Jack struggles to pry Seth’s grip from his arm as he’s dragged from the alleyway. “What the hell are you doing?! Let go of me!” Jack shouts.
Clear of the alley, Seth lets go of his arm. “Shhhhh, you need to calm down,” he says as he glances around for onlookers.
“Like hell! Did you see that? What the fuck?!” I need to get the hell out of here, Jack thinks.
“Let’s sit down,” Seth says, pointing to a nearby bench along the mostly empty path. The few people within earshot of the two quicken their pace, clearly not wishing to get involved with whatever has the 20-something year-old so heated.
As the shock of what he’s just witnessed passes, Jack slowly realizes he’s paralyzed with the same fear he faced when the shuttle’s doors opened earlier. I could fall through!
Recognizing the look of fear on Jack’s face, Seth walks beside him. “Do you need to hold my hand?”
Jack looks up and glares at the older man as he finally processes the recent events, “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not following you.”
“Oh, you just so happened to be directly behind me when I saw two people fall to their deaths.”
Seth looks around quickly, “Shhhhhh, not so loud.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I just saw two people fall through the fucking floor!”
“Yeah, and they weren’t the first.”
“People have been falling through for a while. I saw it happen for the first time about a year ago and told a friend of mine about it. We thought it was a malfunction. Being a chief engineer, he said he’d take it higher up the chain, and I haven’t seen him since.”
Jack looked on in shocked confusion. “You’re saying Atlas knows people are falling through?”
“I don’t know. I think so. A few days after Thomas disappeared I was called to headquarters and questioned about possible malfunctions in CloudForm. Something didn’t feel right, so I said I had no idea. I tried to take some time off, to leave, but I’m still under contract. They told me I could take a sabbatical but that I had to stay here. You don’t have to stay here though. Get out before you’re recruited and stay out.”
Jack backed away from Seth a bit, “How do you know I’m being recruited?”
“You have a clear understanding of how CloudForm works and asked me a bunch of questions about working here as an engineer. It doesn’t take a genius to put two-and-two together.”
“So you were following me because I’m a recruit?” Jack asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I was more curious to see who your recruiter was, and you took off towards the more remote sections of the city. No one ever falls in crowded areas, it’s always back alleys and empty roads like this. That’s why I try to stay near the tourist areas.”
“You’re saying it’s on purpose? Atlas is killing people?!”
“I don’t know.”
“What the hell DO you know?”
“I know I’m going to die up here and that you don’t have to. I’ve been walking around this place for months, wondering when the next step will be my last. It’s no way to live. Get out while you still can.”
Seth stands up and starts walking down the street. “That’s it? You followed me around and dragged me here just for that?”
Seth stops and turns back, “I did my part. You either join them or you don’t. The rest is up to you.”
Jack watches Seth disappear towards the louder parts of the city. He shakes his head, folds his hands and stares at the cloudy substance beneath his feet. He’s right. I didn’t really want to work here anyway. I’ll just tell them thanks, but no thanks. AFTER I’m back on the ground.
Rising to his feet, Jack makes his way towards the shuttle pads. Setting out with purpose, he keeps his eyes forward and continues walking towards the exit’s general vicinity, stopping only once to check a nearby map to make sure he’s going the right way.
A while later, after quickly making his way through the ever-growing throngs of people, he finally sees the angelic gates once more. Jack breathes a sigh of relief as he walks through the gates and sees a few shuttles lying in wait when a familiar voice rings out, “Excuse me, Jack?”
Jack sees Olivia along his peripheral vision. Nope, he thinks as he ignores her call and continues walking towards the nearest shuttle.
“Mr. Livingston!” She calls again as he steps onto the shuttle pad.
Fuck that, I’m out of here.
A moment later, just as he makes it a few feet away from the shuttle’s entry, a stocky man in a white suit steps out in front of him. “Excuse me sir,” the bodyguard-esque man says softly, “I believe my colleague is trying to get your attention.”
