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Jump to Chapter 1
While Flora approached with the cat in her arms, no one else around Viktor and Ursula moved. Not Josephine, not Ellie, not the woman with the stern voice, not the two men with similar voices (who turned out to be twins with silly blue eyes, the immediately attractive kinds that were too shallow to maintain that effect for long).
Viktor kept his gun and eyes on Ursula; Ursula kept hers—both gun and eyes—on Viktor. Him, kneeling on the ground; her, standing.
“Good girl,” Ursula said.
Flora squinted to see better through the sunset, to see Ursula’s face to figure out with what nuance she’d spoken.
But the air seemed to gain more substance by the second, hindering a clear view. Transparent, it hadn’t been for some time now, and currently it was in the process of transforming from pink to deep orange.
Ursula hadn’t sounded sarcastic. But Flora wouldn’t have been surprised if a different person had said those same words with the intention to humiliate; so obediently was she walking toward the group.
What Flora could see clearer than Ursula’s face was her silver ponytail: it acted like the air. Both changed colors because they were so—well, airy. Thin, delicate, functioning like empty canvases, ready to absorb whichever color of their surroundings. That meant that Ursula’s ponytail was also taking on an orange shade.
The Firmament Lady, as attentive to the environment as her recorded voice was attentive to the health of the residents—that was Ursula. In the pit, she’d implemented the stretching reminders and let Firmament monitor the residents throughout the day; out here, her hair mirrored the environment like a chameleon’s skin.
Not to be trusted, this woman. A psychopath.
Flora tried to focus on that seemingly clear conclusion because otherwise, she’d be too consumed by Ursula’s many other sides.
An enigma, that woman was, and that hadn’t been what Flora had expected earlier, which was why she felt more unprepared the closer they came.
In Flora’s mind, before leaving the pit, the Firmament Lady had had a clear, uninteresting picture: a grandmother who didn’t let her children call her grandma, let alone “nana”; a meticulous silver bun; a preference for wool and cotton over silk; bar-soap-loving; frugal with all resources, ranging from tangibles to time.
But here, this?
Only half of Flora’s preconceptions applied to the real Ursula—the real Firmament Lady, the chameleon lady, the psychopath. The silver hair part was correct; the older-lady part too. But that was about it. The rest, completely unexpected.
For one thing, Ursula wore a silk scarf around her neck. It was tucked under the ugly brown collar of her pitkeeper jacket, but Flora could clearly see it. Not the color, because the setting sun was turning everything into a generic dark brown-blue, but the material: silk, definitely silk.
Another surprising trait: Ursula’s evident fitness and flexibility. She was a stern grandmother all right, but one who’d actually lived according to her preaching. This slender lady probably stretched and lifted weights two hours a day. Flora couldn’t notice any awkwardly-angled joints as Ursula held the gun pointed at Viktor. That simple act alone must require a lot of muscle strength. But Ursula didn’t tremble the slightest.
Most surprising of all? The whiff of floral perfume that tickled Flora’s nostrils when she finally stopped about three feet away from Ursula, forming an equilateral triangle that included Viktor as the third vertex.
The Firmament Lady, a chameleon, a psychopath. Versatile, attentive, nonchalant, grandmotherly, authoritative:
A whip, not a sword. Flexible, not rigid. The gun that Ursula pointed at Viktor was just one of the many tools in her arsenal.
Flora had to admit: this seventy-or-eighty-something nana (if Flora wasn’t going to be shot for calling her that), was fascinating, therefore terrifying, therefore—sexy.
“Give me the cat,” Ursula said.
“No,” Flora said, in a calm tone that surprised herself.
Ursula laughed—a burst of surprisingly innocent laughter. “You’d die for a cat?”
“Yes. And also, I know that giving you the cat doesn’t guarantee my safety.”
Ursula raised her brows, while her eyes still rested on Viktor. “True.”
“Just let them go,” Viktor said from the ground. He’d stopped clasping the bullet graze on his arm. Pointing the gun at Ursula with the uninjured side took up all his energy. “It’s just a cat and a girl.”
“There is no ‘just’ in the world we made, Viktor,” Ursula said plainly. “Both the girl and the cat can cause chaos and mayhem.”
