Part Four: Wings Clipped
The Fallen. The least beloved of all the people in the ancient Lowcity- by choice. Their entire identity is defined by self-hatred, self-pity, a sense that their very existence is a curse- and one richly deserved. This is a truth that is drilled into the Fallen from the moment they hatch, and reinforced each and every day through a doctrine of constant repentance. In the morning they awaken in one of their communal roosts, beneath high ceilings intended to remind them of the skies they will never see again- not out of nostalgia, but as a constant reminder of what they have lost. They are forbidden, by their own doctrine, from creating anything but that which is necessary for survival, as they go about their days under heavy hooded cloaks designed to hide their eyes from a sky that cannot see them. At night they return home, having done nothing but perpetuate their own survival, an ongoing life without joy or purpose beyond its continuation. It is a cruel life, somehow even crueller for the fact that it is entirely self-inflicted. One might think that there would be rebellion, or at the very least attempts at reformation from the younger or more radical members of the flock, but such things are rare and never build much momentum. Even those who do break away tend towards lives of solitude, as habits taught from birth are not easily broken. It is not just doctrine that enforces this life of misery, but a deep sense that it is indeed deserved. And who could blame the Fallen for thinking such a thing? After all, how else could one reconcile a world where birds are forced to live so very far underground, with no hope of flying ever again?
Now, to clarify, the things you think of as birds do not currently exist in the lands into which the Lowcity is dug. There were once, however, creatures that fill similar evolutionary gaps, in similar ways. These were not called birds, but as most no longer exist any argument on the subject would be purely for its own sake. Some Fallen would bristle at being compared to these creatures, anyway, and to be fair there are distinctions between the two. For starters, the Fallen still exist, a fortune or misfortune shared by no bird. Additionally, there is the more obvious point of difference that no bird has ever been 6 feet tall, with a pair of three-fingered hands that sprout near the ends of their wings. Knowledge about the world that was is hard to come by in the Lowcity of today, but for the most part that is the result of the sheer amount of time that has passed since its creation. What was once known becomes, after a handful of generations, what is merely thought. It becomes history, then allegation, then myth. It becomes a story, and stories can be supplanted so easily by versions that more benefit the teller, or by simple mistake or misremembrance. So much has changed and been lost since the end of the world, and it is no wonder that history has not been spared from that entropy. But for the Fallen it is different. They have not simply forgotten: they have, as a society, replaced their understanding of the world with a new one. One that is, from the outside, difficult to discern as myth or genuinely held belief. To the people who would become the Fallen, a version of the world where some force out of their control, beyond even their understanding, had taken away the sky… it was unacceptable. In many ways, the truth was more unbelievable than the fiction they began to tell themselves, a comforting lie that was not comforting at all: it was damning. They deserved this, they still do so many generations later, an eternal punishment for an eternal sin whose name they do not even know. In a strange way, though, this perpetual self-enforced misery is a comfort. It helps soothe their souls, to know that they deserve this fate. How could one go on in a world where such cruelty could happen without cause?
The Fallen live on, survive on, yearning for a sky that is lost to them and “knowing” that its loss is richly deserved. Few will admit it, but even fewer do not dream, in their idle moments, of that sky, and what it must be like to fly through it. They have never seen it, except in the murals that are daubed upon the walls of their Cathedral, and the version that lives in their mind is probably superior to the real thing. But still the dream, and yearn for the day that they might leave the Lowcity and gaze up at the endless open air above. To most citizens of the Lowcity, leaving the Lowcity is not especially desired; in fact it is not even prohibited, merely inadvisable and lacking in purpose. To the Fallen, however, for whom the Lowcity is a prison, to ever leave would mean returning to the surface, below the sky which they must never see. The fact that it is always overhead, but always forbidden to them, is just another level to their self-imposed misery. And so it is a great privilege, or perhaps a final punishment, to finally leave. To die beneath that sky, wondering what it could have been like to soar through it as they were born to do. It is an honour granted at life’s end to those who live well, which by the standards of Fallen society means especially miserably. Those who fail to live up to said standards are dumped in the great fertiliser pits maintained by the Grib, their bodies repurposed as nutrients for the next generation of misery.
