by Jake Walters
My first impression, looking out from the safety of my tunnel, was that it was dark. I knew it could not be night already — no, I did not know that — but still, it was not as dark as night, but not as bright as day. This was the new day, then.
I stepped out and shut the door firmly behind me, and stared up. It was like the beanstalk from the fairytale, only made of metal. We were the giants, then. I could not see the city above, but I realized that it was probably as dark as it was here because of the shadow it cast on the earth below, like a permanent solar eclipse in this one spot. The ground was rocky and hard and it was cold. There was no vegetation. I began to walk away from the tube.
Not far away were low bushes, hard and scraggly like some adolescent kid’s first chin hairs. I bent to feel them, and they scratched my hands. Still, I smiled. I had thought there would be no life here. This counted as life. I licked the small wound created by one of the thorns hidden among the brambles.
I breathed deep, imagining my lungs being scorched as I took the air in. There appeared to be dust in the air, but in a concentration high enough only to sketch a faint mist halfway between myself and the blurry horizon.
I walked on, and soon enough I was out from beneath the shadow created by my city above. It was instantly warmer, though not warm. I gazed up but the sun was like a watercolor painting that had been dabbed at with a sponge too many times.
The earth was indeed ravished. I thought of bringing my fellow citizens down here: it could never work. What was there to eat? We had as much chance of survival by flying to the moon and setting up a tent there.
I considered the possibility that I was missing something. I had explored very little of the old Earth. There could be entire forests, islands, all untouched by the war. I knew it was unlikely. But I could not climb the tentacle back to the city with only the disappointing news that we were alone.
How many times had we wondered, if perhaps the old Earth was not livable, just maybe there were other floating cities, bigger, empty, even. We all knew it was unlikely, and because of our technological constraints, as good as impossible. But it was a comfort to imagine it.
I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, and my first thought was that I was imagining things. I blinked several times, and then I saw it again: a low, shuffling thing, clambering to squeeze itself behind one of the reddish rocks about thirty feet away from me. I heard nothing, but cried out, “Hello?”
It did not respond, and so I started to walk toward where I thought I had seen it hunker down. My legs moved me forward, although something primal inside me was screaming for me to turn and run back to the tube, to climb hand over hand, feet scrambling, exhaustion be damned; still, I approached. “Hello?” I said again, louder this time, but at the same time softening the word. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
I came upon the rock just as he stood up from behind it, and I jumped back upon seeing him. He was short, no more than five feet in stature, and as pale as an eggshell. He looked as fragile as one, too, his arms, crossed at the wrists, held before him as if begging for his pitiful life. He was trembling, I saw, and with even greater displeasure I noticed a small urine stain beginning to grow at his crotch. His blue jeans were filthy and too large for him, his shirt as tattered and useless as the old flags our countries used to fly. He opened his lips — I thought he would speak — and then he closed them again.
“Go on,” I told him. “I am your friend. I want to help people.”
He opened his mouth again, and a garbled, bubbling noise came forth. I half-expected blood to begin flowing down his chin. “Please,” he said, dropping to his knees. He looked like a rodent from this angle, and he supplicated himself further by touching his forehead to the sandy ground. I heard his word drift up from there: “Please.”
“Stand up,” I commanded him. “Look at me.” He did as I said, and his eyes were red. I wondered whether he was trying to weep, but his eyes were as dry as the arid land surrounding us. “Are there others?” I asked. “More people?”
He nodded, so vigorously I thought his head might simply pop off his neck. “Come,” he said, half-turning in a direction away from my city. “See.”
Now I was afraid, mostly of getting lost down in this hell and never finding my way back home. But I followed him. He walked crouched over, like an old man, but he moved surprisingly fast. I wondered if this was what evolution had brought the human race to, down on this plane. Perhaps more than forty years had passed. Perhaps forty thousand.
Anyway, I struggled to keep up with him over the rocky, loose terrain. Once or twice the wind kicked up, blowing sand in my face, blinding me, but my guide patiently waited for the gusts to die before moving ahead. We passed small puddles of murky water and I wondered if anything lived in the film that coated the surface.
We moved under the marble sky and came upon a low building, put together like a children’s play fort with charred timber and odd pieces of ripped materials. The man stopped at the entrance and held his shaky hand out before him. “Go,” he said, pushing at the air in front of him. I could hear a low chattering coming from inside like the nervous ripples of an audience before an important political speech. I ducked my head and entered the hut.
Somebody screamed — ear-shattering, blinding, curdling — and as I stood to my full height I bumped my head against the ceiling. There were perhaps thirty of them, all white, some of them completely naked, lying on the floor, which was padded by dead grass. Men and women, none of them older than me, a few of them crying, malnourished children, their eyes wide and watery. The man I had come with followed me and let out a low roar, which sounded like a small bear on the verge of death, caught in a trap. His people quieted.
“Who is this?” I heard someone say from the crowd. I squinted to see who had spoken, but all their faces, male or female, were essentially the same.
