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Jump to Chapter 1
“Yyyyy,” said Josephine.
Her delighted, giddy voice echoed because she spoke directly at the pit structure through the open hatch of her booth.
“Will you keep quiet,” hissed Flora, climbing out first.
She shuddered at the cave smell, the splashing river a mile below her, and the impending return trip on the walkway.
The thing was called a walkway, but shook as precariously as an ancient bridge connecting two mountain peaks, so that very few managed to properly walk on it; most people alternated between crawling and waddling.
This walkway ran parallel to the booths. One per floor. Nothing concrete, no firm support, just a bunch of wood panels with gaps between them to show the walkway on the lower floor. That was the walkway.
“But it’s so exciting!” whispered Josephine. “Kitties? Real kitties?”
“I don’t know if it’s kitties or one kitty.”
Saying this, Flora tried to ignore the dizziness that overcame her whenever she was outside. She grabbed the rope that marked the edge of the walkway. The rope was so thick that a grown woman like Flora could barely hold it comfortably.
Such physical dangers of the walkway, however, weren’t the worst part; the worst happened in Flora’s mind, due to her ability to imagine and extrapolate.
Take the rope, for instance. Its ridiculous thickness was one of the reasons you never saw children playing on the walkways. Not only were the little ones likely to fall through the gaps between the ropes, but also, should they fall, they couldn’t catch the rope and stop their descent.
But the rope couldn’t be any thinner. It had to support the weight of the walkway and the people who used it. The engineers, who’d put so much thought into Firmament and keeping the human mind preoccupied, hadn’t had the time to arrange for lightweight, strong, yet not-requiring-much-thickness material to ensure the physical safety of little humans. Maybe they’d wanted the little ones to go through a cruel kind of natural selection.
Everything that could have been different, had the engineers prioritized something other than Firmament, crossed Flora’s mind. She sighed.
Very few lightbulbs illuminated the walkways of the pit structure—one every quarter mile or so. Darkness buried some parts of the paths entirely, and the stretch from Josephine’s booth to Flora’s happened to fall in such a dark region.
If Flora were a goldfish, life in the pit wouldn’t be so bad. She’d focus on the quarter-mile stretch before her, then the next, and the next.
But alas, Flora was no goldfish, she was human. And to be human was to be capable of imagining the worst. In another world, at another time, that capability must have aided in planning a fight or flight. Here, all it did was to make Flora freeze at the overwhelming scale of the pit, which she couldn’t possibly actually see in its entirety.
Again, the unpleasant taste of thrill lingered in her mouth.
She knew that on this side alone, more than a thousand stories’ worth of booths were stacked up and down, and more than a thousand booths stretched to the front and behind Josephine’s. Then there was the other side, facing this side. Both sides were equally long, equally high.
Several booth’s width of distance separated the two sides. Between them, a chasm stretched so deep so that the occasional lights from the lower-floor bulbs looked like a series of blurry, aimless halos that had lost the heads of the saints they were supposed to surround.
At the bottom ran the splashing river—distant, but so fast-flowing and echoey that it always made its presence known on Flora’s floor.
Flora closed her eyes as she waited for Josephine. Flora would have stayed inside, hadn’t she been in the way. Presently, Josephine was crawling all over her booth to collect the tools for the kitty/kitties rescue.
When Josephine finally said “Done” and emerged with a bright cobalt fanny pack around her torso, Flora opened her eyes. She cleared her throat.
“Let’s go,” she said.
And thus Flora led the way to her booth. She kept one hand on the thick rope and the other hand on the wall.
Be a goldfish, she thought. Concentrate on the imminent danger, not on what lies ahead of that, below, or above. Limited thinking can be a weapon. Or at least a nice shield. And think of the kitty. Or kitties.
Silently, Flora examined each wood panel—treaded softly once, twice, before adding weight to each step—breathed in and out shallowly, lest any over-breathing should throw her off balance…
Flora glanced up. Hundreds of additional booth floors stacked on top of their floor. The exact number of floors, she didn’t know. She’d never visited the top floor. Why bother? It wasn’t like there was an exit up there—though she could think of one advantage of living up there: not hearing the river. Maybe those residents up there weren’t aware of the river at all.
She could see the tint of the glass ceiling from here: greenish, against the brilliantly, blindingly white sky of the day. A hundred years ago, the sky had been so reliably blue that there used to be a color called “sky-blue.”
Not anymore. Not from this angle. The ceiling existed to block out most of the harmful radiations and pollutants that might result in annihilation. Who cared about blue or sky-blue when the greenish glass got the job done by making the sky look pale?
“Yyyy,” said Josephine again, fidgeting so vigorously that the walkway shook. She smiled broadly.
“Stop,” said Flora, pressing herself against a booth.
“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.” Josephine stood extra-still, unsupported by the rope or the wall. She just stood there in the middle of the walkway.
Told ya. Josephine enjoyed social interactions, which meant that she had to get out of her booth often, which meant that she wasn’t as scared of the thought of children falling or a reminder of the pit’s immense scale. If Josephine weren’t a person like that, Flora wouldn’t have asked her for help.
Eventually, they arrived at the booth with 598-PPPPW stamped in neat white letters above the hatch: Flora’s home. Josephine’s, back there, was marked 598-PPPPZ. This meant that they lived on the 598th floor—Flora in column PPPPW; Josephine in column PPPPZ.
Flora clasped the handle on her booth and punched in the password on the keypad.
“I might have imagined the sound,” she said. She didn’t want to disappoint Josephine. “All I do is watch cat videos, so who knows, I might be imagining cats.”
“Hurry,” whispered Josephine.
Before Josephine began fidgeting and shaking the walkway again, Flora’s hatch clicked open. Flora hurriedly crawled in. Josephine followed eagerly. The screen, which had been in sleep mode during Flora’s absence, promptly turned on and showed: cats grooming, cats fighting, cats hunting. Flora touched the screen and pressed the Off button while Josephine noticeably held her breath because she was too polite to hold her nose.
“Sorry,” whispered Flora.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Josephine—which compelled her to breathe in some of the stale air in the booth.
But truly, it didn’t matter. Without having to discuss the next steps, Flora and Josephine remained crouched on the metal floor, between the empty screen and the mat, listening for…
Josephine gasped. She pressed one hand on her mouth, the other around the fanny pack that she hugged in front of her. For a moment, Flora thought Josephine was going to cry. Then Flora felt something warm and watery rise in her own eyes.
“We have to get it out,” she said hurriedly.
The last thing she wanted to do was to waste time crying and miss the chance to save the little thing in the ventilation duct.
© 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.