At first, it was as simple as an SOS. Ten people per letter, lying on the barren, dusty ground; a half-hearted, last-ditch effort of communication to those who vacated the surface. Watching from the airships, the Aboves guffawed at the notion that the surface dwellers— the plebeians, the ones who elected to stay!—had the audacity to ask for help now.
Where are your protective suits? the Aboves asked, peering over the decorative wrought iron railing that separated them from a three thousand foot drop. Where are your precious ventilators, your water purifiers, your—what did they call them?—transistor rays? The Aboves sipped their wine rations and leaned back on their heels, nodding to each other with raised eyebrows, confident they made the right decision to evacuate the surface and live in the sky. A few did toss down the occasional tin of dried fish or box of crackers; they weren’t totally heartless but then again, one did reap what one sowed.
What developed, then, was an example of intermittent positive reinforcement. The surface dwellers, scientists and psychologists among them, created more words with their bodies on the ground for the occasional aid box of bandages and sterile saline, a jug of iodine, cotton swabs, MREs. If weeks elapsed with nothing from above, the messages would become longer, now not asking for help but bearing news. All other communiqué had long been lost on the surface and this rudimentary human telegraph began to bring the surface dwellers the pleasure of interaction once again. The occasional toss of some expired tins of peaches or moth-eaten wool blankets rewarded these efforts, perhaps unintentionally, and the surface dwellers, accepting their perhaps ill-chosen fate on the dying surface in the name of science and free-will, began to see it as part of their job as the last remaining humans to document life, as it were, then and there.
The Aboves couldn’t help but develop an interest. The comfortable life in the airships, while rich in luxury, lacked that one common human interest: connection. Everyone in the airships happily lived by the rules among others equally content in their situation and their choice. And yet they frequently found themselves leaning over the wrought iron railing on the lower deck, a cool breeze against pale cheeks and the hum of the giant engines above, straining necks and eyes to read the now daily news messages from the surface, such as:
“SMOKE UP NORTH”
“MASS FISH DIE OFF”
“TOXIC WEED SPREADING”
It wasn’t so much that the Aboves cared about what was happening on the surface. That is, after all, why they left. But, as they placidly gazed at each other over tea and cakes, the crumbs of which they let fall over the sides like snow, they admitted they liked the specter of human bodies creating letters. There was something both efficient and artistic about the whole enterprise and the more ornate the font used—an (accidental) serif here, an (unintentional) italicized letter there—the more crackers and cotton swabs were dropped. Some felt, perhaps heretically so, that it was almost a static form of that banned relic, ballet.
This was not missed by the surface dwellers. There were journalists among the crowds and printers, those familiar with typesetting and fonts who leapt at the chance to try ornate styles not seen for years. The surface masses in general, though, were still tense. Many, from habit perhaps, shied away from creative expression, even fearing that the relay of a single word like “HELLO” in the form of haggard bodies along an old, rutted road was risky enough.
The anarchists among them pushed forward, nonetheless, running the gamble that the Aboves wouldn’t care anymore, they were free from old, oppressive censorship, why waste firebombs on a population merely lying on the ground? It was high stakes, they agreed, but what did they really have to lose?
Small groups took to the dirt, stretching limbs thinned and sometimes burned, hooking hands with gaunt strangers, entangling legs with homeless neighbors in order to form the perfect italic “Q” and connect it seamlessly in cursive with a “U”. A wordless agreement formed where they all met at noon—miraculously some solar clocks still worked—to decide on a message and font, then placement and delivery. To some it was the only routine they had, something with which to hold up some structure to a daily life. To others, it was a form of yoga, nourishing body and soul.
Although it was understood that bold fonts were better seen from above, those thickened letters took double the people lying closely together like stacked matches. This meant messages were shorter and the writers in the group disapproved. Others thought bold, blunt statements captured the anger that still burned in the surface dwellers this long since the Aboves left. Occasionally, disagreements meant no message was laid out. A few firebrands would try to form a thin “HI” or when despair turned the dangerous corner to utter nihilism, “BYE,” but it was likely the Aboves, from three thousand feet, couldn’t see such scrawny, vacant renderings.