Instinctively Jack turns around as the man nods and looks behind him, making eye contact with Olivia as she wades her way towards them through the crowd.
This can’t be good.
The look of relief on Olivia’s face is quite evident as she closes the distance and stands in front of Jack. Smiling as she had when they first met, Olivia says, “I’m so sorry I lost you during the tour. I forget it can be hard to follow along through all the people sometimes. You get used to navigating through them after a while.”
“That’s alright, I had fun just looking around. The tour was nice though.” Jack returned Olivia’s smile as best he could and turned to leave, only to find his path still blocked.
“I’m glad I caught up to you before you left. Mr. Linklater would like to meet with you now.”
“Sorry, I’m in a bit of a hurry right now, but I’ll be sure to be on time for my appointment with him tomorrow.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes and I’m sure Mr. Linklater would be happy to accommodate you with a private shuttle to get wherever you need to go.”
Jack glanced between the two Atlas employees surrounding him. I don’t really have a choice. “Sure, lead the way,” he said as cheerfully as possible.
Olivia breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent. Please follow me.”
Jack raised an eyebrow as she turned to lead him back into the city. Okay?
Olivia prattled on about working for Atlas, but Jack wasn’t listening. If they knew what I saw I’d be dead right? Of course they keep tabs of their prospects. I’ll just say I have to think about it and refuse once I’m on the ground. But what if they don’t want me to think about it? Maybe I can accept and then change my mind later. But what if they want me to start living here immediately? What the hell am I supposed to do?
Lost in his own thoughts, the long walk seemed to take seconds. The towering entrance of Atlas Headquarters snapped Jack out of his own thoughts as he frightfully froze and stared up the fluffy skyscraper.
Olivia’s words stopped going in one ear and out the other. “Pretty impressive huh? It’s the largest building in Cloud City. I was in awe when I first saw it too.”
Jack swallowed involuntarily. “Yea, impressive.”
“Come on, I’m sure Mr. Linklater is waiting for us.” Olivia walked into the building and Jack reluctantly followed. She guided him through the lobby and past two guards into a hallway behind the centralized main desk before turning right towards a set of cloud-sculpted elevators and pressed the call button.
Moments later a ding sounded, the left elevator doors slid open and Olivia walked in. The elevator had wallpaper plastered along the inside, making it look like any other corporate office elevator. Jack, taken aback by the sharp contrast of normalcy amongst the cloudy atmosphere of the city, slowly stepped into the elevator.
Seeing his perplexity, Olivia explained as she pressed button 32, “I know it’s a little weird to see something so normal after being surrounded by CloudForm, but it makes the ride a bit easier. Riding in a CloudForm elevator surrounded by CloudForm walls made people feel queasy. At least that’s what they told me. The elevators were renovated before I was hired.”
“That makes sense,” Jack said, nodding in agreement.
They stood in silence as they watched the digital display above the buttons count up to 32. “Here we are,” Olivia announced as they reached the 32nd door with an audible ding. The doors opened, revealing a singular path towards a large door. To the left of the door sat a blonde-haired woman who, judging by the size and positioning of her desk, served as the CEO’s receptionist.
Walking off the elevator, Olivia waved at the receptionist while asking, “Is he ready for us?”
The receptionist’s smile didn’t quite hit her eyes as she answered, “Yep. Go on in.”
Olivia opened the door and looked back at Jack, “After you.” Flashing his escort a quick reassuring smile, Jack stepped into Tobias Linklater’s office.
I thought he’d look older with less hair. Sitting behind a large mahogany desk centered perfectly in the room, Tobias Linklater looked like a man more in his early-thirties than forties. Wearing a freshly pressed suit and sporting a clean shaven face with a neatly trimmed haircut spiked slightly in the front, Tobias almost seemed more like the CEO of a tech start-up than one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Guitars and autographed baseballs? Really?
Tobias stood and walked around his desk as Jack entered the office. “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Livingstion. I’m glad you had the opportunity to stop by a bit earlier than our scheduled appointment.”
