by Jake Walters
Our bright city in the sky, anchored to the ground by a central filament made of some super-strength material designed before the war, the only tentacle attaching it to the ravaged earth two miles below, was becoming overcrowded. In the beginning, or the new beginning, if you chose to view it that way, there was more than enough space.
Everyone, even children, had their own houses. I was one. I lived in a relative mansion on bystreet 46, with six of my classmates. We walked to the school every morning; days were longer because of the city’s unique angle over the forgotten Earth’s horizon.
And we learned about the new history. A history that began only forty years ago, when the governments of the old world destroyed one another with hundreds of nuclear bombs, slung through the air like children throwing mud pies at each other, turning the world from a green place to a reddish brown place.
Nobody knew the science anymore, because all the scientists were dead. I remember my parents discussing the irony of this; how the scientists had created the weapons and now they were all gone, even the day we were separated. How they kissed me goodbye and told me that it was for the best, that they would see me again, and how somebody cut the rope and our new city started floating toward the clouds and how I watched them waving at me from below, growing smaller and smaller until I could not see them anymore.
I knew what was in store for them on Earth, even though I was a child. They probably lived another week, another year, aging centuries in seconds, boils erupting over their bodies, their hair falling out, if they weren’t vaporized. Those things happened so far below us, I had no idea what was going on. I liked it that way.
I finished school with high marks, found a mate, and settled into a house on highway 13 with her. We created two children, beautiful, healthy girls, Georgetta and Henrietta. Everybody was creating children.
Our city could not expand like cities before the holocaust, annexing fields and streams and forests. Beyond our city limits, there was air, and the clouds below, all of which I imagined a tainted, yellow color.
A few people had fallen off — actually fallen off — and I imagined their descent toward the crusty planet below, wondered whether they screamed, what they saw on their fall, considered whether it was like entering into hell, and decided that it was probably worse.
Less than a half-mile square in area, home to thousands of people now, our city was doomed. It had been a kind of utopia, without politicians or lawyers or even laws, all the food stored in special drums beneath the artificial surface, accessible by lifting lids like manhole covers and pulling the provisions out into the rarified air.
Nothing grew here, and nothing grew on Earth. The scientists had developed a kind of high-concentrate powder, edible but tasteless, and it sustained us for decades. But we did too well. Sometimes we wondered how we could breathe at such an altitude. Maybe the scientists had capped our city with a glass dome, pressurized it, created an air purification system. Maybe it was an illusion, and we were not so high in the air, after all.
Nobody asked the question about how those unlucky souls fell off the city. The truth was, nobody knew. Nobody knew what was up, nobody knew what was down. We hardly knew what we were standing on, if it was real, if it was a hallucination. It could have been that we had been frozen and were being held two miles underground, the surface too barren to support human life, the floating city our shared delirium, planted by an overzealous government at the end of its life.
I started telling this story because I was the man that was going to find out the truth. One day, forty years after the end of the world and the ascension of our sky city, I made it my mission to descend.
My wife and daughters joined me at the giant hatch in the center of the city. Georgetta and Henrietta were too young to understand where I was going: this was the only world they ever knew, and being confined to a half-mile square, walking to the edge of the world and looking out into the blue was perfectly normal for them.
My wife, whom I realized then that I had never really loved, was the same age as I was, and she still had her distant memories of the world we had known before. But she did not comprehend the thing I was doing any more than the girls did, and she failed to cry when I kissed her on the cheek, and then each of my daughters, on the forehead, before lifting the hatch.
“Close it after me,” I said, beginning to climb down, my body half in, half outside Sky City.
“I will,” Georgetta said, smiling. I smiled back and continued downward. They stood at the lip of the hatch, watching me go, their heads illuminated from behind by the hard sun. I could not look at them long.
When Georgetta closed the lid, I was plunged into darkness for a moment before a string of lights, like what used to exist in the aisles of movie theaters, blinked on. I could hear my breathing echo through the tunnel I was in, and strange air currents blasted me from below at odd intervals. I did not know what to expect. I thought there would be perhaps another door, and that once I exited I would be able to grab onto the filament anchoring the city to earth like a string tied to a balloon.
But I climbed downwards for what seemed like years. There were perches, little platforms, every hundred yards or so, and I paused at each one to catch my breath before continuing down.
“Hello,” I cried into the semi-darkness, and I heard it repeated both above and below me like an image caught infinitely between two mirrors. I got back on the ladder.
What physical activity had I done in my life? Everything in the city was completed. We used to occasionally play badminton, a sport from my childhood, but it was hardly strenuous. We foolishly played too close to the edge, in what was designated a park, and one overzealous shot sent the shuttlecock over the edge of the city, battered by air currents and clouds to the surface below.
What if there were people there still? What would they think, if a birdie from a badminton game knocked one of them upside the head as he walked through the desolation? That the gods were playing, perhaps. As they always had.
But I knew that it was impossible: life on the Earth below. I told myself this as I climbed further down. Nothing could survive what we had done there. I imagined a new species of cockroach, twenty feet tall and scrounging the rocks for food. What would I be to one of them? A gift from the gods, perhaps.
It might have been several hours, but I reached the bottom. It was hard ground; there was no place else to go. I looked up but it was like looking into a telescope with the lens cap still fixed tightly over the lens. There was the feeling that there was something immense above me, and that was all. I probably would not even have felt it, had I not lived most of my life in the floating city.
There was a simple door, illuminated by the same small bulbs. I twisted a large, heavy wheel and there was the sound of an airlock depressurizing. The door swung slowly open and I looked out onto the Earth.
Copyright © 2012 by Jake Walters