Chapter 4

Chapter 4

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Inside Josephine’s bright cobalt fanny pack were the following tools: a hammer, scissors, an empty plastic water bottle, and duct tape. Inside Flora’s booth were the following tools: a video screen and a mat.

While Josephine spread out her tools on the booth floor, Flora touched the screen that had been turned off earlier.

The screen awoke and showed a message, “Would you like to continue watching?”

Flora imagined Firmament, the driving force behind the screen, asking that question in a sarcastic, offended tone. How could you, after all these years, abandon your true companion so easily and so quickly for some random “real” kitty? Come on, just press Y. People never change.

The cat continued to meow inside the duct. That had been Josephine and Flora’s conclusion, that it sounded like there was only one cat in there.

“Ready?” asked Josephine.

“One sec,” said Flora.

She’d noticed that the place she’d touched just now—the place where the on/off button was located—was the only place on the screen with fingerprints.

Yes, Flora had never bothered to clean her mat, but she’d always kept the screen in tip-top condition. She’d even contemplated getting a new T-shirt just so that she could wipe the screen clean once in a while. This, because recently, the T-shirt she was wearing (the one that resembled a cheap, thin canvas painted with mud and dust) had been making the screen dirtier with every wipe, rather than cleaner. Last time, it had taken her half an hour to find the final clean spot of her T-shirt, then wipe the screen with that.

But she’d been putting off going to the storage booth. It was a long trip getting down there, to the 516th floor, so much closer to the torrential river, and an even longer trip when combined with the time it took to get back.

So, Flora had been immensely grateful for Firmament’s ability to analyze her preferences and show an infinite array of videos while minimizing her need to touch the screen. Less touching, less need for a clean T-shirt.

But now, she was about to defy its recommendations by actively searching for what to watch.

The message kept blinking on the screen: “Would you like to continue watching?”

Flora pressed Y instead of N. Promptly, Firmament showed her the next amazing cat video. Flora pressed “Manual Mode.” Instantly, Firmament showed what Flora hadn’t felt the need to see for a long time: the main trunk of the elaborate tree structure that visualized the digital archives.

“Which one?” said Flora.

“Anything loud,” said Josephine.

Flora scanned the branch names, listed in alphabetical order: aerial shots… arithmetic… automotive…

“Automotive?” said Flora.

“Yeah, find a truck crash or something,” said Josephine, lifting the hammer from the floor.

Flora entered the automotive branch in the archive tree, and among the many items—the thumbnail fruits that the branch bore—she chose the one showing the moment of a crash: a semitrailer into another semitrailer.

She clicked. This video wasn’t very long. On a snowy day, two semitrailers drove on opposite sides of the highway. Too fast, too recklessly on the icy road, they approached, both drivers lost control at around the same time—smash!

The booth shook from the earsplitting noise of the crash. Flora thought she could hear the panicked hissing of the cat in the ventilation duct, but couldn’t be sure because her eardrums couldn’t distinguish loud and soft at the same time. On the screen, auto parts flew, smoke and fire broke out, the sedans and SUVs in the vicinity pulled over, some drivers fled, others stormed toward the semitrailers to pull those drivers out—

Flora put this video on loop. The crash repeated again and again. Josephine raised the hammer high in the air. She struck the ventilation pipe. Flora picked up the scissors. Josephine kept striking the ventilation duct, carefully timing that with the clash of the semitrailers and the shouts of the alarmed drivers.

“Keep your noise down!” the middle-aged porn guy from upstairs said.

You keep your noise down!” Flora shouted back. “I’m so sick of listening to sex moans!”

The guy didn’t respond. It was possible that he hadn’t realized that the neighbors around him had been aware of his interests.

Josephine kept striking the ventilation duct.

The porn guy mumbled something, but soon, Flora heard the familiar voice of the Firmament Lady from upstairs.

“It’s been four hours. Time to stretch.”

The porn guy cursed loudly and got up, judging from the creaking above Flora. She half grimaced, half laughed. That guy had actually managed to watch porn for four straight hours without the booth registering significant movement. Quite disturbing. Though the idea of significant movements in that booth was equally disturbing.

Thankfully, there were more hopeful thoughts to concentrate on, because when Josephine struck the ventilation duct several times more—

A crack appeared in the duct. A sulfuric stench of collective fart hissed through that crack and filled Flora’s booth.

“Oh, gosh,” said Josephine, stepping back and holding her nose. (Doing so in reaction to this smell couldn’t possibly offend Flora.)

Flora, however, forced herself to approach the ventilation duct and began cutting its thin metal casing with the scissor, trying to stick to the use of the blade tips, not the parts of the blades closer to the pivot point. This was because the panicky growling had definitely intensified, though she couldn’t see the kitty yet. If she were to use the scissors recklessly, she might injure the kitty; then, she might as well have hammered the duct into pieces instead of using scissors. She had to be careful, gentle with each cut, though using the blade tips meant that cutting the metal pipe required more force on her part.

“Take turns?” asked Josephine.

“It’s okay,” said Flora.

The semitrailers kept crashing into each other. Beads of sweat fell from Flora’s temples on the floor.

The upstairs guy shouted, “At least my moans have some variety!” and Josephine shouted, “Shut up!”

At that moment, the neighbors to the left and right knocked on the walls. Someone knocked on the hatch.

Then, someone said, “What’s this smell?” and coughed.

The porn guy snorted loudly, vindicated. He wasn’t the only one who thought that watching porn was better for the neighbors than watching loud semitrailer crashes on a loop and generating an unpleasant smell.

“We have to hurry,” whispered Josephine.