Jack heard the door close behind him as he shook Tobias’ outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you too.”
“Please, have a seat,” Tobias said as he motioned towards the two chairs in-front of his desk before walking back around it and sitting down. “So? What do you think of Cloud City?”
“It’s even more impressive than I thought it’d be.”
“Yes. It took a lot to make this happen, and it still has a long way to go. Have you thought about our offer? Did Olivia tell you about our comprehensive compensation package?” Tobias glanced beyond Jack, causing him to turn around and see Olivia standing patiently beside the door.
“She did,” Jack reassured Tobias. At least I think she said something about compensation. “I have to ask, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but why me?”
Tobias nodded knowingly before opening a drawer on his right and producing a stapled set of papers. “We normally recruit from universities like MIT and Harvard, but our recruiters look everywhere for prospective talent and happened to find this,” he said as he plopped the papers down on the desk.
My paper on CloudForm technology?!
“You clearly already have a working understanding of CloudForm that none of your classmates and only our engineers rival. You’d be surprised how hard it is for even the most experienced of engineers to grasp the compound’s true nature and functionality. With a bit of on-the-job training, we’re sure you’d fit right in here at Cloud City.”
After thinking for a moment in silence, Jack spoke up. I have to say this right. “I appreciate the offer, but I just don’t think this is really for me. Living up here is a really big commitment and I just got out of school. I don’t know if I’m really ready to start a new life up in the clouds.”
Shooting a quick glare at Olivia, who answers the unspoken accusation with a shake of her head, Tobias asks, “I understand it can be a big change, but you’re friends and family are of course more than welcome to visit at any time. We even supply them with free passes, and soon people will be able to come and go without having to purchase admission.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I just don’t think it’s a good fit for me.”
The smile on Tobias’ face fades as he nods and says, “I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Livingston, but I do understand.”
That’s it?! Yes! “Thanks again for the offer. I won’t take up any more of your time. I’m sure you have a lot to do,” Jack says as he stands to leave, taking Tobias’ nod as a sign of dismissal. “It was really nice to meet you.” Jack’s hopes are ruined as he turns to leave and sees the worried look on Olivia’s face.
“I’m afraid this places us at an impasse Mr. Livingston.” Jack turns back around to face Tobias as he continues, “You saw something you weren’t supposed to.”
Severely fearing heights for the third time, Jack instinctively glances down as he finds himself frozen in fear yet again. After a moment of awkward silence, Tobias cuts the tension. “You’re a smart guy,” he says. “What do you think happened?”
“I uh… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play dumb. We know you saw two people fall through the city.”
It’s not a malfunction. “I’m sure it was just a malfunction. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Actually, what you witnessed is Cloud City’s primary function.” Jacks eyes grew wide as he looked up in shock at the Atlas CEO.
Tobias stares at Jack in response, absentmindedly stroking his chin in thought for a moment. Coming to a decision, he removes his hand from his chin and breaks the palpable silence. “Overpopulation. It’s a very real threat we face today, and not the ‘may-happen-in-a-couple-hundred-years’ kind.”
“Centuries ago we were so sure space expansion was the answer. That we’d crack the problem of light speed travel and populate the stars. We figured out how to travel casually to the moon. How hard could the rest of the universe be? Turns out it’s pretty damn hard.”
“We’ve already run out of space, not to mention resources. Sure, there’s plenty of food and water to go around, but the resources required to sustain our increasingly high quality way of life are running out. Soon there won’t be any more space for people to sleep or electricity to power their greedy energy suckling homes. You may think the shortage of entertainment items is to drive demand and profits, but the truth of the matter is we’re running out of the supplies necessary to build more holographic game systems.”
After pausing for a moment to let his words sink in, Tobias continues, “The human race is consuming itself towards extinction. It won’t be long before we’re the only ones left, dotting every inch of Earth’s surface until our own ecological bubble bursts and wipes us out. We’re decades away from complete ruin and we still can’t even make it halfway to Mars. We’re out of options.”
