To Never Set Foot Upon the Ground

By Charles Matthias

This story is self-explanatory

He flipped through several lenses, surveying the ever-changing landscape before him. The swirling gasses, eddying and shifting constantly, threatening to send him into the icy chill of the upper air, or threatening to sink him amidst the unbearable pressures of the lower air, was ever on his mind. The various shades and hues that appeared before him, the reds, the blues, the pale yellows, faded and varied in intensity under each different lens. In one sight, the red would be like an unmovable mass, opaque to the eye, and impossible to penetrate; under a different lens, it was as clear as space itself, or as his father told him, as glass was.

Glass, what a strange thing that. He had never seen it himself, but his father had told him that it was supposed to be on the upper portions of the collecting station. He had seen the collecting station a few times in his life, but the upper portion was amidst the deadly upper air, a place that would freeze him within moments. How could anybody survive up there? They were given only one place in life that they could find any hope of surviving, and all that they needed was right here.

His eyes caught sight of a slight bit of movement just a bit to his right, and he dipped, and caught it up in his ever-open mouth. He felt it slide down his throat, taking it’s place amongst his other morsels for the day. He wondered just where his father was now, probably with the rest, taking his turn at sleep. Why would anybody want to be asleep when they could be awake and enjoy the air moving over their bodies, filling their cavities to the fullest, and being simply alive. It was hard to tell the asleep from the dead, and he had been reprimanded once for trying to eat from a sleeping body. The only reliable method was to use the lens his father called ‘Infrared’. He didn’t like that lens so much, as thing were always so indistinct under its gaze. He much preferred ‘Visible’ or ‘Ultraviolet’ as his father had called them. Things were much clearer when he used them.

He switched once again to ‘Infrared’ however, and gazed out at the eddying gases, and saw a particular patch that looked promising. He raised his wings slightly, and found himself brought ever closer tot hat gasses touch. It was a small portion, no much longer than his wingspan, but he tasted it all the same. It was the gas he was looking for. His father called it ‘Ozone’ and said that it was very important. He liked it because it tasted so good, almost as good as that morsel that he had snagged just moments ago.

He breathed in the gas, taking it all into his system, feeling it fill him to the brim. He had sucked nearly all of the ‘Ozone’ in when he felt a sense of fullness, and an alarm go off in his mind. He had filled himself with this ‘Ozone’ and it was now time to release it at the collection site. This had only happened once before to him, though it seemed to take forever. His father said the pressure capacity that their special lungs could withstand was 100 kiloliters, whatever that meant. Of course, the Day of Filling was always an important one; he became jubilant at his luck that today would be such a day. All of his people would know of it, and of the trip that he had to make now. He oriented himself, not against the shifting winds, for they were no guide except to disaster, but to the ever present pulse he felt that his people give to him. His father explained that it was a radio receiver that they each had placed inside them when they were born, but he could not remember such an event. Perhaps he had been too young.

He liked to hear his father talk, he told such wonderful stories. He told of the people that had made them the way they were, of the people who gave themselves up to do this very wonderful thing. He spoke of some place called ‘Earth’ where people who did not have wings, and who could not sail the air lived. He thought such an idea ridiculous, how cold you keep yourself afloat from the dangerous pressures of the lower air if you could not fly? His father told him another imponderable, that there was no lower air, but a place so thick, that you could not sink through it. He called such stuff ‘ground’ and said that ‘Earth’ was covered in it. Still, he enjoyed hearing the tales, no matter how fanciful they were.

He first saw another of his people moving steadily through the winds not but a few moments above him, and he moved to greet his brother. He knew that this was one of his cousins, and his cousins was only too glad to see him, but had his own duty to perform, to mark the limit of his people’s home, to not venture out of it. If they did not stay together, then they would be separated, and would most likely never see each other again.

As he moved further in, he saw the multitudes, the people whose job it was to support the sleeping. Six who touched wing to wing could hold many up, and it always amazed him that they never complained of their duty, for each knew that they too would have to let their lives depend on another when sleep took them. What made him wonder more was that they did it without ever thinking to complain, but he had at several times would have liked to have complained. His father had said that he was a younger generation than they, but that too did not make sense, since they were his age as well.

He hoped to see his father amongst his people, but he was not here, he must too be out breathing ‘Ozone’ or collecting food. He felt a little guilty about deliberately swallowing that morsel he had encountered, but it had only been a single morsel, and it served to feed him for a good time. He could have put it amongst the people’s food, and others could have shared in it as well. He promised himself that he would not let his own desires dictate his actions again.

