The shuttle doors slid open as Jack swore under his breath, “I’ll never be late again in my life.” The shuttle was packed enough to make a clown car envious. Even with nowhere else to go, Jack still couldn’t muster enough courage to step outside.
A random stranger shouted from the back, “Go already! Stop holding up the line!” Full of anticipation, the crowd wasn’t going to wait for long.
Leaning outside the shuttle just a bit, Jack looked down. NOPE, he thought, but just as Jack moved backward someone pushed him from behind.
“AHHHHHHHHHHH,” he shrieked before slamming into the cloud, reflexively catching himself with his hands before landing face first.
Frozen on his hands and knees, staring down in shock at the cloud holding him ten thousand feet in the air, Jack tried wrapping his head around what just happened. I’m not going to fall through. It’s manmade, just like brick.
“Scared of heights?” Jack looked up to see a woman in an all-white uniform smiling above him.
Realizing someone was watching his embarrassing display of paranoid panic, he scrambled to his feet and matched the woman’s smile with a shy grin. “I wasn’t until I got here.”
“A lot of people are scared the first time they step into Cloud City. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, you get used to it pretty quick.”
“I’ve seen the commercials and all, and felt the shuttle land fine, but when the doors opened…” Jack trailed off with a shrug.
“They almost had to use a crowbar to get me out at first, but now I live up here. I’m Olivia by the way.”
“I’m Jack,” he replied, shaking the hand she offered in greeting. “I take it you work for Atlas?”
Her white sleeveless blouse and skirt coupled with the cloud-shaped “Olivia” nametag made the question rhetorical. Giggling, she answered, “Is it that obvious? I work up here as a greeter and tour guide. I could show you around a bit if you want.”
Of course I want a personal tour with a beautiful woman! Jack used every ounce of maturity he acquired over his twenty-one years to coolly respond, “Sure.”
“Great, follow me.” She spun around and started walking away from the shuttle.
With his sanity back in check and spirits high, Jack’s tunnel vision fell away and he found himself frozen again, this time in awe. Oh my God! It looks even better than the commercials! In front of Jack was an architect’s wet dream made out of clouds. In front of him was a massive skyline that put the New York City to shame, all sculpted out of clouds. Crowds of people flocked just inside the city’s entrance, taking pictures and marveling at the sights. Hundreds were making their way to Cloud City from the sprawling shuttle pads sitting along a massive pathway funneling everyone towards the entrance.
Snapping out of his awestruck trance, Jack found Olivia patiently standing just outside his shuttle pad’s exit, watching him with a smile. Trying not to show how nervous he was with each step, he made his way over to Olivia.
“Pretty amazing isn’t it?” Olivia asked.
“Yeah. It looks even better than it did in the commercials.”
Jack’s heart sank as he read the Tour Guide sign next to Olivia. I’m an idiot.
“We’ll start the tour once the shuttles take off,” Olivia announced, still smiling as she had before. “Please take a listening device out of the bin under the sign and set it to channel three.”
Jack took a small rectangular walkie-talkie and put the attached headphones over his ears, placing the left portion behind his ear to hear the world around him. He took a look around as the crowd started to form, realizing he wasn’t the only one who had a hard time stepping out of the shuttle. Each pad had attendants helping people gather their bearings.
A few minutes later Jack’s tour group had grown into a pack of fifteen to twenty people, with him relegated to the back as each one walked past him to pick up their own listening device. He heard the shuttle engines start to rev as Olivia’s voice rang through his right ear, “Can everyone hear me okay? The dial on the left controls volume. It’s pretty loud at the entrance, so you might have a hard time hearing me as we get closer to Cloud City. I’m going to give you a brief introductory as we walk up the docking pathway and let you take in the sights when we first step into the heart of the city. We’ll talk about the entrance once we get to a quieter area.”
“Give me a thumbs up if you’re ready,” Jack, along with the rest of the group, followed Olivia’s example. “Good! Before we begin, I’d like everyone to jump one time.” This time only a few brave souls followed Olivia’s example, giving more reluctant members like Jack enough courage to follow them with a slight bunny hop.
“The material you’re standing on is 100% safe. It was first created 50 years ago by an Atlas engineer Dr. Eobard Stein and has been used to create everything you’re going to see in Cloud City. While it has a cloud-like appearance, it’s actually a thousand times tougher than steel. During thorough testing to fully understand the compound’s limits, Dr. Stein also discovered that applying an electrical current to the material allowed him to fully control its density without suffering any loss of tensile strength, making the creation of stable mid-air objects possible. What makes CloudForm truly extraordinary is just how malleable and readily available the material is to create, making it the ideal building material for airborne expansions like Cloud City.”
Olivia began walking down the docking pathway and towards the city’s entrance as she continued, “Atlas started as a privatized space company during the early 2000s, competing with dozens of other companies around the world to create the first shuttles capable of commercial space flight. They succeeded, creating patented vertical take-off and landing shuttles like the ones you rode to get here. Using their commercial space flight technology, passenger flights around the world began soaring higher than ever to drastically reduce flight times. Before Atlas, flights from London to Sydney used to take twenty hours longer than they do today.”
A woman in front of Jack commented to the man beside her, “Can you imagine if it took us almost a day to fly to your mother’s each year?!”
Jack rolled his eyes. Like you haven’t heard this history story before.
They were halfway to the entrance as Olivia continued the history lesson, “Becoming a leader in aeronautical and space travel shot Atlas into the stratosphere.” Jack chuckled at the pun. “Connecting the world more efficiently than ever before opened up a lot of air space. With the looming issue of overpopulation becoming a disastrous environmental concern, Atlas opened an R&D department dedicated to finding a way to make the skies safely habitable for people – similar to how Lantis Corp works on underwater habitats, although Atlas didn’t want to invade any natural eco systems.”
And so the rivalry continues. Jack rolled his eyes again.
“Atlas started with traditional engine-based floating structures that used the same technology as their shuttles – I’m sure many of you are familiar with the sky residences around LA and Boston. While they succeeded and still stand today, the constant oscillation of the platforms have made these residences less than ideal living conditions.”
Not to mention the constant exhaust pouring out of the engines keeping those residences afloat.
“Shortly after the LA residence took flight, Dr. Stein made the miraculous breakthrough in CloudForm technology you’re standing on today.”
They were close to entrance and it was becoming hard to hear Olivia over the massive crowd’s ambient noise. Olivia turned towards the tour group as she reached the entry way and shouted, “Welcome to Cloud City!”