Vertigo

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The clouds enshrouded the whole world, binding it in darkness and perpetual flood, lit only by the occasional bolt of lightning. But the air above was still; belying the raging war below. The clouds formed a delicate puffy canopy with a top studded with soft peaks and troughs in white powder formations. Above the heavens were pristine blue, and sky node 42-G drifted over it all like a dandelion puff suspended upon a gentle breeze.

The node was a low orbit station, a spire of chrome with a thick centre which was lined with dark crystalline windows that offered the crew a view of the constant vista. The beacon at the crown strobed red while the relays below constantly spun and reoriented themselves as they diligently went about their tasks like the good little automatons they were.

The automatons inside did the same, although one was a little more beleaguered about it.

Cherub suppressed wry a smirk as he remembered the last time he described the onboard crew as automatons. Seraphim chewed him out and halved his rations for two days . . . initially it was only one day, but Cherub had pointed out that the punishment only proved his point . . . hence the extra day.

Putti emerged from the lower bunk, her soft feet plunked against the cold steel floors and jolted Cherub from his contemplations by the window. He turned from the endless sky and couldn’t help but laugh at her frizzled hair.

“You were tossing and turning last night, Putti. Bad dreams?”

She growled at him, “You know I have bad dreams, Cherub. Don’t laugh at my hair, it’s a lot easier to wake up in fine form when you have pretty golden curls like yourself.” She went out of her way to push past him on her way to the bathroom, “been up long?”

“I was having bad dreams too.” Cherub said quietly.

“Want to talk about it?” Putti said—at least—that’s what Cherub assumed she said thought a mouthful of toothpaste.

Cherub sighed, looking out over the ephemeral cloudscape, “Just a cog in some horrible machine . . .”

Putti gargled and spat into the tiny, chrome coloured basin. With a practiced gruff voice she said, “A well oiled machine!” and then giggled.

Cherub put on the same voice with a smile, “One that I shouldn’t have to hear squeak and grind like the pair of you!”

Putti’s giggle rolled into a delightful laugh, “You’re such a bad influence on me, Cherub. A devil! But you always brighten up my day.”

“What can I say? I am the bearer of light.”

“Sure,” Putti stepped to her locker and zipped on her sleek, grey jumpsuit. It fit snugly over her hunched shoulders . . . Cherub squinted as the hunched image flittered from his mind, “Come on, dreamer.” Putti said, regarding Cherub’s perplexed expression with half knowing. “Seraphim will roast you and me both if you’re late.”

Cherub shook himself from the momentary disorientation and groaned, “Sure thing, Putti, was just checking the weather for the day.”

She sauntered from the bunk room, shooting him a sly glance before the door slid shut after her. He wished he knew her real name. No one on the station knew anyone’s for security reasons. Each sky node used the same variation of codenames to designate rank and use, and Putti was the closest person to him since they were bunked together on this assignment. He felt foolish for volunteering his power to this voyage – moving from the Orbital Paradit Station to the atmosphere always affected their kind. It was the distance from the command link modules that rattled their resolve, it filled the mind with heretical thoughts. It was an honour then, to be deemed worthy of enduring it.

As Cherub shuffled across the cold floor in the enclosed space he felt very honoured indeed. The mutinous thoughts he entertained during his waking moments fled quickly from his mind, it felt effortless, perhaps he really was worthy of enduring it.

He managed to reach the daily briefing in time. The command deck was spotless and bristling with high tech consoles, the floor was glass so that they could see down to their external equipment and the churning cloud mass below. Seraphim nodded as he filtered in to the command deck with the other crew. Seraphim was senior, gruff looking and weathered. His voice was like gravel and it grated on the mind to listen to it for too long. But Cherub knew his temper and championing for the rules kept him safe and did not begrudge him that . . . he thought. With the other crew present, Seraphim went over the boring necessities of the day. Node maintenance was a priority—shocker—the unclaimed on the surface were exhibiting increased stress—yaddayadda—important that they are made to feel secure in the network, etcetera, etcetera.

Cherub had to suppress a yawn and was caught out when he was mentioned by name.

“And something to keep you interested, Cherub 42-G,” it was like being chastised by a parent, using his full code name like that, “An increase in lightning strikes from The Shroud. Two sky nodes went down last month, we’ve gotta pick up the slack to keep the signal stable.”

