No matter who Jax asked about the old times, before his people made webs over the dead city, the answer was always similar. Nobody knows, the old stories don’t say. Under the shrugs, a signal almost too faint to hear: Why bother? Why ask? Sometimes, if it were an elder once close to his parents, a weathered hand would ruffle his dust-brown hair.
Jax kept respect on his face, never pushing them away, though he wanted to shout: Why don’t you want to know? But even Grandmother Ange, the wise and wiry leader of Jax’s tribe, couldn’t give him what he wanted to know, what his parents had once searched for incessantly.
“If we had the knowing, we’ve lost it,” she said to him one sweltering evening, as the heat of his sixteenth summer’s first day was just breaking over the shattered canyons of steel and glass.
“Hasn’t anybody else ever looked?” Jax asked, stirring pigeon stew over the heat of a burnbowl. He sprinkled the first of the new season’s herbs into the bubbling, breathing in the earthy tang of fresh basil. His mother’s building-side greenhouse might look like a jagged wart, but it grew enough vegetables and herbs to keep pigeons and other birds worth eating.
“From other tribes, perhaps,” Grandmother said. “After your parents returned empty-handed, no one else bothered. They went as far east as the river, and as far as they could go in the old webs, and found nothing.”
“Did they go down?” Jax asked.
His grandmother said nothing for a moment, though the corners of her mouth dropped a fraction. She poked at the embers below the burnbowl, and said, “No one goes down. There’s nothing there for us.”
Jax knew that tone, that frozen look that meant disapproval at best. Once Grandmother closed the discussion, there was nothing more to say. But nothing more to say wasn’t the same as nothing more to know. While most his age were looking to the horizon, Jax was looking down, past layers of rope and cable and chain, beyond the barricades and doors and warning signs, into the dark clouds that hugged the city’s surface, shrouding the old, dead world.
Of all the things Jax learned, the hardest to master was patience. Not the patience of the hunt; that was easy. Night after night, though, listening to the elders’ fireside talk, he felt the burning inside, the need to know. Slowly, he learned. Taking what Grandmother taught — the ways of reading, how to live wisely in the webs — he prowled the shattered buildings, searching.
Many times, he found books, stories and texts from before the city died. Word by word, he began to understand. There had been some kind of attack, maybe the prelude to a war or the conclusion to one. Whatever weapon had been used was terrible, killing thousands upon thousands, changing its nature as it went. The city died, except for those that climbed into the sky, closing the way behind them. The survivors forgot the darkness’s name, keeping their eyes high and their webs small: elevator cable, chains, ropes, and eventually scavenged steel from the bridges, dotting the horizon like broken teeth.
Eventually, Jax came upon a day when there were no more books to find, no more stories to scavenge from the elders. The answers he sought, Jax knew, could only come from below. Had his parents survived the web collapse of his twelfth summer, Jax knew they would still be searching for truth, as he did. The time to stop planning and act had come.
Before the sun broke the horizon, Jax went to a hiding place in a shattered office. Quickly, silently, he pulled out a pack, loaded with tools, weapons and supplies, and slung it across his back. He walked through halls now carpeted in dirt and feathers and mold. Emerging on the side of the building away and down from the tribe, Jax climbed out into the web, clamped a gripper’s extending reels onto a junction of cables, and began his descent.
As the sun arced high above, Jax vanished into the darkness hugging the city’s surface, the descent cable taut as he climbed down. From the sunward side, faint sounds of the tribe greeting the day could be heard in the quiet. As the faint vibrations of the descent cable stopped, a shadow stiffly peeled itself free from an open window, looking down into the featureless clouds below.
“So much like them,” Grandmother Ange said to herself. Over the years, she tried to keep the stories from Jax, avoid telling the ones she knew would thrill him, or at least change them to make a different point. His heart and mind were strong, but always in the center, an emptiness. That same emptiness, she knew, drove his parents.
Maybe, she thought as she swung outward, I should have told him what really happened. But how could she? The remembering still hurt: a cool, glass-edged morning that promised warmth, until Jax’s parents emerged from the surface clouds, climbing upward so fast she hadn’t noticed at first how misshapen they were, the growths and ridges and things best not remembered, even in passing.
How hungry they looked.
What would they have done, Ange wondered, had they reached the tribe? Would they have been able to explain what happened? Would they have slaughtered everyone? Too much risk, too much threat. Before their guttural cries could wake the others, she’d acted. The pair of climbing axes she took from a marauder years ago were sharp, and the tribe remained safe as her blood family fell.
From the sling on her back, she pulled a folding platform and deftly clamped it to a nexus of cables, including Jax’s gripper cable. Here, Ange would wait for her grandson to return. His parents had returned within a day. Well-maintained axes, still gleaming, hung at her hip.
Alone, Ange waited for Jax to return from darkness, bearing whatever he’d become into the light.
Brandon Nolta lives in north Idaho with his wife and two children. His poetry and fiction have appeared in, among many other places, Strong Verse, Digital Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and in anthologies from JayHenge Publishing and Mad Scientist Review. His novel Iron and Smoke was published by Montag Press in early 2015.