Above The Clouds
The world was larger once. That's how the history books all begin. Well, the ones that try to be interesting, at least. The world was larger. I find that hard to fathom, in truth. The world itself hasn't changed in size, certainly. But once it was a spinning globe covered with nations and cities and people. People everywhere. I cringe at the thought. In my mind I picture a blue and green ball, the colors obscured by the plague of ants that swarm over its surface. Now the world is just a handful of cities in the sky, the surface long since abandoned as it fell into disrepair and ruin. Plenty of people in those cities, sure. But never enough to overrun a planet. Not even enough to overfill the cities. The laws make certain of that.
I shake my head to clear it of such wearing thoughts and my attention is immediately grabbed by an accidental glance out the window of the shuttle. I lean forward in my seat, trying to see more clearly. We have almost reached our destination. Through the small opening across from my seat I watch as we approach the Cathedral. I would never have imagined it to be so impressive as I find it upon my first glimpse. The first sky tower, it should seem archaic, old-fashioned at best. It is well over a thousand years old after all. Instead it fills me with wonder and awe, and a surprising sense of...nostalgia, maybe? No, that's not right. History, I think, and then nod, because I know that is the word I want.
I understand immediately why the name of Cathedral was bestowed upon this tower despite its having no real affiliation with the Order of Accord. It is not a place that people visit to worship or to pray for favor in the here or hereafter. No, people come to the Cathedral to learn. That is why my class is here today, after all. The Cathedral is a repository for all of the knowledge to be found in the world. The history books may tell us about how the cities in the sky came to be our new home, but only at the Cathedral do we finally learn why.
It might look like a relic, but it is a reminder of the past that our ancestors chose to leave behind them. It is here where our people learn why we are who we are. If they want to know, that is. Pilgrimage to the Cathedral is entirely voluntary, an option available to every citizen of the sky once schooling has been completed and the age of majority reached. Yesterday was my twentieth birthday, a week ago my graduation. I have been signed up for this trip for months, as soon as they announced one for which I would be eligible, I submitted my letter of request.
It's not just curiosity that drives me, of course, although if I am honest with myself I am curious. In school we are taught that our ancestors came together to create the Order of Accord and chose to ascend, leaving the surface behind for good. But the reasons given are vague at best--an agreement that it was the only hope for lasting peace, and indeed, survival as a species. We are told that those who remained behind died out long ago and that we are all that is left of humanity. By thriving we prove our ancestors right every day of our lives. Nothing of the world before the ascension is ever taught. I don't even know if we will learn about the time before during our stay here, though I am eager to find out. So yes, I am curious. But I am also excited about the opportunity that Pilgrimage provides. It might be voluntary, but to elect not to undertake the journey is to leave doors closed to you forever. Only a handful of industries are allowed to hire citizens who have declined Pilgrimage. Here in the sky to ignore the past is to limit your future.
The shuttle enters its final approach and I take in the glass-like dome that protects everything on the platform atop the sky tower. It isn't real glass, of course. That would never have been practical. But nor is it the more familiar energy-dome that covers most of the other tower platforms. A few towers, those containing factories or housing military facilities, have no domes. Instead they have airlocks and no windows and stand as closed off pillars, seemingly invulnerable and definitely inaccessible unless you have the right clearance.
I lose sight of the Cathedral as the shuttle gets closer. It pauses briefly, hanging in the air as it waits for approval to enter the dome. Because it uses the tangible dome the Cathedral has an airlock or two of its own, I know. It dawns on me that even the existence of that physical dome is a reminder of what the Cathedral stands for: a monument to our origins. All of the towers originally had the same kind of dome, I knew, but were replaced with the energy-domes once the technology was perfected. The fact that the dome over the Cathedral wasn't means that someone made the conscious choice to leave it intact.
The shuttle touches down as I mull over this fact and after a few minutes we are allowed to exit the vehicle. We are greeted by a somber but not unpleasant looking guide who ushers us away from the landing platform so that the shuttle can take off again. Once it is gone, the guide looks us over carefully and then begins calling names from a list on the datapad in his hands. As each name is answered by a member of the group the guide touches the screen of the datapad, marking that individual as present. We are all accounted for quickly enough and the guide instructs us to follow him as he turns to the wide walkway that leads us to the doors of the Cathedral.
