Jàl mingled between the groups of socialites, each preening for his attention. A room full of the ultra rich vying for even seconds of conversation with the reclusive genius, Jàl Condor. The reason so many of New Market’s elites ventured out at this late hour. Risking the possibilities of running afoul of the bands of societies castaways that roamed the night skies, or worse, the possibility of contracting the debilitating illness by exposing one's self to crowds.
And all this to meet an intellectual giant such as Jàl Condor. Jàl shrank at the thought, but apparently, others felt this opportunity worth the extra precautions warranted by leaving the sanitized environs of their homes to tempt the gods and travel the distance once the sun gave way to dark.
That, and the fact the General requested their attendance, or, more so, the donations each would make to the cause. General Dimitri Orgov. The man relegated by the ruling families to protect the health and structure in the cloud city from the warring middle class and the lowly scourge of groundliers occupying the bottom stories of the towering city of New Market. And now, the man chosen to find an end to the plague set upon the city.
Jàl worked the room. The party’s guests greeting each other with the simple nod of acknowledgment. Since the arrival of the air-borne disease, handshakes or close contact with another person became socially unacceptable lead to the latest custom requiring a 3-foot buffer between acquaintances.
The nouveau rich adherently stuck to these restrictions. Money served no purpose to the dead or to the growing number of castaways inflicted with the illness and shunned by society. The rich valued their wealth over everything. Designer masks, a recent addition for socialites, blended with the extravagant gowns and tuxedos on display. The eloquent face coverings shielded the lower portion of the guest's faces.
Jàl withdrew inward, the loud buzz of excited talk filling the room, overwhelming. His focus centred on the glass of contraband soda clutched in his hand and the hypocrisy it represented. The clear carbonated drink, a favourite at these parties. Jàl sipped at the remaining ounce of the precious liquid. Tilting the glass, he watched the liquid slide along the interior of the glass. The bubbles clinging to the side before evaporating. His thoughts following the carbonated bubbles around the glass surface as he raised his head and scanned the faces of the lavish partygoers.
A funny world, he mused. The drinking of a prohibited substance meant a harsh penalty, if. In today’s society, there was always an ‘If’, if one was not a part of the upper echelon ruling the massive cloud city. Here the law was what you could afford, the more riches one controlled, the fewer restrictions. Most city laws were created to restrict the less wealthy. The ones serving at gatherings like this banquet or those who toiled on the lower levels. The same people who rarely if ever ventured above the 200th floor to the rising heights of elites.
That being said, the crowd enjoying tonights soirée would never dream of venturing below the very same line. A civilization separated by concrete and steel. Oh. And lasers and death patrols and on and on. Movement between castes was tightly restricted, but still, money had its privileges, for instance, the fizzing soda in his glass. He doubted the manufacturing of the illegal product occurred above the cut line; the sky dwellers lacked the necessary resources required. One of the ruling families used their ties to the middle class to smuggle the substance for the delight of the party goers.
And since the emergence of the unknown virus, a crime that had been deemed punishable by death if not for the General’s people determining the contagion originated far below the jumble of floors occupied by the inferior society. No. The intellects determined the virus originated in the very depths of New Market. The levels occupied by the groundliers.
Jàl wondered away from the admiring flocks of finely dressed couples and stood in front of the window. His eyes pointed downward as if his sight could span miles and gaze into the grimy, polluted barrens deserted by distance ancestors. A harsh landscape left behind, and only groundliers remained to eke a living on the planet's surface.
His vision tracked a few lights twinkling across the abyss but the span between towers consumed by darkness. He shrugged. The view during daylight hours was not altogether different. Clouds of grey and brown obscured all sight of the lower regions. And from where he stood, on the clearest of days, even the heavily protected division line some 60 odd floors down would be impossible to see.
Jàl lived all of his 37 years at this altitude. Like everyone else, he heard the rumours of life on the lower levels but had little association with any who had ventured below. Why. Could the middle class, or even the groundliers be that much different than the people in this room? Unlikely, he reasoned. They were known to be filthy savages, but really. Did they not also have two arms and two legs and care about the same things his fellow dwellers found important. He shrugged, pushing his reflective mood for another time.
The thought forgotten, replaced by blinding pain. The drink in his hand began to tremble, the glass slipping from his grip as his hands shot to his head. The pain gripped the base of his skull before inching up and spreading into his brain. His vision faded to dark then exploded into a searing light. In a semi-comatose state, he felt the floor shake. Small vibrations crept upwards, from the soles of his feet, passing along his legs through his upper body before buzzing past his head. A massive tremor shook the building.
The shaking of the room and the headache ceased as quickly as they arrived. At least this time the attack was brief. The buzzing left a ringing in Jàl's ears. And what was with the sudden band of headaches, anyway? He cursed, his hand massaging the base of his neck.