He made sure to find the present overseer and let him know of what had happened. The overseer was overjoyed at the honor that had befallen him, and promised to tell al the people of where he was going. Feeling the burden now squarely upon his own shoulders, he began to set out, leaving his people behind him in the pale yellow air. He switched lenses once more, peering through the gases, seeing out in the distance the unchanging and slow movement that was about.

A sudden uptake of wind caught him by surprise, and he was forced to reorient himself, and to gain that almost innate sense of direction. He knew where he had to head, it was a place he had been only a few times before, and only once before by himself. He was not afraid this time, nor was there any fear that he would fail. However, the dangers of the wind were always there. They could come upon you so suddenly, and send you off course without even a moment’s warning. The minute adjustments that he had to make at every moment were nearly automatic, as it should be. His father in a moment of jocularity described it as ‘continuous driving’ but had never seen fit to explain what he meant by this curious comment.

The trip to the collection station was of course a long one, and it would take him a long time, but not so long that he would be forced to sleep until he got back. He knew of one of his cousin’s jobs was to continuously fly back and forth between the station and the people, to make sure that they did not stray too far from the station, for many had to fly there and back, and if they should fall asleep between that time, then they would certainly die from the pressures that awaited them below in the lower air.

He remembered one time when he had challenged the stern conservatism of his people and had defiantly begun to head downward. At first, he noticed nothing, but after only a few long moments, he could feel the further downward pull, felt the way the air beat at his back, made his wings bend in odd shapes. He could look down into the impenetrable blackness below and shiver in the thought of going any further. It had exhausted him more than he realized just to climb back up to the middle air, the place where they were rightfully meant to live. He never sought to challenge his people’s wisdom concerning the upper air, for he had felt the downward drafts that came from above, and the chill they always brought to his skin.

His father had told him that was the wisest, and that he should never doubt tradition, for it’s reason were good. He found this a bit stifling, but when every other option was death, was there anyway to doubt it? There was no rule though that he found more mystifying was the separation of the sexes except for the mating season. His father had once tried to explain it, but that had been insufficient. He had never known his mother, nor did he expect he ever would, but it was also tradition. His father said that only a few males could go near the women, and that they were not as aerodynamic as men were, so they had to stay with the people, and not dare risk going out. He found this odd; but then again, he had never seen a woman except form afar.

His father said that on ‘Earth’ the women and men intermingled constantly, and he had to wonder just what this ‘Earth’ would be like. Certainly, it was odd; there could be no other explanation for it. How could you live if you had no wings? How could there not be a lower air? How could you go anywhere you please? How could you survive if there were only three of your people? These questions did not have any satisfactory answer.

But a few long moments later and he could see the collecting station. It seemed to be a narrow shaft, which rose ever upward into the realms of the upper air. Something so impossibly large should not exist he always thought, but it was there, the only thing in this world that did not change. As he approached even closer, he could begin to make out it’s cylindrical shape even better, with the bulbous end that sank a bit deeper than he wanted to go for fear of losing his way amongst the lower air. He got along side of the shaft, and looked for the dark smudges that his father ha explained to him on his first visit here. He reached with his mouth, and pulled on the small protrusion, and the shaft opened up, showing a small tube which fit easily into his mouth, and satisfactorily attached to the back of his throat.

Then he felt it suck his insides out. It was always a strangely pleasurable experience, feeling the thing reach down to his very depths, pulling every last bit of the ‘Ozone’ that he had been breathing in. This station was certainly the thirstier for breath than he was. It seemed to take it’s time though, and it began to slow down after a while, not pulling near so powerfully. Then suddenly, just when he felt like he too was going to be pulled into its large shaft, it stopped. He saw at the back of the shaft, another panel open, and the tube he held in his mouth released and came out, absorbed back into the panel.

He took the second tube, and placed it also in his mouth. He felt a thick chunk of the morsels cascade down his throat, finding their way to his auxiliary stomach. These he knew were meant for his people, but one he was to have for himself, to power him on the trip back. He knew that without this constant supply of food, they would all die. There was not nearly enough morsels floating about in the gas to feed them but sparingly.

He glanced once more at the smudges on the side of the panel and felt a bit of pride, for his father had told him what it meant. ‘Jupiter Ozone Containment System’ meant very little to him, but it was nice to know. He closed the panel, carrying the food back to his people in his tummy. This would improve their stores, and he could then go about collecting more ‘Ozone’ for his third trip to the collecting station. He touched it once with his wing, and then sighed. He had better get back to his people, and his life. After all, what else was there?

End To Never Set Foot Upon the Ground

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