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Jump to Chapter 1
Booth 598-PPPPW had never been fuller than this. It was a boon that the hatch had come off during the tumult two weeks earlier. The air from the pit, now fresher than ever with the glass ceiling gone, entered the booth, along with the sparse light from the walkway lamps.
Flora’s stinking mat had been pushed against a wall and once again, slumped like a kid who’d been denied ice cream. The screen had been turned off, because there was no need for it.
A dozen real cats took up most of the space in the dim, crowded booth. A few particularly combative one- or two-year-olds punched the mat as if they needed to wage a personal vendetta against all things that stunk. But most other cats—white, black, gray, and every color in-between; brown, cream, striped, dotted—lazily circled around the two people in the middle of the room: Flora and Josephine.
Flora sat cross-legged on multiple layers of old newspaper. On her lap, Lux took a nap. That was what she’d named the orange tabby whom she’d fished out of the ventilation duct. Lux, her beacon, her glowing light in the dark, the cat that had led her out of the darkness of seeing the world only through Firmament. And the name sounded cool.
She kept fidgeting, but Lux didn’t mind. He didn’t find it odd that she wore a brand-new white T-shirt and blue jeans, for a change; but she did. The clothes felt unfamiliar against her skin—too new, too tight, and too uncomfortable. Too clean.
Maybe she should have chosen a pair of cotton pants. But cotton could tear much easier than denim. She’d chosen the right clothes for her upcoming journey.
Still, she didn’t want to think about how uncomfortable her shoes would be. Viktor had gifted her a pair of pitkeeper booths last week, but she hadn’t tried them on yet. Not once. She’d pushed them to the farthest end of the booth whenever she was sleeping, and hidden them behind the mat whenever she wasn’t.
Good thing that she hadn’t needed to think about the broken ventilation duct on top of that. No one had bothered to fix it; they didn’t need ventilation ducts anymore. One less thing to worry about.
Josephine knelt behind Flora. In Josephine’s hand, the scissors glistened. Her eyes were fixed on Flora’s long, messy mass of hair that reached her waist.
“Ready?” Josephine asked.
“Ready,” Flora said.
Without asking a second time, Josephine cut Flora’s hair along the shoulder line. Just like that, Flora felt lighter.
Again, one less thing to worry about.
After cutting her hair, Flora put Lux in the cobalt fanny pack that Josephine had washed and gifted her. Flora wanted to take Lux to the flatland. She wanted to see the view that Viktor had talked about, and Lux probably wanted to say goodbye to his friends and family.
On the climb up the ladder, Flora had to stop multiple times and step aside to one of the floors because so many people were climbing up or down and two people couldn’t use the ladder at the same time. But no one complained. There was an “up there” to go to now, and not just that; they had an “out downstream” as well. How exciting was that?
Flora doubted that many people needed the Firmament Lady’s stretching reminders anymore. She’d seen porn guy—that creep—the other day. Not climbing the ladder, of course not, but at least he was standing outside, not watching porn. That was proof enough that everyone was curious about the outside.
For those who did decide to climb up and down the ladders, those trips were tremendous exercises. Those who didn’t have the energy to climb all the way up in one stretch organized for booth swaps or sharing—which also required that people interacted with each other. And even those who weren’t interested in ever visiting the flatland or the meadow spent less time watching Firmament videos; there were so many stories to hear from those who had visited the “up there” and the “out downstream.”
With Lux in the fanny pack and the sturdy but heavy boots from Viktor—yes, Flora had finally worn them—the climb was no walk in the park. How anybody enjoyed trapping their feet in these contraptions called shoes was beyond Flora. Outdoors, maybe, eventually, she’d come to value them; but indoors? Phewy.
Nevertheless, Flora managed. Panting and perspiring, she reached the 1200th floor. From there, she climbed the brand-new ladders that had only recently been installed.
The wind whipped her short hair from her sweaty face once she reached the top. Lux squeezed his little head through the opening of the fanny pack.
“Look, Lux,” Flora said, beaming. “Your home.”
Lux didn’t need to be told twice. He meowed impatiently. Before Flora climbed off the ladder and set foot on the flatland, he slipped out. Quickly, he disappeared among the crowd of people and cats who’d gathered in the flatland on this beautiful, sunny day.
Now, people had a place to go to during the day—up, out, to explore, to enjoy—and the booths were a place to return to at night. Of course, Ursula and the pitkeepers would have to figure out safer and more efficient ways to get people to places, within the pit and in and out of it; but for now, everyone was happy just to be alive, and even happier to be surrounded by meowing and purring.
Flora stretched her arms high above her head. Only two weeks ago, she wouldn’t have thought that she’d be smiling outside, sunshine tickling her skin, with plenty of space to stretch her arms in whichever way she wanted. And this air, so fresh. Pure air. Unfiltered, because natural filters took care of all that.
Slowly, she strolled in the direction of column ZZZZZ. From there, she walked some more until she reached the edge of the cliff.