As we move away from the landing area the walkway cuts through a wide lawn. Perhaps garden would be a better word for it. It is a riot of flowers and trees and hedges, the amount of color almost obscene to my eyes. It is not that the cities lack color, but that the color in the cities is contained, organized, planned. While the plants in this garden are obviously well tended to, it seems equally obvious that they are intentionally left to grow wild, for the seeds to fall where they may and take root wherever seems convenient, rather than where a city planner has carefully chosen to cultivate them. It is so incongruous to find something so free at the heart of our world that I fall behind the crowd of pilgrims without noticing.
When I realize I am lagging, I quickly catch up and find our guide giving a brief explanation about the lawn to the group. He has noticed our interest in the foliage. I only catch a part of his lecture (it does not take long to realize that it is a lecture, it has the feel of a speech oft given), but it seems that the lawn was originally an experiment by those who first built the tower. They believed that plant life could grow, thrive even, within a dome, but they had to prove it. So first the lawn was seeded and cultivated. Then the first brave group of inhabitants of the Cathedral each brought with them their favorite plants from the surface and where given the opportunity to add them to the lawn. That is why the garden feels so unplanned, he explains. It has only been given enough care to allow it to survive and to prevent it from overrunning its boundaries. We are looking at something that began a thousand years ago, he tells us, something that like our people continues to survive and succeed. It is another metaphor for the success of the ascension, I see. I realize that this visit will likely be full of them. The guide gives us a few moments to reflect on the magnitude of what we are seeing, and then we are moving forward once more.
A cynical part of me wonders how true the story is. How many times have the caretakers had to step in to keep this calculated wild tangle blooming?
We approach the Cathedral itself at last and we pause before the entryway. Our guide explains that the exterior was made to look like brick, a building material that was very common on the surface. It is not real brick, of course. Every building in the sky is made of the same nano-material. Hauling up actual supplies to build facilities like was done on the surface would have been impractical at best. Still, buildings in the first few towers were often designed to mimic surface buildings. I suppose it was meant to make the first inhabitants of the sky feel more at home after the ascension. Before long the buildings all began to take on a more uniform appearance. You would be hard-pressed today to find many towers with a diversity of architecture.
We go inside and are directed to an auditorium. I take my seat and settle back as the lights dim and the guide introduces the documentary we are about to see. He finishes speaking and takes a seat as the front wall of the auditorium lights up and the presentation begins. The documentary is fascinating. It captures footage of life on the surface, life before our ancestors came to live above the clouds. We learn about the construction of the Cathedral. It was made for something called a World Expo, a demonstration of new advances in science and technology. From the beginning, we are told, its creators intended it to be a solution to the overcrowding and depletion of resources on the surface. Although that was not announced to the rest of the world when the Cathedral was revealed.
Shortly after the Cathedral's completion, the situation on the surface became more dire than ever. Nations engaged in brutal wars and destroyed not only each other's people but each other's land and resources as well. Then, when all seemed lost, the New Prophets appeared. I frown in confusion as the documentary explains that once there was not one faith but many, countless even. These faiths contradicted each other and were often an underlying cause to the many wars that occupied the nations. I suppress a shudder at the thought of such a chaotic existence and release a breath of relief that I was born under the Order of the Accord, one faith under which all of the cities are united.
My confusion turns to understanding as the documentary continues. It explains that these New Prophets appeared to many of the different faiths and advocated a cessation of all conflicts. A Grand Council was called and it was at this council that the prophets convinced many of the world's leaders to stop focusing on their differences and instead to rally around their similarities. From this the Order of Accord was built, and those willing to follow the new unified faith were told of the cities in the sky. Even as the nations had been busily working to destroy themselves and render their planet unlivable for all, a few brave souls the world around had been secretly working on saving what little of humanity that was willing to be saved. Scientists, educators, military minds, men and women of faith, all working quietly together around the world to build the sky cities and afford us a new opportunity, the chance to start over and begin again.
The documentary closes with shot after shot of destruction, devastation, rubble, and wasteland. The last footage taken on the surface after the ascension had been completed. The entire planet rendered unlivable in a frighteningly short period of time. Billions of people dead, their legacy lost forever, because they refused to listen to those few brave souls who called for peace and cooperation instead of conflict and domination. The wall goes blank and the lights come back on. Our guide returns to the stage and gives us an assessing look.
