A crowd gathered around the speaker, “They think we are step-stones from a bygone era! They wish we would just melt away with the hell they created because of their greed and lust for money and fame. They poisoned our air, our water, and our land to such an extent that it turned our world into dust and sand. Our air came to a boil, and still, they didn’t listen to sound science from us or any of our studies. They left us all to die in the mess they created with excuses that the floating cities couldn’t support us all. Excuses that the palaces they built in the atmosphere of Earth and Venus couldn’t sustain such a burden. The truth is that we all just couldn’t afford the ticket! We can no longer abide the lies of coexistence. Resist against their boot they use to try and crush us!”
Annwe looked away from the speech of the plainly dressed man that stood atop a wooden crate as the worker responded to her. “They’re all yours, kid.” The scrawny laborer said as he looked cautiously over his shoulder towards Resplendent which was a mid-size freighter ship while pushing the blankets toward her. Annwe knew she had overpaid for the blankets, but she was sick of not having the little luxury ever since that good for nothing thief made off with hers. She needed those blankets when the unbearable heat of the day continued deep into the night when the weather was most dangerous. When the nights sweltered as much as the days, she would douse her blanket in water and wrap herself in it. She hated the cold of the water, but she knew the dangers of overheating as her father had taught her. Annwe found herself replaying the events of the week before in her mind. There had to be something that she had missed that could help her get to him again.

“Daaad, just because I don’t talk nerdy doesn’t mean I can’t. Hyperthermia, which can also be hyperpyrexia, is a real danger of heat. Do not try to cool down by sitting in front of a fan that blows hot air, that makes symptoms worse. You need cold water and a colder environment. Hot air continuing into the night is the actual killer,” Annwe poked his shoulder as they walked. “Also, with higher humidity accompanied with warm weather, it means heat begets more heat especially into the night!” She smiled proudly up to him as he continued to watch straight ahead. “Besides,” Annwe said defiantly, “I’m not a kid anymore, I’m almost fifteen!”
Her dad looked down at her with that small smile of his that infuriated her without end, but that also comforted her when she was certain her world was crumbling all around her. “Not a kid anymore. Just make sure you drink your water.” He said the last putting a blue gloved hand on her head and mussing up her hair. Annwe growled softly before shooting him a glare. He continued to smile at her before wrapping a strong arm around her shoulders. As angry as she could get, he always made her feel safe.
Annwe gripped her dad’s oil stained white overcoat that he seemed to live in and held it tight as they made their way outside the gates of Amorine and out into the endless sands of the Ketsueki desert. The heat felt like a wall that pushed them back into the shade of the city. They pressed on, though. Waiting for them was a trio of dune buggies that could traverse the deep sands. They loaded their things into the middle Buggy with two other men. It was after they sat that Annwe noticed that all her father’s lab partners were with them.
“We are both going up this time, right?” Annwe asked rhetorically. She already knew the answer.
Her father looked at her and pulled a dark visor over his eyes before handing her one to wear, too. As the vehicle began to move forward, he replied, “WE are not going anywhere. You are going to the camp below the elevator while your dad goes to visit First Island for another one of his ‘experiments’ as you like to call them.” The buggy roared forward to full speed as she put on her shaded visor to save her eyes from the bright sun. Annwe watched the dunes dizzyingly fly by, and it almost made her sick before she remembered to focus on the horizon to keep her stomach settled.
Through the clouds above, Annwe could see the bottom of the floating city, Egostrian. In the distance, a shapeless chunk of debris fell and landed hard on the ground, spewing sand high into the wavy desert air. It was common for trash to rain down into the sandy wilderness. It seemed the city hovered above the entirety of Ketsueki at times. It was why Amorine didn’t extend out beneath Egostrian. The danger of discarded rubbish from the clouds was too frequent and unexpected to live below the city. Annwe grit her teeth, disgusted by the crunching of salty sand. She hated the taste. Annwe looked to her father and followed his gaze forward to their destination: a thin, dark, metallic elevator that extended to through the haze of thin clouds and seemingly to the stars above.

