Chapter 16

Chapter 16

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The bang from the gun rang in Flora’s ear. Based on logic, her brain told her: this is the last sound you’ll hear.

But strangely, inexplicably, Flora realized that she could still hear things thereafter, such as the aggressive collective growling and hissing of the cats in the flatland.

Then she noticed that she was watching the bullet approach her. It was so slow that with the help of the millions of brilliantly shining stars in the night sky, she could clearly see its shining metallic armor, the way it reflected the light.

Fascinating. So, slow-motion is what it feels like to die, she thought. So, Ursula was right. The very nature of time is to distort, at least for humans. Maybe it’s always playing a trick on us.

Then Flora noticed that she was thinking—that was how much time she had, between the bullet firing with a bang and it reaching her forehead, which it should have reached a long time ago, because Ursula was an excellent markswoman and guns were designed to kill fast.

And even after that, Flora had more time to think, which she used to clasp the orange tabby closer.

You, warm fluffy you. I love you, even though I only knew you for a very short time.

But then what Flora heard told her that she wasn’t the only one who found it extremely odd that the bullet hadn’t reached her yet. Josephine and Ellie gasped, hugging each other as they crouched on the meadow behind Viktor.

Not just that. The male twins with the silly blue eyes and similar voices crawled back in panic.

When Flora noticed that movement in the corner of her eye, she actually turned toward them, which led to the stern woman behind Ursula yelping and running away toward the forest.

What. On. Earth?

Flora faced the bullet again. It was still in the process of flying at her by splitting the air in front of it in half. She could see that split despite the dark; the progress of the bullet was that gradual and that clear.

Beyond the bullet, she could see Ursula: neither grandmotherly nor authoritative, simply shocked.

Ursula lowered her gun. Beside her, Viktor also lowered his trembling hand, in which he’d held the gun pointed up at Ursula.

All eyes were on the slowly-traveling bullet. That much was clear now—that the bullet was the thing that traveled slowly; it wasn’t them moving faster, or them imagining things.

The breeze blew over the meadow as it had before; the trees in the forest rustled; the meowing, growling, and hissing continued at the same pitch from the flatland, though the volume ever-amplified and the noises shook the ground.

Only the bullet defied all hitherto-known laws of physics and crawled toward Flora’s forehead instead of already having turned mush out of it.

The orange tabby in Flora’s arms chattered.

Confused, Flora gazed down at him. He glanced at the bullet, then at her, then at the bullet, and chattered more loudly.

That got Flora thinking, I should probably step aside

…which she did.

The orange tabby stopped chattering.

The bullet gained speed, and in a split second, swooshed past Flora.

All humans who were present followed the bullet’s lightning-fast trajectory with their eyes. A few seconds passed. The bullet must have dropped somewhere, though no one heard anything; the cries of the flatland cats were deafening by now.

Flora felt a repetitive raw sensation on her forearm and looked down. The orange tabby was licking her with his tiny, barbed tongue.

An instinctive awwww escaped Flora’s mouth. The kitty’s licking was the one concrete sensation that she could hang on to, after the fantastic time-bending that had just happened.

What was real anymore?

What did it mean to “make sense”?

How could one define “common sense”?

Nothing seemed real, nothing made sense, and no common sense existed—except that the cat was here, now, with Flora.

In that sense, the kitty was the most fantastic thing in the entire world. He beat all other fantastic events, made them succumb, compelled them to go on their knees…

Ursula said in disbelief, “This cannot be.”

Flora wouldn’t have heard her say it, had they stood any farther apart.

“You saw it!” Flora said. “It has powers!”

She wasn’t shouting because she was angry. She had to, because of the noise of the flatland cats.

“We might be a dying civilization, but a civilization we are!” Ursula shouted, out of incredulity rather than anger.

“And civilizations learn!” Viktor said, stumbling up. In his voice, there was laughter; hope.

Ursula whipped around to face him. She pointed at the kitty. “That goes counter to every single scientific theory known to humanity!”

“The humanity responsible for the death of its own civilization!” Josephine said, palms pressed on her ears.

“Are we safe?” the stern woman called from the edge of the forest.

The twins with the silly blue eyes glanced back at her, but only managed a painful-looking shrug of sorts.

Ellie laughed, rubbing her eyes. She still sounded teary. She stumbled up, walked toward Viktor, and pulled him closer.

The twins gasped visibly (for, gasping audibly was impossible at this point, with the flatland cats’ screeching cries).

Viktor seemed perplexed, and highly uncomfortable. No wonder. He only wore his pitkeeper pants, and the naked skin of his back brushed against Ellie’s hands. He tried to push her off, gently—whether out of compassion or out of confusion, Flora couldn’t tell.

But Ellie didn’t let go of him. She said something. Flora heard a mumbling, unclear, buried in the cat noise.

Flora saw Viktor’s resistance slacken. Another moment of awww, Flora guessed—

A loud cracking echoed in the pit and throughout the meadow.

Everyone winced.

The flatland cats ceased crying.

Now, the silence was what deafened Flora. Going from maximum to minimum volume in one second wasn’t what human ears had been built for.

“What was that?” said Ursula, the first one to recover calm.

“The ceiling,” Viktor said.

He pushed Ellie away from their hug—but held her upper arms with both his hands. It seemed that Ellie had told him the right things.