That is not the fate of the old Fallen named Plumes Ragged. Her life has been one of quiet, dignified suffering, as is good and proper in the eyes of the Fallen. She is, or was a teacher; do not, however, mistake this to mean that she teaches arithmetic or science or anything of the sort. She has dedicated her life to teaching Fallen chicks of their place in this world, of how deserved it is, of how they should behave as accursed beings. Year after year, new clutches of chicks enter her classroom with bright eyes and shiny feathers, and year after year they leave with heads downcast, well and truly aware of what it means to be Fallen. She does not sugarcoat her words. She does not equivocate or in any way soften the blow of how terrible it is to be Fallen. She only speaks the truth. Her students are grateful, in the long run. Any lie she could have told would only have made things harder in the end. For many years this has been the sole purpose of her life, but now those days have come to an end. Her life will soon follow. While her feathers have always been a little ragged, in recent days they have become sparse, too, and grey. Her gait has slowed, her speech in the classroom more tired. Her appetite is gone, though few Fallen have much appetite for the thin gruel on which they subsist. It has become clear, to her and those around her, that her time has come.
They come for her while she is teaching her class; fittingly, as she describes to the chicks the beauty of the lost surface. The eyes of her students are filled not with wonder, but with remorse and sadness- as is good and proper- when a high-ranking member of the Fallen congregation enters the classroom and gently asks Plumes Ragged to step outside. She knows what is happening, but the years have given her great control of her composure. She simply turns to her class and says goodbye. The chicks say goodbye, and it is only now that some of their faces light up: they, too, know what is happening. It has been, in hushed tones, the talk of the nest for some time: old Plumes Ragged is to receive an honoured death. And now, quietly, the time has come. Little fanfare is given, despite the momentousness of the occasion: even for an event such as this, composure must be maintained. That said… as the officials led Plumes Ragged through the tunnels of the Fallen Nest and into the Cathedral, shining avian eyes can be seen peering out of darkened doorways. The officials say nothing. They understand. They simply lead Plumes Ragged into the Cathedral, where she says some quiet words that are for her alone to hear. Then, they lead her out. And up. Through tunnels rarely traversed by Fallen, past a small handful of Umbressi who manage to conceal their surprise and some Grib who don’t. Excitement begins to grow in Plumes Ragged’s breast as they reach one of the chambers used by Gasbags visiting the Lowcity. She has never seen the strange, bloated creatures before- although, of course, she has heard of them. All Fallen know of the Gasbags, feel some complicated mixture of awe, jealousy, and disdain for these floating beings whose anatomy renders them unique among the Lowcity by allowing them to leave. Said anatomy also makes them unable to travel very far below the surface, and so they are never found any deeper than the most shallow of tunnels. Plumes Ragged has never seen them before- few Fallen ever do- and the fact that she is seeing them now can only mean…
The officials stop. This is as far as they can go. Perhaps one day, if they live as well as Plumes Ragged, they will be allowed to go further, but for now that is not a privilege afforded to them. Plumes Ragged will make the last part of this journey alone. The last part of her last journey. Somewhere in her mind, she is aware of the fact that one of the rooms she passes by probably contains the suits that some residents use to safely visit the surface. She does not attempt to find them. She just keeps walking, up a tunnel wider than most, steeper than most. She passes the end of one of the tubes which provide the Lowcity with air, and almost instantly the act of breathing becomes more difficult. She keeps walking. The tunnel is empty: no Gasbags coming or going at the moment, and it’s very rare that anyone else chooses to leave. For the first time in her life, Plumes Ragged is completely alone. Her lungs burn as she climbs, and not just from the exertion, but on and on she goes until-
