19 - The Launch

(2 years ago, 1003 S.E)

A distraction on the edge of the world. Well, the edge, perhaps, of the city. But for all the guests at this particular affair, Old Jardinian was their world.

The edge of the expansive Academy gardens cumulated in a lookout above the waterfall that dropped down to the planes below from Lake Halycon. It was the second biggest waterfall in the city, but the only one readily visible from above. It would have been a wonderful tourist spot, if the Academy had been open to the general public. One could almost see all the way to the Jungles around sodden, if the mists were clear above the fields of Rimm.

Tonight they were. Eustace looked out above the fields that she’d toiled, in a life not so far removed in time but nearly unrecognizable from hers now. The palatial plaza overlooked the fields beneath and beyond the falling water. The plaza rose from the edge of the Academy, to the Laudishan terrace in a maze of stair and garden. Laudishan, the mess of villas where the most influential graduates spent their non-business hours entertaining, and being entertained, had seen many of its occupants wander down for the affair.

This plaza, jutting out the edge of the city, and over the fields below was another fine example of Golden Age architecture that students would study in attempt to crack the secrets of architectural thought of years ago beyond count. It was open to the air, with no supports above the cliff. As the water ran underneath down towards the fields, the entire construction still befuddled contemporary students and professors alike. Even tonight, a few of the more scientifically minded guests were hanging over the low balcony, and staring at the structure in wonder.

The mist had apparently moved above the city’s main quay so the waterfall and islands above the city were invisible. Eustace had seen this on on her way to the function, paired with disappointed travellers returning from the main quay of the city - they couldn’t see the waterfall tonight. She felt no pity, they would be soon wrapped up in some other trapping of the city, while she had the dangerous work of balancing secrets and jostling for position.

Eustace had chosen to live outside the terraces where her compatriots entertained, and were entertained. She preferred to make her appearances with purpose, leave them wanting more she’d thought. So tonight, taking the winding route through the streets that led to the academy, she would drive past the main quay on Lake Halycon.

She had seen little blinking lights in the haze as she traveled past the quay in a Lev-car, driven by a blank-expressioned employee of hers.

Looking through her face reflection on the dusk windows, she swore the flight patterns in the mist above the emptying quay looked like Acropolis misting drones. The drones at work, all the way up here? Strange.

She sighed. On the way to another social function of the city’s industrialist elite. Three years of Directorship at the head of the M&G cong. had been eye opening. She understood how the city worked now. Her network of informers listed the very cream of the social scene.

So, when something appeared on the social calendar that she didn’t know about; well, this was cause for attention. Why were the Acropolis drones working above the city tonight? This blanket of mist that had soured tourist ambitions for the afternoon, why? She would have to pull some strings, find some answers.

She disembarked from the Levitating car, lowering itself down for her as she swept out of the seat, nodding at the driver.

Her concern was growing. The Dean so rarely bothered with social affairs. This party had been branded as a celebration of the success of all the graduates of the university, but it was entirely without precedent. Besides the graduation and Gala, and industry specific conventions - the academy generally was left out of the social calendar.

The rarity of this type of affair had turned it into a can’t miss event - one just had to be seen here tonight, or their social stock would take a hit. And this concerned Eustace. The dean was gathering all of the elite, the mark recipients, industrialists and magnates, and their entourages in one place tonight. What did she have in mind?

Since her elevation to the directorship, Eustace had been in lock-step with the Dean. Interests had been aligned. So why had this affair been as much a surprise to her as anything else? Her network had provided no noise, other than the usual chatter.

Eustace was as nervous tonight as when she had first confronted the dean with her elaborate learnings and almost-truths to push her way into relevance. She told herself she shouldn’t be, this was just the Dean enjoying the trappings of her position. But it didn’t feel right.

As she was thinking through this, looking over the balcony at the now mist-free farms of Rimm beneath the waterfalls below, she received a notification through her lens. She waved away one of the little camera drones that was rendering her and the scene live in better-than-real life quality for the fanatical viewers of New Money in Old…

It was a message. Chills ran down her spine as she began to read.

The ascendancy approaches. The Great Endeavor is complete. We have atoned for the past, and now we look to the future.

Theatrical, cryptic, imbued with meaning as always, the Alovians.

Eustace knew what this meant. Nothing more than the end of their social order.

And so did the Dean apparently, who approached Eustace now with a look of slight unhinge, having waved away her usual immaculate assistants and hangers-on.

“Here we find ourselves, at the edge of our world”, said the Dean over the booming music, with a gravity unbefitting of the delicate cocktail snack she was carrying. The Dean had dressed tonight in severity bordering on funeral chique. Who’s funeral, Eustace wondered privately.

Eustace thought she felt a slight shudder beneath her foot. The dean had turned away from her at the balcony, and back toward the city. She was looking at the sky, where the top of the main waterfall might be, with a glazed expression. Eustace followed the dean’s gaze. Did Eustace see a light tracking towards the sky?

“Ah” said the dean, with resigned composure. Then, she turned back to Eustace. “I imagine you got the message?”

“Yes” said Eustace, not encouraged by the Dean’s tone.

“Our relationship with the Alovians has evolved. I’d like to think on it. Continue the monitoring, as usual. Of course, deliveries will be suspended.”

And then she spun and melted into the crowd, leaving Eustace feeling like a lord of castle of sand. With the tide coming in. And said tide was full of sharks.

And not these self-styled sharks that meandered between the cocktails either, she thought, as she looked upon the innocuous revellers sidling up to one another in the grand game of ambition, each attempting with bravado and theatre to forget that perhaps they might in fact, be a minnow, if not meagre grains of sand upon the ocean floor.

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