I’ve visited the Himalayan capital twice up to now. The first time I only spent a night there on a layover waiting for a balloon out to Khasgar (I refuse to portal unless absolutely necessary), although that’s not to say it was uneventful. Maybe I’ll even tell that story one day.
On this second occasion, I had a bit more time on my hands to head out and really see the sights. Let me tell you, the Circadians are an odd bunch. I think living so high up has given everyone a superiority complex, because you can’t even ask a simple question without getting a derisive sigh in response. I’m convinced the eye roll is a customary greeting here, like everyone’s trying to out-dismiss each other. Speaking as an outsider, I can tell you that you’re all winning.
Anyway, it was my second day in the city and I was enjoying a coffee outside a little cafe by the Cirrostratus Monument (it’s not as good as everyone says it is), waiting for a sky bridge to descend to take me over to the central island. Circadia is really annoying to get around because it’s built into a cloud wall, so everything is always drifting and shifting and you can end up waiting for hours to get around. It’s not like I had to be anywhere urgently, but gods help anyone who’s ever late for an appointment or in dire need of medical attention.
It was a nice day and the sun was shining, and I was feeling more relaxed than I had been in a long time. Of course that’s asking for trouble, how dare anybody enjoy even a moment of fleeting respite in this bloody System, but nevertheless I was still sat there foolishly weightless and free of worry (in hindsight the weightlessness may merely have been a side effect of the coffee, the Himalayan blend is a known gravity dilutant) when this little urchin sheepishly approached my table, clearly after some kind of donation.
Now you all know me, I’m a fairly charitable individual, I do my bit, more than the average cat does at least, and so of course I dug into my pocket and offered the sprite some money. Like I said, I was in a pleasant mood and it was a nice day, so a crisp 𝛌5 note made its way into the kid’s hand. I turned back to my coffee feeling pretty good about myself, when I realised the kid was still standing there. I turned to him and shook my head (I don’t speak Himalayan), to which he responded by pulling out a scrap of paper. There was a message scrawled on it written in crude Meridian, though the handwriting wasn’t half as crude as the message it carried.
‘Ten lumin minimum donation?’ I cried, almost knocking my drink over. The kid bolted the minute I raised my voice, clearly reading the situation and surmising that his little scheme had been rumbled, and he disappeared into the crowd with a deftness that told me this wasn’t his his first rodeo. I was so rattled I didn’t even enjoy the rest of my coffee, which annoyed me even more because now I knew my afternoon had been spoilt. Doesn’t always take much does it?
I was getting up to go and pay the barista when I realised that my hand had been fishing around in my pocket for a wallet that was no longer there.
It’s hard to say which was more frustrating; the fact that I’d been pickpocketed, or the ease with which I’d let it happen. I’m a seasoned traveller, I’ve traversed the dangerous heights of Kerala and spent more time on the Ballacross plates than any rational person ever should, and yet here I’d been outwitted by a sprog with barely ten cycles under his belt. Of course, of course I was more annoyed at myself than anything else, it was such a basic error. I’d seen similar scams being perpetrated all across the System, but so far never by a child. I have to stay, it stung a little.
Now I didn’t expect any help in a place like Circadian City. As I said, it’s not the friendliest of places, especially when you don’t speak the language. I was pleasantly surprised then when an individual who had been sat by the window inside the cafe came out and offered to pay for my drink.
‘Unfortunately this kind of thing happens quite a lot in touristy places like this,’ she sighed, sitting across from me, absentmindedly rearranging the sugarvine sachets on the table. ‘I’d recognise that look from a mile off, I’m just sorry I didn’t realise what was happening sooner.’
‘I don’t have any chance of getting my wallet back do I’, I asked (obviously I thanked the lady and everything first, but you don’t need to hear about that do you). ‘It’s not like I had much money in it, I was just looking forward to heading over to the Celestial Clock and I can’t pay the toll now.’
The look she gave me answered my question, but at least she was kind enough to qualify it with a rationale. ‘That kid will have moved onto another district by now, you’d have a hard time finding him. And even if you did, the gangs in this city aren’t worth tangling with for the sake of a bit of money.’
