My memories of the city were rather limited; my first visit had been brief, and most of the city had been covered with various signs of construction. As such, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.
I felt my breath catch in my throat at the sight of gleaming silver skyscrapers that seemed to stretch impossibly high into the sky. Thousands of floaters flew over and through the city, looking like a swarm of flies from a distance.
The only thing that seemed strange was the absence of Iniagus’s palace. As memory served, it used to be in the center of the city, but all I saw there was a massive chain that seemed to trail into the clouds. I tried to see if it was attached to something, but the clouds obscured my vision.
The city wasn’t all high-tech. There were several areas we passed that had a distinctly different style: A small cluster of trees linked with a spider-web of bridges used by idestans, a homey-looking set of suburban houses and apartment complexes that most Shoran tribes prefer, and even a few environmental enclosures like those in Ronisgald, no doubt hiding larger living areas beneath the ground.
As we neared the edge of the city, Devon advised, “Better put on your seat belt; traffic can be a bit rough around here.”
He wasn’t joking; not ten minutes after our floater took to the sky, a freight floater nearly rammed into our side. Devon pulled on the controls, swearing loudly as he barely avoided the collusion. “Damn freight cars! Think they own the skies!”
As I watched people on the streets below us, a sudden shudder jolted my attention back to the floater, where Devon was still struggling to regain controls.
“Devon?” I asked, worried.
“I’m having a little trouble here.” He said as he tried to steady the floater to no avail. “Engines faltering; emergency retro-thrusters are firing, but they’re not enough to keep us in the air.”
“So much for the safety redundancy.” I muttered as the floater lurched from side to side erratically, as though trying to escape from Devon’s control. Glad I had taken his advice about strapping myself in, I asked, “Can you get us to the ground?”
“At this point, I think we’re gonna end up on the ground one way or the other.” He said through clenched teeth.
The floater descended rapidly, a cloud of green-blue smoke billowing from the exhaust port. It fell erratically through the air as the stream engine flickered on and off.
Without warning, the steering handles tore themselves from Devon’s hands and reintegrated into the console.
“What in Nocturnes?” He had time to say before a series of straps secured us to our respective chairs.
After a loud bang followed by a bright flash of light, I found myself falling through the air while still strapped to my seat. I wasn’t falling for long; my parachute opened a few moments later.
Hearing the sound of another chute opening somewhere behind me, I tried in vain to turn around for a few moments before calling out, “Devon?”
“Yeah, it’s me. You okay, Jimmy?”
A gust of wind carried me away from Devon. I was helpless to prevent it; there was no way to steer the chair, and the ropes of the parachute were just out of reach.
“Jimmy!” Devon shouted, a separate gust carrying him in the opposite direction, “Head to the nearest waystation and send a message through the …”
I did not hear the rest, as the wind coupled with the distance between us made his voice little more than a whisper. I was familiar with the waystations, as they (or nodes, as they were called in Rimstak) were fairly common.
I looked around as best I could as I floated down through the honking floaters and floating billboard. Soon, the tops of trees began to rise from beneath me. As I continued to drift down, I realized that I was about to land in the very park where our floater crashed.
The park was empty save for a giant sculpture of a hand with the middle and pointer fingers held up vertically in the universal symbol of friendship and peace. The floater had crashed through the pointer finger, breaking it just above the knuckle, which left the middle finger standing alone.
The parachute caught in the branches of a nearby tree. Fortunately, I was close enough to the ground to slip out of my chair and land without injuring myself. The trunk of the floater was knocked open from the crash, so I was able to retrieve Glint and my pack with little trouble, both fortunately undamaged.
Still a little dazed, I glanced around the area wondering why there were no security force officers; it seemed strange that the accident would go unnoticed in what looked like a public park. Deciding it would be in my best interest to leave, I started down a path that I hoped led out of the park. In my haste to leave, however, I nearly bowled over two people walking the other way. From their dark skin and pointed ears, I knew they were idestan.
“I beg your pardon.” I sad, bowing politely.
The male started to reply when his eyes caught on the damaged statue. “By the Creator!”
He rushed past me and stood in front of the ruined sculpture . “Who did this?”
Feeling a bit guilty despite the fact that I was just the passenger, I opened my mouth to apologize.
He turned to me, a look of absolute wonder on his face. “BREATHTAKING!”
That certainly wasn’t the response I had expected. I stood there in confusion while the idestan circled around the statue, talking nonstop.
“The classic image of peace, symbolizing the tie of friendship shared by all, broken by the floater! Notice, Casey, that it is the middle finger that remains undamaged, symbolizing not just the dangers of excessive dependence on technology, but the anger, the repressed rage buried in their subconscious minds of those trapped by it. Yet, despite the gravity of this image, we see the abandoned ejection chair from the wrecked floater; a symbol that the one who was once trapped in the way of technology has escaped no worse for wear.”
The red-haired idestan woman who the man had referred to as Casey rolled her eyes. The look she gave me said quite clearly, “See what I have to deal with?”
The art critic ran back to me. “Tell me, is this your creation?”
Before I could even open my mouth, he continued, “Truly remarkable! I must report this find to the Institute immediately. What was your name again?”
“I’m Jimmy Sakamota, but-”
“Jimmy Sakamota. Good! Good artist name. Casey, make sure you get it down. I’m off to the Institute!”
He turned to the statue and let out one final “OUTSTANDING!” With a shiver, he ran off and was quickly swallowed up by the rush of people in the streets.
“Sakamota, not Sakamoto, right?” Casey asked, scribbling something in a small notebook.