Flora doubted that anyone could break in through the hatch, but if anyone were to suspect foul play within this booth and were to wait around until Josephine and Flora left, and saw the broken ventilation duct, they could be attacked. And Flora couldn’t blame them. They’d ask questions. What did you break that for? Then they’d find the kitty, and be outraged that she’d endangered the lives of those in her pit column to rescue a “mere” kitty.

Don’t you have enough of them in the videos? they’d say. Those who were more honest with their own thought process might even ask, Is that thing edible?

The knocking, the shaking, the shouting exacerbated around Flora’s booth. The Firmament Lady wasn’t going to need to remind anyone in this area that It’s been four hours, time to stretch, not today. She could take the rest of the day off.

Josephine had stopped saying “Hurry.” She nervously glanced up and down, then at the hatch.

Just.

One.

More.

Cut…

Flora jerked back.

“What?” said Josephine, alarmed.

Flora pointed at the gaping crack in the pipe. There, through the sharp edges of the clumsily cut pipe, they saw: a hint of some tangled, dirty brownish fur.

Josephine covered her mouth with her hands and was about to break into tears when Flora took the hammer from her. Flora meant to pull the pipe wider apart with the claw end to free the trapped animal.

But at that moment, the screen froze. The booth fell silent.

Both Flora and Josephine whirled around to face the screen.

“What the hell…” Flora said.

“I’ve never seen…” Josephine said.

Something that they’d never seen before had shown up on the screen: the wait cursor.

The only reason Flora knew of the concept of a wait cursor was that she’d seen such things on Firmament videos before. Each brand of computer or operating system used to have its own design for a wait cursor. But Firmament, so fast, so automated, had never needed to show Flora one.

But now it did. Its wait cursor was an infinite loop of a golden star that exploded, its particles at first bursting outward, then folding inward, only to form a core that exploded again.

The meowing in the pipe intensified, forcing Flora and Josephine to once again concentrate on the poor creature that they’d been trying to save.

Only problem: the porn guy upstairs was saying, “Was that a real cat sound?”

“Oh, no,” Josephine said.

The sudden silence meant that the shield of noise had vanished; the cat was exposed.

Hurriedly, Flora pulled the pipe apart with the claw end of the hammer. The cat growled and writhed.

“Hang on, little one,” Flora said…

A smelly but little furry butt emerged into view. Flora dropped the hammer and squeezed her fingers through the space between the kitty butt and the cut pipe. Who cared if her fingers bled a little?

Abruptly, the screen unfroze. With an earsplitting bang, the crash video resumed. Flora and Josephine flinched. Only the kitty didn’t let itself be disturbed and continued to growl.

“Damn it!” the porn guy said upstairs.

“Sorry!” Josephine said, and she meant it.

“Turn the volume down,” Flora said. “We’re almost there.”

Josephine wildly nodded and did so.

“Crazy bitch,” a man said just outside the booth, and spat.

Flora didn’t care. Josephine didn’t care. On the screen, the semitrailers were now crashing into each other in near-silence. They paid no attention to that, because within minutes, the most novel, most precious, most unexpected sight presented itself right here, right now, in the tangible confines of this booth:

On Flora’s hand sat a crap-colored kitten that writhed in pain.

In none of the videos had Flora ever seen a creature this filthy. Cats in those videos always groomed themselves, even in the wild. This kitten here, it was too traumatized to do that now. Having found the warmth of Flora’s palm, it had even ceased to meow. If it hadn’t meowed earlier, Flora would have had difficulty distinguishing it from a dirty puppy or dirty rat. That was how much of the creature was covered in grime.

And yet…

Flora had never touched something so real in her entire life.

The kitten could have been worse than crap-colored, and she still would have thought that it glowed, and was the most beautiful little creature that had ever existed on this planet, in this entire universe.

Just as the screen had lagged earlier for the first time, Flora felt as if time flowed slower for her. It’d always been faster, faster, faster, more interesting, more active, more fascinating—until this moment.

All things, suddenly, were clearer, rawer, more real. They overwhelmed her senses.

She’d never smelled so much filth in her entire life. She visited the shared bathroom as infrequently as possible and when she did, never stayed around. Some ancient cleaningbots maintained moderate hygiene in such shared spaces, just as the ventilation ducts and water coolers functioned based on old automatic systems—but that didn’t mean that a bathroom shared by a hundred people was ever sparkling clean. But at least with the bathroom, she had the option to stay away.

But this kitten.

This thing in her hand.

Right now. Here.

A wonderful, heart-throbbing dread filled her when she realized: she would never be able to let go of this kitten ever again.

This smelly, ratlike, writhing creature that could barely open its eyes—because they, like its fur, were covered in sticky dirt—and nevertheless tried so vigorously to keep its eyes open so that it could keep the giant monster humans in view.

It didn’t trust Flora yet. Oh, but was she going to try damn hard to make it trust her.

Josephine coughed. This brought Flora back to the reality of her booth. The smell of excrement was by now visible: gas, greenish, brownish, disgusting.

“Put it here,” said Josephine.

She opened the fanny pack wide. Flora carefully placed the kitten in there.

Quickly, they proceeded to seal the ventilation duct. Flora cut a piece of the plastic bottle. Josephine cut a piece of the duct tape. Thickly and thoroughly, they patched up the crack that they’d created. Then, they pressed their ears against the hatch-side wall. No noise. Flora opened the hatch slightly to let in air, as fresh as it came in the pit. No one stood on the walkway in front of her booth. She opened the hatch wider.

Flora left the hatch open and crawled toward the mat where Josephine sat, cradling the fanny pack with the cat in her arms like a baby.

“We have to wash it,” said Flora.

“Do you have water?”

“No.”

“Let’s go to my booth.”

© 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.


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