“I...” I said, unsure of how to continue. I had long since forgotten my given name, and in the city in the sky, I was known simply as Cadillac, a name someone had brought from the hell below. “I am from the city up there,” I said, craning my head and pointing as best I could toward the sky.
There was a low murmur; someone let out a small squeal, as in pain or extreme pleasure. “What are you doing here?” came the voice again, and this time I saw from whom it originated: a man, slightly taller than the one who had brought me to this place, was approaching me. He wore a thick sweater and blue jeans torn in the crotch.
“This was my home, once,” I said, watching the man’s hands for signs of aggression. “When the war started—”
“We know,” the man said, now only a foot in front of me. “Some of you climbed into the sky.”
“Yes,” I said, involuntarily casting my gaze down at his feet for a moment. “But we want to come back,” I said.
The man laughed, a sharp, bubbly sound that quickly degenerated into a fit of coughing. I watched the veins bulge out in his neck as he cleared away his lungs and throat, bent over. “What is it like?” he asked, his eyes wide and searching. “Up there, I mean.”
I thought about his question for a moment, and realized that there was no way for me to explain it. Had these people ever even been exposed to green? And a blue sky, for them, would have been an impossibility, unless some of them were remnants from before the war. “It is beautiful,” I said. “But it is lonely.”
The man nodded as if he understood. Part of me expected him to turn around to translate for the rest of his people, though they certainly spoke English, as well. I scanned their faces more closely now; their eyes were all bulging, their lips quivering, their gazes shifting. They were afraid of me. We were afraid of each other.
“My name is Thomas,” the man standing before me said, holding out his hand. “Thomas Hendricks.” I had not shaken anybody’s hand since my childhood, but I took his in mine and squeezed and was surprised to feel him return my grip with the same force.
He grabbed my forearm and pulled me close. I got the impression that he was smelling me, but he must only have been tugging me in for a closer look at my tanned skin, my shaved face, my white teeth. I did not like the feeling of being studied, but I endured it. After what felt like far too long, we broke our strange embrace.
“I have many questions,” I said to him. “Perhaps you can answer them.”
“I will try,” he said. He turned quickly and barked out a few words about wood and fire, and several children scurried past us out the door. A few of them were naked and I felt my heart break upon seeing them. “They don’t feel the cold,” Thomas said. “The cold is all they know.”
I took a seat on the grass among the survivors. Thomas sat across from me so that he could see me without turning his head, and the others, sitting in a large circle, all stared at me. Questions zigzagged through the crowd like whispered secrets, but nobody asked me anything.
“What do you eat?” I asked, looking around me. None of them had any extra fat on their frames, but they were still animated, and lacking the bloated stomachs one finds in severely starved people.
Thomas nodded and said, “There are animals. They resemble rabbits, but they are much slower than the before-rabbits were. We kill them with stones and cook them over a fire. The skin dissolves in the heat.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“There is no more fruit. But there are grasses, weeds, and some mushrooms. All of them are edible.”
Thomas shook his head, slowly and with great sadness. “Not yet,” he said.
“Are there others?” I asked. I wanted to wait longer before each question, but for some reason I felt I needed to hurry.
“Others?” Thomas said.
“Other survivors. Living on Earth.”
“Of course,” Thomas said, his voice low. “They are far from here, and sometimes one of them wanders onto our land.” He stared at some point over my shoulder as he spoke. “They are wild.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They kill anybody for any reason. They are many. We are few. But they leave us alone for the most part.”
I nodded as if I understood. “You have wars?” I asked.
“Only when one of them comes too near to us,” he said. “Then we... we cannot let him live, of course.”
I considered this for a moment. “How do you know that I am not one of them?” I asked, nervous even as I posed the question.
Thomas shook his head and chuckled. “Oh no,” he said. “You look nothing like them. They are tall, and their eyes glow in the dark.”
I heard a scampering outside the hut and, glancing out the open doorway, I saw the children stacking wood and dry foliage in a pile. They were laughing as they worked. Their skin, although pale, looked dusty in the waning light of the nuclear day.
We moved outside and one of the pale figures lit a match and threw it on the pile, which caught fire almost instantly. I had not seen matches since I was a child, and watching it flip through the air after the man flicked it was like seeing a burning, shooting star twirling toward the earth.
I savored the warmth from the flames, which were dry and crackling as they reached up toward the evening sky. The others backed away, as if too close to the fire. A few men disappeared and, after only a few minutes, returned with armfuls of dead, furry animals, their heads bobbing off the edges of their forearms.
“Dinner,” Thomas said, smiling. “Will you join us?”
I was hungry but afraid. Who knew what poison floated through the veins of those carcasses? “Yes,” I said. “You cook them, right?”
Thomas laughed. “Of course,” he said.
“What do you drink?” I asked. “Is there water?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, impaling one of the creatures with a long, sharpened stick. “But it will not be good for you.”
Copyright © 2012 by Jake Walters