Chapter 18

Chapter 18

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After conducting several experiments over the next two weeks, those among the pit population who’d spent their entire lives watching science videos on Firmament proposed this theory: that the cats had the ability to subdivide spacetime.

That—those science-video-lovers argued—was how a seedling planted right by Firmament’s air quality sensors (which were installed near the now-gone glass ceiling) grew at a “normal” speed while a seedling planted in the middle of the flatland on top of the cliff grew slower.

That’s right, those science-video-lovers would tell excitedly to anyone and everyone who was confused but willing to listen to a bunch of hypothetical nerd talk. Normal speed, for the area closer to the sensors; slower, for the flatland regions frequented by the cats.

At first, that theory seemed counter-intuitive. All these shrubs, trees, and grass, more than ever expected, should mean faster growth for the kitty-populated regions, no?

No, the science-video-lovers answered proudly.

They speculated that before all this recovery (before the meadow and forest had come to be instead of toxic landfills), any plants near the sensors had all died, as everyone had previously expected. Growth, inevitably, meant interaction with the toxic environment; normal growth rate meant normal toxin absorption rate—hence normal, expected deaths of those normal plants.

On the other hand, the plants growing in the heart of the cat habitat hadn’t needed to absorb as much air and water in the same “period of time.” (At this phrase, those science-video-lovers winked, winked, nodded, nodded, because everything was relative now and what static meaning had a “period of time”?)

Slowly, very slowly, the plants in the cat habitat had absorbed toxins as well as nutrients, recovered, grown, had absorbed some more, recovered, and grown. A mismatch between the toxins’ speed of existence and the plants’ speed of existence—that had been the key.

A virtuous cycle was created. And it was one that the people of the past, who’d loved to think of themselves as rational until they’d driven their civilization to near-death, couldn’t have dreamed of. So, now, to make up for all that closed-mindedness disguised as fake-smartery, the science-video-lovers went wild with their theories.

They ventured to suggest that in fact, the cats had the ability to direct their spacetime subdivision skills. Hence the forest, and how it grew so far away from the flatland.

The engineering-oriented people theorized that because of the subdivision of spacetime, the Firmament sensors had been unable to register the changing, habitable environment. If a signal couldn’t enter the sensor at the expected rate for which a device had been designed, then the sensor became unusable.

Imagine a star exploding a million light-years away, one of them said. Only after a million light-years can we perceive the light from its explosion. Perhaps such a lag has been created here, with the signals and the sensors.

Same with the ceiling cracks. Firmament hadn’t noticed the cracks because, maybe, the cats had manipulated those sensors too. The cats’ defense mechanism required that they kept themselves secret from humans.

“But then why did they break the ceiling if they wanted to hide from people?” people asked.

At this, even the wildest theorists stopped theorizing. To find an answer, they’d have to observe the cats, perhaps for as long as they’d watched science videos.

In fact, now was an opportune moment to begin observing, because the science-video-lovers and other curious people had gathered on the flatland. The ceiling was gone, and one could simply reach the flatland from the 1200th floor. (“Simply,” in contrast to earlier. Reaching the 1200th floor was still quite a feat if you lived on the 1st floor. But there, you had the advantage of reaching the meadow faster, by boat.)

Many people spent their free time sunbathing on the flatland, playing with the cats, and taking a stroll. Presently, a group of cats rubbed themselves against the legs of the science-video-lovers and non-nerds who’d gathered to discuss all that had been discovered in the past two weeks.

Indeed, one of the science-video-lovers thought. Why did the cats break the ceiling if they wanted to hide from people?

He was a leader of sorts among the nerds. A young man, only thirty-something, but the most passionate of all the nerds in the pit. Hence their leader.

He’d always been proud to be a nerd, and even more so now. Because, now, finally, the age of the nerds would return. And this time, unlike last time, he and his fellow thinkers would consider the most outrageous theories, even when they flew in the face of everything that Firmament had ever taught them.

The nerds would save humanity. Women would find him attractive (finally). So, considering the cats’ motivation was a great idea. Perhaps the key to this chain of events…

A cat meowed at him. Not at anyone else, but at him. A beautiful white Persian mix of some kind, with brilliant blue eyes that matched the color of the sky that he’d only recently seen firsthand. She rolled on her back and gazed at him.

“I think she wants you to rub her belly,” someone said.

“Is that what cats like?” the nerd said.

“I thought cats don’t like that,” someone else said.

People shrugged.

“I don’t know much about cats,” another said.

“Try rubbing her belly and see if she likes it.”

“Okay,” the nerd said.

He crouched down and approached the white cat. She continued to gaze at him with her sky-blue eyes. Carefully, slowly, he reached out for her belly… and rubbed.

The cat purred.

“Awwww,” the spectators said in unison.

The nerd grinned, especially when he noticed a pretty woman who’d just joined the group.

But then, a gray striped cat approached that pretty woman. The cat meowed at her, and her attention was instantly drawn away from the nerd. Delighted, she lifted the gray cat from the ground and patted him on the butt.

“Maybe the cats want something from us,” the nerd said, to reclaim the woman’s attention.

And it worked; she and the other onlookers turned to the nerd.

“Maybe there was something on the flatland that they couldn’t get on their own,” he said.

“Do you think they’re that intelligent?” someone said. “Enough to ‘know’ what they want and ‘search’ for it by orchestrating this?”

“After all that’s happened? Yes,” the nerd said solemnly.

“But then, by now, they must know that we don’t have much,” another person said. “We’ve been living inside that pit, clueless, for a hundred years, for heaven’s sake.”

The group nodded and murmured in agreement. More cats came, meowed, rubbed themselves against people’s legs, and demanded that they be patted or rubbed or otherwise loved.

“Strange,” people said, “very strange,” while they sat down on the ground or hugged the cats to give them whatever they wanted.

Some walked away from the group. The particular cats who’d chosen them wanted them to follow. The nerd watched as those people ended up lifting a heavy dead tree out of the way, or gathering branches and soft shrubs to rebuild a cat’s hiding place. Even while doing such work, those people beamed with satisfaction and pride. Look what I can do for my cat, they seemed to say.

The pretty woman had disappeared; probably to cater to her cat’s needs. The nerd might meet her again, might not, he didn’t know.

All he knew was that his cat’s eyes, round and glistening like marbles, looked so magical that he would’ve believed they contained whole universes in each of them, had he been a little boy.

And his cat’s soft fur felt real good against his fingers. She calmed him, and the soft purring had a frequency that was said to make people happier. That had been scientifically proven, a long, long time ago. Not the eye-as-the-universe part, but the purring-makes-you-happier part. That was proven.

So he kept rubbing and rubbing his cat’s belly, and she liked it tremendously.

“Strange,” the nerd said. “What could they possibly get from us?”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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