Under a grey sky filled with clouds of dust, soot, and melancholy, Lenn gazed upon his work. Even he had to admit it looked less than impressive. After a lifetime of effort, all he had to show was a small pod, balanced precariously upon a great metal tube. Wire, weld, and hope held together the pitted metal plates and clouded plastic windows. It did not look like much, but what it represented was far more important—his chance to find the answers to the questions that had burned within him his entire life.
As a child, they laughed when he asked if the old stories handed down by his father and his father’s father were true. As a young man, they shouted he was wasting his life as he scavenged long-abandoned ruins in search of knowledge, better off lost to time. As an adult, they ridiculed him when he declared he would someday see what was beyond the grey. And as an old man, they mostly ignored him. From time to time, the curious would come to stare at the crazy hermit. In the end they would walk away in silence, shaking their heads.
Lenn endured the scrutiny, teasing, and eventual indifference with silence and grace. Until it was time to take action and endure no longer.
“Today is the day,” he said to his nemesis, the grey sky above. He walked with back straight and head held high toward his chariot, a man ready to do battle. With old joints aching in protest, he climbed the ladder on the side of the tube and settled into the pod.
In years long gone, Lenn had imagined a crowd of well-wishers to bid him adieu. Perhaps even a tearful woman, who would send her love with him on his journey, and pray for his safe return. Those were the fancies of a child. Only the cold dead ground and foreboding grey sky were there to see him off. It didn’t matter. With a silent prayer, Lenn pressed the ignition button.
The explosion deafened him. The pod lifted, leaving the desolate landscape behind. Faster and faster he rose. As he ascended, a giant, invisible hand pushed against his chest, forcing air from his lungs. Through the dingy windows of the pod, he watched the grey veil above come ever closer. He was helpless as it engulfed him. It was dark. So dark. There was nothing but a swirling maelstrom of the grey. It was everywhere. Lenn panicked. His heart beat furiously in terror. Had he been wrong? Was there nothing else? Did the grey go on forever? His breath came in short, ragged gasps.
All at once, he was through. The accursed grey, warden of his imprisonment, was gone. He was finally free. In its place Lenn beheld a pristine horizon that stretched from midnight blue, almost black, to a faint purple. He took it all in, like a blind man who could now see for the first time.
Directly above, just like in the stories his father told him, he found Polaris—the North Star, shining bright. Expectantly, he turned his head and found a bone-white sphere, bigger in life than ever it was in his dreams. The Moon. Even as he watched, the sky changed from lavender to pink to gold as a brilliant orb, the Sun, rose over the horizon.
A tear rolled down his cheek. He remembered the stories he grew up with, passed down through his family for generations. Happy tales of a beautiful world, full of color and light. The tragedy of the war that almost extinguished the human race and left the Earth the cold, grey wasteland he knew. The hopeful tales of man leaving the cold rock below to sail among the stars to find a new home. The Sun, Moon, and stars stood in affirmation. The old stories were true, all of them.
Without warning, the pressure against his chest was gone. Before his eyes, the heavens receded. He slammed his hand against the ignition button repeatedly, to no avail.
“No!” he screamed to the sky above. “Not yet. I can’t go back yet! No!”
The sky did not listen, and the pod fell. The grey entombed him. It suffocated him. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars were lost. He couldn’t breathe. The world faded to black.
Slowly and painfully, Lenn discovered he was not dead. The warped, twisted remains of his pod smoked and hissed around him. Somehow, he had survived. Circling the shattered wreckage of his dreams, he saw the people of his small village. None looked at him. All were enthralled by the single patch of golden light he had freed during his descent, warming the dead ground.
Dread, disbelief, and wonder crept across each face in turn. It wasn’t much, just a single ray of sun, but it was something none but Lenn had seen in living memory. The grey above moved quickly, as if alive, to patch the hole his pod made with dust and ash. The single ray of sunlight died, but in its wake left hope. It was enough. Lenn had unveiled the truth. There was something beyond the grey.
With sunlight gone, the watchers awoke. They pushed forward and reverently lifted Lenn from the remains of his chariot. From all sides, they bombarded him with questions.
“What did you see?”
“Was that the Sun?”
“Does this mean the stories are all true?”
Lenn closed his eyes and let them carry him to the village. Later would be time for answers, as well as new questions. He smiled. Someday—not in his lifetime—but someday, they would fly again and leave this ruined, desolate rock with its grey skies of ash and soot.
It had started. Their eyes were open now.
Austen McGee lives just outside of Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and demon cat. In addition to family activities, he enjoys college football, driving his Jeep with the top off, and trying to master the craft of brewing beer. Follow him on Twitter @AustenMcGee.