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Jump to Chapter 1
Tonight was the night that tested the strength of Flora’s eardrums. If she’d thought that the flatland cats’ cries had been bad, the human screaming and stomping in the pit were worse. Partly, because of the volume and echoes; but mostly, because Flora could understand the words.
“Judgment day!” a man said. “The ceiling shall break! The end of time! God, in the form of cats! All ends tonight! Repent, repent!”
A woman had half crawled through an open hatch and said, “My baby boy, I love you. I love you so much, no matter what happens.”
Children cried. Adults cried. Worse, some children and adults laughed as if they’d given up and gone mad. Sounds from various Firmament videos overlapped with all those human noises and became unintelligible.
Videos about doomsday; videos with prayers and hymns; music videos of the rock, hip-hop, and pop genres; videos about the one thing that people loved and wanted to hold onto—vlogs, fashion shows, reality shows, game streams, gardening documentaries, even cat videos.
All of them mishmashed as the ceiling was about to break, let in the toxic air, and decimate everyone.
Toxic air, in these people’s minds, that was. These people didn’t know that the outside was safe.
Flora had no idea how to tell them when they were so preoccupied with madly panicking. It appeared that Ursula didn’t have any idea either, beyond pressing some buttons on the digital control board and making the lifeboat float in place, somewhere near column YYYYY.
Then Ursula wildly waved to get some attention.
“Everyone, calm down! Stay calm!” she said.
Of course, no one heard or saw her.
The wild smell of the river, which Flora had feared all her life, surrounded her. That smell of uncontrollable force. That smell of nature, ready to swallow un-nature. The orange tabby in Flora’s arms had curled up and buried his head.
Thousands of people seemed to share Flora and the tabby’s fear about the river, but also about the ceiling crack, and about the chaos outside of their booths. They’d locked themselves up. But thousands others were running around the walkways, so that the air trembled; the panic was tangible. Some among those panicked folks were pitkeepers.
Chaos and mayhem, just as Ursula had predicted.
Together, Flora and Ursula looked up at the one thousand and two hundred stories of booths that flanked the river, and the numerous wooden walkways that shook precariously.
Another sharp yet heavy cracking sound from the ceiling echoed in the pit.
Though it was impossible to see from the river what was happening up there, clearly, the ceiling was continuing to break even though the flatland cats had stopped yowling, growling, and hissing.
Those who’d been running around now panicked further; some, in fact, lost balance.
“No!” Flora said.
Too late. A man fell; a woman fell elsewhere; many more fell, sometimes by themselves, at other times pulling others down with them in a futile attempt to save themselves.
Ursula hurriedly pressed more buttons on the control board. A lid popped on the inside wall of the boat, revealing a compartment.
“Do something,” Ursula said, under her breath. “Whatever you were going to do with that cat, do it now.”
Ursula pulled out several rescue tubes from the open compartment. All of them were connected to the boat by strong ropes.
Flora felt useless. But what was she supposed to do? Talk to the kitty? Ask him nicely?
The falling people splashed a firework of water to all sides when they smashed into the river. Flora shielded the tabby. Ursula didn’t bother to block her face with her arms; she was too busy throwing the rescue tubes at the flailing people.
Flora gazed down at the orange tabby. He gazed up at her.
Please, if we don’t do something, they’ll really want to kill you; you, and all your friends, and me.
And before Flora said those words out loud, the kitty nodded. Softly, he meowed.
A chorus of meowing responded from above the ceiling.
Ursula stopped pulling at a rope connecting a rescue tube to the boat.
“Not more crying,” she said, “less!”
An old man hanging onto the boat itself gazed up at the ceiling.
Wide-eyed, he said, “It’s happening again, again…!”
Ursula and Flora looked up.
“They’re making it worse!” Ursula said.
Indeed, the ceiling cracks only split louder and faster, and judging by the multiplying sounds, branched out into smaller cracks, which splintered and fissured like dry earth during a drought.
