22 - The Complex

Alden had never heard of anyone venturing to the top of the falls. Of course, Old Jardinians could on some days see the temple ruins. Barely, though, and through substantial mist. On days they could see the domed structure peeking out of the largest ruin, details were hard to make out.

The abandonment of the station platform, and staggering lack of any signage or access via the quay announced that this was not something worth investigating, or even a moment’s attention. The complete overgrowth finished painting that picture, and signed it.

With the anxiety-inducing scarcity around the contract work, few had the inclination to be curious enough to investigate just another old structure, picturesque location as it was. Work was for the Worthy, after all.

He knew the complex wasn’t much talked about, or questioned by those outside the “know” - the ruins had just always been there, along with the lonely cable-car that disappeared into the mists each day, as much as Acropolis chips had always been a crowd pleaser. Even after he’d lost touch with the common people - an event he’d celebrated privately with a bathtub full of caviar - he’d eavesdropped on the conversations of his factory workers, unable to delegate even snooping for union talk to his bumbling floor supervisors. They spoke of many things, not all of them polite, and almost none of them useful - but never of the fallen columns of the temples above the falls.

Very few, and including Alden now, had substantial insight into the nature of the relationship with the Alovians. Those who were in the “know”, well they knew it was in their favour. Like himself, they would never have dreamed of visiting once he found out, gift horses and mouths and all that.

But, as said delicate arrangement was in danger of becoming upsot, in a rare case of altruism (toward his acquaintances in the contemporary elite at least), and as self-declared leader of the Industrialist Caste of Old Jardinian, Alden decided to make the journey to see if maybe he could sort it out. He was used to being able to do this in any of his business arrangements. Usually it consisted of him merely showing up and throwing around phrases such as “you’ll be fired if you don’t straighten this out”.

“I need to see” He said, more to himself than the dean, getting mentally prepared for this strange sort of action that took place outside of a boardroom or entertaining space.

He turned his best and most discerning founder’s gaze upon her and demanded Answers.

The Dean shrugged mightily, then bubbled out what appeared to be a memo, recited from memory. Alden didn’t catch the date, but it was addressed to some trusted underling about making sure a couple of cable-car station allusions were stripped from the digital public memory.

Ah. He thought, picturing the waterfront from one or two private events that had relieved the space momentarily from the tiresome tourists who fluttered about, distracted by the views, and enamoured by the knicks, and even knacks, they’d purchased from stalls that bordered some of the ancient footpaths of the city. His way to the top.

Leaving the Dean floundering in her misery, Alden left the Academy. The massive gates, those which were intended to inspire awe, only served to remind Alden of the care with which the secrets of the Alovian stewardship were guarded.

Putting on a pair of dark glasses to dissuade any reality entertainment fans from approaching, he hailed a Short-haul lev-taxi.

“To the lakeshore - err, I don’t suppose you have any stimulants? (All cab drivers did, it was very expensive to sleep short term if you didn’t have a box home. They usually only slept and showered once every three days or so)” Alden’s hang-over had invited a friend, sleep deprivation, to play.

Wordlessly, the driver gave him a handful of pills and spun onto the main kilometre of Old Jardinian, weaving through dodging pedestrians. It was supposed to be a pedestrian-only walkway, but it was understood that the passenger would pay the sizable fine, and give the same amount again for the driver as a tip, in the small chance they were stopped by authorities.

Usually one look at Alden’s face caused the authorities to double take, ham it up a bit for New Money in Old Jardinian in case there was a camera, and then send him on his way. The Industrialists didn’t really get fined - after all, it was them who paid the police officers and for much of the public works. Mostly out of guilt, for they alone knew how little separated them from the average Jard.

Feeling the lights bloom a little brighter around him, and now feeling very much awake and more than slightly aware of his increasing heartbeat, they pulled up to the lakeside. The sun was shining through the mists in ethereal beams, reminiscent of the tepidly inspiring gaze of some medium deity, the usual state of affairs in THE tourist destination of the loose empire.

Alden, a man of action, raced across the wide stone quay, breathing hard because his brand of action wasn’t often physical. Elbows out, he dodged tourists becoming silly for their memory recordings. He finally shouldered free of the crowds as he got toward the far side of the quay, view of the thundering waters obscured now by the rocky island with the overgrown trees.

He could see the line protruding from beyond them toward the thunder and the mists. He stepped toward the edge of the quay and looked down. A drop to the lake. A few meters across, half an ornate staircase was inset into the cliff front of the rocky islet, though the stairs stopped where the land had been sheared off or fallen away into the depths. A single stone creature had survived the desolation of the stairs, and glared at him accusingly with an ornamental sneer. Was it an owl-man, the mascot patron of the Academy Spuria? No, rather some other be-jowled deity with more teeth then sense.

