Smog

 

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Introduction

When generating energy, there is always some waste. It is not possible for any fuel to be converted into 100% energy. Yet some fuels and some forms of energy generation are more efficient than others. The waste of some is easier to dispose of than others. The golden form of energy creation is one that has high efficiency and does not produce any form of polluting waste.

Forms like that could be freely available to anyone. But the greed and inhuman needs of a small handful have made this impossible. Their choices led to a future of darkness, drought and scarcity, ruled over by those that sought wealth for wealth's sake and cared little if their fortune came at the cost of others.

In this time, when the human race is holding onto each other, struggling desperately to stay afloat, in this age we return to the most basic of needs. The need for food and water, the need for warmth, the need for shelter, and the need for human contact.

All this could be found in the great cities, the last remnants of human civilization. But at what cost...

 

The old books speak of blue skies. They describe the feeling of sunlight, the sound of birds singing, the emotions of watching the clouds pass by under a gentle breeze. Yet these are things of legend now.

The same books tell of the crisis all those centuries ago. That moment when the world blacked out, when all usable energy seemed to have vanished. The chaos that followed nearly obliterated our civilization.

A gap appears in the old books. A gap that lasts for 90 years, where nothing was written down, and nothing but twisted legends is what remains of it, for the memory of man is short and easily influenced.

At the end of that gap, the founding of the great cities took place. The handful of people left alive and sane gathered in the few places where drinkable water still bubbled to the surface, and built their city atop it.

This City rapidly attracted the few dregs of humanity that had survived the chaos of the gap. It soon grew into the nexus of human civilization, as far as that still existed.

And it is here that this story begins.

 

 

 

 

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Wake up call

It was a morning filled with clamor, the sounds of people waking up, getting breakfast and traipsing to work, carrying bags, handbags, satchels or entire backpacks full of gear with them. Some were happy and content, wistling a merry tune.

Others were more easily described as depressed, not interested in keeping their heads upright or placing their feet anywhere specific. Just get to the job, work, eat, work again, return home, eat again and sleep. That was their routine, and it was a miserable one. Yet it was a better fate than starving to death, locked outside the city walls and banished from the food supplies. So they worked, kept the city's heavy heart beating, kept its vital organs running, pumping, beating and recycling.

But of course, we are talking about the center of the city here, the part where the reputable public goes, the part that every visitor sees.

There is another part to this city, a dark side to the coin as it were. It was a lot less pleasant, a lot more interesting, but equally as necessary.

For those new to this city, the subject of this description is the Aeronaut district, as it is unofficially called. Officially it is named the Outer Ring, for the quite obvious reason that its a collection of airports and slums that circles the secondary wall like a serpent trying to squeeze to death the last bastion of mankind.

And yet in the belly of that snake, people lived. Among the scum and the villainy, the less fortunate were trying to make a living. Sometimes because they had nowhere else to go. Sometimes because they didn't know any better.

And sometimes, very rarely, because they want to.

But the latter are generally considered headcases, as no sane individual would want to spend more time in the outer ring than absolutely necessary.

One such individual was mr. Joaghym Andler, Wasp pilot and Aeronaut. Having just barely made it through the training to become aeronautic, Joaghym's laziness was his biggest restraint. He understood most of what he needed to know to become a first-class Airship pilot, he just couldn't be arsed to master the necessary skills.

Thus, like many others that lacked ambition, motivation, or simply talent, He was issued an old WASP X1.5 model, the cheapest functional airship around.

Issuing airships of this model to students that passed basic flying tests but didn't make it further or got low grades was standard procedure. In the Grand City of Ignic, nobody was allowed to perish due to lack of equipment to practice their trade. You might get the lowest quality of gear being sold, but you still got gear, and if you broke it you could often exchange it for a new set (unless you did something confoundingly stupid to break it). No man-hours were put to waste. The only thing that stopped the rulers of the city from working citizens for 20 hours in a row is that their Human Mechanics (which you might recognize as doctors) said it would lower productivity in the long run, and significantly drop the lifespan of the average worker.

 

Back to Mr joaghym. Inside of a year after barely graduating, he'd sunken in to debt in the dark bowels of what was often called Aeronaut city, the place where Aeronauts stay when not flying. It was a cesspit of drink, hallucinogenic herbs and cheap women of shady origins (with the occasional man for the rare female Aeronaut that made it through graduation despite the powerful opinions most teachers had on the gender of an Aeronaut). Law had no rule there, only money did.