That did pique morbid interest; attacks from The Shroud were becoming more brazen lately. They were expatriates of the Paradit cities. Beings of latent power—like Cherub—who had gone mad from their distance from their homes. The Paradit Archs were fighting to keep the unclaimed safe from the Shroud’s influence—more adventurous work than maintaining the sky nodes—but it was nice to know the monotonous work they did each day actually had a purpose . . . and strangely invigorating to know there was a chance of mad mutiny.

Although, Cherub lamented, the work won’t be so monotonous now that I’ll have to scrounge up enough power to make up for the other sky nodes.

He cracked his neck, “Not a problem, Seraph. I’ll keep that signal strong.”

Seraphim glared up from his notes as the crew tensed, “You better, with that attitude.”

The rest of the briefing passed without too much antagonising from either party, they were dismissed to begin the shift’s duties and Cherub went to his work station. The two violet conducting rods waited inert for his fingers to wrap around them. They were cold, and he shivered to concentrate on his latent power.

You will exert power over the unclaimed for their own protection, the recruitment officer said to him all those months ago. This will safeguard our way of life. Yet Cherub felt little honour in his work.

The indicator lights on the rods blinked green, strong transference. Cherub smiled, it sometimes felt good to exert that power of his. He reached out—his awareness coursing through the node’s relays below—picking up signals and pings and the amplified node presence of the other codenamed Cherub’s on shift on the other sky nodes across the world.

His brow furrowed.

He detected an absence of the signal a few clicks to the south. The extra effort he was exerting with the other cherubs in the network was doing nothing to fill the black spot. He oriented his receiver relay below the node to that location.

“Something on your mind, Cherub?” Seraphim asked from his console.

“You don’t see that, Seraphim?” Cherub replied, “Absence in the signal field.”

“Thrones!” Seraphim barked.

 Thrones replied with a gibberish string of technical speak which Cherub translated in his mind to, “Beats me, sir.”

Seraphim sighed and ordered Putti to direct a concentrated probe with her power. She focused, gripping her own conductor rods with white knuckles and her brow creased with concentration. The lights blinked green, and then strobed orange, then red. There was a thrum of power and a moment later her console overloaded. The explosion flung lavender sparks from her conducting rods and she recoiled with a yelp, her hands scalded and smouldering.

“What was that?” Cherub resisted the urge to rush to her aid; he had to maintain his output, but the smell of burned flesh made it hard to stick to his resolve. Mutinous thoughts swirled throughout his mind for only a moment.

“It pinged back, aggressively,” Thrones said.

“Is Putti okay?” Mutiny could wait, Cherub had decided.

“She’s fine, Cherub.” Seraphim growled.

Cherub’s conducting rods were trembling, the indicator lights flickering from orange to red.

“I’ve got interference,” he said, looking down through the glass floor. He spotted his relay, it had been damaged and Putti’s was nowhere to be seen, just a smouldering stump. “Seraph, I need to get that fixed.”

“You can’t go out there.” Seraphim grunted as he wrapped gauze around Putti’s hands. “You need to maintain the mind pulse.”

“I can’t receive and amplify the pulses from the other nodes, Seraph! I’m breaking a sweat just keeping the surrounding area covered. The unclaimed outside my direct influence will be in full revolt!”

Seraphim looked up with a scowl, but when he locked eyes with cherub his face softened, his eyes flickered with realisation and his tact changed. “You’re too valuable to the voyage; does anyone else understand Cherub’s equipment enough to repair it?”

“Only me,” Putti said weakly, “Only,” she held up her blistered hands.

“Shit.” Seraphim kicked at Putti’s console and paced the glass command deck.

“I’ll wear a harness, Seraph. I’ll be fine.” Cherub’s voice was strained, but not from the effort of maintaining the signal, and not, he realised, only due to Putti’s distress.

“That thing better be secured the whole time, Cherub. Or I will half your rations.”

“Yes, yes,” Cherub smiled and shook his head. “I knew you really cared.”

“Shut it, Cherub! I need someone to maintain his signal until he’s back. Custodian, get on it.”

“I can’t match his output.” Custodians voice was trembling, her hands clammy.

“Just do it!”

Cherub let go as Custodian cautiously took the conduction rods and nodded once she had a weak signal. Cherub left her there and went for the gantry entry, donning the five point harness. It was twisted and Cherub realised his hands were shaking as he tried to right it, he was about to go outside, Putti usually did the maintenance. He took a breath to steady himself as Eudaemon came from his station and handed him the karabiner with the line and an ear piece.