The forest in which she’d hidden with Lux and Viktor looked flat from this height. Beyond the forest, more meadows stretched as far as she could see. The river split that scenery in half.
This could be the last time Flora ever saw this scenery. Later today, she was to leave the pit, to be the first living human to venture out beyond the limit of what was visible to the human eyes from here. And Lux would be the first living cat to do the same.
Little Flora, with the mat and the screen as her only personal belongings, on an adventure with Lux…
At the voice of an older woman, Flora turned around.
Someone very familiar yet not readily identifiable stood in front of Flora. A woman in her fifties, maybe. She smiled at Flora. A faint sort of smile, as if the woman had just awoken from a long period of hibernation.
“Yes?” Flora said.
The woman’s face fell, just a little—she seemed too content to be fully disappointed on this day.
“You don’t remember me,” she said.
“I don’t… I’m sorry. Who are you?”
Flora blushed. Since leaving the pit for the first time, she hadn’t felt this confused again. She’d thought that it’d be a while until she’d have to sort through contradictory, simultaneous emotions once more.
And yet, here she stood, facing her mother.
The mother who used to collect detergent bottles for the stickers depicting flowers.
The mother who’d named her Flora.
The mother who’d barely looked around when Flora had left to move to her own booth.
Now Flora recognized familiar features on the woman’s face. It was the face that Flora had most often seen in the reflection of a screen, while a gardening documentary was playing.
“Yes,” Mother said. “It’s been a while.”
“Yes,” Flora said, for the lack of better things to say.
“But it felt like no time at all.”
Flora wanted to say that for her, it had felt like a lot of time. So much time so that she’d had to bury herself in cat videos, to the point of drowning. But apparently, Mother really had hibernated, in a way; she’d never been awake, not while watching the gardening documentaries, and probably never while she’d raised Flora for the first six years of Flora’s life.
Mother smiled. Flora hoped to sense some bitterness in that act, but there was none. That, strangely, triggered a bitter taste in Flora’s own mouth.
But then, Mother looked back and gestured at the seemingly endless flatland behind her.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” Mother said. “I’m wondering if there’ll be any flowers if I keep going in that direction.” She faced Flora again. “That’s what I named you after, you know that, right? Flora?”
Even while thinking “Of course, Mother doesn’t show up for fourteen years and somehow manages to want to go exactly in the opposite direction that I’m about to take for my journey,” Flora had to smile. Once upon a time, Mother had used to want something. Now, maybe, she might learn to want again.
“Yes, I know,” Flora said. “I’ll see if I can find some flowers where I go.”
“Yes, but in that direction.” Flora pointed toward the far end of the river, where it met the horizon.
Mother nodded. Then, she did something that surprised Flora more than their reunion: with her fingers, Mother brushed back Flora’s short hair.
“This hairstyle suits you,” Mother said.
Then, just as unexpectedly as she’d shown up, she turned away and vanished into the crowd.
The engine of the boat that was to carry Flora along the river hummed, on stand-by. The boat was painted in the same greenish-blue of said river on a sunny day like today.
Having boarded it minutes ago, just outside of the pit, Flora looked over the scenery.
First, the meadow, sprinkled with Firmament-educated newbie scientists and the more tourism-oriented types. Many had fished out old smartphones from the storerooms, had charged them, and were recording everything of interest, particularly the grass.
Then, the forest. A group of people had bravely walked into its depths earlier this morning. Their mission was to collect information on the flora and fauna while affecting the forest as little as possible. They, too, had taken old phones with them.
Lastly, the cliff that sheltered the pit. That cliff looked so very tall from this close that Flora couldn’t see the flatland even when she craned her neck all the way back. She tottered. Lux meowed in protest in the fanny pack around her waist.
“Sorry,” she said.
He kept meowing, this time at Viktor, Ellie, Josephine, and Ursula, who stood in the meadow.
Viktor and Ellie hugged each other. Josephine wiped her tears with a fancy handkerchief she’d received from Ursula. Ursula stood tall and straight like a general.
Which she was. In the past two weeks, Ursula had organized the early investigation of the terrain, the treatment of the injured, and the opening-up of the meadow and the flatland with extreme military efficiency combined with grandmotherly love. Everyone who’d finally seen the Firmament Lady, in the flesh, had come to adore her. This seemed to perplex Ursula—but just a little. She enjoyed her popularity. Not for some vain reason, of course not. She enjoyed it because popular support meant that she could do her job effectively.
Today, Ursula wore a pink scarf under her mole-brown pitkeeper’s uniform. She took out a smartphone from her pocket. She placed it in Flora’s hands and shook them firmly.
“Have a safe trip, Flora,” Ursula said. “I wish you’d have waited until we’d formed a proper team and a long-range communication system. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“As long as I don’t hinder anyone else from doing what they gotta do,” Flora said, grinning.
“Yes,” Ursula said. She smiled. “We’ll be looking forward to having you back. Record everything, as much as possible. Always keep it charged.”
“And this.” Ursula took out a sky-blue silk scarf from her pocket. She handed it to Flora.