Deciding to speak up, Jack says, “So you’re just killing innocent people?! What you’re doing is not only morally wrong, it’s not going to work. Millions of people are born each day. Killing a few here and there doesn’t solve anything.”
“We’re just doing what we can for now. The real culling can’t begin until the city is complete. That’s why we need talented minds like yourself to help us finish Cloud City and a few others like it before the true culling can take place.”
Seeing Jack’s raised eyebrow and look of incredulity, Tobias explains, “Once everything’s in place, we’ll hold a massive bash on the following New Year’s Eve and invite millions to Cloud City and a few other floating structures we’re building all over the world. All it’ll take is the simple flick of a button to send each city up to 30,000 feet and turn off the atmospheric regulators. Billions will die, but our species and the planet will be given a lot more time to find a more permanent solution. It’ll usher in a new world, a new society of gifted individuals.”
Jack’s look changes to disgust. “And I suppose you’re going to rule this ‘new society’?” He asks.
Tobias frowns. “All Atlas employees instrumental in our species’ survival will live through the tragedy, but I have no delusions about my own monstrosity. There’ll be no place for me or any of the other monstrous minds who’ve put these events in motion. I’ll be sitting right here when Cloud City rises and will expire with the rest of the unfortunate souls who must be sacrificed for our species’ continued survival.”
“You can survive though, Jack. Minds like yours are going to be needed in the new world to ensure tipping points like this are never reached again.”
Jack shakes his head in denial, “I can’t be a part of this. I won’t tell anyone, I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign, but I can’t build a massive deathtrap.”
Tobias nods slowly, “I understand. It’s a terrible burden to bare, and certainly isn’t meant for everyone. But I can’t just let you go Jack.”
Jack bolts towards the door as Tobias reaches towards his computer screen. FUCK, he thinks as he feels the cloudy office floor’s stability disappear from under his feet. His descent quickens as he falls in what appears to be giant cylindrical tube leading through Atlas Headquarters. Vaguely aware of his own cries of terror, Jack faints in shock as his greatest fear is realized.
Back in Tobias’ office, the CEO taps his holographic touch-screen again and motions for Olivia to step forward. She tentatively walks towards the center of the room as she begins to make her case, “I looked away for just a moment and when I turned back he was already gone. I searched all ov-“
Tobias interrupts her train of thought and movement with a raised hand. “Olivia, your job is to excite potential candidates before bringing them to me to happily sign on the dotted line. Yet this is the third prospect in a row to decline our job offer after being assigned to your care.”
Tears begin to form in her eyes as she starts to fear for her life. Her voice cracks as she pleads, “Please don’t…”
“I’m sorry. I like you, I really do, but you leave me no choice,” Tobias says, pressing the command again and watching Olivia descend with a bone-chilling shriek.
Clinching his eyes shut and swallowing hard to fight back the tears welling in his own eyes, Tobias solidifies the floor in the middle of his office and presses a phone icon on his holographic screen. “Stacy, what time’s my next appointment?”
Swinging his arms about his sides, Sanka steadies himself as Childress studies the newest corpse among the mountainous piles of bodies on which they stand. “Is he dead?” Sanka asks.
“Looks like it,” Childress responds. “His leg looks worse than yours did,” he says, pointing out how the body’s toes are pointing in the same direction as its rear end.
“His right arm got pretty well ruined too,” Sanka agrees.
A shout rings out a few feet from the two men, “THIS ONE’S ALIVE!”
Childress turns to Sanka, “I sure hope that one’s in a better condition than this guy.”
“At least he’s in a better place,” Sanka nods. “Come on, let’s go help ‘em out.” Turning towards the second group, Sanka taps his cane along the bodies in search of reliable footing.
Childress shakes his head sadly, rises from his crouched position and starts making his way towards the second body. Blessed are those who escape this hell before they arrive, he thinks.
Sanka and Childress stop and look at each other in surprise as the body behind them emits an audible groan.