Table of Contents
Jump to Chapter 1
All of the following happened within one second:
The metal floor—the thing that had felt so inconveniently concrete whenever Flora sat there to watch the videos on Firmament—seemed to melt under her feet. Despite more than enough light from the screen, she momentarily found her focus blurred, and had to blink to keep Viktor in view.
That large, mole-brown-colored-uniform-wearing, once-young-and-smiling-but-now-middle-aged-and-stern man stared at Flora and demanded an answer.
Where is the cat? he’d asked. She’d definitely heard correctly.
Her mouth was dry. The meowing of the cats in the current Firmament video hummed in her ears. She clasped the ends of her dirty T-shirt and pulled it down, gazing at her bare feet because she’d suddenly become conscious of their nakedness.
Then the one second passed and Flora responded in the single way that could buy her time: “Excuse me?”
“The cat, Flora,” Viktor said.
“The cat that you found in that ventilation duct.”
Flora chuckled, mustering the best you-must-be-crazy expression that she could. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
Viktor marched to the open hatch. He pulled it shut. Flora inadvertently took a step back.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” said Viktor.
Flora took another step back to clearly signal: I don’t believe you. Viktor remained where he stood, his face as stern as it had been since Flora had opened her hatch to let him in.
“I just need to know where the cat is.”
“I told you, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“You said yourself: you thought a day had passed. It’s only been an hour since you broke the duct. You have the cat, Flora.”
“I still don’t get what the one hour thing has anything to do with a cat.”
“It wouldn’t, under any normal circumstances, but we don’t have normal circumstances anymore. Nothing about the pit or the cat is normal.”
Yes, we’re the un-nature.
“You have the cat, don’t you?” Viktor said. “It slowed down your time, didn’t it?”
Even though we’re un-nature, slowing down time? Really? Is that a thing?
Flora’s confused expression must have told Viktor that he couldn’t expect an immediate answer from her.
“Forget about the one hour part,” he said. “You think you can raise a cat here? If anybody finds out, they’re gonna eat it alive. You think these people won’t do that, just for the heck of it? You think they don’t want to try something new after having survived on canned food their entire lives?”
“They couldn’t even cook it if they wanted to, there’s no fire.”
“Who said anything about cooking?”
True. There were no rules about eating uncooked food. There were no rules about eating any kind of food.
Flora’s entire being was focused on the space between her mat and the wall, where the kitten bundled in the towel was hidden. But she tried not to look back. Viktor would notice.
But if he noticed without her looking back, what then? Smack the mat away, snatch the kitten-towel bundle, tackle Viktor—
No, no tackling Viktor. He was too large compared to her. He also wore a hard helmet and she didn’t. What if he pushed her off the walkway, along with the kitten? The kitten might survive the fall—land on the lower floors—or drown, or die from toxins. Or someone might find him and eat him. Who knows—someone might find Flora and eat her too.
“Are you saying all this because of the videos I watch?” said Flora.
“Oh, gosh, Flora,” said Viktor.
And for the first time, his expressionless face fell—literally, it looked as if his eyebrows, his eyes, and his lips were all being pulled by gravity simultaneously. Contrary to Ellie, who looked younger when her features relaxed, Viktor looked older.
“I’m not talking about kitties that show up on your Firmament feed and you skip and choose as you please,” he said. “I’m talking about the one that slipped through the duct and got here.”
Flora shook her head. “There’s no such thing here.”
Viktor, too, shook his head. “I asked nicely.”
He stormed toward the mat—smacked it away the way Flora had imagined she might. And there the kitten was, having crawled out of his towel bed, toward the corner. He hissed at Viktor.
Good boy, thought Flora, running to his aid.
But Viktor kept her at bay with one arm. He snatched the kitten with the other. The kitten flailed his short limbs, showing his claws and teeth, but Viktor’s palm was large enough to snugly hold him.
“Don’t hurt him!” said Flora, coming to a halt.
The kitten was Viktor’s hostage. Flora couldn’t attack Viktor; she couldn’t open the hatch and try to push him out; she could do nothing, absolutely nothing.
But to Flora’s surprise, Viktor seemed offended at her implication that he was the criminal here.