 

Now, it wasn't hard to acquire a debt in this place. Careless spending of the scant money all but the most prestigious Aeronauts had at their disposal was often enough to run their funds dry before the second week was out. Unless they quickly got a job back in the air, the only way to survive was to borrow from one of the many loan-sharks that prowled the city's finances like their namesakes patrolled the waters of the once-great oceans, centuries ago.

 

It was ,however, hard to acquire a debt of the magnitude that Mr Joaghym had amassed. He owed various loan-sharks and financiers enough money to bankrupt some of the lower families of the ruling class. A wanted man, the only reason he had not been caught and wrung for every penny any of his body parts might bring (yes, bodyparts. The black market has an inexplicable and insatiable hunger for them) was that he used the sheer circumference of Aeronaut city to his advantage.

 

A perimeter around the edge of Ignic city, it was one-and-a-half miles from 1 point to another opposite it if you went straight across the city in an airship. Using the myriad of twisting streets or dark alleyways as your means of transport, the distance could grow to well over a league easily. A league of which every meter was another chance to have your pocket picked, your skull smashed in or to be seduced by one of the many lustful dangers that inhabited the outer ring.

 

Thus, if a loan-shark in the western part of the ring puts a bounty of a thousand silver Kahron on the head of our Aeronaut, the eastern part of the ring is unlikely to know about it.

Staying in the air and often traveling to other cities, Joaghym only needed to land in the city once a year or so, for repairs and resupplies that he could just barely pay for using the scant money he made from small smuggling jobs. Often he squandered said money in one of the numerous taverns or brothels he visited regularly, requiring him to flee with his trusty WASP the moment repairs were complete.

 

However, the consequences of a lifestyle like this cannot be outrun forever.

On this morning, when the sun shines down on the eternal cloud of black smog that hovers over the city and not any further, we find him in yet another tavern, having slept through most of the night after passing out drunk before it was even midnight. A careless move for one of the most wanted men in the outer city ring, but one that is to be expected of someone in his situation.

Being banned from visiting any skilled mechanic in the inner city (the City Watch would apprehend him the moment he set foot inside the walls), he was incapable of returning his Wasp ship to buzz in the sky as it should be, hovering among the clouds.

Any self-respecting Aeronaut could use his field-repair skills to patch up their airship well enough to reach a nearby settlement of people. But this was not something that could be repaired with a few rolls of Repair tape or a quick Metallo-patch over a pipe.

 

Whenever he fired up the Radler Steam engine (a steam engine that could be powered by any source of heat), the steam went everywhere but where it was supposed to go, engulfing him in a cloud of scalding water droplets.

This was a problem of the sort that killed a man, since for the first time after graduating, he could not flee from danger. And that is why we find him here, slowly waking up from being black-out drunk in one of the few taverns where they would not immediately sell his head. As he regains consciousness, a number of muscular men enter the bar, eyes intent upon him.


“That's the one, lads! He owes me three grand in silver kahron, and I reckon his other debtors would be all too glad to share a bit of the money he owes them just to get their hands on him!”

Fully alert now, The aeuronaut was on his feet in a matter of seconds, and out the back door in not many more.

“You can't keep running forever, kid. Just give up and get it over with! Trust me, its not gonna be as bad as you think”

one of the men sprinting after him shouted. It would be tempting to a novice debt-refugee, to end a life of running simply by giving up. But they wouldn't know that it would mean an end to running in a more literal sense.

Since most airships needed at least one functional leg to operate, many a young aeronaut that had gotten himself in deeper trouble than they knew had lost whatever remained of their future that way.


“Just get back here and let me break those spindly legs, you filth-ridden sky-cricket!”
 

Ah, it seems someone is beginning to run out of patience. And, Joaghym realized with a spark of hope, running out of stamina. Time to leg it for real, and shake them off.
Now here was a familiar experience, a near-daily ritual whenever he entered Aeronaut city. Legs pumping, he sprinted down an alley, turned a corner, turned right back around as another pair of musclemen passed his corner of the alley and just barely failed to notice him. Retracing part of his steps, he found a ladder leading to a balcony above and scrambled up it.

 

Having found a temporary reprieve, he paused to catch his breath. That was a mistake, as it allowed his pursuers to spot him. Hearing the shout that gathered those intent on catching him like the war cry of the barbarians gathered them for a battle set him into motion once more, sprinting across the low rooftops of this area's slums.