“I’ll keep tabs on you,” Eudaemon said, Cherub gave him a look, “and Putti,” he added.

Cherub nodded. Okay, he told himself, You can do this, you’re a cherub. You can handle the most latent power . . . I can do this. He keyed the inner door to open and entered the airlock. He donned the full face helmet and sealed it around his neck. Eudaemon attached the spooling karabiner on the other end of the line to a point inside the air lock and stepped back. The door slid shut, a warning light shone red and the outer door slid open.

Cherub was buffeted with near gale force winds immediately and grabbed the sides of the door to steady himself.

“You’re good, Cherub, winds are as low as they’ll ever be.” Eudeamon’s voice crackled in his ear. “The worst that can happen is the un-holiest of wedgies.”

Cherub smirked, gave Eudeamon the finger through the camera mounted in the airlock, and steeled himself as he stepped outside.

The maintenance gantries laced the whole spire, all the way to the relay equipment suspended from the bottom of the station, dangling above the cloudy abyss below. They were rickety, narrow walkways made of thin metal gratings that trembled with every step and rattled with every gust of wind.

As he looked through the grated flooring, Cherub suddenly felt dizzy. He flinched back, a torrent of doubt assaulting his mind as the torrents of wind assaulted his body. But he knew that Custodian couldn’t maintain her effort for long. He shuffled out onto the gantry slowly, it wobbled with each gust and sagged with his weight and no amount of gripping the rail could fight the impending feeling that it was going to suddenly give way.

The only thing keeping him from blanching entirely was the reassuring pull of the line as it spooled out from the anchor point. He reached a ladder and made the slow descent down the side of the lower spire. By the time he reached the bottom his knees were shaking and his whole body burned from the constant tension he held in his muscles. But he made it to the bottom and hit the gantry that encircled the lower spire; he shimmied along the spire wall—no railing down here—until he reached his relay which hung from the structure above.

It was smouldering, Putti’s next to it was burned at the stump, as if it had exploded. He reached out, it was within an arms distance from the gantry but it felt like he was leaning out over the empty space beneath him on a limb.

From above, he could feel his crew’s eyes on him, boring into his skull.

“Quick smart, Cherub,” Seraphim’s voice crackled, jolting Cherub’s shot nerves. “That black spot is moving our way, and our discharge warning is pinging . . . it could just be regular lightning.”

“Yeah, sure,” Cherub said under his breath. Hey keyed his commlink, “Do I have an ETA on the bolt that is definitely not A SHROUD ATTACK?”

“. . . Five minutes. We have word of a platoon of Archs moving in to halt them . . . they’ll be six minutes.”

“I’ll be cutting it close.”

It was a fairly straightforward job, removing fried circuits and rerouting what could not be replaced. He was pretty sure he could have done it blindfolded, though not while the looming pull of gravity was tilting him off balance and while the gantry creaked with every gust of wind.

“Discharge is spiking right below us Cherub, get out of there!”

Oh yeah, there was the looming threat of a strike from The Shroud as well.

He replaced the last circuit and the relay hummed to life, the dish spun to Custodian’s whims up above.

“Relay repaired.” Cherub reported.

“He’s too late!” Putti’s voice crackled over the commlink, “The discharge will fire in seconds, he can’t make it back in time!”

“The whole node is protected by a grounding field though, no?” Cherub said in a panic, his mind racing, “The strike will just knock out our pulse for a bit.”

“The station is yes . . .” Eudaemon said, “Your safety line is not.”

“. . . Shit,” Cherub said.

“We need to get him out of there!” Putti said.

“If he removes the line he should still be protected by the grounding field,” Custodian’s voice was strained from her effort from maintaining the signal. “The strike will pass around him instead of being channelled into his harness through the tether.”

“He CAN’T take that line off, the risk is too great.”

“I’m more worried about being fried, Seraph.” Cherub nervously began to unscrew the karabiner, his fingers failing to respond to the simple task as he fretted and fumbled.

“Cherub the risk of you dying is acceptable compared to the risk of you falling!” Seraphim’s voice said over increasing static.

Cherub would have found the phrasing odd had he not been so panicked. “Almost there.” His fingers were sweating, slipping on the screw as a torrent of wind knocked him against the spire. He reached out for the railing, to find that there was none and stumbled onto his knees. He felt much heavier with the looming heights below than he ever had.

“Hurry Cherub, hurry!”