“Hurt him?” he said. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’m not going to hurt you. You were going to hurt him.”
“What? No, I saved him from the duct!”
“Aside from that part. You thought you were going to hide him here forever? Feeding him what? Salty canned food? For heaven’s sake!”
“And you? You talk as if you have a much better option, but what are you going to do with him? Isn’t the idea of eating him your idea? Huh? How does a person even think of—”
“Plenty of people think of such things and have thought worse thoughts,” snapped Viktor. “And plenty have acted on worse thoughts. Maybe you should watch more history documentaries instead of brainwashing yourself with cat videos.”
“Brain— Brainwashing?” said Flora incredulously.
“Yes. People like you are exactly the type of people who never should have cats.”
Viktor grabbed the towel from the floor. The kitten still hissed and attempted to scratch Viktor’s hands all bloody.
“People who watch a compilation of the most adorable moments,” said Viktor without looking at Flora. “People who don’t actually smell the farts and poops. People who don’t need to actually bathe the cat once in a while or take it to the vet, and yet think that they can trap a lifeform here and somehow force things to work out.”
“As if I had a better option!” screamed Flora.
Viktor ignored her. He unzipped his jacket and put the towel with the kitten in it. Then he zipped up the jacket again. The bulge was so conspicuous that it was laughable he even attempted to hide anything that way.
So, one thing was clear: he expected no one to expect a kitty. They might ask questions, might try to guess what he hid—but think of a cat? Never.
“Where are you taking him?” Flora asked.
Viktor opened the hatch that he’d closed earlier. Come to think of it, he’d asked Ellie to leave before asking Flora about the cat. He didn’t want to be heard.
That meant that if Flora spoke loudly…
“How did you know he even existed?” she asked loudly.
“Be quiet,” hissed Viktor, climbing out.
“Do you know where he came from? What do you know that I don’t know?”
On the walkway, Viktor faced Flora. She could see his wrinkles. He must be almost fifty now—an old man with pasty skin. He’d never seen the sun, just like Flora. He wasn’t implying that an outside world existed, was he? A world outside the pit? Would someone who’d spent his entire life inside the pit be safe from the outside sun? The pollutants? Whatever was out there?
“There are more of them, aren’t there?” Flora said. “I mean, he must have a mommy cat. Where? How? Since when? Who are they staying with? How?”
Viktor didn’t say a word. He turned around and walked away.
“Take me there,” said Flora, hurrying out of her booth. She landed on the walkway with such force that Viktor clasped the thick rope with one hand, the cat bulging in his jacket with the other, and angrily whirled around.
“Do you mean to kill us?” he said.
“I’m sorry. But— Please, take me there.”
“Is there a problem?” a voice from upstairs said.
Viktor and Flora looked up. It was Ellie, the newbie with the thick, way-too-old-looking makeup who had a crush on Viktor, a man who was at least a decade older than her.
“It’s nothing,” Viktor said.
His grip around the kitten tightened. Ellie frowned, more hurt than offended. But before she said another word, Viktor stormed along the walkway, away from both Ellie and Flora.
“You interview the people up the line,” he said. “I’ll go down the line.”
Once he reached the ladder, he climbed downward. Flora glanced from Ellie to Viktor. Ellie was staring at Flora.
If Flora were to run after Viktor now, Ellie would realize that something was obviously wrong, and not simply in a “they’re fighting over a cat” way, which was the truth, but rather, in a “something went on between my crush and that girl; for some reason, that girl has had a stronger impact on him in a shorter period of time compared to what I’ve ever accomplished” way, which was far worse—far, far worse.
But if Flora gave Viktor too much of a head start, she’d never catch up with him; never reunite with the cat; never learn what had happened to him—the fluffy, soft, tiny little being that was more real than anything else Flora had ever experienced before.
“Wait!” she said.
Faster than she’d ever dared, she ran toward the ladder.
“Stay where you are!” said Ellie.
Viktor glanced up from the ladder and hurried downward.
The wood panels beneath Flora’s bare feet creaked and sighed and shook, but with one hand on the wall and the other stretched out for balance, she never stopped, kept running, forward, forward—
Reached the ladder, crouched down, almost fell through the space between the ropes—
And grabbed the nearest rung, as inconveniently thick as the ropes.
