, and Josephine were listening.
“It’s been four hours for me,” Ursula said. “Time to stretch. Rafting is fun, but nothing beats stretching.”
Flora’s heart sank. She knew how she knew Ursula:
Ursula was the Firmament Lady.
The black helmet slipped from Flora’s fingers. The kitty angrily meowed. Before Flora could stop him, he dashed out of the shrubs.
“No!” Flora said, running after him.
“No, Flora!” Viktor said.
Too late. Flora heard another chk chk—someone cocked a gun outside of the forest.
But she couldn’t stop. She had to save the cat.
© 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.