And why did they seem to accompany the tremors? He chewed his lip fighting off the remnants of pain. The Mixed Reality program was finally gaining traction. Could that be the clue? Did the groundliers have the ability to troll his movements.? Where the attacks a means of slowing his progress?
He mopped at the drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. His mind swirled with questions. The first time the pain gripped his head, he feared it might be the onslaught of the virus. But that was weeks ago, and each one a precursor to the tremors that shook the city. He suffered several episodes since, but none of the debilitating symptoms of the sickness followed.
A sliver of good news in an avalanche of bad news. The severe pain of the headaches a precursor to the bad tremors that rattled the city. Another unwanted attack from the very pit of the city, the lair of the groundliers. Where else could these disasters originate?
General Dimitri’s spies spent countless hours scouring the hostile regions at the middle of the towering city, the levels inhabited by the Middle Class, in search of answers. The deadly covert missions run behind enemy lines failed to expose a single thread of evidence linking the warring faction beneath as the cause of the problem.
The conclusion arrived upon by the leaders. The Middle Class lacked both the means to revive a long extinct epidemic nor the want to construct a weapon powerful enough to shake the city towering above them, the highest levels on New Market. The home of the Cloud Dwellers.
All avenues lead to a singular conclusion. The only answer possible. But what type of technology did the groundliers possess that would enable the lowest realm of human existence the power to bypass the bio-bio-shield and attack the upper levels?
The collective sound of people gasping in fear snapped Jàl from his reverie. Glasses rattled and somewhere in the building an alarm sounded. Through the fog of pain, he swivelled away from the undulating glass window and surveyed the room. Worried, frightened faces stared about. Exposed patches of skin showing past the protective masks, drained of colour. Nervous eyes wildly cast about the shaking room.
The tremors were increasing in frequency. Why? And could the cause really rise from hundreds of floors beneath where he stood? On a surface that not even a long line of ancestors had set foot.
Blocking out the guests as they scurried about, Jàl’s mind circled back to the reason for the gala. Money desperately needed to support a massive project. A means to bypass the bio-shield and transport the General’s death squads to the depths of the city, down to the very surface of the planet to retrieve a cure for the debilitating and deadly disease and bring an end to the tremors before steel and glass collapsed upon itself, finishing what the contagion started.
While the pain in his skull subsided, the fear in the room triggered memories of the initial discovery of the virus to resurface. The shock and disbelief among the dwellers above the clouds. How previous generations had come and gone without a single recorded illness.
History taught that, not since the middle class rose above the pits of the groundliers and installed the bio-shield to prevent further outbreaks, had anyone suffered from an illness. And now, in a time of great wealth and prosperity, the arrival of a deadly virus to the quarantined heights of the upper levels. The terror spreading among the unprepared Sky Dwellers for a problem that modern technology no longer had a cure.
The answers, miles below, on the alien planet occupied by the Groundliers where some unexplainable evil was at work. All remaining solutions relied on the success of Jàl’s project. General Dimitri had sought out Jàl because of whispered rumours of a breakthrough in a quantum field Jàl developed. The intriguing possibilities behind the Mixed Reality project attracted the General’s attention.
After failed attempts to bypass the impenetrable barrier dividing the levels, the General sought out Jàl. The Mixed Reality theory, his last hope. Within the confines of the virtual world, certain laws of physics no longer applied. The General, extrapolating Jàl's theory, surmised that a person entering the virtual world could exit into the groundliers levels, the bio-shield, theoretically, would no longer enter the equation.
This new angle of thought focused Jàl on a journey to turn theory into practicality and elevated his standing in the public arena. The survival of the Sky Dwellers counted on his genius.
His first order of business, find a route past the barrier separating the lowest hundred floors from the towering cities above, the second order, program a routine to train the General’s death squads, preparing them to fight in a foreign environment.
The experiments were costly. The Sky-Dwellers lacked the rare materials to expand the project. Backroom deals brokered with sworn enemies, levels below, procured the lacking resources but cost excessive amounts, the price of the project rocketed into the trillions of dollars. As wealthy as the ruling classes were, that amount was simply beyond their reach. Thus the risked gatherings and extravagant banquets. A means to solicit funds from the other elite families of New Market.
As repayment to all those who contributed, promises of unparalleled wealth, the best motivator for people living above the clouds, for one could never have enough riches. Once the General and his death squads reached the surface, brought an end to the virus and stabilized the structural threat, wealth in both rare materials and exotic foods awaited those who participated.
Failure was not an option. Survival of the Cloud Dwellers and possibly, even the despised Middle Class, depended on a solution. The entire civilization as the sky people knew it, rested in one man’s hands.
The Wolves Of Satan. The latest Brand Coldstream novel now on sale at most on-line retailers. E-book, paperback or hardcover. A great Xmas gift. Read on and Enjoy.