More of the people running around the walkways broke out in panicked prayer or weeps. Some fell on their knees, abruptly blocking the way; others tripped over them. More people fell down the pit, into the river.
“No no no,” Flora told the tabby. “The other way around, the other way around!”
But the tabby shook his head.
He actually shook his head.
Flora stared at him, this baby animal in her arms, not so animal-like anymore.
Sure, she’d always thought of cats as intelligent beings. All those Persians, Norwegians, Siamese; every kind of Shorthairs and Longhairs; pretty with their stripes, dots, lines, and swirling patterns—they were able to communicate with their owners and other animals.
But with this orange tabby, it was more than that. He understood her intent and possessed an intent of his own.
The flatland cats didn’t stop meowing. In fact, Flora’s tabby kept meowing as if to encourage them. It was a miracle that he and his friends could communicate through this noise at all. But that wouldn’t be the first miracle that had happened today, and not the most surprising one either.
So, Flora placed the orange tabby on the floor of the orange lifeboat—the tabby, of a softer shade of that color, and the boat, of an acid kind. Then, she began pulling at the rescue tubes; a few of the people who’d fallen in the river had managed to catch those things.
“What are you doing?” Ursula said. “Talk to your magic kitty.” Now, there was some sarcasm in her voice, motivated by despair.
“He’s doing what he can do,” Flora said.
Ursula glanced back at the tabby, who kept meowing and jumping up and down, staring at the ceiling. Was he orchestrating something?
“No kidding,” Ursula said. “He’s doing something all right.”
“I think they think the ceiling has to break.”
“Great, just great!”
But Ursula didn’t have time to keep arguing. If they couldn’t order the cats around, there was no point trying to stop them. Both Ursula and Flora pulled at the rescue tubes, helped people get on the boat, and warned them about the orange tabby. (Don’t step on him, please. Don’t get angry at him, please.) Then they threw the rescue tubes once more.
Most people flailing in the water failed to catch one. The river tore them away from the pit. Soon, there wasn’t any space left in the lifeboat; there was Flora, Ursula, and twenty more people huddled together and shivering. Women, men, boys, girls, babies.
Good that Viktor and the other pitkeepers were there to catch these people, otherwise they’d find themselves with Josephine’s detergent bottles in the wide, unknown ocean…
The folks in the lifeboat yelped.
“What?” said Flora and Ursula.
They glanced back. Everyone was looking up. So they looked up too.
There—on the ceiling, far, far above them—was movement.
“They’re trying to kill us!” a woman said, shivering, drenched from head to toe.
“We have to sacrifice that cat!” a man pointed at the orange tabby.
“Don’t you dare touch him!” Flora said.
The man lunged for the cat. Flora too—
A thunderous quake shook the pit. But not from the earth; the quake came from the sky.
“Holy smokes,” a boy in the boat said. “It’s raining cats.”
Flora watched, as she sheltered the orange tabby in both her hands. Even the man who’d wanted to sacrifice him watched in awe.
Lazily, elegantly, the way cats were prone to move, several dozens of them fell down from the gaping opening that used to be covered by the glass ceiling.
“Fell” was the word that had to be used—not “flew” or “floated,” because clearly, they didn’t attempt to slow down or control their downward movement. No flapping of wings or anything; no flapping of tails either.
However, “fell” wasn’t an exactly suitable word either, because of the leisurely speed at which the cats traveled. There was no urgency in their fall. Neither was there any urgency or danger in the downward movement of the glass pieces. Some pieces were as large as car windows; others were so tiny, pulverized, that they glittered in the dim lighting of the pit like fairy dust.
At this moment, gravity didn’t apply the same way to the various organisms and objects filling the pit.
For the cats and the glass pieces, one speed.
For the humans, walkways, and everything else, another.
All the panicked people on the walkways stopped panicking and watched the slow-raining of cats and glass. All the rescued people on the boat stared too.