“I will not cause chaos and mayhem,” Flora said, “and the cat most definitely won’t do it either. And whatever that’s already happened isn’t on us. If the pitkeepers hadn’t come running after us, only a few people would have noticed anything.”
Ellie, in Josephine’s arms, now began sobbing uncontrollably. Flora hadn’t said what she’d said to blame Ellie. But by now, Flora knew: Ellie read a lot into situations and statements, especially if they involved Viktor.
Josephine patted Ellie on the shoulders and said, “We were just going to rescue the cat. That’s all.”
“You all keep using those words,” Ursula said, eyes on Viktor. She sounded sad. “ ‘Just.’ ‘That’s all.’ As if nothing you do is of consequence.” Then, firmer, she said, “Everything we do is of consequence. You fished it out of the ventilation duct in a terribly noisy, attention-drawing way. What were you going to do with it afterward?”
“Him, he’s a he,” Flora said.
Ursula glanced at her, then smiled. “Very cute, and ironic that you shouldn’t think of a pronoun as ‘just’ a word. Him, then.”
“I didn’t think of what to do with him,” Flora said. “All I could think of was that I had to save him.”
“There, my dear, lies the problem,” Ursula said. “That you didn’t think before you acted.”
“Fine, I get it,” Flora said. “Acting before thinking is not a good idea in any situation. But things don’t have to get so violent. I have no desire to return to the pit. I’ll stay here with the cat and all is good, isn’t it?”
“No,” Ursula said. “Didn’t Ellie explain it to you?”
Ellie flinched, though Ursula didn’t even glance at her.
“I want bodies,” Ursula said. “Alive or dead, I don’t necessarily care in the case of you two.” She minutely tilted the gun toward Flora, then back toward Viktor. “You two, I should hope, will understand what’s at stake once I explain it to you, so I don’t have to kill you. But the cat has to go.”
“No,” Flora and Viktor said at the same time.
Ursula ignored that. “He could have fled. He didn’t. Too bad. And either way, alive or dead, you can’t leave. None of you. That cat”—she nodded toward the orange tabby in Flora’s arms—”and also those cats up there, whom I’ll also have to kill, eventually.” She nodded toward the flatland above the cliff. “I need to make sure that no one sees them.”
“You knew about them?” Viktor said.
“There are very few things I do not know about when it comes to the pit,” Ursula said in such a matter-of-fact tone that she didn’t sound arrogant.
“You’re not serious,” Flora said. “You don’t mean to say that you’ll kill all the cats in the vicinity?”
“That is precisely what I’m saying,” Ursula said.
“But— What— Why?”
Ursula glanced from Flora to Viktor. “Are you willing to listen?” she said. “Truly listen? Because if not—if you’re so eager to die for the cats—I’ll save myself the trouble.”
Ursula placed her finger on the trigger, gun pointed at Viktor.
“If you kill him, I’ll tell everyone!” Ellie said.
All eyes fell on her.
Ellie wiped off her tears and said, “I’ll tell everyone in the pit what happened here.”
“Thanks for letting me know now,” Ursula said simply. “I’ll kill you after I’m done with them, then you won’t have a chance to tell anyone.”
“Then you’ll have to kill me too,” Josephine said angrily.
“Sure, why not,” said Ursula. “Maybe I should kill you first. Seeing you dead will make your friend here believe me that I mean it when I say I’ll kill you all, if necessary, which is why I brought you here to begin with, Josephine.”
“Don’t ever change your mind because of me, Flora,” Josephine said indignantly. “And especially not because of a cat killer.”
Flora wasn’t so sure she could accomplish that. Ursula seemed to agree, because she laughed dryly.
“And you?” said Ursula, glancing back at the three pitkeepers behind her. “Will you revolt against me too?”
The pitkeepers exchanged terrified glances.
“One against seven, is that it?” Ursula said calmly. “Me against you all? And the cat of course, the little cute cat.”
Ellie glanced at Viktor’s gun.
“Oh, you can’t kill me, Ellie,” Ursula said. “I doubt Viktor can pull the trigger for a lethal shot either. None of you who ‘just’ do things because ‘that’s all’ and don’t know how much of a mess you make, are capable of killing anybody.”
“Keep provoking us like that and one of us just might,” Viktor said.