“Yes, but I didn’t make this. It was an accident.”
“I guessed as much. Still, if Meister says it’s art …” She shrugged, and closed her notebook with a snap. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Mister Sakamota. I’d better go catch up with him before he decides one of the traffic lights is a piece on transhumanism. I’d like to get back to Wukice before the next cycle.”
As she started to walk away, it suddenly occurred to me to ask her about the waystations. I hurried after her, but she had already walked past a thick cluster of trees and shrubs. I rounded the corner and immediately stopped dead in my tracks.
Just a few feet beyond the trees and grass of the park lay the city. Grass became concrete paved sidewalks, shrubs and bushes became traffic lights, computer access terminals, and trees became buildings. Some were small, such as the donut shop just outside the part. Some of the larger buildings, on the other hand, seemed to stretch forever into the sky. They hadn’t seemed nearly as tall from above. Then again, at the time, I had been more concerned with not ending up a greasy smear on someone’s hood.
I took a few small steps onto the sidewalk, trying to look at everything at once and giving myself a sore neck in the process. Floaters practically lined the roads, barely moving in the thick traffic. Some were flying through the sky, weaving around the skyscrapers.
“Hey, watch it!”
I quickly stepped aside as a portly Galden man stepped out of a floater. Flashing me a contemptuous look, he sauntered off into the crowd, followed by two solemn-looking men in black suits.
As he disappeared into the donut shop, a sudden surge of people swept through the street, taking me along with them.
I had never seen so many people at one time in all my life, not even when I lived in Rimstak. Hundreds, thousands of people were all walking along the sidewalk. Most of them were speaking on communicators and barely paying attention to where they were walking.
More than the number, however, the variety of the people astounded me. When I had first come to Wenapaj, most of the people were either Galden or Rimstakken. This made sense, as Wenapaj was on the border of Rimstak and near one of Ronisgald’s Strands.
Times had evidently changed. While walking through the crowds, I spotted idestans, Shorans, Cleftans, and even a pair of sentients. The male was either an Alcian or a Sirenes; his blue feathered wings were partially hidden beneath a quilted cloak. The dark-haired woman with him had dragon-esque wings covered with ruby-red scales, a sure sign that she was Xemptarian. As they passed by, the two seemed to be arguing good-naturedly about a recent slamm match.
A few moments later, an android wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans parted the crowd (including me) as he rode through on a lightboard. He was followed by two others; a Galden with cybernetic legs and a little Rimstakken girl with goggles and a flight suit, both also on lightboards.
As I watched the three disappear into an underground tunnel, something suddenly occurred to me; there I was in a city of technology wearing the garb of an ancient samurai warrior. Even though no one seemed to be taking notice of me, I felt more than a little self-conscious about my dated appearance. That was, until I bumped into the man in plate armor.
More surprised than anything, I said, “Oh! I beg your pardon.”
He looked at me; at least, he turned his head toward me. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell where he was looking. The only part of him that was exposed was the small opening in his helmet that started just above his chin and ended a little below his nose.
He immediately raised his hand in a salute, his voice younger than I expected as he said. “Sorry, sir! I wasn’t watching where I was going, sir!”
“Sir? I’m not …” I stopped, noticing the white band on the man’s arm. From what Devon had told me, white-rank was the lowest rank in the Royal guard, usually carried by new recruits.
“Uh, at ease.” I said, feeling a bit less at ease myself. I never really thought of myself as having a rank. Sure, I had the blue band which marked me as a specialist, but the only other member of the Royal Guard I had ever dealt with was Devon.
As he relaxed ever so slightly, I asked, “I was told to look for a waystation, but I’m not sure where one might be.”
“Do you want me to take you to the nearest station, sir?”
“Please.” I said, smiling in what I hoped was a reassuring way. “Call me Jimmy, if you don’t mind; formality has never suited me.”
“It would be inappropriate for me to address you so familiarly, sir.”
I sighed. “Very well then, but I assure you I won’t be offended.”
As he lead me through the city, I couldn’t help but notice that he was walking a bit stiffly; he obviously wasn’t used to the armor just yet. If that wasn’t bad enough, the young man was clearly nervous; every now and then, he would look behind us, as though checking to see if we were being followed.
After about the fifth time he did this, I turned myself to try and see what was distracting him.
I stared at the crowd for a moment before my eyes stopped on one person who was standing still a good distance away, staring right at us. Before I could get a proper look, the person ducked into a nearby alleyway.
“A friend of yours?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Whoever’s following us. Who is it, anyway?”
“No one is following us, sir.”
My companion was a bad liar. Still, the fellow was agitated enough at the moment, so I didn’t pursue the topic. As we continued, I glanced back every now and then to see if I could see the person again. Every time, the person would duck out of view just before I could get a proper look.
The waystation was a circular construction rather like an oblong dome made of stone. The glowing purple symbol above the spire on top of the building caught my eye. I didn’t know what the symbol meant, but I knew what it was; an area identification marker. As I mentioned before, I used nodes in Rimstak all the time. The only difference here was that the node booths here were contained in the waystation building, as opposed to just being out in the open.
As we reached the entryway, the guard turned sharply toward me and saluted. “I must return to the park area, sir.”
Bowing, I said, “Thank you, friend. What is your name?”
He saluted again. “Terry, sir. White-Rank Terry Ulyndia.”
I gave him the same sort of reassuring pat on the shoulder Devon gave me when I was feeling down. “Thanks for directing me, Terry. I’ll be sure to mention to Devon how helpful you were. Dismissed!”
He saluted once more before turning about sharply and departing.