Slowly, as the inevitable and expected tides of famine, disease, and social unrest drifted over the surface and circumstances truly became the dire dystopia the Aboves correctly feared, more surface dwellers had nothing left but to contribute to the fonts and word formations. The Aboves delighted in longer newsreels, as they were, as life suspended below the massive balloons ebbed from dullness to absolute tediousness. The same formalities, the same wine (now running out), the same gentry with their softened tongues, judgmental eyes, and doughy jowls—the same comforts were so monotonous that the Aboves almost flocked to the wrought iron railings of the lower decks to hang their heads over, pearls dangling, in search of the daily updates, now reporting things like: “FERAL HOGS CAPABLE OF PROBLEM SOLVING” in a lovely, ornate script and “MID-DAY SOLAR FLARES NOW REGULAR” in a bold, smart, uppercase Neoclassical.
Boxes of chocolates, biscuits, and tea sets—shattered of course by the drop, the Aboves ever so oblivious to practicality—rained on the surface dwellers like applause and those still surviving shared supplies, meager as they were. They were becoming a close-knit community, their numbers dwindling.
One afternoon, a collective gasp came from the airships, after reading the following surface message:
“FULL MOON SETS LIKE A DYING DOVE”
They looked at each other, women clasping the necks of their lace blouses, men fiddling with monocles. It was impossible to tell who was thrilled by this simile and who was aghast. Surely this wasn’t news, went the murmurs, coupled with sidelong glances. Women clutched dainty handkerchiefs, knuckles white. Was this something…new?
Below, the surface dwellers latched on to adjectives and turns of phrase with a ferociousness akin to blood lust. Such expression had been banned how many decades before? The messages continued to grow, ornate fonts and decorative flourishes abandoned to form longer descriptions of what life was still like on the surface.
Reports of acid rain now had a poetic beauty so rapturous the Aboves could swear they felt the burns on their very skin. Bulletins describing a wave of terrible birth defects made them weep. Did news used to be like this, they wondered? Others frowned: was this allowed?
The question of jurisdiction swept across the airships. After all, they were moored here; they didn’t seek to actually abandon their one time home. Instead, they literally rose above. Many Aboves assumed they still held control over the surface they fled. Others weren’t so sure—it was anarchy down there, they were dying in droves. What was the benefit in trying to still govern that? Others were nervous, still, after all this time. See how these messages stir up our comrades on the ships, they asked over coffee and biscuits, peering over the railings. It’s unfit.
On the surface, the frenzy reached its peak. Large groups of surface dwellers gathered every morning to compose the latest message. Discussions were held; there were thoughtful debates, arguments, brainstorming. There was voting sometimes and then people took their places among the words on the ground, bending and breathing and smoothing the letters to hold position, rejoice in their creation, then break to survive the rest of the day.
This might have continued until the last surface dwellers died out from various sorts of exposure, disease, famine, and accidents while the Aboves looked on in a half-contented, half-titillated fashion until they themselves died of boredom, expect that one day a generally quiet anarchist among the surface dwellers recalled a memory so recessed in his disabused mind, he burst into tears as he told others. Quickly word spread. No vote was needed that morning to decide what to spell out.
The message was short enough to use bold font. Tripled—no—quadrupled in layers, the surface dwellers pressed their bodies together with excitement and for once a hope for the future; finally, there was something to look forward to. They would continue tomorrow and for who knew how long. As the words came together and they covered their noses and mouths to keep out the toxic dust, someone actually laughed.
The Aboves, at the appointed time, looked over their railings. What they read below came as a shock. Some of the younger Aboves hadn’t even known what to make of it. It wasn’t even a full thought, they said, turning to each other in confusion. This wasn’t news. There were no facts. Somewhere on the lower deck a man yelled and a collective rage swept through the airships. This would not be tolerated. Order must be restored, control re-taken, even on such a god-forsaken land as what was below them.
And so the Aboves did what they felt they had to do. The firebombs were released. Order was restored. They peered over the railings, some women silently crying, perhaps at the thought of the loss of their once daily entertainment but, no, this was the right thing to do. Small silver rockets rained down while one phrase, in bold, in the dust, held:
“ONCE UPON A TIME.”
Anna O’Brien is a writer and veterinarian currently living in central Maryland. She has had fiction published in Burning Water; The Corvus Review; Cease, Cows; Scrutiny Journal; Luna Station Quarterly; and Panorama Journal. She is also a contributing editor to the magazine Horse Illustrated. She loves hiking, travel, coffee, and Labrador Retrievers. She can be found on Twitter: @annaobriendvm.