Ursula chuckled as if pitying Viktor. “Oh, my dear. You think you’re the do-gooder here. You see that cat and instantly you think it’s everything in the world. You cannot fathom what it takes to protect hundreds of thousands of people from decimation. Blindly, you rely on one limited slice of reality, which is all that humans can perceive at any given moment, and all that most humans care to think about. All of you willingly ignore the logic of Firmament for some stupid experience you think you had for five minutes outside of the pit. This green grass, this beautiful sunset, this soft breeze. Am I right?”
From the flatland on top of the cliff, distant meows came. Like wolves, the cats cried. At first a single cat, then another, and then yet another. Three of them, in unison.
“They aren’t just any cats,” Flora said. “If you knew about them, if you met them on the flatland, you must know.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ursula said, without any change in the volume or tone of her voice. “They’re cats, Flora. Cats are cats, nothing more, nothing less.”
“The cats—well, at least this cat, I know that for sure—he does something to time,” Flora said.
“I can attest to that,” Viktor said. “When I was up there, it was as if they made time flow slower, or freeze, but only for me, and no one else in the pit.”
By now, the air had taken on the cooler shades of the night, so that Flora couldn’t see anything clearly.
What kind of a face was Ursula making? Impossible to tell.
How many cats had gathered in the flatland? Equally impossible to tell. But there were more than three; a lot more cats that didn’t meow lurked around those that did.
The tabby in Flora’s arms pricked his ears. She patted him gently. Don’t be scared, don’t be scared. I won’t let her harm you.
“Time, flowing differently, you say?” Ursula said finally.
“Yes,” Flora said. “It was like, as if, I’d never experienced something like that before.”
“Of course,” Ursula said, not unkindly, “that’s what happens when your senses are overwhelmed with new information.”
“But it wasn’t just my perception,” Flora said. “Things that logically couldn’t have happened did happen.”
“Me too. I stayed up there for days,” said Viktor, “but only a day had passed in the pit.”
“You two must be going mad,” Ursula said. “Totally irrational.”
“So nothing like this happened to you, when you were in the flatland up there?” Flora asked.
Ursula took a moment.
Then, “That’s how everyone forgets history,” she said. “What happened only a month ago seems like ages ago; and what happened a hundred years ago might as well not have happened at all. The human perception of time is unreliable.”
Flora didn’t know what to say to this. Was it possible that both she and Viktor had imagined things? But how? Especially in the case of Viktor—unless he was truly crazy, how had he thought that days had passed, outdoors, with the sun rising and setting, when in reality, only a day had passed?
In the near-darkness, Flora could tell that Ursula trembled slightly. Anger? Frustration? Tears?
“Someone has to remember,” Ursula said. “And if not someone, then something—such as Firmament. It never forgets. It always remembers. All its videos, all its data. Its time flows consistently, reliably. And it keeps its eyes open. It gathers all the information we need to know. Don’t tell me that that is less reliable than some random experiences that humans have, and especially compared to the random decisions that people make based on those random experiences.”
“But it didn’t register anything about this outside situation at all,” Viktor said.
“The true beauty of Firmament is that it doesn’t gather the information we don’t need to know. That’s why it ignored the cats, the meadow, all that.”
“That’s how you interpret its lies?” Viktor said. “It’s lying for us? Is that what you think?”
“Of course. Just look at what you’re doing,” Ursula said. “Blindly optimistic, you are, because not only have you met a cat, you’ve met a magic cat.”
“Me?” Viktor said, offended. “Me, blindly optimistic?”
“All of you, but yes, you especially, Viktor,” said Ursula. “You knew about the meadows and the cats on the flatland, and I knew that you knew. You had that look of a person who’d gone through a life-changing experience. And I admit, it’s been life-changing for me too. Only, in an entirely different way.”
“Obviously, your life wasn’t changed enough,” Viktor said. “You did nothing.”
“I didn’t know how people would react,” Ursula said. “I didn’t know what they’d do to themselves with the information that there were cats outside. When I was on the flatland…”
Ursula cleared her throat. Flora was sure that something must have happened to Ursula, too, when she’d encountered the cats.
“…I had the good sense to conclude that my sensory organs were tricking me. When you did nothing with your new information, I thought you were a sensible person too. I was wrong, dead wrong. Your main reason for keeping the cats secret was to protect the cats, not the people.”
Viktor didn’t deny it. Ursula laughed sadly. A long, drawn-out chuckle that sounded more like weeping.