’And nobody does anything about it? This is the sort of thing they really crack down on on the Coreward Worlds. Even Karabine I takes a strong stance on exploiting children, and that’s a planet where people trafficking is legal!’
The lady just shrugged. ‘I’m sure there are plenty of people trying to fix the problem, just like there are countless people across the System working to solve all of society’s ills. Doesn’t stop bad people from doing bad things does it? Luckily there are just as many good people doing good things, so maybe everything balances out in the end. On that note, why don’t we go and see the Clock? I assure you it’s incredibly boring.’
She was right, of course, I’m not naive. I know how the worlds work, I was just feeling bitter… even in spite of the amount of sugarvine I’d laced my coffee with.
As we headed over to the sky bridge, I felt like I owed some kind of explanation for my woeful lack of awareness.
‘I’m not usually this witless’ I said, stumbling over a vapour vent to prove my point. ‘I spent three seasons in the Anakarii sand oceans dodging marauders and pit wyrms, and I get mugged by a kid in broad daylight drinking my coffee like an idiot?’
‘How do idiots drink coffee?’
When we got to the bridge, as expected there was a massive queue. While we waited, a succession of street vendors tried to offload trinkets onto us, which quite frankly I wouldn’t have had any interest in buying even if I hadn’t been relieved of my wallet. It seems like everything in Circadia is either about clocks or clouds, as if they’re the only two things that matter in the whole damn System, and I’d had quite enough of both by the time one of the vendors thrust a clock pendant in my face that looked like it was made by somebody with a very loose grasp on the concept of time.
‘No thank you,’ I said, but the vendor continued to proffer increasingly ridiculous wares (who needs a pair of cloud-frame sunglasses?) until something caught my eye.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, reaching out without thinking. ’But I think that’s…’
I stopped when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw the lady shaking her head. I was about to protest when she nodded in the direction of the vendor’s belt, where a blade the length of my arm winked in the sunlight. I gulped, and withdrew my hand into my pocket (where it would of course be safe, because knives can’t cut through fabric).
‘He wouldn’t have… y’know,’ I asked once the vendor had moved on, not really wanting to say what it was he wouldn’t have.
‘It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened, though probably not over a battered wallet’ — there was nothing wrong with it — ‘still, it’s not worth finding out.’
Then it occurred to me. ‘If he has my wallet, then surely the thief is still nearby?’
‘And what do you plan to do if they are?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, more intrigued by the possibility than anything. ‘I’d give him a piece of my mind for starters!’
‘I’m sure you would. But for now let’s worry about getting on this bridge. I’m sure neither of us want to wait for the next one.’
As much as I didn’t like being patronised, she was paying for me, so I figured I’d let it slide… for now.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lady had been quite wrong about the Celestial Clock being boring. Cut directly into the floor of the cloud wall, it spanned almost as far as the island did. The hands served as bridges to the centre (which seemed fairly impractical but something told me that wasn’t the point), where an array of misshapen buildings huddled around the dais in the middle.
The dais itself held a strip of displaced cosmos inside a chamber of finest infinity glass, which powered the Clock and bestowed it with its fancy title. The big selling point of the monument was that it was allegedly the only device in the System still calibrated to universal time (that is, from before The Chaos). Turns out infinity glass is the only known substance that can insulate against colossal insult to the foundation of reality, which might have been handy to have known before the entire System fell apart. And while this was all incredibly fascinating, it was still just a convoluted way of saying the Clock was perfectly useless — if I wanted to know what time it wasn’t, I’d just consult my pocket watch, which hasn’t worked since I got sand in it wandering the Qalahar desert on Karabine II.
The thing that really caught my attention though was the way the intricate components of the Clock rotated hypnotically beneath us, every so often aligning to expose the sheer drop below. My stomach did this peculiar jump each time the yawning emptiness opened up, and I found I had a new appreciation for the over the top health and safety legislation of the Coreward Worlds — would it have killed them to have at least put in a handrail?