But that was between those two, and for the rest of them, what was important was:

“What about the ceiling?” Ursula said.

“There were cracks,” Viktor said. “I think all the crying might have shattered a part of it.”

“There were cracks in the ceiling and you didn’t tell me?” Ursula shrieked.

In the sudden, comparative quiet since the ceasing of the cat cries, her shriek sounded out-of-proportion loud.

“I… I thought you’d know,” Viktor said. “And if not you, I thought Firmament would know.”

“I didn’t know,” Ursula said, “and Firmament didn’t either.”

At an unbelievable speed, not just for a grandma who looked seventy-something, but also for any human being, Ursula sprinted toward the lifeboat.

“Wait!” Flora said. “Take me with you!”

“No way,” Ursula said. “That cat is dangerous.”

“He doesn’t mean any harm,” Flora said. “And he’s the only chance we have, if the ceiling really broke.”

Ursula pushed the lifeboat from the meadow to the slow-flowing river, but only halfway. She jumped in and pressed a few buttons on the digital control board. The motor hummed, ready to propel the boat further into the river at the next command. Flora tried to jump in before it left. Ursula blocked her way.

“When we left the pit, everyone was excited and running around on the walkways,” Ursula said. “This is what I mean by chaos and mayhem. Not what people intend to do, but something that people don’t foresee, but happens anyway. You, saving the cat, bringing him out here, people getting excited, running around, the cats getting excited, crying, the ceiling breaking, people getting hit by sharp glass shards—”

“Okay, okay,” Flora said, “just hear me out—”

“Not okay! In what way do you envision a cat saving people from a shattering, falling ceiling?”

“By slowing down time.”

“You must be mad—”

You are mad to experience all this and to still not believe.”

“Have you been listening to anything I said? We are the descendants of a uniquely irresponsible and arrogant species. That’s why Firmament was built; to keep us from making our own decisions based on our own limited sensory interpretations—”

“And Firmament failed. It couldn’t register the changes that the cats triggered. There’s an entire meadow, and even a forest, and it still failed. And it couldn’t register the crack in the ceiling. Most importantly, it was built by that same species that you call irresponsible and arrogant, so how can you trust it?”

That was enough to make Ursula hesitate. Flora used the chance to push her way into the lifeboat with the cat cradled in her arms.

“And besides,” Flora said, once she found secure footing, “yes, I’ve been listening to what you said. And I’d like to point out that despite your very rational doubts about our species’ capacity to make sound decisions, you nevertheless expect them to learn. You expect them to improve. You want them to be better. That’s why you’re so frustrated. No one who truly expects nothing good can be as disappointed as you are.”

Ursula stared at Flora.

“So maybe this is the time when something good will happen out of something bad,” Flora said. “Or, at least, something unexpected out of the expected misery and failure that we’ve become so used to.”

Something glistened in Ursula’s eyes, against the starlight. Flora turned away and stroked the cat so that she didn’t have to see Ursula crying.

There was so much more that Flora wanted to tell Ursula.

How she’d at first thought that Ursula was just a stern grandmother character, possibly not even a real person, just a part of Firmament, the result of averaging out many different human voices.

How Flora had thought Ursula was manipulative, and why: because of Ursula’s versatility and attentiveness, mixed with nonchalance; because she balanced the dichotomy of being grandmotherly yet authoritative; because she was a whip, not a sword, figuratively.

Which, in turn, would have led to Flora’s conclusion: that Flora truly believed that the pit was lucky to have someone so passionate as Ursula as its leader when the glass ceiling was about to break.

Flora didn’t dislike Ursula. Even though Ursula had tried to kill Flora; even though Ursula would have killed the tabby, and all the other cats. If Flora had been put in Ursula’s position, she knew, she would’ve broken down, and not tonight; she would’ve broken down a long, long time ago.

And even a leader who didn’t break down deserved to take a sentimental moment without everyone else immediately pointing out, Are you about to cry? Are you?

So Flora said nothing and let Ursula swallow her tears.

Eventually, Ursula turned to Josephine and the pitkeepers in the meadow.

“Ellie, set up camp here,” Ursula said. “I foresee accidents; there’ll be people falling from the walkways. They’ll need help if they survive the fall and float downstream. Josephine, a would-be cat killer I was, I won’t deny that. But I hope you agree that no one has to die because of who I am. I’d appreciate if you’d help Ellie, despite what you think of me.”

“Of course, I’ll help,” Josephine said.

“Good. Thank you. Everyone else, parts of the ceiling will float downriver along with people. Prepare to catch anything and everything. People first; then the glass. The more we catch, the better. We don’t want any of the glass getting into the ocean and killing who knows what other organisms that might have survived unbeknownst to us.”

Again, that familiar guilt pricked Flora. In her mind’s eye, she saw the yellow and orange detergent bottles, sent by Josephine and missed by Flora and Viktor, floating into the ocean. Those were going to bother her for a long time to come. She’d never again be able to sit in her booth and idly watch cat videos on Firmament.

She’d have to do a lot more than that.

Maybe that wasn’t that bad.

“Let’s go,” Ursula said.

She pressed another button on the lifeboat’s control board. The motor vroomed loudly and pushed them into the river, then against its flow, toward the pit.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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.
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