The cats on the flatland meowed in a choir. Now there weren’t just three crying; there were at least a dozen. The air vibrated.
“And for those cats,” Ursula said, “you jumped into the river in front of everyone, and now this girl talks about leaving. No. Absolutely not. Every action has a consequence. What you two did, with the cat, magical or otherwise, was to make it impossible for the people inside the pit to continue coexisting in a peaceful manner. They’re already curious. The entire pit is buzzing with excitement. Now, they must be hearing those cats cry, these creatures are so loud.”
“So we take him back to the flatland, they reunite, they’ll stop crying, and all is well,” Flora said.
“Do you think I’m a fool?” Ursula said. “How do you think we’ll get up there? By climbing the ladder, of course. The entire pit will watch while we do so. Not acceptable.”
Well, it’d been worth a try. And Flora was willing to try this too:
“But why should we have to live in the pit anymore anyway?” she said. “There is so much safe space outside.”
By now, she was sure of this environment’s safety. For hours she’d breathed in this air, and many others had. Viktor had told her about the many cats on the flatland and clearly, their existence wasn’t imagined; Flora heard the cries, and even Ursula did. All these organisms couldn’t possibly fail to register something dangerous for so long.
“That!” Ursula said. “That idea that if we all move out we’ll live happily ever after, is why we should have to keep living in the pit. Because, sadly, you won’t be the only one to think that. That’s why this is a mess. And who has to clean up the mess? Me, willing to do what it takes.”
Her speech turned into a fervent fit.
“Me, responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands in there, which sounds like many, but oh, not as many as the nine billion we used to have! All of them, gone, because what? Because they just. Did. Without. Thinking. The only reason there are cats at all is because some idiot a hundred years ago thought he or she was a special snowflake and brought his or her pets, a pair of un-neutered, un-spayed cats, and had them multiply in the flatland. Imagine what would have happened if they’d been a dog person.”
Ursula nodded at the flatland. The meowing from there had become more incessant.
“The dogs could have died, and that would have been the best-case scenario, and not because I hate dogs. If they’d survived like those cats, they’d have barked. And the pit wouldn’t have lasted a year. Everyone would have wondered, Dogs can survive out there?”
“But then what? What after that? Some would have immediately ventured out, with all their human curiosity, and would have either returned carrying toxins or died outside. Or they’d have survived and done what people call surviving. Cut the trees, throw stuff in the ocean, use plastic, and who knows what other stupid things, because the trees were there, the stuff and ocean were there, the plastic was there! Just ’cause they were there, people would have done things! Can’t think beyond a single year presented in front of them. No, no no no.”
Ursula laughed bitterly.
“No, not a single year. That’s an overestimation. A single month. No, not even that. A single week. A single day. A single hour. A single minute is too much for a human to think.
“I know, because most people need reminders to stretch. Most people know what’s good for them and what’s bad for them and they still don’t do the former and keep on doing the latter. Because at the moment they live in, doing what’s convenient feels better than doing what’s right.
“And that’s why people forget history, and that’s how they dare to ignore Firmament, and that’s how everything repeats itself, except for what? Someone like me, the person you all so easily accuse.
“ ‘Cat killer,’ you say. Yes, I’ll kill cats if that means I can keep the pit peaceful, the pit with hundreds of thousands of people. I, somehow, miraculously, can see, that we have one Earth, one god damn pit, and if we lose that, if we repeat what we’ve done in the past, we’re doomed.”
Ursula panted. Flora felt a tinge of pity for her. Ursula was no psychopath, incapable of feeling. In fact, Ursula felt too much. That was how a person became so passionate about her duties, real or imagined. That was how a person became so exhausted.
In a way, it was necessary, the passion coupled with exhaustion. Otherwise, Ursula could have broken into every single booth to shake people into stretching instead of gently but firmly reminding them that they’d better move.
Possibly because of her inability to change others, Ursula must have pushed herself to exercise, enough to keep her arm still un-shaking after that entire speech.
And the silk scarf and floral perfume, smelling inappropriately pleasant, given this disagreeable situation—they must have been Ursula’s way of keeping a tiny soft part alive in herself. Otherwise, she might have gone mad; madder than now.