When they arrived, her father pointed up the endless tower. “That is where I am going.” He rested a hand on her head and turned it down towards a small building near the bottom of the tower itself. “That is where you’re going with the others. It will only be a few hours at most.”
“I don’t want to stay down here again!” Annwe pleaded as she pointed to the clouds, “I want to go up there with you!”
He smiled that stupid smile of his, “Someday Annwe, but not today.”
“Today is someday! Please?!” Annwe gave him her best pout, but she knew he wouldn’t budge.
“No, Annwe, I’m sorry,” he said, Now go. I’ll see you as soon as I am able,” he kissed her forehead and mussed her hair again before turning to join his lab partners near the base of the tower. Annwe glared at his back before silently resigning to another tedious wait reading her books. As she approached the building, she turned to see her father, but couldn’t see him or the others. Something itched at the back of Annwe’s mind. He didn’t promise to see her again. He always promised to be back soon. Annwe couldn’t shake the thought but eventually waved away the idea. He probably just forgot, she thought. Annwe looked to the building she was supposed to go to and then back up the length of the tower that stretched into the sky. She shook her head defiantly, “Not this time,” and Annwe ran towards the base of the tower her father went. She would see the clouds. For once she would escape the desert, sand, and the smell of oil. Annwe stopped at the doorway and listened. She could hear her father.
“Check your oxygen, no need to remind you that you’ll go hypoxic without it after the detonation and the elevator depressurizes. Let’s review. Jen?” Her father asked.
Jen responded, “The first explosive will be at the troposphere which determined to be 8.5 kilometers in elevation from our location, the second at the tropopause which has been found to be 18.8 kilometers in altitude. We have been over these numbers. We need to go. Now.”
Explosives?, Annwe thought. “Fine, fine,” her dad said. He sounded reluctant to Annwe. He was always the type to try the same experiment repeatedly to make sure all the details were worked out. “Let’s go.” Annwe glanced into the room. They were all wearing tanks and masks with backpacks. She could hear large doors to the elevator hiss as they opened around the corner. She didn’t want to be left out again. The doors began to close. Annwe ran. Before anyone could say anything, she barreled into the elevator as the doors closed in behind her.
“Annwe!” She heard her father yell, “What are you doing?! Stop! Stop the elevator!” It was too late. Annwe could feel the gravity of a slow upwards movement.
“If we stop it now, they’ll know, this might be our only chance,” Jen said. It was only then that Annwe noticed the blood. A uniformed guard lay unmoving in the corner of the large elevator floor.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Annwe asked, suddenly feeling foolish.
Her father took off his mask and sighed heavily, “Annwe, you shouldn’t have come.” Annwe looked down before meeting his eyes again, “I know, I’m sorry.”
“We can’t turn around now. Listen, I just want you to understand that it wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. We are done being only scientists and hypothesizing what could be. It is best to do something and risk being wrong than never do anything at all, Annwe. I want you to have an opportunity and a chance for growth. I wish you would have stayed where I asked. You should not be here.” He said sadly.
“7.5 kilometers, 7.7, 8, 8.2…” Annwe heard Jen count. The woman, Jen, opened a side panel of the elevator and shot an object through, “The first explosive placed.”
“What way? What are you talking about, Dad?” Annwe asked confused.
“I’m sorry for not telling you earlier. I was hoping to keep you from this.” Annwe’s father sighed again before removing his gear and motioning Annwe to turn around. She did as he asked and he placed his tank, mask, and backpack on Annwe making sure to tighten it to her size and that oxygen flowed correctly.
“Don’t you need a mask, Dad?” Annwe asked as she glanced around at all the others still in their gear.
“18.2 kilometers, 18.5…” Jen counted again before shooting another round through what appeared to be a square-barreled gun, “…second explosive placed.”
Her father gave her that infuriating smile again, “Don’t you worry about me, Annwe. Never forget that the sky is not a thing to be owned. We are going to bring Egostrian a message, starting with the elevator and First Island. They cannot ignore the desperate people they left behind any longer.” It was only then that Annwe realized the elevator began to stop and the doors opened.
“I don’t understand…” Annwe replied as she turned to face the large opening into the empty sky.
Annwe heard muffled to her ears as she looked out among an ocean of clouds and on those clouds buildings with luscious green gardens. Dozens of flying machines crossed expanses between floating islands.
“Annwe! Look at me!” She tore her gaze away, “Don’t forget to breathe. I love you.” He smiled that smile again and strangely he was falling away. No, she realized, it was her that was falling.
She screamed within her mask as the black metal of the elevator fell away then imploded below her before turning red and orange above her enveloping the entirety of the structure under where she was pushed out. The huge buildings directly above the elevator began to rocked and tilted from the blast and began to fall apart. Explosions were ripping up the side of First Island causing the whole structure to begin a slow, yet definite, descent downward. Annwe plummeted through the cloud line and her ability to see anything faded. She fell for what seemed an eternity. “Dad…” she thought as she felt the pack on her back automatically open and a round parachute opened above her, wrenching her painfully, slowing her descent.
When she descended through the thin layer of cloud cover, Annwe was stunned, speechless at what she saw. Through her watery eyes, the city of Amorine appeared through the haze of heat huddled against the acidic ocean water in the distance. The real scope of the Ketsueki desert was humbling. Sand as far as she could see. Annwe could already feel the heat enveloping her as she descended towards the bottom of the now broken structure.