Footsteps pounding across the assortment of slate and brass roofs, he wondered idly what it sounded like for those living under those roofs. The sound of pounding footsteps, quickly followed by what must sound like a horde of rampaging elephants, would be a rather frightening thing to have passing overhead. But then

 

Beginning to run out of breath, Joaghym began searching for a more permanent way to shake off his pursuers. Spotting a seemingly abandoned warehouse on the other side of one of the broadest streets, he began to plot a way to rid himself of pursuit while simultaneously finding a place to stay for the next day and night. It would require a dangerous amount of leaping across large gaps and swinging from ropes, but no Aeronaut was afraid of heights in the slightest. That got filtered out in the very first night at the Academy.

 

Skidding to the left, he bounded across a 20 foot gap towards a balcony one floor lower. Reaching out to grasp the railing, he felt his fingers scratch it, then slip. Scrabbling desperately, he managed to grab the lower floorboards of the balcony. Outer Ring architecture being what it was, these promptly broke loose, swinging him downwards and through the window below.

Contrary to what some believe, smashing through a window is not something you get away with unharmed. Surrounded by a shower of lethal shards, Joah threw his arms in front of his face and curled into a ball as far as he could.

Touching down with a surprisingly soft “crssh”, he found his pants in shreds and his skin in gashes: The only reason he wasnt bleeding to death that very moment was that his body hadn't realized it should be doing so.

Hoping to benefit from the shock a little longer, Joah set to exploring his surroundings, hoping to find something to clean and bind his wounds with. To his considerable surprise, he quickly discovered a fully stocked first aid kit, hanging from the wall in the exact place it should be, if this place was under Inner City regulations.

 

Something about that rung some vague bells in the back of his mind, though they were intense and anxious enough to attract his attention. However, that attention was soon diverted, as he had begun to bleed from some of his wounds. Quickly removing the glass from each wound, cleaning and then binding it, he began to patch himself up as well as he could using the same first aid techniques that EVERY city kid gets taught in elementary school, whether they're sitting in the school-benches or following an apprenticeship as Maintenance.

 

To finish up, he took a quick draught from a bottle of blood-refresher and a sip from the bottle of blood-clotter. It wasn't the exact measurements he needed, but he was way too tired to care if his veins became solid. Finding what seemed like a bunch of canvas hanging from a rail or a ceiling, he crawled into it and dropped off to sleep.

 

 

 

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Morning Commute

The sun slowly crept upwards, sending its rays flying towards the city below to wake up its citizens. But these rays never make it far, for the majority of the city is covered by a thick cloud of black smog, courtesy of the Energy district with its billowing smoke and its roaring coal furnaces.

 

On the outer ring, the first hour of dawn was signified by the first Behemoth taking off, a noisy affair that took place each morning, meant to carry large amounts of copper ore from the quarries to the smeltery in the Industrial district. They could only be flown during daylight, however, since at night they were impossible to see. Their balloons were FAR too large to illuminate with anbaric lights, and the mixture of Nitris, Helic and Hydric gasses was still way too flammable to use lanterns, shuttered or not.

 

Thus it was that the residents of South Circle Harbour woke up to the noise of revving engines each morning. So too Kotale Mestas, first child of the Semestas Family, the biggest and most respected family of Mechanics in the city. Normally she would be in her bed in the Inner Ring still, not needing to get up until two hours after sunrise.

But that was a life she wanted no part of, a life that was more politics than mechanics, where each mechanic family strove to have as many of its childrren in essential positions for their spell as mechanic for the city. For if you had your entire working family as mechanics at important positions, you could shut down the city at will by sabotaging or simply ceasing to perform repairs and maintenance on that section. The Maintenance crew you would be commanding knew only just enough to carry out your orders, so they wouldn't protest. Getting up and walking to the washbasin, she looked at herself in the mirror. She hadn't seen such a smile on her own face from the day she had her first taste of what a Mechanic's life was like.

 

No, that was a life she wanted no part of. As soon as she'd graduated Mechanic University, Kotale had vanished from her parent's lives and into the Outer Ring, where she had been renting a room for weeks by that time. Using the considerable sum she had saved up from her allowance, she'd bought an empty warehouse and turned it into a workshop, beginning work as an airship mechanic. It was surprising (and quite frankly, shocking) how little most Aeronauts knew about the inner workings of their ships. They knew how to patch up a balloon, knew how repair a leaking pipe, and not much more than that. Any modifications made to Wasps were often crude, shoddy and so poorly attached that they fell off within a month.