“Cherub, do NOT remove that line!”

“Almost, there.”

“Discharge imminent!”

The heavens below ripped apart with a titanic explosion that rolled towards the sky node and was accompanied by a blinding flash of light. Cherub’s ears were ringing so loudly he couldn’t even hear the wind, his eyes blearily adjusted from the bright flash to perceive the world as a blurry image. But he was still alive, and clinging to the grating of the gantry with his fingers. He had thrown the line off in time, and it was smouldering a few metres away.

“He’s alive!” Putti cried.

Cherub slowly rose from his crouch, breathing heavily, his limbs trembling.

“Cherub, get in here this second!” Seraphim sounded livid.

“Oh, hell,” Cherub cursed, “You come out here and stay attached to an electric noose next time you fu . . .” the gantry jolted as the sizzling safety line burned through it like a hot knife through butter. It gave way, falling out from under Cherub like a trap door.

Cherub instinctively reached out and caught the edge of the hanging gantry. His fingers wedged into the grating, cracking fingernails and drawing blood. His shoulders felt like they snapped clean off with the jarring stop of his fall, but he held on for dear life. He stupidly looked down, his feet dangled over the sheer height below, the churning, darkening abyss of the cloudscape inviting him to plummet towards the hell within.

The gantry shifted again, as its moorings broke loose; he had to get to a hand hold . . . the relay. He strained his burning muscles, ignored the pain in his fractured fingers, and pulled himself up. Reaching for his relay, he was a finger’s breadth away—then the gantry ripped free entirely.

The world greedily pulled Cherub towards it like a great beast sucking him into its belly—the intense speed left his stomach above him and his heart in his throat as his scream drowned out the static charged cries of his crew over the commlink. The churning cloud canopy rushed to meet him and he fell into darkness.

As he passed into the shadowy realm the visor on his helmet was pilfered with rain and ice, violent tongues of thunderous power struck out in perpetual storm, but his mind raced with thoughts of anger, of violence . . . of heresy.

His burning muscles exploded with pain, like hot lead injected into his body and he writhed as he descended through chaos, through hell. His back cracked, his spine snapping and twisting, until finally, something gave, and he was filled with euphoric release.

Translucent, squared wings of violet spread from his shoulder blades and slowed his fall within the churning chaos of the storm cloud.

“What?”

Perplexed relief overwhelmed him as he glided of his own power through the maelstrom. His mutinous thoughts flowed like a dam had broken, he had wings . . . Had the Paradit known, had Seraph? Had they been kept trapped in those stations all their lives, kept weak while they harnessed their latent power for the mind signal?

So many questions.

But now he was free from the signal. His thoughts raced unhindered, his perceptions cleared, distinctly remembering the hunched backs of his entire crew and dismissing them entirely . . . dismissing their clipped wings.

 He banked—it came so naturally to him—towards the worst of the storm, out of instinct. With each strobe of lightning he could make out tiny figures darting around, exchanging bright tongues of power. The storm was a raging battle between two forces, both with squared translucent wings of their own. One side’s wings were gold, they were clad in sleek black plate with the seal of the Paradit Archs, and the others were red winged and rat tag looking, yet fighting back with weapons of equal brilliance and power.

One of the Archs swung around to him, coming to a hover on the edge of the battlefield.

Against his inner monologue, Cherub called out to him, “Arch, help! I have fallen from my sky node and I don’t know what’s going on!”

The Arch raised his box looking weapon at him, it brimmed with divine power. “You have severed the hold of the Paradit, you must be purged.”

“What?”

But before he could answer—or shoot, the Arch was lashed with a beam of power and fell in ashes, only to be replaced by one of the rat tag warriors. He removed his hood and hung before Cherub.

“You have broken free of the signal, brother,” he said, “Now you can join our battle to free the other angels from our oppressor’s grasp and protect the humans from their enslavement.”

It sounded like heresy, but there was something missing in his mind, something that did not reject this rebel’s claims outright. He was in the dark spot of the signal field. He was not being stifled . . . not enslaved by his own latent power through those nodes. Those bastards.

“What is your name?” Cherub asked as The Shroud forces routed the Archs. “Who leads you?”

“I am Gabriel, I was once an Arch. We are led by the one called Jehovah. He was once codenamed God under the Paradit’s yolk. We fight to bring the light—the true light. What is your name, brother?”

Cherub straightened before Gabriel, “I am the bearer of light, my name is Lucifer.”

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