A week after the massive elevator fell, Annwe made her way across the close-knit rooftops towards her hideaway she called Safe Perch. It was the flat top roof of an abandoned building that transients were in and out of, shady deals were made and broken, or even the occasional raccoon could be found sleeping the heat of the day away. Annwe cared nothing for what happened inside. She spent her time next to the half-broken gargoyles at the edge of the rooftop facing the endless view of the Ketsueki desert. The massive dunes were a landscape of red and brown, dotted with the occasional boulder that cast shadows across the windswept inclines. Annwe bundled up her new blanket for a pillow to sit on and leaned back against the broken stone torso of a gargoyle missing its head. Worth every coin, she mused.
Annwe reached into a gap beneath the statue to retrieve a dusty visor with thick goggle eyepieces. She pulled a small metallic Dragonfly from one of the eyepieces. She set the little insect drone on the edge of the rooftop beside her. Annwe then closed her eyes after sliding the visor over her head and began making a connection to the flier. From the leather bands crisscrossing her dirty blonde hair, she slipped earpieces down into her ears. The Dragonfly connected and Annwe’s vision became the Dragonfly’s view through the visor. Annwe listened to the sounds of the city streets below through the microphone of the Dragonfly and let her mind go as she lifted the drone away from the building to cascade down the side of the building.
The music of men’s quartet bellowed their song over the serenading hiss of steam whistles and the constant whir of engines all around the city block. A woman plucked a shamisen through a somber melody around the corner almost in tune with the men’s harmony. Her face hidden beneath long, strawberry hair and a wide-brimmed black velvet hat as she strummed away at a moderate pace on her fretless lute. Annwe flew her Dragonfly past the musician. Further down the dusty road, the sounds of the music died inside the factory where one man screamed, red-faced, at another man who sported a bulging vein above his eye. It was just another day for the workers who ignored the verbal quarrel and made their way to their duties. Beyond the laborers, a sauna amount of steam poured out a doorway with a descending stairwell. Not a man of woman didn’t shimmer with the sweat, grease, and dirt that came from making a living working in what the locals labeled Steam Hell. In the wetness above the steamy doorway was an engraving of a large ship firing off a launch pad. Most referred to the rocket as Desertion, but others knew the image more so as what was meant to be the homage to the last launch of the ship, “Venus’ Embrace.”
Annwe flew her drone she called Dragonfly through the entrance and down into the steam. It was a short distance to reach the old rocket platform after the tunnel. Her visor’s vision flickered as she descended into the steamy tunnel. When her screen cleared, her drone had already exited the tunnel, and she saw the deserted launch pad. In the distant sky, she saw shapes. Looking closer, about a mile in the air were circular parachutes descending through the haze of the desert heat above the still smoldering wreckage of Egostrian’s First Island and the elevator. Annwe ripped off her visor and stood looking towards where she saw the parachutes. “There!” She saw them, five of them, just like the parachute that she had. “Dad?! Please be alive. You need to be alive!” Annwe ran.

The sound of the plucked strings of the shamisen always reminded her of the ocean waves as the vibrato of sound moved through her. It was less the notes she played and more how they bounced off of one another as she fluidly moved her hand across the fretless lute. The sounds of hissing steam and random whistles across the city were a distant dream as she cleared her mind of the world around her and let muscle memory take control of the song. Her thoughts wandered towards the memory of a dinner plate sized spider crawling slowly across her skin.

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