Used to having an array of staff and procedures, and failing that, bribery, at his fingertips, solving problems with wit alone was proving tricky. The gap yawned at Alden, and alarmingly, the cablecar had just shuddered into its nest behind the trees at the other side of the island. It was going to leave again imminently, and Alden swore he felt a mental ticking. Alden looked about him for any convenient, say rope bridges or failing that, circus cannons.

After a moment’s glance, none of this convenient paraphernalia. But, back towards the crowds, there was a group of young children on a field trip to the falls. They were holding a line so their guardian wouldn’t lose them. An unsophisticated method of child obedience but an effective one; probably a school troupe from one of the outlying farm towns. Gears began to spin in his stimulant-addled mind, kicking thalamus and co into overdrive. This he could work with. The hawk-eyed teacher leading his boisterous charges eyed Alden warily as he approached. Alden knew he was looking about 30% unhinged, though, he thought disdainfully, not as bad as some of these sunburned mouth-breathers wandering around, sweating through novelty shirts with red arms and foreheads, discovering the tourist life. In Alden’s mind, his style of unhinged was of a man on the edge, but on the edge of a solution. The look of a sophisticate with feverish purpose, he thought. A genius grabbing hold of the levers of ambition.

Still, he was not getting anywhere near that line of students under the wary gaze of the teacher, well trained and watching out for Bad Influences in the Big City.

A quick glance ‘round found a sweets vendor nearby. Now Alden was in familiar territory. Back to the “if you don’t call it a bribe, it’s not bribery” method, a well-trodden and happy place for him. One Acropolis brand Icy Icy, and a staggering, astronomical tip later, he was able to convince the vendor to cooperate. After goggling at the size of the tip, and nodding at a few instructions from Alden, the Vendor ran off in the other direction yelling about free sweets and where to find them, tossing varying sweet treats out of the floating cart as it went.

Alden was able to grab the fallen line off the ground, now with 30 empty hand loops, as the teacher hustled after the rowdy charges, who were well on their way to a sugar binge.

The nice thing about having money, Alden reflected, watching the ruckus unfold in sticky glory, is that it solves all your little problems, even if it creates big ones for you.

After a few tries, he was able to loop the line around the stone creature guarding the fallen stairs and swing across, screaming downward into the cliff, and almost losing his grip.

Meanwhile the teacher had given up, and was sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, as his rambunctious charges terrorized any tourist with the good good stuff, now that they had a taste for it (Excessive sugar was strongly discouraged for children under 15).

Climbing achingly up the rope to the stairs, Alden had reached, himself the first in eons judging by the dust, the entrance to the cablecar station that led above the falls. Having fought his way through the trees, he had come across a platform that jutted out above the water, completely hidden from the City by the encroaching foliage. It was a simple affair, just a ramp to a platform with the required apparatus for sending the line up and down again. The car sat there, mouth yawning at him.

He saw the doors begin to slide closed as he ran up the ramp, sticking his hands out. Idly, he wondered if there were safety features as the doors closed on his hands. The doors appeared to sigh, pause, and open as if he were a massive inconvenience, and why couldn’t he just let them get on with their day.

He was on the cable-car now, staring up into the mists, which were still featuring excellent sun rays. The car shook with his movements. It had no controls.

A detached voice said something intelligible, and Alden shuttered into motion, pulled along by the jerking movement of the car.

The waters tumbled gracefully from above, rushing and racing to the lake below. The waters sang with freshwater vertitrout. The beauty was universal, and would have brought a tear to just about anyone’s eye. Dry eyed Alden was not just anyone though, not anymore. He would have found the restoration of his business capabilities far more gorgeous.

Passing through the waters, which opened helpfully around them, Alden and car eased into the station. The doors hissed, stuck halfway, jerked open and he was greeted by pale grey walls, dappled with sunlight from beyond the falls. A beautiful journey it had been, but an unsteady one. He was beginning to think the tourists were on to something, avoiding the perilous journey with a general lack of curiosity.

There were no signs, just an empty platform, admittedly much more capably designed than the cable car, and some stairs. And some strange black geometric growths on the ceiling. He entered the tunnel - glowing lights under the raised footpath flickered, then turned on. An ambient tone set rose from the silence, serving to calm his, at this point, quite frayed nerves. He became aware of a sensation, almost a voice in the back of his mind. He was being welcomed home. Not to his home, but to a home for all. This both comforted him and bothered him, on an ideological level.

There was a door at the end of the tunnel, an automatic door that, unlike the old line-car, breezed open before him. No complaints here. The door was surrounded by columns of ancient style. The designers had evidently been careful to preserve the historical elements while remodelling. There was a bowl by the door, filled with little octahedrons. He felt strangely compelled to pick one up. They gave a little to his touch. He made to give it a closer inspection, but put it in his pocket instead, forgotten, as he went through the door, and the scene unfolded before him.

He was taken aback, expecting more a general underground tunnel situation. He was instead looking at an impossibly gargantuan atrium filled with soft glowing light. He walked onto the rim of the structure. Extending around the massive atrium was a walkway, tens of meters deep, that featured on some parts, the remains of the ancient temple complex that had been built from & upon.