I was contemplating what I’d do if I found myself slipping through the gap and plummeting to the earth (as our minds often do, don’t tell me you don’t get these fleeting thoughts of morbidity every so often, it’s good to be prepared) when I noticed something amidst the machinery that didn’t look like it belonged there. Inching closer, intrigue temporarily discarding the precipitous drop from thought, I realised it was a piece of fabric. It wasn’t the fabric that was noteworthy here so much as the kid attached to it, dangling above endless sky, legs flailing, his helpless cries silenced by the roaring wind and the thunderous ticking of the Clock.
It was then that it dawned on me that my diminutive stature made me the perfect (only) candidate to undertake this dangerous rescue mission, and I am nothing if not heroic (modest too, you might say).
‘Hey, where are you… what are you doing?!’
I ignored the lady’s startled cry as I walked right up to the edge of the Clock, where I debated for a brief moment whether or not I ought to go and find someone more qualified for the task (preferably someone with a rope, or a big net), before steeling myself with the notion that if nothing else, this’d make a hell of a story — even if I didn’t survive to be the one to tell it.
I took a deep breath, and dropped down.
Easing my way along, I realised with what I will concede was a shameful twinge of glee that the child I was risking my life to rescue was in fact no stranger to me. I’m sure even the dimmest amongst you don’t need me to spell out who it was, but let me tell you, as I hopped over to where the kid was stuck, I had to laugh at the universe’s sense of humour. Trapped beneath an escape wheel. You can’t write this stuff.
‘You know I really ought to leave you here after that little stunt you pulled earlier,’ I said once I was within earshot, forgetting that the kid spoke as much Meridian as I did Himalayan. The urchin just looked up at me, wide-eyed and frantic. As much as I would have liked to have waited to make sure the message really sunk in, time was a factor and I was beginning to get cold. By which I mean, heroes don’t judge, and they certainly don’t gloat. Instead, they reach out a hand, and haul a (surprisingly heavy) child to safety. Occasionally, a hero may also almost lose their grip and nearly send said child plummeting to their death (nobody’s perfect), but of course that’s all just theatrics. I had the situation fully under control. Yes I did. Stop looking at me like that.
I was trying to work out how we were going to get back up to (comparatively) solid ground, when the kid cleared his throat and then, somewhat sheepishly, spoke. In Meridian.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘Oh, so you do understand me?’
‘Of course I do, I’m ten, not stupid. Although I can’t say the same about you. Do you even have a plan? Do you even have a rope? How are you going to get us out of here?’
I couldn’t resist. I know, I should have risen above it, maybe it was the adrenaline, who knows, but I simply couldn’t help myself.
‘I’m afraid my rescue services will cost you a minimum of ten lumins, buddy. Yeah, not very nice is it, when the shoe’s on the other foot. You know, where I come from, people respect their—‘
‘—Never mind,’ said the kid, pushing past me and almost sending me soaring from the wheel. Spinning round, I looked up to see that the lady had been busy in my absence, having procured a rope ladder that the ungrateful little urchin was already halfway up before I’d even had chance to clock what was going on.
By the time I’d made it to the top, the kid was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where’d that little bastard go? I swear to the gods, I’ll…’
‘Come on,’ said the lady. ‘Let it go. You did a good thing, I didn’t see anyone else rushing to help. You should be proud.’
‘Pride doesn’t get me my money back.’
‘You were never getting that money back. I’d take the pride.’
It was at this point that I realised that nobody around seemed to have paid any attention to the daring feat that had just transpired beneath their very eyes. I wasn’t exactly expecting fireworks, but it was as if nothing had happened at all, and it all felt a bit… anticlimactic. When I said as much to the lady, she didn’t seem surprised.
‘What, you didn’t think this was the first time something like this’d happened? People fall down the gap all the time. They always make their way back up eventually. Well, mostly…’
‘I suppose that explains how you found a ladder so quickly.’
‘Yeah, they have them tied up all around the Clock here. Stroke of genius if you ask me!’
‘Wouldn’t it just be easier to just put in a damn handrail?’ I grumbled.
‘Come on. I think we need to go and get you another coffee.’
Well, at least I got my story.
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