It is sad, he tells us, what happened to those people on the surface all those centuries ago. But it is unforgivable as well, he adds, because they could have so easily saved themselves. I wonder about the truth of this statement, but I am sure to keep my face blank. I think of how many restrictions are placed upon the citizens by the varying levels of government and I wonder if all of the citizens of those many nations were any more free than we are. I have no complaints, I admit to myself, about the restrictions, but I know I would have no way to defy the wishes of my government if some outside group called for our citizens to do something the government would not agree to do. Perhaps the guide is right in part. The leaders of all of those nations who refused to cease their warring should never be forgiven, but perhaps their citizens were as much the victims of their arrogance as their enemies.
I return my thoughts to the front of the auditorium, noticing that the mood in the room has lightened a bit. Our guide is reminding us that while the past is a sad and disturbing lesson that bears remembering, it also must be remembered that we are the descendants of those people wise enough to make their own peace. We live because of their courage and forethought. I see people around me nodding, smiling, smug in the knowledge of our ancestors' superiority over the sad fools who remained on the surface only to be rendered extinct.
I wonder what else there will be to our Pilgrimage. We seem to have already been given all of the information we have been promised. But we are scheduled to remain at the Cathedral for three more days. Seeming to anticipate such a question, our guide tells us that we have the rest of the afternoon and evening free to reflect upon what we have learned today. Dinner will be served in a community dining hall in a few hours. The rest of our visit will be taken up with tours of the Cathedral and its several museums, as well as access to the facility's multiple libraries, to study the various career paths available to us, including those in the government, as a result of our Pilgrimage, and to perhaps make a decision about which we will choose. I am intrigued by this, quite excited about the idea of so much free access to the collected knowledge of my people.
The next three days go by quickly. The museums fascinate me. They chronicle the development of the nano-technology that makes our very existence possible. They also show how our government was solidified and the laws agreed upon by all. I learn that once upon a time there were people allowed to hoard wealth and resources while others in the same nation, sometimes even the same city, were left to go without even basic food and hygiene. I find it hard to even imagine such a system. It seems such an alien concept to me.
I spend a great deal of time in the career libraries, finding out what I can about government, infrastructure, engineering, and agricultural opportunities. My scores in school were high enough that most fields are open to me. In my heart of hearts I suspect I will choose agriculture. I have always had a soft spot for tending the small garden my family is allowed to keep, and after seeing the riot of living things on the lawn of the Cathedral, I am even more interested in spending my days with growing things. Every city has at least two towers completely devoted to agriculture and food production, with crops rotated carefully to ensure no shortages in any season. I know there is a definite science to the field, and that appeals to me as much as the green song of the plants.
My favorite part of the Cathedral, hands down, is an area called the Cultural Museum. It showcases replicas of what our founders considered the greatest works of art throughout their world. The art itself, paintings, sculptures, buildings, could not be saved from the destruction below, but someone had the foresight to make sure these things were well-documented so that we could at least see that our ancestors had been capable of great beauty as well. As I walk the high-ceilinged rooms of this museum I feel a great sense of loss and sadness that we have only replicas available to us today. I also regret that this museum is almost a secret. Certainly, anyone who refuses the Pilgrimage will never know of this beauty. Even among my fellow pilgrims, though, my company in this museum is small. Such pastimes are seen as frivolous today, I suppose. Beauty exists in the sky cities, certainly, but never without purpose. Never just to be "art." Perhaps that is because without the conflict that drove so much of humanity before the ascension, we simply don't have the same kind of inspiration to create as our ancestors.
On my last morning in the Cathedral these maudlin thoughts wash over me in such an intense wave that I am driven from the museum in a rush. I flee from humanity's past glories in an attempt to keep myself from breaking into tears over people who were long dead before our cities were even conceived of. In my haste, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, because when I finally stop to calm myself down and get a good look at my surroundings, I realize I have no idea where I am. Most of the Cathedral's corridors are clearly marked with signs and directions for visitors, but that is not the case here in the hallway I have stumbled into. It is simply a dark hallway, unfortunately empty of any other occupants, lined on either side with locked and unmarked doors.
My first instinct is to simply turn around and go back the way I came. This doesn't hold up for very long though, because I quickly find myself at an intersection. Three equally plain hallways stretch out before me and I have no idea which one I originally came down to get where I am now. I don't remember turning during my flight from the museum, so I decide to take the hallway directly across from me and hope that it is the right choice. It isn't. I wander for perhaps an hour without managing to find another living soul. I am surprised that I haven't been retrieved by now, surely someone in security has noticed an unauthorized individual in the private areas of the facility? But apparently this is not the case. Maybe something else has distracted them.
