THE NINTH CLOUD
You disembark with wariness. Though the white cloak you repaired with fishing wire may be convincing at a glance, it wouldn’t take much for an Empyrean guard to identify you as a Nethizen. You tighten the scarf around your neck, pull the hood further over your head.
Your boots are slippery on the cloud’s wet surface until you change its settings. The vapour under you crystallises, and though the city’s artificial gravity settings are higher than ideal, you walk through the loading bay with considerable ease.
As you’re refuelling the ship, a voice sings from invisible speakers: “Welcome to Empyreas, the largest and highest cloud in the Mimos atmosphere. The Heavenly City: built by the people, for the people.”
From up here, bathed in the solar energy of three suns, surrounded by the chitter of Empyrean families and clean air, you could – if you wanted to – convince yourself this is utopia.
But you are not here to marvel.
You are here to find Mariku.
It is not your first time in Empyreas, but you’ve never ventured further than the loading bay. You’ve never needed to.
Six guards get in your way. All it takes is a few sprays of rain from your flask.
Turns out Empyreans die the same way Nethizens do.
You take the undercloud to the heart of the city, where the cloud is densest. Rotations of grunt work on lower clouds has taught you these cities keep their secrets close to the chest.
The carriage is empty save for two Empyrean children, laughing as they jump, trying to reach the hanging handrail.
Out the windows, there is nothing but blurs of grey and ice.
By the time you reach Central, the children have given up.
Mariku wouldn’t have.
Mariku would have found a way.
An information pod tells you the Nethizen Processing Centre is off-limits to civilians. What happens there, you wonder, that is so atrocious even the Empyreans hide it away?
It was your dream, as children, to live up here in the clouds where the air is sweet, the food is abundant, and the rain – the rain doesn’t burn.
Back then, you would marvel at the floating cities. The darkest, largest clouds, lined with luminous gold. Safe from the ravenous oceans and the ever-thickening haze. Safe from acid rain and falling waste.
“If I ever get chosen, I’ll come back for you,” Mariku used to say, passing the binoculars to you. She would always get to use them first, because she was the oldest.
From the Netheryns, you couldn’t see these glass buildings bursting from the fog, or their floating gardens, filled with flowers and fruits and food. From below, these cities are beasts, looming over the few islands yet to drown. Aerial cloaks, pumping toxins into the atmosphere, hoarding the light and warmth from the rest of the planet, discarding garbage, crushing homes and entire families.
The Empyreans would never house Nethizens with the rest of their kind. Mariku might have been chosen, but you know well enough the ways of aerosettlers. They do not treat those beneath them with the same kindness they treat their own.
You pull your binoculars out of your coat. You brought them with you just in case – but really, there is no need for them here. The skies are clear, and when you look up, you can see the cosmos.
You never did get to tell her: If I ever get chosen, I won’t go. I’ll stay here – with you.
You’re so close.
Your leg is bleeding, has left a trail from Nethizen Immigration to here, but it doesn’t hurt. It can’t.
“Okay – stop! I’ll give it to you,” the guard shouts. Comrades fallen, faces melting into their helmets, the guard’s tone has quickly changed. Reaching for the key-card, the guard’s hand falters and you jerk forward.
“Slowly,” you order, flask up. Your leg knows what their weapons can do, and you’re so close.
The Fishtank, the guards had called it. Now you know why.
Hundreds of Nethizens – more than you’ve ever seen in one place in your life. When you enter, they rush from the glass to the walls, huddling together like fish, frightened. The floors of the tank are filthy with blood, offal, and what look suspiciously like worms.
Leaning heavily against the door, you lower your hood, pulling off your scarf to bandage your leg.
“Mariku,” you cry, voice hoarse. “I’m looking for Mariku.”
The crowd shifts, unsettled and uncertain. Your eyes search, but there are too many faces, and none of them are her.
“Please.” You’re not sure how long until more guards notice the blood and bodies.
A small Nethizen squeezes out from the collective. She’s young, maybe ten rotations or less. An elder grabs at her, but she slips away, over to the glass, pressing her palms against it.
She taps a finger to the side, eyes darting over to your left, where – beside a string of hooks and knives – is a lock screen. You limp over, swiping the key-card and lowering the glass panels into the floor.
For a moment, all is still.
“Quickly,” you say. “Go.”
Your eyes scan each and every face as they pass you by. A familiar one has your breath catching.
She’s older – perhaps one of the elders from an island you’ve traded with at one point or another. Unlike the others, she comes to a stop in front of you, an unmoving stone in a rapid river. She reaches a hand out, touching a finger to your jaw. Hesitantly, you let her turn your head to the side, exposing the slits in your throat.
“You’re Mariku’s sister.”
Your heart thumps, head snapping back. “You’ve seen her? Where is she?”
Her hand cups your neck, warm and firm. Her eyes are dark and clouded; she doesn’t need to speak for you to know.
An alarm booms overhead, thunder in your ears.
Inside your chest, lightning cracks.