He looked down. His stomach, voicing it’s complaints with an uneasy rumble, wished he didn’t.

It extended for untold meters, honeycombed with small holes, and cut with larger levels. Looking up, he could see the sky through the massive glass construction that had been occasionally visible from Old Jardinia.

It was beyond impressive, even to one as self centred as he. It was also beyond empty of activity, only the gently swaying danglations moving, some sort of elevator he could only presume.

They were suspended on filaments no thicker than his finger, that he could only see them up close. The farther dangling cars looked like they were floating. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they had been either, the tiny segment of this place he’d studied so far surpassed the factories and technologies he’d thought technical marvels, before today.

He began to circuit the balcony, surveying downward for any sign of life, or information. The tones followed him around.

Frustratingly, Alden realized that he could not call over the dangling vertical cars. Standing on what could only have been a receptacle, a platform for them to arrive at, he could find no interface with which to order them about. Waving his hands in the air did nothing. Surprisingly, neither did thinking exceptionally hard at them.

There were platforms all around the massive circular walkway. He ventured around, hoping his luck would change.

He jogged a hundred meters to the next one. Same story. Devoid of controls and empty as the rest of the massive complex.

Looking down from the platform into the yawning space, Alden was at the end, of both platform and wits. He needed answers. Perhaps in the form of a trove of data, the information he needed to keep his operation going, and his industrialist facade rock solid. Perhaps a real, live Alovian to appear, slap him heartily on the back, and tell him it was all a big joke.

The cold, calculating part of his mind took over, the part that while didn’t make him a genius of the technological kind, did make him a ruthless and effective businessman. He saw a path at least out of the veritable mud room of the complex, to parts and levels that he imagined to have some sort of information.

There was a path downward, yes. He could see it now, he could imagine himself hopping from car to car, steadying himself in the cavernous cathedral of unexplained provenance. He could imagine himself, falling, for so long that he’d forget which way was up. Then he imagined himself giving up, being outed as a fraud, his titles and fame stripped away; to live in poverty and infamy. He would be worse off than the most pathetic of the Old Jardinians that eagerly lapped up Industrialist goods. (A bit of contempt for your market was important in squeezing them for maximum revenue, or at least that was the theory of the day.)

That made his decision easy. The dangling cars, hopefully built to take weight, dangled tantalizingly within reach, swaying gently in the fresh air.

The first was a few feet below the platform, why, his vague understanding of physics implied he could just hop down. He did, found purchase on the smooth roof of the thing, grabbing hold of the thin wire. Swaying with impact, under his weight, the car began to slowly move downward. It came to a stop a few meters later. It slowly compensated for his weight. He’d passed the next one he’d planned to jump to.

New route then. There was a cluster, ten or so meters downward. His jump would carry him over a few meters of empty space. He didn’t attempt to calculate the jump, just released and went for it, trusting his subconscious to do a better job of the physics as it had done since the time of the Neanderthal. It felt like slow motion. He arced over the impossible height, almost overshooting the dangling car. As he was falling, he thought he heard a yell. In fact, it sounded very much like his name. And, very much like a voice he hadn’t heard in years, and in fact; dearly missed.

But his attention was immediately needed under his feet. He hit the featureless roof, his feet sliding from under him as he landed unbalanced. The impact pushed the car in the reverse direction, his bum hitting air where there had been surface a moment before. He fell meters into the chasm before bouncing off the side of one lower dangling car, and approaching another with rapidly increasing velocity and terror.

He smacked the top, tum taking a solid impact, and slid down the front, finally getting purchase. He held a deathly handgrip on the lip of the base. The front of the car, as he had observed earlier, was as featureless as the rest of it, opaque to any hints about opening.

Straining, gripping the bottom of the dangling car, he drifted, coming within an acceptable distance of another.

He let himself drop, nearly exhausted now, he hadn’t much (read here, any) exercise since the academy. Artificial metabolizers kept him from obesity, but did nothing for the muscle mass. He thumped the roof of the latest car, still bewildered about the lack of usability with the doors.

He remembered the octahedrons. Perhaps they were for visitors. He pulled it out of his pocket. He leant over the side of the car, to what he assumed was the front. He tapped the car with the object. Nothing. He squeezed it, hoping to elicit a response.

Looking at it, its form seemed to speak to him, should he bite it? No, surely not. But, he felt himself thinking “warmer”

He suddenly had a strong desire to put the thing in his ear. He kept looking at it. How could he have been mistaken? The physical properties made it certain, the form was unquestionable. The design screamed the only possible function to him.

He did. He tried thinking about opening the door, nothing.

“Er, Open the door,” he vocalized, feeling silly.

There was a sound, like every single door around the area atrium opening, a series of clicks that cascaded away from him in order of each door’s distance. Fortunately, the car on which he perched had got the memo, and opened. He dropped inside, and lay there for a moment, collecting himself.

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