The only things moving, aside from the descending cats and the glass, were the videos on Firmament: they madly switched and cut faster to grab the viewer’s attention, and failed miserably.
Then the river slowed down. Flora noticed, from the sudden jerk of the lifeboat. Its motor had been running steadily, keeping it in place, preventing it from being swept by the torrent. Now, with the river slowed down, the motor needed adjusting too.
The cats took care of that. The motor slowed down to match the tempo of the river; the boat stopped jerking; the balance was restored.
Eventually, all the glass pieces touched the river surface—touched, instead of plunging unceremoniously. Almost no water splashed. After that moment of touch, only after that, did the larger pieces of glass dive underwater, gently and smoothly.
It was like watching excellent springboard divers: perfect entry into the water, head first, very little water splashed—as if absorbed by the water.
Then, those glass pieces floated back up, flat like frozen ice plates. Pulverized glass settled down around them.
Now it was the cats’ turn to land. On those floating plates, the cats landed with much composure, in highly dignified postures. Only cats could fall from a height of two or three miles and still remain that calm and unhurt.
Flora laughed, breaking the near-silence. No one bothered to react to Flora; she doubted that anyone had fully registered her laughter.
All eyes were on these magical creatures. One didn’t see sights like these often. A once-in-a-lifetime show.
“Everyone,” Ursula said.
Once again, she’d been the first to recover calm. Some heads turn toward her. And even then, most people on the walkways were staring at the nearest cat that floated downstream, on a glass plate, while grooming.
Hatch doors opened throughout the pit. Those who’d chosen to hide earlier had noticed the sudden, relative calm.
Only the unintelligible, haphazard Firmament video noises disrupted the quiet. Compared to the earlier confusion caused by the breaking ceiling and madly panicking people, a bunch of screens clamoring for attention was nothing.
“There is no need for panic,” Ursula said. Her voice echoed in the pit. “We will be safe. The cats mean no harm. And— I realize that there must be a lot of questions. We will cover everything that happened and will happen, one thing at a time. Those who are unhurt, return to your booths. Pitkeepers, assist those who are injured.”
Ursula faced Flora. Then she looked down at the orange tabby in Flora’s hands. All the rescued people stared at him.
“Would he cooperate if I told him that I want to return to where we were, so I need him to make the river flow normally?” Ursula said, unsure.
The tabby meowed once more.
Promptly, the river and motor speeds adjusted; the lifeboat floated downstream.
“Unbelievable,” Ursula muttered.
Everyone in the lifeboat exchanged glances for one moment—and as soon as Flora flopped down in the middle of the lifeboat, lively discussion broke out.
What is that cat? How can it do the things it does? What about the other cats?
Then, eventually, a lady who looked like a centenarian asked Ursula, “Are you the Firmament Lady?”
Ursula blushed and said, “I am, ma’am.”
The crowd broke out in delighted screams, as if they’d met their favorite celebrity.
From column YYYYY to ZZZZZ, the boat traveled. And soon, when the pit ended and the night sky full of stars opened up, all talk came to a halt.
Even with the river gently splashing on the banks, this had to be the quietest quiet that these people had ever experienced. No video sounds from Firmament reached them. No echoing of the pit. Just the plain, natural sounds of water, rustling leaves, and the soft noises from farther downstream:
Cats hopped off their glass plates and groomed on the dewy meadow.
People waded out of the river. Those who needed help were being fished out by Viktor, the stern female pitkeeper, and the silly-blue-eyed twins.
A campfire had been started. Josephine and Ellie allocated seats on blankets to those who’d just gotten out of the river.
Flora kissed the orange tabby. He licked her nose with his little sandpaper-coarse tongue. She’d never let go of him, ever again, and something told her that he was quite fond of her too. They both knew, after all, that she’d taken a bullet for him, and that he’d ensured it’d never reach her.
© 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.