Ellie’s shouts multiplied against the booths. Heads looked out from dozens of hatches at the tumult. Viktor climbed down faster, faster. His walkie-talkie generated an ugly static, amidst which Ellie’s worried voice was occasionally distinguishable. Flora’s left foot searched for the next lower rung, then her right foot searched for the next one—
Pitkeepers in their mole-brown uniforms came running from the far ends of the walkways on every floor that she could see.
Everyone was less beautiful than Viktor and Ellie, as Flora had guessed. This wasn’t about the physical attributes that people were born with; this was about keeping up with oneself, with time; working out to keep the muscles healthy and strong; having a light in one’s eyes.
Viktor had that light of purpose. Just look at him, madly climbing down and away from Flora. No wonder Ellie liked Viktor. Why didn’t Viktor like Ellie? What useless thoughts to have at this moment!
Which floor was Flora on now? 585th, maybe?
No, eyes on the ladder. No looking left and right.
“You idiot,” Viktor hissed from below Flora. “Get back to your booth. Now, now!”
“Not without the cat,” Flora said stiffly.
“If you were worried about the cat, you would have stayed in your booth. It’s not too late. Return now!”
“What makes you think that I’ll trust you to take care of him?”
“Because I’m not the one who cannot be bothered to wear proper clothes! I’m sorry but I can’t possibly trust you to feed him and bathe him and play with him when what I see when I look up is your stupid panties!”
“Obviously, you’re hiding him from the other pitkeepers. But you’re a pitkeeper yourself. So where would you go? To wherever pitkeepers hang out, of course. How is that supposed to be safer for him?”
“Flora, is that you? Flora!” a woman called from way above.
Flora looked up. Someone waved wildly. Josephine.
For one crazy moment, Flora’s brain defaulted to “wave back when someone waves at you,” then thought otherwise. She sort of half nodded and fidgeted.
“Oh shit,” Viktor said.
Flora glanced down and immediately regretted it. The height, it made her dizzy. And the smell of the torrential river, the louder splashing of water compared to when she was at her floor, and the curious gazes of the pit residents disturbed her.
On top of that, those mole uniforms down there were about to reach the insanely long ladder within a minute.
Then what? Flora wanted the cat back, but Viktor had him, and if Viktor was caught—
No. No no no no no.
“What do we do?” she said, panicked. “What do we do now?”
“Now you ask me what do we do?” said Viktor, outraged.
“They’re going to get you, they’re going to get you.”
“I know! Just, just stay calm!”
The pitkeepers reached the ladder close to Viktor, who was between floors.
“What are you doing?” one of them asked.
“What’s going on?” another asked.
“Why aren’t you responding to Ellie?”
“Who is that woman?”—probably meaning Flora.
“Viktor?” the pitkeepers said.
“Viktor!” they kept saying.
Viktor didn’t stop. He shook off everyone and kept climbing down. Now, there was no more question about it: clearly, the whole cat thing was Viktor’s business and his alone. None of the pitkeepers were aware of what he knew.
And with Viktor completely ignoring them, they looked up at Flora for an answer.
“What is going on?”
“Why are you following him?”
“What’s that bulky thing in his jacket?”
Flora stopped climbing down. She glanced around.
On the floor below her, five pitkeepers gesticulated and yelled at her impatiently: climb down a little further already so that we can pull you down and interrogate you.
To Flora’s left and right, and up there, too, more pitkeepers were approaching. She, unlike Viktor, couldn’t just shake them off with strong arms. In fact, Viktor faced too many enemies, too, and couldn’t keep relying on force.
“Viktor!” Flora said. “Viktor, what should I… How should I… ”—respond?
“Damn it,” Viktor said. “Damn you, damn it!”
“Jump, and I mean, really jump. Don’t just fall; you have to kick yourself off the ladder. Okay? That’s the only thing that’s going to give us a head start.”
Flora glanced down, hoping to make eye contact with Viktor.
But she couldn’t, because Viktor had already launched himself from the ladder—pushing it with both hands and both feet, trusting that the jacket’s zipper was going to hold the kitty safely in place—and choosing to dive hundreds of floors down into the deep, dark chasm.
© 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.