I sigh in frustration as I reach yet another intersection. After a moment of helplessly glancing in both directions trying to determine which has the best chance of getting me back where I belong, I notice something strange. The wall in front of me seems to be curving slightly. I look closely at each hallway and see that they follow the curve of the wall as well. Curious, I place a hand on the wall in front of me and follow it to the right, wondering if it will lead me around in a circle. If it does, I decide, I will turn back the way I came once more and see if I can't find another way out.
By the midway point of the circle, by my guess, anyway, I have come across no more corridors, but I do find a set of sliding doors on the inner wall. As my hand trails across them they surprise me by opening with a quiet hiss. I jump back, startled, and glance around quickly. No other doors, no other people, no sign that there is a single soul in the building apart from myself. I peer into the room revealed by the open doors and take a step forward without thinking. It is, unsurprisingly, perfectly round. At a guess, I would say it takes up the whole interior of the circle I have been walking around since I found the roundabout corridor. A low bench lines the wall and I step forward again, thinking to take a better look. As soon as I step into the room completely I hear the telltale hiss behind me and spin around just in time to see the doors slide shut once more. I reach out to try to open them but I am too late. The entire room lurches and my stomach seems to fly into my throat. It is a disturbing sensation. I stumble to the bench and almost collapse into a seated position.
By the time I have managed to calm myself with several deep breaths the cause of the strange sensation seems to have stopped. Before I can fully compose myself the doors hiss open again and I practically leap out of the room. I barely notice the doors shutting behind me as I realize that the room has moved. It must have been an elevator of some sort. I am now facing a long straight corridor, leading away beyond the edge of the low lighting of my new location. I frown slightly and realize that if I was out of bounds before, I am definitely somewhere I shouldn't be now. I turn back around and try to open the doors again, thinking to just take the elevator back to where I entered. But I have no luck. The doors refuse to budge.
With nowhere to go but forward I turn around and start down the corridor. With any luck it will at least lead me to someone who can help me get back to where I am supposed to be. The corridor seems to go on for ages. I have no sense of time on this level of the Cathedral, but it has to be at least another hour before I begin to see an end. I reach another set of sliding doors and this time I hesitate when they slide open at my approach. Still, there isn't really anywhere else I can go, so I step forward, out of the tunnel and into another wild riot of green.
My first thought is that I have somehow managed to end up back on the lawn, but I quickly realize this is not the case. Where the garden on the lawn was carefully maintained to look wild, it is easily seen that where I find myself now is the real thing. I walk forward into it and am hardly surprised when the doors shut behind me. I don't even try to open them again. I already know there's no one to help me inside. I look back anyway and see a large round structure looming over me. I back up a bit and see that the structure continues to rise, reaching up into what I am beginning to realize is the sky above. I am looking at the tower. The base of the tower. I spin back around, understanding the truth in one sudden flash.
I am on the surface! I am on the surface of Earth, long since abandoned by my ancestors. Destroyed to nothing but rubble and wasteland almost a thousand years ago...except...I am looking at no wasteland. What I see before me is a lush, vibrant, thriving world. A world that the people in charge must know about, surely, since they seem to have an elevator built specifically to access it. What is going on? How can this be? Did the government purposely cultivate this part of the planet to see if it was ready to support life once more? Or is the entire planet like this now? Why haven't we ever been told about this?
My head is spinning as I tentatively approach the doors to the tower. As I suspected, nothing I try causes them to open again. I jump as a voice speaks up behind me.
"The doors don't open, young one," it tells me, a hint of laughter on its edges, "not for those of us on the outside at any rate." Slowly, I turn around to face the speaker. She is not alone. Perhaps half a dozen people surround the old woman, although she is clearly the one who spoke to me. She extends a hand, inviting me to join them. "Welcome to Earth," she tells me, "welcome home."
I have nowhere else to go, so I follow the woman. She leads me down a well-worn path to a neat little village thriving in the shadow of the tower. I stare at it in amazement. It is like nothing I have ever seen before. As we approach I realize that however these people came to be here, the people in the Cathedral know about them, and that means that almost everything I've been taught my entire life is a lie. I have learned so much in the last few days, but as I enter the village, I know it was just the beginning.