“I can’t control everyone,” Ursula said. Now she sounded really tired. “No one can, not even Firmament, not with the millions of recommendations it gives—if the recommendation is ‘wrong,’ people just skip that video. They only watch what they like, which makes them like it more, and they learn nothing new, therefore what they don’t like to begin with becomes an area of mystery, an area of learning, which makes them dislike it even more.
“For most people, that’s how life works. They won’t learn anything new. Learning is a pain for them. They go with the flow, whatever the flow is. That’s how you get wars, that’s how you get pollution that seems at the logical level so easy to stop, that’s how you get all sorts of unpleasant trends—because the end result is unpleasant, but the going-with-the-flow trend is extra sweet. The current flow—the one before you messed it up—was peaceful. Nice and quiet. That’s how we still have this, so pristine.”
With her free hand, she gestured at the black night sky. There were lots of stars. Without any artificial light and high buildings, it looked as if the stars were flooding the world, totally and completely.
So quaint, without the interference of beings that thought they knew better.
Now, the guilt that Flora had successfully pushed aside earlier returned. All she’d done with her life was to watch cat videos. She’d gotten angry at Firmament for showing her “stupid” videos that she didn’t like. And once it had successfully analyzed her tastes, she’d stuck to that—for more than a decade.
She could have become a writer, a community activist, part of the cleaning crew, whatever. Something that was useful yet required very few resources and created no waste. Anything but being a person who kept watching videos on Firmament all day long. She could have been half as social as Josephine—made friends, paid respects to the dead, suicide or otherwise.
But Flora hadn’t done any of that.
She’d been an escapist. She’d used the videos to escape and after the kitty had shown up, she’d used him as an excuse to escape from the pit without thinking about the consequences.
Ursula had a point.
What after this?
Flora should have thought before acting. She should have begun doing that a long time ago.
But also, if the human experience wasn’t to be trusted, shouldn’t Flora do whatever Firmament says, and be happy within its confines? Wasn’t the desire for some sort of self-fulfillment a problem, rather than a solution?
Ursula looked up at the night sky. She seemed to enjoy the view, despite the dire picture that she’d painted just now.
“Someday, the pit will fail,” Ursula said slowly. “There will be too many people. Someone will finally think of revolting, which wouldn’t be bad at all, because it’s proof of independent thinking. But it’d be a surprise. And I refuse to let that happen under my watch.”
Ursula turned to Flora while keeping the gun pointed at Viktor.
“If you say you’ll save the cat,” Ursula said, “I’ll shoot you, shoot that cat, shoot all the other cats, and tell people that you were bitten by monster cats, caught a virus, and had to be put down. All of you.”
“Crazy woman,” Viktor muttered.
“If you lie that there are no cats,” Ursula said, “and keep quiet while I arrange for the cats to be killed in a humane manner, I won’t kill you. You must vouch that the outside is still dangerous, that we should be glad that we’re protected by the pit and Firmament. Maybe we’ll add a tinge of excitement by making up a love triangle between you three, including Ellie. That’ll explain that ridiculous chase on the ladder.”
“What?” Viktor said, clueless.
Flora couldn’t see in the dark, but Ellie probably blushed.
“So. Will you cooperate, or do I have to kill you?” Ursula asked.
The orange tabby in Flora’s arms meowed, as if he understood Ursula’s question and wanted Flora to choose him over her own life.
Flora looked around.
Viktor knelt on the ground. His arms shook—both the one holding the gun and the one with the graze wound. Actually, his entire body shook; the air had chilled and Viktor only wore the slowly-drying pitkeeper pants.
The wound on Flora’s arm was still oozing out warm blood, just like his. The longer the air touched it, the more it smelled metallic.
The three pitkeepers behind Ursula had kept amazingly quiet for the longest time.
Soft sniffling came from Ellie, behind Viktor. Josephine continued to pat Ellie’s shoulders as the meowing, growling, and hissing from the flatland intensified further and further, until it was as if the air consisted of cats.
Flora faced Ursula. Ursula pointed the gun at Flora and placed her finger on the trigger.
“Something special is going on with the cats,” Flora said. “And it’s not just because I love cats.”
“What a shame they have to die,” Ursula said.
No sarcasm. None at all. For Ursula, what had to be done simply had to be done. And so it was for Flora too.
“I’m not giving you the cat,” Flora said.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
© 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.