Engineers. Inventors. Nomads. Survivors. There were many names for those left of humanity, but they called themselves Clingers.
They clung desperately to the last vestiges of hope, of survival, too stubborn to quit.
When the apocalypse had come that fateful day so many years ago and the ground became too dangerous to live on, they rose into the air on their blimps, their planes, anything. Anything to get away.
They had made an oath that day. That day they would survive, because screw nature.
Starling lay atop the glass cargo bay doors of the smallest blimp in the Clinger fleet. He rested his head on his hands and looked out to the sky. It was beautiful tonight. He rarely saw purple in the sky, but this evening it was lit up with violets, indigos, magentas, and all hues in between. They reminded him of something… he leaped off the glass and turned. He started towards the rickety metal stairs that led out of the cargo bay. On the way, he shifted through dozens of huge boxes of canned or dried food, saved from the last mission to the ground. That mission was months ago and had cost almost a hundred lives of the mere thousands that remained.
Starling climbed each step of the staircase with vigor and emerged in the main living hall.
The main living hall took up most of the blimp. You could see all the way to the top. Bigger blimps of the fleet were layered to divide the rich and poor classes of Clingers. His blimp was mockingly named The Mouse, (for all the other blimps were much larger and were named after birds of prey,) and though it was the smallest of the fleet, the top still soared far above his head. Oil lamps burned brightly, hanging from chains on the ceiling. The living hall was filled with dozens of Clingers huddled in their tents, books propped open or small meals laid out in front of them. Children zipped around in circles, earning dark glances from the surrounding adults. Several of them wore socks, so they slid in dizzy circles on the metal floors before collapsing in huge heaps.
Each family claimed their living space with blankets or tents, whatever they could get their hands on. Starling’s was near the very end.
“Talon, stop leaving your socks in Altaria’s tent, it’s not funny!”
Finally, he reached his home, a small round mat with a blanket draped overtop for privacy. There were stacks of books and blankets inside, and Starling gathered the books into his arms.
('Be careful with those,' said his mother.) Then, with considerably more caution than his arrival, he exited the living hall.
“Starling, wait up!”
Starling turned, grinning. “Gannet! I’m going to the cargo bay, come on!”
Gannet hurried to catch up.
“Come on, Starling, you know we aren’t allowed down there!”
“You’re just scared because you think the glass will break!”
“Yes,” Gannet called back. “Yes, I am! They’re doors, Starling! What if they open?”
“They won’t, trust me!”
Starling took the stairs to the cargo bay two at a time, an impressive feat considering the stack of books piled haphazardly into his little arms.
He tumbled to a heap once reaching the glass cargo bay doors.
Starling pulled out a book from his pile, ignoring his friend. Wildflowers, the title simply read. He fingered through the pages before stopping on the page labeled Crocus. Yes. This was what he was reminded of when staring at the purples of the sky.
“How do they know what it looks like?” Asked Gannet, carefully clambering onto the cargo bay doors. "That crocus."
Starling pressed his face to the glass and stared at the sky, straining his eyes to get a glimpse of the ground. It was a futile attempt. The ground taunted him, just beyond his reach, like a word on the tip of his tongue. Starling bared his crooked teeth.
“The book was written when people lived on the ground,” he replied.
Gannet’s eyes widened. “Were the rest of the books written then too?”
Starling checked the dates of his books. “Most of them, yeah.”
Gannet’s squirmed in excitement. “How come you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t realize it myself,” Starling said. “I haven’t read all of them, I got them not too long ago.”
“They saw the ground!” Gannet shrieked.
“They saw the ground,” Starling agreed.
“What do you think it’s like?”
Gannet shrugged. “I’ve heard lots of different things.”
“Like what?” Starling sat up and faced his friend, wiggling in excitement.
“Well…my father used to own the library in The Hawk, the leader of the entire Clinger fleet! That is, before he became a Missionrunner and died a few years back.”
Starling frowned, unbothered by this change in topic for the most part. Clinger children were very accustomed to death, they were raised surrounded by it. Nearly every Clinger had known someone who passed. “What was he on a mission for?”
“Just the semi-annual food pickup,” Gannet answered brightly.
It was not a Clinger belief that death should be grieved. When a person died, they took flight and soared off into the horizon, completely at peace. It was not something to be upset about.
“So I would get to read all the books in the library!”
“People were weird.”
“They told these knock-knock jokes all the time, they even wrote a book full of them!”
Gannet pressed his palm against the glass.
“They were really obsessed with the past, too. Had a whole bunch of books about it.”
“But what was the world like? What did it look like?”
Gannet frowned. “I don’t really know.”
Starling grinned. “It’s probably full of huge monsters the size of buildings!” He said.
“Are you sure that’s not because you watched that old movie the Missionrunners stumbled across?”
Starling grinned. “And the land is covered in wildflowers and metal! The sky is always changing colors! There are cotton-candy monsters and cars go up the sides of buildings!”
Gannet giggled. “Now that’s just ridiculous!” He pulled up a different book from Starling’s pile. “Remember that feast we had after one of the missions? When one of the Missionrunners took the opportunity to hunt? When we had fresh meat and fruits!”
He pointed to the inside of the book, holding it up with one chubby hand. It depicted a king and queen dining at a lavish dinner table. “People ate like that all the time! Therefore, there must have been forests covering the world, for all those animals to survive! People must have been out hunting all the time!”
Starling stared at the window. “They must have been so happy.”
“I wouldn’t be happy if my world was that strange.”
“What do you think the clouds looked like from below?”
“Probably really weird.”
“They had a city called the Big Apple.”
“Well, it wasn’t actually in an apple.”
“Want to bet?”
Starling pulled out yet another book. Mythology: Gods and Goddesses of the World, it read. “Gannet, we have it all wrong!” he chided. Both were in a fervent, giddy haze by now. “The land was ruled by beings that lived all over the world! There were eight-legged horses, giants, people with a whole bunch of hands, dragons, and angry dudes with beards!”
Starling frowned at the images. “The angry dudes with beards sure did marry their siblings a lot.”
Gannet made a face. “I would never marry Altaria! She’s so annoying!”
Starling giggled. “Your sister’s not that bad,” he said half-heartedly.
Gannet rolled his eyes, then frowned at the covers of the other books in Starling’s pile. “I’m so confused,” he sighed. “I wish we could go back in time and see it all.”
“I don’t,” Starling said.
Gannet looked up at him, surprised. “Why not?”
Starling pulled up a book. The Diary of a Young Girl. “People were nasty.”
“They were,” a voice said from behind.
The boys whirled around. “Mrs. Alouette!” Gannet yelped.
Alouette smiled warmly. “You really shouldn’t be in here.”
Starling bit his lip. “We’re sorry.”
Alouette’s gaze was distant as she stared out the window. “You know, it’s been generations since we’ve lived on the ground. We have forgotten what it was like over the ages. We don’t really know what it was like anymore,” she said softly.
“But I can tell you this: the world was a diverse, strange place.” She stooped over to pinch their cheeks. “And it was filled with the strangest of creatures.”
Alouette lowered herself gingerly into a sitting position, facing the two Clinger boys. “Perhaps one day, when we all pass from this Earth - come on, you know it’s going to happen someday- and you take flight and soar into the horizon...” she stared at that thin purple line in the atmosphere. “You can explore all the ages of man. And see all the bizarre and wonderful creatures of the ground.”
She leaned back, a smile etched on her face. “And I’m sure you’ll find all the cotton candy monsters you like, boys.”
Starling and Gannet smiled too, glancing at each other and the mess of books scattered about the floor of the blimp.
Well, that was more than enough for them.