She rounds a corner and sees light. Not the soft, bluish green of the Lowcity’s phosphor lamps, but a soft orange. The sun. Plumes Ragged stops in her tracks, all thought gone from her mind as she gazes up at the end of the tunnel, just a few dozen steps away, and beyond… the world. For her entire life, she has been taught and taught others that this is a sight that she will never see, that it is one she does not deserve. The fact that she is unworthy of this is a part of her very being, and yet… here she is. She doesn’t even notice as her feet begin to move beneath her, carrying her up the slope and out into the open… well, it isn't really air, but Plumes Ragged doesn’t mind. She stumbles slightly as she reaches the lip of the tunnel and then… she is free. Her breath growing more ragged than her plumes, she gazes around at the surface, marvelling at this strange new… and very old world. It is very different to how the old stories describe it and the murals depict it, and yet it is recognisably that place under the surface- so to speak. The green grass and blue skies are no more, and in their place are various shades of orange and red. Something like moss grows on the ground in great red clumps, soft and giving beneath her taloned feet as she walks. High above, great clouds ripple and roil, their surface alternating between orange and pink and dark dark red, angry and yet somehow gentle at the same time. Giddily, Plumes Ragged flaps her wings, as if the stunted and withered things could ever have carried her from the ground. It feels good just to feel them moving, feel the surface air resisting and flowing away. It was a fraction of what her ancestors had taken for granted, and it made her head spin a little. Her feet carry her past things that might once have been buildings, which are now just incoherent mounds buried beneath the new flora that has overtaken this place. In the distance, somewhere just above the horizon, she can just make out a speck that might be a Gasbag floating about, doing whatever it is that Gasbags do on the surface. She raises a wing and waves at the speck, but if it even is a Gasbag it likely can’t see the gesture. Turning, she looks to the other horizon. It’s bare. For a moment, Plumes Ragged can’t quite figure out what, exactly, she is looking for. But then she realises: she’s looking for the sun. All her life she has dreamt, bitterly, of seeing the sun, of feeling its warmth on her feathers. But the sky is all clouds, and while the light and warmth is there it’s diffused to the point where, now that the initial thrill has worn off, really it’s barely more vivid than holding a phosphor lamp close to one’s face.
Plumes Ragged spins, scanning the sky for any gap in the clouds that might reveal the sun’s brilliance- and her feet slip out from beneath her. She lands flat on her back, what little breath was in her lungs driven out by the impact. The clouds drift above her, and for the first time she realises how narrow her field of vision has grown. She tries to raise her head, but her muscles don’t obey her. She draws in another breath, and it feels like fire. The toxic air of the surface has done its work even more quickly than she had taught her chicks it would. Dimly, she wonders how far she has even walked from the Lowcity’s entrance. A few hundred metres, at the most. Maybe that’s as far as anyone gets. Being allowed to die on the surface is a rare honour, but maybe somewhere nearby another Fallen lay beneath a layer of moss, slowly decomposing under the light of the sun they had seen only briefly, if they had at all. The thought comforted Plumes Ragged, just a little. She hadn’t expected it, but as she lay there dying she had some second thoughts. Perhaps a death surrounded by friends and family was the better way to go, even if it was a final moment of penance rather than a sombre departure or fond farewell. The thought that maybe she isn’t so alone… It eases her passing, just a little. She breathes in her last breath, staring up at those damn clouds, and let it go.
And just as her vision fades one final time, the light begins to grow. The soft, dim glow becomes a sharp ray as the clouds above part, just a little, and beyond lies the sun, its light shining down on the dying Fallen as the skin around the edges of her eyes creases into the Fallen version of a smile. Then those eyes grow still, and glassy, and she is gone. And in the ground far below her everyone she knew, and many more who she did not, go about their lives without her. Somewhere, a baby is born, and the cycle continues. Life goes on, as it must, as it always has and presumably always will. Death is simply a part of it, as above so below, in the dark and cold tunnels of the Lowcity.