 

As such, she made a very good business as a cheap mechanic situated in the Outer Ring, where most mechanics wouldn't go unless paid a fortune none of its residents could afford. It was also a relief to work just by yourself, not having to worry about a poorly educated Maintenance worker failing to select the correct bolt or using the wrong alloy for a welding.

 

The one assistant she HAD hired was very clever, though not at all educated. Ps'eris was a non-human, a humanoid lifeform that had evolved only a few thousand years ago and was treated as a freak. Legends said they had once been human, but had committed great evil and been cursed as a result.

Kotale didn't give a bloody goat's left testicle if Ps'eris was evil, he was clever and way too useful. She only needed to show him something once and he knew how to do it. It saved her a lot of physical work, leaving her to do the brainy parts, or simply saving time because she didn't have to use a half-dozen clamps to keep something in position.

 

Best of all, he didn't care for money. Since non-humans were despised even in the Outer Ring (though most people there quietly made use of them as messengers, spies, and sometimes thieves or pickpockets.

 

Among the Outer Ring citizens, non-humans were normally referred to as 'goblins', a reference that made no sense to Kotale, since they had no pointy ears, green skin or mold for armpits. What they did have, and what Ps'eris had proven to be invaluable, was long limbs, great agility and, well, an inhuman strength. What would take a small Maintenance crew to do because of the sheer strength required, Ps'eris could do all by himself, and often without breaking a sweat. This strength was something she had found useful more than once, since the outer ring wasn't exactly the safest place to live, especially not for a young woman who lived alone.

 

So when she finished washing and dressing, the first thing she found as she walked out the door was her assistant, sitting on the porch roof she had just walked underneath. That was his preferred location, since any non-human that survived their first few months of life soon learned to stay hidden.

 

South Circle Harbour was already very much out in the open for his kind, who out of necessity preferred to reside in the dark alleys of the Middle East and West Quarters. It was probably one of the most respectable places in the entirety of the Outer Ring, the only place where the Official traffic didn't need to be guarded by a platoon of City Watch to make it to its Cargo Ship in one piece.


Setting off, she was comforted by the flitting shadow that followed her on the rooftops. The quiet of the Outer ring at this time in the morning always made her nervous. By this time, the Maintenance crews would be switching shifts, so streets would be crowded and always a little noisy.

The only sound to be heard, though, was the dripping of last night's rain and the distant rumbles of the Central South Circle, where the Behemoths would be taking off to start ferrying copper ore from the quarries far out from the city, near the Border Mountains.

 

Each Behemoth had enough lifting strength to carry a ton of ore back to the city, but they took their sweet time about it. Most of their engine power was dedicated to staying stable under the inevitable winds that buffeted them during their journey, so they only moved at slightly faster than walking pace.

 

For that reason, each Behemoth could only complete a single journey back and forth during summer. During winter, they often stayed the night in the hangars at the quarry and completed their journey in the morning. They were forbidden from travelling after dark ever since the historical Hardbranch Incident half a century ago, where a lone Aeronaut in his modified Wasp had failed to notice the giant Behemoth in the night sky and crashed into its upper balloon.

 

The resulting sea of fire had crashed onto the Central South Circle and killed an entire shift of Maintenance crew, as well as all of its own crew and the unlucky Aeronauts that happened to be nearby, modifiying their Wasps or, if they were lucky, preparing to fly shift on a Trading Auroch. The Auroch is a mid-sized Airship that had both speed and stamina, and was used for long journeys to the few distant cities that still existed. They also had an enormous amount of lift for their small size, the largest of its class being able to carry nearly a quarter Ton of cargo.

 

However, its specialized fuel pellets were the second most expensive fuel available, so they were not used often, only if word was received by Wasp from other cities that there was a shortage. This hadn't happened at all in the last few decades. Indeed, very little was heard from the other cities at all.

 

Emerging from her fantasy of flying on an Auroch herself, Kotale noticed she was nearly at her workshop. Hefting her custom toolkit (which she kept in her room for the simple reason that it was impossible to get a replacement outside of the official Mechanic forges), she prepared herself for another day of teasing herself with dreams of flying.

 

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