Flora took it. “What’s this?”
“A gift, unrelated to the pit’s interests. It’s from me.”
Flora unfolded the scarf. The lightweight fabric fluttered in the breeze; if air were to solidify and become tangible, it would take this form.
“Thank you so much,” Flora said.
“It’s nothing,” Ursula said. “I have a large collection of scarves.” Then she hurriedly added, “But I washed it. I only wore it twice. It’s the best we have in the pit.”
“I love it,” Flora said.
At that, Ursula finally relaxed and smiled.
Now it was Viktor and Ellie’s turn. “Viktor and Ellie”! Just thinking of them as a set, a pair, a team made Flora want to giggle.
“Goodbye, Flora, and good luck,” Ellie said, with that blissfully content smile of a romantically-minded person who’d just found her one true love.
Next to Ellie, Viktor looked relaxed without looking old. Flora guessed that he wanted to live, more than ever.
“Good luck,” he said. He shook Flora’s hand. “Those boots will save you from the worst.”
“Thanks, both,” Flora said.
“And by the way,” Viktor said, “I take back what I said.”
Viktor hesitated. “That people like you shouldn’t have cats. I take it back.”
“I think Lux will be very happy with you,” he said.
Lux meowed. They laughed.
All was well and happy, until Flora faced Josephine, and tears came to her eyes.
“Oh, don’t you cry, you,” Josephine said, while she was already breaking into tears and embracing Flora to hide that fact.
“Don’t you cry,” Flora said.
“I will be. And I’ll try to catch those detergent bottles that you sacrificed for me.”
“And I’ll record everything and we’ll watch everything together when I get back.”
They wiped off their tears with the backs of their hands and firmly nodded. Though they were discussing future plans, they both knew this might be the last time they saw each other. Everything from now on was unknown territory. In a situation like this, even when you don’t want to think about the possibility of never seeing the other person again, it’s always best to present a courageous face when parting. Then, whenever you look back, you have no regrets.
“Well, then,” Flora said.
She nodded at the group. They nodded back. It was time.
Flora pressed the Go button on the control board. It was as simple as that. The motor vroomed and the blue-green boat proceeded downstream.
Other people on the meadow noticed. They waved goodbye. Some, who had a phone in their hands, recorded Flora. And Flora recorded them.
Those people would soon upload today’s videos on Firmament, for future generations. And Flora’s videos, she hoped, would one day also become one of the many in the archives.
Anyone who was willing to type in the necessary search phrases would be able to find these videos. Anyone who bothered to find out about the recent events would find out: the good, the bad, the ugly.
Ursula hadn’t been alone in her worry that things might go wrong again.
What if people pushed for cutting down the forest and destroying everything else that was on this planet, then wanted to move to the moon or Mars?
What if people revolted, angry that they’d been kept in the pit unnecessarily?
What if the cats attacked them? What if other animals attacked them?
What if? Oh, what if?
But if things did go wrong, then that, too, future generations could witness. And maybe, one day, they’d learn to not repeat the same mistakes over and over again, before it was too late.
Once the waving and recording people disappeared from view, Flora turned around and recorded the river in front of her. In one hand, her phone; with the other, she rubbed Lux’s forehead, where he had a particularly dark-orange “M” mark.
He purred, eyes closed. Flora kept her eyes wide open.
During all the years of watching cat videos, Flora had never imagined that she’d be the first to leave the pit area. Firmament knew exactly what Flora loved and Flora loved it for that. There’d been no reason to leave. She’d doubted that she could survive without the cat videos.
But now, Flora was excited. She didn’t know what exactly would happen. She didn’t even know what exactly could happen. In fact, she’d realized that she didn’t know much about anything exactly, or even vaguely.
Imagine this: one of the gardening documentaries that Mother had watched had said that blue was a rare color in nature. And yet, look:
A few hours after leaving the pit, everything around Flora began turning bluer and bluer as the river expanded. And the sky, blue too. And the cobalt fanny back, and the blue-green boat, and the sky-blue scarf—though not of nature—blue too.
Everything was blue.
Not gray-brown, like the rocky walls of the pit; not mole-brown, like the pitkeeper uniforms; not metallic-brown like the booths either.
Blue. Who would’ve thought that there was so much blue in this world?
Some day, Flora and Lux would reach the ocean, where the breeze smelled of salt and the blue was limitless. She’d have to be careful not to steer too far from land, but steer she would.
Perhaps she’d reach one of those beaches with incredibly fine sand. There, walking barefoot would make sense. How she’d revel in being barefoot again! And how wonderfully curious Lux would jump up and down—
—unless Lux had already experienced more than her. That was quite possible. A spacetime-subdividing kitty, no kidding.
But when it came to Flora, a blank canvas, she was.
And even if all the experience she could gather on her journey were as insignificant as a single black dot, it’d still be a dot more than what she’d hitherto experienced.
Not even a million likes and dislikes could replace that single dot.
© 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.
— The End. —